Welcome to the first Online Wilderness Workshop from the Wolf College for Seattle Backpackers Magazine. Over the coming year, we will bring you online workshops which focus on each of the colorful boxes shown on the attached Survival Chart. Look for Wild Foods Workshops in the next three months which correspond to the live weekend workshops we are hosting at the Wolf College during the autumn season, then workshops on shelter, fire, herbal medicine, navigation, wildlife tracking and birding over the course of the winter and spring.

If you really want to have fun with this workshop, start by watching our attached YouTube video from the live Wilderness Survival Workshop that Seattle Backpackers co-sponsored with us back in February, and which you can check out in full by reading our wordpress blog about it. The video is the actual start of the workshop, where we laid out a survival scenario for participants to test their leadership during a wilderness emergency.

Watch the video, take a few minutes to write out what you would do in a scenario like that, and then read through this online workshop to compare what you would have done with what we suggest.

You Will Stay Alive As Long As You Keep Breathing

We’ve all gotten lost in the woods, but what happens if we can’t find our way out before dark, and we are unprepared for the cold storm moving in on us? In some cases, hikers have simply died with their rear ends frozen to the log they sat down on. On the other hand, children who get lost in the woods are found alive more often than adults. Why is this?

There have also been cases where hikers got so panicked, that they have run right across a road in broad daylight, and didn’t even notice the road was there, only to trip and fatally hurt themselves as they continued to run blindly through the woods. Why didn’t their tracks show any sign of recognition as they bolted across the road and thrashed into the brush on the other side?

The answer to these unbelievable situations is simple: low oxygen levels in the brain. Panic is simply this: not breathing. When we panic, just like when we get cold, we tend to cross our arms in front of us, which constricts our chest, and take short, rapid breaths that bring oxygen only a short distance into the lungs.

Notice it the next time you get chilly, and instead of curling up against the cold, stand up straight, and take 10 slow, deep breaths into your lungs. Be sure to blow absolutely all the air out of your lungs each time, and then you will naturally take a deep breath afterward.

Blowing the air out first is critical, so push your stomach inward when you are exhaling, getting the air out of the bottom of your lungs first, then your chest. Then go ahead and pull air into the very bottom of your lungs by sticking out your stomach at the same time as you inhale.

The more air you take into this bottom third of your lungs means the more power you will have in any situation. But to breathe fully, you have to go the next step and get oxygen to your brain as well as the rest of your body. Go ahead, practice this breathing whenever you can. It can’t hurt.

Pull another breath into the bottom of your lungs, then stick your rib cage out, bringing lots of air into the middle of your lungs. When you feel that you have successfully filled the lower and middle part of your lungs, blow all the air out again, first by pushing on your stomach, then swiftly pushing on the your chest.

Go ahead the take another full breath. Start by sticking out your stomach and pulling air into the bottom third of your lungs. Then expand your chest fully, pulling air into the middle of your lungs. Finally, raise the top of your rib cage high into the air and pull any more air that you can into the top third of your lungs, which will feed your brain, allowing you to think clearly.

Most people get really tense at first when they try to fill up their lungs fully, especially the top third. See if you can do it without straining yourself, without tensing up your neck and other parts of your body. Over time, you will relax into this form of breathing, and nothing will tense up. That will be critical if ever you get into a survival situation.

Breathing is the key to maintaining a positive attitude, and to staying warm, the most basic of survival needs. If your breathing is calm, deep, sure – then you will have a full amount of oxygen going to the brain, and your instincts will be strong. If you breathe like this, you will know what steps to take in every situation, with your mind crystal clear and able to make all correct decisions.

The Critical Order of Emergency Survival

Let’s go back to that scenario where you are lost in the woods, it’s getting dark, and a cold storm is blowing in. What do you do now that you are staying calm and relatively warm with your breathing? The answer is to follow the order of survival, which follows what survivalist Dr. Ron Hood calls the Law of Three, but since you can survive longer by just breathing calmly, I call it the Law of Fours:

What can’t you live without for more than about 4 minutes? Air. What can’t you live without for more than about 4 hours in the severest of weather? Warmth. What can’t you live without for more than about 4 days before getting critically dehydrated? Water. What can’t you live without for more than about 4 weeks before becoming useless? Food. This is the Law of Fours.

Of course, you can live beyond the Law of Fours if you have a good mental attitude and are in relatively good shape. My search and rescue tracking trainer, Joel Hardin, told me about the time he was commissioned to track Robert Bogucki across the Great Sandy Desert of Australia. Mr. Bogucki brought no food or water, and he reports going 7 days at a stretch without water, while living off wild edible plants for almost the same number of weeks.

I’ve heard that survival experts in Australia claimed that the whole event was a hoax, and that no one could survive out in the desert without water. But in my experience, I know how much further we can push our human bodies past what seems medically impossible. Breathing deeply and keeping a strong mental attitude have always been the key for me in survival situations.

Then why have children survived in cold emergencies better than some adult backpackers? Because the thought that they were going to die never crossed their minds. Therefore, they kept a good mental attitude. Those backpackers who died probably decided that there was just no way out of their situation. So instead of seeking a natural shelter, they just sat down and froze.

Children often behave more instinctually. In search and rescue, we are often more cautiously optimistic about a tracking situation if the lost person is a child, because more often than adults, the child will instinctively seek shelter and stay there when it’s miserable outside. Once, there was a child who was lost for 3 days in the foothills near Seattle, and the media reported a doctor’s statement that no one could survive the fridged cold. The child was found alive and relatively well a couple days later, having curled up under natural shelter at night.

Take Action: Create Shelter

That situation also highlights the fact that it is shelter, not fire, which best addresses your need for warmth. Shelter can come in many forms. Getting underneath a cedar tree, ones with branches that droop down and thereby shed wind and water away from the base of the tree, is one example. Another is stuffing leaves, grass and other debris between layers of clothing. But the best shelter in a survival situation is building a natural sleeping bag.

A natural sleeping bag begins with a frame, which can be a tight cave, crevasse between logs, or a stick frame that you build yourself. Of course, the frame needs to be covered with bark or stone to stay waterproof, but if you are using dry debris alone, it needs to be pitched at an angle and 2-3 feet deep in order to stay waterproof.

Inside the frame, you will need to stuff leaves, grass and other debris until the frame can hold no more. The debris can be moist, though it will take you a few hours of laying in it to dry out the layer around you so that you are comfortable. The frame also needs to be very sturdy, so that as you are taking a few minutes to wiggle yourself into the debris, the structure stays together.

From Shelter to Water

Next, the order of survival addresses your need for water. Like finding natural shelter, children also tend to drink water when they are thirsty, whereas adults have been found in the desert with full water bottles laying next to them, perhaps because they thought they would “save it for when they needed it.” If water is available, drink when you are thirsty, as long as it looks and tastes healthy, and as long as you are in a developed country where you think you will find your way back to civilization within a week.

Why all those caveats? Giardia, a water-born disease that has spread throughout most fresh water sources, tend to gestate for a week before causing diarria and vomiting. And if you are in some undeveloped countries, amoebic dysentary will have you wrapped around a toilet within a couple days. If that happens, dehydration will be exaserbated. So lacking a filter, purification tablets, or knowledge about which plants you can get water from, you need a fire and a bowl to boil your water.

No bowl? Carve one out of wood. No knife? Find a rock to scrape the wood. It will take you ten times longer to make a bowl and fire without a good knife or hatchet, but I’ve done it, frustrating as it was. So making a fire is the next task you will need to complete in the order of survival.

From Water to Fire

As many times as I’ve started a good fire, I’ve also gone through many a book of matches trying to get fire in bad conditions. I won’t go into what I’ve found to be a fool-proof method of starting a fire with materials from home, though personally, I like the gasoline method, but that’s not always an option.

There are a couple dozen ways to start fire by friction. Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in the woods without our lighter, not to mention our knives. On the other hand, some kid in some third world country probably got paid about $1 working all day making those blessed lighters, so sometimes I think it might be worth it to make my own fire by friction.

I’ve gotten the “bow drill” to work that most of us saw in boy scouts, and I also like the “hand drill” method, although it doesn’t work as nicely in cold or wet conditions. It is absolutely impossible to describe how to work these primitive drills, even diagramming them on paper. None of the books do them justice. You just need to be taught by an expert, unless you want to spend eons re-inventing the wheel like I did.

Once that fire is going, you can speed up the time it takes to make your wooden bowl by putting coals in it to burn. This also takes some trial and error, but once you have the knack, it’s kind of fun. Be sure to scrape it with sandstone or sand paper before putting water in it. Otherwise, your water will look and taste pretty charred.

Here’s a mental challenge for you. I had to sit and think – I mean breathe – a long time before figuring this one out. If you have a wooden bowl, how can you possibly boil your water? This dilemma is why I always carry a tin cup or metal pot in my survival bag.

It is possible to boil water in a wooden bowl, though. The trick is to heat up rocks in your fire, and then pick them up with tongs or sticks to place them into your water. Make sure the rocks have not been soaked in water anytime in the past year, so that they don’t blow up in the fire. Conglomerate stones, like concrete, are most dangerous. They really like to explode.

The rocks need to be red hot in order to boil your water, and you will need to experiment with the right size and number of rocks to boil whatever amount of water you have. Oh, and a final tip. Be sure to quickly dip the hot rocks in a separate bit of water to clean them off before dropping them in your bowl.

From Fire to Food

Finally, the order of survival brings you to your need for food. Sure, you can survive weeks without food, but those first couple days without it are torture. Your work productivity is bad, because you feel like a limp noodle. Many of us backpackers are used to eating a good portion of meat at least once a day, and without it, we don’t do too well.

Skinny vegetarians actually do better without food for the first couple days of a survival situation. They are used to starving, so it doesn’t feel so bad. Carnivores tend to outlast them, though, and after a few days. If act, I’ve found that my energy level comes back pretty strong after about 3 days. By then, the metabolism has agreed to feed off my beer belly instead of waiting for the actual beer.

I don’t have to tell you that the skill we need at this point in the order of survival is hunting. Of course, most people don’t know how to hunt very well, so they go as hungry as those poor people on the Survivor show. It’s probably a lot faster to teach people how to identify and eat a few wild edible plants, but berries and greens don’t give lasting energy. Insects do, though, due to their high amount of protein, and most are quite edible. Rodents are the easiest meal to catch, however, but trapping them primitively takes some trial and error.

Plants also have the additional risk of poisoning, and some, like the venerable nettle, need to be cooked to become very digestible. In addition, we have to keep our egos in check when it comes to wild edible plants. I’ve made the mistake of being only 90% sure that a plant was one that I thought was edible. Spent a couple hours coughing. Good thing the plant wasn’t something more deadly, like Foxglove, which would have given me a heart attack, or Poison Hemlock, which would have slowed my heart down until it stopped.

These plants, like every plant, have their gifts, too. A derivative of foxglove, for instance, is an important heart medicine. Even the peskiest of plants, like the dandelion, have great gifts as it turns out. The first time someone slipped me a cup of dandelion coffee without telling me it wasn’t really coffee, I had complimented her on some fine cooking. After the dandelion coffee, made from roasted roots of the plant, I was presented with a bottle of freshly corked dandilion wine, which was brewed from the plant’s flowers. Actually tasted like a good beer!

Essentials to Take Everywhere

Since that time, I have started to pare down what I take with me, and based on the Law of Fours and the Order of Survival, you can see what I recommend according to the attached Survival Chart.

Corresponding with “air” on the survival chart, a blade is the number one survival tool because it is the one item which keeps panic (not breathing) at bay. Without it, your work takes multiple times longer. When I’m traveling light, I only take along my 4 inch, Frost Mora knife blade with a solid, hard plastic handle. Made in Sweden, I think it’s the best knife available because it’s so inexpensive, but just as good as any high-end blade. I also like to carry a folding saw which makes shelter building, fire wood, bowl making, etc. much, much faster, so if you have time to grab one, do so.

Corresponding with “warmth” on the survival chart are a couple of choices which can quicly provide you with shelter. You may be traveling light while backpacking, so the quickest, lightest choice is to bring a big plastic garbage bag. A giant tarp would be great if you can carry it, but either way, you can hang your plastic up like a tent to protect from rain, or for more warmth, you can wrap it around you, although this will cause you to get wet from condensation unless you have a layer of debris or other wicking insulation between you and the plastic. That’s why a sleeping bag, wool blanket, or for the lightest choice, a fleece blanket that zips into a mummy-sack, is great, and lets you forgo collection of insulative debris while carefully angling your plastic above you for the best rain protection and moderate air flow.

Corresponding with “water” on the survival chart are two items which are critical for purifying water, among other benefits. Boiling water is critical, so it’s a great choice to carry a metal bowl and a lighter. In fact, once you practice all the survival skills, you’ll find that a metal cup or pot would be the last thing you would be caught without because it takes a long time to make a decent wooden bowl and find good rocks to heat up in order to boil your water. Finally, sitting around a fire to burn a bowl exaserbates dehydration, chapped hands and lips. Further, even though I know how to make fire by friction, a lighter is a fast way to make fire fastest, until the fuel runs out and you have your bow-drill fire-by-friction kit ready.

Corresponding with “food” on the survival chart, jerky is your savior, since unless you are already used to skimpy eating, or are an expert hunter, you are going to have almost no energy to work on your shelter, which is the most primary survival task. Jerky is the smallest, lightest, quickest, longest-lasting high-calorie thing I can carry. Similarly, I also carry rendered fat whenever I go into the backcountry. If you are vegetarian, try your favorite saturated-fat vegetable oil. These are the food items which will give you what you can’t easily get without great skill in the wilderness.

Notes and Caveats

You might notice that this list of important tools to bring is different from the Ten Essentials which has been popularized by the Mountaineers and Sierra Club. Those essentials are, in fact, the best essentials for a novice entering the backcountry. However, once you understand the order of survival and gain some practice with survival skills, your essentials tends to change as well. Further, my list is a list for tools you would need anywhere if an emergency struck, not just when you go backpacking.

The ten essentials are thinks I also like to carry with me even though I know how to make most of them quickly. String or rope is great, and a compass is nice, but I have replaced even that with my sewing kit, which includes a needle, which I learned by watching the movie The Edge will always point magnetic north when placed on a leaf or piece of paper floating in calm water. I like to carry something with me that is strong enough to use as a snare or as a survival bow string. Synthetic strings are the strongest, but jute cordage is really handy, because it can also be shredded to use as excellent fire tinder. Rope can also be used to secure shelter frames, and for a million other uses.

Dry tinder is something else I like to carry because it saves so much time if I don’t need to search out material under an overhang, or dry it underneath my clothes. There are several other items that are handy, and for some, critical unless you know how to fashion them from natural materials. But the most important thing to remember if ever you find yourself in a survival situation is to breathe calmly. Whatever you lack will present itself if you really need it. You may not be very comfortable at first, but you will survive.

Finally, remember that accidents are most likely to happen when you are cold, tired, hungry, thirsty and stressed. These are the times when I have cut myself with my knife, tripped and sprained my ankle, gotten myself lost, and yelled at my best friends for no reason when I should have just paused, taken a few deep breaths, and found a way to enjoy whatever situation I got myself into.

Ready to Practice Your Skills? Take a Survival Trek!

Survival Trek Variety A: Leave the Sleeping Bag & Tent Behind – One of the varieties of survival trek that I recommend is to perfect your most basic survival skill (besides breathing, of course). Bring all the gear you want, as long as you are without shelter or any form of insulation. Novices should start early on a summer morning, bring a fire kit which includes tinder and kindling, as well as the garbage bags with string as a back-up shelter. Experts should go during the winter or begin just an hour or two before nightfall, and bring only food, water, bowl, knife, two normal layers of clothing, and fire starter. But always bring the first aid gear, let people know where you are, what you are doing,, and better yet, have someone watch you.

Survival Trek Variety B: Leave the Water & Fire Starter – Another variety of survival trek that I recommend is to work on primitive firemaking. Bring all the gear you want, as long as you are without any fire starter. Novices should start early in the morning, and have a back-up fire kit made in case the one you gather and make today doesn’t work out so well. Experts should go when it is rainy, extremely cold, or just after dusk. Still bring the first aid gear, let people know where you are, what you are doing,, and if possible, have someone watch you.

Survival Trek Variety C: Leave the Water & Bowl – Still another variety of survival trek that I recommend is to work on purifying water. Bring all the gear you want, as long as you are without any means of carrying water. Novices should start early in the morning, and be near a safe drinking water source in case the bowl you make today doesn’t work out so well. Experts should start after dusk with only a primitive fire kit that is pre-made, or maybe be nowhere near water, so that you need to make a solar still or sop-up dew. Still bring the first aid gear, let people know where you are, what you are doing,, and if possible, have someone watch you.

Survival Trek Variety D: Leave the Blade – Yet another variety of survival trek that I recommend is to figure out how to do everything without a knife, hatchet or any modern blade. Bring all the gear you want otherwise. Novices should start early in the morning, and bring their pre-made primitive fire kit, but without tinder or firewood. Experts should bring no fire kit or fire starter or rope of any kind (don’t use your shoe laces, either). As always, bring the first aid gear, let people know where you are, what you are doing,, and if possible, have someone watch you.

Survival Trek Variety E: Bring only the Basics – The final variety I’ll mention for now is what I call the Basics. For this trek, bring the four most important tools for survival that I mention earlier in this essay: just a blade, fire starter, metal bowl, and a garbage bag with string. Novices should start the trek in the morning and bring along food (no water), while experts should start at dusk and leave the food behind. As always, bring the first aid gear and let people know where you are, what you are doing, and have someone checking on you.

How you do things beyond those suggestions is up to you: how long you stay, where you go, etc. But remember, people are depending on you back home, so stay safe. Also, be absolutely sure that you have permission to do the things you are planning to from whomever owns the property you use. And stay legal: know the fire, hunting, trapping, and plant harvesting rules of your county or state.

Remember that just like with any rite of passage, the three stages of the process are critical to success: preparation, ordeal and integration. The more you prepare for a survival trek and are clear with your intention, the more successful you will be. The better you prepare your plan of action during the trek, the better the result, however different it may be than what you planned. And the better the plan you have to integrate back into your daily life, the more successful you will feel in the end.

Finally, a teacher, guide or mentor who helps a student with a survival trek should not only help them plan and prepare, but also help the student evaluate the ordeal afterward. Encourage them to journal the experience, of course, and evaluate the attitude, safety, site selection, shelter quality, water source, fire-making-and-extinguishing, craftwork materials and quality, food and cooking quality, medicine quality, and oh, did I forget to mention safety?

Chris Chisholm is guiding a Wilderness Survival Training & Trek the first week of July, and he leads monthly Wilderness Survival Workshops on Saturdays through his earth skills training institute, Wolf Camp and the Wolf College, which he founded in 1996. Chris grew up in the north woods of Minnesota, and he is author of the Wolf Journey Earth Skills Training Course. He is certified as a basic tracker by Joel Harden Professional Tracking Services, and is an active member of local Search & Rescue tracking teams. He also received training in Wilderness First Aid, Emergency Water Rescue, and Site/Risk Management from the Wilderness Medicine Training Center, and recently completed EMT training.

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