Survival Tips From John Rose
Part Two: Shelter, Hiking, And Navigation

By John Rose

Photo by Pixabay

John Rose has been an instructor and advisor of wilderness and urban survival for most of his life. He has compiled some of his best tips on a variety of topics, which we will be featuring in several parts.


When maintaining your camp area, keep all food secured, either sealed away from the camp area, or tied in a bag hung from a tree to keep animals from invading your space. Keep your camp clean and free of trash, food scraps, and dirty dishes as well. This also keeps the insect level to a minimum.

When sleeping on the ground, try to find some way of building your sleeping area up so you aren't in direct contact with the ground. Use soft tree boughs, grasses, a lashed bushcraft bed, foam pad, anything that will insulate you from direct contact with the ground. You will sleep warmer, softer, and better.

A common mistake people make when applying survival techniques is that they stop short of completing their task. Shelters end up not really finished, enough firewood isn't gathered, a friction fire coal is almost, but not quite there. As a rule, when I think I may be done with a task, I give it an extra burst of activity. The reward is well worth it.

Find a good sitting or observation spot where you can go the same time every day. Here, you can observe the activity and track the progress of events over the course of a year or longer. Make this spot a convenient, comfortable spot and visit it no matter what the weather offers. You can watch the patterns of wildlife, track the growth and life cycle of surrounding plants, get an idea of the sun's position in the sky as the seasons change, and many other interesting things. Make your observation spot visits a routine part of your daily life. You need not go far into the wilderness. One of my favorite sitting spots is in my suburban front yard.

You can make an emergency shelter from a large contractor-size trash bag.

When you are camping or sleeping in a shelter where wildlife has easy access, take care to check carefully for unwanted guests. Snakes will crawl under your tent or wherever you are lying to keep warm. Carefully check bedding for the same reason, also for any other animals that may be checking out your space.

If you are worried about unwanted bugs and such in your shelter, you can smoke them out with smoldering green pine needles, which kills insects, or smoldering green cedar which runs them out but isn't as lethal. To do this, place some coals from your fire on a shingle of some sort, such as a thick piece of bark, or a rock with a bowl-like depression in it. Next, lay the green pine or cedar on the coals and carefully place this in your shelter and close it off as best you can. Take care not to breathe the smoke yourself as it will make you sick. Also be very careful not to burn your shelter down. Allow the shelter to air out well before getting inside.

It is a good idea to remove flooring and bedding from your shelter and then rebuild or relay it every day, especially in snake country. This also keeps it fresh and fluffed up. Matted down bedding provides little insulation.

When managing the latrine area of your camp, be sure to dig a hole deep enough and a good distance from your camp area. Also make sure it is far away from water supplies and food collection areas. When using it, cover your gift to the earth with good dirt to help break it down. Keep the pit covered when not in use to keep out flies. You want to make every effort to keep flies out of your campsite as they contaminate your food supply very quickly. A high percentage of illnesses occur this way.

Burn all burnable waste, and place cans with food residue in the fire to burn out any food left in them. This keep out unwanted and unsanitary pests.

Avoid putting anything in the latrine that would inhibit the natural bacteria needed to break down waste mater.


If you are lost, don't panic. Assess your situation. If it’s late in the day, be prepared to settle in for the night, which means finding a good shelter spot. Look for an area with good resource materials or a natural shelter. Stay clear of areas where flooding is an issue, animal trails, feeding areas, or dens, and look overhead for large "widow-maker" branches, falling rocks, etc. Be as protected from the elements as you can.

Here's a little project that will help you navigate distances you have walked and prevent getting lost. First, find a few different places with varied terrain where you can walk at least 100 meters. Place a marker where you begin your first pace, measure off 100 meters, then walk from point A to point B in a straight, 100-meter line and write down how many paces it takes to walk the distance. Each pace is two steps, as in right foot step, left foot step. Do this on level ground, on an uphill grade, and on a downhill grade. And, several times for greatest accuracy. Finally, do the math and figure the average number of paces you make per 100 meters. Remember your pace in both meters and feet. Next part of your project involves making pace, or Ranger beads.

There are many ways to make a proper set of Ranger beads, which go by many names, sometimes called pace-counter beads or just pacer beads. Materials you will need are 22"-25" of cord, such as 550 paracord or a leather bootlace. If you use 550 paracord, take out the inner strands before beginning. Using a lighter, melt the ends of the cord to prevent fraying, keeping the tips tapered to a point that will allow the beads to go on easily. You will also need 13 sturdy, non-breakable beads to string on your cord.

If you live in the northern hemisphere, learn where the North Star, or Polaris, is located in the night sky. This will help if you need backup navigation. To find the North Star, first find the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, which is a group of seven bright stars that form what looks like a cooking pan with a bent handle on it. From the line of two stars that make up the pan side farthest from the handle, follow the straight line to a dim star—the North Star—located at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper, a smaller dimmer looking pan in the sky, or Ursa Minor. Keep in mind that the North Star is not very bright, but when you find it and look up at it, you are facing North. This is the only star that maintains the same position in the sky year round. All other stars seem to rotate around it.

To find north using the stick method, on a sunny day put a stick in the ground and place a rock at the end of the shadow line. Wait 15 minutes and then place another rock on the new shadow line. Stand with your left foot on the first rock and your right foot on the second rock. You are now facing north if you are in the northern hemisphere. (If in the southern hemisphere, you will stand the opposite direction with your right foot on the first rock, and your left foot on the second rock.)

When in the field, remember to tie all your valuables down and to yourself and/or pack. Also make sure you can free your gear quickly if the need arises with quick releases. Getting tangled in brush or rocks on a cliffside can lead to a real bad day, maybe even your last.

Avoid the hazards of hiking or walking at night, especially in areas with treacherous features such as cliffs, swift water, or sink holes, not to mention the likelihood of getting lost, especially on overcast nights where celestial navigation and visibility are compromised.

Observe the differences in climate, season, and general environment in your everyday life. If you are ever in a critical situation, you will be that much more prepared.

When moving through the wilderness or just the world in general, it’s a great benefit to move at a slow enough pace to develop an understanding of the world around you. Astute observation requires patience. The pacing of the modern world allows little time for any detailed or in-depth observation. Slow down when in nature. The objective of woodland trails doesn't have to be a race to get to the finish line.

If you’re out on the trail or in a survival situation and nightfall is imminent, stop where you are and make camp. Don't move further in the dark as it is unsafe. Be prepared to stay the night if you are caught at sundown.

If you must venture out from your campsite after dark, avoid looking at your campfire or any light as it diminishes your night vision, making it more difficult to see such things as a cliff, hole in the ground, sharp tree branch, etc. Allow yourself to remain in total darkness for at least an hour to allow your night vision to return.

An old pirate tip for saving your night vision is to wear an eyepatch over one eye when you're in the light, and when in darkness switch the eyepatch to the other eye. This way, the eye that was covered will still have night vision.

Learn to cultivate wide angle and splatter vision when in the wilderness, or anywhere, for that matter. To do so is a process of not focusing on any one object in particular, but rather observing in a more diffuse manner, expanding the width of your peripheral vision.

Make it a point to look behind yourself when hiking so you will see what the terrain looks like should you turn and walk back the same way you came. The reason everything can look unfamiliar when walking back to the trailhead is because your vantage point is reversed. It’s easy to get turned around, even on a marked trail. And on an unmarked hike, your world will seem totally unfamiliar on your return trip. Make it a routine habit to turn and look at what the trail looks like behind yourself every few paces.

Remain as alert as you can in any given situation. Avoid distractions, especially when in risky areas, whether in an urban or wilderness situation. Be aware of your surroundings and be sure to observe your environment in all directions.

Be extra careful on the return trip home from an adventure, or even a survival situation. There is often a tendency to let your guard down because the journey is almost over. This is when most mishaps occur. Keep in mind that it isn't over until you have safely returned to home base.

When in the woods or anywhere unfamiliar, avoid unnecessary touching and handling of things around you. Don't grab a stick, log, rock, or tree if you don't need to, as you may disturb something best left alone that can inflict a lasting, unpleasant experience for you.

If your compass reverses polarity, you can sometimes correct it by taking a magnet and holding it to the compass and then dragging it the length of the needle in one direction. If this works, check it against a correctly functioning compass to see if it’s accurate again. If it doesn't work the first time, you may have to make further attempts to right it.

But, for the same reason, don’t leave your compass near any magnetic object. This includes cell phones, computers, loudspeakers—any electronic device—as the magnetic properties will polarize it, taking it out of calibration and making it inaccurate. Buy a good, professional compass such as a Silva, Brunton, or Suunto, and learn how to use it.

When using a compass to find your way, be sure to write down all of your bearings and the number of paces you walked. If you’re returning to a point of origin, rather than recalibrating the compass with new headings, turn the compass arrow toward you or the reverse direction, and maintain the same heading, backtracking from where you are.

Alertness is a key not only in the woods but in an urban setting. Always keep your eyes open for anything suspicious. Be careful with any interaction with people. If somebody asks you a question, even one that sounds harmless, watch their actions. Always be on the lookout for sudden moves.

When signaling for help, create an "X" from materials that will be visible from rescue aircraft.