The CORE FOUR: Managing Your Top Survival Priorities

Inevitably, when I tell people that I teach Survival & Disaster Preparedness Skills Courses, they always get a funny look on their face like they are not sure what to ask next.  Many of them reference the extreme survival television shows and say something about the end of the world or zombies.  Even though it’s not really a laughing matter, I always chuckle along with them for a few moments and then I say, “Well, no, not really…  though the skills I teach can certainly help someone in an END OF THE WORLD scenario or a ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE,  I spend most of my time focusing on survival and disaster scenarios that actually happen to people all the time – things like natural disasters that threaten entire towns and regions or sudden survival scenarios like being lost or stranded for a few days – you know – the stuff you see on the 5 o’clock news every night.”  By this time, they aren’t chuckling any more (and neither am I).

I then ask them about their back up survival plans for their family in the event of a large scale disaster – food & water storage?  power?  heat?  survival priorities?

My point?  This “stuff” matters.  It really matters.  To many in our not so distant history, not knowing what to do in a survival scenario has cost them their life.

If you’ve been to any classes here at Willow Haven then you already know how much time I spend on what I call “The CORE FOUR” or C4 for short.

C4 represents your Top 4 Survival Priorities: SHELTER, WATER, FIRE & FOOD.

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the different aspects of studying survival related topics and lose sight of what is really important at the end of the day.  So, for this post, we are going to get back to the basics of survival  – The Core Four.

Typically, your survival priorities will be in this order: SHELTER, WATER, FIRE & FOOD.  However, the details of a scenario ultimately dictate the final order.  This order is loosely based on survival’s 3 rules of 3:

In extreme conditions…

  1. You can live 3 hours without shelter.
  2. You can live 3 days without water.
  3. You can live 3 weeks without food.

Below is a brief visit back to the survival basics.  Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.


Our most basic of survival needs, SHELTER protects us from the elements and over-exposure to extreme cold and heat.  Shelter is not just about the physical structure itself – it is just as much about the location choice.  The best shelter in the worst location can be a recipe for death.  For example, setting up camp in a flash flood area or beneath ‘widow-makers’ can be a deadly oversight.

Shelter becomes an immediate survival priority in extreme conditions – especially cold.  Hypothermia is the #1 Outdoor Killer in the United States and can develop in temperatures as high as 50 degrees – especially when combined with moisture and wind.

God didn’t give us thick fur or feathers to stave off severe cold.  Instead, He gave us an advanced and innovative mind to think creatively and improvise shelter solutions when we need them.  Survival shelters, though, don’t need to be complicated.  Oftentimes, the best shelters are the simplest ones.  Time, energy and materials conservation are all important considerations when creating or choosing a survival shelter.  A survival shelter should:

  • Protect you from wind and precipitation
  • Insulate you from the ground
  • Be away from natural threats (i.e. flash floods, drainage areas, widow makers, insect mounds, rock cliffs, etc…)
  • Be close to resources such as water, building materials, fire wood, etc…
  • Be southward facing to capture as much sun as possible (in cold conditions)

When it comes to natural shelters, it’s funny how Mother nature works.  She typically provides you with what you need when you need it.  For example, in the fall and winter when you need insulation materials, there are typically plenty of fallen leaves or dead grasses available.  Or, in the summer when you just need an overhead canopy, big green leaves are perfect for waterproofing roof-tops.



There is a reason why streams, rivers, ponds and lakes are hot spots for animal (and human) activity.  Our lives revolve around access to water.  There are 3 important aspects to consider when it comes to Survival Water.

The Ability to Find Water

Sometimes, water is easy to locate – such as in ponds, river or streams.  Hopefully we are all that lucky if ever faced with a survival scenario.  You need to also know how to locate water in it’s unlikely hiding places.  Whether underground, within plants and trees or in the form of dew, water can be an elusive resource.  To the trained eye, finding water involves studying the landscape.  Knowing what to look for is critical.  Green vegetation is often a sign of water nearby.  Animal activity can also provide clues to water sources.  Water travels down hill and often collects in low spots and depressions.  Water can also be extracted from plants and trees through transpiration.

Some plants such as Thistle can be a source of water.  At the right time of year, Maple trees can be tapped for their drinkable sap (the source of Maple syrup).  Below is a photo from this past winter when I tapped a Maple while thirsty in the woods.  All I had on me was a little packet of granola.  I ate the granola and used the packet as my collection container.  This big sugar maple filled that 8 oz. package about every 15 minutes.  With it’s natural sugar content, it was just the energy drink I needed.  Of course, you must be able to identify trees (with and without leaves) to do this.

The ability to find and source water embodies a collection of critical survival skills.  Finding water, though, is only the first step.  Purifying water is often more of a challenge.    If you are in a survival scenario, you’d better be 100% certain that your water is safe to drink – it is a LIFE & DEATH decision.  Sickness from contaminated water kills 100s of thousands of people in the world each year.  Overwhelming thirst can cloud even the best survivor’s judgement.

Boiling is the most obvious way to kill biological threats such as viruses, bacteria and cysts.  Boiling, however, requires your 3rd Core Survival Priority – FIRE.



The list of functions that FIRE provides a survivor is literally endless.  Obviously, it can be used to boil and purify C2: WATER.  It can also be used to signal for rescue, provide warmth, create light, make tools and coal burned containers, smoke and cook foods, stave off predators and make natural adhesives.  The list goes on and on…

Fire, though, doesn’t just happen.  It must be planned, prepared, coaxed, labored, fed and watched.  The ability to make fire in varied conditions with varied tools is a critical survival skill and one that involves practice, trial, error, failure and patience.  From natural materials to modern tools, it is wise to be knowledgeable in a variety of fire starting methods.

As I always say, 90% of your fire-crafting is done before a spark is even cast.  Gathering, collecting, preparing and arranging fire building materials and fire tinder is critical to a successful 1st go at it.  Rushing this process leads to failure – almost always.  When your life (and maybe those with you) depends on getting it right the first time, resist the temptation to rush – even if cold is getting the best of you.

The best way I find to practice my fire starting skills is to start every fire I make using a different method with a variety of tinder materials.

Sometimes I’ll use modern ignition devices such as ferro rods and bic lighters, other times I’ll get creative and use batteries and wire or even primitive methods such as a bow drill set.  Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed but every time I learn.  Fire crafting skills only come with practice.  It’s just one of those skill sets that requires dirt time.



Food takes 4th place in the list because it’s not an immediate life-threatening need.  However, we have become accustomed to eating at the slightest hunger pang.  Whether we swing through the drive through, reach into our desk drawer for a granola bar or pop some quarters into a vending machine, food is AMAZINGLY EASY to get.  It requires virtually no effort, thought, or energy to fill our tummy quickly.  [pullquote]Our drowsiness, headaches and light-headedness are signs that WE NEED THAT SUGAR!  So…we take our dosage until the effects creep back upon us and then we repeat the cycle.[/pullquote]

In a survival situation, this pattern quickly catches up to us – and the effects can be quite disturbing.  Primitive (and less spoiled) cultures don’t have these dependencies and can therefore handle hunger and lack of food much better.  After a couple of days without sugar, carbs, calories and the like, our decision making abilities can be down right dangerous.  And, in a situation that might require ALL of our BEST wits, one bad decision can be devastating.  My point?  While food is the last CORE 4 – it is still very important.

Ultimately, finding food in a survival scenario comes down to hunting, fishing, gathering or scavenging.


  • HUNTING: Hunting involves killing something to eat – that can be any variety of critters: frogs, squirrel, insects, snakes, and the list goes on and on.
  • FISHING: This one is pretty self explanatory.
  • GATHERING: Most people think of wild plant edibles when they think of gathering – things such as berries, nuts, roots and greens.  I would consider shellfish and eggs to be a part of this category as well.
  • SCAVENGING: I’ll never forget when my Dad and I were in the woods one day and heard a crying moan.  As we ran toward the sound we jumped 2 coyote who had just killed a baby deer.  This would have been an incredible scavenged meal for 2 survivors.  Scavenging also has it’s place in URBAN SURVIVAL as well.  The homeless community in cities use this category as their PRIMARY method of getting food.  It certainly has it’s place in survival.


Unless you are lucky, each method requires some practice.  Traps, gigs, spears, arrows, fishing tools, nets – they all take practice to get right.  The subtle nuances that make primitive hunting tools effective to use can only be learned by trial and error.  Identifying wild edibles certainly takes time, practice and effort.  I’ve spent 100s of hours studying field guides – cross referencing them with plants and I still get stumped from time to time.  Fishing is an art all of it’s own.  The preparation of this food to eat is a whole other sector of learning.

When’s the last time you ate something that you hunted, gathered, fished or scavenged?



If getting some survival skills is on your 2012 TO-DO List, focus on these areas.  Become adept in 2-3 skills in each category.  Learning skills associated with THE CORE FOUR will be your best investment in survival knowledge.

Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN,




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