Photo: zlikovec/Shutterstock

Drinking Pee, Sleeping in Trees, and How to Survive in the Woods

Outdoor Hiking
by Suzie Dundas Apr 22, 2024

Most people who venture into wilderness areas have a great time and come out totally fine — most. 

Believe it or not, hiking is one of the most “dangerous” adventure sports out there, based on the number of people who are hurt or injured each year while doing it. It’s still relatively safe, and some of the reason it appears unsafe is just because it’s one of the more accessible outdoor activities. The more people there are hiking, the more people there will be that go lost and missing while hiking, as opposed to a less-popular activity, like ice climbing.

But everyone knows that proper outdoor knowledge and preparedness goes a long way when it comes to staying safe on the trails and surviving in the woods. And one interesting study did an in-depth analysis of how some people survived in the woods despite seemingly difficult outdoor predicaments.

A team funded by researched survival stories as far back as 1994, and found 103 cases from wilderness areas in North America, pulled from verifiable and fact-checked editorial sources like the The New York Times and The Washington Post. And they found some very interesting statistics about staying alive in the outdoors — assuming you find drinking your own urine interesting.

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The essentials

There are four items you absolutely need to survive in the wilderness: warmth, shelter, water, and food.


how to survive in the woods - drink from stream

Photo: yanik88/Shutterstock

In the case studies in the survey, six percent of people lost in wilderness areas ensured they had enough water by — you guessed it — drinking their own urine. Another two percent gathered water by licking leaves and moss, while nine percent had no water the entire time they were lost. Fortunately, the majority of people were able to drink from nearby bodies of water (24 percent) or collect rainwater (16 percent).


When it comes to having enough food to survive, most people lost in the wilderness made the smart choice to ration the food they had (35 percent). Another 17 percent no food but survived anyway. Impressively, three percent managed to catch enough insects to maintain some level of energy, while another three percent of case studies reported that lost persons foraged or hunted to keep themselves alive. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, make sure you only forage for foods you’re 100 percent sure won’t hurt you — many mushrooms look deceptively similar.

Warmth and shelter

For most people lost in the wilderness, their clothing was enough to keep them warm, and their camping gear provided enough shelter. However, four percent took shelter inside fallen trees, and another nine percent discovered shelters, such as caves, in the process of being lost. Interestingly, four percent of people stayed warm while lost through exercise to generate body heat, while a creative three percent dug into the earth to take shelter in human-made holes (or in snow).

Why they got lost

lost hiker with gps device

Photo: Pheelings media/Shutterstock

The main reason people got lost isn’t any big mystery. In just under half (43 percent) of cases, people simply wandered off the trail, intentionally or otherwise. That’s usually due to people taking wrong turns, or poor signage and overgrown trails that made wayfinding difficult. The next most common reasons for getting lost were due to weather, falling off the trail, or becoming separated from the rest of one’s group (which is why you should always make sure everyone in your group knows the route).

Dogs really are man’s best friend

how to survive in the woods cute dog

Photo: Lelusy/Shutterstock

In many cases, solo hikers had one hiking companion to thank for their survival: their dogs.In 2017, dog walker Annette Poitras went missing while walking three three dogs in the backcountry of Coquitlam, British Columbia. She was found safely after three days, as were the three dogs, who were also helicoptered out. Rescuers found her when one dog began barking, and she made it through cold, rainy nights by snuggling with the dogs, who stayed by her side.

Also in 2017 was the case of Bethnee Haury, who went missing in San Mateo County, California. She also survived being alone in the woods thanks to her dog, also found alive, who kept her from freezing by snuggling at night.

For some dog-lovers, keeping their dogs alive with them is the most important thing, as was the case with Paula Reuter. She went missing in 2014 and when she was found, reported that she ate mushrooms and bark so her dogs could have the remaining beef jerky rations in her pack. (She reported that canines Gracie and Addie also helped themselves to some nearby frogs).

How to survive if you get lost

The researchers also advised how people can prevent getting lost in wilderness areas, and what to do if they do find themselves lost (much of which Matador has covered). Preparation is the key, but it’s more than just carrying the “10 Essentials” and knowing how to read a map. Important things to do before starting a wilderness adventure also include having a map and back-up map, identifying a bail-out point before you begin your hike (i.e., knowing what direction to walk in to find help), and making sure at least two people know where you are and when you should be back.

If you do get lost, you can make your situation better if you carry extra supplies. Make sure you know how to use your first-aid kit and emergency items like bivy sacks or foil blankets, and stay active to keep yourself warm. Ideally, you’re wearing quick-drying layers, so you won’t start to freeze when the temperature drops and your clothing is sweaty. Carrying a water filter is always safest, but if you’re in the US, you can probably drink whatever is nearby.

In the US, the average missing hiker is rescued in 24 hours. Even if takes three or four days to be rescued, that’s soon enough to treat any disease you may get from drinking dirty water — but dehydration can happen in as little as 36 hours in desert environments. The survey also advises not worrying about food, if you don’t have any. “If you have no food, don’t try to hunt, trap, or forage,” advises the report. “It just exposes you to potential injury and burns precious calories.” Most people, it says, have enough fat on their bodies to survive for up to 30 days without eating.

Should you stay put?

rescued people in snow with flare

If people don’t know where you are, you’ll want to try to get yourself to a clearing to make it easier for rescuers to find you. Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Anyone who has spent time in the outdoors has probably heard the advice that if you’re lost, you should stay where you are and wait for someone to find you. In the cases studied, only 35 percent of people took that advice.

But that could be because it’s not always right. If you notice you’re lost, you should stay put only if you have told people where you are and when you’ll be back. You should always tell people where you’re going, so in an ideal scenario, yes, you should stay where you are. But if you haven’t told anyone where you are, you need to take some steps to make it easier for rescuers to find you. That includes tactics like getting to higher ground or to a large clearing, wearing brightly colored layers you can use as a signal flag, or using reflecting surfaces to create a glare that can be seen by helicopters.

Another interesting tip to remember? If you’re able to make a fire, add green plants to the pile. Green plants (like grass) create a thick, white smoke that’s much easier for rescuers to see from afar.

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