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How to survive on an island (10 Steps to Island Survival)

survive on an island

Would you survive on an island?

Every day there about 102,465 plane flights worldwide, most reach their destination without a problem, some however are less lucky.

If you were one of the unlucky ones, are you confident enough that you’d be able to survive on an island by yourself?

(Please note: this article assumes you are the sole survivor of a plane crash and thus provides information on how to survive on an island for solo survivors. Also, some links in this post may be affiliate links. Please see our disclosure policy for more detail.)

How to survive on an island

surviving on an island

Island Survival – Step 1 (Surviving the Plane Crash)

Airplane crashes are 95% survivable, here are 5 ways to increase your chances of surviving.

  1. Dress appropriately – Wear tighter fitting clothes, they’re less likely to snag on any wreckage.
  2. Choose a back seat – A 2015 study showed that seats in the back row had a 32% fatality rate compared to 38% in the front row.
  3. Five row rule – A study by professor Ed Galea showed sitting within five rows of an emergency exit will drastically improve your chance of survival.
  4. Brace for impact – Studies have proven the best position for impact is to lean forward and keep your head close to the seat in front of you.
  5. Wait to inflate – Do not inflate your life vest while you’re still inside the aircraft wait til your outside.

Island Survival – Step 2 (Getting to the Island)

Once you surface from the crash, it’s important to swim away from any hazardous wreckage as fast as you can.

No island in sight

island survival

If there is absolutely nothing in sight, it’s better to maintain close proximity to the wreckage, holding onto any bits of debris you find.

Your best chances of survival in this sort of scenario is to wait for an emergency response team to come and rescue you.

Depending on the remoteness of your crash location, rescue may take some time, or not come at all.

Island in sight

surviving on an island

Remember, at sea, refraction—the bending of light makes objects appear closer than they really are.

Let’s assume you spot an island in the distance whilst you’re floating in the water.

A general rule of thumb (and something I urge you to remember) is if you’re able to see sand on the beach of the island, you are likely to be less than 1 mile (1600 meters) away.

Depending on your fitness (and currents), it’ll take you 35 to 50 minutes to swim 1 mile (1600 meters).

If you’re only able to see treetops on the island, you have a much longer swim ahead – be prepared.

It’s incredibly important that you pace yourself whilst swimming, there’s no way you’ll ever survive on an island if you don’t even make it there!

Scavenge vital debris

how to survive on an island

Before you head to the island, scavenge valuable debris such as:

  • Sheets of plastic.
  • Cloth, fabric, or clothing.
  • Grabbing up any bottled water, or even empty bottles.

If you’re able to find something buoyant in the wreckage don’t hesitate to float on it with your valuables.

Once you are ready, swim for the island in a slow consistent manner.

Read also: 4 Tips on how to swim long distance without getting tired


Island Survival – Step 3 (Approaching the Island)

As you approach the island you need to look for safe entry points.

Ideally, you want to make landfall onto an open beach, obviously this is less risky than trying to climb up a jagged rock face after a good few hours of swimming.

Whilst approaching the island, pay attention to the following:

  • Rip currents
  • Coral reefs
  • Massive shorebreak

Try avoiding all of these. If you find yourself caught in a rip current pulling you back out to sea, remain calm, do not fight against it. Trust me, you will lose (I speak from experience).

Rather follow these steps to swim out of a rip current:

how to swim out of a rip current

Island Survival – Step 4 (Survival Rule of Three’s)

how to survive on an island

In the event that your plane crashes, it’s unlikely you’ll have any survival gear with you.

However intimidating and hostile the island may seem at first, upon closer inspection you’ll begin to notice the island does provide you with enough resources to stay alive.

Survival rules of three

In extreme conditions you can survive:

  • 3 Minutes without air.
  • 3 Hours without shelter.
  • 3 Days without water.
  • 3 Weeks without food.

By using the rule of three’s, you’ll be able to structure your island survival plan strategically and efficiently, ultimately increasing your chances of survival ten fold.

In most conditions, the survival rule of three’s holds strong. However, surviving on an island (in my opinion) changes the order slightly. 1. Air, 2. Water, 3. Shelter, 4. Food.

The reason i’ve switched shelter and water around is that you’re likely to be severely dehydrated by the time you reach the island due to excessive salt water intake.

Once dehydration takes over, your judgement and coordination will be compromised – negatively affecting your chances of surviving on an island.

(Please note: The order changes back to the original if you are surviving in cold conditions and are at risk of hypothermia.)

Read also: Effects of dehydration

Read also: Effects of hypothermia


Island Survival – Step 5 (Find and Collect Water)

I wrote an in-depth guide on how to collect and purify water in the wild here, give it a read if you’d like to learn about the subject more extensively.

Your best options at finding water on an island are:

  • Streams
  • Lakes
  • Rain
  • Gypsey wells
  • Moss
  • Below ground solar stills
  • Dew Collection
  • Coconuts

Streams

streams on an island

The obvious first choice, fast flowing water is usually safe to drink and if you find one on the island your chances of survival have quadrupled.

Lakes

lakes on an island

Same as streams, a gold mine. You have to be a fair bit more careful though. Stagnant water is host to dangerous pathogens that you don’t want to consume. Make sure to always boil still or slow moving water before you consume it.

Rain

rain on an island

Who doesn’t love fresh rain, make sure you set up some catchment areas incase it rains, fresh water on an island is invaluable.

Gypsey Wells

Gypsey Well

Not exactly the prettiest way to collect water, but if your life depends on it, beggars can simply not be choosers. Make sure to filter and purify this water properly before consuming it.

Moss

how to find water on an island

It grows in damp conditions and essentially soaks up all the moisture, you can squeeze moss to get all the water out.

Below Ground Solar Stills

below ground solar still

A smart sustainable way to collect water, and if there are no alternative options available, this could be the very reason you are able to survive on an island.

Dew Collection

dew collection on an island

Dew is super easy to collect, wrap a towel around your legs and walk through the vegetation in the morning to collect as much water as possible. Simply wring out the towel to produce the collected water.

Coconuts

coconuts on an island

Another natural way to collect water is through coconuts, these fruit collect water and food inside of them. Just keep in mind consuming too many coconuts at once may induce a laxative affect (which will have counter results to what you’re trying to achieve).

Read: How to open a coconut on a desert island


Island Survival – Step 6 (Build a Shelter)

Building a survival shelter is paramount to keeping you safe and out of the elements such as wind and rain.

If you are serious about learning a survival shelter I highly recommend you to watch the video below.

After the video I will teach you how to build a slightly less permanent/complex A-frame shelter than the one you see in the video.

Basic A-Frame Shelter Build

  1. Find a long solid branch (about 1 meter longer than you). Seeing as you’re stranded on an island, finding driftwood should not be a problem. Whilst you’re at it, gather as many pieces of driftwood you can, these pieces are going to make the rib cage of your shelter (the walls).
  2. You want line your rib cage with palm tree leaves as seen in the video above. Lay them in such a way that the tips of the leaves point downwards.
  3. If you gather enough palm leaves, insulating your shelter with moss is not necessary. However, if you want more piece of mind, feel free to do so.

Island Survival – Step 7 (Build a fire)

Once you’ve got water and built a shelter it’s important you get a fire going in order to survive on an island.

If you have glasses, binoculars, a camera or a mobile phone, congratulations your fire starting job just became a whole lot easier.

Simply use the lenses of the said items to magnify the suns rays and cause a mini fire on some tinder.

With the mobile phone, take out it’s battery. You can pierce the casing to release a chemical that ignites in flames on contact with oxygen.

Without any tools however, building a fire is no easy task. first we need to understand the physics behind it.

What fire needs

what fire needs

The three things a fire needs to burn are the three elements of combustion reaction: oxygen, , fuel and heat.

We call this, The Fire Triangle.

It’s quite easy to remember as humans require the exact same things to survive on an island.


The perfect survival fire needs the following fuel:

  • Tinder
  • Kindling
  • Firewood

Tinder

tinder for a fire pit

Tinder is material that can easily combust with a flame or even a spark. Good forms of tinder are: dry grass, birch bark, pine cones, cotton wool, empty birds nests, char cloth and the inside of tampons.

Kindling

kindling for a fire pit

Kindling are tiny dry pieces of wood that burn long enough to ignite your thicker pieces of firewood. The best types of kindling are usually softwoods like cedar, pine, poplar, and spruce.

Firewood

hardwood for a fire pit

Firewood is your solid blocks of fuel, it’s wood that continues to feed your fire well into the night. The best types of firewood includes hardwood like oak, maple, ash, and birch.


Easiest way to create heat without any survival tools

The fire plough

Firestarting with a Fire Plough

Prepare your fireboard. Cut a thin groove in the fireboard. This will be your track for the hardwood spindle.

Rub! Take the point of your spindle and place it in the groove of your fireboard. Start rubbing the tip of the spindle up and down the groove (use elbow grease to create enough friction).

Start a fire. Have your tinder nest at the end of the fireboard, so that you’ll plow hot embers into it as you’re rubbing up and down. Once you catch one, blow the tinder nest softly and get that fire going!


Island Survival – Step 8 (Create a Rescue Sign)

how to survive on an island

The above is a real life picture taken of three men surviving on an island. they were rescued because of the sign they built.

At the time of rescue, they’d been stranded on the island for 3 days.

Read their story here.

I recommend preparing two signs that will aid you in being rescued.

  1. Build a large rescue sign spelling HELP as seen above. Make sure to build the sign on an open stretch of beach above the high tide line. You are able to spot the high tide line as there is usually a fair amount of debris washed up to a certain point on the beach. Build your sign above that.
  2. Have two fires burning constantly. One you’ll use for warmth and food, the other will be used to get passing planes or ships attention. Place lots of green palm leaves next to the second fire, the moment you see a ship or plane in the distance, smother your fire with the greenery. This should create a thick white smoke, which will be visible for miles.

Island Survival – Step 9 (Find Food)

If you plan to survive on an island, then the time will come where you’ll need to eat.

These are the major side effects of starvation:

  • Poor concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Reduction in the rate of weight loss
  • Impaired cognitive performance, like poor concentration
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Abnormal attitude and behavior towards food and eating
  • Cold intolerance
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Poor emotional and social functioning

Obviously none of these effects are conducive to surviving on a deserted island.

How to catch a fish

Fish are some of the best food to help you survive on an island. They taste good, unlike a lot of the stuff you’ll most likely be eating when you first get to the island. Plus they have the right balance of proteins, fats and vitamins to keep you going.

Bottle Trap

how to survive on an island

There are likely to be a fair amount of empty plastic bottles floating or washed up around the island.

  1. Collect some, then find something to cut the bottle around the top.
  2. Now simply squeeze the top half of the bottle down into the bottom half as seen above.
  3. Next make some small holes in the bottle.
  4. Crush small snails to use as bait, place some bait into the bottle.
  5. Find an area to put your bottle trap in, shallow water is ideal). Face the bottle opening in the direction of the current. You can weight it down with rocks to keep it in place.

With this method you’ll obviously only catch small fish. However, lots of small fish make a great filling meal!

Fixed Rock Trap

fixed fish trap

If there are no plastic bottles or other materials on the island, then a fixed rock trap is your best bet.

  1. Simply design a shape with rocks that fish can enter but not exit.
  2. Make sure that the entrance of the rock trap is facing the direction of the current.

This is a good trap to make for long term fishing. If you catch a few big ones like this, you’ll even be able to keep them alive until you eat them


How to trap animals for food

When having to survive on an island, you need to know how to find food quickly and trap it with the minimum expenditure of energy.

Simple Snare

island survival

The snare is a loop that will tighten as the animal steps into it. The more the animals struggles, the tighter it’ll become.

The best material for this trap is a thin piece of wire, it resists becoming looser and is harder for the animal to bite through.

You can hang a snare like this above an active animal hole, or suspend it on a couple of twigs (as shown above) and place it on am animal path.

Remember to always attach your snare to something secure, a struggling animal generates a lot of force.

Pitfall Trap

This sort of trap is a bit more energy intensive, however it requires zero materials.

Simply dig a hole in the middle of an animal path and cover it with a network of branches and moss.

You can even place some bait on the trap to lure in an unsuspecting animal.

What can I eat on an island?

For some clarity I will go through each edible food source you are most likely to find on an island.

Edible Sea Foods

  • Oysters – I recommend to steam/cook before consuming
  • Clams – Can be steamed.
  • Mussels –  Avoid mussels during the summer months as they contain certain toxins which are not present during the winter.
  • Seaweed – Can be dried and eaten.
  • Snails – Can be steamed.
  • Fish – Cook you fish wrapped in leaves over the coals of your fire.
  • Sea Urchins – Break them open and eat the red or yellow eggs inside.

Always make sure to cook your shellfish before consuming.

Edible Animals

Remember that all animals with fur are edible.

Frogs, snakes, lizards and birds can also be eaten. Make sure to remove their heads, guts and skin before adding them to the pot.

Survival Tip: There is more nutritional value in the roots of plants than in the plants themselves.

When eating plants one needs to take serious caution.

I recommend staying away from all types of mushrooms, unless you’re a mushroom expert of course.

Some mushrooms are edible, however when they’re bad, they’re bad.


Island Survival – Step 10 (Beware of Predators)

There is always the chance of dangerous predators surviving on the island with you.

For this reason it’s best to make a weapon.

Watch the video below to learn how to make a spear that doubles as a way of defense and a way to hunt:

Dangerous animals you are most likely to encounter on an island are the following:

  • Snakes
  • Bullet Ants
  • Poison Dart Frogs
  • Scorpions
  • Centipedes
  • Mosquitoes

Remember: deep water is home to dangerous sharks and caves may be home to bigger predators.


I hope you found this guide on how to survive on an island helpful.

By no means have we finished yet, we’ll be updating this survival guide incrementally, adding valuable information as we go along.

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