(Some background and chatter at the beginning, but it gets better, I promise. )
I have always loved being outdoors, playing in the woods. As a kid, I was thrilled to have a wooded lot, and even now, at 23, I still love playing outside, whether it’s hiking, geocaching, camping, hunting or fishing. These are supremely relaxing for me.
Because of this, I have been very interested in the proliferation of survival shows on TV. "Survivorman", "Man Vs. Wild", "Dual Survival", "Man, Woman, Wild". I have recorded hours of this stuff, and I love it. (Please do not comment on the legitimacy of these shows, it isn’t relevant, thank you. ) I have also done a bit of reading on the internet and in books about primitive living skills, and it is fascinating. Currently, I am reading Wilderness Survival by Mark Elbroch and Mike Pewtherer, and it is excellent.
As I read, watch, and learn I have been trying to practice some of the techniques in the safety of my yard, and gain knowledge and experience. I think the closeness of relationship with nature you gain by learning and using these skills is really cool, and I want to continue to develop my abilities to the point where I truly could make it for a period of time in the bush with just the knife on my belt. People have been living this way for thousands of years, and learning to rely on your brain and the resources found in the wild can really change how you think about things.
Ok, now it gets more interesting.
*****As such, I would like to document for you some of my attempts at primitive living skills. I am by no means an expert, just a beginner. However, I hope that you can learn something from my adventures, even if it's by my mistakes; but I am also interested in whatever knowledge, advice and information you guys can provide me. So feel free to comment on whatever I post. Just don’t hassle me too much when I bomb out.
There are dozens of critical skills involved in survival. I am trying to learn at this point just a few important ones to get started. In general, and especially in the climate I live in, Wisconsin, the priority list of things you must get in order to survive is shelter, fire, water, food. Here we are in autumn, approaching winter, and it gets cold here. This is definitely the order you will need to get things done in to survive in my opinion. So I started with shelter, and I will move on to the others as I go. Let’s get started.
I am using a debris hut model for my shelter for a couple of reasons. One, it’s pretty simple, which is good for me as a novice shelter builder. Two, they are supposed to be pretty warm when properly constructed, which is good since it’s already getting cold at night, and will be very cold when winter hits. Three, the material needed for it is readily available in my yard, especially being autumn. I have tons and tons of leaves to use, and they are the primary insulator in this model. I got my instructions from the aforementioned book, and I will show the basic steps and photos of the progress in my shelter so you could easily follow along and build your own. Practice makes perfect it seems.
I also want to make clear that I built this shelter with only a knife, my hands, and the stuff I found in my yard. This is all I would have had in a survival situation, so it's all I used. (I confess, I did use a rake to collect leaves, because I had to get the yard raked either way. )
1. Select an appropriate location. Obviously you want an area that is flat, free of obstructions like rocks or roots, near to abundant resources for the hut, and not at the bottom of a hill as you will end up wet in a rainstorm.
The spot I have selected.
Cleared out underbrush and trimmed the tree to serve as a doorway.
2. Find a ridgepole. The ridgepole is the backbone of your structure. It should be fairly straight pole about two feet longer than your height and quite strong.
Ridgepole in place, see also step 3.
3. Find a support. This can be something around the height of your waist to support the ridgepole; a Y in a tree, a branch, a rock, or something you construct with a Y shaped stick will work. Just make sure it is strong. When you get under the pole, your toes should be a couple inches from the pole, and when lying on your side, your shoulders should be a hand’s length from the pole.
Me under the ridgepole showing dimensions.
4. Place the ribbing. Collect sticks of varying lengths to lean against the ridgepole to give your structure its shape. It will be an A-shape as you build it. The bottoms of the sticks should be a hand’s length from your shoulders, and the tops should not protrude more than a few inches above the ridgepole. Obviously the one end needs to be left somewhat open to serve as an entryway.
5. Add the thatching. Place small brushy material on the ribs to keep the leaves from falling through the ribs and into the shelter.
6. Pile on the leaves. Lots of leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. When you think you have enough leaves, add more. Mark and Mike recommend an arm’s length thickness in summer and four feet of leaves for winter use. As you pile them on, shake and shuffle them from top to bottom to compact them a bit and fill in the crevices in the brush and add more. You need a ton of them. I am sure I need to add more for colder weather in my shelter. You can add some bark or sticks to the top of the leaves to keep them from blowing away.
7. Make a door. You may choose to just pull a pile of leaves in to jam up the door after you or you can construct a woven stick door and fill it with leaves to act as a more permanent plug-type door for your shelter. You can see my entryway, but I still have to decide how I want to do this part.
8. Get in. Put a bunch more leaves inside the shelter to lie on and insulate you from the ground. Then start with your feet and wriggle in. Sweet dreams!
You can add more to your shelter and make it as elaborate or as simple as you like depending on your needs and time and resources. I hope to try my shelter out tomorrow night perhaps. I hope it’s warm!
Hopefully you enjoyed watching my shelter building experience. Feel free to try it yourself or comment on my project. Next will be an attempt at fire without matches. We’ll see how it goes!
Fire is crucial in a survival situation. With it you can signal for help, disinfect water, warm yourself, protect yourself from insects and predators, cook food, make tools, maintain your sanity and more. It is essential that you know how to build a fire if you want to make it in the wild.
I will try to show a few separate ways you can make yourself a fire in the wild, some of them more difficult than others, none of them as easy as turning up the thermostat or preheating your oven unfortunately.
To satisfy my own need for success and by popular demand, I will start with the Firesteel as a method for making fire. (I started 4 or 5 fires today with this method before sitting down to write this, so it does work! ) Compared to rubbing sticks together, this is a breeze, but it is still a challenge when you first start. As noted by some members, the flint and steel method of starting fires is very, very old. The ferrocerium rod is a man-made tool but the idea of scraping tiny flecks of metal off the rod and igniting them by the friction of the strike is the same.
I would suggest that anyone venturing into the woods for any reason should have one of these tucked into their pocket and know how to use it. In many ways, it is a superior firestarter to matches or lighters. It is tiny, waterproof, windproof, has no fuel to run out, is nearly impossible to destroy, can be reused thousands of times, is not affected by pressure or elevation, etc. In the best case scenario, you never need it. In the worst case scenario, it may save your life.
~~Here is what the firesteel looks like. They are available at most outdoor supply stores. This is the Light My Fire brand Swedish Firesteel. It comes with an attached striker. I don’t care for that striker as it is small and hard to use. I prefer to use the spine of a knife. You have a larger handle for better control, and I think you can exert more downward pressure on the rod to create a larger shower of sparks, and also longer lasting sparks since the metal flecks are larger. See what you think works best for you.
~~The most important part of starting a fire is what you do before you ever strike your steel. You have to be prepared to nurture your coal, ember or spark. You need a supply of very fine tinder to catch the spark, light fuel to take the flame from the tinder, and progressively rougher fuel to build up your fire. Having more than you need is never bad. Not having enough can lead to a failed fire attempt. Collect a supply of each of these sizes of fuel before you try to start your fire. Make sure these are easy to grab from your location; you will not have much time to scramble for them.
~~For the very fine tinder you need something that will take the spark well. The spark is somewhere around 5000°F, but it is short lived, so heavy tinder will not work. Look around for fuzzy, light and very dry items. The fuzzy guts of seed pods or some grasses or cattails work well, as does dried moss or even dry grass. Some bark such as birch or pine is rich in natural flammable oils and can be used too. The key is getting whatever you find to the point where it is dry and very small. If your tinder is too thick, rub it in your hands or between rocks to crush it down, exposing individual fibers and creating large amounts of surface area for oxygen to support combustion.
~~You want to make a ‘nest’ for the spark, a small tinder bundle to catch it in. Don’t make the bundle too thin or the sparks with fall through; too thick or dense and it won’t catch fire. I made the nest from fluffy tinder like seed fuzz or grass and compressed it, then fluffed up the material on the top to make it easier to ignite. An indentation to throw the sparks into that is somewhat protected from drafts is helpful.
~~Use your body to protect your tinder bundle from the wind. Get the end of your firesteel down in the indentation in your bundle, and use your knife spine to scrape the firesteel, showering sparks into the tinder. You may have to do this a few times to get the feel for it, and you may have to strike many times to start your fire. If you get just a small ember, cup the nest in your hands and gently blow into it. Make sure that there is material above the ember so the flame can travel up as grows, or flip the bundle over somewhat in your hands to accomplish this. If you have done a good job with your tinder, you may hit it with the sparks and find that within a few moments of contact, the tinder bundle has gone up in flames! I have had excellent success with dry grass in this way. It just goes up!
~~Once your bundle is lit, begin adding more fuel. Start with very light small items, like additional grass, dry pine needles or seed pods to establish a good flame. Then add very small sticks, pencil size or less, moving then on to finger size, wrist size and larger pieces of wood as the fire grows. Don’t smother the fire with fuel that’s too large or add it too fast. Also, the tipi shape is a tried and true method, use it. It allows for good air movement, for the fire to travel upwards to ignite more fuel, and as the wood bits burn, they collapse into the fire, rather than falling outside of it.
LOOK WHAT I HAVE CREATED! I HAVE MADE FIRE!
With a little practice, you too can use a firesteel to make a fire. I emphasize PRACTICE. If you think reading this thread means you can wander into the woods and make a fire without ever trying it out, you may be in for a surprise. It can be a challenge, especially if good tinder is in short supply. Make many fires with your equipment before depending on it for survival. Try many kinds of tinder. Get used to the frustration and learn to keep your cool so when you’re shivering and scared and you see bear poop near your camp you can still make a fire instead of freaking out. As survival expert Cody Lundin says, “The more you know, the less you need.”
I will likely add more to this section at some point, as I’d like to attempt some more primitive ‘rub two sticks together’ methods to create an ember or coal. I thought this would be a nice starter post though. The actual tinder accumulating/fuel collection/fire making will be the same no matter what method you use to obtain the ember. It’s getting that ember or spark that can vary quite a bit. Keep checking in and feel free to comment or ask questions!
There is always the chance that you get stranded in the woods and you do not even have a firesteel with you to start fire with (don’t let this happen to you). In this situation, you may have to resort to even more primitive “rub two sticks together” methods to start your fire. People have been doing this for thousands of years, so it definitely works, but let me tell you, it is pretty tough until you have developed the necessary skills to do so. I have not yet mastered these skills, so take my advice with a grain of salt. I can though show you how some of these methods are supposed to work. First, I will start with the most basic method: the fire plow.
There is an abundance of good information about making and using a fire plow around the web, so I won’t bore you with lots of details. Just Google the term if you like and you will find a lot of good advice. I will show you though what my fire plow looked like and describe the basic idea behind it. The general theory is that you rub a pointed stick (plow) in a groove cut into a stationary piece of wood to create heat through friction, and eventually an ember that can be used to ignite your tinder.
Here is a picture of the simple fire plow I created using a stick and a piece of wood I found in our wood pile. After being cut, this piece split in such a way to make a nice flat board, which was quite convenient for my purposes.
I basically just took the board and cut a V-shape into it with my knife. The groove was a few inches long. Then I took a stick and sharpened it a bit so it would slide in the groove more effectively and increase surface area to contact the board. The board should be a softer wood than the plow, so that you can scrub off more wood dust when you rub the two together. Once you have that done, you have your whole setup. Complex, hey?
Make sure you have tinder materials as I discussed in the previous article with the firesteel. This is imperative. Now, you have to rub the pointed stick in the groove, back and forth quickly to generate heat. Small bits of wood dust will abrade off and begin to pile up. This is good. You want to create the little pile of char at the end of the groove as you rub the stick. If you work hard and quickly, you apparently can heat this dust to a high enough temperature that it will ignite and the pile of dust will become glowing ember. Make sure you don’t smash the pile with the plow when you get to the end of the groove. When you get an ember, nurture it as we talked about previously.
I personally was not able to start a fire this way. It’s really tough. I would get so tired from the rubbing that I think I’d stop before I got the ember, even though I’d get heat and smoke. I will try it again at some point, but like I said, this is not my preferred fire starter. If you try this, I would get another person to help by taking over the plowing when you get to that point where you have to keep going but are getting too tired to do it yourself.
It’s a super simple tool, about as basic as it gets. It can work, it’s just tough. I’ll try this again, as well as some other methods and keep you posted. Perhaps someone of you can give it a try too! Let me know how you do. Hope you learned something here, and Happy adventuring!
Water is obviously a crucial part of survival. Even if you are not in an especially hot climate, you still will not last more than a few days without water. But where will you find it? Hopefully you come across a river or lake you can draw from. If you have done your homework and built a fire already, you can easily sterilize such water. But suppose you are in a place with no running or standing water…or you don’t have fire to disinfect. What do you do? One option is the solar still.
The solar still is an easy option for locations where rain keeps the ground moist, but there is not accessible surface water. It also is helpful if you have water, but no way to heat it to purify it.
The idea is simple: Find an area where the ground is the wettest. Dig a deep pit there, and place a container in the bottom of the pit. Cover the pit with a layer of plastic on which the evaporating moisture from the soil will condense. Place a weight on the plastic layer just above the container so that the condensate will run down the plastic and drip into the container. The water collected will be pure and safe to drink. Not only does this work to draw water from the soil, but also it can be used to distill saline or brackish water into potable water by pouring the undesirable water into the pit, and allowing the sun to distill it through the evaporation process.
Unfortunately, everywhere humans have gone, they have left behind trash. Fortunately, trash can be a lifesaver in a survival situation. Items like metal cans and plastic bags can be found in most any place humans have traveled, and they are really all that is needed to create a solar still.
The solar still is simple to make. The downsides to it are that it can require a fair amount of calories and water usage to dig a suitable hole…resources that will likely be in short supply in a survival situation. Also, they don’t tend to generate a large amount of water very quickly. If you choose to utilize this method, choose your location carefully, and ideally set up several stills around your camp area to draw from. If you intend to keep moving, this plan may not work. However, it is a simple skill that could save your life.
You can see that after only a short while, moisture began to condense on the plastic. It's not a lot, but it's something, and it is pure. A long day of sun in a moist environment, and you would surely get a few slurps. Bottoms up!
Food is the least important of the survival requirements we have so far considered, as most of us have a few extra calories stashed on our person at all times in the form of excess body fat but it is important nonetheless. It is critical to realize that most primitive cultures, while “hunter/gatherers” by definition, are more “gatherers” than they are “hunters”. If you think you will just fashion a spear out of a stick and slay a delicious turkey or deer to sustain you if you get lost in the woods, you have another thing coming. Learn to expand your view of what constitutes “food” to survive.
Different times of year will provide different menus. Have some ideas what is available at any time of the year to be prepared. At the time of this writing, it is springtime. I will not have the luxury of coming upon an apple tree or any other fruit or nuts at this time. BUT, many plants are just coming up, and a great variety of young shoots and greens are edible. I can’t even begin to list all the things that are out there to eat, nor do I know what is available in your particular area. But there are numerous websites and books out there that are worth checking out to see what you can eat in your state. Be sure you know what you are eating before you eat it.
Here are a few things that I snacked on in my yard today.
Daylilies are very good. When young, the whole shoot can be eaten. The tubers in the ground can be eaten any time so long as they are firm and not rotten. The flowers can be eaten when they mature.
Dandelion and plaintain greens. These are edible as well. As they get larger they get more bitter, and usually if you want a tastier meal, you need to boil them before eating. There are dozens of other greens out there that are safe as well.
Fiddleheads (young ferns) can be very good as well. These should be washed of any of the brown skin, and boiled for 10 minutes before eating to remove certain toxins that can cause stomach discomfort. Once cooked and spread with butter and salt, they are quite nice. Certain ferns are not generally recommended as food.
I’m sure there are many more things in my yard I didn’t even notice, but you get the idea. In other places in the area, you might find a whole different group of edibles, such as near water where a variety of aquatic plants would be availabe. Later in the year, we will have acorns, hickory nuts, mayapples, regular apples, asparagus and other edibles in the yard. Knowledge of what grows around you can be a real lifesaver.
Don’t forget too, that it isn’t only things that grow from the ground that can be eaten. Things that crawl and creep can be eaten also. Insects provide a large part of the protein intake for many people around the world. Many insects are totally edible, though developed nations often don’t look at it this way. To be honest, I have a hard time with the idea of noshing on bugs as well, but in a survival situation, knowing what can be eaten is critical, even if it is creepy things.
This ant is definitely a food. He became lunch.
I’ll try to add more to this section as I see other things in the yard that might be good to eat.
MISCELLANEOUS USEFUL ITEMS
Another important skill when faced with a survival situation is the ability to keep your eyes open and be on the lookout for anything that might be potentially helpful, whether natural or man-made. Often, seemingly simple things that are easy to overlook can be exceptionally useful.
For example, pine sap. Be on the watch for wounded pine trees as they excrete a very sticky sap from these wounds. After time, it dries and can be broken off very easily and carried along. Pine sap is the duct tape of the natural world. It can be melted and used as glue, used to waterproof containers, used to seal up and protect cuts or skin abrasions, burned as a fuel etc.
I snagged a couple chunks in my yard here as you can see. A good use I found today is to use the chunks as fuel. A fistful of pine sap burned for about 15 minutes, as it is quite flammable. This is certainly long enough to heat some water, or ignite some larger fuel. Also, it gives off black smoke, so a large supply gathered and kept ready could be invaluable to make a signal fire more visible. If you see this stuff, grab it and bring it along, you never know when you’ll need it.
As always, I hope you enjoyed following along, and I encourage you to post your thoughts, comments and questions. Keep on surviving!