Who Will and Who Won’t Survive SHTF in the WoodsAdam Smith
If bugging out is a mainstay plan of prepping in general, then bugging out to the woods is about as bread-and-butter as that plan can get.
Anyone you talk to, so long as they don’t live in the desert, will regale you with their idea of just heading off into the woods to find a nice little clear patch next to a babbling brook before setting up camp and waiting for the whole situation that sent them scurrying to blow over. Sure is a nice idea…
And an idea is pretty much all it is. This is because surviving in the wilderness, even in the woods, is no picnic, and it sure as hell isn’t just recreational camping.
The context of survival places many more demands on people who would exist in the midst of nature, even in an environment thought to be so bountiful as the woods.
I can understand the appeal; daydreams of pure, clear streams, wholesome game animals both big and small prancing and capering everywhere, ample fuel for fires and material for shelter. What could be better?
Well, lots of things, for one, though it could always be worse too. Surviving in the woods is no joke, and people who go deep with the idea that they will be coasting on Easy Street are in for a rude awakening, and potentially a miserable death.
Surviving away from society, or even the ruins of society, is not for everyone and in today’s article I will present you with a list of people that I believe will stand the best chance of surviving in the woods and those that should hang up their hopes before that fateful day ever comes.
The Woods, Dark and Deep
While the appeal of a forest in a recreational capacity is absolutely undeniable and it is true that the woods are a biome that is generally more plentiful than one like the desert, the reality is it is still a challenging environment to survive in, especially for the unprepared.
This makes the irrational enthusiasm some preppers exhibit toward bugging out into a remote patch of the woods particularly troubling.
Too many among us believe that they will be able to drop their packs after a hike of some exertion in a picturesque clearing near a ready-to-drink source of water before they stretch, have a snack and meander off into the woods to shoot some animal or another before dragging it back for dinner along with some fresh picked fruit or berries.
And all of this sent to the backdrop of a society that is tearing itself apart somewhere, out there, beyond the edge of the forest.
It is gauche poetry, and for the vast majority of us who attempt such a thing it will look quite different. You will be in an environment that is extremely easy to get turned around in.
One with water sources, but water sources that are contaminated by the fecal matter and corpses of animals along with innumerable kinds of plant and fungal debris.
What animals there are in the woods will easily evade people who are not skilled hunters, and the “natural bounty” of fruit, fungi and leaves are just as likely to be toxic as not, some fatally so.
Well before proper sunset the environment will become incredibly dark, as little in the way of light filters down through the canopy save in winter, and though fuel for a fire is ample in the woods this means that one must constantly be on guard that their fire does not get out of control and turn into a raging conflagration.
Surviving in the woods is just that: surviving. It sure as hell isn’t camping, and it won’t feel like a pleasure hike. If it does, you have probably bugged out for nothing.
Also keep in mind that the vast majority of people, and some preppers specifically, are nearly entirely dependent upon their survival gear and provisions that they bring with them.
I have heard the analogy before, and it is a good one that this is akin to the tank of air a scuba diver uses to descend into the depths of the ocean. So long as the air holds out the diver can remain, but once the air (or the supplies) run out they must surface in order to resupply, or die.
It will be much the same for many survivors who head into the woods at the first sign of trouble. They may yet be able to remain comfortably enough so long as their supplies hold out, but only those with a considerable amount of skill and experience living in wooded country will be able to make a proper stay out of it if required.
One must also consider that the popularity of this idea, well-informed or not, means that plenty of other people will have the exact same plan you do, and if you are not heading into the remotest parts of rarely traveled forest you might have more company than you’re planning on…
With all of that said, let us get to the list. There are two lists below, those who will survive in the woods in my estimation, and those who won’t. The list is not entirely conclusive, nor is it complete.
You can probably think of several additional categories of people who would belong to one or the other, and everybody knows someone in a group who defies expectation, and is either the second coming of Tarzan or the Mr. Magoo of survival. Regardless, based on my travels and experience both of these lists hold water.
Those Who Will
Boy Scouts, current and former
This as you might expect was an auto-include on the list of those who would survive an extended stay in the woods. The Boy Scouts have long placed an emphasis on self-sufficiency, preparedness and survival skills, complete with many exercises that build confidence and provide a lived experience for exactly these circumstances.
Even a Boy Scout of modest rank could be expected to self assess, prioritize based on the situation he found himself in, create a serviceable shelter, get a fire going. and tend to it before locating food in the form of safe mushrooms, berries or other plant matter and even bagging some kind of animal protein, all the while being cautious and acting intelligently.
In this regard, it is easy to view scouting as a sort of “disaster-proofing” in addition to being a fulfilling pastime.
I know quite a few men who attained the rank of Eagle Scout after a great many years scouting while they were boys and young adults, and let me tell you they are all regular MacGyver’s and serious outdoorsmen, more than capable of surviving in the wilderness using a little more but a pocket knife and a button compass.
I hope the people who mocked their uniforms when they were young lads don’t wind up in the same situation; they will be starving, lost, and freezing, while the target of their mockery is having a comparatively easy go of it elsewhere.
Soldiers, Marines, etc.
The training necessary to become confident in certain professions can wind up serving you well long after your time on the job is done.
Anyone who served in the military is probably better suited for surviving in the woods than nearly anyone else, since so much of their career centered on surviving and even thriving and natural environments under the worst conditions.
It also helps that these people are conditioned and used to hard and grueling work, work that is often necessary when the time comes to survive in the forest.
Beyond being generally comfortable in an outdoor setting, in uncertain circumstances and under a considerable amount of pressure folks in this category are often confident and capable at improvising shelter, and taking care of other considerations attendant with survival outdoors, including those of security.
As they say, when the going gets tough the tough get going, and you will rarely find people tougher than these men and women.
And beyond their occupational training, quite a few members of the military benefit from what is known as SERE training, or “survival, evasion, resistance and escape” training.
This training curriculum focuses in part on survival techniques when poorly equipped and in hostile environments, including the construction of various shelters, provisioning of food and signaling for rescue when applicable.
Training of this nature is invaluable in a wilderness survival situation, even when people with guns aren’t hunting you.
Chances are most hunters will be going into a woodland survival scenario with a major leg up over the rest of us. If there is one group of civilians you’ll be able to count on having already spent a long time in the woods, it will be these guys and gals.
Contrary to popular belief there is a lot more to hunting then just clambering up into a tree waiting for some hapless animal to walk by. Serious hunters who are dedicated to bagging the quarry they seek will put in a lot of time in the woods, gaining an intimate familiarity that few others will be able to rival.
From investigating probable routes of travel to looking for watering holes, sources of food, and all kinds of other nuances that most people miss, your average hunter will be very comfortable in the woods.
They will also be confident at maintaining their bearings, as traipsing all over creation through an environment that is very easy to get lost in will quickly impress upon the unwary how important is to keep your heading.
Naturally, when push comes to shove and tummies are grumbling a seasoned hunter is most likely to nab the big game that is needed to substantially supplement food stores.
Even if their chosen game is not available, the skills they learned in the pursuit will serve them well when the time comes to shoot or catch something else.
Ultimately, time spent in the woods is never wasted if you’re trying to prepare for a lengthy escapade, and your average American Hunter will have drastically more time under the branches of the canopy than most anyone else.
Hikers are another category of civilian whose pastimes will likely serve them well when the time comes to bug out in the woods.
Although the typical skill set for hiking is not quite as comprehensive as the one for hunting, it nonetheless will do much to acclimatize someone to the challenges and rigors of surviving in the woods, particularly when it comes to navigation.
Long-distance hikers will also be more than capable of locating the best campsites and picking the best wood for fuel.
Hikers also tend to be fit, a major advantage when it comes to surviving in the woods as there is no shortage of work that must be done more or less around the clock in order to improve your position.
Also of particular import is the likelihood that they will be very familiar with their favorite trails and stomping grounds, an informational advantage that can give them a major boost in confidence when the time comes to bug out.
If they already know the lay of the land, especially in various seasons, they will be able to head to the best spots for survival and avoid the worst.
Additionally, hikers are also aware through study or bitter experience of the various hazards that reside in the woods, among them terrain that is likely to see them slip, stumble, or fall, perhaps resulting in an injury to a leg that they can ill afford, as well as live hazards like dangerous big game and venomous snakes.
You will rarely see a hiker that will put their hand any place that they cannot see and they will never carelessly overturn rocks, branches or logs for any purpose, lest they disturb a resting, venomous reptile or agitate a swarm of insects.
Plenty of other people spend a lot of time in nature and crave interaction with it, from amateur botanists to mushroom hunters, birdwatchers, wanderers, game wardens, and others will all stand a pretty fair chance of surviving in the woods so long as they have a proper basis of survival skills to back up their general comfort and competency in such an environment.
Experience in an environment, even experience spent in some other pursuit besides survival, is still valuable when it comes to a survival situation because you will be learning a little bit about how to move, live and otherwise operate in that environment.
Just because you were out looking for the ideal patch where a rare mushroom or moral might grow does not mean you are failing to learn what other lessons that the environment can teach you.
Even if they are niche skills, niche skills still count, and people who have an affinity for nature on a practical level will benefit from those skills in a survival situation. A person who is enthusiastic about the plant life in their region will know which plants to avoid and which are helpful for nutritional or medicinal purposes.
Mushroom hunters will be able to easily supplement their calorie intake with delicious and nutritious fungi while avoiding the ones that will make them sick or kill them.
Game wardens will be familiar with the travel routes and behavior of various animal species, as well as those of poachers, giving them a leg-up on avoiding potentially compromising interactions.
The bottom line is that the people who spend more time in the woods voluntarily, those who embrace the environment, are the ones who are more likely to survive its perils and make the best use of its assets.
Those Who Won’t
There are some people who believe every problem can be solved by simply having the right gear. You don’t necessarily need the skills, the experience, or the dues paid in sweat and blood to get something done, you just need the right gadget!
If only that were true. Unfortunately quite a few Americans believe this fallacy and we have our fair share right here in Prepperdom.
While it is true that having the right equipment is going to make your job easier, there is no amount of equipment that can replace experience and confidence when living in the woods, especially in austere conditions.
The right tools, the right tent and the right gadgets will not replace knowing how to build and tend a fire, knowing where you should and where you should not pitch your camp, which plants to avoid and which to eat and how to avoid becoming disoriented and lost.
All of that takes experience, and even gadgets that can help ameliorate these problems are prone to failure and don’t always work in all circumstances.
While none of us are perfect, the one thing you will always be able to depend on the most is your own wits and knowledge. This is the first and most important tool, and without that the best technological gadgets that money can buy won’t amount to a hill of beans when trying to survive in the forest.
Urbanites are, in my mind, distinct from mere city-dwellers. Lots of us live in the cities, even if it’s not our first choice, and plenty of us can’t wait to leave, or at least get away from these teeming hives of humanity.
Urbanites are different; an urbanite is a city dweller who loves the city, who is truly part of it, and their existence inside a metropolis is their baseline. If they’re not surrounded by towering spires of steel and concrete they don’t feel comfortable.
When they are forced out into a natural setting, or even a less built-up area, they start to feel profoundly out of place, and anxious.
As you might expect, these folks will not do well in a forest survival setting. This might come as a shock to some readers, but I know more than a handful of urbanite preppers that are nonetheless serious about the craft, and want to be prepared for every eventuality.
Some among them actually entertain the notion that when things invariably deteriorate into an unsurvivable condition inside the city limits that they will bug out “upstate”, or out of state into the woods to live a more pastoral existence in the meantime. These self-same preppers cannot even be bothered to go on a hike!
Deprived of electricity, modern convenience and a reassuring rigidity of man-made roads and other paths that make it impossible to get lost, they will founder and possibly die. This is not intended to insult or belittle such folks, but a person must know their limitations.
Lots of people care for animals in one way or another, from your average everyday American with their pet dog or cat, to those who must tend to herds or flocks of livestock as farmers.
In many ways our domesticated animals are integral to our lives, and most people will go out of their way to accommodate them be it through professional dedication or sincere affection. Unfortunately, most animals will make a surviving in the woods more difficult, not less.
People with pets would be cautioned before choosing the forest as a bug-out location if they have the dog or cat in tow.
There are lots of ways for both to get into serious trouble in the woods, either through ingesting something poisonous or investigating a venomous creature that will not take kindly to the intrusion upon its space.
Most pets are also noisy, and will do much to both attract attention when you are trying to maintain a low profile as well as scaring off game that could potentially fill your cook pot.
Securing a domestic pet while in the middle of the woods so it does not escape or wander off is also challenging.
Farmers who have any ambitions about taking their animals with them when bugging out, even if it is a small herd or flock, will face many of the same challenges above and their animals will struggle to find good pasturage upon which to rest or eat.
There are other places to bug out that can indeed accommodate pets and livestock better; the forest should not be your first choice if you have animal companions in tow.
People who are badly out of shape are going to have a hard enough time surviving in most conditions if they cannot bug in, but their troubles will be multiplied tenfold if they have to bug out into the forest. Surviving in the forest is hard work!
Again, it isn’t like camping. You will always have much to do, and plenty of strenuous chores to attend to if you want to maintain and improve your situation.
From scouting campsites and moving your camp to gathering and processing wood to fuel your campfire, clearing brush and debris, foraging for food and water and so much more; you’d better be ready to roll up your sleeves, put in the hours and get a good sweat going!
The forest might provide more for you to make use of then some other environments, but making use of it still takes quite a bit of effort on your part.
If you are out of shape, flabby, and otherwise incapable of strenuous activity for any length of time, your work capacity is going to be reduced. Reduced work capacity means your margin for error when surviving gets smaller and smaller.
What if you have to deal with the snap of cold weather that sees you powering through your supply of firewood even quicker? If you are so exhausted that you didn’t gather more the previous day or couldn’t process it to get it ready for efficient burning you might have a problem.
Rain or wind that forces you to move your campsite in order to seek better shelter means you will be doing a lot of packing and schlepping; you’d better be up to the task.
Generally, the less fit someone is, the less the woods will be to them as a bug-out location.
For many of us the woods have an undeniable appeal and a certain mystique. The peace, tranquility and sense of grounding we get is almost enticing enough to see us head there during a bug out if only because it will help us calm down and center our thoughts.
This is undoubtedly true, but as I’ve stressed continually throughout this article the woods are extremely dangerous for most of us who enter unprepared, and are particularly dangerous for those who are arrogant.
If someone is ignorant of the dangers that lurk in the woods and all its many forms, or even worse just complacent, knowing better and not caring and doing better, they are probably not going to be long for this Earth during a woodland survival scenario.
You cannot cheat the forest; disregarding proper procedure, flagrantly acting in defiance of what is sensible and safe will see you gravely injured or killed, and the woods can oftentimes kill you in slow motion, inflicting an agonizing and torturous death.
Ignoring the danger posed by slick logs or rocks could result in a stumble and fall that earns you a compound fracture of the leg or ankle. Immobilized and crippled, you’ll be helpless.
Eating the wrong berry or mushroom could make you gravely ill, dehydrating you to the point of incapacitation, or it might kill you outright, clutched by seizures as your diaphragm shuts down and you suffocate, your heart beating its final beat.
You can be bitten by snakes and torn apart by bears. You might just get lost, never to be found and never to emerge.
Survival in the woods is not for the unwary or the inexperienced, and it is definitely not for the arrogant.
Bugging out to the woods is a valid strategy for dealing with an SHTF situation, but only if you have the right experience, the right attitude and the right skills. It is definitely not for everyone, and should not be your default response to every situation, counter to what is often asserted.
Only by assessing your skills, advantages and disadvantages, and survival objectives in totality can you make the right call. There are some people that are just not suited for survival and the dark corners of the forest.