One of our friend teaches survival skills with a not-for-profit group. When we asked him for a few easy and important lessons for our readers, he is what he had to say.
1. If you are hiking or camping with children, put a whistle around their necks. Make them wear it at all times. It’s louder than yelling and they can keep going as long as they’re breathing. This little hunk of metal could be the difference between life and death. Anyone under 13 needs one. There are endless stories of children that get lost on family camping trips, and too many end in death or serious injury. In almost all of these cases, a whistle could have easily prevented these outcomes.
2. Lightly grease cotton balls with Vaseline to use as tinder. One will burn for 2-3 minutes. A woman in one of our classes actually timed this because she didn’t believe it would work. Many recommend keeping them in ziplock bags, but those tear easily. I suggest old film canisters if you can find them. They’re watertight and durable.
3. You get an Orange from a bag of Oranges in your fridge. A survival expert comes in and says, “That’s not an orange! It’s poison!” But obviously it’s an orange, so you don’t listen. You eat it. It’s delicious. That’s how confident you should be before eating a wild plant. We are very cautious about giving instruction on edible plants because it’s so easy to make a dangerous mistake. Learn five or so local plants REALLY well as opposed to trying to learn a hundred you won’t be sure about. If you want to learn more, we recommend Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer (you can find the book on Amazon). Instead of a disclaimer, his book has a “claimer” at the beginning. He’s that good.
4. Remember your 3’s. 3 minutes without air. 3 hours without shelter. 3 days without water.3 weeks without food. Many people think finding food is one of your first concerns when you get stranded in the wild, but it’s really, really not. Shelter is more general a rule than the others, because it generally includes warmth and security.
5. Major Shelter Considerations: – The easiest and initial approach to constructing a refuge is to use what’s already provided in nature. It might be any of the following: a cave or rock overhang, a deadfall of branches beside a tree, a clump of boulders. Once you’ve scouted out some existing features, all you need do now is scavenge some materials to enhance it. These include logs, branches, palm fronds, vines etc. You can build walls, a roof or ground cover for insulation and comfort. Be sure to investigate for insect and animal activity (e.g. the cave may be a bear’s den) before finalizing your decision to stay.
6. Make sure your location isn’t on a game trail. Look for other signs of trouble, such as stream grooves (indicating water run-off or flash flooding), tide lines (if you’re on a beach) rodent holes, fresh animal dung, ant mounds, etc. If you’re within 100 yards of an alligator habitat, or in a jungle where snakes, reptiles or poisonous insects are common, it’s mandatory that you construct your shelter several feet off the ground. Where animal or human predators are a problem, construct a thorn bush fence around your perimeter.
7. Be sure to scan the surrounding terrain for a potential avalanche, flooding, rockfall or falling tree limbs in the event of a storm. -Where rain is an issue, ditch the shelter (i.e. dig a trench) so that the water flows around it. Trenched pathways should also be dug directly below your roof to catch the run-off. To avoid a twisted ankle, fill the trench with rocks wherever foot traffic is likely to cross it. For waterproofing, use bark (especially birch), low spruce and fir branches. Try to interlock everything lattice-style. Remember to extend each higher thatched roof layer over the next lower layer.
8. When using brush and leaves for bed matting, roofs or walls, keep in mind that insects may be lurking within the material. To get around this problem, light a torch or use your campfire to heat and smoke them out. Obviously, you want to do this away from the shelter site. Never burn gas in a tent or other shelter without adequate ventilation. Never hunker down for the night inside a vehicle with the engine running and the windows shut. Carbon monoxide is odorless and its effects may be undetectable until after you’ve passed out.
9. Elevating your bed is essential to avoiding poisonous insects and reptiles. It also adds insulation from the cold air and damp rising up from the ground. In the tropics, or in wooded areas during the spring, mosquitos make rest difficult and can cause malaria or another illness. If you don’t have access to mosquito netting, look for alternative ways to minimize bites, such as rubbing mud on your skin or wearing double layers. The insects are attracted to body heat, standing pools, and the color blue. They also tend to avoid breezy areas. In the desert or snow, you may need to dig down into the ground or snow in order to keep cool (in the case of high heat) or warm (in the case of extreme cold). Look for the softest ground and dig with stones or other tools to prevent cuts and scrapes on your hands, which might get infected.
10. If you’re in deep snow and have large evergreen trees around, build a tree-pit snow shelter. -Find a thick evergreen tree with low-hanging branches. Dig down into the snow to your preferred depth and diameter, the cozier the better. Pack the interior snow well. Use the natural branches above and add additional boughs for your cover. Use boughs as insulators on the interior floor. Always turn off your stove or lantern inside your shelter. Dangerous carbon monoxide gas can kill you.
Actually I’m more used to temperate camping but like the idea of the tree pit snow shelter. A Christmas tree cutting adventure to northern Arizona was winding down as we tied the trees down to the roofs of our cars. The sun was going down and I wanted to make sure we got out of the back woods as the temperature was going down as fast as the sun. I had to do the final cinching on my tree and took off my gloves to work the ropes. In seconds my fingers were no long responding to my commands and is all I could do to get my gloves back on. Never took the high country, the night or the cold for granted after that.