What skills will your character need to survive a disaster? What could keep plastic from burning? Why might your character use glowing hot rocks? Find out on this episode. 

Welcome to Writing Rural with Alley, the fiction writer’s inspiration station for rural life and lifestyles, from historical to post-apocalyptic, helping you bring your rural stories to life! I’m Alley, and this is episode #60, Top Disaster Survival Skills (Part 1). Stick around to the end to find out all the ways things could possibly go wrong. Now, let’s get into this.

If your character finds themselves in a disaster, whether it is a natural disaster, or man-made, there are skills they will need to survive, and some that will make survival much easier. Your character may have these skills, or it may be someone with them. Either way, today, we will cover five of them. 

1) Making Shelter 

Making shelter is one of the first things your character will need to do. Being exposed to the elements can potentially be dangerous. Depending on the temperature, hypothermia can happen in as little as five to ten minutes. In fact, hypothermia can even happen in summer, as it is the loss of body heat faster than the body can replenish the heat. I did a whole episode on hypothermia if you’d like to learn more. 

Shelters also help conceal your character if there are bad guys in the area. They should also protect from the sun, rain, snow, falling volcanic ash, and more. Although volcanic ash has several other things to think about, but that’s not the point of this episode, so let’s not get too sidetracked. 

There are several kinds of shelters. This could be a tent if they were already camping when the disaster happened. Many bushcraft, and frankly people in history used, do use, or could use canvas traps, or in modern times plastic tarps, to make tents in many shapes. I can think of ten off the top of my head, and this is not my specialty. A Google search says 25, but I suspect people who do this often could do more. 

However, most disasters are not convenient and your character likely has nothing with them. They will need to make a shelter out of things they can find. This could be things found in the debris of a town that was destroyed or a plane crash. 

There are many historical types of shelters, commonly referred to as primitive shelters. These include, but are definitely not limited to, lean-tos, igloos, snow dens, round lodges (AKA a teepee made of sticks), trees with trunks or root systems a person can fit into, and the most common, the debris shelter. A debris shelter is made of whatever your character finds in a forest to make the shelter out of. It is often in a lean, too, or upside-down V shape. 

2) Finding Water 

Next up is finding water. This is next on the list because a person can only survive three days without water before they die. Water will be high on the list of needs. 

Finding water will look different in different terranes, and in different seasons. If your character is in a flooded area or a monsoon, water might be everywhere. If they are in a desert, they might have to dig, or look for trees and dig there. 

In mountain terrains water flows downhill, so looking for low-lying areas would be best. It is a good idea to keep watch for trees that need a lot of water. This includes willow, river birch, bald cypress, and more. 

In snowy areas, knowing what snow or ice can be melted is important. We all know not to eat yellow snow, but did you know pollen can also turn the snow yellow in giant patches? Algae, mold, bacteria, and other natural elements that are not safe for humans can turn the snow red, green, orange, black, or gray-black. Don’t let your characters eat these unless you want bad things to happen to the character. 

Not only does your character have to find the water, but they also need a way to carry and store it. This could be plastic containers in modern times. Metal would work, too. Historically, some Native Americans used animal bladders to store and haul water. Clay pots were used by other tribes, and in other areas of the globe. You will need to research the area, and people or tribe you are writing about. 

3) Purifying Water 

Knowing how to purify the water is just as important as finding water. Sure, we have things like life straws that literally let you drink from any water source without worry because they purify the water while it passes through the straw, but this is fiction we are talking about, and who is going to have that in their back pocket when the apocalypse happens? 

There are other ways to purify water. The first water filtration in written history comes from about 500 BC when a cloth bag was used to filter out debris. Other things that have been used are charcoal, sand, ash, and more. In many cultures, they used all of these at the same time. These are natural filtration and will help take out dirt, debris, and some chemicals. 

There have been ways to chemically speed up the process since Egypt when they used alum, which is potassium aluminum sulfate. This helps things to settle to the bottom of the water. 

Now I hear you. “But what about parasites and pathogens? My character doesn’t want diarrhea!” Don’t worry; I got you covered too, and not in the poopies. There is a simple way to get rid of both, and that is to boil the water. A roaring boil means the huge bubbles, for at least five minutes, will kill off most of the things your character will need to worry about. That does not include chemicals or dirt but does kill bacteria and parasites. 

Boiling can be done over a fire when possible. Weirdly plastic will not melt if you boil water in it, as long as it is below the water line. Anything above the water line can melt or catch on fire. Another way to boil water if the container can not go over the flame is to place a rock on the fire and get it red hot. Then using sticks or tongs place the rock inside the water. Do this as often as needed, or add as many stones as can fit without overflowing the water. 

4) Making Fire

On the subject of boiling water, your character will need to be able to start a fire to do that. In modern times, we have lighters, batteries, matches, Ferrell rods (sometimes called Ferro rods), solar fires, and more. These are great ways to make a fire, and most Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can do at least one. 

But what if your character has no modern ways to make a fire? Don’t worry; there are plenty of primitive ways. I’ve done a whole episode on flint and steel if you want to learn more about that method. 

Another method is the bow drill. It looks like a tiny bow and arrow set; only the string wraps around the stick called a drill. A flat(ish) rock is used to press the drill down as the bow is moved back and forth like a saw. The string around the drill will move the drill in quick circles. This is done on top of a piece of tender. The tender will make an ember because of the friction. Embers look like a glowing hot clump. This is moved to a bundle of tender called a bird’s nest to begin the fire-making process. 

The two-man friction drill is the same concept. However one person holds the drill, and the other will hold the string in their hands moving it, instead of using a bow. 

Then there is the fire plough. This is a hardwood stick rubbed quickly and hard on soft wood inside a groove that has been cut into the wood. This can cause an ember, and the same bird’ nest method is used. 

There are a few more variations of the drill, but I hope you get the idea. 

The last is what I always called a hand drill, but I don’t think that is the technical name. Basically, you do the same thing as a bow drill, except you use your hands as the bow. Yep, your character will vigorously rub the stick back and forth in their hands against a tinder to cause enough friction to make an ember. I have tried this method, and all I ever got were blisters. That said, I have seen with my own eyes people who did this and had a roaring fire in less than ten minutes. This one takes a considerable amount of practice. 

5) First Aid 

Last but not least is first aid. Ok, that sounds silly, but hear me out. If your character just lived through a disaster, they, or someone else, is likely injured, and they will need to know how to take care of that person until they can get them to help. Assuming there will be any help in your story. 

First aid for disasters can include but is not limited to broken bones, lacerations, puncture wounds, burns, eye injury, animal bites, choking, nose bleeds, head injury, sprains, hypothermia, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, shock, stitches, and more. 

Fun fact: Did you know there are many free first-aid classes in the United States? Furthermore taking classes through the Red Cross or other local places can improve your chances of scoring a job because companies like to have people on staff ready for emergencies. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

Before we get to the best part, if you enjoy this podcast I hope you’ll take a minute to follow, rate, and review on your podcasting platform. And if you are listening on YouTube, subscribe and hit that like button. Don’t forget to share with a friend. Now for everyone’s favorite part! 

Likely to go wrong: Your character tries rubbing two sticks together to make fire. However, all they manage to make is blisters on their hands. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character uses what they find to make a debris shelter for the night. They make it in a clearing thinking that will be the safest place. In the night the wind picks up. With no windblock from the trees, the shelter is ripped apart in the wind. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character thinks climbing a mountain to the snow is the best way to get water. They expend too much energy climbing and when it gets cold at night, they succumb to hypothermia. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character is stranded in the tundra and tries to make an igloo to stay warm in the sub-zero temperatures. They have never done this before and before they can finish the igloo they succumb to hypothermia. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character uses a bow drill to start the fire. They get their ember and as they try to transfer it to the tender materials, the ember goes out and they have to start all over again. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character is using a bow drill. They do not put enough pressure on the drill to make an ember and waste a long time trying to start a fire with no results. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character puts too much force on the drill of a bow drill and snaps the wooden drill in two. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character knows plastic will not melt if water is inside. They hang it over an open fire to boil the water. However the plastic above the water line catches on fire causing the whole thing to fall into the fire, and your character loses all of their water. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character has no first aid knowledge. They do not know to place pressure on a wound to stop the bleeding. Overnight they bleed out when they could have been saved. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character is trying to make a fire after the apocalypse. They try to use a Ferrell rod but don’t know how. They decide to add a little gas to it to help start the fire. When they next strike a spark on the Ferrell rod they light the fumes on fire. This could burn them and light their hair on fire. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character gathers river water from a calm area of the river. They do not know how to filter the water and decide to simply boil it. When they go to drink the water, they find dead leaches in it. 

Thanks for listening! You can find the show notes and helpful links to learn more on my website, alleyhart.com. That’s A-L-L-E-Y-H-A-R-T.com. Subscribe or follow for more episodes. Connect by dropping me a comment on my YouTube videos. A new episode comes out every Monday. Until then. Happy wordsmithing. 

Helpful Links To Learn More:



Finding water:


Purifying water:


Fire starting:


First aid: