10 survival tips from Bear Grylls

Posted on 12 February 2014

Ever wanted to know how to survive in the wilderness? There’s a lot more to it than drinking your own pee. Check out these 10 survival tips from the expert of insane circumstance, Bear Grylls.

Aside from throwing himself off treacherous peaks, fjording raging rivers and drinking pee, Bear Grylls has hobbies, you know. One of these is sharing his insanity / expertise / survival tips with the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the first Bear Grylls Survival Academy in Africa with the Mantis collection and British Airways, and I’ve returned from the jungles of Vic Falls like a mud-streaked and feral Moses, bearing 10 Very Good Tips for surviving in the wild.


1. You can start a fire by stabbing a lithium cellphone battery with a knife

Stab a lithium cellphone battery with a knife and it will explode in a magnificent spray of sparks. Don’t try this at home (of course you’re going to try this at home. Please be careful when you do). Alternatively, if you quite like your cellphone, a bit of wire wool and a 9V battery will work almost as well: just touch the wool to both terminals of the battery, and you’re away! Other fire-starting tips: a teased-out tampon is very flammable, and even more so when spritzed with bug spray. You’re going to work very hard at creating a fire if your wood is even slightly damp (which is most of the time out there in nature) so gather some twigs and dry them in a pocket, using your own body heat.


2. Life begins and ends with duct tape

Have you ever slurped too eagerly at a metal mug that housed a deliciously hot substance? If not, congratulations. You’re probably the sort of person who lets a cake cool completely before slicing, and I do not understand you at all. A bit of duct tape stuck onto the lip of a dry mug will protect you from a burnt mouth; it’s also very handy if a hippo attack leaves you with a punctured lung. It’s versatile, that’s the point. Duct tape is useful when staple-guns, superglue, and as much rope as you could possibly want are not options. The stuff is worth its weight in frustrated tears.


3. Any water is better than no water

This is not the time to ruminate about what happened to your thirsty backpacking buddy in India. Contrary to usual travel rules, when you see water in a survival situation, you drink it. Dehydration is one of the first things trying to kill you.

Important caveat: this does depend on how far you are from civilisation. If there are communities nearby, your water is more likely to be polluted with nasties; what’s more, there’s more of a chance that you’ll find your way to rescue before dehydration kicks in. So you can gamble.

Of course, if there’s no water to be had, there’s always pee! Kidney-juice, nectar of the gods: survivors swear by that stuff. Well, Bear does.


Rock-climbing bear grylls

Embracing your inner mountain goat is harder than it might seem! Photo by Nigel Kuhn.


4. Fundamentals of rock-climbing

Don’t hang on your arms too much; they will tire quickly. Make sure you’re mostly using your legs by keeping your hips as close as possible to the rockface. Give yourself a sturdy footing by keeping your feet more than hip-distance apart. Now imagine that a mountain goat is your spirit animal, and go!


5. Find north using an analogue watch

navigation compass
This is one of those sneaky survival tips that is quite hard to memorise at first, but deserves a good attempt because of how hard you’ll kick yourself if you do find yourself in a survival situation with no idea which way is south. You can find tutorials about it online (have a look at how to navigate yourself in the Northern Hemisphere here) but if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you need to hold your watch flat and horizontal, and point 12 o’clock at the sun. Now, have a look at where the hour-hand is pointing, and draw an imaginary line between the two. (For instance, if it’s 2 o’clock, your line would be pointing from 1 o’clock to 7 o’clock.) In this example, north is at 1 o’clock! Jolly good job.


6. Foraging for food

Smelling is as good a method as any for gauging how poisonous an unfamiliar fruit is. Photo by Nigel Kuhn.

Smelling is as good a method as any for gauging how poisonous an unfamiliar fruit is. Photo by Nigel Kuhn.

On this course, we learnt that the nettle leaves you find alongside the Zambezi are good to eat (just avoid touching the stingy stems) and so are the leaves of the plentiful Zambezi wine cup, which are slightly garlicky and look a bit like maple leaves. When it comes to fruit, a good survival tip is to keep an eye out for what the other animals are eating. Birds can’t really be trusted, as many of their foods are toxic to us, but mammals (especially primates) are a safer bet. If in doubt, remember that live earthworms are edible. And, apropos of nothing, raw impala testicle isn’t all that bad.


7. Snares

snare trap bear grylls survival academy

If you’re near a habitated area, don’t get too obsessed with snares: hunting is a ridiculously finnicky business, and your energy would be better spent trying to find people and get rescued. Still, if you’re a castaway and are in real danger of starving, the most important survival tip is to tailor your snares to an individual species’ behaviour. There’s no point in painstakingly designing something that drops from a height when targeting a flighty animal with great hearing, for instance. Your snares should also be well-disguised, and dotted around the area with a generous hand. Hey, it’s not like you’ve got anything else to do. Also, check them frequently: no need to make a trapped animal suffer for longer than necessary.


8. Please Remember What’s First (PRWF)

If you forget all the other survival tips on the list, don’t forget your order of priorities: Protection > Rescue > Water > Food (handily summarised in the acronym PRWF, which is easy to remember, right?). Protection is about your immediate surroundings: hungry animals, rain, heat, swarms of angry hornets searching for your pee / blood / life force. Assess the immediate threats and how you can protect yourself from them, start thinking about how you’re going to get yourself rescued, find some water along the way, and only then start turning over logs in search of maggots (food).


9. Sense of humour

You will almost definitely, at some point, find yourself wet, cold, hungry or generally stressed (this applies in life as well as in the wilderness). Keeping a sense of humour in the worst of situations really is a survival tool – and it’s something you can practice now. Here’s a hint: learning to laugh when you’re cut off in traffic might mean that you won’t lose your mind with your last match.


10.  Getting rescued by a helicopter is pretty much the best thing ever

victoria falls helicopter

Excited, much? The Victoria Falls can be seen in the background. Photo by James Kydd.


victoria falls Zambezi

The Zambezi from the air is one of the most beautiful (and most green) things you’ll ever see. Photo by Kati Auld.


zambezi zimbabwe

You get a completely different view of the Zambezi when flying over it in a helicopter. Photo by Kati Auld

Finally, after white-water rafting down the Zambezi (video: the ultimate rush – surviving the Zambezi rapids in a kayak), jumping off cliffs, and scrabbling up the very long, very steep gorge, we arrived at the top of a gorge, and managed to light a fire to alert our rescuers to our existence. Our rescue was a flipping helicopter. Weaving through the gorge, watching wildlife scatter underneath the helicopter, and flying over the Victoria Falls (check out 20 of the best aerial views in the world), was one of the most beautiful things that’s ever happened to me.

If you think you’re hard enough, you can enlist for the next course at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. 

Flights kindly sponsored by British Airways


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