Rainforest Survival: What to Do When Lost in a Rainforest

You’ve seen it before in TV shows or movies: a plane crashes, and somehow, the survivors end up in dense rainforest in the middle of nowhere. In the heart of the tropics, they end up battling boggy swamps, stifling humidity, and enormous wild animals never seen before.

Now, don’t go all Indiana Jones just yet.

In real life, getting lost in a rainforest is a very dangerous scenario. But it’s not as deadly as Hollywood wants you to believe.

Unbeknownst to many, rainforests are actually home to millions of people, most of them members of indigenous tribes who depend on the jungle for their day-to-day provisions. Rainforest survival may be a major and nerve-wracking challenge, especially for someone unfamiliar with the area, but getting through this humid jungle is not impossible either.

What Makes a Forest a Rainforest?

a key part of rainforest survival is knowing what you're dealing with

Before we dive into rainforest survival, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Rainforests are usually located in the tropics, where the climate is warm and wet. You can find many dense rainforests in Southeast Asia, South and Central America (the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon Rainforest, is located here), and parts of Australia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Unlike arid deserts that experience little to no rainfall, tropical rainforests experience as high as 177 inches of rain each year. The combination of moisture and heat is conducive to the growth of many plant and animal species, making rainforests teem with life and vegetation.

Rainforests are composed of layers.

The topmost is called the emergent layer, which is made up of the tallest trees. The bottom layer comprises the forest floor, which gets little sunlight, thanks to the thick foliage. Between the emergent layer and the forest floor lies the canopy layer, which houses most of the living things in the forest, and the understory layer, which is composed of many shrubs, large predators, and insects.

This rich biodiversity is probably what makes a rainforest so dangerous to those unfamiliar with the area. Since everything thrives in the jungle, it’s not uncommon to encounter predators like crocodiles, snakes, jungle cats, and disease-carrying insects. The sheer density of trees and undergrowth can get anyone lost.

Rainforest Survival 101

Rainforests can span thousands—if not millions—of miles, so seeking help or finding your way back to civilization can be difficult.

So what will you do if you ever find yourself lost in the heart of the jungle? Can you ask for help and find your way out? Until help arrives, what will you do to stay alive?

Here’s how to survive in the rainforest:

Secure Shelter and Protection

As with any survival situation, safety and shelter from the elements are your top priorities in terms of rainforest survival. Building a shelter in the rainforest isn’t a problem—you’ll have plenty of raw materials to help you make one to combat the humidity, protect you from sudden rain showers, or keep critters away.

When choosing a location, pick one away from large bodies of water or other low-lying, flood-prone areas. Be wary of signs of wild animals—build your rainforest survival shelter away from their nests or lairs.

One of the easiest shelters to make is an A-frame shelter. You can also build a lean-to with a leaf canopy. You can construct a thatched roof using palm fronds and other wide leaves. If you’ve got a tarp with you, much better. This will help keep the rain out.

Bamboo is a sturdy and flexible material you can also find in many tropical rainforests. Along with cordage from vines, you can construct a decent shelter with a length of bamboo.

Since many creatures lurk on the damp ground, you’d want to make yourself a nice, raised bed (or a bed shed if you want to go the extra mile) before settling in for the night.

Signaling for Help

smoke signal being deployed

You’re one lucky (and smart) fella if you have a sat phone with you. Satellite phones use signals from orbiting satellites, so you can call for help even when you’re in the most remote places. They’ll make rainforest survival much easier.

But they can also be pretty expensive, so people who can’t afford a sat phone will have to resort to low-tech yet tried and tested methods to send out an SOS, like fire and smoke signals.

Three fires arranged in a triangle is an internationally recognized signal for help. Using young and green boughs and sticks to stoke your fire can create smoke, which can be seen from long distances and used to signal for aid.

Using a mirror to send out a signal also helps a great deal since its flash can be seen from long distances and can call the attention of a passing aircraft or air rescue team.

Leaving marks or tracks on the trail can possibly lead rescuers to where you are.

Water, Water Everywhere

close up shot of water

One thing to know about rainforest survival? Things can get really humid. A short trek will have you sweating like a pig.

Fortunately, you have plenty of water sources to replenish all that lost fluid. You simply have to know where to find them and, more importantly, how to make them safe for consumption.

Large bodies of water can be murky and contaminated with nasty things. Gather drinking water as near the source as possible (springs and small streams are your best bet). Always filter and sterilize before drinking.

Take advantage of the heavy precipitation in these areas and collect rainwater for drinking. The large leaves of some plants can serve as containers if you have none.

Vines are also a good source of hydration when surviving in the rainforest. The bigger the vine, the more water it should contain. Don’t just hack away and drink, though. If that vine secretes white, sticky, or foul-smelling sap, stay away from it. You’ll want clear fluid coming out of those vines.

You can also check this article out for other ways to find water in the wild.

Fire Is Not Just for Warmth

woman staring at a campfire

You probably won’t freeze to death in a humid rainforest, but it’s always prudent (and downright sensible) to build a fire. It will allow you to cook your food, purify your water, and, more importantly, it will keep predators from getting near your camp.

Many wild animals, like large jungle cats and snakes, are nocturnal and hunt mostly at night. Keeping a fire will ward them off. A nice, roaring campfire will also give you a bit of optimism and peace of mind. And, as mentioned earlier, it can serve as a signal for rescue.

Know What to Eat (and Avoid Getting Eaten, While You’re at It)

From wild edibles to small game, the rainforest is literally crawling with things you can eat. You just have to be careful and know what you’re consuming. Don’t forget: rainforests are home to thousands of plant species, and a lot of them are poisonous.

Never eat a plant you don’t recognize. Stay away from mushrooms and other fungi if you’re not sure they are edible. On the other hand, fruits like papaya, banana, and mangoes grow in abundance in these regions, so take sustenance from those instead.

You can hunt and trap animals like birds, pigs, monkeys, or small rodents. Fish are also abundant in the many winding rivers and other bodies of water. You can fashion traps out of bamboo stalks, bark, or fronds to catch these guys.

Rivers can also be a good source of supplies, like edible plants. They aren’t without threats, though—leeches, snakes, and other dangerous animals like caimans can also be found in these areas. Be careful and take necessary precautions.

Other Threats to Look Out For

a worm wrapping its body around an animal

Sometimes, the biggest threats to rainforest survival come in small packages. Insects like mosquitoes are carriers of serious diseases like dengue fever, yellow fever, and malaria. These diseases are endemic in most tropical countries and can very well kill you, especially when medical help is out of reach.

Your clothing should help protect you against these insects, but when they can’t, slather on some insect-repellent lotion to keep them away. Plants like lemongrass are natural insect repellents. You can use its oil as a DIY insect repellent.

The jungle is also teeming with leeches. These little buggers are sneaky and can suck a lot of blood before you even notice they’re there. They usually fall off when they’ve had their fill, but having a handful of these parasites sucking your blood is just nasty. Yanking them out will often leave their teeth embedded into your skin, which just opens another can of worms, so to speak.

Instead, identify its anterior end (the smaller end) and gently release the leech’s suction using a fingernail. Do the same to the posterior end and flick the leech off. You can check the video here if you’ve got a stomach for a graphic tutorial. Don’t forget to treat the wound promptly to avoid infection.

Final Thoughts

All in all, being lost in a rainforest can be alarming, but there are worse places to be stuck.

Surviving in the rainforest can be quite daunting, especially if you find yourself lost in the dense jungle with seemingly no way to reach for help. But if you have a clear mind, you’ll soon see that the rainforest actually provides many things that you might need for survival until help comes—you just have to know where to find them and how to harness them to your advantage.

The most important step in rainforest survival is the first one: do not panic. Panicking will only make you lose your sense of direction and cloud your common sense. Don’t fight the rainforest if you wish to stay alive. Instead, do your best to adapt to it. It can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible, especially for a prepper who knows what they’re doing.

Have other rainforest survival tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

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