Honing Survival Skills on a Weekend Trip

Is it possible to learn everything you need to know about surviving in the wilderness over a single weekend? Not really. But you can certainly learn and practice a survival skill or two when enrolling in a course at a survival school, as I did recently at the Wilderness Way School in the town of [...]

Is it possible to learn everything you need to know about surviving in the wilderness over a single weekend? Not really. But you can certainly learn and practice a survival skill or two when enrolling in a course at a survival school, as I did recently at the Wilderness Way School in the town of Owego, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In addition to custom instruction, founder and chief instructor Michael J. Head offers different courses each week, including wilderness navigation, how to identify medicinal and edible plants, shelter building, cordage and knot work, and - what he primarily taught me during my brief day and night with him - how to build a "primitive fire" without matches.

Mythical fire

Building a fire like prehistoric man may appear easy in theory; you rub two sticks together until embers develop, which can be ignited in a wad of tinder. However, if you've ever seen the film Castaway, or that episode of Mythbusters where Tory, Kari, and Grant try to build a fire the primitive way, you know that creating something that can develop into flames is a lot harder than it looks. In fact, the Mythbusters gang couldn't pull it off without cheating with a power drill and some gunpowder.

"Guys are gearheads," Head told me. "Something comes along and you're like, ‘Ooh, I like that... A Bic [lighter, for example] - I like that.' Well, of course we like it. We could have started a fire with the Bic I have in my pack over there... But we chose not to use it because we wanted to try a different method. So that if you ever need it, you're familiar with it."

You never know when you're going to need the skills to make a fire without matches, although the hypothetical scenario of surviving a plane crash had been mentioned more than once (just like in Castaway). Regardless of how you get lost without supplies, you should already have the supply of knowledge in your head, just in case.

Inherent skills up in smoke

"Survival skills are in our DNA," Head told me. "We've just forgotten how to use them." Technology has definitely taken its toll on human society, which has in turn taken away things that our ancestors instinctively knew how to do. Head uses young animals in the forest as an example, ones that have lost their parents and already know instinctively how to survive on their own - without the use of a mobile phone to call for help, which seems to be the first instinctual thing for a human to do in our modern society.

Head, who had served in the US Navy in Vietnam, had been learning about survival skills since he was five, from his father. Using these skills for decades, he's become an expert in a variety of them through practice. Case in point, he demonstrated how to create a fire sans matches, using the bow drill and hand drill methods, in a matter of a few minutes. He taught me the bow drill technique, especially how to hold a spindle and fireboard properly for maximum friction, and I went for it. It was tricky to keep everything aligned right, but with his coaching on technique, my campfire is up in flames in less than an hour. This is unusual; Head tells me it's taken some students six days of trying before they lit anything up.

"You got lucky," he told me. And he's right; I can not replicate the feat by producing another ember strong enough to ignite.

Survival mode

Making a fire without matches isn't the only skill needed for survival when you're caught in desperate times in the woods. Most people know the basic needs for survival in theory - shelter, water, then food - but when you break it down, so many skills are needed to acquire them when you have no tools to work with. For example, everyone knows that you need water, and that you need to purify it first by boiling it - but how will you make a fire to boil it? And what are you going to boil it in? This is why making cordage is important; string holds makeshift containers together and provides the rope needed in a firemaking bow drill. However, in order to make cordage, you'll need the skills to identify which non-poisonous plants are suited for such a thing - plus a knowledge of flintknapping (making stone tools), as it may be necessary to cut things. And of course, all of this takes time, so you'd better know how to build a shelter before nightfall first; Head taught me a way to build a shelter using only found objects in the forest - and without tools - which could keep you warm and dry in hypothermic or rainy situations (halfway complete in the above photo). And after surviving for a while, you'll eventually want to find your way to a destination - which is why learning how to navigate using shadows and other visual clues in nature is important.

The solution to the problems of survival spawn so many other problems - and you need a breadth of basic skills in order to pull it off. Head teaches many of them - in a wilderness forest environment anyway - and he does it with a passion. He believes passing the knowledge onto others to preserve our species' wilderness survival heritage is a gift. (In fact, his course fees reflect this philosophy; they are amongst the most inexpensive in the country if you look around.) Most notably, Head teaches survival skills with a focus on a co-existence with nature. "Fire is a gift," he tells his students who have trouble in primitive firemaking. "You have to ask for it."

This summarizes Head's attitude in teaching survival skills, as oppose to one that may teach you to survive while unnecessarily bloating your ego, like some TV survival hosts out there who "survive" with a support crew and the magic of editing.

"You're not doing to show off," Head said, "You're doing it to be prepared. Because you never know."