by Gabe Garms
On December 2, students in the bobcat cohort of the Alderleaf Wilderness Certification Program, three apprentices and I took to the woods for another two-day survival trip (again equipped only with the clothes on our back, canteens, knives and some cordage). While the trip for the first group of students dealt with chilly temperatures and rain, the second group of students had to tolerate downright cold temperatures. To be completely honest, out of all of the survival trips that I've taken in my life, the first night of this trip ranks up with one of the hardest that I've ever done. It was so cold (at the coldest part of the evening, temperatures hovered around 19 degrees) that 8 students decided to head back in and cut their trips short either the first night or on the morning of the second day. I personally don’t want to sell any of their efforts short since for a first trip, these were pretty extreme conditions and every one of the students worked really hard and gave it their all. Anyway, we departed into the woods at roughly the same time as the last group of students (7:30am) and took a similar approach to efficiency.
The location for the second group was roughly 200 yards to the north of the first location. A group of 25+ students tend to have quite an impact on the land and I didn't want to do any irreparable damage by doing a second trip in the same spot. This new spot had roughly all of the same resources and a similar proximity to water. There was actually a little more firewood at this particular location than there was at the first.
When it came to the fire for this trip, it was a little more difficult. It had rained pretty heavily throughout the 4 or 5 days between the last trip and our departure day and the wood was even wetter than it was the last time around. Just as we did for the first trip, we grabbed a couple different kits along the way to the survival spot but decided to work with a couple pieces of cedar which seemed to me would be our best bet.
I knew it was going to be cold and that we’d need more time dedicated to shelters and I didn’t really want to mess around with fire experimentation, especially since I was personally responsible for the safety of my students. I mentioned an article in my last blog post about working with wet wood so I won’t go too deep into the start and stop method, but I will say that we had to do the start and stop method a few more times than we had the past week and went through a couple of fireboards until we finally got our coal - which happened at approximately 11:30am. Since we were running a bit behind schedule, there wasn’t much time for celebration and we all quickly shifted our focus towards shelters and firewood given we only had roughly 5 hours of light left in the day. While I felt I didn’t properly get a chance to congratulate my fire team in the moment due to time constraints, I want to take a minute now to do just that. They were persistent and didn’t let failed attempts deter them from getting a coal. None of them complained once and all of which continued to plug away and keep spirits high until base camp fire was lit. I couldn’t have been more proud. If you’re reading this guys and gals, you’re all awesome.
While there was quite a bit of moss covering the ground all throughout our camp, it was frozen solid and covered with snow so we weren’t able to use it as insulation this time around. Some people dug up dirt using digging sticks and used it to insulate the outer walls of their shelters on top of their latticework, but the majority of people relied on conifer boughs and sword ferns for their outer debris. The problem with this is that the boughs and ferns weren’t very insulating and the people that relied on them suffered from the cold more so than the others. A couple of shelters also learned that at least a foot of debris for bedding is critical in cold weather situations. Heat loss due to direct contact with the ground is often much greater than the amount of heat lost through the shelter walls.
While adequate insulation was definitely critical, the bigger issue was related to fire. Getting the coal and starting the main fire was one thing, but gathering enough firewood to make it through the night and properly tending the fire was the biggest take home lesson that the students had on this trip. While you can gather all of the firewood in the world, if you don’t build up your coal base properly using large amounts of thin, wispy branches and dry out the wood that you do have, you’ll spend countless hours blowing relentlessly on a coal base to resurrect a fire that went out when everyone in the shelter accidentally fell asleep. Since energy conservation is imperative in a short term survival situation, consistently blowing on the coals to keep a flame can deplete you of the little energy that you have fairly quickly.
So for much of the second day and part of the early evening, we busted our tails not only better insulating our shelters, but also getting way more firewood and wispy branches than we actually needed. For both trips actually, one of the apprentices dedicated the majority of his days cutting firewood for both the shelter fires and the base camp in anticipation of students not gathering enough to make it through the night (thanks again to Bernard for doing this – it really paid huge dividends). During the last hours of daylight on that last night, the apprentices and I also personally went from shelter to shelter to make sure that each one had enough first level kindling available and that they were drying out their wood properly by eagle’s nesting it around the fire (stacking it around the perimeter of your fire in a log cabin method). All in all, the second night was much more comfortable than the first and everyone made it through without any hiccups.
For a first trip these guys made it through some pretty rough conditions. But they all learned significantly more than I did on my first trip, that’s for sure. As I told them after we took the photo above upon arriving back at the school, their next trip should be a cake-walk compared to what they experienced this time around. That’s no joke. I’d also like to emphasize again how even though we went out with minimal gear as a group, I had come out to the site beforehand and stashed away sleeping bags, wool blankets, tarps, rations and med kits to be prepared for any type of emergency that could arise. While our intent is to teach short term survival skills, we refuse to do so at the expense of safety. Anyone out there reading this that’s thinking of taking a survival trip on their own should take the same approach.
Be safe out there!
Learn about the Alderleaf Wilderness Certification Program, our in-depth, nine-month course that trains students in wilderness survival, permaculture, wild edible & medicinal plants, wildlife tracking, naturalist, and outdoor leadership skills.