The 5 W’s of wilderness survival is age old wilderness common sense. Learn what they are, why you need to know them, and how they’ll save your butt.
We’ve all heard of the Rule Of 3’s. Us humans can survive about 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. After that you’re toast.
But have you heard of the Five W’s Of Survival? They are age old wilderness common sense that’s been mostly lost in our modern world.
Les Stroud ( a.k.a. “Survivorman”) calls them “The Five W’s” and considers them so important that he talks about them in many, if not most, of his episodes.
There’s controversy, just like everything else nowadays of course, on whether the 5 W’s is enough to keep you alive and the answer to that is obviously not. That’s not the point.
They’re not meant to be the end all conversation on wilderness survival like many armchair experts make them out to be, but instead you’re supposed to take them for what they are – an easy way to remember some very important wilderness survival lessons.
So let’s get to them.
Good: Dry fuel in abundance in many different sizes that is easy to harvest. Larger pieces for bushcrafting and shelter building (plus plenty of leaves and brush too).
Bad: Wet areas, wet or rotten wood, barren places with little wood or only fast burning brush, and setups that make a wildfire likely or easy to start.
You’ll need wood for building shelter, making fire, primitive tools, and more.
This is one of those times where your location dictates your actions, but chances are you will most likely use wood to build your survival shelter. You might have to use snow, rocks, metal, a cave, an old car… but 8 times out of 10 you’ll have to use wood.
For that reason you’re going to need to find a location with ample wood that’s suitable for shelter making. If you’re deep in a forest then you’re good to go, but if you’re above the tree line in the snow covered mountains or in the smack middle of the salt flats you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Even if you happen to be near an overhang or cave you can always use wood to make your shelter more comfortable.
Pro Tip: If you do find yourself above the tree line on a mountain ridge or in the middle of an open desert you should keep moving. Those are some of the hardest places to survive and trying to shelter down in such a place will usually make your situation worse.
Using 550 paracord or some DIY bushcraft cordage, you can lash branches and trees together or you may choose to build a tent-style shelter where the wood supports itself.
If you were smart enough to bring one, a thermal reflective blanket can be used as a tarp to build a shelter or you can lay it on the ground to reflect your body heat. You could also hang it behind a fire to reflect the heat back into your shelter. This will save you a lot of wood.
Speaking of fire, you’ll need wood for fuel too (obviously). Small twigs, medium sized branches, and larger logs are needed. It’s a good idea to carry a small hatchet and a foldable saw in your bug out bag, that way you have options.
Tinder, the small stuff, is used to get the fire started. The medium sized branches will be the main fuel on the fire, and the larger logs are for when you go to sleep or need to make a bed of coals for cooking. Before you go to bed throw a few large logs on the fire and it will smolder all night, otherwise you might wake up to nothing but ash and have to start all over again.
Primitive tools can also be made out of wood. This is where bushcraft skills are handy to know. If you need a certain tool but it broke or you forgot to pack it for instance, simply make a new one out of wood.
Good: Keep an eye out for changing weather, and find or build shelter before the weather gets bad. Stay out of the sun in hot weather, and embrace it when it’s cold.
Bad: Large open areas, windy hills and valleys, low dips in the elevation, under lone trees or dead trees, avalanche prone areas.
The weather is something you always have to keep in mind. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the desert, on top of a mountain, lost in the woods, or hiding under a dumpster from an alley full of zombies (any Walking Dead fans around here?) you will be dealing with the weather.
In warm weather you may not need much shelter at all but you may feel a chill at night, especially if you’re sleeping on the ground. A 70F night feels colder than a 70F sunny day, mostly because cold air and water vapor in the air are sinking back down to the ground level and you don’t have uv rays to heat your skin. If you have no shelter and thin clothes you’ll be happy to see the warm sun come up the next day.
In hot weather the shade will be a premium. Heatstroke is very real and happens faster than you believe it is. You can literally go from hot to dead in on hour.
Wear loose clothing, bring a hat, drink as much water as you can spare, and try to do most of your work or traveling around dusk and dawn. If you have a flashlight you should travel as long as possible at night and sleep in the shade during the day.
Pro Tip: Remember that many deserts drop to below freezing at night. It’s actually possible to have a heat stroke during the day and hypothermia at night. Brings a coat and a change of pants (pants that zip off into shorts are awesome) with you and if possible find shelter at night.
In cold weather you have to think about the weather at all times and never take it for granted. A single night without fire or shelter can kill. Build or bring a thoroughly insulated shelter that can block the wind and rain, and hold in heat from your body and a fire at the door. This is where those emergency blankets will come in handy.
In rainy weather you will need a waterproof shelter, no exceptions. It’s a simple math equation: rain + wind + you = hypothermia. Rainwater is drinking water, so catch as much as you can but keep yourself dry. Store it for later and drink your fill.
If you find yourself in a thunderstorm find some low ground away from tall trees. Don’t stand under a tree to get out of the rain or this could happen to you…
in snowy weather you will have to insulate yourself and your shelter, and you’ll have to build a shelter that can withstand the weight of snow.
Insulate your shelter with straw, leaves, and evergreen branches. Make some sort of covering or door to keep the snow and wind out and the heat in. Starting a fire will also be much harder because everything will be wet, so be prepared not to have one if you must.
Keeping an eye on the weather will help you predict issues ahead of time so you can be proactive instead of reactive. Rushing to improve a lightweight shelter because it’s suddenly raining is not good at all.
Good: Setting up near average sized live trees in a thick-growth forest, looking up before picking a place to bed down for the night.
Bad: Camping beneath large, dead trees and dead limbs, camping near loose boulders. Heating up a cave ceiling with a fire.
Widowmakers are dead trees and branches that are ready to fall.
The term usually refers to dead trees or even large boulders that could fall without warning. Don’t make your camp under or near a big dead tree or a huge unstable rock. Murphy’s Law seems to go into overdrive around these dangerous things.
Even if a widowmaker looks sturdy do not take the chance. You can’t see what’s going on inside of a dead tree and a few pushes with your hand doesn’t equal the power of a gust of wind. A single gust of wind can blow these behemoths down without any warning. Remember that your averages sized tree can easily crush a car flat.
If you are in the way of a windowmaker you won’t have time to react, especially if you’re asleep. You could be injured, trapped, or simply dead. Situational awareness is very important, LOOK UP! Always be aware of your surroundings at ground level and above your head.
Good: Sign of small game for hunting and trapping. Knowing how to trap, clean, and cook said game over an open fire. Sleeping on a raised platform off the ground.
Bad: Accidentally finding an animal den. Setting up camp in a game trail. Signs of dangerous animals, like fresh bear scat or stripped bark. Reaching into brush piles or overturning logs with your bare hands.
Wildlife comes in many forms. Squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other small game are a real blessing. Other wildlife, not so much…
Having an encounter with bears, big cats, wolves, and moose are about the closest you’ll ever come to needing a change of pants. It’s practically life changing and there’s nothing scarier than staring down a bear or knowing you’re being hunted by a big cat.
If you’re not paying attention or don’t know what to look for you’ll easily set up camp right in the middle of some large animals territory. Look for tracks, scat, and territorial markers of these animals and stay far far away.
Learn about the available game as well as dangerous animals indigenous to your area or any area you’re visiting ahead of time so you will know what to look out for.
Snakes, spiders, centipedes, or really anything that creeps, crawls, or slithers around are another problem. Some insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and gnats will be more of an irritating nuisance and the worst of course would be venomous creatures like snakes, spiders and scorpions.
Stay away from the dangerous animals and critters and don’t put yourself where they are. Don’t sleep directly on the ground or near rocks or rotten wood and if you see signs of big predators make some quick bushcraft weapons, keep them handy, and get the hell out of dodge.
Again, situational awareness is important. Scout the area before building shelter.
A good fire and some smoke will keep away many, if not most all, flying insects because they are programmed to avoid it, and you can also rub mud or certain plants on exposed skin to stop them from annoying you.
There are dozens of plants that can be used, wild onion, sagebrush, wormwood, and mugwort are good plant examples. Look up the plants in your local area to see what works for you. You can also burn many plants or even animal dung to repel insects, much like a bushcraft citronella candle.
Good: Clean running water from a natural spring. Small waterfalls that aerate the water. Multiple ways to purify any water used for drinking or cooking.
Bad: Deserts. Assuming water is clean just because it looks clean. Not boiling water long enough. Camping too close to the water or in lowlands that are prone to floods.
Don’t depend solely on the water you brought with you. Make a point to know the location of the nearest water source, even if you don’t plan to be anywhere near it, and have a way to collect and purify it.
If you’re lost (or frogs are falling from the sky) and there is no water source nearby you will have to find civilization or some water source within 2-3 days.
Don’t set up a shelter too close or too far from water. Being within 100 yards of a water source is ideal. Any closer and you’ll have to deal with bugs, floods, and big animals. Any further away will mean a lot of excess walking and calories wasted.
Water you find in the wilderness will need to be purified before it’s used. If you have a fireproof container, you can purify the water by boiling, but this doesn’t remove chemicals and in fact concentrates them. Having a lightweight and simple to use water filter such as a lifestraw or sawyer will purify the water of chemicals and bacteria.
Knowledge weighs nothing and you can never have enough. Take the time to learn today what you may need tomorrow.
If you study up on the 5 W’s of survival for the environment you plan to be in you’ll be better prepared if you get lost or if the SHTF.
Pass it on, I believe once you learn something you should teach it to someone that doesn’t know so they are better prepared and in that way the world becomes a better place.