How might surviving in the wilderness without supplies impact your story? What challenges does this present to your story and characters? Could this affect your world-building? What are some useful skills for your character to know? Find out on this episode. 

Today we are going to talk about what your character needs to survive in a wilderness-survival situation if they have no supplies. Maybe your character got lost in the woods, stranded on a deserted island, broke down in their car, survived an airplane crash, was kidnapped and left for dead, or many other scenarios. Let’s talk about what they will need to survive. 

First, this will depend on what happened for your character to find themselves in this situation and the era you are writing. If they are escaping bad guys, then the first thing is to get to safety. If they were in a plane crash, the first thing might be to assess for injuries or get away from the plane’s fuel. This will take a little discretion, but the point is that safety and being alive would be the first focus in these scenarios. 

After they are safe and have been assessed and cared for any injuries, the next thing is to check for the likelihood of being rescued or finding a way to contact help. If your character can see a house they can walk to, it isn’t a wilderness survival story. 

Assuming there is no easy way out, they then need to assess if it is likely help will come or if they need to find help. If there is a plane crash, they might expect help or at least a clean-up crew. If you are writing a kidnapping where they escaped in a place no one but the bad guy knew about, it is safe to say, no help is coming. 

If it is safe, your character should consider a distress signal. Flares, fire, or three of anything. Three gun shots, three lines, three piles of rocks. Three is the international distress signal and is recognized all over the world. However, if there are bad guys or maybe hostile natives, this would not be something they would want to do, as it would likely lead the bad guys right to them. 

This is something they will keep in mind, but there might be other things they should do. When to use a distress signal will be at the discretion of your character, but there are some important survival things we will talk about that need to be done first. Also, if they use a flare gun, it will be important to decide if they will shoot it off at the beginning and risk wasting it, save it for when help is most likely to see it, or keep it for potentially making fire, which might be something they need at some point. 

Now, there are three things they will need, no matter if they are staying in one spot or moving toward help. 

First is shelter. The shelter needs to be somewhere as warm and out of the elements as possible. Maybe they use plain parts to make a shelter. They could build a lean-to. The hollow of a tree could be adapted to be warm and dry. Perhaps a cave is used to stay out of a raging storm. 

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Why isn’t water first on this list? The answer is simple, as you can survive three days without water, but hypothermia can set in as little as five minutes while normally it is within a half hour. Hypothermia is defined as a rapid decline in the body’s temperature that causes the body to be dangerously cold. That means it is not exclusive to the winter but can happen even in the summertime. When night comes, temperatures will drop in all seasons. In some places, like the desert, it is hot in the day and cold at night. Your character needs to be ready to fend off heat loss and have a place to warm up. Most importantly, they need to stay dry. Wet clothing is the fastest way to lose body heat. 

If your character stays in one place, they only have to do this once. If your character is moving toward the help, then they will need to think about this a few hours before dusk every night, so they have time to make the shelter. If bad guys are following them, they might also take the shelter down to try and hide where the shelter had been. Another thing to think about, if there are bad guys, is that your character might try to make the shelter blend into the environment as much as possible. They want to make sure there is nothing that will draw the eyes to that spot and give away their location. 

The next thing they need is water. As I said, a person can only survive three days without water, but they will start to feel the effects of this before then. The first signs of dehydration are: 

Dry mouth

Extreme feelings of thirst 




As dehydration advances, the symptoms expand and can include



Flushed or red skin

Swollen feet

High heart rate 

Low blood pressure

Muscle cramps

Heat intolerance


Dark urine

Slowing down of urinating

No sweating or sweating stops 

Some of the signs in children are:

Cool hands and feet

A sunken-in soft spot on a baby’s head

No tears when they cry

Sunken-in eyes 

Rapid breathing 


Blotchy skin 

Later stages can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, and death. 

Your character will need to find a water source. There are many ways to do this. Melting snow, collecting rainwater, using a bandana around their ankle to collect dew and wringing it out to get the water, rivers, streams, ditches, water trapped inside plants, digging in a dry steam bed, and many more. If they are trapped on an island in the middle of the ocean, they could distill ocean water to remove the salt. 

If your character is planning to stay in one place, this is the stage they might learn they need to move to a better spot to better access water. They should leave a signal others can’t miss, like a large pile of rocks to make an arrow where they are going. 

If your character is on the move, they will want to look for water as they go. Equally important, they will want to look for a way to carry water with them as they go. Bamboo is a great way as it is hollow on the inside and comes in segments making it easier to carry. If it is modern, maybe they find used water bottles in the woods in some leftover trash. Even a Tupperware dish would help. 

Something to think about is that if your character finds a river or stream, following water will likely bring them to other humans if they follow it far enough. That said, depending on where the story takes place, it could be quite a long way away. Historical stories and stories in remote areas will likely take much longer to find humans, villages, or settlements than a modern story. 

The next thing your character will need is food. Depending on where you look, the estimated time to starve to death is between 30 and 70 days. 

Many people think they can just hunt or trap small animals. However, most people have never done that and will likely fail many times before they get a single one, and that is if they get any. The next problem is they need to cook it. Making fire by rubbing two sticks together is a learned skill, not something you will just sit down and do. In fact, you are likely to get many blisters on your hand when trying to do that. 

It is more likely they will find berries, nuts, wild mushrooms, and things of that nature. It is a valuable skill to know edible plants from nonedible plants. This can be the difference between life and death for your character. 

Shelter, water, and food are the three things your character will need. Will they have to do more? Of course, but these three things are needed. Other things they can pick up on the way include defense weapons, things for fire, water containers, making a knife, something to help stay warm, etc. Remember staving off boredom can help keep your character’s mind busy and fight against depression and feelings of hopelessness. 

There are wilderness skills that will be helpful with these and make survival a bit easier but are no guarantee of survival. Some of the skills are

Knowing edible plants and nonedible plants

Water filtration

Fire making 

Shelter-making skills

How to find water or how to distill salt water

First aid 

How to make rope from grass or tree bark

Weather signs and signals 

Fun fact: If you want to know the approximate temperature, you can add 37 to the number of chirps a cricket makes in 15 seconds. Now if your character has a way to time 15 seconds might be important. 

What could possibly go wrong: 

Likely to go wrong: Your character cannot find anything to carry water in. They will either need to stay close to the water or risk moving on and possibly not having water for an extended period of time. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character knows nothing about directions and finds themselves walking around in circles. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character wastes valuable time trying to hunt when they have never done it before, and they catch nothing.

Possible to go wrong: Your character doesn’t realize they are dehydrated, and the confusion leads to them making some bad decisions. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character found trash in the woods that is covered in some kind of toxin and infects themselves. This is more likely in an apocalyptic story. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character finds themself facing a wild animal. Most likely a snake, but it could be predators such as wolves, lions, or bears. 

Improbable to go wrong: Your character takes shelter in a cave, and it already has occupants. This could be people, such as hostile natives, or wild animals. 

Improbable to go wrong: Your character is stranded so long they are able to build a good life for themselves wherever they are, like Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson. While most people are not gone that long, it is always a possibility. 

Helpful Links to Learn More:

Wilderness Survival-first things first: