6 tracker-approved skills you need for wilderness survival

From hunting fugitives for your department to pure wilderness adventure entertainment, survivalism is a useful skillset.

By Megan Wells, Police1 Contributor

Have you seen "The Hunted"  with Tommy Lee Jones? Fugitive tracking that leads LEOs through the thicket of the woods may be rare, but having the skills necessary to outwit other survivalists is a pretty cool badge to earn. Some extreme survivalists consider the techniques an adventure and have taken up the skillset as a hobby. 

Take a few pointers from the curriculum of Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School, founded by noted tracker and wilderness expert Tom Brown Jr., and fine-tune these key skills for wilderness survival:

Winter survival training (Wikipedia Image)
Winter survival training (Wikipedia Image)

1. Food procurement

We all know that without food we can’t survive. Being able to procure food is the first lesson in survival, but it can be the most challenging, too. There are many components that go into hunting animals and properly identifying edible plants. 

For hunting, you’ll need to understand tracking basics to identify what it is you’re hunting. The basics of tracking include knowing what different animals’ droppings look like and knowing what their footprints (or tracks) look like. This is especially important because the traps you set will be specific to the species you’re hunting. You cannot set one trap and expect to catch whatever is around.

You will also need to know which is the best tool for each animal. One tool called a rabbit stick, is a ballistic hunting weapon, whittled from a branch into a light curve (think boomerang). These throwing sticks can be useful to hunt small game like rabbits, ducks, and squirrels. Learn how to make a rabbit stick here. 

Foraging is the next component to food procurement. Learning how to identify edible plants is an invaluable skill but will take time to learn. Unfortunately, trial and error isn’t an option when you’re dealing with potentially deadly flora. According to the botany program at the University of Hawaii, one way to tell if a mushroom is poisonous is to cook it with a silver coin. If the coin turns black when cooked the mushroom you’ve picked is poisonous. Another trick is to watch animal behaviors - if animals are seen eating the mushroom, then it is not poisonous. 

2. Finding and purifying water

Learning how to purify your water is literally a matter of life or death. If you are not near a water source, try dew collecting – you can collect dew from clothing by leaving clothes out overnight and wringing out the natural collection each morning (the same works if you’ve been subjected to rain or other water sources). If you’re good at foraging, you can squeeze water from certain non-poisonous plants, too. 

To purify water, boiling is a great choice, but you’ll have to be in a situation where creating a fire is possible. If you can’t boil water, a solar still is a great way to distill water – you can use the heat of the sun to evaporate, and collect water. 

3. Building a fire

Fire is necessary for an abundance of things like warmth, cooking, purification and protection. There are many techniques when it comes to building a fire because there are many natural elements you may encounter. You’ll need to have a fire or bow drill, sunlight, a striking rock that contains iron such as flint, as well as dry plants and trees for tinder. If you’re lucky, you’ll have matches and lighters on hand. 

4. Building shelter 

Protection from the elements is essential for surviving nights (and sometimes days) in the wilderness. Building a well-insulated shelter with either a debris hut or a scout pit are your best bets. A debris hut is just as it sounds: create a frame with large twigs then cover it with layers of debris like leaves and moss. You can also use debris to cover yourself for insulation from both the ground and outside elements. A scout pit is a shelter dug into the ground and covered with debris for warmth, which also disguises and makes you undetectable. 

5. Learning to camouflage

Trying to be discreet, likely while you’re hunting, makes the basics of camouflage important. In low light, try to “black out” by finding the darkest items you can to conceal yourself with the natural lighting. In brighter light, use nature. Just as you would build a debris hut, use the same type of items (leaves, sticks, moss) to conceal yourself with the natural environment. 

6. General bushcraft 

Bushcraft skills have been lightly touched on in each of the above sections, but it’s necessary to understand the breadth of what bushcraft, or skill at living in the wild, encompasses. Bushcraft delves deeper than simply starting a task. For instance, firecraft is more than simply knowing how to start a fire  – it’s the ability to create, control and use fire as an aid for survival. One example would be transporting fire by carrying a burning coal around in some type of dry sage grass to keep it smoldering to start your next fire. 

Other bushcraft skills include tracking, understanding baseline behavior (animal habits), shelter-building, using tools such as knives and axes, foraging, hand-carving wood and constructing containers from natural materials, cordage and rope. 

Above all, it’s necessary to have a heightened sense of awareness, plenty of patience and the ability to pay close attention to detail. These skills are all necessary for successfully learning and practicing survivalism. 

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