3/7/2013 - Lighters. Tents. Grocery stores. Bottled water.
Twentieth- and 21st-century inventions have made it easy to forego basic skills that many years ago were critical for survival. Why learn how to use a bow drill if, with just the flick of your finger, you can turn on an electric fireplace? Why learn about the characteristics of wild edible plants when you can just buy Spaghettios at Market Basket?
Modern life is so much easier.
The bad news is, there are very real situations where choosing figure skating over Girl Scouts could come back to haunt you. Worst-case scenarios include getting lost in the woods after veering off a well-marked trail, or going for a run and finding yourself face to face with a bear.
Skills like building fire, finding and purifying water and gathering edibles are those that, at some point, might save your life.
“People have been doing this for hundreds, thousands of years, finding food and water, finding their way through the woods,” said Celeste Barr, who directs educational programming at Beaver Brook Nature Center.
Programs through Beaver Brook, New Hampshire Fish and Game and Becoming an Outdoors Woman, as well as survival skills workshops, have become increasingly popular over the past few years. People want to go back to these basic skills that used to be human instinct.
Is it because of recent disaster storms that have destroyed homes and/or left people without power for weeks? Because of popular shows like Survivor or books like The Hunger Games? Maybe. But more becoming is their practicality and the sense of empowerment you get from having this knowledge.
We talked to a few local experts to nail down the basics: food, water, shelter, fire, plus a few extra tips. Because no, your cell phone can’t help you without a charged battery or a signal.
What to do if you’re lost in the woods
So, it’s official. You’re lost/stuck/unable to continue. Admitting it is the first step — or at least, conservation officers are hoping that you’ll admit it. It makes it that much easier for them to come and find you if you stay put the instant you realize you’re lost.
Once this resonates, don’t panic.
“Once you panic, you’re kind of done,” conservation officer Heidi Murphy told a group at New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program recently.
Master Tracker Jeff Rychwa, who studied at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School and has 25 years of tracking experience, agrees. He tells students in his primitive skills workshop in Milford that keeping your head is 50 percent of what’s going to keep you alive.
“If you’re in the mindset that you’re cold, if you’re in the mindset that you’re miserable, you’re dead,” he said.
Brad Morse, another conservation officer who taught at Becoming an Outdoors Woman a couple of weeks ago, recommends that you follow S.T.O.P.P.E.D. (Sit down, Think, Observe surroundings, Plan a course of action, Prepare to spend the night, Execute the plan with Determination.)
Also, don’t sweat; figuratively, yes, we mentioned that earlier, but also literally. Yeah, you’ll be warmer at first, but once you stop moving, you’ll be freezing, no matter how many layers you have on, Rychwa said. Take a course of action — build shelter, build fire, but if you feel as though you’re beginning to perspire, stop or slow down. Becoming damp is perhaps one of the worst things that can happen.
Thinking clearly and having confidence is your No. 1 weapon in surviving emergency situations. Because what good is being able to start a fire if you don’t have the sense to do it somewhere protected from the wind? What good is a match if you don’t have the sense to keep it in a plastic bag so that it remains dry? What good is panic if you can’t channel it into saving your life?
Practice and prepare
Be prepared — it’s the Boy Scouts’ No. 1 rule, said John Rainville, program director of the Daniel Webster Boy Scouts. Preparation certainly helps individuals get out of sticky situations like these, but it can also help you avoid them to begin with.
“If you do a good job of being prepared, most of the time, you’ll be able to avoid dangerous situations,” he said.
Ideally, that’s the goal. Part of that has to do with taking proper precautions before you walk out the door, whether you’re going for a mile-long, meandering walk up Mount Major or an overnight trip on Mount Washington.
Before you trek out into the wilderness, ensure you’re wearing proper clothes. Your clothing is your first line of defense, and no matter what the weather, synthetic layers are ideal. They dry quickly if they become damp, either from perspiration or from outside elements. (See box for specifics.)
You also need to ensure that you have the right tools. Food, water, a map and knapsack are all key, but depending on your venture, there are some other items that you’ll want to bring, too. (See box.)
About that cell phone: bring it with you, said Morse, but keep it off and in an inside coat pocket to keep it warm, as low temperatures can damage your phone’s battery. Also keep it off until you need it. Morse says that he’s lucky if his lasts 20 minutes if he’s out on a save where cell towers are far away.
Another incentive to prepare for the worst and keep extra layers: Murphy and Morse discovered through a number of cold ventures that your finger actually has to be warm to use a touchscreen phone.
One thing you’ll always want to do before you head out is leave an itinerary.
“In a number of instances, we were able to find people because they had an itinerary,” Morse said. One of the guys they saved had left an itinerary both on his car windshield and at the hotel he was staying at.
“If he hadn’t left this itinerary, he would have died,” Morse said.
It’s also not a bad idea to tell someone where you’re going for a run, a stroll, or a cross-country ski venture through the rail trails down the street. Otherwise, if something happens (you sprain your ankle or become lost), it might be hours before someone realizes.
Being prepared also means knowing how to use certain tools. All of that awesome stuff you bought at L.L. Bean is useless unless you know how to use it. Practice starting fires (this doesn’t make you a pyromaniac), practice orienteering, practice doing things with thick gloves on. This information, in fact, this article, will probably be of little use unless you take action and physically learn these skills.
Three ways to build a fire
Once you’ve decided on a course of action — primarily staying put if you really are lost — your two most important goals are to keep warm and dry. Do this by building a fire and shelter; allow at least one hour to build the fire, one to three to build the shelter.
In order of importance, getting a fire going comes first, creating a shelter comes second and everything else follows. You can live approximately 30 days without food, six without water. In some environments, without fire or heat, you’ll live just several hours. With fire, you also have a means to make water drinkable by boiling it. (Take water from streams or melted snow. Do not eat snow for hydration. It’ll decrease your body temperature.)
The best way to become good at making fire is practicing. Choose a spot that’s protected from the wind – either naturally, or by building a firewall – and a spot, if possible, elevated from the ground (or at least not touching the ground directly, since the ground is cold).
Here are a few methods, courtesy of New Hampshire Fish and Game, Master Tracker Jeff Rychwa and the Boy Scouts.
Method 1: Match/Lighter Begin by collecting tinder (material that ignites very easily, it must be be absolutely dry). This could include paper, leaves, grass, bark, resin, beech tree leaves, birch bark, pine needles, the shredded inner bark of cottonwood, elm or cedar trees, the fluff from a mouse nest or chipmunk burrow, or material that you brought with you. (Morse and Murphy recommend vaseline cotton balls or toilet paper). Place a big, loose handful of tinder in the middle of the fire site. Arrange small kindling over the tinder (dead twigs, no thicker than a pencil). Gather small and medium-sized sticks (fuel wood) around the kindling as if they were the poles of a teepee. Leave an opening in the teepee on the side against where the wind blows; that way, air can reach the middle of the fire. Light the tinder first with a match or lighter. Hopefully you know how to do this. If not, it’s very simple. Slide the match head quickly along the striker.
Method 2: Flint striker This is more difficult than lighting a match, but the nice thing about using a flint striker in building a fire is that you don’t have to worry about it getting wet; you can purchase flint and steel at places like WalMart, outdoor/recreation stores and online. It looks like a steel rod and razor keychain. Aim the bottom of the striker where you want the flame to go – to the tinder – and use the blade (or a knife, if you’d rather use that) to strike the rod in the direction of the tinder. It’s a downward shaving motion. Once the tinder is lit, use the above steps to build the fire.
Method 3: Bow drill/ “Fire by friction”
It’s not necessarily something you’d do all of the time — chances are, you won’t always have a fireboard, a bow and a spindle with you. But you can learn this through the Scouts (usscouts.org/firebyfriction.asp). Chick Wetherbee usually holds workshops every year (we wrote about one of them, which was held at Beaver Brook last fall, e-pages.dk/thehippo/233/32). Myofu an, a Milford martial arts school, also offers weekly primitive skills workshops.
“It’s like a historical empowering kind of class. It’s not like Indians rubbing two sticks together. You have to have a device that you fashion out of wood and twine. Then you can start a fire,” said Celeste Barr of Beaver Brook.
What you need: tinder, fireboard with notched holds (red elm, cedar, basswood, walnut, blue beech, cottonwood, yucca, cypress and tamarack all work), “thunder head” (a handhold), a spindle (one side needs to be more pointed, the bottom more rounded) a bow, kindle and fuel.
Here’s how it works: Lubricate the top of your spindle. Wrap the bow cord once around the spindle, and hold the spindle perpendicular to the fireboard, fat bottom down. Take the “thunderhead,” the handhold (this should also be notched), and place it on the spindle, applying pressure downward. Then, with your right hand, move the bow back and forth. The spindle must remain perpendicular for this to work. It will spin back and forth.
It’s hard work. If you’re doing it right, the connection of the fireboard and spindle will start to smoke. Take the ashes left over to ignite your tinder. You may need to blow on the tinder for it to catch.
Find or create shelter
First, look around: what natural resources are available? Are there any caves, rocks or overhangs? Are there any “shelter helpers,” like a large boulder, a cliff base or a rock wall, that will help support something like a lean-to?
Location is important. You don’t, for instance, want to build a shelter at the top of a mountain; it’s windy, colder, and offers you no protection from wind, rain or snow. At the same time, you need to think about visibility. Are you in a place where you’ll be found?
It’s also important to make sure you camp out in a spot that’s safe from natural hazards, like wind, flash floods, avalanches and poison ivy. (More on this later.) If possible, you should also have building material, fuel for fire and water nearby.
“Be creative,” Murphy said. “Look at the resources around you, look at the resources you have.”
Even if you didn’t bring rope, you may still have something that you can use to build a strong shelter structure: your shoelaces, a strip from the bottom hem of your shirt or flexible, bendy tree branches. (Boy and Girl Scouts will cringe at this because of their vow to “leave no trace.” However, you’ll find out early that if you’re going to survive, you might need to cut down some branches and rip off some bark.)
Also important in keeping warm is creating a floor bed, which will keep you protected from the cold and damp ground. Lay leaves, grass, plants and evergreen boughs like spruce, cedar and fir. Lots of bough layers means better insulation from the ground and more comfort.
What you create will be different depending on your surroundings, weather conditions, the time of day and what tools you have, but there are a few basic structures that you can go for. By no means is this list complete; use these as ideas to fuel your creativity when your life depends on it.
If darkness is approaching, chances are, you might not have time to create a sufficient shelter. In this case, find refuge in a small cave or under a hanging tree.
• Rope/tarp shelter: This is assuming that you have some sort of tarp, blanket, sheet, plastic bag, whatever. Drape it over a cord that’s connected between two trees, or bend and tie down a small tree horizontally to create a structure to drape the tarp over. Hold down the edges by packing snow (in the winter time, it can act almost like glue if done right), with rocks or with more tying adhesives.
• Lean-to: Make one of these if you have some sort of natural wall nearby. A knife or wire saw would be handy in making one of these, as would some sort of rope/tying adhesive.
• Frame lean-to: Sometimes also called a “debris hut.” This is built by making a tripod with two short stakes and a long ridgepole. Use the two short stakes to hold up the longer and some sort of tying adhesive to hold it all together. Use leaves, branches and debris to create walls. This is ideal if you don’t have any natural walls or tarps nearby.
• Snow shelter: One example is called a “quinzee.” This is the best shelter when wind chill is below -20 degrees. Minimum wall thickness should be about 20 inches. Pile snow until almost head height. Ideally, you should pile snow as soon as possible so that it’s settled before you begin digging. Start digging below and work your way up. (Hot air rises, so you’ll want the tunnel to slope upward.) Keep a vent hole open (jab a stick through the roof) and some free air space at the doorway. These shelters are surprisingly warm; if you have a candle or are able to start a small fire inside, the air inside can be up to 30 degrees warmer than outside.
Don’t drink the water. Purify it first. The Boy Scout Handbook says to either take water from a stream or melt snow.
“Be careful when you’re melting snow [in case] it’s covering up or touching something like poison ivy,” Rychwa said. To avoid this, take only the top layer of snow.
There are a few ways to purify water:
Boil: Bring water to a boil for a full minute. This will kill most organisms. Use a metal (not plastic!) water bottle or cup.
Filter: There are water treatment filters made for hikers and campers. Some contain chemicals that make water safe to drink, some pump water through pores small enough to strain out bacteria and parasites.
Treat: You can purchase water treatment tablets to make water drinkable. This usually calls for one or two tablets to be dropped into your water bottle (but follow packaging directions). They can lose their strength over time, so it’s advised that you check the expiration date on the label.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to find edible plants nearby. You just need to know what to look for. Trevor Nozell of Merrimack put together a wild edibles brochure through the Beaver Brook Association. (Many people actually use these items in regular recipes. Barr likes to throw dandelions, for instance, into salads.)
The No. 1 rule: If you are unable to identify the plant, don’t eat it.
Dandelions are everywhere. You can eat the entire plant, including the flowers, stems and roots. (But don’t use the seed head other than blowing to make a wish.) It can be eaten raw, or the leaves and flowers, dried or fresh, can be used in a tea. It’ll be less bitter in the spring.
The Eastern Hemlock tree (also called Tsuga canadensis) is different from the Water Hemlock, which is poisonous. (This is the same plant that Socrates was poisoned with.) Luckily, it’s only the name that’s similar. These trees are often found along streams, and they grow in well-drained land, alongside yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple, white pine and red spruce, according to Nozell’s edible plant guide. You can use the inner bark in cooking, but in survival situations the needles can be used fresh or dried in tasty teas. A handful of these has a comparable amount of vitamin C to an orange. Chopped needles from fir, hemlock, spruce and pine trees can be simmered in water to create tea.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) can be found in “temperate and arctic” zones. You can eat the leaves raw or boiled.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is sometimes characterized as a weed in the United States, but it’s quite rich in vitamins and minerals. Ghandi called it one of his favorite foods. It can be eaten raw or boiled (but boil it if you want to remove the sour taste).