How to Survive on a Deserted Island? Alone & with Nothing

Being stranded on a deserted island is every person's worst nightmare. But what if it happened to you? What would you do?

What would you do if you came to your senses only to find yourself stranded on an uninhabited island? How would you make it back to civilization? Would you become just another statistic or would you beat the odds and make it out alive.

Whether you end up on a god-forsaken island, after a plane crash, shipwreck, or if swashbuckling pirates kidnap and leave you stranded, you will have to have your wits about you, because the survival clock is ticking.

In this guide, I’ll give you a few pointers that will help you survive the odds.

Island Survival Today & the Past

With today’s technology, the chances of all but disappearing and falling off the map have decreased significantly, and many islands, though uninhabited, can actually sustain life.

That being said many islands around the world still do not have cell reception, are desolately remote, and can be just a big barren rock. Let’s hope that’s not the case. If there’s one person who has beaten the odds it’s the godfather of island survival, Alexander Selkirk.

This 17th-century Scotsman spent over four years on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. He survived by domesticating feral cats to protect him from swarms of attacking rats, by making clothes of goatskin, and by reading the bible to keep his sanity.

Author Daniel Defoe later used his story as an inspiration for his 1719 bestseller Robinson Crusoe. His story is probably where we all get our romantic visions of living on an uninhabited island.

How to survive on a deserted island? – Here is how not to do it

So how to survive on a remote island if disaster strikes? Before we get into the how-to, let’s see how not to do it, as wisdom begins by learning how not to do something. 

Many years back, I ended up in Northern Vietnam, on an uninhabited island on purpose for a kayaking trip for with the intent to disappear in the maze of spectacular limestone pillars and over 1600 islands and islets of Ha Long Bay. 

The disappearing part went quite well. I rented a kayak, threw in a 20-liter tank of water, some rice and veggies and a tent. Within a few hours I discovered a bunch of amazing islands, swam, cooked lunch, and enjoyed the December sun. Soon I entered an area with steep limestone cliffs and a few beachy islets between them.

It was a perfectly sheltered paradise. With some driftwood, we made a fire and celebrated our first night as a castaway. How perfect could it be? Stars, the calm sea, a perfect little beach island all for myself. I fell asleep feeling free and one with nature.

deserted island
Hopefully, your deserted island is bigger than this

And then the tide came in…

At about 2, am I suddenly felt something unnerving at my fingertips: water!

When I got to my senses and stuck my head out of the tent, all but the entire beach had disappeared. One of the paddles of my kayak had drifted off, and the kayak was being tossed around by the incoming tidal waves.

I jumped into action, threw all my soaked belongings into the kayak, and I swam after the floating paddle. Unfortunately, December nights in Northern Vietnam can be rather chilly, especially when you’re soaked to the bone in the pitch dark. The only light I had was a little head torch that was nearly out of battery, which isn’t the best thing when you’re trying to find your way through a maze of limestone cliffs. 

I found the paddle got the kayak and escaped the little patch of quickly disappearing beach and paddled out to sea under the moon. Sunrise came a few hours later, I found a floating village a few miles away where I could rescue myself.

My failed adventure only lasted several hours, but I learned a painful lesson about tides, finding a suitable location for a shelter and how unromantic deserted islands can be. 

What to do when you find yourself on an uninhabited island?

If you find yourself on an uninhabited island, the first thing you should do is assess your situation and see what resources are available to you.

Assess where you are – Take in the immediate environment and notice what is around you, look at the: weather, sun, and sea, notice if there are trees or palm trees, is it a lush island? what time of the day is it? etc…

What do you have on you – Have a look at any belongings that you might be carrying that might assist you in surviving these next days. See if you have any: knife, fire starters, extra rope, clothing, self-protection, etc…

Check-in with your mind and body – Check in with your body to see if it suffered any damage. Observe your mental state. See if you: are free from skins, scrapes, gashes, broken bones? How is your state of mind? Are you frantic, fearful, or angry?

What to do first if you are stranded?

  1. Look for other survivors. In case of a plane crash or a shipwreck, there’s a good chance you’re not the only one who got stranded here. Other passengers could be injured and in need of help. As scarce as water and food supply on the island may be, it’s still in your own interest to not have to face this situation on your own.
Having a friend like Wilson

Even though Alexander Selkirk suffered from the elements and rats, one of his greatest troubles was loneliness and misery. Being in a small group not only prevents some of this psychological suffering, but also means you have more skills or knowledge available, and the chance to divide tasks. If you do end up alone, it’s best to have a friend like Wilson, although you never know when they decide to abandon you.

  1. Time to scavenge! Grab any crates, bags or materials from the boat or airplane that washed ashore or that are floating near the beach. Even if it seems like junk, it may come in handy later for building a shelter, a water still or fishing gear. Maybe you even find some food and water.
  1. Evaluate your team and see what skills you have onboard. Then delegate clear tasks based on that. One could start looking for water, while another makes a fire and someone else treats people’s injuries. 

What are your priorities for survival on a deserted island?

Priority 1: Find water

Water, water, water. If your life is not in immediate danger due to injuries or climatological circumstances (like after stranding on a Vietnamese rock that’s about to get washed away by the tide), your first priority on a deserted island is always to find water. You’re surrounded by a vast salty ocean, and some islands have preciously little fresh water. 

Solar Still
Solar Still is a good option in tropical climates

Even if you’re hungry, realize it takes a lot of water to digest food, so until you find a reliable source of freshwater, take eating off your mind. Meanwhile, try to remain calm and conserve energy and the water in your body.

Breathe gently through the nose, avoid moving around in the sun unless it’s needed, and try to talk sparsely. Since you can survive only three days without water, but three weeks without food, you’ll probably be found before you starve.

Right, so water. Unless there’s an obvious supply of coconuts of course, like with our man Jesus from the Philippines, who survived solely on these hairy fruits for two years on end. (see more about that little story below on the man who survives on coconuts for 2 years)

How to find water on an uninhabited island?

Please keep in mind the tips below on how to find water:

  1. Do not drink saltwater. Ever. Even if you start hallucinating from thirst or see an ocean of cool 7-Up inviting you for a sip, don’t be tempted. 
  2. Find streams with running water. Or even better, the source of such a stream, as it’ll have fewer chances of having parasites or other impurities.
  3. Subterranean water sources may be found near concentrations of plants. Dig up the soil around them to find out.
  4. Collect dewdrops from leaves in the morning.
  5. Cut open thick vines to see if there’s any clear water inside. If not clear, discard the vine.
  6. Even without a pot you can boil potential bacteria and parasites out of your water. Just fill a leaf with water and hold it high enough over the fire so it won’t burn.
  7. If there’s no water to be found, you must build a solar still, for which you only need a plastic sheet and a small container. 
Go Deeper: If you end up falling in freezing water, what would you do?
lean to shelter
Any type of shelter will do that gives you a layer between you and the environment

Priority 2: Make a shelter

Shelters will provide a safer place to rest and can protect you from the elements. Unless you got shipwrecked on a barren sandbank, nature will provide building materials for a basic hut. The available materials determine the type of shelter you can build. 

How to build a shelter on a deserted island?

Initially, find a big rock outcrop or a large tree to rest under. Beware of coconut trees though, cause those life-saving fruits could seriously damage your hut, or worse, your head.

beware of the coconuts
Beware

Once you find a suitable location, you can go ahead and start building the most basic type of hut: the lean-to shelter. Basically, you just gather lots of long branches and place them diagonally against the rock. Start with larger ones and finish with smaller, leafy ones. The more branches with leaves you gather, the better you’ll be protected from sun and rain. 


Priority 3: Make Fire

Even if you’re a castaway on a tropical island, you need to stay warm at night and potentially boil water or cook food. A fire is essential for survival and can usually be made with natural materials around you. There are many ways to start a fire, and today I’ll just cover one that I like: the good old stick and tinder method.

happiness in fire
The joy of fire

How to make a fire with nothing on a remote island?

  1. Gather lots of dry grass, sticks, leaves, twigs, bark, and other material that can easily catch fire. 
  2. Find a piece of softwood. This will be the base of your fire experiment. Use a rock or anything sharp to cut a groove into the wood.
  3. Put the dry tinder into this groove.
  4. Locate a hardwood stick
  5. Rub the hardwood stick between your hands to create friction.
  6. Add more dry material as the tinder starts to smoke, and voilà, your first Crusoe fire is done.
  7. Make sure to always keep your fire smoldering, so you’re less dependent on your stick and tinder success. Do not keep it right next to your hut though, as sea winds can be strong, and you don’t want to be barbecued in your own hut on your first night as a castaway. 

Admittedly, starting a fire this way is a frustrating process, but once you got the knack, you’ll be able to make a fire almost anywhere, as no man-made products are needed for it to work.

Priority 4: SOS

How to create a rescue signal on an uninhabited island?

Unless you feel you could do with a bit of unplanned off-grid living, I suggest you start working on your rescue signals as soon as your water supply, fire and shelter are in order.

Search parties will most likely be aware of your shipwreck or plane crash and may come looking for survivors. Try all of these tips to increase your chances of being found:

  1. The classic SOS on the beach. Draw your lines thick, deep, and large, so they can be spotted from the air. Also, keep checking whether it gets washed away by the tide.
  2. Making a smoky fire. Now that you got your fire going, gather lots of leafy branches and damp wood. The smoke will be seen from miles away and maybe your best chance to be rescued.
  3. Write SOS or HELP in the sand with large rocks. The bigger, the better.
  4. If you can reach any other beach or the side of the island, repeat your SOS or help-signal there, but add an arrow to point towards the direction of your shelter.

Priority 5: Take a breath

One of the most important ways to survive on an uninhabited island is to keep a healthy frame of mind.

Panic, rash actions and overthinking will have a detrimental effect on your ability to make the right decisions, as well as on the mindset of your group. As I wrote before

How to stay sane on a deserted island?

‘We either learn to act despite the scream in the head, or we are taken by the scream are led to follow anything it demands.’

This sums it up nicely. Because after having taken care of your basic most survival requirements, you’ll find yourself stuck with a head full of thoughts which may not be all too rosy.

If you pay too much attention to these feelings of hopelessness, fear or anger, your suffering increases manifold. Instead, try to stay realistic, yet upbeat, and focus on the things that can be done now.   

Priority 6: Find Food

Water, shelter, fire, rescue signals and mental space check? Okay, only now it’s time to think about food. Remember that we can survive without food for about a month, and that most people get rescued long before they starve.

Therefore, never take any avoidable risks while looking for food. Like our man Alexander Selkirk, who nearly lost his life while hunting for a goat.

He jumped the goat, and then they tumbled off a cliff together. Selkirk was lucky enough to end up top, but he still spent three days laying down there senselessly before he was able to move again.

Keep in mind that if you get badly injured while climbing a tree for fruits, hunting animals or even while fishing, your hopes of survival will be slashed, as you may not even be able to make it back to your shelter.

How to find food on a deserted island?

So, keeping your safety in mind, here are a few tips on finding food:

  1. Try fishing. The shallows usually contain edible fish. Though fish traps are very useful, spear fishing is the least technical way to fish. Make a basic spear by sharpening a stick and stand on the shore’s edge, on rocks or even wade into the water. If you try and fail, this might be due to a phenomenon called refraction, meaning the fish are actually closer than they appear, so always aim a little closer than what your eyes tell you.
  1. Collect shellfish. Look for shellfish and mollusks in small pools and on rocks that are exposed during low tide. Just remember to avoid creatures that are yellow and green, they could be poisonous. 
  1. Hunt! Instead of trying to find large game to hunt with your wooden spear, your situation requires you to widen your culinary scope and consider anything that moves as a potential source of food. Realize that all mammals and birds can be eaten, as well as many amphibians, which may be easier to catch. Consider frogs, lizards, snakes on your menu, but also smaller creatures like ants, locusts or snails. 

In case you manage to hunt a larger animal, you must prepare it quickly to prevent disease or swarms of insects around your camp. First remove the animal’s entire skin and all organs, especially the entrails. Then make sure you properly boil or roast it. You can also smoke, freeze or sun-dry the meat for preservation if the climate allows.

  1. Venture inland to look for anything edible. Look out for coconuts and other recognizable fruits. Stay away from mushrooms and be cautious with berries, as many are poisonous. Instead, gather and sun-dry seaweed growing in tidal pools or even collect edible mosses.

How to know unknown food is safe?

When in doubt, go for my simplified version of the 13-step edibility test.

Reference https://ndsu.edu/pubweb/chiwonlee/plsc211/student%20papers/articles09/marissa%20wolfgram/mwolfgram/mwolfgram/fig9-5.gif

Follow these steps with ten minutes in between to see the effects. If no rash or other reaction happens, move onto the next step:

  1. Rub the potential food against your wrist, then hold a small amount against your lips, after that let it touch your tongue, then chew without swallowing and keep it in your mouth. Lastly, swallow a small amount.
  2. Wait for 8 hours to see if any strange reaction occurs before eating another small portion of the food.
  3. If nothing happened, you should be good to go. 
  4. For safety and if possible, it’s always better to cook your food prior to eating.


Priority 6: Self-defense

Arm yourself against any potential animal attack. Though deserted islands generally won’t have many man-eating creatures roaming around, you still want to be able to defend yourself. That spear you made for hunting will get you a long way, but there are a few more tips to stay safe.

How to stay safe on a deserted island?

  1. Walk slow and deliberate when passing through the forest. Watch where you step and stomp loud enough so that snakes know that you’re coming.
  2. Avoid dim holes and caves, as they may house dangerous animals. 
  3. Avoid the deep waters, to avoid being attacked by sharks.
  4. Protect yourself against mosquitoes, other creatures, and the burning sun by rubbing yourself with mud.

Takeaway

You can’t really prepare yourself for a plane crash or a shipwreck and even less for a prolonged stay on a deserted island. Nevertheless, if fate would decide to dump you in such a place with nothing man-made at hand, a healthy mindset, and the knowledge of how to survive without anything manmade could just be your ticket home.

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