How to Survive The Hunger Games

A Brief Look at Katniss's Survival Strategy

Lois H. Gresh

St. Martin's Griffin


From the beginning of The Hunger Games series, we know that Katniss Everdeen operates in survival mode on a daily basis. Her survival instincts and strategies are well honed from many years of practice. Her need to survive against all odds is the basis of the entire trilogy, and author Suzanne Collins roots this idea firmly in our minds right away. We know the series will be fraught with horror, action, adventure, tragedy, misery, and strife.

The first few pages of The Hunger Games build Katniss as a girl we like: She's kind; she loves her mother and sister. However, these opening pages also show another side of Katniss's life: We're told that her mother doesn't look quite as "beaten-down" when she's asleep, and we're told that Katniss tried to drown her sister's cat, Buttercup, when it was just a kitten. We know immediately that there's a dark side to the life of our kind girl.

Suzanne Collins jacks up the hints of upcoming horror by page four, as the tone mingles the lightness of youth and kindness with the darkness of impending trouble that we sense is beyond anything with which we might be familiar. Here, the author tells us that Katniss feeds entrails to Buttercup, that she hunts for the family's food; that today, she must once again face the reaping.

Survival instincts and strategies will be paramount to Katniss, this is very clear when we learn that she lives in District 12, the Seam, where downtrodden coal miners can barely feed their families, where even the Meadow is "scruffy," where barbed wire fences surround everyone, and usually the fences are electrified.

This is a place that needs basics such as electricity, food, work, and modern conveniences. We get the feeling that Katniss is living in medieval times, yet we're also distinctly aware that these are not medieval times at all; rather, people are executed by Peacekeepers for basically any reason at all. Everyone's starving all the time, even the people who govern.

Over the course of all three novels--The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay--Katniss uses almost every survival technique known to mankind. Hers is a dystopian post-apocalyptic society, where children are selected by lottery tickets to compete to the death in an arena reminiscent of the ancient Roman Colosseum. They battle in front of the entire population of the world as they know it; they battle on reality television. The series is like a gore-filled video game in which Katniss has no choice but to kill in hopes of saving her own skin. While battling in the arenas of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, she receives "gifts" and ponies up health points, just as she would as the heroine of a video game. But unlike a video game, Katniss suffers real losses: her friends, her sister, her own sanity are all on the line. The physical suffering is far more acute than in any video game. The emotional pain is simply unprecedented for video games, and for this reason, quality fiction still affects us in ways that video games do not.

Suzanne Collins has been widely quoted as stating that one of her main inspirations for the series came from her father's experiences fighting in Vietnam. It's clear that the author knows a lot about combat and survival techniques in early and primitive societies, as well.

Katniss has frequent nightmares, which are common in post-traumatic stress syndrome. She trains constantly for battle. She wears camouflage. She knows how to find and conserve water, food, weapons, and medical supplies. She knows how to barter for what she wants and needs. She knows how to find shelter so she can sleep without being killed. These are all aspects of real survival strategies.

And if all else fails, she's even equipped with poison berries so she can commit suicide. Not exactly a way to survive, but suicide is often used in espionage and warfare to protect the overall group.


Let's start with water, a critical resource for anyone lost in the wilds or thrust into a combat arena. Katniss clearly knows how to squeeze water from her environment, and when she needs tips, Haymitch is there to help her. His last advice to her before she first heads into the arena is to "find a source of water" (The Hunger Games, 139).

Now let's look at real techniques for obtaining water where there is none and compare what Katniss does to how it's actually done.

Obviously, you can wear camouflage, create makeshift weapons, hide behind trees, rocks, in caves, and so forth. You can improvise a lot when you're in the wild, but you can't improvise water. If you have a chemistry lab, you might be able to do it, but in the wild, you have to know how to find and leech water from all sort of environments.

Most of us depend on power grids and water that's piped into our homes, restaurants, offices, malls, and airports. If the grid goes down, the water towers are depleted very quickly, and before you know it, people must seek water from natural sources.

Similarly, if using a well, which many people still do, if it runs dry or becomes polluted or otherwise unsuitable, natural sources must be found. Quickly.

We do have lakes, ponds, and rivers. We can collect rainwater. But how do we purify the water so we don't get sick? Can it be done in the wild?

Sure it can.

With a source of springwater, you're in good shape should doomsday come. As in the arena of the Hunger Games, in a post-apocalyptic world, people will kill to access and control the water supply.

In the real world, if using an unknown source of water, the supply could be heavily contaminated with pesticides, bacteria, and other dangerous pollutants. We see no evidence of heavily polluted water in The Hunger Games series, so purification of drinking water is not a huge issue; though in Mockingjay, District 13 does purify its underground water sources.

Well water typically requires pumps, which in turn, require grid power. If the power fails, the water pressure drops, and you're dry. There are ways around this problem, such as using a photovoltaic sun-driven method of pumping well water, but installation is probably prohibitive for most people.

If necessary, most of us could collect rainwater in buckets and use it for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. If collected directly from the sky--that is, without letting it drip off the roof or down a pipe--we can drink the water, too. We've all done it as children by tipping our heads in a storm and letting the drops flow into our mouths. But rain collected from spouts could be dangerous, as it might contain coliform bacteria and other hazards.

It's wise to purify all water before drinking it regardless of whether it comes from a spring, a well, or a rainstorm. If in a populated area or someplace with farms, it's wise to distill or otherwise treat water for pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, most methods of purification, including boiling, treating with chlorine solutions, and filtering don't kill chemical toxins.

Purification should at least remove particulate matter, which you can do by pouring water through several layers of cloth. If at all possible, you should chlorinate the water or use iodine, then filter it more finely. The sizes of microorganisms vary, so for example, if using a filter (like most cloth) that traps particles that are 1.0-4.0 microns big, protozoa such a Giardia and Cryposporidium will be removed, but bacteria and viruses may flow through the filter. You might want to use filters that trap particles down to 0.0004 microns in size, which will handle viruses.

Other methods exist such as UV sterilizers that control bacteria, parasites, and viruses in shallow pools of water. These do not require chemicals and some are compact enough to carry into the woods. Other compact water filters, commonly used by campers and hikers, may require batteries.

The old-fashioned method of boiling water helps, and in many countries, people don't even bring the water to boiling point before drinking it. They use water pasteurization indicators to let them know when the water temperature reaches 149 degrees Fahrenheit (rather than boiling point, or 212 degrees), at which time, they assume all the microbes are dead.

The best bet is to heat the water above 160 degrees Fahrenheit for thirty minutes; and if the water's above 185, it will kill all pathogens after only a few minutes.

In a pinch, you can treat water with pool shock chlorination tablets or calcium hypochlorite. To do so, dissolve a tablet or a heaping teaspoon of calcium hypochlorite into several gallons of water. Make sure to use a glass or plastic container--definitely not metal, which will interact with the chemicals. Now add one part of your solution to one hundred parts natural source water.

If the water is at or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, approximately 90 percent of Giardia microorganisms, which can make you very sick, will be killed after thirty minutes. If at 40 degrees, make sure to double the time you wait before using the chlorine solution.

One of the most effective methods for sterilizing water around the world is an iodine treatment, which kills more Giardia cysts than chlorine. For example, you can fill a bottle with source water, add iodine crystals, and then shake the bottle and let it sit for an hour. At this point, you add one capful of your iodine solution to each quart of source water.

Or you can use iodine liquid, a 2 percent tincture of iodine that requires five drops per quarter of clear water and ten drops for cloudy water.

Katniss uses iodine liquid to purify water in The Hunger Games. Luckily, her backpack is equipped with a bottle of iodine, as well as a half-gallon plastic bottle with a cap. (The Hunger Games, 154) Knowing how to survive in the wild, Katniss adds "the right number of drops of iodine" and then waits half an hour (The Hunger Games, 170). It's also lucky that she doesn't happen to be allergic to iodine, which isn't too common but does affect people (who are also allergic to shellfish, oddly enough).

After sterilizing water in the wild, you need some containers that you can easily carry. It obviously helps if they're leak proof and have wide lids for easier filling. At the beginning of her first Games, Katniss has the option of trying to make it to the Cornucopia and grab water containers without being killed. Wisely, she doesn't choose to do. Luckily, she does have a half-gallon plastic bottle with a cap, and Rue has a water "skin," by contrast (The Hunger Games, 240).

It's a while before Katniss finds a water source, and she hopes that Haymitch will send water down to her in a parachute; she hopes that a sponsor will supply a gift of water, which in the context of The Hunger Games is like finding a treasure in a video game and getting ten extra "lives" or a boost in health points.

In the second book, Catching Fire, decent drinking water is more difficult to obtain. In fact, it's a major problem. This time, the Games are held in a saltwater-centric arena, where the sun is hot and the air is moist. Not having any water makes Katniss extremely thirsty, particularly given that she must hike through a jungle in such intense humidity (Catching Fire, 278). Still seeking drinking water, Katniss and Peeta later try to hike left and break through the force field and far away from the Cornucopia and saltwater. Peeta thinks they might find drinking water "between the force field and the wheel" (Catching Fire, 287). An intelligent thought, but as with all good plans, things don't quite work out the way Katniss and Peeta hope.

When the two of them come across a large rodent with a wet muzzle, they know that water must be somewhere nearby. As in a video game, just in the nick of time, a sponsor sends a gift spile in a parachute, and again using her experience in survival techniques, Katniss remembers seeing her father insert spiles into maple trees to get sap. So this is how Katniss obtains a few drops of precious water in the second book (Catching Fire, 294). Had she not been incredibly skilled in wilderness survival, Katniss never would have survived the first day of The Hunger Games, much less the subsequent death matches in Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

As a side note, many plants other than maple trees contain water. In deserts, barrel cacti will quench your thirst, and indeed, a 3.5 foot tall cactus will supply a quart of liquid. You can also drink from the roots of plants such as the desert oak and bloodwood. In other area, you can drink water from vines, from the stalks of palms, and obviously from coconuts. In addition, all of these plants contain water that you can drink: bamboo stems, which have water in their joints; umbrella tree of tropical Africa; baobab tree of Africa and Australia; and many others.

By the time Katniss reaches Mockingjay and by the time she descends down the elevators into the labyrinth of living spaces, her water is purified mechanically, as is her air (Mockingjay, 80).

It's ironic that, when chosen for the Games, Katniss has the luxury of as much pure, clean water as she wants. Not only does the tribute train include private quarters for each child, it also provides private bathrooms with hot and cold running water. Katniss marvels at the luxury because to have any warm water at home, her family must boil it (The Hunger Games, 42). Later, while preparing for the Games in the Capitol, she's even more amazed by the water luxuries of her bathroom. The shower panel has "more than a hundred options you can choose regulating water temperature, pressure, soaps, shampoos, scents, oils, and massaging sponges" (The Hunger Games, 75). The futuristic shower reminds me of the old Hanna-Barbera Jetsons cartoon. If you don't know what I mean, find some old Jetsons clips on YouTube, and you'll see the personalized bathrooms and showers. These are so futuristic they even brush George Jetson's teeth. However, rather than using water, they're ultrasonic and don't require that people remove clothing before showering.

HOW TO SURVIVE THE HUNGER GAMES Copyright © 2011 by Lois H. Gresh.