Camping & Survival

This Ain’t No Gilligan’s Island…Survive Being Stranded on an Island

Palm Frond Lean-to

Quite frankly, I really can’t imagine what the likelihood of this happening to you is, but I know for a fact that it could and has. Most stories I found of people being “stranded” on a deserted island come from adventurers and those who have actively chosen to strand themselves. Snowboarder and adventurer, Xavier Rosset did it for 300 days. However, he had a knife, some fishing line, and a lighter. Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration behind the novel, Robinson Crusoe, survived four years on a deserted island. And not by choice. He had a gun, though. Juana Maria was abandoned on San Nicolas Island for 18 years before she was “rescued.”

It could be worse...
It could be worse…

To be honest, if I had to be stuck or stranded anywhere, a deserted island would be my top choice. Besides the rats and mosquitoes, there is actually an abundance of natural resources on a tropical island that will aid in your survival. Besides that, think about the nice glow you would have when you returned to civilization.

Regardless of how you were stranded, either by plane crash or boating accident, you will immediately be in need of three things: fresh water, food, and a rain-proof (ish) shelter. I recommend that if there is even the remotest possibility of being stranded out in the South Pacific somewhere, bring along a bulk pack of lighters, a machete, and a fishing kit. Probably some sunscreen and mosquito repellent, too. And some plastic sheeting. This will come in handy when you have to build a solar still to desalinate salt water. These luxury items will make your time on the island a ton more bearable, not to mention easier.

All the teeny islands I’ve spent time on have not had a source of natural fresh water, but if you’re lucky, the one you get stuck on will. First order of business is to find water. Hopefully, you can find a fresh water stream on the island. Make sure to boil the water before you drink it. If there isn’t any fresh water to be found, you will need to build a solar still to remove the salt from the ocean water. Do not drink ocean water without removing the salt. Besides being gross, salt water will dehydrate you and make the need for fresh water more serious.

This is what a coconut really looks like
This is what a coconut really looks like

Among a 100 other things, coconuts are an excellent source for water. Coconuts in the wild do not look like the nice brown fuzzy things you buy in the grocery store. Coconuts are large and covered with a heavy-duty green shell. Coconuts that you find on the ground will provide some good eatin’, but will not provide an ample supply of water. The young coconuts still hanging in trees will be filled with water. You will have to climb the tree to retrieve these coconuts. I have seen Indonesians shimmy up a coconut tree, bare-footed, in no seconds flat to cut down a fresh coconut. Chop off the tip of it off with a hatchet or machete and drink up. The liquid inside is clearish and thin. To me, it is kind of tasteless. The meat inside tastes nothing like the sweetened coconut you buy for baking. The meat inside of a young coconut is not hard, but rather stringy, sort of like the innards of a pumpkin. I scraped it out with my fingers to eat it. It, like the water, does not have a strong taste.

Coconuts also make an excellent source of kindling and “charcoal.” I’ve had fresh lobster grilled over coconut shells. Best lobster I have ever had in my entire life.

One word of caution about coconuts: generally an adult can handle drinking about four coconuts a day before an adverse reaction happens. Too much coconut acts as a laxative. So securing a source of fresh water is imperative. The coconuts should act as a secondary choice or be used in an emergency.

The coconut tree will also provide a nice libation for you. To make palm wine, slice the tip of a flower from a coconut tree and then collect the sap that comes out. Fermentation of the sap begins right away. It should fully ferment in about eight hours. Palm “wine” only stays good for 24 hours, so you should drink it right away. And who wouldn’t? What else do you have to do?

Palm Frond Lean-to
Palm Frond Lean-to. Photo by

After you have secured a way to get fresh water, then work on building a shelter. Look for branches shaped like a “Y” to create a frame. Cover the top with palm leaves. You can use the palm leaves to make a cozy bed, as a fan, shred them up to make fishing lines or twine to tie branches together for your shelter.

Once you have your shelter, go hunting for food. (I hope you like seafood!) If you don’t have a fishing kit, you can sharpen a long branch for a harpoon to try your luck at spear fishing. You can also search under rocks and pools for crustaceans and snails. Ants, grub worms, and grasshoppers all make safe eating as well. Kelp and seafood are safe to eat raw either fresh or dried out. Xavier Rosset made a trap by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with palm leaves. Overnight, he trapped a baby pig. Instead of eating it though, he kept it as a pet. You can choose to do this for a companion. (Name it Wilson.) If there is one baby pig, there will probably be another pig, so you can eat the next ones you trap.

There are certain things you should stay away from eating, unknown plants, mushrooms, anything that smells like almonds, jellyfish, spiny fish, puffer fish, and fish that look like they have beaks should all be avoided.

Take a survival kit, even if it is just for a 3 hour tour.
Take a survival kit, even if it is just for a 3-hour tour.

On your second or third day, once you have water, food, and shelter, you should work on a plan to be rescued. A triangle is the universal sign for distress. Make a giant triangle out of rocks, or coconuts, or downed trees and large branches. You can also dig a giant, “HELP” or “S.O.S.” sign in the sand. Or you could just choose to stay there. On your tropical, unspoiled paradise, no Obamacare, no boss, no bills… doesn’t sound like such a bad deal to me.

All of my solutions take for granted that you would have a knife with you on the island. Being shipwrecked on a deserted island would really suck if you didn’t have a knife. What would you do?

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