Several years ago I backpacked off trail in the San Rafeal Swell with a guy that was a wilderness camp counselor. We didn’t use luxuries like a tent or matches. Instead, we used a tarp for a tent and started our fire with a bow drill. Ok, Slim started the fire and tried to teach me. I never did get the hang of it, so that trip planted the seed for taking a wilderness skills class.
When I saw that the Twin Cities REI stores were offering a course on Wilderness Survival for just $65, I was excited to sign up.
Of course, there was a class description, but we really didn’t know what to expect. The description is below:
The Plane Crash
The class was taught by Jesse and Don, two experienced and friendly teachers. After brief introductions from the eight attendees, we were sent alone into the woods a short distance with our assignment. You’ve maybe done this before. A life threatening situation is described, in this case a winter plane crash in the wilderness. You are able to salvage some, but not all, of the items on a list. The assignment is to rank order the items.
Once we all gathered back around the fire we discussed our choices. I won’t go into all the details, but here are the top five items:
- Cigarette lighter with no fuel (I ranked it #2)
- Ball of steel wool (I did not rank it)
- Extra shirt and pants for each survivor (I ranked it #1)
- Family sized chocolate bar-one each (I ranked it #5)
- Can of shortening (I ranked it #3)
I knew the most important thing to do was to stay warm, so I chose extra clothes first and then focused on fire. The cigarette lighter can still make sparks even though it is out of fuel. I thought the can of shortening would be flammable and could be consumed for energy. I also figured I could use gauze with the shortening as a fire starter. Finally, I selected the chocolate bar for energy.
How to save money on outdoor gear and clothing
My first big learning of the day was that steel wool is great for starting fires. Who knew! The instructor selected it over gauze because it could be used with the shortening and used to polish the shortening can to make a reflective signal. I also overlooked that the shortening can could be used a container for water.
Our conversation… and that is what it was, a conversation, not a lecture… then turned to the principles of survival.
The Most Important Question of the Day:
Should I stay or should I go? Unlike the answer in the Clash song you should not go. You should stay put. Think about it. When you do not return when you are supposed to, people will know something happened and the search will begin. So, most likely you are looking at a few hours to perhaps a few days of surviving.
The survival shows on TV tend to focus on “finding your way out”. Most of the time, this is most likely to get you more lost and further from where the searchers expect to find you. Don’t make their job harder; stay where they expect to find you.
You did tell people where you were going right? If you don’t think that is necessary you need to watch 127 Hours or read Between A Rock And A Hard Place. The longer the trip, the more likely people are to do this, but most issues happen on day trips. Moral of the story: Tell someone every time! It is a good idea to leave a note in your car too. There are also apps that you can use but I wouldn’t rely on them solely, use them as a supplement. Read my review of the Guard My Angel app.
The Psychology of Survival
The next topic of conversation was the psychology of survival. The most important thing here is to get a grip and overcome your fears. You need to calm down. Breath. Relax. Meditate. Whatever works for you to calm down. Once you calm down you need to S.T.O.P. “Stop”, “Think”, “Observe” and “Plan”.
Another big component of the survivor’s mind-set is a positive attitude. You must believe that you will survive. So, reach down deep and summon your inner Rocky Balboa and remember, if you are with someone who is a doubter, your positive attitude may rub off on them. Model positive talk and productive actions.
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The first thing you need to start planning is how you are going to stay warm. This led to one of the most fun exercises of the day, making fire. The first thing most people think about is making fire with a bow drill, but as I learned on my San Rafeal Swell trip using a bow drill is really difficult.
We learned about finding dry tinder, fire bundles and fire ladders. Typical tinder sources like birch bark and dry grass were discussed, but my favorite creative source was to scrape lint off cotton clothing. We also learned how to make fire starters with cotton balls and Vaseline.
And then we got to play with fire after gathering tinder in the woods. Jesse’s demonstration made starting a fire with flint and tinder look easy. It wasn’t. However, eventually I did get the hang of it. A flint tool will definitely be added to my pack as a back up to the standard lighter or matches.
The StrikeForce flint was the best of several I tried in class. It created a bigger spark, had a longer striker and was easier to use.
I am a master of the Half Hitch Knot. Also, know as “your basic knot”. Which of course, means I suck at knots. In preparation for our shelter building exercise we learned a couple of knots. Hopefully, I will never need them for building a shelter, but they will certainly come in handy for hanging the hammock.
Now, I just have to practice by bowline and taught-line knots before I forget them. Hmmm, maybe I need to get a deck of cards with knots for my next date night with Jules. I’m pretty romantic huh.
Before heading into the woods we discussed a few techniques for making a shelter with materials lying around the woods. While it was fun, I will stick to the tent thank you very much.
Trying out the half-finished shelter
We all know that water is much more critical than food for short-term survival. You can last for a few weeks without food, but only a few days without water. So after warmth it becomes critical to figure out water. I won’t get into all the details of how to find water but I did want to share my big “a ha” when it comes to water.
I’ve always been overly worried about getting giardia while I’m out in the wilderness. It turns out that it can take a couple of weeks before it hits. Of course, nobody wants to come down with it after they get home but, if you are in a survival situation, worry more about staying hydrated than getting laid out by giardia. By the time it hits you will probably be safely back at home.
So, there you have it 6 hours of class summed up in fewer than 1400 words. Obviously, I just touched on the highlights, so I encourage you to consider taking the course. At just $65 for REI members it is a bargain.
Now, I want to try a wilderness first aid course. Let me know if you have any recommendations!
After dismantling the the shelter we used the debris to make an SOS signal
Interested in an REI class? Check out the REI Outdoor School.
Related Post: What Should I Spend My REI Dividend On?