Survival Skills Every Child Should Know

If I say survival skills, chances are that TV personality Bear Grylls and other hardcore adventurers and survival experts come to mind.

But survival skills aren’t just for people who embark on polar expeditions or go bushwhacking through the Amazon jungle. They can be a lifesaver for anybody when an emergency strikes, whether in the city or in the wild.

survival skills for kids

Even if the likelihood of you and your family ending up in a real-life survival situation is small, having the knowledge to deal with a crisis will make you more confident and able to enjoy the outdoors without fear. And there is every reason to teach your child basic survival skills from an early age.

How Do You Teach Kids Survival Skills?

Textbooks can be great for a lot of things but when it comes survival skills for kids, nothing beats learning in the field. By embracing a lifestyle that revolves around being outside á la the Nordic outdoor tradition of friluftsliv, the entire family can learn useful skills – and have fun while doing it.

Going wild camping, for example, is an excellent way for children to learn how to meet their basic needs away from the comforts of their home. The more often you practice, the greater the chances that your child will remember how to apply the skills in an actual crisis.

Characteristics Your Child Needs to Survive in the Wilderness

Blame Darwin and the expression “survival of the fittest,” but it is a misconception that those with the greatest physical strength by default have the best odds of survival in a crisis.

“Survival of the prepared” would be a more accurate motto in this context, even though being in shape certainly helps.

According to Torbjörn Selin, a Swedish survival expert and author, survivors often have these traits in common:

  • They have the imagination to foresee different scenarios and prepare accordingly. 
  • They are flexible, innovative, and able to think outside the box.
  • They are safety-minded and don’t take outsize risks.
  • They think on their feet, trust their gut, and use critical thinking skills.
  • They understand the value of collaboration.

Above all, survivors are known to have a positive mindset and never give up hope! 

The Rule of Threes for Survival

To survive, humans need, at a very minimum, food, water, air and shelter, but not necessarily in that order. In a survival situation, you should focus on your most pressing needs first and do it while exerting as little energy as possible.

By teaching your child the rule of threes of survival, you’re off to a good start.

Humans can survive

  • three minutes without air
  • three hours without shelter in inclement weather
  • three days without water
  • three weeks without food

These figures are less an exact science and more of a means to get your priorities straight in a survival situation. In other words, if a child gets lost in harsh weather, they should know that it’s more important to seek shelter than to find something to eat. If it’s nice and warm, they can hold off on shelter building and instead focus on finding water.

The Most Important Survival Skills for Kids

There are some essential survival skills every child should know. It’s never too soon to learn, as long as you keep it age appropriate. There are any number of survival skills but these six are among the most important.

1. Preparation

It doesn’t sound as exciting as learning how to catch fish with a spear or start a fire with a bow drill, but preparation is far more important than both, since it reduces your child’s risk of needing those advanced skills in the first place.

Whenever you’re going out on an adventure, you should make a plan based on your location, the timing and length of your trip, your activity, and the weather. Always share your plan with somebody who isn’t going on the trip.

How to Practice Being Prepared

Plan a campout with your child and prepare together. Discuss which location you should choose, what type of clothing you’ll need, how you will sleep, what you will eat and drink, and what type of equipment you should bring. Also make a plan B, in case your first plan for some reason doesn’t pan out.

2. Finding Your Way

Children today are used to having navigation apps at their fingertips. But if their phone malfunctions or runs out of battery, they need to have a backup to online maps or GPS. Even young children can be taught to be observant of their surroundings and learn how to act if they get lost or separated from their parents.

How to Practice Navigation

With younger children, go on treasure hunts in your neighborhood or nearby nature areas. Use simple maps showing landmarks like big rocks, stands of trees, roads and buildings.

Practice what to do in case they get lost in the woods. Stop and hug a tree, make noise, and stay warm. When you’re hiking together, show them how to read a trail map.

Older children can learn how to read a proper topographical map and navigate with a compass, then apply their skills while hiking. The sport of navigating with a map and compass is called orienteering and can be a fun hobby. Check Orienteering USA to see if there is a club near you. 

3. Using a Knife

When you know how to use a knife, “you can make whatever you need to survive in a wilderness survival situation,” according to Frank Grindrod, author of Wilderness Adventure Camp.

Knife skills can be taught safely at an early age. In Scandinavia, it’s not unusual for children in forest preschools and kindergartens to frequently use tools like knives and saws. Your best bet is a knife that is made specifically for children. Choose one with a blunted or rounded tip and finger guards to protect the hand from the blade.

How to Practice Using a Knife

An easy way to practice handling a knife is by making sticks for grilling marshmallows or other foods over a fire. Show how to use the knife safely, sitting down or standing on one knee and always whittling or cutting toward the ground.

They can also practice splitting pieces of wood by striking the spine of their pocket knife with another piece of wood. This technique is called batoning. Once they’ve mastered these skills, move on to more advanced exercises like making a feather stick, which can be used to start a fire in wet conditions.

4. Building a Fire

Fire can keep us warm, cook our food, give us light, dry our clothes, scare away predators, and keep us calm in scary situations. No wonder it’s considered the king of survival techniques.

Adults often feel uncomfortable with the idea of letting children handle fire. But the more they are exposed to it, the better they’ll be at judging the risks. 

How to Practice Building a Fire

Gather some friends and cook a tasty dinner over the open fire. Let the children help preparing the tinder, kindling, and firewood. Explain how to build a fire, starting with the thinnest shavings and gradually increasing the thickness of the wood.

Younger children can practice lighting the fire with matches. Older kids usually enjoy challenging themselves with a fire steel.

Don’t forget to go over fire safety. Check the weather conditions, remove debris near the fire pit, keep water nearby, don’t build the fire bigger than necessary, and never ever leave a fire unattended.

5. Purifying Water

Water is key to our survival, but it can also contain bacteria, parasites and other pathogens that can make us sick. That’s why knowing how to safely collect and purify water is one of the most important skills for any child to have.

It’s helpful to pack a portable water filter anytime you’ll be out in the wild for more than a few hours. Fortunately, there are many different ways to find and treat water in the wild. This is definitely a case where more is more.

How to Practice Water Purification

Use a water filter to practice pumping and purifying water during a day hike or camping trip. It’s always better to collect water from a moving source, like a stream or river, than a stagnant one. Make a game out of finding the best water source every time you’re in the woods together.

If you’re not near a stream, try collecting rainwater by setting up a tarp as a funnel or using a leaf to scoop it out of crevices or puddles. You can also harvest dew by tying plastic bags around green plants overnight and waiting for the condensation to gather on the bottom of the bag.

6. Making a Shelter

If a child gets lost, exposure to the elements poses the greatest danger. So, in a survival situation, finding or making a shelter to protect against wind and moisture should be a top priority.

A shelter can consist of a natural feature, a structure that you build or a combination of the two. Since den building is in children’s DNA, this survival skill is one that usually comes naturally.

How to Practice Making a Shelter

When you’re outdoors, make a game out of finding the best natural shelters. For example, the area around the base of a thick old pine tree is typically dry and well cut out as a sleeping place.

A protruding rock can also provide protection against the elements, with dry branches, leaves and grass providing insulation from underneath. If there are no good natural shelters, practice building a debris hut using dead branches and organic material found on the ground. Or experiment with different types of shelters using a tarp and some parachute cord.  

Survival Skills for Kids – The Final Word

When children develop a strong connection with nature early on, they grow up living in harmony with it. The wilderness isn’t scary or intimidating if they’ve always felt at home in the natural world.

More information on the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature comes to light all the time. Not only are you setting your child up with valuable skills, you’re actually paving the path for a lifetime of health and happiness.

Give your child plenty of time to hone and build their resilience in the great outdoors. The more opportunities your child has to practice, the less likely they will be to panic if they ever need them.

Which survival skills are of most interest to your child? Share your stories or questions in the comments.

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  1. Our daughter has known how to safely use a knife since age 4 and became obsessed with paper maps after her first theme park. Can’t wait to introduce more of these skills to her 😊