How to survive on a desert island

The overwhelming majority of people who travel by boat or by airplane do so without accidents happening. As a result, you may figure that becoming stranded on a desert island and being forced to survive is something that you will never have to do. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to always be ready for the worst. You don’t get to decide when disaster happens to you, but fortunately, you do get to decide how prepared you are.

So should you ever find yourself stranded on a desert island out in the middle of the ocean, these are the top survival skills that you will want to know:

Scavenge as much as you can

Search around the island. Everything you find could be useful.
Search around the island. Everything you find could be useful.


First and foremost, you need to begin scavenging as much as you possibly can once you find yourself onshore. Even if all you see is trash littered across the beach, the truth is you can repurpose most ordinary items into things that have a variety of survival uses.

For example, any old containers or jars that wash up on shore can be used for storing food and water, you can use a plastic sheet for a tarp, poncho, or a water still, and you can use a piece of cloth as a bandana once it dries out.


Water is very important in any survival situation, but it’s going to be made even more so when stranded on a desert island because while there’s cool blue water all around you in the form of the ocean, the problem, of course, is that you can’t drink it!

Therefore, you need to look for a way of getting clean drinking water as soon as possible. Even though you can survive for up to three days without water, it only takes one day without it before you begin to feel dehydrated.

Water is essential for your survival
Water is essential for your survival

The good news is that you have multiple sources of fresh water on a desert island if you know where to look. You can always collect any rainwater that falls (this is where having a tarp or a plastic sheet comes in handy), and if the island is large enough, it’s possible – though not certain – that there may be a stream of freshwater inland.

If neither of these two options are available to you, then you’re going to have to turn to a method of last resort such as making a solar still. While a solar still takes a long time to create even a small amount of freshwater, that water is still absolutely better than nothing.

To create a solar still, you’ll need to dig a hole around a foot and half deep and wide each. Place a clean open container in the middle and surround it with green vegetation. Then cover the hole with plastic sheeting and secure it with rocks on the four corners.

Bbuilding a solar still (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Karalyne Lowery)
Bbuilding a solar still (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Karalyne Lowery)

Finally, place one more rock in the center of the sheet so that it hangs right over the container. Over the course of the day, water will slowly but steadily drip from the sheet into the container for you to collect later.

If possible, build multiple solar stills to gather as much clean water as possible.


Fire is an absolute necessity in any survival situation. You need fire for multiple reasons, including:

  • Keeping yourself warm
  • Seeing in darkness
  • Signaling for help
  • Purifying water
  • Cooking/Boiling food
  • Keeping hungry predators at bay

To build a fire, begin gathering as much fuel as possible, including large logs to small twigs and sticks to serve as kindling.

Assuming that you don’t have traditional fire starting devices such as matches or a lighter with you, you’ll need to come up with a more creative way to create your fire. One example of what you can do is to use the bottom of a soda or beer can to reflect the heat of the sun onto your kindling, or you can use your glasses or a pair of binoculars to focus the heat of the sun on your tinder instead.

Building a fire
Building a fire

An exhausting but still effective way to get a fire going will be to use the fire plow method. With this method, you’ll need to find a soft piece of wood and cut a groove into it. Use a stick to create friction by plowing it into the groove. Keep tinder very close to the groove, and once it begins to smolder, gently blow on it for it to take flame.


One of the most important reasons why you need a shelter on a desert island is to serve as protection from the sun, though it can also protect you from the rain and the wind too, of course.

inside the lean-to shelter – Author: Erik Fitzpatrick – CC BY 2.0
inside the lean-to shelter – Author: Erik Fitzpatrick – CC BY 2.0

The easiest type of shelter to build is the simple lean-to shelter. All you need to do is find a long branch or pole and fasten it between two trees. If you can’t find two trees close together, then just lean it up against one tree at an angle. Proceed to set smaller branches or poles up against it, and finish it off with foliage and leaves. Always position the lean-to against the wind and the sun.


You can survive for up to three weeks without food, which is why finding water and building fire and shelter are more important and need to be attended to first.

Fish will definitely be your easiest source of protein on a desert island, and the best way to catch them will be by spear fishing. Find a pole and split the end into three or four prongs, and sharpen each prong.

Hunting for food
Hunting for food

At night, wade out into the shallow water with your pronged spear in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. Hold the torch over the water and move very slowly so the fish will become attracted to it.

Hover your spear over the water, and when the fish is still and close enough, go in for the kill.

Signaling For Help

You need to find a way to call for help
You need to find a way to call for help

Finally, your only hope of getting rescued on a desert island is to signal for help. The two most effective ways to go about this will be with a signal fire on the highest part of the island possible (use greens if possible to create plenty of smoke), or by spelling out the words SOS with branches and poles on the sand.

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nick-oetken is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival