How to Survive on a Deserted Island (For Real)

Louis Jordan knows all too well what it takes to survive in the unknown, with nothing but your wits to guide you. Like a plot ripped from a Hollywood movie, Jordan found himself stranded in the Atlantic Ocean. The rookie sailor had taken his sailboat out along the South Carolina coast when it capsized, breaking his shoulder, the boat’s mast and every electronic lifeline he had on board. Unable to repair the mast with his injured shoulder, Jordan floated out to sea for 66 days.

Living off of rainwater and fish, Jordan was finally found by a container ship that spotted the floundering sailor. It took Jordan ingenuity and a little luck to make it out alive. Would you be able to? 

Take a page out of Tom Hanks’ book and learn how to survive on a deserted island (Wilson not included). After all, being washed ashore a tropical island with warm sunshine and abundant nature isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Beautiful Deserted Island

Assess the damage. You’re in unknown territory without doctors to turn to, so every injury becomes a risk. Any cut can quickly become infected when hand sanitizer is lacking. Attend as best you can to any obvious gashes, wrapping wounds in makeshift tourniquets made from the fabrics of your clothes.  

Take inventory of what danger surrounds. Coral beneath the water’s surface has razor sharp edges that will cut you – and your journey short. Be wary of plants you don’t recognize. You never know which one shoots out barbs like spears, or has berries that poison. Test if something is safe to eat by breaking it open and rubbing it on the inside of your arm. Wait 10 to 20 minutes to see if any swelling, rashes or pain occurs. If nothing happens, there’s a better chance that it’s harmless to eat. 

Your biggest enemy on a deserted island is actually the thing that has you seeking out tropical destinations in the first place – the sun. In this situation, though, dismiss the goal of attaining a healthy glow. Too much time in the sun will dehydrate you of the most precious resource of them all, water. Without any relief, your tan can also quickly turn to a debilitating burn.

Seek out shade and coconut trees. The oil from a coconut can act as an improvised suntan lotion. The coconut may be your savior – the fruit also aiding as a water supply, food and bowl. Even the outer rusk can be used as tinder for a fire once it’s scraped off. To get at the good stuff, hit the middle of the coconut with a blunt rock. Hit it firmly, and rotate the coconut to continue the process around its perimeter. 

Water. It’s the source of all life, and the biggest barrier between you and survival. And the irony is not lost that while the island may be surrounded by H2O, you can’t drink any of it. Saltwater actually leaves your body more dehydrated than it was before you drank it, as your system attempts to flush out the extra salt it’s not meant to consume. That leaves you with limited options for procuring this lifesaving resource.

Search for a stream or spring right away. If you can’t find one, begin plan B and set up anything that can collect rainwater. This is where those coconut husks come in handy, serving as bowls and buckets. You can wait for rain, or track down caves where water will likely be dripping down from its damp interior. 

Ask yourself, WWTHD (What Would Tom Hanks Do)? Try creating a still. Dig a hole and put some sort of container in the bottom, and surround the container with damp leaves. Put a tarp or piece of plastic sheeting over the hole and keep it down with the weight of rocks, with a single rock in the center. Water will then begin to collect and fall into the can. 

S.O.S. message written in the sand

The good news is tropical islands are rife with fresh vegetation. It’s deciding which options are OK to eat where the problems begin. For shellfish, follow this general rule of thumb: If it’s hard to dislodge or open, it should be safe to eat. If it comes off easily and opens effortlessly, the animal or plant is likely diseased.

Fish is the most obvious abundant choice of nutrients. While back home you may be a fan of sushi, it’s better to cook them over a fire in this scenario to kill off parasites. To find fish, head to the coral where they congregate. Look for big groups and see how swift you’re snatching skills are. Steer clear of sea snakes though, they’re almost always venomous. 

Make your shelter near your source of fresh water, but also on the beach where you can keep an eye out for any ships or planes passing by. Utilize trees both for their shade and as a strong structure to build up against. A wise choice, however, is to not select a coconut tree. The thud against your head as the fruit falls could be an unwelcome alarm clock.

One thing you might not have thought of? Building your bed off the ground. You never know what’s crawling around at night. 

If you ever want to return to home sweet home, there are some things you can do besides wait around for your heroes. Head to the highest point on the shore and build a fire in the most visible spot. When somebody crosses your path (either on a ship or plane), feed the flame with slightly damp moss or branches. Have several fire piles ready that you can light on a dime. Add to the efforts by arranging rocks on the sand in patterns that make it obvious a human is there and needs help. 

You’ve conquered a deserted island, now here’s How to Survive Camping in Death Valley


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Alyssa Derby

Passionately curious about the world around her, Alyssa Derby is a self-proclaimed wanderlust aficionado. She’s tallied a count of seven countries visited, with New Zealand, Greece and Bolivia next up on the bucket list. To reminisce about past trips, s

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