Lost? — Know the four elements for survival | TheUnion.com

Lost? — Know the four elements for survival

Rick Berry
Special to The Union
Creating a shelter when lost in the wilderness can be critical, especially in extreme conditions. You can create a debris hut using sticks, branches, leaves and needles, or stuff your clothing like a scarecrow to try and trap your body heat to stay warm.
Courtesy of Rick Berry

You are out for a simple afternoon walk from your campsite … take one wrong turn and suddenly, your life has changed. You begin to panic. You are lost in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, most people do not possess wilderness skills and many have significant fear around being in the woods. Fear can put one in a state of panic which can lead to bad decisions. The most important component if you find yourself lost is your attitude. If you feel at home in the wilderness, then being lost is only a state of mind.

The following are simple but crucial uses of elements to insure you make it home safely should you become “lost.” With even small basic knowledge of survival and Earth skills, your confidence level will increase and you will be more relaxed in the wilderness.

Wisdom tells us to never leave for the wilderness without a knife, water or matches, however, even without those, the directions below can keep you a survivor.

The four basic elements of survival are: shelter, water, fire and food.


Shelter in extreme conditions is critical; even in 55 degree weather or rain one can become hypothermic. In colder temperatures, hypothermic conditions can develop in a matter of hours. Your clothing can serve as shelter and with basic principles you can trap your body heat to stay warm.

One method to add to your insulation: stuff your clothes with debris like a scarecrow. Another simple way is to create a debris hut into which you can crawl. Using “debris” such as sticks, branches, leaves and needles, you can put together a safe hut just like a giant squirrel nest.


After two days without water your body becomes very dehydrated and basic tasks start to become difficult. It is critical to find a spring as a source of pure water. (A spring is water that comes out of the ground and has not surfaced within 70-100 feet — meaning that it has been purified by the Earth and should be roughly 55 degrees.)

Knowing which plants need year round water and where to look for those plants is key to locating a spring. Willow, Sycamore and Twin Berry are a few plants and trees that grow by springs.

If no springs can be found, find any kind of water source: a river, stream, or lake will work; however, you will need to purify the water first. To purify water, you must boil it to make sure no unhealthy bacteria is present.

If you happen to have a container (i.e., a metal water bottle) and matches or a lighter, you simply light a fire and boil the water. Even a paper cup will do. If you do not have a container, make a water tight container with wood, bark, or clay.


A fire not only can purify your water but also creates warmth and comfort physically and emotionally. Without matches or a lighter in wet weather, the best chance to create a fire is the Bow-Drill friction fire method.

Find a medium soft wood (like cedar) to create a fire board, spindle and hand hold.

The bow can be made of any wood and should be about the length of your arm. The string for the bow can be a shoe string or even the hem of your shirt or find cordage material to make a string or by using plants like dog bane, milk weed, or stinging nettles; you can strip the fibers and reverse wrap them into a cord.

The hand-hold holds the drill in place as you press down on top. The hand-hold has an indentation for the drill to move easily.

While pressing down on the hand-hold, move the bow back and forth … the drill will burn into the fire board. Then you carve a notch and that is where the dust from the burning woods collects to form a coal on top of your tinder bundle. The coal, nestled in the tinder bundle will have to be blown into a flame.

If you have never attempted making a fire this way, it will be close to impossible to do the first time, so ensure your shelter is warm enough without the need of a fire.


People can go for a month without food. However after a few days your energy level is diminished and one must conserve energy for only the most critical needs of survival.

Once shelter, water and fire are sustained, the bulk of the work is gathering and hunting food. Knowing which plants, berries and tubers are safe and not poisonous is critical if you decide to start grazing off the land.

Simple hunting skills involve throwing sticks and making primitive traps. These require some level of awareness, such as knowing how to “fox walk” or stalk quietly on a known trail to get close enough to the animal and to learn to be in wide angle vision.

A throwing stick is the simplest hunting tool and with practice one can learn to throw an arm length hard wood stick to take the life of a squirrel or rabbit.

In all these skills your attitude is paramount and possessing a caretaker attitude of your environment is most crucial. As you think of what the land needs, the land will take care of you.

This article came from the Adventure Nevada County Magazine. Rick Berry and the founder and executive director of 4 Elements Earth Education in Nevada City and recent recipient of the Bear Yuba Land Trust’s John Skinner Sierra Outdoors Recreation Award. Visit 4eee.org or call 530-265-2036 to learn more about the programs.

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