Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tinder -Many Choices

Most all of us where taught that the primary requirements for fire were oxygen, heat and fuel. Those are, without a doubt, things that must be considered by everyone attempting to build a fire. Lets take those three requirements just a little farther, separate them and then discuss how each must be addressed.

Oxygen, of course, we have all around us yet few pay enough attention to this key ingredient when they build their fire lay or tinder bundle. A tightly packed fire lay, let’s use the familiar tipi tyle as an example, will not burn as readily as one that is a little loosely  build so that air, i.e. oxygen, can circulate through and be drawn into the fire. One way to demonstrate  this is by lighting a match, holding it in a horizontal position and let it burn. The match will burn  until it’s totally consumed. If you repeat this process, light the match then place it down on a flat surface, what will happen? The match will go out. It simply can’t get enough oxygen to burn. Time and time again I’ve watched as students (and even experienced “old hands”)  fire building attempts failed, their fire just slowly dying out, simply due to lack of oxygen. The common solution, and a very good one, is to get down and blow life back into the fire. This does two things.  First it provides much need oxygen, force feeding it essentially, which in turn produces the next of the 3 essentials : heat. Get enough heat built up and you’ll have fire.

Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, the practical, controllable elements and the part where decisions can be made. How we apply heat;  whether it be flame, sparks or ember, also dictates what the third essential ingredient will be, that is the fuel. Aka known as tinder.

We’ll get to a discussion about tinder soon but first let’s talk about our heat source. We’ll start from the easiest to hardest – flame, spark and then ember. The best choice, and by this I mean the one that’s the easiest to start a fire with, is a flame. The flame can be supplied by many methods with a match, cigarette lighter or candle being the most practical.

The next source of heat to be considered are sparks. Fire steels are a very popular means to generate sparks and many consider carrying one an essential survival item. These babies generate very hot sparks, somewhere around 5000 degrees and with the correct tender  ( fuel) it’s easy to get a fire growing- first try. Just move a metal blade slowly down the length of the magnesium rod and you can throw a shower of sparks onto your tinder. Fire Steels can be used in any weather, even wet and are the favorite of many survival experts, hunters, campers and the military.

That other common source of sparks and the method favored by many mountaineering and early history buffs and practitioners is flint and steel. A good combination of flint or flint-like rock: jasper, chert etc. when struck by a high carbon piece of steel, produces some very nice sparks. Take note - these sparks are no where near as hot as those from a magnesium rod.

Now to the third, and most difficult method of making fire. The ember. An ember used for fire building is most commonly produced by a friction method. The Bow Drill and the Hand Drill being the two most obvious and the most practiced.

So there we have our three most common methods of ignition, or the source of heat that we use to start our fire - flame, sparks and ember. The next part of the equation is our fuel or the more common term used for the fire building process – tinder. ( Wikipedia lists over a dozen definitions for tinder but none of them pertains to fire building. The first edition of Noah  Webster’s Dictionary published in 1806 ( and no – I wasn’t around then)  defined  tinder as:  “Tin’der, n, burnt linen, what easily catches fire.)  Times are  changing. For this discussion, tinder, will be what we use to turn our heat source into fire.  The key word here, of course is  “correct”  tinder. There is no one tinder that works for all three of our selected heat sources. A tinder that works great with a Fire Steel  may not work at all with a ember. Likewise, and here’s where it gets confusing for many, a tinder that works great with an ember, will not work with a Fire Steel.

Let’s continue by talking about the best tinder to use with a flame. If you have a source of heat like a Butane lighter or candle that can provide  steady heat to your fuel there’s a wide and usually readily choice of tinder available. Grasses, leaves, small twigs, even some that are slightly damp can usually be coaxed into fire with a sustainable flame.  Hold that flame on there long enough and something is going to burn. Paper, rags, cardboard, the list of materials you can light with a flame is many and varied making it the first choice for most all folks needing a quick fire.

Our next choice of heat was the Swedish Fire Steel. There’s been a  lot of misleading information written and taken as gospel about what makes a good tinder to use with fire steels.  Remember now, I’m talking about fire steels,  not flint and steel. Even though these simple devices can throw out sparks as hot as 5000 degrees F  you cannot hope to ignite natural materials like pine needles, shaved sticks, dry leaves,  Spanish moss etc. Don’t waste valuable time in an emergency even trying. They won’t work. But don’t despair,  there are many natural materials that a fire steel will work with. Cattail fluff, any dry plant down that looks like cotton:  thistle, dandelion comes to mind. Cabbage Palm trunk fibers makes excellent tinder, also some dry inner barks if first they are finely shredded to almost hair like threads. Obviously, some of these work better than others. Cattail fluff and cotton-like plant fibers will catch a spark and burn but they burn very fast, like in a flash, and unless you have a very well constructed tinder bundle with some very combustible material right next to that little burst of fire, you’ll come up ended handed. Lots of people carry small balls of Oakum fibers or jute string  to use with their fire steels. Although these are  natural fibers ( called tow by old timers)  you’re not likely to find any growing in the field. (Try your local hardware store.)

None of the natural materials listed above that can be ignited with a fire steel will work with flint and steel. You can take that to the bank. There’s only a handful of natural materials that will take a spark from flint and steel and even then, those need to be prepared first. The only  natural materials that I’m familiar enough to talk about is punk wood. ( I don’t consider that old standby and the material most commonly used with flint and steel -  charcloth, as being natural)  Punk wood is fairly easy to find. Just about anyplace there are trees and/or large woody plants, there will be some form of punk wood.  By definition, punk wood is any wood that has rotted to the point where it feels spongy. It can be a limb on the ground or even pieces of trunk wood up inside a hollow tree. Anything that looks and feels close to a cork-like consistency is the best I can describe it. Will all punk woods that fit that description work. Of course not. Nature just doesn’t work that way. I once picked up two branches that were lying side by side and looked like they came from the same tree,  one worked like a charm, the other didn’t. That’s just the way things are folks, which means you’ll have to experiment, try different woods from your neck of the woods and see what works.

How do you process punk wood? Just like making charcloth. Put small pieces in a small can that has a 1/16 inch hole in a tight fitting lid and slowly cook until smoke no longer comes out the hole. When done it should look like just what it is, a piece of charcoal. This can be done over an open campfire also. The best method I’ve found is to place your punk wood in white hot ashes along the outer edge of the campfire and let it slowly burn. Once totally consumed and blackened, gently rake the hot coal out of the fire and cover with about 2 or 3 inches of dirt. The dirt will smother the coal. When it’s completely cool to the touch you can  uncover it and hopefully you now have a piece of char that will take a spark. As always, before betting your life on starting a fire with this fragile little piece of burnt wood – try it. Make sure it works, then carefully cover it and stow it safely in your strike-a-light bag.

There is another natural tinder for flint and steel that’s actually prized and was considered a trade item by early Native Americans and then later frontiersmen.  That’s tinder fungus. It’s a fungus that grows almost exclusively on Birch trees.  I have yet to have any of this material in my hands to play with and test, but I do know this – it also has to be processed. It’s not something that you just peel off a tree, strike a spark and bingo – fire. Obviously, any tinder that will work with flint and steel will work even better if you use a fire steel, but, like I stated previously, not the other way around.

That leaves us with that truly primitive fire starting method – the glowing ember. Stuff of legends and images of aboriginals twirling a stick between their palms and then gently blowing life into a small bundle of grass and twigs. One of the best tinders to use with an ember is cedar inner bark that’s been twisted and shredded and made into a small bundle. Place your small ember into the center of the bark bird’s nest and start slowly  and gently blowing on the ember. You’ll have to watch carefully so as to not blow so hard you blow the ember apart and then carefully nurse the coal and make it grow and slowly spread it’s heat into the surrounding bark. It take a little practice to get the technique down. There are other barks that work almost equally as well as cedar: grape vine, honeysuckle and Juniper are three I’ve had luck with. Dried grasses, crumbled leaves, pine needles also work as do jute and hemp fibers. They have to be dry. Moist or damp tender just won’t work. Here in Florida just the humidity can keep you from working  up a flame.

One would think, and many do, that any tinder that could be turned into fire from a small ember could surely work with a fire steel. And, logic would seem to make this true. It just doesn’t work  that way. That bird’s nest of cedar bark that works so well with an ember – no way with a fire steel. The same goes for most grasses, pine needles and crumbled leaves. You can shower them all day with a fire steel and never get a flame.

Keep in mind that there are exceptions to all rules and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find that perfect natural tinder, one that grows just about ever where, and can be ignited with any and all heat sources. Anything  I find while wandering through the woods that looks like a likely candidate as teider I pick up and tote home to test. Most don’t pan out but in the  process, whether failure or success, I learn a little.

The point here is that anyone that decides to depend on one particular fire starting source, flame, sparks or ember would be wise to practice a bit and make dang sure that their technique, the equipment and most importantly, that tinder they may be betting their life on will actually work, and I mean work ever single time under the harshest conditions they may encounter. That’s a tall order for any single fire starting method or materials and the primary reason that we recommend a minimum of three separate fire starting methods are carried. Unless, of course, you are truly confident in your abilities and choice of materials.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Wilderness Dining

Eating Out

I always seem to get a slew of questions asking what are people’s best options for survival food. If you really think about this question then you’d have to realize that there can’t be  one single  answer. The only true answer is that it’s entirely dependent upon a bunch of factors. Factors that are constantly changing, just as nature itself does. Location,  seasons, weather, climate conditions, your physical condition and skill level and even time of day  are just a few factors that could impact what might be available for food.

If you consider just the time of year – winter verses summer for instance, there’s a huge difference in what’s available to the survivalist foraging for something to fill their belly.
An area that was brimming with delicious edible berries, plants and small game in the summer may turn completely barren during the winter months. For many common and edible plants the difference between being plentiful and non-existence may be just a few months, weeks or even days.  That’s especially true for those old standbys -berries and fruits. That black berry patch that was full of juicy and tasty handfuls in late spring will be barren just a few months later.

So what is the answer?  How can you always count on finding a dependable source of food year round?  The best answer I can give is that you will have to take the time and put in the effort to learn as much about the plants and animals in a given area as possible. You’ll need to learn what edible plants are indigenous to your area and habitat, what times are best for harvesting, what particular part of the plant is edible, how to prepare it safely and how to store it. The same goes for animals. What animals can be found and harvested as a source of meat?  Are they available year round, do they hibernate or migrate during the winter etc? 

Just as an example of what is possible and what I’d consider traveling the high road – I once read that the Cherokee Indians had knowledge of over 600 different plants. Plants that they used for food, medicines, clothing, fire, shelter, weapons in everyday life.. I’m not saying you need to have that kind of knowledge to survive, but quite obviously, the more you know the better your chances. Like the old saying goes – knowledge is power and in a survival situation – this knowledge may be life.

Another point that needs to be addressed and one that many consider their greatest obstacle- just what can, or better yet, what will you actually consider as food.. Will you be able to wolf down rodents – mice and rats? How about those delightful and plentiful insects. Are those on your menu? Snakes, frogs, worms, birds – does the thought of munching down on any of those sound repulsive and trigger your gag reflexes? If you say, or think, yes;  then join the club. That’s the most common response. Few people, that is, few Westerners anyway, consider any of those types of foods as even edible, let alone possibly a main course.

That opinion of food is definitely not true for millions of  people in other, let’s say – less developed countries. There are literally millions of people that eat foods we wouldn’t even touch, let alone put in our mouths. Foods  that you and I might think of as being completely inedible,  disgusting and vile, are eaten on a daily basis. And, you really don’t have to travel to foreign countries to find similar examples. In the Appalachians where I grew up, people still routinely eat opossum,  hogs feet, cow tongue, blood pudding, brains and a host of other foods that you ain’t going to find in your local supermarket.

I’m a fan of the TV show Bizarre Foods, hosted by Andrew Zimmern. On each episode he travels to a different country or region and highlights all the different foods that people prepare and eat. On last nights episode  he was in North Eastern Thailand ( an area I spent about 3 years in) and showed some of the foods and prepared meals that many of those native peoples eat on a regular basis. Silk worms, grasshoppers, dung beetles, raw pieces of meat from a freshly killed calf, whole rats chopped into small pieces ( I’m talking guts, brains, bones) then stir fried, were some of the more popular meals. Just the thought of eating any of those things would make most of us regurgitate last weeks meal. On many of his episodes he’s shown people preparing and eating animal entrails, brains, eye balls etc. and eating them with zest.

When asked if they would actually eat things like eyeballs, entrails, worms etc., a lot of people answer, that yes, if they got hungry enough, then they most likely would. And that would be true – when we get hungry enough, our perception of what is edible and what we will eat, will definitely change. The problem is, and I’m talking from a true, long term survival situation, continuing to be picky about what you eat until you get so hungry you’ll eat absolutely anything, is not your best choice for surviving a long stay in the wild.

There are many stories of people actually slowly starving to death even though they had available,  what by all reasoning, should have been adequate enough food. Early accounts of N. American pioneers and settlers make mention of Whites starving while their Native American counterparts , sharing the same food resources, managed just fine. Speculation is that while the whites would eat only the choice, lean parts of meat, the Indians consumed “all” of an animal, even down to the bones in some cases. They actually thrived eating what the white man discarded as being “inedible”.

 In more recent times, there’s the story of Chris McCandless , a young man that decided in the Spring of 1992 he’d walk into the wilds of Alaska and live off the land. As the story, and the movie; “Into The Wild” goes, he was able to hunt and forage what should have been more than enough food, but still ended up dying from starvation in less than four months time. It was later determined that the major contributor to his death was  lack of nutrition. Although he was consuming enough food, by volume,  his diet lacked the proper nutrients to sustain life. Basically, his picky eating habits caused, or at least greatly contributed too, his untimely and tragic demise.

His journal states that he killed a caribou. Now that’s a lot of meat, but, he didn’t know how to preserve it and the bulk of it rotted. He mentioned killing squirrels, rabbits and grouse. All those are excellent sources of bulk food but very short on some very essential nutrients. It’s a known fact that anyone trying to survive on “lean” meat alone is not going to last very long. Our bodies need that fat, that greasy disgusting stuff, to survive. If Chris had known that and if he had also known how to make something as simple as pemmican, chances are he would have walked out of there in fine shape.

So what’s the moral, or lesson to be learned ? How could you, cast into the wilderness to fend for yourselves, survive a prolonged stay? First of course is to be prepared. You’d be wise to study what our early ancestors survived on, how they prepared their meals, what parts of meat they used, ( just about everything is the answer), how they supplemented what little meat they had with roots ( starch) , homemade breads ( carbs) . A lot of these folks lived completely off the land using only what nature provided. And they lived well.

You certainly better get over that “picky” eater thing. You’d be well advised to seek as varied a diet as possible – roots, nuts, greens along with whatever meat you could find. You’d better learn to like, ( well maybe not actually like these things), things like liver, brains, hearts and fat meat- all the fat you can get, even if you have to scrape it off the hide. And you’d best, and very quickly, come to the realization that you now have a new, and very essential , full time job – finding food.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Surviving the Cold

Rethinking Shelters

My recent trip and subsequent cold weather hiking experiences in the high mountains of Colorado this past April has  prompted me to try and stress the importance of being prepared for an emergency overnight stay in the wild.

When teaching the shelter portion of my basic survival courses one of the things that I try and impress on students is that more often than not, people that find themselves lost and forced to spend the night out in the wild, do not build shelters. This is true even when the individual that’s lost may have  survival training and should know, not only the importance of, but also how to build a shelter.

First let me explain why few people will actually  stop and build a shelter. In most instances it’s simply a combination of  human nature and then the result of circumstances. The first thing a person will refuse to recognize or  admit is that they are actually lost. In almost all cases the individual will be charging through the woods at top speed thinking that around the very next bend or over the very next hill they will walk right back into camp. This is especially true for men – and yes-  I too have been guilty. Men just can not admit to themselves that they are lost. So the result is that they continue on the move, maybe retracing what they think is their trail, until all of a sudden- it’s dark.

So here they are. It’s dark,  in the middle of nowhere and there are no suitable materials or natural shelters in sight. In most cases they don’t have a flashlight, no means to start a fire and nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. So what do they do? The only thing they can do. Curl up on the cold ground and try and survive the night.

So why do people put themselves in that kind of situation? A good question and one that’s again answered by:  it’s human nature. People just don’t think it’s going to happen to them. After all, they are just going for a short walk, the trail is well marked, it’s just over the hill, they are part Indian, any number of excuses, but mostly, it’s just plain and simple complacency and “ it can’t happen to me” mentality.

After several years of research, teaching and harping on the subject and actual dirt time experience myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how well I teach a student to build a shelter there’s a better then even chance they will never actually put that training into practice. Even when faced with the very possible and real prospect of spending the night out in the woods. Even though they have the training and know-how to build a shelter. People now-a-days are just  not wired to think that way.

So what is the solution? How do you train and prepare someone to survive one or maybe several nights out in the wild?  Teaching them to build emergency shelters is still a very valuable skill and, just maybe, might be used, especially by someone faced with their second night caught out in the open. ( I say on the second night because after that first night of lying on the ground without any type shelter people are a little more prone to consider taking the time and effort to build some protection.)  Teaching preparedness is the better option and that’s the method that I’m now focusing on.

Being prepared to spend a night outdoors is, in my opinion, the absolute best and most likely to be actually used, method one can teach. When one thinks about it, the clothes we wear are the single most effective and protective emergency shelter one can find. Modern materials have made it very possible to spend days outdoors in sub zero weather and remain comfortable, even toasty warm. Dressing and correctly using layers of the proper type of clothing  allows one to regulate the body’s core temperature. If you are getting warm and start to sweat,  you remove layers; if cold, you add layers. It’s a very effective and simple technique that is actually quite intuitive. There’s no  learning curve or training required. You do what feels right for your body.

So where is this leading and what does it mean as far as a survival situation? It’s very simple. If you are heading outdoors for a short hike, maybe doing some mountain biking or on a canoe trip there’s one simple and very easy step that you can take to prepare for a night or two outdoors. Always wear or carry with you whatever clothing you would need to spend the night outdoors. If you’re in an area where the temperatures could possibly drop down to below freezing then it’s obvious – you need sufficient clothing for those temperatures. I’m not talking about just enough clothing to keep you warm while hiking along at a brisk pace. I’m talking about being dressed well enough to weather the night curled up on a bare rock on top of a wind swept mountain – in the rain. Now that might seem like a tall order and something that would require about twenty extra pounds of clothing. Not true. It boils down to the proper selection of clothes.

For instance, I have a 100% goose down jacket that weights 8 ounces and packs into a small nylon bag that’s about the size of a grapefruit. I’ve worn that jacket alone  in 10 to 15 degree weather and stayed toasty. I also carry a light weight windbreaker and if I add that over the down jacket I’m good for below zero temperatures. For trousers this last time in Colorado I wore light weight ski pants. They are water proof, wind proof and very comfortable. I could sit in the snow with complete comfort and not worry about having wet jeans.

I don’t have the time or room in this blog to go into a complete discussion about suitable clothing for cold weather. There’s tons of good advise on the web and in thousands of books but if I were to give any advise it would be to look toward clothing designed for skiers. There is also one other little bit of advise that I always give and that is to never wear cotton. In cold weather – “cotton kills”.  Not even cotton underwear folks.

All the reasons outlined above are the reasons I’m now teaching that your Primary Shelter , the clothes that you have with you, are your most important emergency shelter. How you are dressed when you inter the woods may actually be the difference between surviving or not. I can’t stress this enough. I know that you are not going to stop and build a shelter. I know that the majority of  people “lost” in the wild never built a proper shelter. I know that no matter how many different types of shelters I teach students to build, none are as effective as being properly dressed. I know that the energy, calories burned, time and effort required to build an effective shelter are not equal , shelter wise, to the comfort of putting on a single warm sweater.

So here’s my advise on emergency shelters. Take it with you. Wear it. Actually say to yourself: “ I plan on sleeping in the woods tonight. What should I wear? ”  Thinking this way will hopefully also prompt you to tuck that Personal Emergency Survival Kit into one pocket and maybe even a large contractor’s garbage bag or two into another pocket. How  about a knife while you’re at it?

The point is –if you think you’ll just wait until it’s life or death and then build one of those nifty shelters like the Survivor Man does, good luck.  You’re going to need it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surviving the Cold

Wrapping it up

I recent tragedy here in Florida brings to light the need for anyone that plans on spending time outdoors to have some basic survival training. A hiker on the Florida Trail died from hypothermia. The report I heard on the local news was that he was found wearing cargo shorts, a t-shirt and a light windbreaker. The temperature that night dipped down to freezing, very unusual here in FL, but none-the-less, that’s not something that should result in a death.
I’ve yet to read anywhere as to whether this unfortunate hiker carried anything to build a fire with or if he carried some sort of shelter – tent, tarp and survival blanket. It was reported that he carried a backpack with a weeks worth of supplies. I find it very hard to believe that anyone would plan for and pack for a week on a trail and not have a shelter or a means to build a fire.

With that incident in mind I’d like to point out and discuss three common mistakes or simple oversights that I often see or hear about. Number one – and this is the one everyone has the most control over, yet sadly, the one they pay the least attention to - your primary shelter. Your primary shelter, that is, your first line of defense against inclement weather, is the clothes you are wearing and/or carrying. The best advise I can give anyone venturing outdoors is to always dress as if you plan on sleeping in the woods without any kind of shelter other than the clothes on your back and that it’s going to be 20 below zero that night. If everyone would do just that alone, there would be few, if any, unfortunate deaths from hypothermia.Of course wearing the proper type of clothing is also important. Without going into a long discussion about clothes, ( that’s another blog subject ) let’s just say – in cold weather, do not wear cotton. Just remember this – “cotton kills “.

Mistakes number two and three, shelter and fire, pretty much go hand-in-hand. Our basic survival courses teach that shelter is a higher priority than fire. Some people find that this doesn’t seem like the proper order and in some cases it may not be. Your particular situation may necessitate building a quick fire right there and then and you’ll worry about a shelter later. Most often though, you’ll find that without a shelter you may not even be able to build a fire. If it’s pouring the rain and/or there’s a wind blowing– some type of shelter will be required. Now by shelter I’m talking about both something as simple as a small wind break ( your body) or just a small cover to block the rain so you can get that fire started and larger shelters you can sleep under.

Most all survival instructors strongly recommend that anyone venturing out into the woods, even on a short hike, should carry some sort of emergency shelter. What they may not all agree on is how to actually use that shelter. Let’s take something as simple as the ubiquitous Space Blanket, an emergency shelter often carried by hikers and other outdoorsman. What would be the absolutely best way to use that small piece of material to keep warm? The answer is very simple. Just wrap the blanket around your body. Folks - there is no better way.

Of course you could build a small A-frame or lean-to type of shelter with it. You could even use it as a liner inside a debris hut. All fairly good options and ones that will afford some degree of protection. The same goes for other commonly carried emergency type shelters. Large garbage bags, drum liners, ponchos, sections of plastic and small tarps all can be used for a shelter. And – if you have the time, the materials and a good location, you might end up with a descent and warm shelter. And, even if your shelter building skills are above average – I’ll bet you even money – that shelter will not be nearly as effective it would be if you used the quickest and the simplest method of just wrapping it around your body.

Here’s just a few reasons why I recommend this method above all others. Some obvious ones:

1. Quick and simple. If it starts to rain you can cover up immediately and not get wet while trying to build a shelter.
2. Very simple. Even small kids can do this. No training or extra materials needed.
3. Easy to regulate body temperature. If you’re warm, open it up, if cold. wrap tighter.
4. Very portable. If you need to move it goes with you.
5. A small candle, stove or even open fire under the cover will provide plenty of heat.
6. Windproof and water proof even in a blowing wind.
7. It also serves as your ground cloth.

What if you’re all wrapped up and are still cold? Good question and of primary importance. If there’s no other natural shelters available, like a rock cliff, downed trees etc, and it’s safe to do so – my first recommendation is to simply walk and keep walking at as fast a pace as it’s safe to do so. Walking generates heat and even in frigid conditions that may be all you need to do to stay warm. Even at night. If there’s enough light from the moon, distant lights or you have a flashlight – consider walking. Nights are almost always the coldest part of any day and the time that you are in the most danger of becoming hypothermic. Sitting around and trying to sleep at the risk of freezing is not the best option. Would you rather be tired and sleepy –or dead? Put your efforts into staying warm, not sleeping. Here’s a news flash. You’re probably not going to get any sleep anyway!

Another option, and a good one if the materials are available, make yourself a debris hut. It can be a something as simple as just piling leaves on top of you. Pile them as high and as deep as possible. The activity alone should do considerable to warm you up . Stay wrapped in your space blanket, garbage bag or whatever you’re using as your emergency shelter as much as possible and then crawl in.

If you have the fuel and something to get a fire going – do so of course. Again, stay wrapped up as much as possible. If the fire is providing enough heat and it’s safe to do so, now might be the time to get a little rest.

I do teach my students how to build simple shelters using a space blanket, poncho and sometimes even a garbage bag. I still consider those to be viable and sometimes useful survival skills, and well worth the time and effort it takes to build one. I do not teach those type of shelters as the best or only option. Each and every type of shelter will have it’s good and bad points. The circumstances will usually dictate what works best. For my money, a simple body wrap will fit the bill and offer the most protection hands down.

If that Florida Trail hiker did die from exposure and hypothermia it’s an absolute shame and to my way of thinking, completely avoidable and preventable. I can’t believe there was nothing in his backpack to at least wrap up in and I can’t believe he wouldn’t have had a means to build a fire. Let’s not let something like that happen to us. Pack those emergency blankets and at the first hint of a chill – wrap up.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Simple Plant Identification

Taste Testing Plants

I’m hoping that everyone one had a great holiday and also that each and everyone has a great, safe and prosperous new year. And just as important, I’m hoping that everyone finds the time to get outdoors and experience the rewards and the joy of nature.

We just completed our first “ winter” weekend Basic Survival Workshop. I placed the word winter in parentheses because any of you reading this that lives anywhere North of Florida would probably laugh at the thought of 30 degrees at night being a cold winter night. Our workshop was attended by a very wonderful, light hearted and close knit group from Tampa that, like most of us residing in Florida, were not accustomed to sleeping under the stars in below freezing weather. They had to brave a cold drizzling rain for almost all of the first day and even colder temperatures and a bone chilling wind during the night. Luckily the skies cleared for the second day and even with a cold breeze blowing most of the day, we were relatively comfortable.

While doing our nature /edible plant walk one of the ladies in the group asked how someone could determine which plants were edible if they didn’t know anything about the plant. She asked that question probably because she had just observed me doing a taste test of some berries that we had just found and I had just declared to the group that I did not know what the plant was. (This was the first time I’d spotted that particular plant and I only noticed it  because it was loaded with small, plump, juicy looking berries.)

The answer to her question isn’t that simple and there is no straight forward, do it exactly like this, steps or rules to follow. Knowledge, research and learning to identify as many plants as possible will be a great help and there are a few steps that you can take that should prevent you from popping something into your mouth that will kill you. Actually, to ease that fear – there are very few plants, especially plants that look like they would be good to eat, that will kill you or even ones that will make you very ill. That’s not to say that is not something to be concerned with and that’s especially true for anyone that may be prone to allergic reactions.

Identification will become much easier if you understand the basic parts of a plant.. Most all plants have one or more of the following basic parts: leaves, stem, root, buds, flowers, fruit and seeds. Quite often plants that are in the same family have one common and easily recognizable feature.

A very good example is the common Pine tree family. Just about anyone can recognize a pine tree at a glance simply because all pine trees have needles. The same goes for the cacti plant. All cacti have very distinctive and common looking features that are easily recognized. Those were very obvious and somewhat extreme examples but they can be applied to most all plants. For instance - Oak trees come in many shapes and sizes. The most familiar and easiest for most people to recognize are those like the Live Oaks, especially when they are full grown. But there are also many Oaks that barely resemble those huge and stately Live Oaks. Several varieties of Oaks grow barely a few feet high. Regardless of the size and shape - what they all have in common and what makes it easy to identify an Oak is that they all have acorns. If you spot a tree or bush with acorns - you've found yourself a Oak tree.

Let's apply that same principle to some edible plants that are a little less identifiable, the Vitis species, or wild grapes. Wild grapes are very common with at least a dozen different varieties growing throughout N. America. Of those, the Fox Grape and the Muscadine are the standouts. All of the Vitis species are vines and are easily recognized as such. But here's where it gets tricky. There are several different species of vines and for the most part they all look quite a bit alike. Some are even posionious. That's when the devil is in the details and one must know what to look for to prevent a mishap.

Once you learn and start using the distinctive characteristic of a plant you are well on your way. That being said – you should never identify a plant by a single characteristic. Every feature of a plant can vary from what would be considered it’s normal look. The accepted steps to identify a edible plant are as follows:

1. Locate a plant that you think is a certain edible plant. This is called Initial or Tentative Identification.

2. Carefully compare your plant to a reliable reference using several, not just one, of it’s characteristics.

3. Try to locate several other specimens and compare their common characteristics and features. Do they all look the same?

4. Triple check everything. I’d say this is a critical step before you take that first bite. Are you willing to risk your life on a “maybe it’s edible" guess?

Use all the tools and techniques at your disposal. What does the plant smell like. Does it smell like something you’ve eaten before? Does it smell edible? Try a simple touch test. Put it on your wrist and check for any sign of a skin reaction. Don’t rush this test. It’s possible for even violent reactions to take as long as an hour to show up.

Consider placing a tiny bit of the plant on your tongue. Does it taste overly bitter or have an objectable taste? Be very cautious here and do not swallow or ingest any of the plant or it’s juices. If the taste test goes well try chewing just a small amount. Again, you are just testing for taste. Don’t swallow any of the plant.

After all that – are you ready to actually eat the plant? That’s a hard question and one I can’t answer for you. Personally, I’m probably not as cautious as I should be. So far I’ve never had any bad reactions or suffered any ill effects from trying different plants. You may not be as lucky.

I really enjoy learning about and trying new edible plants both for possible survival needs and to supplement regular meals. I attend every edible plant workshop I can find and love doing nature /plant identification walks with other knowledgeable naturalists. It’s become sort of an obsession. I’m a long, long way from being any kind of an expert but I am starting to become more comfortable and secure in my ability to at least supplement, if not actually survive on plants.

For those of you that are interested, my advise, and first choice, is to find someone that’s very knowledgeable and willing to teach you how to identify plants. Read and study as many books about edible plants as you can find. Here’s two books that I use and recommend: “ Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants” by “Wildman” Steve Brill and “ The Forager’s Harvest” by Samuel Thayer. There are many other good books out there and that good old world wide web has some very good information also. Take those reference books to the field and practice "hands-on" identification every chance you get. The more you study, examine and learn the easier it becomes.

By the way – that plant I found and taste tested. The day after I returned home I pulled out some books and identified that plant as being a very edible member of the Hackberry species. I was definitely putting the cart before the horse, but in this case it worked for me and I’ve added another edible plant to my list.