There is only one sure thing about plans: at some point they have a good chance of failing. Not necessarily because the plans were faulty, but because it is nearly impossible to plan for everything. The universe has a way of ensuring that we get to experience the widest range of possibilities. So what if, after all your preparing, storing food, water, fuel, fortress etc., etc, what if you suddenly do not have access to all of that? We don’t have to go through all the ways that this might happen, I’ll let your imagination work on that. So, could you survive if there was nothing between you and nature, none of the “stuff”, the baggage that we store up like squirrels and carry with us like turtles, tending to make us just as slow and cumbersome as turtles? Could you survive and provide for your loved ones if there was nothing between you and the Creator?
If you are interested in learning so called “primitive” skills, then there are many books on the subject, so I am not going to go into full detail on how to do each thing, that would require an article the size of an encyclopedia. So I will leave the research to you, and just give some tips here that you will not find in most survival books, the tips that come from experience and could mean the difference between success and failure, i.e., life or death.
The Crucial Four: Food, Water, Shelter, Fire.
There is always debate as to which of those is more important. It comes down to common sense. If you are in the arctic in winter, shelter is number 1. If you are in desert during the day, water might be first priority. In the jungle at night, you might prefer fire. Food is actually very low in the list. One can go for weeks without food. Three days is about the limit for going without water, though this can be stretched, and extremely hot, humid climates will decrease the time. You will only last a few hours to a few minutes under hypothermic conditions. So in most situations, the two most important things are water and shelter. When you want warmth, think shelter before fire. Anyone who has ever spent a very cold night with nothing but a fire knows that one could freeze to death that way. If all you have is a fire, better to make a very small one, save on your wood, use very small branches, and sit with your legs around the fire. If you have a blanket, wrap it around you to make a bit of a “tipi” with the fire in the middle and continuously feed it throughout the night.
When it comes to building shelters, for cold weather a debris hut is best. This is the simple two short poles in a triangle, with one long pole from the apex of the two short poles to the ground. Then ribs of short sticks are laid against the ridge pole to form the sides, twigs and brush is put on top of the ribs, then leaves, needles and such debris is piled on top. This is a stereotypical shelter, however, what most survival books do not stress is just how much debris is needed. If you wish to survive freezing temperatures, you will need to keep piling debris on until you can shove your hand into the debris and touch the ribs, and have the debris up to you armpit. That is the minimum! Any colder than 30 degrees or so, you need 3, 4, 5 feet of debris. But this is not all. When you first begin to build shelters, you might have a tendency to think of them like a house, a nice roomy little shelter. In cold conditions, this could kill you. The shelter must be barely bigger than your body, and when you finish piling debris of the outside, your job is not over. Drag leaves inside and stuff into every crack, between every rib, then pack the space where you will sleep until you can barely worm your way into it…then add more. It will pack down before the night is over, don’t worry. The only mistake you can make is not adding enough. Then pile an armload of debris outside the opening that you can pull in behind you to seal the door. (you enter feet first) What you are trying to do is create a cocoon around you with as little air space as possible, so that your body heat can warm your space. Don’t be afraid to cover your head with debris. A bandana can be your best friend for so many things, and here it will help keep leaf mold out of your lungs. If you have fire, warm rocks at your feet, head and on your stomach are nice. Just be sure not to use river rocks, as they have a tendency to hold moisture, which when heated can cause the rocks to explode into dangerous shards. Whether in a shelter or by a fire, stuffing your pants, shirt, hat or bandana, and socks with debris, until you look like a Michelin Man can really help keep you warm. Cattail down is really nice and warm, especially comfortable in the socks.
Water can so easily become the gold of the future. Books will tell you how to make solar stills, use purification tablets, filters, SteriPens etc. You may not have these things, so here are a couple of thing that may help. First learn the indicator species in your area for water. That is, plants, animals, birds and insects that like water. Things like Willow, Slippery Elm, and River Birch usually indicate moist areas, though not always surface water. You might find spots to dig for seeps though, or high moisture soil for a still. Also things like Sycamore and Grapevine that can be tapped for water. Always learn the dangers though, things like Canadian Moonseed, which looks similar to grape, but is poisonous. Some plants will help kill bacteria or boost the immune system against bacteria or viruses. These include things like Echinacea, Olive Leaf, Golden Seal. Water with a high tannin content tends to have less of the tiny varmints, they have a hard time living in such water. Watch for birds, learn the ones of your area that are fond of water. In some places it might be Blue Heron or Belted Kingfisher, other places it might be the Loon or Geese. Turtles or toads do not necessarily mean that water is close by.
Don’t forget dew as a water source. Just sop it up with a rag and wring it into your mouth or a container. Be careful about doing this in fields that might have been sprayed with herbicide or fertilizer, and obviously never along roadsides. You can make a filter that will catch some of the larger “animals” in surface water, though it will not help much with stuff like Giardia or chemicals. Anything of multiple layers that you can pour water through will help. Here is a filter that I made one time, to give an idea. I cut a large bull thistle stalk and snipped the prickly leaves from it. It was a hollow stalk about 2 1/2 inches long and 3 inches diameter. I stuffed grass in one end then proceeded to pack it with layers of cattail down, charcoal, sand, gravel, then repeated the layers, filling the stalk about 2/3 full. Then poured some pond water in and let it seep down. It will take a while to drain through. When I did this, I first took a drop of the water and put it under a microscope, it was crawling alive with tiny creatures. After seeping through the filter, there were none. Again, this will not eliminate viruses and certain bacteria, but in a pinch it is better than nothing. If you wish to boil the water, that leads into the subject of…..
Aside from flint & steel, magnesium, batteries & steel wool, (which by the way should be the finest of wool, 0000) magnifying glass, using the striker on an empty Bic [disposable lighter], etc., we will look at the more natural methods. These would include bow drill, hand drill, pump drill, fire piston, fire saw, fire plough. We will stick to bow drill, it is the one you will find mentioned the most in your books. However, if you made and tried to use a bow drill the way it is illustrated in most survival and army guides, you would most likely die of exhaustion before you could get a coal. Here are a few tips. First, practice now, not on the trail. This can not be stressed enough, with any skill. The fireboard should be no thicker that 3/4 inch, the thickness of your thumb is generally good. Flatten and square off the top, sides and bottom. Burn the spindle well into the fireboard before cutting the notch. Make the edge of the spindle hole in the fireboard about a 1/4 inch in from the edge of the fireboard. The notch should be about a 1/8th of a pie, and should apex almost but not quite to the center of the hole. The notch has to be big enough to collect dust for a coal and allow air to reach the coal, but not so big that the dust cools or the spindle pops out of the hole through the notch. The spindle should be fairly sharp on the handhold end, and rounded on the fireboard end. Spindles can have a diameter anywhere from “OK size” (that is, when you make a circle with thumb and index finger–about an inch) to pinky size. Thumb size is generally best. If it is for a small child or someone that does not have much stamina, the smaller the spindle, the more pressure you will be applying per square centimeter, and so generate more heat, quicker. However, a larger diameter spindle will make a larger coal, so can be better in wet weather. Every set is made to your proportions, though eventually you will be able to get a fire with any set. The best length for the spindle is thumb tip to pinky tip when the fingers are extended into the sign for Y or “telephone”. It needs to be very straight and scraped free of lumps. Burn a good socket into the handhold, then re-sharpen the end of the spindle. Then lubricate the socket with anything that will varnish and allow the spindle to turn freely in the handhold without burning down and sticking. This can be anything from body oils, earwax, tallow, oil or soap, even pine tar or cedar boughs. Depending on the wood, it may only need to be lubed once, or several times before you get the coal.
On the fireboard end of the spindle, you want it to burn away, so be careful to not touch this end to your skin, as the oils from your body will make the spindle and fireboard varnish and no dust will be produced. You can tell it is varnishing if it gets a shiny look or squeaks like a turkey call. When this happens, scrap the shine from the spindle and fireboard hole, or just add a few grains of sand into the hole and continue bowing. In choosing your wood, dig your fingernail into the wood. If it leaves a dent, you can probably make fire with it. (unless it is treated wood, which is good practice though) If your finger goes through the wood, then no, it is not good for beginners. A harder wood is better in wet weather, as you can bow it for a while and let the heat drive the moisture from the wood. Softer woods like yucca, which usually give a fast hot coal when dry, when wet the fibers usually just spin. Don’t use green wood. The bow can be anywhere from 4 inches to three feet. But make it the length of your armpit to wrist, with enough of a curve that the string does not lay on the bow when strung. The string needs to be tight enough that, when the string is wrapped around the spindle, if you let go of the spindle it will pop out of the string, but not so tight that it bites into the spindle, creating ridges. Lots of things can be used for string, try different things. Natural fiber cordage (we’ll get to that in a bit) leather strips (tend to stretch a lot) reverse wrapped VHS tape (also stretches) use your imagination. When on the bow, just grab the string with your fingers as you bow, and squeeze to tighten as needed. Place either a small tinder bundle or a leaf or something under the notch for the coal to build on. When the string is wrapped around the spindle, the string should be between the spindle and the bow. Now, form is everything. Turn your foot so that it is pointing toward the side of your body. Place the fireboard under the arch, as close to the hole as you can without the spindle rubbing on your foot. Then kneel with your knee a comfortable distance from the heel of your fireboard foot, the calf of your kneeling leg pointing directly behind you to form an L with your other foot. This position may seem uncomfortable at first, but provides the best support and balance. Wrap your handhold arm around your fireboard leg, and clamp your wrist to your shin. Place the handhold so that the spindle is directly under the center of the the palm.
Start slowly, holding the bow level, adding more pressure and speed, and making use of the full length of the bow. Smoke Does Not Mean A Coal! After you think you might have a coal, keep bowing about 20 more times, or until you can no longer move your bow arm. When smoke continues to rise for more than a few seconds after you stop, you have a coal. Remove spindle and gently blow to give it life. When you see the glow, gently tap the fireboard to loosen the dust from the notch, and take away the board. Gently fold the tiny living coal into a waiting, very finely shredded tinder bundle, being careful not to knock it apart. You do not have to hurry, depending on the size, a coal can last 15 minutes on it’s own. At this point it needs two things: food (tinder packed around it) and air (don’t pack too tightly). Hold the bundle to the sky and gently breath into it until it burst into flames. (Watch for singed eyebrows!) Now, you have fire, what are you going to boil your water in? If you have a metal container, great. A plastic one you might be able to rock boil in. Again, do not use river rocks. And they do not have to be boulders either. Just medium stones to large pebbles that you can pick up with tongs made of branches. If it is a plastic container, don’t let the rocks set on the bottom and melt through, If you are not in a rocky area, you will have to make do with coals, the charcoal will help purify the water. Just be careful with the type of wood you use. If you do not do not have a container, there are several options, one of the best is coal burning. Find a log or piece of wood that you can manage. It needs to be seasoned but not rotten. It can not be green or wet, or else when it heats up, the moisture will expand and cause the wood to crack. If it is very cold weather, first heat up the wood Very Slowly by the fire. Add a few coals to the center of the wood. The idea is to let the coals burn into the wood for a while, scrape off the char, then add more coals and burn a little deeper, until you have a container. You can blow gently on the coals to speed up the process, or set it where the wind will do the job. (watch it though, on a windy day it can burn right through the leeward side of the bowl) Do not blow hard, as an overheated coal will make the wood fissure. If you have a reed or other hollow stem, you can direct the air more effectively. Take your time, and feel what the wood needs, You do not have to have a huge mixing bowl. When you have it burned to the size you want (provided you can not see daylight through the cracks) scrape it well. Waste nothing, save the charcoal, it can be used for many things. You can press cordage into small cracks to help seal them. After the wood is scraped, put some sand or grit in it and use the end of a stick to stir the sand hard against the bowl, to help smooth it. Then take a smooth stone, pebble, knife handle or whatever, and begin to run it over the inside of the bowl, pressing very hard. This is called burnishing, and you will see the wood start to look shiny as you compress the fibers together, This helps to seal the wood so it will not be as likely to crack when you add water, so go over every inch really well. If you have or eventually obtain an ingestible oil or tallow, rub the wood well with that. In the meantime, if you use the bowl to mash some kind of nuts, acorn, hickory, pecan etc., the oil from the nuts will help seal it. But even without that you can now rock boil in your container.
One of the most useful items you will find in survival is string. For bow drill, bow, snares and a million other things. If string is not to be had, you need to know how to make cordage. Cordage can be made from nearly any strong and pliable fiber, from cadmium to fur, though to be feasible it needs to be at least 3 inches long. This is really fun to experiment with. Every grass, fern, bark, and your mate’s hair will become an object that must be tested. The technique is simple: Hold two bundles of fibers with the fingers of one hand. With the other hand, grasp the bottom bundle, close to your fingers, and twist it away from you. Holding that twisted bundle with two fingers, use your other fingers to pull and wrap the top bundle over the twisted one, toward you, lapping it tightly so that the top bundle is now on the bottom. You now twist this new bottom one and repeat. If done correctly, after a few laps, you can let go of the ends and they will not unwrap, as the fibers twist back on themselves and hold their place. It should look like rope. Before you reach the end of your fibers, 1-3 inches depending of the length of the fibers, you want to add more. It is best not to do this all at once as it not only makes a thick spot, but a weak point. Instead, vary the length of the fibers, and add new fiber a little at a time to keep the diameter even, tucking each new bit into the center of the bundles to help make the finished cordage smooth and even. With a little practice this can be made quickly. Some inner barks can be used while fresh and moist. Fibrous cedar bark makes great cordage if harvested before it begins to break down, but it is soft and stretchy, so can be hard to use for bow drill. Dogbane (wash hands thoroughly afterward, it is poisonous) Nettles (slide the stems between a split stick to remove stinging hairs) chinaberry bark, wisteria vine bark, dried morning glory vines, mulberry bark etc. etc. One of the very best plant fibers for cordage is yucca, so if you are fortunate enough to live in the south, you can locate some of this great material. In the north, well, you just have to find a nice landscaped area that has yucca, wait until dark.
This is one of the strongest fibers you will find, the entire plant is amazing, but that is an article by itself. Clip a few leaves at their base (be careful of your eyes when reaching down into the plant, the tips of the leaves are very sharp) These can be either fresh or the dried ones at the base of the plant. With fresh ones, they can either be peeled into strands as-is, or first scrape the stiff green layer off the outside, or, if you have time, ret them. Retting is putting the leaves in water and leaving them until the outer green layer begins to rot. You then can simply pull the leaf between your fingers to scrap this off, and it leaves you with very soft white fibers…and very smelly hands. To peel the fiber one of the best ways is to start at the thick base, make a slice with a knife or fingernail halfway between the front and the back of the leaf, then grasp one side with your teeth, the other side with one hand, and with the other hand lightly pinch where the two sides separate, sliding your hand down as you pull them apart. This helps the fibers to separate evenly, so that you end up with nearly full length strands. A good way to separate many types of fibers. Keep separating until you have the fibers as thin as you wish. You can make cordage as thin as sewing thread, thicker for bow drill or bowstring. For a stronger cord, take two lengths of cordage already made, or bend one in half, and begin to reverse wrap them. Twist the bottom strand toward you and wrap the top strand away from you, over the back of the bottom strand, the top strand becoming the bottom. Hope all of this has not left you completely confused, it is much easier to show than to figure out how to describe in print. The good thing about natural fiber bowstring is that it will not get as limp and stretchy as sinew, leather or other animal based strings tend to do.
The first rule of wilderness living is conservation of energy. What you put into getting food must be weighed against how much nutrient you will get back, and how long it will last. Plants don’t run away. So they are good to learn, learn them well. Figure out if you can identify plants easier by photos or drawings or paintings, then select a field guide that you feel comfortable with. Then get to know the field guide well. Put it somewhere that you have a few minutes every day undisturbed. (by the bed, in the bathroom, beside the percolator) Just look at the pictures. Soon, when you go out into the field, or drive down the road, you will begin to recognize plants, even if you do not know their names yet. Peterson has one of the best guides for medicinal plants. National Wildlife Federation puts out very good field guides that show multiple photos with every description. Some things look so completely different than any other plant on earth that I would consider them perfectly safe to identify. But then an amateur looks at it and says “oh that looks just like this other plant…”….! At first it may look like a sea of green, but do not get discouraged, within one summer of keeping plants within your awareness, that sea of green will begin to fragment into a plethora of colors, shapes, and personalities. A very good book to help get you started is Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, by Thomas J. Elpel. Remember that trees are a winter survival food, most are edible, the cadmium or inner bark can be cooked or dried and pounded into flour. (remember though, conservation of energy).
Whenever you go into the wilderness, the first thing you do is pick up a stick. For defense and offence. A throwing stick should be kept in the hand at all times, not stuck in the belt or pack where it will stay as you watch that rabbit tail disappear or that fat snake slither into a crack.
Traps and snares are great, as they do not require you to be on duty for them to work, and you can set many at a time. But they need to be practiced now, or if you go into a survival situation you may spend an entire afternoon trying to get that dratted figure four deadfall to stay up. Or you may get it to stay together the first time, because the notches are so deep that a herd of stampeding elephants could not knock it down, so how will that chipmunk? Get really good at two kinds of dead falls and two kinds of snares. If you learn only deadfall’s and go into an area like mine, where there are few large stones, then you will either have to find a log that is not too rotted and not too long (good luck) or tie sticks together to make a door-like deadfall, weight it with something……time, energy. It can be done, but better to take the easiest route in survival. The drawback with improvised snares is the time consumption of making cordage, and that you must make sure that the snare does it’s job, or the cordage can be easily chewed through. Two of the best and quickest deadfall’s are the figure-four and the Paiute.
You can find a drawing of a figure-four in most survival books. A paiute is by far my favorite though, as it is so fast and has less chance of fouling the fall with one of the sticks. It looks like a figure-four, except that the horizontal bar is not a stick but a piece of string, tied at one end to the stick that is at a 45 degree angle holding the deadfall up. The other end is tied to a very small twig. The string is wrapped around the upright stick at about the middle, the twig is hooked behind the upright, with 2/3 of it sticking out. Then a baited stick is placed with one end against the end of the twig and the other against the underside of the deadfall. If bait is not available, you can place this trap on a trail and use a brushy stick instead of a baited one, when the animal brushes against it it works very well. The two snares that I would recommend learning first is the rolling snare and the T-bar snare. Both are simple, but too complicated to try to explain in print, without pictures. You should be able to find these in books though, or something similar. For bait, open your awareness. What is around you that is chewed on? Here in my area we find a red topped mushroom that the squirrels love. However, in order for bait to work, it has to be something that they really want, something unusual or that they can’t normally reach. In other words, don’t set a trap with a wilted mushroom in the middle of a mushroom patch. Be careful of your scent. Rub your hands with soil, cedar boughs, ash, charcoal, anything that won’t turn their ire. Be careful about using some very strong scented plants as that can make them cautious. Rub the peeled and notched places on the traps with dirt to camo them, don’t think that animals are so unaware that they will not notice these. Make your traps elsewhere and carry them to your spot, spend as little time and leave as little scent there as possible. Learn to recognize tracks and trails, and the age of tracks, don’t place a trap on a trail that was made two weeks ago when the path lead to a now dried up water hole. Good places to look for animals are transition areas. This is where woods meet field, field meets swamp, etc. Good times to find animals are transition times. When night meets day, day meets night, summer meets fall, and winter meets spring. Remember that animals are smart. If you are setting in a blind with two inches of frost eating through five layers of wool, most likely the deer are bedded down, you are the only one crazy enough to be out there.
Don’t forget that snares can be used for fishing. When you are learning the plants look also for those that have some part that can be put in a small body of water to stun fish. I could go on for a few days, but maybe there will something here that will be of some use to someone.
Here is a list of recommended reading, the ones written by those who have actually lived what they write.
Primitive Wilderness Living & Survival Skills: Naked into the Wilderness by John & Geri McPherson
How to Survive Anywhere by Christopher Nyerges
Wilderness Survival Handbook: Primitive Skills for Short-Term Survival and Long-Term Comfort by Michael Pewtherer
Any books or field guides written by Tom Brown, Jr.
A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Peterson Field Guide), by Steven Foster and James A. Duke (Eastern & Central, and Western)
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, by “Wildman” Steve Brill
Feasting Free on Wild Edibles by Bradford Angier
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Thomas S. Elias & Peter A. Dykeman
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel
A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guide)
Deerskins Into Buckskins: How To Tan With Natural Materials, a Field Guide for Hunters and Gatherers by Matt Richards (available as a book and a DVD)
Tom Brown’s Science and Art of Tracking by Tom Brown Jr.
Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking by Tom Brown Jr.
Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch
Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks: Third Edition
The SAS Guide to Tracking by Bob Carss
The Tracker’s Field Guide: A Comprehensive Handbook for Animal Tracking in the United States by James C. Lowery
Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign by Paul Rezendes