by Gabe Garms
On Monday, November 24th, students in the coyote cohort of the Alderleaf Wilderness Certification Program, two apprentice instructors and I took to the woods for a two-day/two-night survival trip with only the clothes on our back, our knives, canteens and some cordage. We got a late start due to a few students arriving past our intended departure time and actually hit the woods at roughly 7:30am. We circled up immediately beforehand to discuss who was on the fire team, how to be most efficient with the minimal daylight hours that we were working with and the importance of working together as a unit to accomplish what we needed to get done.
As soon as we entered the forest, everyone began to gather fire kits, tinder bundles and first level kindling (which you need significantly more of in wet weather to get a big enough coal base to dry out the wet wood) and tucked them into their inner layers of clothing to dry out utilizing their body heat. I always emphasize ‘no window shopping’ when it comes to survival. Essentially that means if you come across a resource, grab it and don’t hope to come across it again – because you don’t know if there is going to be an ‘again’. Along the way to the spot, we came across some standing dead alders and cedars and took some fire boards and spindles with us for our 1.5 mile hike out to the survival location.
Before I delve too deeply into the trip itself, I’d like to first make mention as to why we decided to choose the site that we did. First factor was proximity to water - this location was less than 20 yards away from a small stream. Since we are going without food, it’s necessary to drink significantly more water than you would normally. They say that 90% of the time when your body is telling you that you’re hungry, that you’re actually thirsty. Second factor was essentially a tie between the availability of fire wood and debris material for shelter. It’s getting colder here in the Pacific Northwest and when you add rain to the equation, hypothermia becomes a much more imminent threat. This spot had numerous dead, standing hemlocks (which grow in really thick stands in our forests) and plenty of deciduous leaf litter and mosses covering the ground which are great for insulation for the both the ground inside of the shelter and the outer walls. Third factor was overhead conifer cover. We chose conifers both because they keep their needles all year (with the exception of larches) and provide a second roof of sorts for protection from rain and because most of our deciduous trees (alders, cottonwoods etc.) are considered 'widow makers' - meaning that they fall easily during heavy winds and storms. As for food, there were a couple of fairly large patches of 3 particular wild edible plants (chickweed, western bittercress and self-heal) as well as some cambium from a few different conifers that we had the students try. But this trip was only 2 days and the emphasis was primarily on building a proper cold weather shelter and working with wet wood to both make fire and sustain a fire throughout the night.
Back to the trip, once we arrived at the spot, students split up into teams of between 3 and 5 people and began to build their shelters and gather their firewood for the night while myself and 4 of the students started to carve out our fire kits – some using alder and others cedar. We then began testing our kits in parallel to see which ones had the best potential for a coal. After watching the students closely for about an hour or so, we chose the best materials from each of the kits and joined up as a group to use the 3 person bow drill method to get the coal for the base camp fire (the 3 person bow drill method is where one person holds down the board with their foot and keeps the spindle in contact with the board using the handhold while the other two hold each end of the cordage and rotate the spindle to generate first the char and then eventually the coal – a bow isn’t used with this technique). We set up a couple of tarps and dug out a hole approximately one foot deep and designated the area as a base camp. Almost all of the students had never been on a trip of this nature before and the staff at Alderleaf decided that we create a safe area with cover in case the rains got really bad and any of the shelters happened to fail. While we like to think we’re hardcore here at Alderleaf, safety is always our first and foremost concerns - especially with our students. By 10:30am we had our coal and lit the base camp fire with much rejoicing. If you’d like to learn more about friction fire using wet wood, you can read my article here: https://www.wildernesscollege.com/bow-drill-fire.html.
While we all took shifts maintaining the base camp fire, we all shifted our efforts to firewood gathering and shelter building for the remainder of the daylight hours. Most all of the shelters were debris tipis, which have fires on the inside and vents at the top where all of the ridgepoles meet. Although we’ve had our students sleep overnight in a debris tipi prior to this trip, it was in warm weather where insulation wasn’t a necessity. I had anticipated that they wouldn’t put enough insulating debris on the shelter and I was right.
Almost everyone had a cold night, but the biggest issue which I hadn’t anticipated going in was smoke inhalation. Two factors attributed to this happening. The first was the students only made their shelters big enough to sit up with everyone in it. When you’re working with wet wood, there is a lot of smoke (and that’s an understatement) and because of the rain, most shelters didn’t have large enough vents at the top because everyone was trying to keep the rain out. So the smoke plumed inside the shelters and students weren’t able to get low enough to the ground to get away from the smoke. Second was that a few shelters weren’t insulated enough and the others ended up taking their inhabitants in - making space become an issue where it wasn't before.
During the second day, I demonstrated some of my favorite traps and proper placement so that students would feel comfortable acquiring protein sources if they ever did find themselves in an actual survival situation. Most importantly, they had almost the entire day to make the proper adjustments to their shelters by adding more debris to the outside walls and the ground to keep the cold away. Each shelter probably gathered at least twice as much firewood as they had the night before. We can talk all day the importance of lots of firewood and insulation, but sometimes people need to experience what it’s like not to have enough before they genuinely learn the lesson.
All in all, it was an amazing trip and I’m proud of each and every one of the students and apprentices and I can’t wait to see how they apply their new found knowledge on their next survival trip in 2015.
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.