Quick raise of hands, Who has gotten turned around in the forest, out hiking or on a hunting trip? I bet anyone who’s ventured out into the wilderness can testify to a slight tinge of panic that rises from deep down in the belly before finding your bearings again. Most of the time this is the case but every once in a while a couple impulsive wrong turns do get you lost.
This happened to me once hiking up the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, ponderosa pines clamoring in tight to an already dim and winding trail when I’m caught in a freak snowstorm, in July, in Arizona! Before realizing the extent of the storm, everything was covered in a layer of snow and I’m lost along with the trail. After 20 minutes of backtracking up and down a slope, nothing.
I took stock of my daypack (not much more than big fanny pack, to tell the truth), emergency blanket, an energy bar (having already had lunch) and bottle of water. Am I going to have to survive the night up here on that? Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. I eventually found the trail and made it back to the trailhead, wet and cold but not lost in the wild. The question lingered though, could I have survived? Probably, but not very comfortably and I would have been much more confident had I known some viable bushcraft skills. Skills that could carry me through a similar situation but also through a bug-out scenario or worse, a widespread catastrophic event.
Basics to Get You Through
While there is a vast world of survival skills one can acquire that would keep them alive for, well as long as they would want but for the sake of space (and the sanity of this author) we will narrow the scope down to the basics that will certainly get anyone by in the wilds.
Survival realty shows are the rage these days and what’s the first thing the hosts most often do? They build a shelter. If it’s not the most important skill, at least shelter building is in the top 3 crucial bushcraft skills to know. The essentials of any shelter are to guard, or shelter, against the elements and should not be bigger than necessary as larger shelters are harder to hold in heat. A smaller space, not much larger than your body will warm with body heat alone. Locate the shelter away from potential hazards (runoff areas or dry river beds, near dead trees that could fall or cliffs) While there are numerous types to choose from, consider the following as models to work from and adapt to various conditions.
The first is a classic, a tarp or large cloth draped over a line suspended between two trees. If the materials are available, great but if not then employing the same, general A-shape design using natural materials is an alternative. Outline an area about the length of your body and gather branches long enough and sturdy enough to function as a frame. At the head construct a sturdy ‘A’ frame with the tops crossing at the top and stuck firmly into the ground at the base. Place one end of a long branch (one the length of or slightly longer than the outline) in the crux of the crossed tops and the opposite end set into the ground at the foot of the outline. This will act as a ridge pole. Along the perimeter of the designated outline arrange the branches in an ‘A’ shape crossing at the tops with the bottoms pushed into the ground. Repeat this along the length of the outline. With the “ribs” finished then, the frame can be covered with foliage and other forest debris or tree boughs or snow. Of course, these examples are in lieu of natural shelter like a cave or if you’re caught without a tent.
An option in the winter – should you be unlucky enough to be stuck out in the wilds during such time of year – is a snow shelter. These can be constructed in the classic igloo manner using stacked blocks of snow or burrowing into a pile of snow or existing drift. These shelters are remarkably useful as they are well insulated and will stay comfortably warm with little more than body heat and a candle.
If there was a match or lighter and dry kindling always at hand then a section on fire starting would not be necessary but since chaos happens at the least opportune times, in all likelihood you may well find yourself in the dire situation of needing to start a fire without a match. Now, there are a number of increasingly complicated methods for getting a fire going but for our purposes let’s stick with a couple of the simplest. Before employing either of these methods, you will need to gather lightweight, dry material that will ignite with heat or spark. This is your tinder bundle or ball made up of dry grass, the “fuzz” moss found on some trees or dry wood shavings.
The first method is the friction plow. This involves laying one piece of wood flat (the fire board) while with a repetitive motion pressing down on the fireboard and pushing (or plowing) away from you. As speed and friction builds, it shaves off dust that will begin to smoke. Transfer this dust onto the tinder bundle blowing lightly to ignite.
Another method is the bow drill. This involves making a small, bow and arrow bow. The bow string is looped around a straight, fairly study piece of wood held perpendicular to a fireboard and with a block in your palm pressing down on the top work the bow back and forth “drilling” into the fireboard. And, as with the friction plow, this will build up heat and friction until it begins to smoke which can then light the tinder bundle.
The topic of navigation can quickly run away into intricate complexities but here we’re going to stick with locating the cardinal directions without the benefit of a compass. In order to find east and west during a clear day start by sticking a stick into the ground. Mark the shadow cast with a rock or another stick or a scratch in the soil. Wait 15 minutes or so, as the shadow moves away from its original point. Draw a line in the dirt between the original mark and the current shadow. This is your east-west line with west indicated by the original spot and east being the current.
South can be found during the day using an analog wrist watch. Start by pointing the hour (small) hand at the sun. Draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12. This is south. Should you find yourself in the southern hemisphere that halfway line will point north.
Navigating at night is as simple as locating the North Star, easy if the sky is clear. Start by locating the Big Dipper. Draw an imaginary line through the two stars that form the outer edge of the cup and follow that line to the brightest star along that path. This will be the North Star. Drop your vision straight down to earth and you will have north.