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.
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.