How to Survive in the Jungle

By: Charles W. Bryant
A lush forest of tall trees outdoors.
The dense canopy of the jungle doesn't let much light reach into the forest floor. See more pictures of trees.
Jeremy Horner/Getty Images

In the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film "Apocalypse Now," a young Martin Sheen learns a valuable lesson as Capt. Ben Willard: "Never get out of the boat." In that movie, Capt. Willard and Chef, a fellow soldier, disembark from their PT boat and venture into the jungles of Vietnam in search of mangoes. What they're greeted with instead is a wild tiger with designs to eat them. Luckily, Willard and Chef make it back to the boat safe, and Willard is able to complete his mission. Just ask Col. Kurtz.

A wild tiger is just one example of what could kill you in a jungle survival scenario. You could also die from a mosquito bite carrying malaria, bacteria in collected water or a poisonous plant you ate for dinner. The good news about the jungle is that water and food are plentiful -- you just need to know what to look for and where. The bad news is the jungle's thick overhead canopy makes it nearly impossible for anyone to spot you, so you'll probably need to hike to your rescue.


Weather in a jungle environment is harsh. One thing you'll get plenty of is rain. Lots and lots of rain. The dry season in a jungle means it rains once a day. Monsoon season means a nearly constant rain. The temperatures are generally very high, along with the humidity. Low altitude jungles average about 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) with nearly 100 percent humidity. The rain will cool things down, but it's brief. After a storm rolls in, it gets even hotter and steamier. It'll also get dark much quicker in the jungle because of the thick canopy. Your days won't be shorter, but they'll seem like they are.

Jungles, or rainforests, are lush, green areas teeming with life of all shapes and sizes. They only cover about 2 percent of the Earth's surface, but they account for 50 percent of all plants and animals. If that doesn't describe how flourishing they are, consider this: A 4-square-mile (10-square-km) area of a rainforest can contain as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies [source: The Nature Conservancy].

All that life makes it both easier and more difficult to survive in the jungle. On the next page, you'll find out what dangers lurk under the dense, green canopy.

Welcome to the jungle.


Dangers of the Jungle: Jungle Animals and Plants

The mosquito may be a nuisance in the suburbs, but it can kill you in the jungle.
Ira Block/Getty Images

If you focus on any one spot in a jungle, chances are you'll see something crawling, slithering, slinking, flying or walking. Jungles are vibrant and alive, which helps when you're foraging for food. But that life can also be deadly. Here are just a few things in the jungle that can make you ill or kill you.

Poisonous plants: Plant life can be a valuable source of food energy and nutrition in any survival scenario. This is especially true in the jungle. But eating the wrong kind of vegetation can make you sick or even lead to your demise. The list of inedible plants is long, so if you're the adventurous type you should own a manual that lists edible and inedible plants in the areas you'll be exploring. Most poisonous plants will only get you sick if you ingest them, but some, like poison ivy and sumac, are poisonous to the touch.


Animals: In the jungle, you can take your pick from thousands of creatures that could harm or kill you. If you're into mammals, everything from wild boars to jaguars and cougars can pose a threat. If insects are your thing, you've got scorpions, brown recluse spiders and fire ants to consider. And, if there's one thing the jungle has plenty of, it's snakes. Coral snakes, pit vipers, cobras and the dreaded anaconda, a massive constrictor snake, are just a few of the deadly serpents you can come across. How about a nice dip in the river? Just watch out for the carnivorous piranha. See that cute yellow tree frog? Would you like to pick it up and get a closer look? Don't do it -- it's the golden poison dart frog and has enough toxins (1 mg) in it to kill 10 to 20 humans [source: Planet Science].

Water-related illness: Jungles are wet places, and sometimes being wet can be dangerous. If your feet stay wet for a prolonged period, you can develop trench foot, or immersion foot. This happens when your feet are constantly waterlogged, and infection sets in. If left untreated, this infection can lead to gangrene and eventually amputation. So keep your feet as dry as possible. You can also get sick from drinking the water in a jungle. Creeks and streams contain parasites that can make you extremely ill. All over the world, 6,000 children die each year from water-born illnesses, and many of these children live in jungles and rainforests [source: United Nations].

Mosquito-related illness: Mosquitoes in the jungle can infect you with malaria, West Nile virus, Dengue fever or yellow fever. Malaria is the worst of the bunch, killing more than 1 million people per year [source: CDC]. The most common strain of this parasitic infection, Plasmodium Falciparum, is also the most deadly. Dengue fever is a potentially deadly viral disease with more than 50 million cases reported each year. It's characterized by a high fever, rash and muscle pain. Yellow fever is another viral disease, but only found in Africa and South America. It's nearly 10 times as deadly to visitors as it is indigenous people. You'll experience fever, nausea, and stomach and muscle pain with yellow fever. West Nile virus (WNV) can spread from mosquitoes to many kinds of mammals, but is mostly found in birds. WNV isn't limited to the jungle though -- in 2003, the disease killed more than 250 people in the United States.

On the next page, we'll find out how you can find fresh drinking water in the jungle.


Jungle Survival: Finding Water

Water filter
You can fashion a water filter if you have a plastic bag. Learn more about this method in How to Find Water in the Wild.

Because jungles are so wet, collecting rainwater is probably the easiest part of survival. Leaves on the rainforest floor are large because of the limited amount of sunlight they get. The larger the leaf, the more of the sun's rays it can soak up. Large leaves are useful in collecting dew and rainwater. If you have a container to store water, simply angle a leaf into it overnight or during a rainstorm and you have some fresh drinking water in no time. If you have a poncho, tie it to a tree on a slant to allow the rain to collect and drain. If it tastes a little funny, it's because rainwater lacks certain minerals found in groundwater or streams.

You'll fare even better if you can find a running water source. Animals need water, so look for wildlife or animal tracks to lead you to a stream. If you find a stream, don't just start drinking; it could contain parasites that can make you seriously ill. You should purify the water by boiling it over a fire --10 minutes is a good rule of thumb. Boiling water means you need fire and a container of some kind. If you don't have a container, you can probably find an aluminum or tin can in most any natural environment.


Believe it or not, plastic bottles also work for boiling. One method is to completely fill the bottle with water, cap it and drop it into some hot coals. The lack of air in the bottle should keep it from melting. If you don't have enough water to fill the bottle, suspend it above the fire with rope or vine so the flames just touch the bottom. The risk of boiling in a plastic bottle is that your collection device could melt.

Green bamboo has clear and odorless water inside it that you can drink. To access it, bend the top of a tree down about a foot off the ground and tie it off. Cut a few inches off the tip, put a container underneath and leave it overnight. The next day, you should have some drinkable water.

Solar still
A solar still can help you collect drinking water.

Another way to collect water is to make a solar still. To do this, you'll need some plastic sheeting or a poncho, a digging tool, a container and a rock.

  • Choose a moist area that gets sunlight for most of the day.
  • Dig a bowl-shaped hole about 3 feet across (91 centimeters) and 2 feet deep (60 centimeters), with an additional sump, or deeper pit, in the center.
  • Place the container into the sump.
  • Place the plastic over the hole and cover the sides with rock and soil to keep it secure.
  • Put your rock in the center of the sheet and let it hang down about 18 inches (45 centimeters), directly over the container, to form an inverted cone.

The moisture from the ground reacts with the heat from the sun to produce condensation on the plastic. The sag in the plastic forces the condensation to run down and into your container. A successful still can produce up to 1 quart of drinking water per day.

These are just a few methods you can use. Read more techniques in How to Find Water in the Wild. But first, skip ahead to the next page and learn about what edible plants and animals you can find in the jungle.


Survive the Jungle: Finding Food

Insects are eaten all over the world by children of all ages.
Franz Lemmens/Getty Images

Besides water, the other thing you'll need to survive in the jungle is food. Your dining choices largely revolve around edible plants, fruit, insects and fish. Unless you have a guidebook on edible plant varieties, you'll need to figure it out on your own. It can be deadly to eat a plant you're unsure of, so it's better to try and find food elsewhere than to risk eating a toxic plant. You can follow these general rules when foraging for plants:

  • Avoid plants with white or yellow berries.
  • Don't eat mushrooms. Some are safe, but many are highly toxic and even deadly, so it's not worth the risk.
  • Avoid plants with thorns.
  • If it tastes bitter or soapy, spit it out.
  • Steer clear of shiny leaves.
  • Stay away from plants with leaves in groups of three.
  • Stay away from plants with umbrella-shaped flowers.
  • Avoid beans or plants with seeds inside a pod.
  • Milky or discolored sap is a warning sign.
  • Avoid anything with an almond smell.

You can also use the universal edibility test to check whether a plant is edible. It involves steps like rubbing the plant on your skin and lips and holding it in your mouth to see if there's an adverse reaction. You can read about how to perform this test in detail in What is the universal edibility test?.


Fruit can be found throughout the jungle. Depending on where you are, you can find everything from mangoes and bananas to wild yams and sugarcane. Coconuts are a good food source in tropical jungles, as is sugarcane, figs, papaya and taro root. Familiarize yourself with local edible fruits before you travel to any jungle or rainforest.

Insects are another good source of protein. More than 1,400 varieties are eaten regularly everywhere on Earth aside from the United States, Canada and Western Europe [source: IRIN News]. The practice is called entomophagy, and it's been around for centuries. Unfortunately, there isn't a dead giveaway to tell if a bug is edible unless you know what you're doing. But there are some general guidelines you can use to help you decide:

  • Steer clear of brightly colored insects.
  • Avoid insects that are extremely pungent.
  • Don't eat hairy critters or bugs that bite or sting.

Worms, grubs and termites are everywhere in the jungle and are all a great protein source. If you had fresh water, you could survive for months on insects alone. Beetles can also make for a hearty meal, but some carry parasites. A good way to make sure you're safe is to cook it. A good boiling or slow roast will usually negate the effect of harmful toxins.

So you don't fancy plants and insects? You're more of a meat-and-potatoes man? OK then, Rambo, grab that spear and we'll go fishing on the next page.


Survival Fishing in the Jungle

With a little practice, you can catch fish using a spear, just like your favorite jungle tribesman.

Plants, fruits and insects are a valuable survival commodity, but if you really want a good source of protein you're going to have to test your mettle as a fisherman. Hunting for meat is possible, but it's very difficult and can be dangerous. There aren't many mammals in the jungle you'd want to eat anyway. In fact, more protein can be found in the desert than on the floor of a rainforest [source: The Nature Conservancy]. Hunting techniques like stalking and spearing, using a sling or a homemade blow gun are passed down for generations in native tribes and are very difficult to master. They'd likely just lead to wasted energy and no food. Then there's the fact that you can't keep meat fresh for very long. All in all, unless you're an experienced survivalist, your energy is better spent fishing than hunting.

The Amazon River is home to more than twice the number of fish species than the Atlantic Ocean. One of these is the piranha. They're edible, but don't really have much meat on them, so try to focus on other fish. Despite their reputation, piranhas don't typically bother humans, but avoid getting into the water if you have an open wound -- they're attracted to the scent of blood. There's also a species of catfish called the pirarucu. It's the largest freshwater fish in the world, and just one of these giants can yield as much as 150 pounds (70 kg) of meat.


Unless you have a survival kit with some fishing gear, spear fishing is probably your best bet. Bamboo is plentiful in the jungle and makes a great spear. After you find a 6- to 8-foot (1.8- to 2.4-meter) piece of bamboo,

  • make two intersecting crosscuts at one end about 6 inches (15 cm) deep, creating four prongs.
  • separate the prongs by wedging vine into the crevices.
  • sharpen the prongs with a knife or sharp rock.

Just like that, you have a four-pronged fishing spear. Now comes the tricky part -- spearing the fish. Once you're at the river or stream, find a rock to stand on or wade into knee-deep water. Move slowly and deliberately to avoid scaring away the fish. Hold the spear with both hands, with the sharp end a couple of feet from the surface. This allows you to strike fast when you see your prey. Once you spot a fish, stand still and wait for it to swim close to you. Once it's within range, jab quickly and forcefully and try to pin the fish either on a rock or the bed of the stream. Just remember that practice makes perfect. You may not land one on your first go-round, but keep at it and you'll eventually get the hang of it.

Once you have your fish, cook it to improve the taste. You don't need a skillet or deep fryer -- all you need is a fire and some rocks for a primitive oven:

  • Heat 6 to 8 medium-sized rocks in the fire for two to three hours.
  • Dig a hole in the dirt 1 foot deep and 2 feet across (30 and 60 cm).
  • Carefully move the hot rocks into the hole using a tree branch.
  • Wrap your fish several times over in large, non-toxic green leaves and tie it off with vine. Banana tree leaves are large and safe to use.
  • Sit the wrapped fish on top of the rocks and cover it all with dirt.
  • After about an hour, dig up the fish and enjoy your cooked meal.

Now that you have some fresh water and a nice 200-pound catfish roasting on the fire, why don't you get a little civilized and build a home for yourself? Find out how on the next page.



Building a Shelter in the Jungle

A simple A-frame tent can protect you from the elements. But who will protect you from yourself?

A good shelter is important for many reasons. It shields you from the elements, hides you from wildlife intruders and provides the psychological comfort needed to remain calm and in control -- a survival necessity.

When choosing a place to build your shelter, stay near a source of water if possible and avoid natural hazards like dead trees and cliffs. Make use of anything you find or already have with you. A length of rope and some ripped plastic sheeting or poncho can be of great use in the jungle. For a basic rain shelter, simply tie the poncho or plastic between four trees to form a canopy. You can fashion a tent shelter by running rope down the center of the poncho between two trees and staking the sides into the ground using sticks to create an A-frame. Another simple lean-to shelter can be made by tying two opposite corners of the poncho to trees. The other end slants diagonally to the ground and can be secured with stick stakes or heavy rocks.


If you don't have any rope, build a one-person tent from tree branches:

  • Take a forked tree branch and wedge it into the ground about a foot deep, with the "Y" pointing up.
  • The ridgepole is the center ceiling support and should be straight and sturdy. Run it from the ground to the fork, resting in the "Y."
  • Create an "A" for the tent door by resting sturdy diagonal branches opposite each other that meet at the fork.
  • Use vine to lash together all three support points.
  • Create a ribbed frame with branches set diagonally along the ridgepole, wide enough so you have room inside.
  • Once you have your frame built, drape your cover over the top and stake it down with sharp sticks.
Shelter options
There's no snow in the jungle, but that won't stop us from showing you every possible shelter option.

If you don't have a poncho or any kind of plastic sheeting, build one from natural items. It's basically the same method, but you use foliage to cover the frame. Natural materials can be effective insulators and rain shields. After you build the frame, use branches, palm fronds and any other large leaves for your roof. Think of your shelter roof as being shingled like a house. Work in layers from the ground up and keep the branches pointed down for rainwater runoff.

You can read more about other sheltering techniques in How to Build a Shelter. On the next page, you'll learn how to travel through the jungle.


Moving Through the Jungle

Reading schemp
Reading may be fundamental, but if this guy doesn't pay attention he'll get his face mauled by a hungry puma.
Oliver Strewe/Getty Images

So you're stuck in the jungle and you have food, water and anaconda.

If you have the option of wearing long sleeves, do so even though it's hot and humid. Avoiding cuts and scratches means you're avoiding potential infection. When making a path where there is none, don't look directly in front of you. Look 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) ahead for natural breaks in the foliage and stay on that course. Common survival advice is to try and look "through" the jungle instead if at it. Also keep an eye on the ground, as it may expose a slightly covered trail. To avoid walking in circles, pick out a fixed object like a tree about 100 feet (30 meters) in front of you and walk to it. Then pick out another behind you. This will keep your course nice and straight.


Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife danger -- snakes, jaguars and anything else that can be a threat. Move slowly and steadily and make sure to listen as well. If you have a machete, you're in good shape. But cut only what you need to get through the vegetation or you'll tire out. Remember, you aren't establishing a trail for everyone else to follow, just yourself. Find a long walking stick to part the vegetation directly in front of you or to move any varmints you might encounter. Using a stick will also help move biting ants, spiders or snakes.

There may be natural trails made by animals that you can follow. These trails often lead to water or clearings that will improve your chances of getting spotted. But only use these trails if they're heading in the direction you want to go.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "AMAZON RIVER FISH…Among the Most Feared and Biggest on Earth." 2008.
  • "Diseases." 2008.
  • "Facts about Rainforests." 2008.
  • "International Year of Fresh Water 2003." United Nations.
  • "Jungle Survival - Start a fire but don't burn down the forest." 2008.
  • "Jungle survival overview." 2008.
  • "Thailand: Whisky on the rocks and some bamboo worms, please." IRIN News. Feb. 26, 2008.
  • "Tropical Survival." 2008.
  • "Tropical Weather." 2008.
  • "Virtual Jungle - Survival." BBC. 2008.