Kyle Koch

Kyle Koch has 8 articles published.

Survival Backpack

in Gear by

Looking for an affordable, lightweight backpack that doubles as a shelter, fire kit, rabbit stick and more? Here at Wilderness Awareness School, we can help you design the perfect survival backpack just for you!

First you’re going to need some sticks. Three to be exact. The size, type and weight will depending on the individual and what you’re using them for, but all three sticks should be similar in size and weight. We have chosen to use vine maple, roughly an inch in diameter and cut green for durability. Second you will need about 25 feet of Parachute Cord (P-cord) and a few toggles (small sticks). You will lash together the three sticks, using a traditional diagonal square lashing (check out this article for more details) to make a triangle as depicted in the picture below.

Toggle and p-cord
survival pack
Three sticks of similar size and weight lashed together

Now to make some toggles. These are key for easy set-up and also come in handy in different shelter set-ups using your tarp. Remember, everything needs to have multiple uses or we don’t use it.

Now lay down your tarp on the triangle and start packing your items. We’ve added an extra set of clothes, a wool sweater and a sleeping pad. You could easily add food, a stove, or other items you like to carry with you on a backpacking trip.

IMG_2149 Spread out tarp over the triangle, then lay your items in the middle.

Now fold up all the items in the tarp nice and tight, getting out any air and overlapping to prevent any water from getting it.


wrapping backpack 3
Fold the corners of the tarp, overlapping them to make sure pack will be waterproof.

Using the p-cord and starting with a figure-8 knot around the first toggle, you will then wrap it around the opposing toggle and work your way around the tarp pack and triangle diagonally several times until you feel it is secure or you run out of p-cord. Secure the p-cord. Remember not to cut your p-cord – preserving its full length can be very useful in a survival situation.


Wrap the p-cord and toggles around the pack and triangle several times till you are sure it is secure.

Now you can add some items to the back of the pack that you want immediate access to, such as a shovel or axe.

You can add some items at the back of the pack that you want immediate access to.

Time to put on the pack!

survival pack
Survival pack

Using a climbing rope, we’ve secured the pack to the top of the triangle using clove hitch knots with equal lengths hanging down either side. You can pass the lengths of rope over your shoulders to hoist the pack up on your back. Then wrap it around the shoulders and go over the bottom two points of the pack to secure it and tie it around your waist. Adjust to your liking and add a shirt, bandana, or bark underneath the shoulder straps for added support and comfort. Now you’re all set to hit the trail!


Wilderness Awareness School offers classes on Survival and Bush Craft as well as a 9-month Intensive Course



Alpine Lakes Wilderness Hike (Trout and Boulder Lakes)

in Community/Trails by

I recently had the opportunity to explore the Alpine Lakes Wilderness hike off HWY 2 just past Skykomish and was amazed at the abundance of food, medicine, and beauty in this place. I have not explored much of the Cascades because, for some reason, I had this image of desolate, cold and snowy mountains. But during the summer months, this is not the case at all.

Old growth Cedar tree

After a short drive down the gravel road off HWY 2, we arrived at the Boulder Lake trailhead. Here we started our Alpine Wilderness hike. We double-checked our gear, quick stretch and in we went. Very quickly into the hike, we discovered an abundance of Twisted Stalk berries and Oval Leaf blueberries along the trail to snack on. As we explored further, we found a few ancient, giant, old growth Douglas Fir and Cedar trees. The Douglas Fir was one of the biggest trees I had ever seen. Would have needed at least 10 people to give it a solid hug. Just beside it was some Wild Ginger. After properly identifying it with its beautiful flowers growing below the heart shaped leaves, I added a bit to my water bottle.

trout lake
Trout Lake

After about 45 minutes, we arrived at Trout Lake. A lovely stop to rest, grab a snack and take a swim. Some of our friends decided since they had to leave early the next day, they would stay and camp here. The rest of us continued deeper into the mountains.

Yarrow flowers

It’s a solid climb from here up to Boulder Lake. There are several switchbacks into the open hillside where the sun beat down on us with just a few shady spots to rest in. The views from here are amazing. You can see mountainsides all across the way with their dry channels where the snow melt would create seasonal streams. Also, looking up, you can see the waterfall flowing out of Boulder Lake. As we ventured up, we discovered many more useful plants such as Pearly Everlasting, Yarrow, and Mugwort. By the time we reached the top, I had tasted 9 different kinds of edible berries!! (Thimbleberry, Gooseberry, Trailing Currants, Oval Leaf Blueberry, Trailing Blackberry, Twisted Stalk, Salmonberry, Red Huckleberry, and Black Huckleberry)

boulder lake
Boulder Lake

We reached the top, crossed the stream and made our way around to where we could see the lake. Wow! Standing on berry covered, stoney cliffs, I gazed across the deep blue water reflecting the talus covered hillside of scattered trees and tiny patches of snow, before my eyes reached the peak of Boulder Lake Mountain.

I quickly dropped my pack and jumped into the clear, cold, refreshing water. Exploring the stories of large boulders and trees that lay on the bottom of the lake … what an enlivening feeling!

Boulder Lake shore

We set up camp nearby in a stand of large firs and hemlocks. Then back to the lake for more swimming. We perched high up on a rock cliff to watch the day transform into night. There is this magical point when the trees become darker than the sky. Then as the light fades, we watched the shades of blue grow ever deeper and darker until, one by one, the stars appeared as if a hummingbird was slowly poking holes in the night sky.

From Fire to Feast: Rugged Backcountry Cooking

in Food/Skills by

Backcountry Cooking

There is something that shifts in me whenever I catch a familiar scent. My awareness peaks as I sniff out the air trying to track down the particular aroma. As I grow closer to the source, I’ve deduced that not only is there a fire, but food cooking on that fire. Even though I wasn’t hungry when I first arrived, there is something about that smell that makes my mouth water. It’s similar to walking through a neighborhood in the summer and smelling all of the wonderful BBQs. The ability to cook food shifted our evolution as humans. It allowed us to better process and digest food, giving us more nutrients, and in turn allowing our brains to grow!

Cooking out on a backpacking trip can sometimes seem like a daunting task. You have to carry pots, pans, stoves, fuel, utensils, bowls and then the actual food. I’m here to give you some tips and tricks so that you won’t need any of those things (except for food, depending on your skills).

The first step is making the fire. The students here at the Wilderness Awareness School use the preferred bow drill method to start their fires. Bring along some string and harvest a few sticks from around your campsite to get started. You won’t need to bring any fuel with you because – well, you’re in the forest and surrounded by it! You’ll want to use smaller sticks and get a big fire going to create a healthy coal bed. This is what we’ll be cooking on.


Let’s start with breakfast


Backcountry CookingMy favorite thing to do is to take an onion, cut it in half and remove the inner layers, creating a nice bowl. Fill the onion-bowl with a few eggs and set them on the coals. From there, try adding cheese and garlic for flavor. After a few minutes with the onion-bowls on the hot coals, you have a fried egg breakfast in an edible bowl!

Another fun thing to do is to heat up a larger flat rock in the fire (make sure it’s not a rock from the river, it could explode if there is too much water in it). After awhile, pull them out and lay out some bacon. Done! Breakfast is served with little to no clean up.



Cooking meat is super easy in the wilderness. Just toss it on the coals and when it’s no longer sticking, flip it over and cook to taste. I find that cooking directly on the coals adds a really nice salty, smokey flavor that locks in the juices, and there’s no clean up.

Backcountry CookingAnother neat way to cook salmon or chicken is to clay bake. Here in Washington, it’s pretty easy to find natural clay sources near rivers or creeks. I like to take my salmon and wrap it up in 2 or 3 sword ferns and completely cover them in clay. This helps to protect them from burning and keeps the meat moist and juicy. You can then cook them directly on the coals. Another way I like to do it is to actually move the fire on top of the clay bundle or bury it in the coals. Check on it after about 20 minutes depending on the size of fire.

You can fashion all of your utensils from nature as well. Use a larger log to make a burn bowl that you can eat out of or make soup in! Just add all of your ingredients and water and then add hot rocks from your fire until it boils. Backcountry CookingYou can craft up some neat things out of vine maple to cook in or on. You can make tongs with 2 sticks and some rope. You can carve up a spoon or make fancy chop sticks – the options are limitless.








I will admit that some of these processes can take a bit more time to make than your dehydrated jet-boiled noodles, but the smell and taste is so much more satisfying.

Backcountry Cooking

For more wilderness skills from Kyle, check out his other articles with Seattle Backpackers Magazine.

Wilderness Lessons from the Conifers

in Skills by

As winter sets in with unusually cold frosty weather, you may have noticed that you can see a lot further into the forest. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, and the smaller green things have died or are covered with a light blanket of snow. But among this more quiet, less green forest are towering giants, still thick with needles and frowns. This time of year we turn our attention to the conifers. They are suddenly bright and attractive, especially when covered in the shimmering morning frost.


 As the North winter winds blow down from our arctic neighbors, we look to the trees for fire, shelter and, believe it or not, medicine. Look around your surroundings and notice how many things are made of wood. Most of the world’s “finished lumber” is supplied from pine, spruce, fir, cedar and hemlock (1).

Fire is used to heat our homes, cook food and to gather around for stories. Though hardwoods are preferable, softwoods are cheaper and easier to come by. These trees have thousands of other uses in many different cultures throughout the world, including as medicine. Here in this article, we are going to focus on Douglas fir and Western Hemlock because they are noticeably abundant in all landscapes of western Washington.

Photo by Thomas Quine
Photo by Thomas Quine

Douglas-firs are planted in abundance for lumber and Christmas trees. They are also reestablished well after forest fires. But it is not the wood we’re after, it’s the needles. You can gather them from the shorter, younger trees or, better yet, right off the ground! When we get high winds here in the PNW, they blow off the higher branches, bringing an abundance of needles from up above. If you’re out on the trail, you can gather them up as you’re hiking and toss them in a pot for tea at night. The tea can help with colds and repertory problems. It is also high in vitamin C and has over 20 different essential oils, a few of which are found in citrus trees. This is what gives it its legendary beguiling scent (2).

Western Hemlock is a succession tree found in older forests. It is easily identifiable in the distance by its drooping top. Nate Summers of NatureSkills lets us know another fantastic use for the Western Hemlock:

conifers“The needles of Western Hemlock can be eaten as a survival food – and they’re quite tasty, with a lemon-citrus flavor. The needles suppress the appetite (useful when food is a challenge), and they are very rich in vitamin C. To make Western Hemlock needle tea, simply take a handful or two and add them to hot (but not quite boiling water), and then reduce the heat and simmer for between 10-20 minutes depending on your tastes. Try not to overcook the tea as vitamin C is damaged by heat. You can drink multiple cups of the tea as a warm, winter tea to drive out the cold and potentially prevent seasonal colds as well” (3).



Many of the other conifers in the area have medicinal qualities as well. As with any plant or tree, you’ll want to make sure you can properly identify it before use. Also, with wild foods and medicines, you’ll want to start with small doses, as our bodies may not be used to these complex nutrients.


For more wilderness tips from Kyle, check out Sound Mapping with Birds and A Berry Abundant Landscape: Foraging for Wild Berries.




(2) Duke, James. Handbook of Biologically active Phytochemicals and their activities. CRC. 199

(3) Nate Summers,


Update: This article was edited on December 15, 2014 to better attribute information provided from the source material.

Sound Mapping with Birds

in Skills by

How bird language can expand your awareness of nature

sound mapping
Photo by Dendroica cerulea

Here in Washington state, we are fortunate that we can travel very short distances to be in very wild places. With such abundant beauty around us to engage our eyes – and the thoughts of our busy lives percolating in our brain – our bubble of awareness becomes a lot smaller. We are only able to perceive the environment immediately in front of us, and maybe slightly behind us, but what are we missing out on? Are you aware of the weasel moving in the thicket 20ft to your left? Are you aware that you spooked a cougar 50ft up the trail? Did you know about the jogger who will be running by you in 2 minutes? This level of awareness is not only possible, but indeed, it was a common skill of our ancestors. This could be achieved simply by paying attention to what the birds were saying and doing – it’s called sound mapping, and it can totally change your level of awareness in the wilderness.

sound mapping

To the untrained ear, it may appear that birds are out there making random sounds. However, all of their vocalizations convey important information to those willing to listen. This is most apparent for birds in the order Passeriformes (Song or perching birds). Imagine that every day – and often several times a day – creatures from the ground, and the air, are trying to eat you and your family while you’re out trying to find food or at home. At this point communication becomes very important. Birds in this order warn each other of predators and other dangers in hopes that they will then return the favor, thus keeping everyone relatively safe.

sound mapping
By aware of “Popcorn” movement in order to spot predators

This may sound complicated, but if you just think about how you might react in that situation, it becomes more easily understood. When you hear a bird call, think – what kind of feeling are you getting?


The 5 Voices of the Birds

Song– You have probably heard birds singing on a spring morning. This is an expression of joy and gratitude and usually signals that everything is OK (baseline).

Companion Call– When a mated pair of birds are feeding on the ground, they call back and forth watching each other’s back. Another sign of baseline.

Territorial Aggression– When a bird wanders into another territory, other birds may defend their resources by driving the intruder away. This can sound like an alarm, but you may notice none of the other birds are reacting. Another sign of baseline.

Juvenile Begging– In the spring when the babies are hungry, they can call incessantly waiting for dinner. (Your kids probably do this as well). This is a good way to locate nests and another sign of baseline.

Alarm!– This is usually a loud, sharp call, repeated over and over by one or more species of birds. This can look different depending on what’s causing the alarm, but will let you know that something is happening close by (go find out what’s going on).


sound mapping
Minimize your threat in order to spot the most wildlife


The 5 local birds here in WA that will become your allies in learning Bird Language:

  1. American Robin
  2. Winter (pacific) Wren
  3. Spotted Towhee
  4. Dark Eyed Junco
  5. Song Sparrow

The best way to practice is first to listen – when you hear a call, STOP! Ask your self, what feeling am I getting? What call am I experiencing? What is going on over there? Then go investigate, and see if you were correct. Whether you’re right or wrong, you will learn something that will inform future guesses, and eventually you’ll start to be right! Have fun out there!


sound mapping
Take advantage of your position as a Safety Barrier for better bird watching, and use it in order to recognize the potential for other predators in the area

For more wilderness skills training from Kyle, check out A Berry Abundant Landscape: Foraging for Wild Blackberries, How to Make a Shelter in the Backcountry, and Five Wild Plants Every Backpacker Should Know.

A Berry Abundant Landscape: Foraging for Wild Blackberries

in Skills by
Photo by runge.marius

We are fortunate here in the Northwest to have a great abundance of wild berries growing everywhere! They grow at different elevations and in many diverse ecosystems. If you know what you’re doing, you can find a new berry every 2 weeks between the spring and fall.

The most abundant and easiest to identify out of the over 50 kinds of edible berries in Washington is the Blackberry. Here in Washington, we have 3 different kinds of Blackberries.


The Creeping Blackberry


Our only native species is the creeping or trailing blackberry. This is a low growing vine-like plant that, as you can guess by its name, creeps along the ground. They have 3 leaflets that are toothed. The stems are small, skinny, and green. The flowers are white to pinkish with 5 petals. This is usually the first one of the three to berry, appearing during the late spring and early summer. They do have the smallest berries of the 3, but, in my opinion, are the best tasting!


The Cut-Leaf Blackberry


Moving up the list in size is the cut-leaf or evergreen blackberry. They are identifiable by their deeply serrated leaves, hence the name “cut-leaf.” They also have thicker, stouter stems than the trailing blackberry. I tend to notice this one being the last to ripen, usually in mid to late September. Also, the cluster of berries tend to ripen all at once as opposed to just a few at a time like with the Himalayan Blackberries.


The Himalayan Blackberry


Our final blackberry on the list is the largest and most prominent of the three. If you’ve lived in Washington, you have probably encountered thickets of this delectable but challenging plant on a hike, bushwhack or on the roadside. Though through most of the year this plant tends to be a literal pain in the butt (or any other part of you that gets poked), come Fall, it transforms into a bush of delicious abundance. If you find a good patch ripening, you can collect about three quarts an hour! They have five leaves that, if you draw a line down the middle, are symmetrical on either side. They also have large, stout stems, which can be colored green (new shoots) to a dark purple with large thorns all over. This one tends to berry sporadically from August through the end of September.


A fun simple way to incorporate these delicious treats into your life is just to eat them as you’re hiking. But a neat and fun recipe is to make them into a hot fudge like syrup you can add to breakfast or desert!


Blackberry Sauce Recipe

Step 1: Collect as many blackberries as you can.


Step 2: Mix berries with equal parts water (1 cup blackberries – 1 cup water).

Step 3: Simmer for about 20-30 minutes.


Step 4: Add honey, ginger and any other spice to your liking.











Here’s a quick how to video from one of our instructors, Nate Summers, on how to make this recipe at home.

As always, when harvesting any wild edible make sure you know what you’re eating. Blackberries are a good edible plant to start with, as they are easily identifiable and there are no poisonous look-a-likes.

Final quick tip: Berries ripen quicker at lower elevations. So, start low and go high if you want to maximize the harvesting season for doing other neat things like making fruit leather, jam, wine or smoothies!

How to Make a Shelter in the Backcountry

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How to Make a Shelter

Shelter: It’s one of the back-country essentials, and in a survival situation it can save your life. But do you know how to make a shelter without your store-bought tent and directions in hand? Knowledge is power, and it weighs less than a tent. With some warm clothes, a poncho and some creativity, you’ll be able to spend weeks in the beautiful Washington wilderness with just a day pack.

Sometimes when I go to REI, I’m overwhelmed by all the gear; I have to spend hours talking with people, looking at different items and comparing prices. Then I still need to go try out whatever I bought and contemplate whether I’m using it correctly— and if it was worth the investment. I often wonder what people did without all of these things. I recently attended the Wilderness Walkabout Expedition through the Wilderness Awareness School. We were able to subsist off the land for 7 days with a few essential items (knife, trash bag, p-cord,  duct tape) and amazing instructors, with lots of knowledge to show us the way. It’s expeditions like this that really make me appreciate the simplicity and abundance found in nature.

How to Make a Shelter

Here are some quick and easy ways to set up shelters using sticks, duff (debris on the ground), a trash bag and a standard Military issue poncho:

First check the 5 W’s: Weather, Wind, Wigglys (don’t be on an ant hill), Water and Wood. You can tuck yourself in the forest to get out of the wind and rain. You’ll want to be close to a water source and have plenty of wood available so you can conserve energy without having to stray far for resources.

Now, to make your bed. You’ll do this by first outlining your sleeping area with large sticks or logs. I like to lay down first with my arms outstretched, and then mark my hands, feet and head. Then add about a foot on all sides. Pile up the frame of sticks so that it creates at least a 6inch deep wall all around sides (deeper is better). Now pile on the duff. No such thing as too much duff!

How to Make a Shelter

Let’s add the poncho. Depending on weather, there are many different set ups. We’ll go over a few, but when you try this yourself, you’ll find more creative uses…

If the weather is relatively nice, you can just put the poncho on and sleep in that. The plastic like material will keep your upper body warm. You can fill the trash bag with debris and use it to cover your feet. We were calling it the duffvet (duvet).

How to Make a Shelter


How to Make a Shelter

If you encounter rain, you can use the poncho in a tarp style set up. Make a ridge line from corner to corner and then secure each to a tree using a Taught Line Hitch (this will allow you to raise or lower it for warmth and room). Then secure the other 2 corners to the ground with a stake or heavy rock. This will protect you from the rain, and it will trap heat keeping you warmer in the night (we’ll talk more about tarp set up in a future article).


How to Make a Shelter

If you’re still not warm enough, you can make another duffvet for your upper body. Yup, it’s that simple and works incredibly well!

There you have it. Simple, easy and effective. If you’re looking for more wilderness skills, come check out one our classes at the Wilderness Awareness School.

Or practice at home!  You can try it in your backyard or test it out while backpacking, but take your tent as a backup until you feel comfortable with your shelter.

Five Wild Plants Every Backpacker Should Know

in Community/Skills by

Knowing a few wild plants can not only enhance your outdoor wilderness experience, it could even save your life!  Many people are intimidated by the “Wall of Green” they encounter when they learn about plants around them.  No worries. Many plants have key, easily identifiable characteristics that can help you on your journey.  While it is incredibly important to be careful of any kinds of poisonous plants, the following list is a great starting point to delve into the world of useful wild plants.

#5 Huckleberries/Blueberries

There’s really nothing quite like eating wild blueberries straight from the plant or throwing them in oatmeal or pancakes in the morning.  Blueberries and huckleberries are part of the Vaccinium genus, and include Red Huckleberry, Evergreen Huckleberry, and Oval-leafed Huckleberry/Blueberry.  These tasty berries are easily identifiable by their oval-shaped leaves, alternate leaf pattern and thin spindly branches with no thorns.

Wild Plants 7
Blueberry and Huckleberry


#4 Dandelion

While this wildplant may not be as glamorous or fun as some of the others, we should all be appreciative of the ubiquitous dandelion.  This wild plant is one of the most prolific in the world and can be found at all sorts of elevations.  It’s tender leaves make a slightly bitter but healthy and nourishing snack that’s packed with vitamins (best picked before the plant flowers).  The flowers can be made into yummy fritters or just picked and munched (sweet, slightly bitter and packed with lots of natural sugars), and the roots can be harvested to make a coffee substitute.  The plant is medicinal, common, easily identifiable, and a good friend to get to know.

Wild Plants 4


#3 Yarrow

This wild plant just might save your life some day.  No, really.  It was used by ancient Greek warriors to stop bleeding from battle wounds, and it’s Latin named comes from the Greek hero Achilles.  Achillea millefolium, or yarrow, is found at many different elevations, but is especially common at 5000 feet or above.  The little leaves of this plant can be crushed and used to stop bleeding (after a wound has been cleaned out).  They can also be crushed and put on bee stings. Finally, a tea from yarrow can induce sweating which is said to help with fevers.  An important part of every herbalist’s first aid kit, and a big friend to backpackers. Yarrow can be dried and carried with you, though fresh is best.

Wild Plants 1


#2 Stinging Nettle

While many people are intimidated by the stinging hairs on this wild plant, it is one of the most nutritious wild foods out there.  Nettles are easily identifiable by their heart-shaped leaves with jagged edges, long stalks, and of course the hairs on all parts of the plant that deliver a little sting.  However, if nettles are gathered carefully (with gloves), once steamed or boiled, the needles lose their ability to deliver a sting.  What’s left is a luscious leafy green packed with iron, trace minerals, and lots of protein.  Yep, nettles have one of the highest protein contents for a plant, especially for a leaf.  You can steam them, boil them, make a tea from them, or even cook them in a stir fry.  There are stories from around the world of people living off of nettles for extended periods of time.

Wild Plants 2
Stinging Nettle

#1 Cattail

This is the wild plant that wins the race.  It probably is the most useful plant on the planet.  No other plant has such an amazing combination of powers as medicine, food, and survival friend.  Cattails grow almost everywhere it is wet (though not necessarily super high-up).  The roots of this plant provide a high-energy starchy food.  One cooked root has the equivalent carbohydrates of two potatoes.  The roots, shoots, and flower stalks can all be harvested as a food source at different times of year.  The pollen of the plant and the gel that grows near the base can both be used to stop bleeding and as an analgesic.  Finally, many parts of the plant can be used for everything from building a shelter, making a mat, making clothes, starting fires, and even making a boat. Truly incredible. But watch out for the look-alike of water lilies.

Wild Plants 6With any wild edible you want to make sure you can properly identify it before eating it. Knowing how to identify these plants is one thing, but experience using them is invaluable. Come learn how to make, use, and identify plants to put together your very own Wild Plant First Aid Kit. You can keep it in your pack while out on the trail. Wild Plant First Aid Kit Class May 10th-11th at The Wilderness Awareness School. Have fun and be safe




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