How To Survive Tropical Rainforests

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. However, it’s not as deadly as Hollywood would want 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. Surviving a tropical rainforest may be a major and nerve-wracking challenge, especially to someone who’s not familiar with the area, but getting through this humid jungle is not impossible either.

What Makes A Forest A Rainforest?

Before diving deep into the jungle, 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 is comprised of 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.

rainforest foliage

This rich biodiversity is probably what makes a rainforest so dangerous to those who are not familiar 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. And, let’s not forget, these forests can span for 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 survive?

Secure Shelter and Protection

As with any survival situation, safety and shelter from the elements are your top priorities. Building a shelter in the rainforest is not 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 to keep critters away.

In 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— make sure to build your shelter away from their nests or lairs.

One of the easiest shelters to make is an A-Frame shelter; you can also make 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 would help keep the rain out.

Bamboo is also a sturdy and flexible material that you can find in many tropical rainforests. Along with cordage from vines, you can construct a pretty nice 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

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 of places. They can also be pretty expensive, so for people who can’t afford a sat phone they 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 their flash can be seen from long distances and can call the attention of passing aircrafts or air rescue teams.

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

Water, Water Everywhere

Rainforests are very 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 all sorts of nasty things. Make sure to gather drinking water as near to 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. 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 on how to find water in the wild.

Fire Is Not Just For Warmth

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 any 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 give you a bit of optimism and peace of mind. And, as mentioned earlier, it can serve as a signal for rescue as well.

Know What To Eat (And Avoid Getting Eaten, While You’re At It)

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

Never eat a plant that you don’t recognize. Stay away from mushroom and other fungi if you’re not certain that 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 for 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 beneficial plants that you can likewise eat. Rivers are not without threats though— leeches, snakes and other dangerous animals like caimans can also be found in these areas so be careful and take necessary precautions.

Other Threats You Should Look Out For

Sometimes, the biggest threats in the rainforest 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.

a leech on an arm

The jungle is also teeming with leeches. These little buggers are sneaky and can suck out 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 (that would be 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 in. It could be quite daunting at first, 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 for 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 surviving the rainforest is the first one: do not panic. Panicking will only make you lose your sense of direction and cloud your common sense. If you wish to survive— don’t fight the rainforest. 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.

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