7 Wilderness Survival Lessons From The Swiss Family Robinson 3

“Casting my eyes despairingly around, I became gradually aware that our position was by no means hopeless…”

The Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson, written in 1812 by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss, is a classic tale of adventure and excitement… but it also teaches us some important lessons.

Throughout his book, Johann Wyss emphasizes two main themes: the importance of Christianity and self-reliance.  In a modern world were both those topics are misunderstood, this book is a refreshing reminder of the truth.

On the topic of self-reliance (i.e., survival), The Swiss Family Robinson offers a number of important lessons.

#1 Avoid Unnecessary Risks

…the boat righted itself by degrees, and the boys were so delighted that they struggled which should first leap in to have the fun of sitting down in the tubs. But it was plain to me at once that something more was required to make her perfectly safe, so I contrived outriggers to preserve the balance…

When first shipwrecked, the ship is wedged between two rocks at some distance from the shore. Looking for some means of transportation, the family cuts barrels in half to create a number of tubs. Although the four sons in the story wanted to jump in immediately, the father correctly recognized the importance of further preparation for safety.

As this part of the story demonstrates, caution is indeed the better part of valor. Particularly in the wilderness, rushing heedlessly into a potentially dangerous situation may result in a lost tool, broken bone, or even death.

#2 Find (Or Build) Shelter

We should have been badly off without the shelter of our tent, for the night proved as cold as the day had been hot…

Soon after they successfully landed on the strange shore, the Swiss family built a canvas tent from an old canvas sail.

Although food and water are also important, heat and shelter are the two most important requirements for short-term survival. A man can last for days without food or water, but, depending on the climate and season, he will quite possibly have difficulty surviving for a single night without shelter and heat.

#3 Never Be Unprepared

Except our guns and ammunition, we were taking nothing, that we might leave as much space as possible for the stowage of a large cargo.

Even though they wanted as much room as possible for the return trip (they were carrying supplies from the ship to the shore), these survivalists wisely kept their guns and ammunition at hand for emergencies.

Whenever you are in the wilderness, you should always keep your survival supplies with you. Then, if you have an emergency, you will be prepared with the right tools to handle it.

#4 Improvise When Necessary

Having no suitable needle, she had been obliged to bore the hole for each stitch with a nail, and gained great praise for her ingenuity and patience.

Although they did not have any needles, the mother in the Swiss family used her resourcefulness to find another way to sew. Although it was a slow and tedious process, she was still able to make the needed bags to transport their supplies.

When you are surviving, you will almost certainly encounter numerous situations for which you do not have the correct tool. By using your creativity, however, you can discover other ways to complete the necessary tasks without the “necessary” tools.

#5 Make Tools When Possible

I employed myself in contriving needles for my wife’s work, by boring holes at one end of one of the porcupine quills, which I did by means of a red hot nail, and I soon had a nice packet of various sizes, which pleased her immensely.

Once he had the time, the father in this story set about to create needles for his wife out of porcupine quills. Though they did not have the strength of a metal needle, these quills were still great timesavers.

If you do not have a particular tool, look for a way to make it. For instance, a hammer can be easily created out of a sturdy stick, a knife can be improvised with a sharp stone, and, with the proper knowledge, even a bow can be built with a strong branch.

#6 Prepare For Danger

I drew up the ladder and, with a greater sense of security than I had enjoyed since we landed on the island, offered up our evening prayer and retired for the night.

After building a tree fort, they were ready for almost anything. With the ladder drawn up, no dangerous animals or skulking savages could easily reach them.

Although modern survivalists will not be likely to need protection from savages, the threat from wildlife is still real. As always, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

#7 Be Intellectually Prepared

Do you see that plant with long pointed leaves and beautiful read flowers? That is the karatas. The filaments of the leaves make capital thread, while the leaves themselves, bruised, form an invaluable salve. The pith of this wonderful plaint may be used either for tinder or as bait for fish.

Because they had studied botany, the Swiss family was able to correctly identify a variety of plants that helped them survive.

Being intellectually prepared is one of the most important keys to successful survival. The perfectly equipped survival kit is useless without the proper knowledge. Proper knowledge can be a substitute for missing tools, but tools can never substitute for a lack of knowledge.


Although certain parts of The Swiss Family Robinson many seem slightly unrealistic, the book does present many sound lessons in survival.

What do you consider the most important part of survival?

3 thoughts on “7 Wilderness Survival Lessons From The Swiss Family Robinson

  1. Reply JimmyTH Jun 7,2010 8:13 AM

    This book and Robinson Crusoe were possibly the first two in a long line of survival tales that I read when I was kid. There’s certainly good advice here and there in them — the bit about knowing the plants is crucial, because it really isn’t something you can learn on the spot. You have to study that first, and there’s a lot that doesn’t come from books, only from experience. If you can recognize the dry stem of a plant with edible roots after it’s been on the ground all winter, or when the top of it’s sticking up out of a snowbank, you’re getting there. Food’s all around you if you remember where it was growing last summer. I don’t agree with the authors’ philosophies on all points, but the technical advice was pretty good.

  2. Reply bondChristian Jun 8,2010 10:24 AM

    This is one classic I’ve never actually read. I should dig into it sometime. I’ve seen the movie, though. :>)

    Thanks for the rundown. I like the way you put this together. I especially like the ‘make tools when necessary’ advice. It’s often easy to forget that step when we can do something by hand or on our own in some other way… but really making tools and thinking in that mode is excellent.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  3. Reply Stormbringer (Cowboy Bob) Jun 9,2010 2:24 PM

    Having seen the movie as a child, I had no interest in reading the book because I felt that I had sort of “done that”. But I should know better because there is usually a huge difference between a book and a movie. And I did not know that there was a Christian element in the book. But how could I know from the movie? Disney was notoriously non-Christian; just *try* to find a church in his movies.

    Since I’m out of shape and unknowing in the ways of survival (other than “don’t make sudden moves”, “don’t attract attention to yourself” and so on), I would rely on the wisdom and guidance of others who know better.

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