Simple, useful skills.
June 26, 2009 8:55 AM   Subscribe

What are some useful skills or abilities that can be learned in a short amount of time, and are never forgotten?

Examples that I can think of include knot tying, rolling (from a fall), throwing a football and of course riding a bicycle. I'd especially like to know of potentially lifesaving actions that are extremely simple, but unlikely to come up in day-to-day life (eg. Stop, drop and roll for someone who is on fire).
posted by Orange Pamplemousse to Education (42 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
CPR and abdominal thrust maneuver for choking (also, learning how to do this maneuver when alone and choking with no outside help).
posted by December at 8:59 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

How to steer out of a spin if you hit ice while driving?

You can in fact forget knot tying if you don't practice it for long enough, unfortunately.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:01 AM on June 26, 2009

Shuffling a deck of cards properly.
posted by otio at 9:01 AM on June 26, 2009

Braiding hair.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:02 AM on June 26, 2009

Driving a stick.
posted by philotes at 9:10 AM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: I'd especially like to know of potentially lifesaving actions that are extremely simple, but unlikely to come up in day-to-day life

One thing that seems like it would be simple but isn't is being able to avoid walking around in circles if you get lost in the wilderness. A simple technique to walk in a straight line (which is not as easy as it sounds) is to pick out two landmarks in the direction you want to go and line them up. Then, as you pass them, pick new landmarks further ahead, keeping them lined up with the one you passed. To find out which direction to go in the first place, there are basic things you can learn about the sun, moon, and stars that can help in navigation, as well as more complicated tricks to find a precise direction without a compass. Also, it's important to remember that in many cases the best option is to just stay put and wait for someone to find you.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:15 AM on June 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

Swimming and how to rescue someone from drowning (and other swimming emergencies)
Map & Compass skills
Basic Camping skills
posted by Deflagro at 9:17 AM on June 26, 2009

It might be more useful to break "knot-tying" out into specific tasks like "tie down a load" or "hang something from a tree" or what have you.

Learning to tie a bowline and remember it in isolation can be more difficult than learning some task for which a bowline is the answer.
posted by chazlarson at 9:18 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Arguably not useful, but you can learn to juggle in a few days.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:20 AM on June 26, 2009

Learning to swim.
posted by orme at 9:20 AM on June 26, 2009

shoulda refreshed there...
posted by orme at 9:21 AM on June 26, 2009

Get out of a sinking car.
posted by box at 9:22 AM on June 26, 2009

Emergency tracheotomy.
posted by box at 9:24 AM on June 26, 2009

Change a tire (car)/fix a flat (bicycle).
posted by box at 9:24 AM on June 26, 2009

Shuffling a deck of cards properly.

That's hilarious, otio: I came in here to suggest "Learning a simple false shuffle."
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:25 AM on June 26, 2009

Wire repair.
posted by Jon-o at 9:34 AM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: Learn to Pick a Lock.
posted by spatula at 9:34 AM on June 26, 2009


There's quite a few beginner-level martial arts moves that can save your life, particularly if you're being choked. It seemed to feature prominently in my memories of my early belts.
posted by adipocere at 9:35 AM on June 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, there are some things I never would have thought of.

If possible, please provide a little detail on each skill, beyond just the name. A link to a how to guide is enough. (eg. Get out of a sinking car)
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 9:39 AM on June 26, 2009

I came to say lock-picking as well. The tutorials are everywhere. I invested a couple of bucks in some real picks and was pretty surprised at how easy "Maximum Security" padlocks can be opened. I keep the whole kit on my desk and amuse myself during occasional conference calls.

Deal three-card monte? The techniques are pretty easy to learn but require some practice/polish to perfect.
posted by jquinby at 9:39 AM on June 26, 2009


Actually, I think a few rudimenty things about electricity could be very useful.
For example: how to reset a circuit breaker or change a fuse. How to rescue somebody being electrocuted.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:45 AM on June 26, 2009

Most wouldn't fall into the "life saving" category, but Instructables has a whole lot of things you can learn to do.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:47 AM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: Not just learning to swim, but learning ocean-survival techniques: how to shed your clothing underwater, how to use that clothing as a make-shift life preserver, how to do the dead-man float to conserve energy, etc.

How to rig a climbing rope. How to rappel. How to detect signs of water in a desert. How to saddle a horse. How to identify a poisonous snake. How to identify a poisonous plant/mushroom.

How to survive a parachute landing in trees (legs together, arms against sides, hands in groin protecting the arteries against branches, head down, eyes open).

More practical:

How to put out a grease fire (hint: the answer isn't water!). How to survive an avalanche. What to do when you see a tornado (If indoors, go to the lowest point in the house that is not near a window, stand in a doorway because it's the least likely part to fall down. If outdoors, go to the lowest point, preferably a ditch or culvert, cover yr head and neck.).

How to clean, load, shoot and store a rifle.

How to skin a rabbit. How to clean a fish. How to paddle a canoe/kayak. How to use a map. How to use a nautical chart. How to use a compass. How to use a sextant. How to find the North Star.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:06 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I guess I ought to throw something out that was more of a sudden realization than a skill, and while it probably did not save my life, it at least kept me from some bodily harm.

I'm driving down the highway at my usual conservative 55 mph, along a fairly strong curve. Unbeknownst to me, there's a show-stopper of an accident up ahead, by a mile or two. There's a car parked in my lane as I come around a curve — I swerve to avoid it, but then there's another stopped car in my new lane (SURPRISE!) as the road bends even further, so I swerve back to avoid smacking it and at that point, I lose control of the car and head right for the highway divider. I am dimly aware that other things are also going on as additional drivers discover that the highway has become an obstacle course.

Although I'm hitting the brakes pretty hard, I'm still about to hit the highway divider at a forty-five to fifty degree angle, and I'm still skidding over the pavement (leaving nice streaks in the process) at, as my eyes flick down to the speedometer so I can measure just how much trouble I am in, 45mph. I am going to hit it, hard. And I'm in a tiny, flimsy car. The corner of the car which will hit is where I am sitting, no doubt about it. I'd witnessed some car impact measurements with dummies and live drivers in my youth, including seeing cars dropped straight down onto the ground, so I have nice clear images in my mind of someone pulling my teeth out of the steering wheel with pliers.

That's when I notice that highway dividers have a little curve at the bottom of them; I reason that if I can make my car parallel to the divider, I can make the tires take the brunt of the impact, and while I will be physically that much closer to the concrete, all of the sudden impulse will go through the shocks and frame, up, rather than depositing a chunk of the equipment under the hood of my car into my lap or trying to push the steering column through my armpit.

I'm off by a degree or so as I hit, leaving a very long dark streak along the divider, at least a car length of it. Other cars are similarly stopping and screeching behind me as the pile-up continues. I slither out of the driver side window and find that, aside from scraping rubber off of the sides of my left tires, there's about an inch worn off of the corner of my front bumper, revealing white fiberglass. I do my little victory dance, get back in, and drive over grass to an outer road, and so continue my journey. Aside from that scrape, the car was fine.

Lesson: Those little curves at the bottom of highway dividers can be useful for more than the stability of the divider.
posted by adipocere at 10:18 AM on June 26, 2009 [9 favorites]

Arguably not useful, but you can learn to juggle in a few days.

+1 - my son loves to watch me juggle, and that's useful enough for me!
posted by swrittenb at 10:40 AM on June 26, 2009

How to drive out of a skid, on ice. There are one to three day courses you can take in Canada if you can't find anyone to teach you.
How to sew on a button, fix a hem without making a hash of it, advanced - replace broken zipper.
How to arrange flowers to make that $10 grocery store bouquet look like much more.
How to plant & grow basic veggies or grow herbs (expensive fresh) indoors.
How to upholster or just change the seat covers on dining chairs.
How to rewire a lamp.
How to arrange and hang pictures and mirrors.
How to refinish furniture (real wood) and can be applied to redoing wood trim should be so lucky as to find a house with gumwood or other gone forever trim.
How to bathe and clip your dog.
And best, how to cook and bake! That's one skill that everyone appreciates although you could spend a lifetime learning.
posted by x46 at 11:00 AM on June 26, 2009

Flawlessly iron a dress shirt/blouse/trousers in under two minutes.
posted by variella at 11:08 AM on June 26, 2009

OK, so I should have read the question more carefully. So, add:
- advanced first aid: what to do for drowning, electric shock, ordinary shock, bleeding, choking, possible fracture, neck injury, head injury
- how to make and tie a sling, tourniquet properly so as not to do more damage
- how to make a splint, crutch, stretcher from found materials
- how to use the defibrulators that save people with heart attacks

Water safety:
- know what a boat should have on board before you set off, eg., life jackets, radio, filed plan if you're going somewhere

Car/travel safety:
- what to pack in the car for summer/winter, eg., thin thermal plastic blankets, can, matches or lighters, candles, shovel, first aid kit and how to use them

Exit strategy:
- how to get out of places safely in case of fire, eg., where you live, work, event venues
posted by x46 at 11:11 AM on June 26, 2009

How to sharpen a knife.
How to fell a tree.

In fact, most of what everyone else has already listed is in the Boy Scout Handbook (at least, in the Tenth Edition one of my youth).

The list of Merit Badges is probably a useful repository of easily learned and (mostly-)useful skills.
posted by namewithoutwords at 1:01 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learn the phonetic alphabet (whatever the real name is). Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.
posted by Precision at 1:22 PM on June 26, 2009

Precision: probably the NATO phonetic alphabet, although there are others in use as well (I've occasionally encountered the old US Navy alphabet and the ARRL alphabet, for example).
posted by hattifattener at 1:55 PM on June 26, 2009

Buy a Boy Scout handbook and read it and apply as you choose.
posted by jgirl at 2:07 PM on June 26, 2009

Also the Junior Girl Scout Handbook, circa 1967 or so, is good.
posted by jgirl at 2:08 PM on June 26, 2009

Presuming you are willing to equip yourself suitably, and practice assiduosly, the Mozambique drill is worth knowing.
posted by paulsc at 2:45 PM on June 26, 2009

How to identify any of the world's major languages upon hearing or reading them.

SCUBA diving.
posted by waldo at 6:14 PM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: How to fold a t-shirt
posted by metastability at 6:38 PM on June 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about this question since I last posted and thought that basically the Scout handbook has a lot of this and other good skills. Came back to see others had already suggested it. Here is a place where you can order it or at a local Scout shop.
posted by Deflagro at 7:40 PM on June 26, 2009

I'll double metastability's T-shirt folding link. I worked at it for about 20 minutes before I nailed it and have saved way more time than that since then.

Also, when I was about 12 and bored on a summer's day, I looked in the mirror and worked at my facial muscles until I could raise one eyebrow. Also took me about 20 minutes and adds a little something to communication.

There are a whole lot of musical skills in this category. You work at them, slowly, then bust them out for about 20 minutes and then suddenly you can do them. For example, I could never sing and play the guitar at the same time, until I made myself do it s-l-o-w-l-y and match the singing/playing beats in my head. Then suddenly I could sing not only with the guitar but with any other instrument I could play.

If you line up these skills in the right order you can play music.
posted by argybarg at 8:49 PM on June 26, 2009

Learn some basic card tricks. [Video auto-loads]

And a few bar tricks!

They're not exactly useful in a saving-your-arse kind of way, but they're invaluable as an icebreaker, especially when travelling alone.
posted by embrangled at 10:33 PM on June 26, 2009

Wolf whistle. takes a couple minutes to learn it, with your fingers in your mouth. Making a piercing loud noise, comes in handy in an emergency or to draw attention.
posted by archae at 3:52 AM on June 27, 2009

Never risk re-freezing a frozen body part. Say you have a wet foot that freezes (severe frost bite) and you can either stop to thaw it with a fire, or continue to hike. If there is a chance that the foot may refreeze after you've warmed it, it's better to leave it frozen until you've hiked out to safety. If it freezes twice, it's lost.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 4:52 AM on June 27, 2009

Learn at least the alphabet in sign language.
posted by malhaley at 12:41 PM on June 30, 2009

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