Into the woods! Wilderness Survival

Back when I was on Facebook, I found this link on Gloria Steinem’s page about the kind of impact we can have as we get older. I thought about what kind of change I want to affect, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I don’t know how the world will be. Instead, I thought about what kind of woman I want to be by the time I’m fifty.

Then I made a list of skills I want to learn, and experiences I’d like to have. The list was very physical. In short, 80% of the skills and experience would be complete by playing a major part in a guerilla war — a notion as arrogant as it is absurd.

Survive in the wilderness for at least two weeks — the first item on the list — was something I’d have to build up to. I don’t know the first thing about making fire or cleansing water. Most documentaries and TV shows focus on the drama rather than technical skills. I had to go do it myself. When I found a few programs that were relatively nearby I waffled. I have writing to finish. I have events planned. Then this little voice in the back of my head said:


So I booked the earliest available Saturday.

Here’s some of what we covered.


A writer’s notebook should be full of notes, ideas, doodles and schematics.

The human body comes with certain limitations. You will die in….

  • Three minutes without air
  • Three hours without shelter
  • Three days without water
  • Three weeks without food
  • Three years without love (aww)

Survival doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re cold — do something about it. If you’re hungry — do something about it. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your life — do something about it. The key to effective survival is to be as lazy as possible, burning as little energy as possible, and making tools that do the work for you. I’ll do a quick gloss of what we learned (because you should take the class yourself!)

Building Shelter, Insulation

We learned how to make shelters strong enough to walk on top of. We learned which leaves help keep you dry, and which ones suck up water. The most important part of shelter building is to pick your location. Don’t be near water that will flood. Don’t build your home under dead branches that will fall. Stay high up. Like gathering mist, low points concentrate cooler air. Use what’s available and build around that. Be as lazy as possible.

We also talked about more advanced stuff like vestibules, retaining walls, and effective shelter-building for multiple people. Snuggling won’t necessarily keep you warm — extra heat requires extra insulation.

I was surprised to learn that wet doesn’t mean cold. Wool retains 70% of its insulation value when soaking wet. Leaves don’t lose their insulation when wet; but, of course, dry leaves are probably more comfortable.

Our instructor, Jack, said that native traditions are one of the greatest resources for regional knowledge. Some trees are more likely to drop branches on you during a high wind. For you writer-types and worldbuilders, native people often worshipped the strong trees. Same thing with good wood for making fires — they use the same word for the tree itself as the word for ‘fire board.’

Making Fire

This part sucked. The instructors were great, no bad words for them — but it was really hard.

There are 31 distinct techniques for rubbing sticks together. We focused on the bow drill. We learned how to fashion the bow, good measurements for it, how to carve a spindle, and how to fashion a fire board where the baby coal is born. You have the notch the fire board in a certain way so that the dust created from your friction drains into a specific spot.

Once you have everything together, you need to hold all your materials as still as possible, and then saw away with your bow. If it’s squeaking and squealing, you’ve got good friction. Keep going until it smokes, then go a little longer. Once you’ve got a coal, let it sit and breathe (as it’s just been born, and we all know birth takes a lot of energy.)  Then, when it’s got a nice smolder going, drop it into your little tinder nest. It’s important to pinch the bundle of tinder rather than cup it, as cupping it prevents air flow. The coal will last a little longer than your tinder bundle. It’s flammable but not that hot.


1% Dehydration – you feel a little loopy
4% Dehydration – you feel sick
7% Dehydration – dead human

Of course, you can’t measure yourself with a hydration stick, so stay in touch with how you feel.

Always assume your water is dirty. Once you’ve got your fire you can burn a hollow into a thick piece of wood and use that as a bowl. The easiest way to purify water is to take your bowl, and set it near the fire. Put some rocks in the fire* until they glow. Use some long branches like chopsticks to fish ’em out, then drop them in your bowl.

*Be careful to put some space between you and your rocks. If there’s moisture in the rock via cracks or crevices or what have you… it will explode when that water evaporates. Welcome to primitive IEDs.


Dig with a stick, not your hands. Again — be lazy. Let the tools do the work.

Don’t kill anything unless you can finish the whole thing in one meal.

Being a vegetarian will severely limit you. Based on the growing season, you can only live on plants for about six weeks a year while they’re plentiful.

Don’t attack anything unless you’re ready for it to fight back.

Wood boring grubs are ok, and taste like almonds. Oh, and since they bore through wood, they’ll probably bore through your throat on the way down. Just like with building shelter, consider what’s at hand and be smart.

Don’t eat slugs, snails or carcass-eating crawlies. Don’t eat lizards. Berries are like mushrooms. If you don’t know, don’t eat it.

Jack gave us a list of plants and how to eat them that were specific to this region of California. Different regions have different pantries.

Do it yourself!

I really enjoyed the class up in the Marin county woods. Even with frost on the ground we had a great time. The best way to keep these skills alive, to maintain our connection to our own world is to understand it and teach others. I encourage you to visit Adventure Out and learn what I learned. In fact, here’s a 25% discount code: jackh

You’re welcome.

The way is clear, the light is good,
I have no fear, nor no one should.
The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood.
No need to be afraid there-

There’s something in the glade there…
— Stephen Sondheim

Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”
— Morihei Ueshiba


10 thoughts on “Into the woods! Wilderness Survival

  1. Philip Shiell

    In the UK, this is called “Babes in the wood!”
    Learning survival techniques is good to get us out of urban entrapment.. free the mind… doing the “Southern Comfort” weekend.

    Is Marin county cool to visit?
    We are planning our 2016 USA tour/family holiday at the mo. Each family member gets to choose one week in a particular place. My week is kind of dedicated to the hangouts of Philip K Dick.

    1. Setsu Post author

      So much of it depends what your interests are! Marin county is unique and idiosyncratic with regard to art culture; but I’d say if you’re coming to visit — visit San Francisco.

      Where else did PKD hang out?

  2. CarrieS

    I’ve heard that very, very young children do quite well when lost in the woods – because they do what their body wants. Tired? They sleep. Thirsty? They drink.

    Do you have the book Deep Survival? It’s not a how too. If I have an extra copy I’ll bring one to Baycon for you 🙂

    1. Setsu Post author

      It takes lots of practice to get the technique right. It’s kind of like passing the motorcycle test — you know enough to practice.


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