Matt Potter 6:30 a.m., May 24
- Community Blog
- Hiking San Diego
Back to the Basics, Wilderness Survival
Back to the Basics
From Australopithecus Africanus to Homo Sapiens, humans have survived solely by relying upon basic skills and tools. As humans, we need basic items such as heat, food, shelter, water and safety in order to live and survive. With the advancements in technology, complex tools were manufactured to make hunting, shelter construction and food gathering easier. As a result, skills for making tools and the need for basic survival skills have diminished over time. In turn, modern civilization has reached a point that if people were to be put into a survival situation where they did not have access to electricity, grocery stores, and a constant source of water, they would most certainly suffer. As civilization continues to make these so called advances, more and more knowledge will be forgotten, and the basic skills used to survive will eventually disappear. To prevent that, some individuals continue to practice these skills and pass their knowledge on to those willing to learn. It is hoped that these skills will be shared with others so that one day, should the need arise, people will be able to survive most situations.
It is often argued what should be considered first when it come to survival? Whether it’s water, food, shelter or fire, each should be constructed, found or used as soon as possible. However, before any survival or activity begins, one’s emotional state that should be taken into consideration first. The brain is the number one thing that will kill a person in any survival situation. With that being said, staying positive about any situation will keep the brain healthy, and in turn, will keep the body healthy. Being able to think rationally will help you stay alive. Without the ability to think clearly and use common sense, the survival rate decreases exponentially and before you know it, you’re lying on the ground in fetal position, waiting to die. The will to survive comes from a deep motivation of wanting to live. Without the want, there isn’t a need. When faced with life or death situations in which there is a possibility that suffering will occur before death, most people prefer to give up and get it over with. No one wants to continue suffering if they believe they are going to die. With most survival situations, we may be confronted with the loss of hope and the feeling that we will die. So it is this attitude that causes most to give up, lay down, and succumb to what they believe is their inevitable fate.
So, what should one do when they find themselves stranded or lost? Number one: accept the fact that you are lost, take a deep breath, sit down and collect your thoughts. If you panic, you die. Panic leads to confusion, and confusion leads to poor judgement. When people are lost, they often begin to run through the woods screaming for help. Regardless of the temperature, running is that last thing anyone should do. Running generates sweat, which works as the body’s air-conditioning system, and it will cool you down. The body’s core temperature will be lowered, which can lead to hypothermia and, ultimately, death. In hotter climates, valuable moisture is lost and dehydration will occur more rapidly. Depending on they type of area you find yourself, water should be the number one resource to obtain. The average person can go 3 days with out water in the perfect environment. However, in desert climates or conditions, a person can lose up to a gallon of water in sweat when performing strenuous activities. While resting, a person can lose a quart of water a day through organ operations and breathing through the mouth. So what are some ways one could conserve valuable body moisture, as well as find or make water?
Conservation can be challenging, however, being smart about it will improve the chances of lasting long enough to find precious water. As mentioned previously, simply resting will cause one to lose a quart of water a day and performing strenuous activities results in a significantly greater loss. Either way, water loss will happen, so here are a few ways to best conserve water:
Number One: limit movement during the hours after sunrise and before twilight. Moving in the morning when there is light, but before the sun rises above the ridge or just when it sets below it, can still be good times for finding water and setting up camp. In order to avoid sun to skin contact, one should find or make shade as soon as the survival situation occurs. Finding a tree or staying in the shadow of one’s broken down vehicle can help. This time spent resting in the shade could also help one collect their thoughts and make sense of the situation. As mentioned before, it’s important to remain calm. As the sun continues to rise, shade begins to disappear, so it’s important to make a quick decision on where to find shade, and if its worth the risk to move.
Number Two: Once shade has been found , it’s time to think about how to get cool. It’s not recommended to remove all clothing. Sunburned skin can cause irritation, low morale and lower survivability. Digging a body-sized trench in the sand a few inches deep, and laying in it, will help the body cool its core temperature. Because the sand is up to 20º cooler 3 inches below the surface, laying there almost acts as if the body were laying on an air conditioning unit. It’s important to work slowly when making this trench. Remember, the more sweat that is produced, the more precious water is lost. If digging and wet sand is found, one could take a bandana or another article of clothing, put the wet sand in it, and extract the moisture by wringing it out. For sanitary reasons, it’s better to squeeze the water into a cup for boiling however, in dire situations, one could just drink it right there.
Number Three: Shut your mouth! Mouth breathing will cause precious vapors to escape the body. When the mouth dries, thirst for water increases. To help fight the dryness, breath through the nose. If with a partner, limit talking to a minimum and only talk when life saving decisions need to be made.
Let’s address finding and making water. Finding water is one of the hardest and yet most important activities when trying to survive. Therefore, finding a constant water source should be a top priority. Should the survival situation occur in an area with snow, priorities will change because an abundance of snow will provide enough water to survive if used properly. It should be noted that one should not eat snow at any cost. This could lead to blisters in the mouth and a severe drop in core temperature. Snow can be stored in a container and melted with body heat or fire. In the desert, finding water is hard but if you know where to look, it can be fairly simple. Some cacti can provide abundant water sources, however, there are many that are poisonous. Before going out hiking, one should research what plant-life that might be in the area.
Some signs of plant and animal life can be indicative of a water source, such as palm trees and swarming bees. Look for north facing slopes of large hills or mountains, as these areas are less exposed to sun and morning dew will linger on the ground longer, allowing plant life to grow more lush. Using a bandana to soak up the dew is a great technique to extract moisture from grass and other damp areas. Another way of obtaining moister is through evaporation and condensation. Placing non-poisonous plants into a plastic bag and exposing it to the sun will cause the plant to dehydrate, releasing moisture into the bag. Placing a plastic bag over a one and a half foot deep hole with wet sand is another way to capture condensation. Just remember to place a cup in the bottom of the hole to catch the moisture that drips from the underside of the bag. When one has stumbled upon standing water, it’s important to filter, boil, pasteurize, distill, or purify the water before it’s drinkable. Standing water can have nasty viruses that will make you sick or kill you before you are found. Water that is rushing at a fast pace will generally be safe as viruses would not be allowed to grow.
Finding shelter is next on the list of priorities. Shelter can keep one dry from rain, warm from the wind, and safe from the boogie man--so to speak. At times, finding shelter can be tricky but if one knows where to look and happen to have some materials on you, it can be simple and life saving. Many types of shelter exist in the market, i.e. tents. If found in a situation where these materials are unavailable, one could always use natural materials lying around. One common shelter people use is called a ‘lean-to.’ This is a simple structure to help block wind and rain from the survivor. This is usually constructed using a cross beam lifted parallel from the ground. From there, logs are leaned against the main beam. On top of that, pine bows, branches or ground debris is placed to further waterproof and windproof the shelter. Since the ground can sap body heat through conduction, using pine bows as a floor to sleep on will help the survivor from not only suffering hypothermia, they should, with the aid of fire, be comfortably warm as well. Many other shelters could be constructed just like a lean-to. However, it is important that if one is going to build a shelter, it should be near a water source, game trail, and other natural resources. In other words, location, location, location.
Just like choosing a house, you want to be near the grocery store, police department, and the home improvement store. It’s also important to build the shelter well in advance of darkness. You don’t want to search for materials in the dark where one could get injured or worse. The best way to tell how much daylight is left is by taking your hand with fingers extended, held together, and hold it just beneath the sun after it has reached the highest point in the sky. Each finger represents approximately fifteen minutes, so four fingers equals an hour. From there, place each hand under the other until the last hand is on the horizon. Two hands equals two hours and so on. Since you might be staying a while, make yourself at home and make yourself some house warming gifts.
Another tricky, yet useful skill, is fire making. Fire has helped man advance and literally light our way through history. Fire allowed man to see into the darkness, scare away the monsters, cook food, boil water, forge tools, provide warmth, and keep us company. When used properly, it has always been a friend of man. Like any great relationship, it begins delicately and must be tended to with great care. Fire is something that is nursed from a tiny ember of sweat and hard work. That is, unless we have modern tools. What if we don’t have those tools, how do we get fire? Let’s start with an exercise. What happens when we rub our hands together very, very fast? They get warm. Warmth is created by friction and friction heats up the materials used to create it. Under the right circumstances and proper tools, it can also be combustable. However, friction isn’t the only answer. With the right metals and rocks, we can create a spark. This spark of life, if you will, when put in the right hands can be nursed with a gentle breeze to a roaring blaze of warmth, comfort, and safety. Fire can also be used for communication. Certain kinds of fire tell others that trouble is coming, or that you’re in trouble and need rescue, such as three large fires in a triangular form--this is a universal signal for help.
There are a few common techniques that natives used and still use to start a fire. As some say, it’s as easy as rubbing two sticks tother... for a long time. The most common known technique is the hand drill. So how is it done? Lets go back to rubbing our hands together, this time adding a 6-7 inch long stick that is the thickness of a man’s middle finger or a woman’s thumb. One would then find a base board that’s flat and about a half inch thick. We would then cut a notch into the side about half way in a triangular shape. From there we would rub the stick above the notch until the ember starts to smoke. From there the ember should be placed into a ‘birds nest’ which is comprised of dry grass and other materials that would be ‘fluffy.’ This allows the delicate ember to grow into a strong flame. From there, wood can be added, increasing in size to ensure a proper fire.
So let’s spark up another thought. Carbon steel and flint work great as well, though its takes a bit more patience and will. This practice evolved from the more primitive stick rubbing. French fur traders were famous for this technique. All one needs is a good piece of flint, carbon steel, char cloth, and some Jute. But what is char cloth? Char cloth is made from a piece of cloth that is 100% cotton. It is then placed in a container over the fire. The cloth is merely charred by the carbon from the fire. The reason this material is so great is because it takes the weakest spark and preserves it until you get it to some tinder. That’s where the Jute comes in. Jute is a fibrous material historically used for clothing and is created from the Jute plant. Because of it’s properties, it’s great for tinder. Pulled apart and made into a small pile, Jute can help ease an ember into a flame from the char cloth.
One of the biggest advantages of fire is the comfort and morale it provides. Not intending to attribute it with mystical qualities, fire is almost like a creature in itself. It has to be fed often and kept under constant watch so it won’t die out. However, fire will reward you for your kindness. Fire will scare away the creatures of night, and creatures of the mind. It can be hypnotizing, allowing the survivor to forget the gravity of the situation and allow for a moment of peace.
All this work can create an appetite, so let’s order out! Wait... the cell phone is dead and the address is at the cross section of it’s hotter than hell and BFE. Time to go find some food. But how? There isn't a grocery store for miles. Like it or not, it’s time to go hunting. First we need some tools. We need something sharp to spear with and to cut with, so we will need some sharp rocks. Flint and granite are usually great for this. If you came prepared, a knife is even better. To make a spear, find a long strait stick and sharpen the thick end. From there, split the point in 4 ways to make 4 points and increase your chances of getting dinner. If cordage is available, i.e. shoelaces or lashings from fibrous plants, one could make snares to help improve the chances of catching food and help save precious calories. Another option is to make a deadfall. This is often just a heavy rock propped up by a trigger mechanism with bait on it. When the animal triggers the stick, the weight of the rock simply crushes the animal in a quick and painless death.
Some plants can be eaten, however, poisonous plants abound in nature, so it’s important to know which plants are edible before heading out for your hike. Even touching some plants can kill you without consuming them. Don’t despair! There are tests that allow the survivor to determine the edibility of a plant. Since the edibility test requires a lot of time and effort (and potential risk), make sure there is enough of the plant available to make the test worthwhile. Note that it does not work with all poisonous plants. Here are the steps to follow:
Test only a single plant type at a time; don't eat anything else during the test period. Rub the plant on a sensitive part of your body such as your wrist; wait 45 min to an hour for sign of any adverse effects like nausea, hives, dizziness, or shortness of breath. If there’s no negative effect, take a small part of the plant and prepare it the way you plan on eating it. Before eating, touch a small part of the prepared plant to your outer lip to test for burning, tingling, or itching. If there is not reaction after five minutes, place the plant on your tongue. Hold it there for 15 minutes. If there is no reaction after 15 minutes, chew a very small amount for 15 minutes; observe for any adverse effects. Do not swallow. If you still feel fine after chewing for 15 minuets, swallow it. Wait eight hours. If you begin to notice any adverse effects, induce vomiting and drink as much water as possible. If there are no adverse effects, eat a small handful of the plant. Wait another eight hours. If there are still no negative effects, you are likely safe.
Most survival situations last up to 72 hours and sometimes more. The most important thing to remember is to just hang on. Survive another day and don’t give up. In life we all suffer our own survival situations, and they don’t always have to be in the woods. If we continue to survive our own small tragedies, we can then continue to survive the larger ones. The creature comforts of home will never be the same as in the woods, but if we can learn to replicate and use what we have, then hanging on one more day will be much easier. These basics are exactly that--the basics. These techniques, with much practice, can help one survive and, in some cases, thrive. Remember, we all got here from the basics skills our ancestors mastered and passed on to their offspring. If they were able to thrive and produce civilization, it shouldn’t be too hard for one of us to rub a couple of sticks together and make a fire. One last thing, if you’re out in the woods and you’re warm, hydrated, with plenty of food, a great shelter, and a smile on your face, you’re not surviving, you're camping.
More like this:
- San Diego Summer Hiking and Preparation — April 24, 2011
- Emotional Survival, Concept of Wilderness Survival — March 15, 2011
- Defensible Landscape — Nov. 8, 2007
- Xeriscape: Rock Rose, Kangaroo Paw — July 19, 2007
- Up by the Roots — Aug. 25, 1988