Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
People save up vacation time, devise complex itineraries, and spend thousands of dollars each year to enjoy the perfect vacation on some remote island somewhere. Sipping from a coconut, kicking back, and listening to the waves leaves little to be desired—that is unless you haven’t eaten a warm meal in a few days and you aren’t sure if you will ever see home again.
While a remote island in the middle of the ocean may seem like a dream getaway, it can be a much different experience trying to survive on one. Writing about survival gear and methods, you get a lot of questions on the remote island subject. The goal of this post is to talk a bit about the reality of the topic and to answer some common questions.
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The Reality of the Desert Island Concept
There are thousands of non-coastal uninhabited oceanic islands on the planet. This has to be specified because if we also counted coastal uninhabited islands (like the 210,000 uninhabited coastal islands of Sweden) the number is in the millions. It is estimated that roughly 50-80% of Pacific islands contain no people.
Tales of travelers winding up on these sorts of desert islands abound in fiction. From classic novels (like Robinson Crusoe) to more recent movies (Tom Hanks’s Cast Away) or TV shows like Lost (or even the reality show Survivor), there is no shortage of examples for the ‘lost on a remote island’ genre.
There are stories of shipwreck survivors continuing to survive on islands and remote locations in nearly every culture in almost every era (an example from ancient Egypt). The modern era is no different.
Of course, it is only those that survived to be rescued whose stories we know. Each year hundreds of boats are lost at sea.
Even large ships sometimes can disappear with no trace into the vast oceans.
Marooning was a punishment used before and during the Golden Age of Sail that involved leaving criminals and unwanted sailors behind on an island, alone. While marooning typically ended in the sailor’s death, some did make it through the ordeal alive.
Crashlanding on a deserted island amid the ocean is a bit like hitting the bullseye of a dartboard from a mile away, but it can and has happened. Interestingly enough, it appears Amelia Earheart may have spent her final days on the small Nikamuror island after a crash landing.
For a more recent example, we can look back to September of 2019 where two people survived a small plane crash on an Alaskan Island and used their survival gear to make it through the night until help arrived.
Depending on the filing of the flight plan for the plane, it takes 12-65 hours on average to be located after a crash. Depending on the terrain you are found in, the actual help may not arrive until much later. In the case of a crash landing where you survived but then drifted on the water to an island—who knows?
Surviving on a Deserted Island
Surviving a crash or shipwreck is a bit different than just everyday survival in the wild. You often will not be able to bring the tools, clothes, and other supplies you would usually want to prepare a survival habitat for yourself with.
If you wash ashore from a shipwreck or plane crash, you likely will have little in the way of gear and supplies.
This is one of the biggest challenges to overcome. We have tons of how-to articles for everything from making your own slingshots to making your own fishing kits, but almost all of them require pieces of civilized equipment like a bungee rope or surgical tubing.
Even many of the survival manuals we used to make this article assume you might have some form of clear plastic to use. The point is, surviving with a random assortment of washed-up gear and junk will require you to learn as much as possible about natural survival methods, and to be able to think on your feet, as well as use your imagination.
For this article, we will focus on a deserted Pacific Island, but even narrowing it down this much still requires us to touch on general jungle survival, a topic too big for a single article. Instead, we will try to give a basic overview and help point you in the right direction for further learning.
Basic Jungle/Beach Survival Tips or Concepts You Should Learn
These are skills that we won’t be covering today but will be huge boons to your ultimate success and may be necessary to complete some of the other survival methods we will cover.
- Making rope out of plants
- Making a fire naturally
- Making a stone ax or stone knife
- Bamboo Fishing Spear
The YouTube Channel Primitive Technology Tools has a bunch of basic tutorials you can check out. The military survival manual also has a whole chapter on DIY tools and weapons you should familiarize yourself with. These basic tools may be necessary for more advanced survival techniques if you don’t arrive on the island with an equivalent.
Fresh potable water will be your most precious resource. You will die of thirst long before you die of starvation, usually in only a few days. You need to use every drop efficiently, even the ones that are already inside you.
Make sure, unless otherwise necessary, you:
- Stay in the shade (and away from sea glare).
- Protect your water from getting mixed with saltwater.
- Ration your water.
- Find a way to procure more to meet your rationing needs.
On the beach, digging behind the first sand dune deep enough to get below the waterline will sometimes allow fresh water to seep in.
If you have something you can use as a bowl, you can drop a red-hot rock into saltwater to force condensation. Place a rag, cloth or shirt over the bowl to collect the condensation. Suck or wring it out. If you place a bowl over a fire then you can skip the rock. Turtle shells, seashells, and carved wood are going to be your best options for a bowl.
According to the military survival manual, you should not:
- Drink urine.
- Drink alcohol.
- Drink seawater.
- Eat, unless water is available
Collect Rainwater, Drink Dew
Plan for rains and have a collection system ready. Use whatever you can to collect and protect rainwater. If it continues to rain and your collections are filling, make sure to drink as much as you can.
It is possible to scrape and drink dew off surfaces you know are relatively clean.
Find Safe Water Sources
In tropical environments, much of the groundwater you find may be contaminated. By following animals, you can track down a safe water source. Carnivores are less reliable in this capacity. Bees and ants also need some form of water source to live off of.
You can sometimes get cleaner water from muddy water sources by digging a hole about a meter away from the source. Somewhat cleaner water can usually seep into the hole.
Water from Plants and Vines
It is possible to extract water from palm trees, vines, and various roots. The plants that are available and which are safe to do this will depend on your region. This is good information, but that undertaking requires much more research and time than we can get into in this article.
With a little education, you can learn which are the water-bearing vines. Be careful because some have poisonous sap. Generally, don’t drink any sap that isn’t clear. Use a container, not direct contact, if trying to drink from plants.
The stalks of palm trees, coconut trees, and nipa palms can all be cut for water. An incision at the tip of the stalk allows you to drink, and you can return to it later. Bend down a green bamboo stalk, tie it down, and cut off the top. Water will drip during the night.
Coconut milk is a good source of water, but when ripe, it can also be a laxative. Make sure you are not losing more water than you are putting in by drinking the juice of the fruit.
Wrapping a clear plastic bag around a green leafy plant will collect condensation. Placing cut vegetation in a bag does the same.
Some other methods of water procurement:
- Here is a video on how to make a desalinator, if you have a water bottle.
- If you have a plastic wrap or a clear plastic sheet, you can make a solar still.
Fish, birds, animals, insects, fruits, roots, leaves; all of these can be eaten. What will be readily available will again depend on the region, so a relevant understanding of these things—which can be eaten, how to prepare them, etc. is invaluable. An in-depth discussion of this topic, even for a small region, would require a book.
One of the first things you should learn is the Universal Edibility Test. This is how you should be testing plants to see if they are poisonous.
If you have no weapon and/or lack the skill to make and throw a spear, trapping an animal is your next best bet.
Snares involve a noose to catch or kill the animal. According to the survival manual “The heart of any trap or snare is the trigger. When planning a trap or snare, ask yourself how it should affect the prey, what is the source of power, and what will be the most efficient trigger.”
Place traps where you see signs of animals passing through.
There are many forms of snares and traps you can employ. The best trap will depend on your prey and the resources on hand.
Fishing is also a solid way to find protein. If you have some string or wire, you can use it as a fishing line or make a fishing spear if the terrain allows you to get close to the fish. You can make fishhooks out of wire, or even carve one out of wood, bone, or coconut shells.
Learn the mechanics of a tidal fish trap and you can catch and store a large number of wild fish just by harnessing the tide. Basically, pick a spot with fish at high tide that either loses water or becomes very low at low tide. Section a portion of it off with rocks or sticks so the fish are trapped as the tide lowers.
A good shelter will keep you safe from the sun, the rain, temperature changes, and many animals. If done right, it can hopefully keep out some bugs as well. A shelter should be large enough to protect you but small enough to keep in your body heat.
Make sure as a general rule you are not trying to camp or stay in any mangrove or palm swamps. Don’t stay in areas laying below the high-water mark and be aware of the possibility of flash floods.
Driftwood, leaves, and other items can be stacked or leaned to form a makeshift wall. If you cannot avoid being in swampy of damp ground, you will need to make a swamp bed.
If all you really have is the beach and some debris, you can make an impromptu beach shelter (make sure you are above the waterline!) Dig out a hole-shelter and pile the sand up to the side of it. Lay support pieces of driftwood across the top of the piled-up sand; put a layer of leaves across the top, then weigh them down with sand. If you have a poncho, lay it across the top and anchor it with sand or rocks.
Starting a fire
Make sure you learn how to start a friction fire. Driftwood can be burned, but use palm leaves and palm fibers or other small dry leaves to get the fire going first.
Rescue or Escape
Lighting fires along the beach should be a general practice if it is practical to do so. Certain leaves, barks, and woods will create thicker and more noticeable smoke.
Like in the recent news examples we gave earlier, spelling out HELP or SOS in large contrasting rocks along the beach is also a good step in getting noticed.
Outside of making visual cues to try and get the attention of a plane or boat, a message on a coconut or bottle can be a hail mary, though I’m dubious as to the reality of that one. If you know how, you can try and construct a raft or boat with the materials you have on hand, but then you are likely putting yourself in an even more desperate survival situation.
If you have some knowledge of sailing and know how to not go wandering deeper into the ocean, or can reach a shipping lane: build a boat, gather supplies, make a plan.
If you are with people, then understanding micro societies and psychology can help. Here is a great read on this topic and desert islands.
Psychology of Survival, Medicine, and Other Necessities
Surviving requires preparation, not just in gear but also in knowledge. There is so much more to learn but I hope what we have covered so far has gotten you on the right track for learning more.
To that end, make sure to read sources like the military survival manual and pay attention to their sections on psychology and medicine (stay as clean as possible!). This information will likely be just as important as anything we covered here.
Some True Stories of Desert Island Survivors
- The pirate captain Edward England was marooned with a few of his men around the year 1720. They survived on the island scavenging for four months while they built themselves a raft. Being accomplished sailors, they were able to use this raft to reach Madagascar.
- In 1722, A Massachusetts fisherman named Philip Ashton was imprisoned by pirates. He was able to eventually escape to an island but then found himself part of a 2-year long ordeal that involved another castaway arriving at some point. He was eventually rescued by a passing British ship.
- A notable mention is former president John F. Kennedy. In World War II, his boat was sunk by the Japanese and he and some men made a swim for a small island in the distance. They arrive exhausted but alive and were able to regain their strength with some coconuts and rest. They survived for six days while a message on a coconut they handed to natives led to their rescue.
- There are many, many more. From a Japanese woman who manipulated a group of 30 soldiers, to simple sailors with bad luck and good survival wits.
Sources Used in This Article
- FAA: Basic Survival Skills for Aviation
- Life After the Wreck on AngelFlightWest.com
- Army Jungle Operations Manual
- Survival U.S. Army Manual FM 3-05.70
- Military Manual – Survival, Evasion & Recovery
- Lessons from Shipwrecked Micro-Societies
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