A few weeks ago, one of our writers Florence wrote a piece about hiking the Appalachian Trail up the East Coast of the U.S. If you’re considering that 2,000 mile hike, or another, less daunting one, say 50 miles, not only do you need the proper gear; you need a working knowledge of how to survive in the off chance you find yourself lost in the woods. Even if you’re just stepping out in a jumper and trainers, read and remember these survival tips for good measure.
We Did Start the Fire
If night is falling, and you still haven’t found your way back home yet, you will want to start a fire for warmth, to fend off predators, and to cook your found grub. If you happened to carry along matches, you’re ahead of the game. If not, however, you will need to start a fire by your own lights.
Tinder, highly flammable starter substance, should be amassed, and can be found in the form of birch bark, dry moss, grass, dead evergreen needles, brush. Then cuts of wood with more substance should be scavenged for, like branches, logs, etc. Once you’ve compiled all these together, it’s time to ignite it.
What often comes to mind is striking the back of a hunting knife against a flat piece of flint – this works if you came equipped with a hunting knife and a piece of flint. A stainless steel knife can be bought on the cheap from stores like Light in the Box, and are made even cheaper with a coupon code. If you forget to buy one this round, you can still strike two rocks together repeatedly until they bear a spark. Stones known for their fire-aiding qualities are quartz, jasper, iron pyrites, and agate. Failing this, you can fashion a bow drill and fireboard to start a fire. Here’s a great video to learn how.
A Trillion Star Dining Experience
Most likely if you need a survival course refresher, you haven’t caught and killed your own supper, much less for a week straight. Luckily, there are a number of plants ripe for the picking and ingesting, like cattails, curled dock, and dandelions, to name a few. Stay clear of thorns, seedpods, and three-leaved formations as a rule of thumb. If you’re in a state of duress, you can test a plant’s edibleness by eating small portions of it over the course of a few days. For a more complete list of table-stable plants, check out Art of Manliness' article.
When vegetables and plants grow unpalatable, you might be encouraged to hunt for more meaty offerings. If you’re a quick draw, you can wade in low waters or streams and pick at salmon or smelt. Easily obtainable are sea cucumbers, eggs, and shellfish, though bluish-black muscles adhered to rocks should be avoided as potentially poisonous. To make your own fishing line, you can use a long strip of thread (e.g. from a blanket) with a strip of brightly colored cloth (e.g. from a t-shirt) which will bedazzle the fish as if it were a piece of bait.
If you’re landlocked, birds and small land creatures are your best bet for fast food. All birds are edible, and when they are molting and grounded, they are especially easy targets. Other critters, like squirrels and chipmunks, can be smoked out of their burrows or hollowed trees and into a container. A large rock propped up by a stick attached to a string makes for an effective death trap – just like in Looney Tunes.
Fish and small animals can be skewered and roasted over an open flame (see above), but before cooking they should be dressed, deskinned, etc. The feathers and skin of birds can be removed either sequentially or simultaneously, depending on time (the former is more desirable but takes longer). Remove the small pouch (crop) near where the neck meets the body, and most of the guts – though you can keep the heart and liver for later. Other than that, fish should remain intact and boned as long as possible to retain shape for easy eating.
Critters are best skinned by first hanging them from their hind legs by string, cutting around each ankle and down towards the abdomen, and up the forelegs. If done properly, the hide can then be pulled down over the body, and discarded.
Drinking water is a different story altogether. The long and short of it is that collected sitting water should always be boiled to purify it of contaminants. After boiling the water, it will taste flat; to re-oxygenate it, pass the water back and forth between two utensils or canteens. If water grows scarce of inaccessible, you might be able to find berries, like the native cranberry, rich with water stores.
Home Away from House
At some point you will need to build a shelter. Caves make excellent dwellings, as do the underside of groves. If there happens to be sufficient snow abounding, you can also return to those childhood days of igloo-building and fashion a house of flurries. It’s important to keep your fire a safe distance from your hut, for a number of reasons, not least of which are the dangers of setting aflame your hard work and possibly yourself and belongings, but also the carbon-monoxide rich flames are a major hazard to all inhabitants’ health.
Best to set up camp a safe distance from streams and rivers, in the event that these may rise in tandem with a coming storm. Moreover, swathes of land teeming with lush greenery can conceal underfoot swampland or sinking marsh, which are breeding grounds for insects. Keep a safe distance from rock formations liable to send rocks tumbling onto your digs, as well as sickly, dessicated trees that might snap.
The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Still Your Enemy
In the wild, there are three enemies to your welfare: the beasts, Mother Nature, and yourself. As far as the last is concerned, never be too foolhardy: patience – certainly in the wild – is a virtue of great magnitude.
If you cross paths with a bear, wolf, or mountain lion, you should remain calm, still, and easy. Resist the urge to make sudden movements, and scan your periphery for a tree to climb up. If you do not incite it to hostility, the animal will most likely go on its feral way. Insects pose a serious threat to your health, even more so beasts. Unless you’ve brought repellent, smoke does a fine job of warding away the disease carrying critters – and if you’re traveling, a torch is a fine example of this.
Unintentionally, Mother Nature’s manifestations make for hard going ahead. When crossing streams, it is imperative to use a long pole to fathom the depth before a disastrous fall. If visibility is seriously deficient, best to wait for whatever inclemency has arisen to dissipate before forging ahead farther.
Also, energy, like food, needs to be rationed: in cold weather, or at the end of a long trek, it’s best to let the body rest rather than urge it ahead – a misstep that could prove drastic. If escape deems ice travel a necessity, take special precaution. Carry with you as long a stick as you can hold both to test the depths of the icy water, as well as to equip yourself with a tool to help you rise out of a sinkhole should one form under your feet.
When making your way through the thick, be sure to leave plenty of landmarks to act as signposts in case you have to double-back or to indicate your circumnavigation. Generally speaking, you should avoid night travel at all costs, as the risks inherent to it are exponential. However, if you’re traveling through desert, nighttime is optimal travel time because of the favorable weather conditions. Pick up on subtle, or maybe not-so-subtle, clues of a trodden trail beneath your feet, either human or animal (a horse trail could lead you straight to a stable).
When getting yourself out of any country, it’s advisable to just walk in a straight line in one direction, unless you’ve caught sight or sound of what could be your salvation. If you’re in one place for long, strike up a smoke signal to attract the attention of anyone who might be within miles distance of you. Perhaps the most valuable survival tip of all is a precautionary one: make sure, before stepping foot into the bush, others know where you’ve gone and when you plan(ned) to be back. As long as you do not venture too far from your prospective radius, authorities and rescue teams will have a better chance of locating you.
Even with the aid of cell phones, reception often does not extend into the farther reaches of the woods, so it’s important to know there are things you can do to protect yourself in case you get lost. Be outdoorsy, be brave, be pioneering, but be safe all the same. Print out and take these survival tips with you, if you like, for easy reference: just don’t leave them crumpled up behind you.