Developing your survival skills is incredibly rewarding. Not only will you be more objectively capable of taking care of yourself and the people you love in unexpected situations and emergencies, you’ll be developing knowledge and physical skills that can improve the way you live now.

How to best develop your survival skills depends on you. Set your own goals for what you want to learn, how, and when. The skills you focus on should depend on where you live: the immediate dangers presented by your local climate, ecology, or a Raccoon City zip code.

The next determinant should be what you’re already good at. If you’re a surgeon in real life, figuring out how to transfer that skill to a survival situation could be incredibly useful to whomever you end up in such a situation with. If you have a natural interest in herbalism or botany, you’ll probably find that you can build up a great working knowledge of edible, useful and dangerous plants worth knowing about with satisfying speed.

Developing Basic Survivalist Skills

The Internet is full of basic information and planning advice, right up to technical how-to guides for making your own bicycle-powered generator. You’ll find official advice from organizations like the CDC, and useful discussions by people who have been developing their survival skills and capabilities for years. But to develop your survival skills, you need to exercise your knowledge in the real world.

Carry the pocket-sized SAS survival guide with you everywhere until you know it by heart. Start going camping regularly to test out your skills, and enroll in a self-defense or marksmanship course. Construct a bug-out-bag, or at least make a list and start collecting items for it as you go.

Any broad-spectrum survival preparation should include a little training in each of these key areas:

  • Emergency routes and plans: including helping others to get out/get safe. You should be familiar with specific plans for wherever you spend a decent amount of time: your home; your place of work; maybe some local infrastructure if you might need to lead members of the town to a safe place.
  • Fire and shelter: you should have the equipment and skills to start a fire three different ways. Practice by camping or living off-grid in a few different climates, or during different seasons. Try taking it easy at first and gradually whittling down the things you need to be comfortable, until you know you can make somewhere comfortable to sleep with just two tarps and a bit of rope.
  • Water: know three different ways to find or process safe drinking water.
  • Food: stockpiling some basic ready-to-eat meals and/or ingredients, understanding basic nutrition, knowing how to cook with minimal equipment, learning how to find and positively identify a few wild food sources. Add hunting, foraging, or growing skills to taste.
  • Basic First Aid
  • Self-defense & physical fitness

 If you’re having fun so far learning broadly about survivalism, you’ll probably want to pick up a range of new skills. There are so many possible emergency/apocalypse/wilderness survival scenarios out there, and so many different facets to being able to get through them as an individual and as a community. You’re only human, and you’ve got limited time to spare, so how do you choose from all of the worthwhile talents and capabilities out there? How do you make sure that you don’t end up as the jack-of-all-trades, but expert in none?

Skill Trees

If you’re a fan of video games like Fallout, Borderlands or Skyrim, you’re familiar with the idea of skill trees. This might be super-geeky of us, but we think they actually provide a pretty useful way of thinking about things. You’ve only got so much time to put into developing your survival skills, so it makes sense to aim for a shallow proficiency to cover the basics, but pick just a few particular skills that you’d like to be expert at.

The skills you aim for don’t necessarily have to be the skills you think a good survivalist should have: as with any learning, picking what you naturally love and have an alacrity for will get much better results. In an emergency scenario, as well as long-term survival and rebuilding off-grid, bands of bedraggled survivors will need a variety of skill-sets to keep them safe and healthy.

A rule of thumb might be to spend a little time each week improving your basic survival skills, and a little time developing and expanding on the areas you want to become expert in. Make a list of basic survival skills you want to learn alongside those you want to improve over the long term. You can imagine broad areas of development as skill trees, and make a note of which level you definitely want to reach in each area. So, a medical skill tree, from a baseline of zero medical knowledge, might look something like this:

  • Basic first aid knowledge (owning and being able to use a basic first aid kit)
  • Taking a level one first-aid course
  • Taking a level two first-aid course
  • Volunteering to be a street-medic for a rally or protest
  • Getting involved with a local ranger troop or hiking club to gain further experience
  • Volunteering your skills at a big festival that sees plenty of sickness, injury and potential death (i.e. burning man)
  • Volunteering to work overseas in emergency relief with the Peace Corp, Service Civil International etc.

If you’re really passionate about developing medical survival skills, you might set a goal of two years to get from the start to the end of the skill tree. It isn’t a tree with branches yet (partly because the article format makes that difficult!), but you’ll find at each step of progress that you learn about different tangents that you could follow to develop that skill in different ways. For example, after getting your level-two first-aid certificate, you might realize that you actually want to start studying nursing or medicine formally, and progress in a different direction, with different but equally excellent results.

Do you want to go on frequent adventure trips in remote locations, live off-grid, work in the field of emergency disaster relief, or be prepared for global disaster or financial collapse? Developing your survival skills can be incredibly fun and rewarding in the immediate and medium term, as well as making you more able to handle the worst-case scenario that’s been keeping you up at night.