Survival Tips I Learned From The Martian

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Have you seen the movie The Martian? Maybe you read the book? If you haven’t done either you should, they both are well told and researched pieces of fiction. The story is about a man who’s trapped alone on Mars and is forced to survive. He’s faced with problems like not having enough water, food or air. It’s a great story of survival so I thought I would take some of the problems he had, as they could also be problems here on Earth and give possible solutions to them. So we’re going to science the stuffing out of this! (he used a more colorful phrase, but this is a family blog!)


In the movie Mark Watney (the man trapped on Mars) had an oxygen reclaimer, carbon dioxide filters, and a number of patch kits for his space suit. There were a few close calls where he had to get inside or patch his suit quickly but he was mostly prepared for air related problems.

You normally wouldn’t think of air being a problem here on Earth. However, you could find yourself trapped in a confined place with limited air like a freezer, a vault or even in a sinking car. If you do find yourself trapped in a confined space, the first thing to do is not to panic. If you panic you use up more air than you would if you are calm.

You can also try to find something to bang on the walls so someone might hear you. If you’re in a sinking car you’d think that the first thing to do is open the door and get out, but actually it’s not. Because the water pressure outside is greater than the air pressure inside, the car door won’t open until the entire interior is filled with water and the pressure is equal. So if you’re in a sinking car then you have to wait for it to fill with water; that means you’ll need to go underwater yourself, open the door and swim to the surface.

Another helpful safety precaution for any of these scenarios is to always tell someone where you are going so they can go looking for you if you don’t return in time.


Mark was able to grow his own food and during the time it took for the crops to grow he had rations left over from the mission to eat. Humans can go a long time without food but it’s still a good idea to know some basic foraging skills. Things like knowing which plants, nuts or seeds can be eaten and which ones can not. If you’re away from home for an extended amount of time like on a trip or a car trip it’s a good idea to keep some food with you like some protein bars. The bars that I like the best are Clif Builder’s Bars.


When Mark didn’t have enough water he decided to just make it himself by mixing hydrogen and oxygen. Here on earth I doubt that you’ll have hydrogen and oxygen just lying around somewhere, besides even if you did it’s probably easier to find water from a creek or river. The best way to clean water from a creek or river is with purifying tablets or a filter. If you don’t have either of those then you can always boil water. That will help kill most of the pathogens, but it won’t remove any of the chemicals.

If you can’t find water then you can take a clear plastic bag or a white trash bag and put it over the branch of a tree or bush then secure the opening around the branch. After a few minutes the water that was in the leaves of the branch will start to collect in the bottom of the bag. This works because water continually evaporates from leaves during the day and the bag simply helps collect it the condensation. The water might taste a bit odd but it shouldn’t have any pathogens or chemicals in it.This process takes a while to work, when I tried it I only produced a few tablespoons in thirty minutes, so you might want to have multiple bags tied to multiple branches.

You can also collect rain water with a bag or a bucket and you can collect the dew off of trees in the morning by rubbing a cloth against the leaves and soaking up the dew. Then squeeze the water into your mouth or a cup if you have one.

How To Start A Fire

On the Mars station NASA had made everything fireproof for safety. Mark had to use a wooden cross left behind by one of his crewmates as fuel and then lit it with a spark from two wires he cut. There are a lot of different ways to start a fire without matches. The first and probably one of the oldest ones is with flint and steel. You can buy a flint and steel striker at camping stores and online. Some of them come with a magnesium block. You need the magnesium block to start a fire but it is helpful because magnesium burns at high temperatures and it will help ignite your fire. For these you’ll need to shave off a few shavings and then strike the fint with the steel over it, it will burn at high temperatures and help ignite your fire.

Another method to light a fire is with a magnifying glass. Take a magnifying glass and hold it over something flammable with the sunlight shining on it. Then move it up and down until you find the focal point or where the light is the most concentrated. After a few minutes of holding at the focal point the flammable material should start to smoke and now you have an ember burning.

One more method uses steel wool and a nine-volt battery. If you take a nine-volt battery and touch it to some steel wool the current will cause the steel wool to melt. If you touch the red hot wool to something like a piece of paper it will set the paper on fire.

How To Stay Warm

Mark used a radioactive battery (used to fuel the spaceship they landed in) as a heater.

Using radioactive batteries here on earth is probably not the safest or easiest method to stay warm. An important skill is to know how to build a fire without matches. Once you have a fire going then you’ll want to make sure that your head, legs, and arms are covered up. If you’re camping or hiking in the winter then it’s a good idea to carry a space blanket with you.


Shelter wasn’t a huge problem for Mark since he already had what he and his crewmates were living in for the mission. For a shelter you can make a makeshift tent out of sticks and rope if you have them. You make an A-frame out of sticks then throw something like a tarp or a few t-shirts over it. If you have rope then you can use it to secure your shelter to a tree to help stabilize it.

If you get trapped in a snowstorm then you can build a snow cave by digging out a small cave in the snow and then seal it after you’re inside. This will not only give you a shelter but it will also help keep the heat in as well.

Most of the time your shelter will depend on where you are. If you need to keep warm in the forest, but there is no snow then you can use the leaves as a blanket and that will help keep the heat in.

If you’re on a tropical island then the beach is probably the safest place to be if heat is not an issue; it will keep you away from snakes or bugs that are more inland. If there is a storm coming then you should get high enough on the beach to where you are under some trees and away from the tide, but don’t go into the dense forest. If you are on an island that is farther away from the equator then you’ll probably have to go inland since it will get cold on the beach.

If you are in a place that has weather extremes like the desert then there’s not much you can do for shelter. Though you should make sure that your exposed skin is covered in the daytime when it’s the hottest. In this situation you should rest in the daytime when it’s hot and travel at night when it’s cooler.


For navigation Mark used one of Mars’ moons and the stars to tell him where he was. If you’re going any place that you are not familiar with it’s a good idea to bring a map and a compass. If you don’t have a compass and it’s a clear day then you can just look at the sun. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West and if you’re facing East then North will be to the left and south will be to the right. If you’re facing West then North will be to right and South will be to the left.

Navigating at night is a bit harder. Finding the north star is the one of the best ways to do it. There are two ways I know how to find. The first is that the North star is the last star in the tail of the little dipper. The second is to find Cassiopeia which looks like an M in the sky. The left side of the M will point to the north star.

If you know someone is looking for you then you might want to stay where you are so they can find you. If you trapped in your car in the snow then you probably want to stay where you are since your car is the best shelter and you can wait out the snowstorm inside the shelter of your car. You shouldn’t get out of your car unless you can see a better shelter like a building.


To communicate with NASA Mark found an old Mars probe and fixed it’s radio. Probably the best way to get someone’s attention, since you probably won’t find a probe, is a signal fire. Once you have a fire going you can throw dead leaves or pine needles on it. This will create a lot of smoke and if you get enough of it, it can be seen for miles.

Another way to communicate is with a signal mirror. A signal mirror is just a small mirror that when you bounce a light off of it can be seen from high up in the air. A signal whistle can also help you get someone’s attention. A signal whistle is a whistle that’s much louder than a normal whistle and can be heard from a long distance.

If you take a cell phone with you then you should turn it off when you are not using it since this will save the battery. If calling doesn’t work then you can try text and sometimes that will get through when calling won’t. A Ham radio can also be used for communication in an emergency. So if you are thinking about getting your license then you probably should because it might save your life some day.

First Aid

The supplies that Mark and his crew-mates brought with him had plenty of things for first aid and they were all trained in first aid as well. It’s a good idea to know first aid wherever you are but especially if you’re out in the woods. Things like knowing how to treat cuts and stop bleeding. Also how to treat broken limbs, insect bites and stings. For minor burns you’ll want to rinse the area with cool water. You can learn more basic first aid here.

If you have any more survival tips or ideas for survival, whether here on Earth or on other planets, please share them in the comments below.