This is your priority. Have a scout about for any flowing water or sitting water first and if not, try digging near any lush vegetation. Check in cracks in rocks and pockets in trees but don’t drink water out of pools with no vegetation round them or animal skeletons nearby. Other (live) animals will not usually be too far from a water source either so see where they’re going. Any kind of plastic can be hooked around vegetation and used to collect condensation. Definitely don’t drink urine or sea water, but you can collect condensation from them using the same plastic – same with mashed up plants. If there are coconuts, smash the outer husk off with a sharp stick buried in the ground then smash them off rocks for the milk and meat. If you have trouble finding a lot of water you will have to try and cut down on the amount you’re sweating so avoid unnecessary exertion and stay out of the sun.
Lay of the land
See if you can make it to a high point and look for good stuff like rivers, ponds, holiday resorts. If you decide to move try and plot your way avoiding cliffs, ravines and thick undergrowth. But get familiar with the island.
Your best bet initially is fruit or vegetables that you can positively identify, but if you can only find varieties you’re not sure about there are a few steps to take to make sure you won’t poison yourself. Break a bit of the leaf up and make sure it doesn’t smell of almonds or peaches – this is bad news. Rub a bit on your skin to see if there’s any burning or reaction. If there isn’t, rub a bit on your lip as well. The next step is to eat some, but don’t eat too much – leave it a few hours and see if you get a reaction like diahorrea or stomach pains. You’ll have to avoid other foods during this time so if you do get sick you know what it’s from. Mushrooms are bad news unless you know your fungi, but insects can be good if you get them in large supply. Depending on the size and terrain of the island you may have to suffice with raw shellfish and birds eggs. If possible, try and get meat or fish.
Hunting and fishing
You may struggle to survive in any real sense on insects, molluscs and unidentified leaves, so if you can find at least a pointy stick you can try fishing and hunting. You may stumble across a dead carcass but it may have died of disease or may be rotten – neither of these are particularly good eating. Fishing will probably have to be attempted without hooks or a net so find a long stick and try lashing it together with several smaller sticks, sharpened with flint or another stone to make a trident. Wade into the water and wait, or wait on the rocks, before striking. It will be long and boring. With hunting, you may have to make a spear – with a flint head if possible – but you could also try making a catapult or slingshot. Look for droppings, tracks, burrows and nests. There are numerous traps that can be made for large and small animals, but even for the simplest snare you will need at least a piece of wire. If you’re lucky enough to have some, you need to make small loops in both ends then push one end of the wire through the other, making a slipknot. Rest the loop on a couple of small sticks and attach the other end of the wire to a tree stump or heavy rock. Do this on a track or near a burrow and hopefully an animal will run through and ensnare its neck or ankle in the slipknot.
Romantic as it might sound, sleeping under the stars on your desert island will probably not be your first choice, so you’re going to have to sort something out using what’s available. It’s possible that the island was inhabited at some stage so look for remnants of other shelters. Failing that, branches resting up against each other will form the skeleton of any new shelter and big fronds like those from palms will make a good rain-resistant roof. Look for felled trees as a starting point too. You can also explore caves, but watch out for those too close to the sea – they may become cut off during high tide or a spring tide. Wait and watch for a while before moving in.
If you’ve got matches or a lighter then God be praised, but if not, things are about to get a lot more frustrating. You can of course survive without it, but fire will make food more edible, dirty water safe and boost your morale no end. Plus, what else do you have to do all day? You will need to prepare first by getting together tinder – flaky birch bark, pine needles, dry grass etc. – kindling and dry and green firewood. The last thing you want is to finally get a fire and have to rush off to get things while the fire goes out. But the real challenge it getting the spark. For this you will need a stick of hardwood (birch, oak, teak etc.) and a piece of softwood (pine, bamboo etc.). The trick is simply to rub the stick either backwards and forwards along a groove in the softwood or spin the stick in a drilling motion on the softwood while applying pressure. If you can make a bow out of a sapling and a shoelace or other material this can be wound round the stick for greater speed. When the end of the stick glows red, get it in the tinder and pray.
Eventually you'll want to make contact with the outside world or what's left of it. Unless of course you’re having a ball on your paradise island. Fire is by far your best bet, but unless you have matches or a lighter – or have mastered the ‘two sticks’ approach – this is going to be difficult. If you do have fire, use green material to create the most smoke. You might also consider setting off on your own. Your island may be part of a larger group so if you can see the next one, try there. Swimming might be an option, but take some kind of buoyancy aid so you can rest. Check out the currents by throwing something that will float into the sea beforehand and watching where it ends up. Making a raft is a possibility and will involve lashing together bits of wood. Bamboo is good, but it is difficult to create a stable and cohesive structure out of anything that will survive the rigours of the sea. If you can’t see the next land mass you are taking your life in your hands with no fresh water available.
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