As an Internet Program Manager at my day job I frequently have to prioritize different tasks, issues, and business and project requirements. Which do I tackle or assign first? The easy tasks that take less time, the ones with the nearest deadline, the ones on critical paths, or the most important ones?

Although tasks and needs might be different in the outdoors, prioritization is critical to successful trips and in survival situations. Both in business and the outdoors I’ve heard axioms. In business projects I've heard absolutes on revenue, growth, customer experience, strategic positioning, or cost savings.

Likewise, in the wilderness I've heard experts disagree on water, clothing, food, or shelter as the most important needs.

Prioritizing depends on timing and the variables in each situation. In business and survival priorities can change and you need to recognize when you need to adjust then take action. In both scenarios more weight should be given to importance over ease or items with the “nearest deadlines”. In the outdoors, the main priority is for everyone to get back alive and in one piece. During my Air Force survival school days we broke it down to maintaining a normal body temperature by addressing your survival needs and returning with honor. Before you can prioritize your needs in a survival situation, you need to understand what they are and how to address them. I break these down into 6 basic survival needs.

Protection from the elements

This includes clothing, shelter, and fire. Clothing is your first line of defense. Shelter helps you get out of the elements be it the sun, rain, snow, or wind. Fire gives you extra heat and provides light. It is also a morale booster, I call it survival TV. The environment you are in will dictate the importance of this need, as in most cases personal protection is a top need. For example you need protection from different things in different environments, the strong sun in the desert and in high altitudes, protection from wind, rain, snow, and temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.


Serious injuries and medical conditions need immediate attention. In many cases minor injuries also need immediate attention since they can turn serious in the wilderness where you don’t have access to medical facilities.
Injury prevention, hygiene, and sanitation are part of medical needs and usually are prioritized high.


Good navigation techniques will prevent you from getting lost, help you find your location if you do get lost, and help you get back to safety or a safer area. The decision to stay and wait for help or move is also part of this need. If help is only a few hours away, you know where you are and where to go, there’s enough daylight left, it might make sense to walk your way out versus building a shelter. In high altitude situations with little oxygen, rescue could come too late or it might be too difficult for them to extract a survivor. On the other hand, it’s usually better to seek shelter rather than to try and find your way in a blizzard.

Signaling and Communication

Signals and communication with others can get you out of a situation or communicate important facts to a rescue party. Signals and communication devices can be part of the equipment you carry like cell phones, whistles, radios, signal mirrors, flares or man—made signals like laying a bunch of rocks or sticks into a specific shape or symbol. If it’s getting dark and all you have are daylight signals or it’s snowing, chances are rescue won’t see you anyway and other needs can be prioritized over this. However, if you hear an aircraft or see people in the distance you might want to drop what you’re doing and signal.

Sustenance: Food and Water

Water is generally a pretty high of a priority. One Factor you need to consider is how accessible water is in the environment you’re in. If you’re in an area with lots of fresh water sources that are accessible you can focus on other needs. This includes the tropics or areas where there are many streams like in the mountains. In evaluating this need you need to factor in time for purifying the water. In most cases you could go days without food and many experts place food as one of the last needs. This doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Realize when it’s cold your body needs food to stay warm. If you’re going to navigate out to help you’ll need the energy. How much food you have and your means to acquire food should factor into prioritizing your other needs.


Think about what you’re equipped with when prioritizing. If you have good Gore-Tex or a high altitude climbing suit, shelter might be less important since these could serve as part of a shelter. Your equipment, skills, and condition should factor into your situation when prioritizing your needs.

The theme I’m trying to get across is this: Understand your needs, set a plan, work to it, be able to adjust if the situation changes, and remember that there are few absolutes in life. Spend a few minutes thinking about how you would prioritize your needs based on the following situations:

a. Think of your last day hike. What equipment did you have with you? Now imagine you have the same equipment and you’re with two friends when one slips and badly injures her leg. She can’twalk, you’re 5 miles from the car and its mid day. What would you do?

b. You’re at 13500 ft. on Mt. Rainier. It’s 2PM and you were hoping to be at the top by 10AM but moving much slower than expected. You have ½ liter of water left. Your partner has 1 liter but says he feels great and wants to press on. Weather conditions couldn’t be better. What do you do next? What should you consider?

c. You’re on day 2 of your climb up the face of El Capitan, it’s 1PM in mid July with plenty of daylight but it starts raining. Do you continue to climb? What should you do?

d. You’re going snowshoeing with your spouse and 8 year old child, it’s mid January and about 20 miles onto a dirt road you’re car gets stuck. You haven’t seen a single car since you got on the road and 5 hrs have gone by. There is no cell phone reception. Do you try and walk out? If so when, what needs should you address and in what order? Should everyone stay together?

e. You’re out on a day hike with friends, you have appropriate equipment, there’s plenty of daylight. It starts to rain. What do you do next?

f. You’re trail running and get pounced on by a cougar. You saw the cougar at the last minute, turned around and were able to fend her off, although she raked your arm with her claw and you notice blood spurting out of your forearm. Otherwise you feel fine. The cougar ran off, you have your cell phone, and your car is 5 minutes away. What would you do next?

In the cases above, business, life, and survival, there is no exact right answer, as prioritization depends on many factors. There are very few absolutes; instead solutions include principles and shades of gray. The purpose of this article was to get you thinking about your survival needs.

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