Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On January 5, 2014 (9AM PST) I set out into the woods behind my home in Sultan, WA for a two day winter survival trip with my roommate, Richard Taylor. In terms of gear, we only brought with us 2 survival knives, 2 stainless steel canteen bottles, a small amount of cordage, our camera equipment (tripod, camera, extra batteries) and a small first aid kit in case of an emergency. The temperature was in the high 30s when we took to the trail and it slowly warmed up into the high 40s or low 50s by early afternoon. Little did we know that this would be our last taste of warm weather for the remainder of the trip.

In a survival situation, you have to constantly be proactive and pick up resources as you come across them. If you take the attitude that you’ll get what you need later, you’ll often find yourself in big trouble when later comes and you can’t find what you need. In addition, you’ll be expending valuable calories that you can’t afford to be losing searching for those items, especially in a cold weather survival situation where food sources are limited.

So almost as soon as we took to the trail we began collecting wisps from downed western hemlock branches and placing them inside our inner layers of clothing to dry them out. We were concentrating our collection on the thinnest of the wisps, since they would dry out and burn faster than almost any other item at our disposal in the woods. We also collected strips of cedar bark and shred the inner bark into a tinder bundle, fluffed it up good and put that inside our layers as well (there is nothing worse than expending a ton of energy/calories on getting a coal and having a bundle which is either too dense or too moist to take on a flame). We also collected pitch from a doug fir tree a little further down the trail, to ensure that when we did get a flame, that we could prolong it's life for as long as possible. This is one of the most difficult times of year in this region to start a fire using a wild kit, due to the cold and tremendous amount of moisture in the area.

Two final items that we decided to collect before going any further was our fireboard and spindle wood. There were a couple of cedars along an old logging road that had low hanging, thick branches good for both pieces in the kit. Richard tucked them in the back of his pants under his coat to warm them up during the rest of the walk. The mistake we made was not carving out the spindle and the notch in the board before we continued on. Essentially, we were drying unnecessary wood. The steps that seem so minimal can make all of the difference when making your fire. You’ll see why this is relevant when we get to actually making the fire later on.

We continued down the trail about another mile until we came across a small stream running alongside the trail. At the time, we were on lower ground so we decided to follow the stream uphill to higher ground and to check where the water was coming from (to make sure it wasn’t coming from an agricultural area where there could be chemical runoff). As we ascended, we came across a conifer stand (mixed hemlock and doug fir trees) just off of the stream and that's where we decided to set up camp due to both the cover it provided and it’s proximity to water. Once in the stand, we picked a downed old growth log that was close to 4' in diameter that faced away from the southwesterly winds. The site had good drainage and was on relatively high ground. We were no more than 30 yards from water and there was plenty of firewood for us all over the understory. Overall, it was a pretty good spot.

Once we had our site picked, we began to look for ridge poles, roughly 6' high or a little taller and rested them up against the old growth stump to form the frame of our shelter (see below).



We weaved in some thin branches (to hold the debris on top of the frame) and began to pack duff and mosses, along with sword ferns and downed branches on top to create an insulated roof. We piled over a foot of fir and hemlock boughs on the ground for bedding and left a small door where the fire was outside of that radiated heat inside. Typically, if we weren’t having a fire, we would put roughly 3 feet of debris on our roof to keep our body heat from leaving the shelter, but in this particular winter situation where fire was a necessity (due to the cold), we only put on about a foot to both shelter us from rain and to trap the heat generated from the fire in our sleeping area. We couldn't skimp on the bedding however, the ground is where most of the cold comes from. Once the shelter was in acceptable condition for the first night, we moved our priority to fire. We had roughly 3 hours of daylight remaining and we touched up the kit and began to work out a coal for a fire.

We carved out our spindle and notch, fashioned a bow from a branch on the ground and a piece of cordage, and began to dry out our wood. Moisture is your biggest enemy at this time year because it prevents your coal temperature from getting hot enough to spark your dust into a coal (no matter how much pressure that you apply). So before you actively try and use friction to create char/dust, you must dry out the wood by applying little to no pressure until the board begins to smoke, then stop. Repeat this process between 20-40 times and then give it your all at the end (slowly increase the duration of the smoke towards the end – for example on the 30th try, you let it smoke for 10 seconds before stopping whereas you stop as soon as you see smoke on the first try). The dry wood will create dry char and will turn a nice black color before it ignites at between 700-800 degrees Fahrenheit.

When we started bow drilling, we smoked and stopped about 20 times when impatience set in (switching when one of us got tired). We underestimated how wet it was outside and assumed we had a dry board and burned through our first notch. We watched our black char (which is the desired color for your dust in order to ignite) turn brown due to moisture toward the bottom of the notch, which wasn't dried because we didn't do as many repetitions. So we carved a second notch and did 30 repetitions before we burned through another yet another one. It was almost dark and we were looking at carving our third notch and we still didn't have our night’s worth of firewood yet – maybe enough to last us a few hours but that was it. For the third notch we went with 40 reps and we finally got our coal! We were practically out of energy but we had a coal. So we blew it to flame in the bundle, added our pitch on top to extend it's life and placed it in our fire tepee. We were exhausted and decided to drink the rest of our water to rehydrate. We filled up our bottles in the stream and waited for a coal base to develop so that we could boil the water in our canteens. It was pretty dark by this time and we were adjusting our eyes by moving slowly while trying to collect firewood. We boiled and cooled our water and tended the fire throughout the night, rotating our sleep on hourly shifts. It was an interesting first day/night overall.

Now that we had fire, shelter and water out of the way, we focused on further scouting our area for resources and food. Our energy was pretty low, even though we were forcing ourselves to drink large amounts of water. It's amazing how much a long drink revitalizes you when you're tired and depleted of energy. We gathered a large amount of firewood and looked for game trails on which we could set some traps. We were in for a cold night and knew how much wood it took from the night before to keep us warm while the temp dropped into the 20s. With firewood collected, we cut some cambium off a young douglas fir and found some frozen oyster mushrooms off of an alder snag to give us just a little sustenance. We continued to drink lots of water and further fortified our shelter before darkness began to fall on us once again. It was a clear night and we found it warmer laying by the fire itself right outside the shelter so we removed the bedding from inside and placed it outside to keep us off the cold ground. The second night was pretty delightful actually, even though we slightly underestimated our needed wood supply and ran out around 3am. But by this time, all of the wood from our shelter frame was good and dry and supplied us with wood for another 3 hours. We gathered some additional wood nearby to get us through that last hour until sunrise and then broke down camp and headed home, completely exhausted.

I remember Richard telling me in hindsight that even though he had been on some pretty intense survival trips throughout his 4 tours in 8 years of the military as a Ranger, he had never experienced a trip without food before. You'd think that the hunger pangs would be horrendous after a couple of days but it's actually fatigue that gets to you. Moral of the story is: be smart about every step you take. Ask yourself is it really necessary because I'm going to need every ounce of energy that I have to make it for any extended period of time in a survival situation.

Some lessons learned from the trip:

1. Carve your fireboard and spindle early on during the trip and don't wait until it's time to get a coal to do it. We spent all of those hours drying wood that we were carving off anyway. You really can't skip any steps.
2. We should have created an open faced shelter/lean-to with poles resting on the old growth log to the opposite side which we had them to better trap heat in the area.
3. Do the max reps when drying out your wood. The amount of calories burned doing two additional notches is not worth skipping steps.
4. Never underestimate the amount of bedding you'll need in cold weather. If you have a choice between bedding and roof insulation if you have a fire going, take the bedding all day long.
5. Gather your wood from far away in the beginning of your trip so that you aren't spending as much energy later on the in making wood runs.
6. Eagles nest all of your wood, well in advance of using it. By eagles nest I mean surround your fire on all sides with wet wood to dry it out. Almost all of the wood in the understory was wet and while we were drying most of it out, we assumed that the fire was hot enough at times to burn wet wood and it wasn’t.
7. Make sure you can hear your water boiling for 3-5 minutes. Don't assume just because it's been really hot that it's ok to drink. The water needs to heat up to 212 degrees and stay that hot for the above duration of time. We weren’t entirely positive that we heard our first bottle of water come to a boil. This could have been a grave mistake if we were out in an extended situation if there were water born pathogens in the stream.
8. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Calorie conservation. Did I say calorie conservation? Every movement that you make expends valuable energy. When you use all of your energy on fire and shelter, you have little left to do anything else, including finding food and keeping your firewood supply at levels to get you through the night.

My next trip will be in March once spring has set in and I'll blog about the experience as soon as I return. Until next time.