Most Important Survival Skills

Because anything can happen in the midst of a disaster, manmade or natural, it’s important to master or at least familiarize yourself with certain survival skills that can help you in even the most harrowing of situations. But what should you focus on and learn now and what skills can you ignore, at least temporarily?

That’s what we asked survivalists with tactical, military and/or law enforcement experience as well as industry insiders in this edition of Ballistic’s Round Table. It’s natural to want to be knowledgeable in all survival skills, but we were interested in hearing from these specialists exactly which three they would concentrate on in the event of an unnamed disaster.

Let’s assume for our purposes that any disaster or threat can happen to you at any given moment—just like in the real world. So, we asked our panel of experts, “Which three skill sets do you think would be the most important for your safety and survival?”

Here are the options:

  • First aid
  • Making fire
  • Shelter building
  • Defense with firearms
  • Hand-to-hand combat
  • Hunting and fishing
  • Finding and purifying water
  • Navigation
  • Bartering and negotiation
  • Farming
  • Foraging
  • Signaling and communications
  • Expert’s choice


  • Affiliation: Bravo Company USA
  • Position: President
  • Answer: First aid, defense with firearms, finding and purifying water

It would obviously significantly improve your survivability if you had a good working knowledge of all of the 12 skills listed, but I would prioritize these skills based on the concept of first and foremost preserving life during the survival situation.

I would want to be skilled in defense with firearms. You could master all the other skillsets, but if you cannot provide a marked level of security for you and loved ones against predictable threats, it is all in vain. The longer and greater the need for survival skills in general, the greater the probability you will have to assume the role of sheepdog up against a wolf.

I would also include first aid as one of the three skills to master. The ability to render first aid is less important in our normal daily lives when we have the ability to quickly get to an emergency room, but in a disaster scenario, we want to ensure minor injuries don’t grow into larger, life-
threatening ones, and otherwise life-threatening injuries can be treated in the hopes of improving your survivability.

And for the third skillset, finding and purifying water is essential to surviving a prolonged disaster. On average, we as humans can live a few weeks without food but can only last up about three days without water. So constant access to water is critical to survival.


  • Affiliation: Doom and Bloom Medical, The Survival Medicine Handbook
  • Position: Founder, author and advanced registered nurse practitioner
  • Answer: First aid, finding and purifying water, defense with firearms

It seems that all of the choices could make or break you in a survival situation, but I’m going to pick first aid, finding and purifying water and defense with firearms as my top three. Other essentials to survival include shelter building, making fire, foraging, and hunting and fishing. Anyone who has ventured into the world of survival knows these are all absolutely crucial to your well-being.

I have been learning these skills since I was a child and continue to gain knowledge and skills everyday. My father is an Air Force veteran, and he made it his duty to teach his children how to survive in any situation. I was also very lucky to have a father who treated me just like a son.

First aid is one on the most overlooked skillsets for survivalists. They tend to focus on the beans and bullets but leave very little time invested in garnering first-aid knowledge. Learning how to care for wounds is just not as sexy and exciting as learning to shoot and hunt. The reality, though, is that you are more likely to hurt yourself chopping wood for shelter than to be involved in a gunfight. That minor wound may be just as deadly if it gets infected. Get a quality first-aid kit and learn how to use it.

Water is vital for survival. You can go without food for several days, even weeks, but without water, you are a dead man walking. Learn how to find water and the look of plant life above ground that could signal water below. The skills of filtering water and purifying it to make it potable will prevent some bacterial or viral illnesses from hurting or killing you. Filters for particle debris can be made with layers of sand, gravel and cotton clothing strips. Remember that more soldiers died from dysentery and other diseases related to contaminated water in the Civil War than bullets or shrapnel.

Defending yourself when there is no rule of law is imperative, and defense with firearms is especially important for women. Our body strength is usually less than most men, and we need an edge if attacked. Getting over the fear of handguns is hard for a lot of women. I have consistently told my daughters that guns will not spontaneously go off while sitting on a table or even in someone’s hands, although they don’t believe me. You have to pull the trigger.

Training is key. Find an instructor you feel comfortable with and begin with gun safety. After that, practice, practice, practice. A firearm that spends all of its time in the back of the closet doesn’t help you. You not only have to practice with it, but you have to maintain it. You should know how to take apart and clean every firearm you own.


We often think of situational awareness as applying primarily to detecting interpersonal threats. However, the reality is that being aware of your surroundings and keeping your head on a swivel will do far more than just alert you to a potential mugger. You’re more likely to see the snake before you step on it. You’ll take note of the tree limb that looks like it could come crashing down on your bed roll. You’ll notice the gopher hole that is waiting to twist your ankle. Survival is a matter of mitigating the little risks far more than it is reliant upon heroic efforts.

Skill with making fire under a variety of conditions is extremely important. Fire keeps us warm, dries us out, cooks our food and disinfects our water. Not only will fire keep the critters, both real and imagined, away at night, but it’s also an incredible boost to one’s self-confidence. Survival is just as much psychological as it is physical. Making fire is tremendously effective in that regard.

Foraging isn’t just about finding wild edibles. Being able to locate natural tinder, good things to eat, and plants and other substances that will help heal—all of that and more fall under the foraging umbrella. As I often tell people, get into the habit of finding what you need before you need it. When you take a break from hiking, look around you. Squirrel away a handful of dried grass or plant fluff in case you need it for tinder later. In an urban area, look for things like cordage and small containers that could be useful. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.


I place a lot of emphasis on understanding fire. Fire skills provide the survivor the means to purify water, stay warm without a shelter, signal for help, fire-harden wooden tools, cook food and much more. A fire becomes a companion through a stressful night alone, and it is a game-changer for improving morale. For this reason, I encourage all of my students to carry the means to make fire daily, and I practice what I preach.

Defense alone cannot win a fight, and fighting is open to all possibilities. Believing a fight is limited to hand-to-hand or weapons is a recipe for disaster. There are no rules in a fight, and the modern-day survivor must cross-train in striking, grappling, bladed weapons and firearms. Even situational awareness can be offensive, as recognizing threats and taking proactive measures can help prevent you from being put in a defensive situation. I don’t teach my students to be defensive. That puts them on the receiving end of an attack from the start. As a Sayoc Kali instructor, I teach my students to be the “feeder” and to be in control of how their story is written and how they want to end a fight. Modern survival skills must blend fieldcraft skills with combative techniques.

As for foraging, when I was the lead instructor at the Wilderness Learning Center, I learned many edible, medicinal and useful plants from the owner, Marty Simon, a man I consider to be my mentor. I believe if you have the knowledge to identify plants and know how to process them, you can effectively feed yourself, gather fresh water, make teas, create cordage, make tools and process natural medicines.

Plant skills take time to learn, and true expertise requires years, a lifetime even. While many of the flashy survival skills (the kind that make entertaining television) can be learned in a day, the true skill of plant knowledge isn’t as easily acquired. If stripped of hunting and fishing tools, plants can provide nutrition with little to no effort. Plant knowledge is true survival knowledge.


  • Affiliation: Rogers Shooting School, Safariland Group
  • Position: Owner, chief instructor; VP of new products; retired FBI agent; former USPSA Area 6 director
  • Answer: First aid, defense with firearms, hand-to-hand combat

Answering which is the most important survival skill is a challenge, as it’s a bit of a trick question. The importance of any of these skills is dependent upon the life-threatening situation you find yourself in.

Arguably, water and food are necessary for long-range survival, but if you cannot survive for the first few minutes or the first few days of a catastrophic event, the water and food skills do not matter. Someone caught up in a flood might find the skill of swimming to be the most important, and that is not even on the list. However, if I could only choose three of the listed skills, they would probably be first aid, firearms defense and hand-to-hand combat. These are the most difficult skills to master, but they can provide immediate survivability to certain life-
threatening situations.

I look at the other skills as important, but the threats that require those skills also allow the operator more time to adapt to the situation. A bush pilot crashing in Canada in winter may need to use first aid to prevent bleeding to death in the first few minutes after the crash. Starting a fire to keep from freezing would be important to last the night. Signaling and communication skills could spare him from another night in the elements. However, if no contact is made, water and food gathering will become very necessary.

Finally, he may need to rely on navigation skills to move to a better location or to walk to an inhabited area. Which of those skills is most important? If he survives, then they have equal importance. If he does not survive, then whatever reason he succumbs to just became the most important. It all depends on the situation at hand. I believe being able to triage the situation and mentally adapt to the circumstances without giving up is the most important skill.


  • Affiliation: Retired U.S. Army veteran, Skullcrusher, LLC
  • Position: Survivalist on Naked and Afraid and Dual Survival, survival instructor, adventurer
  • Answer: Mindset, security, leadership

Mindset is everything! It encompasses so many things. It’s will power, mental toughness, instinct, wit and preparedness. All of these things make up the “survivalist mindset,” and when they’re all in sync and fine-tuned, you get a person who is truly equipped to handle the direst of situations. I live by the motto “Tua sponte superstes,” or survive by your own will.

Security is all encompassing and includes firearms, making your own weapons and hand-to-hand combat. The first thing you have to do in a survival or emergency situation is get your security up. Situational awareness is imperative. There may be many factors and threats to consider, like hostile individuals, wildlife, weather, terrain and environmental considerations. Secure the injured, find a safe place and take control of the situation. Ready your firearms, or if you do not have any, make or improvise weapons to protect yourself against any and all threats.

Finally, we come to leadership. In any survival situation, someone needs to take charge. Depending on the circumstances of the event, a leader may already be appointed by position, whether its involving the military or an airline for example, but if not, egos aside, lay out the résumés and let the most qualified and experienced person take charge. Stress will be high, some may panic, but it’s the calm, cool and collected leader who can handle the situation and start organizing the group, resources and tasks. Once this individual is in place, all others need to dedicate themselves to teamwork and the overall end goal. Be an asset to the leader, not a hindrance. Now, take charge and let your actions dictate the situation, not the other way around.


  • Affiliation: Trayer Wilderness, Inc.
  • Position: Owner and founder
  • Answer: Making fire, shelter building, finding and purifying water

In my opinion, the three most important survival skills that require immediate attention are making fire, building a shelter and finding and purifying water, but there are so many other skills that I feel are necessary skills to have in the event your short stay in the wilderness becomes a long-term affair. Knowledge is power, and educating ourselves is important.

We live 100-percent off-grid with solar power, and although we have modern-day tools, we also pride ourselves in learning to use traditional and primitive tools as a part of our lifestyle. For example, I can easily use a modern fire-making method, but if my modern tool should fail, I want to know a primitive method to get me by.  We live in a very vast location, so when a day hunting trip turns into an overnight stay and Mother Nature is not being so kind, I want to be able to take care of myself.

Additionally, it’s important to know how to forage, hunt and use your surroundings—even grow your own food. All my survival packs are equipped with heirloom seeds for that reason. And we can’t forget navigation and knowing how to protect yourself.  Our goal here on our homestead and with our family is to not only have the skills, but to practice them often and in many different settings, scenarios, etc.

This article is from the fall 2017 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Grab your copy at

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