top of page

Five Cs of Wilderness Survival

As the book outline for Day Hikes of Ontario Vol. II takes shape, material for blog posts and stories are cropping up.

The Five Cs of Wilderness Survival

Lets be clear at the start. No matter what I suggest, there will always be circumstances where the suggestions aren’t helpful. There will always be times when you need to think things through for yourself and make the best choices you can, based on your situation and your assessment of your skills, knowledge and motivation. The more skills you’ve amassed, the more practical knowledge you’ve accumulated and the more you’ve practiced your skills, the better off you’re going to be in a survival situation. It's almost an oxymoron, but, always prepare to spend more time in the wilderness than you planned.

We’ll get to the Five Cs in a bit, but first a few things you should think about before going into an environment where you might have to depend upon your own wits to survive.

Share Your Plans

Let people know where you’re going. Give them a map, a route outline, timetable and expected time/date of return. When you get back call them and let them know you’ve returned. If the appointed time/date has come and gone, they should call you and/or contact the authorities so a search and rescue operation can begin.

You’re Lost

Stay calm. Sit down. Don’t go anywhere. Take a few minutes to think, but not walk. The first thing to remember is that you’ve told someone where you are and a search party will be out looking for you if you haven’t returned by the time/date agreed upon. If you panic and start running around looking for the trail, you may be running in the wrong direction, out of the search zone and further away from help. The first thing to assess is if you’re going to have to hunker down for the night(s) and wait for rescue. Better to wait than to wander around aimlessly.


The body operates within a very narrow temperature range and if you are exposed and spend more than about three hours beneath the bottom end of that range, you may begin to get hypothermic. This means the body’s core temperature begins to fall and vital life systems begin to shut down. If left without warmth for too long, death may occur. The trouble with hypothermia is that your mind begins to be less than clear and may make poor choices. I won’t go into all the symptoms here, but you need to keep warm and dry to avoid hypothermia.


A shelter to keep you protected from the wind, rain, snow or cold temperatures is crucial if you want to avoid hypothermia. If cool and wet conditions are present and hypothermia is possible then you need to focus on shelter and a fire. A campfire provides warmth and light of course, but it is also very reassuring in a difficult situation - and there is much to be said for that.


Boiling water will kill most pathogens present in wilderness ground water. It won’t make it taste any better, and if it's turbid, it won't make it look any better, but it will at least be safer than drinking water untreated. You should always carry a metal container in which water can be boiled. A Katadyn water filter or purification tablets are always good to have in your pack. I carry Aquatab purification tablets from Katadyn, to purify clear water (follow the instructions). Without water, most people, under most conditions, will survive about 3-4 days. It varies, but we need to drink about 1 to 1-5L of water per day in order to maintain our health.


Not as urgent as you might think. Important, yes, but not urgent. Most people will survive fine up to three weeks without food, but obviously your strength will begin to wane and you might not be as sharp, making everything noted above more difficult to cope with. Under no circumstances should you be eating unknown plants, berries or mushrooms. Just avoid them completely. I suggest you carry at least a few high energy bars with you for emergencies.

The Five Cs

1. Combustion

Always have something in your pack or pocket that will dependably help you start a fire. Matches in a watertight container are good and relatively simple. A flint and striker to produce a spark is great since they don’t need protection from the water. A simple butane lighter is great as well. You don’t necessarily need to know how to start a fire with a “fire drill” or by rubbing two sticks together, but you should practice making a fire with matches or flint and striker. Practice under ideal conditions, then practice under wet or windy conditions. You’ll only ever build a fire in an emergency as well as you’ve practiced. The more practice, the easier it becomes.

I carry around a Coleman magnesium first starter. You use the sharp metal blade to scrape off chips of magnesium, then use the blade to strike the flint on the back of the magnesium block to direct a spark into the chips, where they burn furiously for a few seconds.

2. Cover

Always carry a light plastic sheet with you, even on day hikes. I carry a Mylar™ “space blanket” from a company called Survive Outside Longer (SOL, how appropria

te) which has a reflective aluminum coating on one side and a high visibility orange lamination on the other. The orange side is also printed with emergency instructions. It's lightweight, strong and small. It weighs in at about 85g and opens to something like 1.7m X 1.7m. In a survival situation you can use it to set up a shelter against the wind and rain to help stave off hypothermia. I chose the SOL blanket primarily as it uses Mylar that won't rip. You can cut it, but unlike other products, it won't then just keep tearing.

I have also been known to carry a couple of plastic garbage bags as well, that could, if the need arose, be stuffed with dried leaves and used as a mattress to keep me off the cold ground.

3. Cutting

Carry a dependable, multi-function pocket knife. The blade doesn’t have to be too large, say no more than 12cm. A model with scissors and tweezers will also prove very handy. I've taken to carrying a Victorinox Pioneer X, but other models or manufacturers have worked well in the past. I also own a Leatherman multi-tool for canoeing and car camping, where weight isn't so much a concern.

4. Container

A metal container, in which you can boil water, is a must have. Never drink untreated water. Boiling, while not the most convenient, is a sure way to remove water-born pathogens. I carry an aluminum cook pot, similar to the one pictured, which in turn holds all the other survival items noted here.

5. Cordage

I carry about 10m of 4mm cord with me. If necessary, it can be strung between two trees as a ridge pole for a plastic sheet to act as an emergency shelter. It's proven its value time and again and not necessarily in emergencies.

All the above items store in a 17cm aluminum pot. The lid is held on, not so inventively, with a couple wrappings of duct tape. The whole kit weighs less than 500g.

Ed is the author of Day Hikes in Ontario Vol 1 and The Family Camping Guide. He has been hiking, skiing and paddling throughout Ontario and Alberta for nearly 45 years. He’s an avid photographer, cyclist and outdoor enthusiast.

He’s the founder of Friends of Dieppe Park and past member of the Harbourfront Parks and Open Space Project, in Toronto.

- Lost Lake photo courtesy of Pixabay.

#WildernessSurvival #camping #hiking #campsafety #outdoorsurvival

20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page