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.