Survival 101

Anyone who has been backpacking for a while has been asked, or has asked, “What do I need to take?”.  The beauty of this question is that there in no “right” answer, making it a great blog topic!  Backpacking gear is very much an individual preference, however there are some basic tenants to keep in mind.  With my military background it should come as no surprise that I turn to my survival training when answering this question.  If you look at backpacking as a “controlled” survival situation then it makes sense to apply survival concepts when assembling your gear.  Taken a step further, the fact that one unplanned for event can turn your stroll in the woods into a full blown survival emergency mandates that survival basics be applied to gear selection.

It is widely acknowledged that the three basic survival needs are food, shelter, and water.  There is a fourth, equally important, need that I will discuss later, but don’t worry it won’t add any weight to your pack. 🙂  How you prioritize these three basic needs is very dependent upon the situation, but in general you need to determine which will kill you first.  All things being equal, I would place shelter first, water second, and food last.  So let’s look at them in that order.


What is shelter?  Most people think of shelter as structures, such as a tent or lean-to, but in survival terms shelter means so much more and the distinction is important.  Think of shelter as anything that protects you from the elements.  Your clothes, hat, tent, fire, and even sunscreen can be considered items that comprise your shelter.  If you’ve spent anytime at all in extreme conditions you know that the environment can kill you fast, which is why I put shelter as the number one survival need.  Hypothermia, heat stroke, frost bite, and dozens more environmental nasties can disable or kill you in a matter of minutes, so make sure your gear is adequate to deal with probable conditions.  Plan for the worst conditions you can reasonably expect, but don’t go overboard unless you plan to take a squad of porters with you.  A good place to start is layered clothing, wet weather gear, a good sleeping system, a fire kit, and something to crawl under even if it is just a poncho tent.


We all know that humans can only live a few days without water, but the danger of dehydration starts long before you are at risk of death.  Even moderate dehydration can severely impact judgement and motor skills, and it is quite likely that the resulting poor decisions will kill you long before the actual lack of water.  Equally dangerous is the lack of clean water.  Ever had dysentery?  I don’t recommend it.  Bad water can leave you weak and debilitated fast, so make sure your kit includes a reliable filtration system, sanitizing chemicals, or at least a pot for boiling water.  Carry more water then you need and think twice before passing a chance to refill.


Food is really not critical for the first week or so and most of us have plenty of fat stores to draw upon.  However, food has a powerful psychological effect on people and even a little food can boost morale.  Additionally, a lack of food does make it harder to withstand environmental extremes, fight infection, and overcome exhaustion.  In reality, most of us pack way more food then we can conceivably eat during our hike and the excess weight would be better used for other gear or eliminated entirely.  That said, I do advocate packing a cache of emergency food in case you are out longer than expected, preferably a dense, high nutrition food like logan bread (CLICK HERE for my recipe) or power bars.

Attitude, the Ultimate Survival Tool:

It is well documented that the will to live is the single most important factor in survival.  It comes down to attitude, both before and during the survival event.  Before the event you should be learning all you can.  Read a book, take a class, expand your survival skills and knowledge.  Gaining confidence in your ability to survive will make it easier to keep a positive attitude during the event.  Set yourself up for success; I always keep a small survival kit on my person in the backwoods.  It doesn’t have to be extravagant.  A little food, water, a fire kit, compass, and a whistle are a good start.

Fortunately, few backpacking trips end up as survival events, but I have found that survival principles are a good guide for selecting the proper gear.  By keeping the basic survival needs in mind, you can easily assemble a basic pack that will keep you safe and comfortable in a wide range of situations.

© 2009, The Desert Dog Journal. All rights reserved.

Filed Under: Field CraftSurvival


About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!

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  1. sue says:

    You mention in are from Tucson & water both. In a survival situation, how do you obtain water for you and your animals? I wish I had a nice cool lake nearby but that doesn’t work in Tucson.

    • Desert Dog says:

      Sue, are you talking about a wilderness survival scenario or a disaster survival scenario at home? For the latter, it is all about water storage (see or digging a well, if able. Wilderness survival in the desert is more complicated. First, carry plenty of water, even for short day hikes. Always have a container & water purification means in your survival kit. Learn to read the land. I can almost aways find some water because I know where to look. It may not be clean and fresh but it is out there.
      Water is one of your most important survival considerations and the subject is too complicated to answer in a short response. If you want to discuss this in depth then please go to our contact page and contact me directly!

  2. Dave says:

    If it is “well documented that the will to live is the single most important factor in survival” then why can’t I find any peer reviewed articles on the subject.

    • Desert Dog says:

      From a thesis perspective, “well documented” and “most important” may be a liberal choice of words on my part. The statement comes from my review of numerous survivor accounts over the years. I’ll grant that survivor interviews don’t necessarily stand up to scientific research standards. Perhaps I can get a huge government grant to study the concept 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. Acording t me for disaster you shold have disaster contingency plan. Disaster contingency plan is an anticipatory emergency plan to be followed in an expected or eventual disaster, based on risk assessment, availability of human and material resources, community preparedness, local and international response capability, etc.

    • Desert Dog says:

      I agree that folks need a disaster plan, however this article is focused more on a backwoods survival situation. Still need a basic plan, but preparation and training are the key.

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