This article was originally intended for a magazine but when I started writing about my experiences of living wild for a week with extremely limited equipment, I realised it was going to be a lengthy tome. Too big for the magazine (apparently...) I've decided to publish the first part here so that the all important fine detail can remain intact.
If you enjoy spending time outdoors practicing bushcraft skills (and let's face it, why would you be reading this blog if you didn't..) then I hope you find it useful, perhaps even entertaining. Pull up a log, here we go:
The first time I felt the need to test my skill in the art of survival I was a feisty teenager of around fifteen. Having already spent a couple of years of camping out and practicing jungle survival techniques in the Sussex countryside I decided one frosty February weekend to spend two days and a night in the woods with just what I could fit in my pockets. With the help of a fortuitous natural shelter, a small campfire, a foil blanket and a reputation to uphold I shivered the night away whilst watching my best mate (the self-appointed safety officer) snoring loudly in his sleeping bag just a few feet from me. That chilly night, I learnt a lot about the realities of struggling through just one difficult and ill-equipped night outdoors, but also a whole load more about myself and my own abilities. I used that experience as a bench mark for a long time after. It gave me a point of reference on several occasions in subsequent years where I found myself outdoors all night in the dead of winter, with no sleeping bag and no option but to dig into my reserves and make the best of my situation until morning. Without that point of reference I could easily have let panic overwhelm me but being able to draw on such a valuable life experience gave me confidence and a presence of mind that would otherwise have been difficult to attain.
Self-imposed challenges such as this are useful to gauge progress, test theories and ‘top up’ the self-confidence fuel tanks every once and a while. However, it’s important to point out here that most challenges involving survival training come with a high potential of risk and injury. You MUST take steps to minimize this potential and learn your valuable life lessons without risking the life you are ultimately trying to preserve. Take along a fully equipped snoring friend just in case!
Skip forward twenty five years to an autumnal week last year and the latest in a long line of progress gauging challenges. Myself and several like-minded students of the craft stood in a Dorset woodland ready to spend a week alone, in the woods with very little equipment and no resources other than those which could be gleaned from the wild. Shelter, warmth, water and food, all essential to life, were to be produced almost entirely (with the exception of meat, more on this later) from natural resources found at our location. Additionally, we were to carry out these ambitious requirements with relative ease, so as to allow us time to begin improving our situation by making primitive hunting weapons, working on traditional crafts and processing wild foods. Working as a group, this would’ve been hard enough but through some bizarre and twisted logic we chose to go it alone. Not only would this increase the physical workload but for some, would prove to be a sizeable mental barrier to work through.
We chose a mixed woodland for the challenge. Moss covered uneven ground played host to a plantation of spruce, interspersed with hardwoods such as the occasional oak, hazel, birch or holly. As the land sloped gradually down-hill, obvious patches of potentially damp ground were indicated by the presence of pendulous sedge and thick moss. Eventually this led into a small stream which snaked along the woodland margin. Patchy hazel coppice sprung from the stream bank with occasional much larger alder trees stretching out their gnarly toes into the water. Further back into the woods an area of steep ground rose out from the trees to form a plateau covered in young ash and birch. The surrounding countryside was comprised of previously grazed and fallow fields hiding a series of small ponds with cattail and goat willow bordering the muddy waters edge.
Our well stocked pond larder
Our kit list for the week was to be minimal; each person took only a small belt knife, folding pruning type saw, one stainless steel cooking pot, a tightly woven cloth bag to filter water, three metres of parachute cord and six brass wire snares. Due to the solo nature of our challenge, we also took a few safety items each; a small first aid kit, a head torch, a whistle and a reliable method of communication (mobile phone, not to be used for ordering up pizza!). Cameras and journals were taken to record events although these items, along with our safety kit were not allowed to be used to assist our self-imposed plight (so no battery and wire wool fires or tinder bundles made from the pages of our journals). Clothing worn had to be natural fibres, wool, cotton and even animal hides in one case. Goretex waterproofs and insulated down jackets were to be left back at camp for emergencies only. The reasoning behind this decision was that without high-tech modern weatherproof clothing systems we would HAVE to make a fire to keep warm at night and our beds and shelters would NEED to be effective by last light of our first day in the field. When fully encased in Goretex and goose down it’s perfectly possible to curl up under a bush and shiver away the night time hours until first light appears; not really the object of the exercise, which was to utilise natural resources for shelter, warmth and comfort.
The only kit taken: knife, folding saw, 3m cord, billycan, filter bag, snares
The last item we would take out into the field was a modest quantity of wild game, our only food for the week. Whilst it may seem a bit of a ‘cheat’ to include a quantity of wild game meat on the packing list for a minimalist week in the woods, it’s worth remembering that this was intended to be a ‘wilderness living’ exercise, not a ‘survival exercise’. The theory being that, to truly live wild from the land requires, in most cases the trapping and hunting of wild game and/or the catching of fish. Exceptions to this rule would depend on specific environments and seasonality. The need for wild meat isn’t just about nutrition and maintaining a balanced diet (as I’m sure many people will argue that at the right time of year and in the right location suitable plant proteins and fats can be found) but about daily calorie expenditure when living and working hard outdoors and the effective replacement of those calories from the wild. It’s also important to remember the valuable resources that wild game provides the ‘hunter gatherer’ such as furs, hides, bones, antlers, sinew, feathers and the effectiveness of a plant based alternative in comparison.
So what about setting out traps or hunting during our week in the wild? In my own experience, survival type courses that involve trapping, fishing or hunting for food in the UK are always hampered by the legality of using improvised or primitive techniques to procure wild game. These laws are quite rightly put in place to protect our wildlife from inefficient, potentially cruel and even sometimes over effective methods of capture, especially by those who may not fully understand or respect the moral, ethical or long term implications of their actions. Obviously, because we are taking part in a training exercise and not a life or death situation, we must abide by the law and so the scenario, whilst still a useful experience, becomes a bit unrealistic in many cases. Basically for long term wilderness living, if we were surrounded by deer and could equip ourselves with the hunting gear required to take them, we would definitely have been eating venison! Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that in a real ‘living from the land’ situation pretty much everything that flies, crawls or swims is fair game no matter how small or skinny but one important aim of this experiment was to prioritize efficiency with a view to long term survival. Additionally, we weren’t hiding from an imaginary enemy, having to fight our way back to civilisation or spending the whole time attempting to get rescued. This was just us, an extremely limited amount of tools and equipment and a week living in the woods to test our knowledge of natural resources, bush craft and how best to apply them to provide a comfortable and fulfilling existence. Think Robinson Crusoe rather than Bravo Two Zero! We did, however take a handful of brass wire rabbit snares which are perfectly legal to use with the landowners permission. These allowed us the chance to top up on our wild protein supply without breaking any laws.
To further justify the wild meat head start, every person agreed to meet up at a pre-arranged location on the third day, with a primitive projectile weapon they had made from scratch that week. Not only that but they would have to prove they could hit a target from a suitable stalking distance using their hand-made hunting weapon. This would go some way to ticking the box concerning one viable method of obtaining wild meat without breaking any laws or unnecessarily injuring the local wildlife. Admittedly, hunting large game with flint tipped museum pieces successfully would almost definitely require an additional investment of energy and polished hunting, stalking and tracking skills as well as the ability to create an effective hunting weapon and a good aim but by having the last two covered, we felt like we had reached an acceptable compromise. With venison being such a lean meat, gathering and processing energy rich foods from the wild would still be an essential part of the challenge if we were to prove we could live comfortably rather than just sit it out waiting to be rescued.
So, sparsely kitted out but fully equipped with knowledge and brimming over with ideas we set off at the crack of dawn to find a place to call home for the week. I settled on a sheltered location surrounded by immature spruce, much of it dead standing. The living trees provided some overhead cover and sturdy, conveniently spaced upright posts for my shelter. The standing dead wood became building materials, kindling and fire wood. The ground was level in places and soft with existing ditches to act as drainage channels if it rained hard. I was also within five minutes walk of the stream and had clocked a large, fallen oak tree close by which would give me excellent slow burning fuel wood to keep me warm through the night. I couldn’t see any of the others from my spot, or even hear them; there was a mild sense of loneliness mixed with total, uninterrupted focus on myself and my own plans. The latter was such a rare luxury that I didn’t mind at all about the lonely bit.
The proposed shelter site and gathered fire making sticks
My advice to anyone in most hypothetical survival type situations in a temperate climate such as ours here in the UK (after removing yourself from immediate danger, composing yourself and hatching a sensible plan) is to invest your energies initially in finding or providing shelter, protection from the elements. An unexpected situation such as the one imagined would more than likely carry with it several limiting factors such as a possible sustained injury or an injured member of the party. Also, nightfall would probably be fast approaching (who realises they’re going to be stuck out in the open all night at nine o clock in the morning?), stress levels most likely very high, resources would be limited and weather potentially inclement. For those who haven’t had extensive practice, lighting a fire in these conditions might be virtually impossible so providing effective shelter would often be the most achievable aid to survival. Reducing heat loss and minimizing exposure to the elements would increase your chances of surviving the night and hopefully enable you to continue improving your situation or call for help the following day.
Our self-imposed situation was a little different. We were in good health and had the whole day ahead of us. The challenge lay in not just surviving the night but being pretty comfortable and re-charging our batteries for the week ahead despite the lack of a sleeping bag, mattress and tent. From hard won experience, I knew how much effort would be needed to produce fire from the natural environment with nothing but a knife, folding saw and a three metre length of cord. I also knew how that extreme effort compared to the energy expended in getting a quick and effective shelter up, especially having deliberately chosen a site with most of my building materials close to hand and easy to harvest. So for this particular exercise, I prioritised the lighting of a fire ahead of building my shelter. You can make do with a slightly rubbish shelter but fire is either achieved…or it isn’t. I just didn’t fancy building my shelter first only to find that I was too low on energy to create fire. That would mean a cold, sleepless night with no sustaining food and no safe drinking water. After that medley of misery, the chances of then being able to achieve fire the next day would be slim to say the least. A week in the woods in autumn without warm kit, sleeping equipment AND no fire would not just be a thoroughly miserable experience but potentially life threatening too.
Carved bow drill components, gathered and made on site
Clematis bark tinder bundle and prepared kindling
When faced with a situation such as this, the tiniest detail becomes vitally important. You must also put maximum effort into every task. Cutting corners could mean having to start again at the beginning and all the while precious energy is wasted. So, I opted for the bow drill as my most achievable fire lighting option (I could’ve tried striking sharp flint against the spine of my carbon steel knife to create sparks but such a method requires carefully prepared, absolutely bone dry, fine tinder and the rainy build up had dampened much of the fine tinder in the woods). A nice section of dry, dead wood ivy would become my hearth, a dead hazel stem would make a perfect drill while green hazel would be fine for my bow and hard ash for my bearing block. The hanging, shredded bark from a wild clematis vine became my tinder bundle and although ever so slightly damp, dried out sufficiently as I roughly scrunched it to soften the fibres. A ‘fluffier’ tinder bundle would accept the heat from my ember more readily. Birch and spruce twigs in big bundles made fantastic kindling and all my fuel wood, gradually increasing in thickness, lay poised and ready for action. With the various components carved, gathered and prepared I took a deep breath and started bowing, slowly at first to increase the heat where the drill met the hearth. As the resulting smoke thickened and an encouraging pile of blackened wood dust filled the notch, I picked up the pace until I felt certain the wood dust had begun to smoulder. It had, but only just. The worlds tiniest ember was tipped into my carefully prepared tinder and coaxed into life with a few gentle puffs.
A not particularly big bow drill ember
Disaster! The ember vanished leaving a slightly warm tinder bundle and nothing else. At this point it would be very easy to feel beaten or start to doubt your own credentials but at the point of apparent failure, the value of practice and the self-confidence gained through previous successes provides a much needed kick up the bum. I calmly re-adjusted the set, finely tuned the areas where I thought I might’ve made mistakes (I had cut my notch too soon and as a result the drill had wandered slightly off centre allowing the wood dust or ‘char’ to cool), had a breather and got back on the horse. This time it was all or nothing! I span the hazel drill back and forth with increasing intensity until my muscles succumbed to lactic acid build up and stopped working effectively. The fine tuning and extra effort did the trick and I shakily tipped the much larger glowing ember into my pre-heated tinder, carefully blowing to introduce more oxygen into the mix. Smoke became flame and flame became fire and my warmth and comfort was guaranteed…as long as I kept the fire going all week.
Flame at last! Warmth and comfort guaranteed
By now, I was just on the precipice of low energy levels due to having worked hard to achieve fire while taking on no food and water. I made a quick trip to the stream to collect water for a drink. Good old fashioned water would help stave hunger pangs, ensure I stayed hydrated and help metabolize any stored energy in my body. To ensure I didn’t take on any unseen nasties I first ran the water through my filter bag and then suspended it over the fire in my billycan to boil. While mooching around down at the stream, due to the low water levels I noticed that the bank was pretty much all clay and just the right consistency to be very easily scooped up as a tacky great lump and carried back to camp for some mid-week wild pottery antics. An old half brick found en route might serve as temper if crushed up so I also grabbed a harder looking rock to act as a suitable hammer stone. With the theme of the week being all about coping just fine with very little I was constantly mindful of how relatively fortunate we were to have items such as a metal pot for cooking food and boiling water, so with this in mind I considered my options if, even these few essential tools weren’t available. Clay could easily become any number of useful cooking pots and eating utensils given enough time and the right skill set. We were extremely lucky hunter gatherers!
Filtering stream water through a Milbank bag
I now had what remained of the daylight (around five hours) to build shelter, make a bed for the night, gather a tonne of fuel wood and butcher my muntjac deer into jerky. When looking into solo natural shelter designs, especially with limited tools and equipment, it’s important to run through a mental check list before you begin building. What building materials are realistically available? What am I sheltering from? How long have I got before nightfall? Am I in perfect health and fully fit? How long am I likely to be here? Do I need a fire for warmth? Am I capable of lighting a fire (last two boxes ticked – yeeha!). To build a fully enclosed, all singing, all dancing cabin with fire included would be too time and resource consuming for me on my own. I settled on a Lean To design, a classic survival cold weather shelter. Although very open at the front and seemingly chilly, a Lean To allows the use of a whopping great monster fire in front of it to warm the occupant. It’s extremely quick to build, relatively easy to waterproof due to it’s steep roof pitch and can be added to and improved as the days go on without having to strip it out and start again. I had a good idea of which direction the prevailing wind came from by observing the smoke rising from my campfire and also taking an average of which direction any downed trees were pointing along with the natural lean of any exposed vegetation.
Lean to shelter ridge and rafters fixed in place
After carefully choosing two conveniently spaced, strong trees aligned so that the prevailing wind would hit the back of my Lean to (although also slightly side on to carry billowing smoke away) I wedged a strong ridge pole in place and lashed it firmly with twisted green hazel withy’s. The copious amounts of young, dead standing trees quickly became rafters after I did my best angry bear impression to push them over. Twiggy brash wood followed to close the gaps and as the evening drew in, piles of leaf mulch from the surrounding ditches and hollows were added to become a thick thatch. I saved the green hazel brash from any green rods cut to provide a thickness of leaves over the moss which was to be my bed. With my homemade wool hoody laid down on top it looked inviting enough to down tools and catch some Z’s right there and then. My thoughts turned to the rapidly dropping evening temperatures and while I still had daylight to play with, I gathered as much solid, seasoned oak firewood as I could to see me through the night. In failing light and with a slight cold breeze picking up, I hastily propped up a log pile wall on the far side of the fire place to cut down wind and bounce radiating heat right back at me. As a last minute insurance policy I grabbed armfuls of dry kindling and tucked them away under the lee of my shelter just in case the fire died down to embers in the night…which of course it did. As night fell and my world was reduced to the circumference of the campfire’s glow, I set about butchering my venison as best I could. The tender fillets were sliced thinly and pushed onto green hazel skewers along with any good rib meat (most of the front end was lost due to the stalker seemingly using a rocket propelled grenade to cull my muntjac). Some fillet kebabs found their way onto the fire to be barbequed for dinner. The haunches and jerked fillet meat skewers were all suspended high over the campfire to dry slowly and benefit from the preservative and insect repelling qualities of the oaky smoke. I sat back on my mossy bed, the walls of my shelter illuminated softly by the fire and a warm sense of satisfaction of a job well done. With a barbequed meal of venison warming me from the inside I prepared for sleep and as I took one last sip of stinking boiled stream water I vowed that my first job in the morning would be to find some mint leaves to make tea with.
Laying on a brash wood matrix to close up the gaps
My first night went relatively well. I slept in cycles where I fell asleep, lovely and warm to the glow of a well-stocked fire and awoke cold after around three hours, looking through bleary eyes at nothing but glowing embers and charred log ends surrounding the fire place. I would plonk a good handful of dry kindling on the embers, re-shuffle the charred logs to form a jenga style stack above the kindling and finish off with a couple of new logs on top. Bingo! The fire would roar back to life almost immediately and within a couple of minutes I’d be cosy enough to drift off again. This routine continued all week with the only change being a gradual lengthening of my sleep cycles; a good thing because I ultimately got a bit more sleep but a bad thing because the fire died right down a couple of times, requiring some frantic tinder gathering and much blowing. If improvisation has been the only available fire lighting option available then you NEVER let the fire go out.
The following morning and breakfast on the go
Dawn arrived and with it came an immense feeling of satisfaction at having not only survived the experience but having been relatively comfortable too. I had a quick breakfast of skewered venison and some nearby blackberries washed down with a glug of boiled stream water (really did need that mint!) and gathered my kit to go foraging. With all my immediate survival essentials taken care of I had the rest of the week to experiment with wild foods, make a deadly hunting weapon and craft myself some bushcrafty house warming gifts.
In part two I’ll talk through each of the above in detail but in the meantime, get out there and practice!
For part 2 click here
For part 2 click here