Spending time outside comes with plenty of benefits for the mind, body and soul; it's basically in our DNA, after all. But no matter how idyllic the natural environments venturing out into the wild comes with its risks. Whether you're taking a multi-day backpacking trip or just a hike down the road you do every weekend, it pays to be prepared.
We sat down with Alone contestant and wilderness preparedness expert Mark D'Ambrosio to talk through the basic skills for survival, or as he puts it, wilderness sustainment techniques. In short, how to stay warm, fueled and safe. Mark is the founder of International Mountain Survival, where he leads varying levels of courses designed to prepare people for a life spent enjoying the outdoors.
"In the last 100 years, what never used to be considered a 'survival skill' now is because we just don’t learn this secondhand. It doesn’t come naturally to us anymore to do things like preserving food or staying warm - that’s just something we always had to do. How to light a fire and stoke a fire. Well now, learning how to start a fire could be a life-saving skill."
When it comes to "survival," Mark thinks in very specific terms. "When people think of survival, they think of Alone: extended living outdoors, with just a few items. That is not survival; it’s just outdoor living. It becomes survival if you get hypothermia out there. Extended survival is more about mindset... and having a lot of luck," Mark says. "What I teach people is basic outdoor tips' that anyone can practice to keep themselves safe while exploring to avoid survival."
What Mark instead calls "wilderness sustainment techniques" are practical, effective and can be easily implemented into your outdoor routine.
Communicate and become familiar with your safety devices.
"Whether that’s a day hike or a multi-day hike, you need to be keeping up with somebody. Don’t go more than 24 hours without somebody knowing that you’re okay. You could be out there, missing for multiple days before search and rescue even knows to start looking for you. The goal is, if you do find yourself in a survival situation (because there are a million ways to get put into one in the wilderness), that somebody can start searching for you as quickly as possible."
"For my deep backcountry trips, something that I use religiously is my Garmin Inreach. You gotta make sure you program people’s numbers in there before you go so you can text a buddy or a family member, because that’s your first means of communication. With the Inreach it’s also beneficial to get helicopter insurance: it’s $100 a year and it covers your whole family. I have a buddy, a survivalist instructor, who had to have his kid airlifted and it was a $20,000 ride because he didn’t have helicopter insurance."
Know how to navigate.
"Before you leave, you should download a map. This is huge. We all have phones, let’s use these phones. I love to use onX maps because they cover the entire United States for about $100 a year, [when purchasing all maps] and I can download a map while I’m in service for any state, any area and I can get really detailed maps and download when I need to. With a map downloaded on my phone, I will never get lost."
"The main reason people find themselves in 'survival' situations is they forget where they’re at, they don’t know where they’re at, they get lost, or something medically happens, like a sprain or cut, or even leg cramps that are extremely bad. So to avoid that, download a map and know where you’re at. And with that, if you’re using your phone and not an actual GPS, you always need to have a battery pack for your phone."
Know how to keep yourself warm.
"Your first line of defense can always be your clothing. Any time you’re traveling, you’re always going to carry your extra warming layer, which can be your shelter if need be, and a fire."
"If it starts to rain, you don’t need a tarp; just get under a tree or something else. But all of these things start adding up: potential injury, mixed with not having the right gear out there to spend the night, now we’re putting ourselves in a survival situation. But if we keep our body temperature up and we’re comfortable, now we’re good."
Know how to use a tourniquet.
"Your medical kit can be whatever you want, but at the bare minimum, you need to bring a tourniquet with you. If you’re out hiking and you cut yourself the right way (or the wrong way, depending how you look at it) the difference between life and death is being able to stop the bleeding. That’s a very quick thing. It doesn’t matter if you have an Inreach with you; nobody’s going to get you in time if you hit an artery. Having a tourniquet on you and maybe even some combat gauze isn’t a bad little package to bring with you."
"If people buy tourniquets they carry it with them and they’ve never put one on, and left one on for five minutes, then they don’t know what it’s going to feel like. Do people know that if you’re out there in a wilderness situation, you take the tourniquet, stop the blood flow. Crank that thing all the way down and then pack it. Pack that wound, pack that wound, pack that wound, and then slowly release pressure off the tourniquet to see if it’s going to continue bleeding, or if you packed it enough. Because if you leave that tourniquet on for more than an hour, sometimes you can get a little longer out of that — you’re going to lose that entire limb."
Learn how to treat basic injuries.
"Learn how to treat a basic injury like a sprain; how to wrap a sprain. That’s something that happens very commonly out on the trail. The time you don’t want to learn how to treat a sprain is when it’s your own ankle and no one is with you. Medically speaking, learn how to prevent and treat leg cramps. Wilderness Athlete sells some amazing products that I love using, because every time I’ve used WA, I don’t get leg cramps."
Practice starting a fire.
"Always carry a fire starting device with an accelerant, not just the lighter. A lighter or a ferro rod are great, but if you truly need to use this, you need to be able to light a fire in both wet and dry conditions. So, a fire with an accelerant like Wet Fire - always have that combo on you and you won’t be in a survival situation, you’ll just be in a shitty situation because you’ll have warmth."
Keep yourself hydrated.
"Always have water with you, and if you’re going to do a multi-day hike, have the ability to get water, or know where water is."
In addition to these outdoor safety basics, Mark also mentioned carrying bear spray with you if you're hiking in bear country, a dependable pocket knife or fixed blade, headlamp and of course, a small pack to keep everything contained and close by. Whether you're heading out for a multi-day trek or going on your weekly 2-mile loop, it always pays to be prepared. The bottom line? Always take the proper precautions, and you'll drastically reduce the likelihood of getting yourself into a survival situation.
Check out more information on Mark's survival and outdoor courses here.