1803: The Preps of Lewis and Clark, by S.K.

Prepping is many things to a great and growing number of people. Americans have been prepping since the entire European presence was behind a wall, back there in the Jamestown Colony.  As a people, we have this written in our DNA.  The long trek west and the adversarial relationship of native and non-native is a compelling story filled with survival lessons for everyone.

And none is more spellbinding than the story of the Corps of Discovery.  How did Lewis and Clark do it, and what was in their “G.O.O.D. bags”?

Thomas Jefferson had been interested in exploring the American West since childhood.  In the ten years after the revolution, four plans were developed for its exploration.  Jefferson was behind three of them.  The Corps of Discovery was in the planning stages prior to the consummation of the transaction that was the Louisiana Purchase.  This post is an attempt to learn from their preparations.  They were not “Bugging out” or struggling to get home.  However, it was the ultimate camping trip and we can learn much from studying their efforts.  If the value of the prep is obvious, I will just leave it alone.  If obscure, I will expound on its virtue.


Here are some interesting facts about Lewis and Clark’s expedition:

  • Meriwether Louis lived alone with Jefferson and his staff in the White House for two years prior to the trip. There, he received training in botany, zoology, navigation and observation.  Training is always important.  A born frontiersman, he needed no instruction in camp craft.
  • Jefferson’s America, in terms of communications and travel, had more in common with Ancient Greece than it did Lincoln’s America.
  • Lewis and Clark may have met Daniel Boone in Missouri.
  • They held an election on the coast concerning the location of their winter encampment.  It was the first election west of the Mississippi and the first ever to include a women and a black slave.  If bugging out or trying to get home with a group, how are you going to make major decisions as a group?
  • Three other expeditions were in the planning process in 1804.  Reaching the headwaters of the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ouachita rivers.  Only Lewis and Clark were completely successful.  There is much to be learned here.

The fundamental decision, because all else follows from it, was the choice of personnel.  Louis and Clark were Army and so were most of the men. Basic skills and requirements were youth, excellent health, marksmanship, skill with boats and horse, hunting, and a great many others.  There were specialized skills as well.  Iron working kept them fed while wintering with the Mandan tribe.  One of the men served as overall armorer and another as carpenter.  What skill set are you looking for in your group?

The corps varied in size. Although Louis traveled round trip from Washington DC, most were recruited from the Army in Ohio, Kentucky, and St. Louis.  Some deserted, some were meant to return prior to or just after wintering with the Mandan Indians in North Dakota.  One died from appendicitis.  Post-SHTF, having an appendectomy in your background could be a virtue.  Some were contractors such as Charbonneau the interpreter and his wife, Sacagawea.  By Lewis’ reckoning, the trip started in May 1804 from North Dakota with thirty one souls, including Clark’s slave York.  And one dog, named Seaman.  Basically, a smallish platoon.

Lewis was trained in navigation.  How are your skills in navigation and can they be improved upon?

The two captains were in charge with sergeants under them.  In a group, a hierarchy and it’s acceptance is a good thing.  The captains were not above asking advice from the ranks.  Are you?

A Good Dog

Seaman was a Newfoundland, a very large breed  He provided alarm and guard services.   While still on the Ohio, a large number of squirrels were observed crossing from one shore to another.   Only the squirrels knew why, since both sides were the same.  Seaman retrieved a number of them back to camp, providing a meal for all.  A large capable dog would be a huge asset on a long trek, especially if it can be more than self feeding.  Or would a smaller sturdy breed that watches be enough?  No one knows what happened to Seaman.  Cook pot?  Could you?  Is one breed more tasty than others?  Please keep that information to yourself!

While wintering in North Dakota with the Mandan, they would occasionally observe  a member of the tribe heading out into the plains during forty below weather.  Said warrior would return days or even a week later without a sign of an ordeal.  His kit consisted of a buffalo robe and not much else.  Did he start an ember with flint and steel, feed some tinder and warm his “Buffalo Bivy”?  In a Wisconsin winter, I would use a tea or survival candle in a modern day bivy bag.  The tiny environment of the bivy and a modest heat source seem well matched.  How would you survive a winter night in a treeless environment?


Lewis was the chief medical officer with Clark as his number two.  A backup on primary skills is fundamental.  He learned herbal medicine from his mother and was otherwise tutored professionally prior to starting.  A first aid kit is fine, but training is critical, especially with herbal medicine.

Lewis’ treatment, mercury, for the “French disease” may have lead to an abbreviated life for most of the members of the group.  When practicing wilderness medicine, make certain the cure at least does no harm.


Various means of transportation were used.  Boats of various types, horse, and hiking.  Often, dugout canoes and bull boats were made.  A bull boat was a wooden frame with a hide serving as the hull. How versatile are you prepared to be?  Horses were purchased via barter.  What barter items have you chosen?

Jefferson and Lewis conceived of a collapsable iron framed boat the hull of which would be animal hides.  It had to be manufactured, transported from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to the great falls of Montana, and loaded \ unloaded repeatedly. Two weeks passed during its assembly while the winter season approached with the Rockies waiting to be crossed. And it did not work.  Lewis’ pet project was for naught.  It was cached with other items, never to be picked up on the return trip.  What other supplies and equipment could have been taken in its place?  How ready are you to abandon a pet project or asset?  First choices are primary.

Successful caches were made along the way, including journals, tools, food, ammo, and so forth.  Gunpowder was kept in a small waterproof barrel of lead that would be made into bullets.  How good would you be at relocating your hidden supplies?

FOOD–Carried and Foraged

Food supplies taken consisted of hominy (corn), lard, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal.  Meat was jerked when abundant.  Freeze dried meals are fine, but then you have only the meal.  Building blocks such as flour, oils, seasoning and the like can result in many variations.  Daily rations were handed out and cooking was a once a day chore.  They ate in messes of eight.  Hunting, fishing, and gathering were constant endeavors.  The bitter roots found in the Bitterroot mountains got them sick but kept them alive.  Can you identify wild food in season?

Lewis also brought a new invention of his, condensed soup for use when there was no game.  During the Great Depression, a lot of families had a kettle of soup on the back burner, unique to its owners.  Today, there are vendors that sell dry condensed soups.  Dry canning your own is a very viable option.  What cannot be added to soup?

Once in winter quarters on the coast, they fed largely on elk found nearby.  At the end of their sojourn, they had to travel miles to secure game while the local Indians experienced no such difficulties.  Over-hunting is not something you want to do.  Hunt long in summer and close in winter at your bug-out location?  Or the opposite?

Trade goods and gifts were largely depleted before reaching the ocean.  The value of barter goods should be known at the onset of the journey.  One of the items most valued by the Native Americans was a blue bead.  Who knew?


They tended to camp on islands, posted sentinels, and inspected weapons daily.  Establishing a perimeter that is defendable with a guard and a routine is a good thing.

Often, Lewis would walk the route alone. With him went Seaman.  His gear consisted of a pistol, his rifle, compass, knife, powder and ball, jerky, and a journal.  He carried an espontoon (a six foot wooden shaft with a blade used as a walking stick, weapon, and rifle rest).  He was largely clad in leather.  If you were leaving the larger group on a scout, what would be in your kit?


Weapons included rifles and muskets, some pistols, an air gun, a one pound canon, and four swivel mounted blunderbusses (heavy shotguns).  Long guns were used daily for hunting.  The heavy weapons and air gun (a Girandoni from Austria, that was covered in a previous SurvivalBlog post) were used mostly to impress the tribes.  With these weapons, supplies, and assorted equipment, the Corps were an obvious looting target.  Overcoming the Corps would have made the tribe that did the taking a regional powerhouse.

When meeting with natives for the first time, the air gun was demonstrated and then hidden away.  Somewhat quiet, smokeless, and able to fire in semi-auto, the natives never knew how many the Corps had.  Subtext: Better to prevent a gun fight than encourage one.  The best gunfight is the one that never happens.  The takeaway is this:  In a SHTF scenario, it is wisdom itself to know the value of what you have in your kit.

Once over the difficult portion of the mountains heading to the ocean, they found a location they called Travelers Rest.  They used it going both ways.  Game, water, and trees.  A known spot to be used for respite while on the road is a good idea.


When the Corps left Fort Clatsop in Oregon they had only their tools, firearms, ammo, and the clothes on their back.  And not much else. They had expended 95% of their supplies.   But they did have their skills.  And caches.  One skill was making clothing from hides.  Doing such was most likely not a prerequisite for being hired.  But it was necessary and they adapted. Not normally touted in survival circles, how are your sewing skills?

On the return trip, they separated for the sake of exploring.  One group ran afoul of natives.  Separating into smaller groups is potentially a very bad thing.  Always have a rally point if you separate. They did.

These are some of the ideas that I have been able to glean from my reading about the Corps of Discovery and various site visits.  Readers can draw their own conclusions. Some of my conclusions may be wrong and otherwise incomplete.  I encourage everyone to read up on it and the general history of the pioneers that opened up the North American continent.  And of course also the skills of Native Americans.  There is more collective wisdom there than we know.




  1. This was a great article, Thank you.

    Your encouragement to continue the study is well taken and I look forward to doing it this summer in between pulling weeds and canning.

    1. Agreed, it gives the person a lot to think about. I wonder how many pairs of shoes were required by each member of the expedition. I wonder how much water was carried daily, or did they depend n natural sources to provide them.

  2. I agree that sewing skills are not very often talked about in survival circles, but they should be. It isn’t just making new clothes, though that is important. You will need to make halters for animals, knife holsters, shoes, bags, repair clothes. My husband is notorious for burning holes in his clothes while welding, and so I have to find a way to patch them. I shop thrift stores for pants of similar colors, but may be different sizes, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. I cut the legs off and sew it on the front of his favorite pants that he won’t get rid of.

    1. Rose, you are a gem. The value of a good woman as a partner is incalculable. When I was a boy, the girls next door made a high percentage of their own clothing. That is a skill that has mostly been abandoned by modern women. Pity.

      1. Thank you for the compliment. If my husband wasn’t so stubborn about refusing to “give up on old clothes, just because they have a few miles on them…” I might not work quite so hard at it.

        I too think it is a pity that this skill is largely lost. We are poorer as a society because we lack these skills. It isn’t just sewing, though sewing is a snapshot of the larger picture. This country was built on the skills of down-to-earth people who knew how to patch and make do with literally nothing. They re-used things and rebuilt things and make things better.

        I am not very modern in my thinking. I am very old fashioned. I love the old ways. I would do much rather have an old 70s green washer and dryer that never wears out, than a new one with a computer that breaks every 2 years. I would much rather drive an old 50s truck that is a gas hog and struggles to start, than a modern truck made from plastic that electronically shifts. I could easily live like they did 200 years ago. Sure, it’s tiring, but life was better. It was more wholesome. Society was better.

  3. An enjoyable read about one of my favorite subjects! I would encourage the reading of “The Journal of Patrick Gass” (Carol Lynn Macgregor), Patrick Gass was L+C’s Sergeant and kept a journal as well. Part of the preps at Ft Clatsop for the return trip was a salt works. They kept a kettle boiling sea water for their return trip supply of salt. I would imagine that in a total collapse, after things settled down a bit, that a regional salt trade could become quite lucrative.

  4. One of the things I think about a lot is the dangers of Bugging Out and “running afoul of the natives”. THAT is a much bigger issue in a SHTF situation than most of the tactical folks realize. Walking the countryside or gravel roads in full militaristic GI type kit is going to get a lot of good but follish folk hurt and killed. If you got to go, go.. but hitting the road in SHTF is the last resort…. I suggest if you got to go stay non tacitical looking… jeans or hiking pants and a tee shirt, and that way you are much more tacitical in funtion… At your home in defending the homestead for life and liberty… then sure.. kit up with plate carriers and such. If you cross a field and a farmer is watching you come in full kit through a scope… they may shoot and ask questions later in SHTF. I remember a line form the movie, Oh don’t be concerned about the M16 slung on my shoulder, just home security on the road. Come across the field using bounding tactics in kit and reception will be very different. Food for thought.

  5. We visited Fort Clatsop in Oregon last summer. They built an exact replica of the original fort, based on the notes and drawings of the expedition. They believe it’s location is within a few yards of the original. It was very interesting and informative.

  6. Excellent article for SurvivalBlog, S.K. … The Journals for the Lewis and Clark expedition are available to read for ~free at various sites on the Internet.

    1. I just ordered The Frontiersmen from my library. The author’s name is spelled thus: Eckert, Allan W.

      He has written quite few books in that genre. I appreciate the lead onto some good adventure reading.

      Carry on

  7. If you go to Monticello, as you walk into the main entrance it is full of many of the things that Lewis and Clark found and brought back to Jefferson. Jefferson by far was our smartest President.

  8. Outstanding post. Undaunted Courage is one of my all time favorite books. Good health, being physically fit, and mastering basic skills are vital for surviving any long term disruption. Basic skills: fire building, wilderness first aide, water treatment, and marksmanship will serve very well. Always buy good quality boots and try to have a spare set.

Comments are closed.