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“Would you give 100 teens black tarps, a few basic tools, and help teach live with them in the wilderness for a week?”

I looked at my colleague with skepticism.  After a bit more conversation I said, “Yes”.
This is how I ended up being a staff sponsor for a school wilderness survival trip with 80-100 high school seniors every year for seven years.  During this week, we’d lock up all electronic devices, go camp in the woods, sleep under black tarps, eat food from dutch ovens, learn survival skills, eat insects and wild plants, endure sweltering heat or snowstorms, engage in team-building and problems solving activities, and help each student engage in personal development.  At the end of each week, I was often exhausted, sick, and injured, but satisfied with the outcome.  For the most part, the memories of those trips blur together except for my memories of Amanda (that’s what I’ll call her here).

Amanda was a type-A well-mannered meticulous student.  She loved her hair, nails, and clothes perfect and in fashion.  Certainly, a week in the woods with “showers” taken in a small creek of 40-degree water wasn’t her first choice.  She arrived in camp with her bulging backpack of fashion gear after fording a two-foot-deep creek in her high heels.  Amanda hiked in her high heels and wore them whenever our staff wasn’t looking.  As one of the instructors, I was apprehensive – to say the least.  Yet, she didn’t complain. A positive attitude was the first step to her success in surviving the woods that week.

Bushcraft or wilderness survival skills may not seem relevant to the daily lives of most people, like Amanda, because we take so much for granted and rely on the experience and technology of so many past generations.  However, a car accident in a remote location, a natural or man-made disaster, loss of electricity, or a hike or boat ride can put us in a situation that requires us to rely on our own skills.  This is why a basic understanding of bushcraft is important.  Even a basic skill set and understanding can be the difference between life and death.

The following is a good introductory list of the most important elements for survival in the bush.

Many experts like to refer to the basics as the basic C’s of bushcraft.  Here’s a quick breakdown of each one of the most important.

  1. Cover

Cover refers to anything to protect our bodies from the elements.  A blanket, our clothing, and shelters are cover.  First, clothing should be in layers and not made of cotton.  “Cotton Kills” is a great thing to remember.  When cotton gets wet, its insulating properties are gone and it will draw heat out of a body.  When the body gets wet, in hot or cold weather, it loses heat four times faster than if the person were dry.  However, wood and synthetics retain their insulating properties even when wet.  Ideally, shelter is also available.  Someplace dry and not exposed to wind, sun, or inclement weather changes.

  1. Combustion

A simple fire can easily be the difference between life and death.  In the mid-1800s, a fire made by the trapped Donnor party while they crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains burned 20 feet deep into a snowdrift with the party of women and children huddled around.  Their little part of the group was rescued alive because of that fire.  In addition to a heat source, fire provides light to keep predators at bay during dark hours and provides a good place to cook food and boil water for safe consumption.  Additionally, if needed, fire is a great way to get the attention of a search party if help is needed.

  1. Cutting Tool

A single but good knife is a survivalist’s essential tool.  Fire starting with a Ferro rod/flint, crafting stakes and other supportive parts of shelters, making splints, removing ticks, processing edible plants and game are all nearly impossible without a good knife.  In the wilderness, I’ve used knives to repair clothing, pry rocks loose for making a more comfortable bed on the earth, to untangle myself or others from equipment, to clean fish for a meal, to cut bandages for wounds, to act as a handhold in an icy cliffside, and to dig in a sand dune for a place to collect water.  Of this list, the Cover and the Cutting tool are absolute musts.

  1. Container

Survival without some sort of vessel is very difficult.  A container (ideally made of metal) like a bowl is useful for carrying berries, transporting water, making natural remedies for first aid or illness.  A metal container ensures it can be used for cooking over a fire for food and to purify water through boiling.

  1. Collection

Before every trip into the bush, it is wise to brush up on knowledge of the local edible wild edible plants and animals.  Collecting animals through the use of basic snares, traps, and fishing are also essential skills. Understanding edible wild plant life can also help one learn where to find wild animals, who eat the same plants, for capture.  On the other hand, I was once picking berries early one morning off of the Lewis and Clark trail at 9,000 feet when the bush in front of me shifted and a large black bear stood up a few feet away.  I guess my point is that it is good to know ALL animals that can be found eating the indigenous plant life.

Remember, these are just the basics and a good place to START your learning of bushcraft.  It is worth noting that, if arranged correctly, this list can be put together in a kit to keep in a car, house, and pack.  The container can have a good knife in it (I really like Buck Knives), waterproof matches for starting a fire, some rope for first aid and hunting/fishing, and a space blanket to act as an emergency body covering.  If there is room, a good little hand-mirror or signal mirror is a good addition to help search and rescue if something goes wrong in the bush.  We never know what will happen after a long day in the wilderness.

After a long week in the woods with 100 teenagers, the staff would debrief the group to ask how they had changed in a week.  Student feedback was often insightful, profound, and encouraging.  Many of them had faced fears and overcome them.  Many of their “hardships” in the woods had led to contemplative thinking that often involved belief systems, family, and other important matters that reach the heart of humanity.

For her part, Amanda stood up from the group still wearing a very dirty and tired pair of high heels.  Her feet were scratched and bruised from walking around camp in them.  Our staff wouldn’t allow her to wear the heels when we were hiking or doing other physical work.  When she had free time though those shoes somehow made it onto her feet again.  As the group’s attention was drawn to her she sweetly stated what is one of the most important reasons for learning bushcraft.

“I feel like I can rely on myself more.” She said, “I trust myself more.  I now know I can do this if I need to…even in my heels.”

We had a good laugh.  At its core, bushcraft has always been about self-reliance on the environment and generations of wisdom. If you want to know more about bushcraft, there are a number of great resources.

Remember, the wilderness is a great place to live and explore.  With the right training and preparation, every trip into the wilder places on this planet will find all of us returning with the same treasures that 100 teens find every year – great memories and self-confidence.

Have fun out there!

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