What do you really need to live? If you got lost in a jungle, how would you survive?

Jungle Survival
How do people survive in the jungle without food or water?

Peggy finds out what she really needs to survive in the jungle.
Segement length: 6:00


Words like "jungle" and "survival" mean one thing in cities and towns, but they mean something entirely different in the humid forests of Belize. Show up for a trip into the jungle along la ruta Maya with "essentials" such as chocolate bars, soda, and a CD player, and your Maya guide would make you leave it all behind. The guide knows that to survive, you need only four things-water, food, shelter, and fire. Each can be found in the jungle, but you must know what to look for and how to use it.

First, a few safety tips. Never run from a jaguar-walk toward it, shouting and clapping. Always run away from dangerous snakes like the wowla (boa constrictor) and the poisonous coral snake and fer-de-lance. Stay away from most insects-many have special defense systems, like the machacha, which emits a foul spray, and the acacia ant, whose alarm pheromone can be smelled two meters away. Learn from the natives, who rub garlic on themselves to ward off bugs and snakes.

Need water? Springs, rivers, and lakes are obvious sources. But don't forget the water vine, which grows throughout rain forests. It holds several gallons of potable water-just cut off a meter or so and swallow the liquid as it pours out. You can use large leaves on tropical plants to collect rainwater or dew. Or you can collect water with a solar still.

The rain forests are full of biologically active compounds, many of which you can use for food or medicine. You can eat edible tubers, such as potato, yuca, and boniato, but be sure you can distinguish edible tubers from poisonous ones. For cooking and for warmth, you'll want to gather firewood, leaves, and grass (all as dry as possible).

Local weather and predators determine your shelter needs. Do you need warmth or just a roof? Are there animals or insects to avoid? The Maya use cohune palm fronds to build thatched roofs on their huts. These roofs withstand rain and wind and last up to 15 years.

The sun and stars are reliable navigational tools. You might want to brush up on your stargazing skills to figure out where you are.

Survival requires that you use all your senses to know what resources-and dangers-are around you. When you think about it, maybe jungle survival is not so different from survival in your corner of the world.

1. Think about all the things you own. Which are vital to your existence? Which could you live without, and for how long?
2. What images does the phrase "living in the tropical rain forest" conjure up? What about "jungle survival"? What makes them different?

Key Words

cohune palm palm tree found in rain forests. It provides food, fiber, medicine, and shelter.
compound substance composed of two or more chemical elements
fer-de-lance poisonous snake, also known as the terciopelo ("velvet") or yellow-jawed tommy goff
la ruta Maya Spanish for the Maya route in the regions of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras
pheromones chemicals secreted by animals to convey a message and produce a response in members of the same species
potable fit to drink
still system used to distill liquids
thatch material such as palm fronds, straw, and rushes used to create a roof


  1. Arvigo, R. (1995) Sastun: My apprenticeship with a Maya healer. New York: Harper Collins.
  2. Brill, S. (1994) Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants in wild (and not so wild) places. New York: William Morrow.
  3. Dessery B. & Robin, M. (1992) The medical guide for third world travelers. San Diego: K-W Publications.
  4. Landsman, S. (1993) Survival! In the jungle. New York: Avon Books.
  5. McManners, H. (1994) The complete wilderness training book. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
  6. Nichol, J. (1994) The mighty rainforest. London: David and Charles.
  7. Pragoff, F. (1989) Survival: Could you be a squirrel? Nashville: Ideals Children's Books.
  8. Sierra Club, San Diego chapter. (1993) Wilderness basics: The complete handbook for hikers and backpackers (2d ed.). Seattle: The Mountaineers.

Additional resources

  1. Earthwatch Program Officer for Rain Forest Projects:
  2. Federal Emergency Management Agency: (800) 480-2520.
    (Free catalog of emergency preparedness guides, including Emergency Preparedness Checklist, #80963, and Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book, #81123.)

Main Activity

Be Prepared!
Create an all-purpose survival kit to keep in your family car or at home.

What situations might leave you and your family temporarily stranded without electricity, food, and shelter? How would you survive if you were stranded outdoors? In this activity, you'll decide what you'd need in a survival kit to help you stay safe and healthy.


1. Make a chart with columns for water, food, shelter, fire, and other needs.
2. Break up into small groups. Choose a season of the year. Then brainstorm with your group to list whatever each person thinks you might need in each column to survive for at least a week in the outdoors during that season. (Remember that a brainstorming session is not the time to criticize ideas-just write them down.)
3. For each item in your list, assign a number to indicate its priority. For example, "1" could mean that the item is essential on a scale of 1 to 5, with a "5" meaning that the item is probably not important. Allow time for discussion.
4. Decide on the volume and weight of the survival kit. Estimate the weight of each item that you want to include in your kit, and decide whether you can include it. Would several people have to share carrying the weight?
5. Make a list of items to include in the kit.
6. If possible, gather or purchase the materials you selected, and make a sample survival kit. Weigh the kit and make a note of how much space the kit will take up. Where will you store it?
7. If you live where severe weather (hurricanes, snowstorms, flooding) could cut you off from electricity, water, and food, put together a list of basic supplies to keep on hand in case of emergency. Think about the little things, too, such as a can opener and a good supply of batteries for your radio and flashlight.

Collect water by building a simple solar still. Dig a hole about 1/2 meter (20") deep and 1 meter (40") wide. Place a clean cup at the bottom of the hole. Sprinkle grass clippings or leaves on the side of the hole. Cover the hole with plastic wrap (you may have to tape several lengths together to cover the hole completely). Use rocks or sticks to hold the plastic wrap in place. Place a marble-sized stone on top of the plastic. It should be heavy enough to create a point where the condensation can collect and drip into the cup. Now let the sun do its work. How long does it take to form condensation on the plastic? Where is the water coming from? How long does it take to get 2 cm (3/4") of water?

Humans develop survival skills for different environments. List the skills needed by the following: a baby, a soldier, a person in a wheelchair, a person who is blind, a person who can't read, a prisoner of war, a person who is homeless, a person living near the Arctic Circle, members of a tribe living in the Amazon jungle, a member of that tribe forced to move to the city, a person forced to move to a new country. Choose one of these people and write a story about survival from that person's perspective. Read the story to your class.

Any sailor, backpacker, or person who spends time outdoors will attest to the importance of knowing how to tie different kinds of knots. Find a book on knots. Get a meter of thin and thick rope for each person in the group. Practice making at least five different knots. What is each one used for? Which one should you use to tie two different kinds of rope together? Which is easiest to pull apart? Which would you use to build a rope bridge?

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