How To Survive If You Get Stranded On An Island

Unfortunately, Gilligan’s Island is not what most people would experience if stranded, and as those who’ve been stranded can attest, it takes willpower and tenacity to survive.

Location and mindset

The most important information in any type of a potential stranding situation is your last known location. Whether it be a ship or a plane, getting your location out to anyone anywhere you can will start the rescue process. Standard international SOS procedures will focus on this last known location.

If you’re on a commercial flight or ship, don’t depend on the crew to do this—they may be a little busy. Since cell phones are so prevalent and Wi-Fi exists on almost every commercial transport, send a text or email or make a call and let someone know where you are. Even better, include a photo or video. This will help all parties and get your rescue rolling right away.

In any survival situation, mindset is the main key to survival. Giving in to negative thoughts, despair or hopelessness begins the slippery slope to giving in. Keeping and maintaining a positive and optimistic attitude can make the difference between life and death.

Being adaptable, calm and clear-headed are all instrumental in helping get you through a survival situation. These are also the traits that will help you think through situations and find solutions that may not be obvious.

History is full of stories of people with no training or skills surviving for long periods of time. The soccer team that was trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for 12 days in 2018 is an example.

Recover your stuff

recover your stuff

If you’re fortunate enough to be stranded because of a boat or airplane accident, if it’s safe and possible, you’ll want to retrieve all you can from the craft. Any piece of gear can be used for multiple purposes. The gear you recover could help you build a shelter, obtain food and water and start a fire. It may also contain items for self-defense and rescue.

One piece of gear you must obtain is any type of knife—even if it’s just a sharp piece of metal. This is a critical piece of gear that’s so versatile that its functionality is only limited by your ingenuity and creativity.

Other gear to look out for covers the basics of food, water, clothing, and shelter: any canned, pouched, or condiment-type food; water bottles, containers or purification gear; clothing, even if it’s not a perfect fit—it can be reconfigured or repurposed for your use; and parts of the boat or plane that can be fashioned to make shelter.

Let’s discuss the Core Four essentials in greater detail.


The positive thing about a desert island is it’s surrounded by water, and in that water is plenty of food. Fish, clams, oysters, mussels and seaweed are all edible. There may also be fruit and vegetable plants on the island. You just have to ensure that the food isn’t of the poisonous variety. Cooking food is always the best option to kill off any parasites or bacteria.

To catch fish, you can create a hook from a variety of items, or if you find a pool that fills with the incoming tide, you can trap fish instead.

Of course, the easiest technique is spear fishing. Find one branch on the island and use it to create a long spear, making the tip as sharp and long as possible. Make sure that the stick is long enough to throw and that it has some weight.

If you can stand on rocks, you will find it easier, since you’ll be less likely to scare the fish and you’ll be able to see them meandering as they snack on seaweed or whatever else they fancy in your little spot in the ocean. If you must walk in the water, then move slowly so as not to startle them.

Hold the spear at your side, well above the water. When the fish stops and settles in one spot, quickly extend your arm and throw the spear, aiming for the fish’s head. With enough practice, you will be hitting your target with greater precision. Voila! Dinner is served.


water needs on an island

Over two-thirds of our planet is covered in water, and much of it is unsuitable for human consumption. The body is composed of over 90-percent water, so finding and harnessing a decent water supply is critical.

Studies have shown that you can survive without food for over a week, but without water, you’ll make it less than three days, and you can become dehydrated in just a few hours, especially in extreme heat.

Thankfully, desert islands usually have available freshwater sources such as coconut trees. If you find freshwater sources on the island, small streams running into the sea tend to be a better choice than larger ones because they carry less silt.

If there are caves, they may contain water or have fresh water dripping down inside. (Incidentally, this is how the Thai soccer team survived those 12 days in their cave!) The best part about the tropics is that rain and thunderstorms will happen often and can provide a lot of water, which is why it’s important to recover items that could catch the rainwater.

If the island does not have freshwater and no rain falls, you may be forced to rely on seawater or the disgusting prospect of recycled urine. Seawater without being treated will kill you, so it must be desalinized via a solar still or seawater purification device, which will allow you to turn saltwater into distilled water.

To create a solar still, first dig a hole in the sand up near the edge of the trees. You’ll want to dig deep enough that you expose the damp sand underneath the top layers. Then, place a container in the center of the hole.

Fill the gaps surrounding the container with any wet material, such as wet leaves, and then place a plastic sheet over the hole. To keep the sheet in place, you will need to anchor it with larger rocks around the edges of the hole.

Finally, place one small rock in the center of the plastic, just over the container. Condensation will gather on the underside of the plastic and run to the center. All the formed condensation will drip into the container, filling it with distilled drinking water.

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Getting out of the elements and having some type of protection are crucial to survival—even animals find or create shelters. Sun poisoning, hypothermia, extreme changes in temperature and threats from animals are real concerns and could easily make survival difficult.

It’s also critical to stay off the ground when sleeping to avoid the critters that tend to walk, slither or crawl on the ground, and making sure your shelter is clear around the perimeter will also help prevent critters from crawling in.

Your shelter needs to be placed somewhere dry and built carefully to keep inclement weather out. Some of the recovered gear could be used as flooring or roofing to keep you off the ground and the angry skies off your head.

One option for creating a safe shelter is the tepee-style shelter. To build this, start by gathering 10 to 20 long branches. The thicker the branches, the more secure your tepee will be. Then, stick three of these branches firmly into the ground to create a tripod.

Position the remaining branches against the apex of the tripod, creating a circular base. Be sure to leave an area free for your entrance. Then, find the largest leaves and brush available to use as a cover, and you should be quite comfortable.

Another option is the lean-to shelter, which is built by leaning one end of a large branch against a tree. Then, place smaller branches at 45-degree angles along the length of the large branch, and cover the entire structure with leaves and foliage.


beach campfire

One of the basic tools for survival, fire provides light, heat, protection from animals, a cooking source and a rescue signal. Creating a fire comes down to the basics of the fire triangle: fuel, oxygen and heat.

Hopefully, your recovered gear will include a flame-producing device, but if not, you’ll need either solar heat via a mirror or magnifying device or a friction method to create the heat that will hopefully spark into your fire. Drying wood out is also important for making easy and sustainable fires.

To build a fire, start by gathering small twigs and creating the same tepee shape as your shelter, placing dry tinder in the center of the circle. Then, if you have glasses, binoculars or a camera, use the lens to concentrate the rays of the sun onto the tinder to ignite it. Blow on the tinder when it starts smoking, and hopefully it’ll catch.

If not, your best alternative is to use the fire plow method. Find a piece of soft wood and cut a groove in its base.

Place some tinder at one end that you’ll ignite, and then, using a hard stick, plow the end up and down the groove to create friction.

The tinder will begin to smolder, so blow on it to help fuel the fire-catching process. When the tinder is ignited, place other small twigs on top to help it grow, but make sure not to smother it.

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Staying healthy

If you weren’t injured during whatever caused you to be stranded on the island, then you want to ensure that you stay that way. Keep your head and avoid risky behaviors—you’re already facing enough risks.

Always work during the day when it’s bright outside so you can see. During the nighttime, you should rest and recover your energy. If you are or do get injured, hopefully some of the recovered items were first-aid supplies.

Any injury untreated can quickly become infected and complicate your survival. You need to ensure that any injuries, especially cuts, are treated and covered to prevent further infections.

One of the critical pieces of gear to prevent injuries is footwear. One foot injury can complicate your survival efforts and impact your ability to survive, so keep your feet safe.

Getting rescued

wild tropical island with a deserted beach

Of course, the overriding main goal when you’re stranded is getting rescued. The fire that you start will be a useful signal to rescuers, and you should also place a permanent SOS message in the sand.

If your plan is to leave the island on your own, then you’ll need to create a raft. To create a raft, you need logs and vine. Collect 15 to 20 logs and tree trunks that are no more than 12 inches in diameter and find a few smaller logs to use as braces.

Cut notches into the logs in the places where your vine will be looped to hold each log together. Begin interweaving the vine into the notches of the logs, over and under, lapping from one log to the next.

When the entire structure is finished, tie off the vine. When you’re done with the raft, be sure to test it in shallow water. Try standing on it and checking its durability. The last thing you want is to discover that your apparent sturdy raft needs repair after you’ve already left the island.

Use your head

The Boy Scouts’ mnemonic of STOP, which stands for “Stop, Think, Observe and Plan,” is what you should always keep in mind. Your survival and ultimate rescue will depend on how you act and react.

Even if you don’t remember anything else, if you use some common sense and adapt, avoid risky behaviors and stay positive, your chance of rescue will increase dramatically.

Of course, the best way to be rescued is with some technology, and if you happen to have your cell phone with you, a solar charger, and the SAS Survival app installed, then your survival information will be at your fingertips. How different Gilligan’s Island would have turned out with today’s technology!

Useful resources to check out:

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation

10 Things Cowboys Carried With Them In The Wild West To Survive

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