Outdoor Articles

Wilderness Survival & Bush Craft Training

“Empty Handed into the Wilderness Chapter 1: True Preparedness”
I have often chuckled at many writers and other "professional woodsmen" who teach and talk about "wilderness survival." They tell you to pull out your knife and do this,that & cut the string so long and tie it here & there. I get the deer in the head lights look when I ask “where did the knife and string come from?”

Later they'll certainly speak of snares and tell you to make an end loop in the wire about the size of a BB. Pass the other end through forming a loop about the size of a three fingered fist and stake it on a rabbit run, about two fingers high off the ground.

I ask, “were did the wire come from?” OH! My "survival kit" Wow. I did not think of that! But then I think if I got para-cord, a knife, wire, a water bottle, a bandanna, a Power Bar, Iodine tabs and all the other classics in the timeless survial kit, I'm really not surviving, I'm merely on a unplanned, bonus camp out. (All aboard!)

Sure if the chips are down I hope a UPS Jet falls out of the sky near me that was loaded with goods headed for campmor.com, but I don't count on it nor do I learn survival skills form a take _____ out of your handy dandy kit. I like me too much, and especially love my family & friends that I take into the wilderness far too much to make such assumptive assumptions.

I learn survival skills from a "Empty handed into the wilderness" point of view. That is in the mindset that for whatever reason- you find yourself in a survival situation WITH NOTHING. If you learn to deal, cope and overcome with nothing, -NO-THING- (clothing allowed there Mr. paisty white neanderthal) other than what you take from the landscape, you'll feel like you got a Walmart Super-Center in your pocket if you got your “kit” when the chips really are down. But what if your kit is not allowed? Well, you still got “naked” skills; no one ever, anywhere, can take your Naked knowledge – the most basic knowledge of living- regardless, away from you.

So how about a little story? Maybe it will spike interest around here in both Operators & Civvys to TRULY rethink their preparedness.

Twice or three times I had to fly COMMERCIAL to an AO in a different overseas countries. It was after 9/11 and all the associated security upgrades. It occurred to me I was flying over the big pond as well as diverse terrain. A whole lot of it. For a long time.

And airplains DO crash. Have you ever read the book about the crash in the Andes Mountains or the associated move entitled "Alive"? Not to mention I have over a decade experience in Aircraft based Search & Rescue and have helped haul out twisted & charred bodies. So I did put me together a little kit for my long high ride.

In my carry on luggage I had me a lighter as well as a knife. I felt more prepared with those two items; I figured if I actually did live through augering in from 30,000 I might not feel so perky and a few items I figured might make things more luxurious. I know, even I can succumb to creature comforts at times.

I had some other carefully selected items with me that seem ordinary enough to the casual observer that are actually quite versitle. Items such as a little container of apple cider vinegar. It's basically a medicine chest if known how to use it internally as well as topically. I had honey as well. The Romans used to smear it in sword wounds & still today I read it is applied at closure during some specific modern surgeries as it is a natural anti-microbial. It's pretty good in coffee to! These are but a few things that were carefully selected for my carry-on.

So you call BS! How did I get my knife and lighter on board? Well I ran my carry-on day pack right through X-ray and off my merry way I went. US Marshall? Nope- I walked on board as a commoner just like you do.

My knife was a chunk off flatish Obsidian about the size of a box of playing cards, and I had with it an oblong rock roughly the size of a domino. They let me walk right on with my two pet rocks.

Perhaps it never occured to the security that I could take my little hammer stone and flake (knap) my piece of obsidian in a wicked sharp blade in short order. Obsidian happens to make the sharpest cutting edge to date on planet earth. It's used in modern surgery, etc. When viewed under a scanning electron microscope beside a scalpel, the OB looks like a sharp edge and the scalpel looks like a dull pruning saw. But hey, I was happy to be just a weird dude with my pets rocks in my carry-on.


And my lighter: Ah- those two little sticks. Odd one there. They made us pitch our ink pens but let my two little 8 inch long sticks go right on through the X-ray, and right on the plane. Does wood show up on X-ray? I dunno but in any event it was evidently deemed to be non-threatening items in “pet-rock weirdo’s” bag.

MY sticks were a seasoned and tuned hand-drill set. I'm a world class hand driller and can when in  good drillin shape go from scratch to having produced a sizeable hot burning ember in less than 15 seconds.(not a typo. WELL less than half of that even is my all time personal record) Making a burning ember in a minute or two (MAX) is everyday ordinary. Drop said ember in fuzzy fiber, natural or synthetic or in a wad of chicks long hair (ask, don't grab) and poof you got yourself fire.

So yeah, At most I got an odd look or two, but the airlines gave me special treatment and permitted little ol me to have my very basic survival kit on-board.

-The end- of the story. But I have spoken of some primitive skills that can be mastered and used effectively to get by when a person trains from a Empty Handed into the Wilderness mindset. And then- the landscape IS your “kit.” And the comical part is when you train with that focus and that level you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross more t’s than the guy that trains with modern kit. And surprisingly enough sooner than you think you’ll be able to out woodsman the equipped guy, with even you still taking from the landscape! Why? Because you OWN the knowledge. He (as in –you- & 99.99% of others) that walk into a natural landscape whether it be mountain, prairie, swamp or (future) decimated suburb take your general load of gear, know the basics of it and are comforted with the fact that you have ”what you need” though you have mastered none of it’s technique or uses WHEN EVERYTHING IS AGAINST YOU. So what do I mean by OWNING knowledge of an item or task? How do you come to OWN knowledge? Well that can be the next little story preceding my basic Empty Handed into the Wilderness instructionals if anyone is interested in my producing them in similar format to what I wrote in the reloading section recently. Lemme know if there is interest.

“Empty Handed into the Wilderness Chapter 2: Priorities”
There are five given priorities/tasks when one finds themselves in a bad situation in a given landscape. And the whole scope of these articles will assume that there is not a lot of hope for immediate rescue as well as the odds of a doable walk-out for whatever reason being low.

The first two priorities will not be what you think, but after large number of case reviews by a large number of institutions & organizations they are proven.

So there you are. Your in the middle of nowhere for any number of reasons- (you make up the scenario.)

You have no clue which way is home or rescue. You have tracked up the place for the last hours on end to the point of backtracking being practically impossible. You denied the actual degree of the complexity of your situation for so long you have depleted you energy levels, your water levels and perhaps your food/snack levels.

Your soaked with sweat from nervous exertion and anxiety. You have stopped now and standing there in sweat soaked clothing. Your shocked you did not realize you were this cold until now.

Regardless of what your pride says about the following statement, estimates as high as 20% of you “seasoned” outdoorsmen have panicked to the point of throwing away your pack and or weapon and ran wildy & blindly in fear, frequently to the point of significant injury, if not off a bluff in the pitch black darkness.

Welcome to the way it really goes down, when things turn scary “in the woods.” The above paragraph is not creative energies of my mind. It is the basic variation of the “lost” theme for average folk who enter the wilds. (“wilds” can easily be the desert, swamp,____, ____.)

As I said previously I have 10 ++ years in (aircraft based) search & rescue, and have been on several missing craft & person searches. In these venues I was ground team commander, head medic, RO and Field skills Instructor, crash site entry instructor & occasionally FAA photographer.

I also have had instruction at many primitive (survival) skills courses: all this to say I have heard the statistics & actual cases as they occurred in real life, & lessons learned from both sides.

Henceforth: The main initial concern in all things when “lost” is determined and accepted by the individual is for & of PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFIT.

Do not do yourself the disservice of saying in your best billy-bad-Ass voice that “I’d never panic.” Even as a veteran SAR operator -AND- Primitive skills practitioner there was an occasion I determined I was completely , utterly & hopelessly lost, in failing light, at a most inopportune time, in a most inopportune place during the most inopportune weather. I DID panic. I even broke into a wild run though for only a few paces. I thank God I defaulted to my training and SAT DOWN and proceeded to collect myself. And it was unnerving at what effort that took even. and it happens to many seasoned outdoorsmen yearly.

The priority list:

Home is where the heart (& mind is.)
The first order of business is to create a shelter. Completion of a shelter establishes a place to exist. It gives some sense of power OVER the circumstances and it provides a home, however temporary and a place to retreat & cope. On the physical plane: statistics show that it is better to create a shelter which preserves internal bodily water & food reserves, (easier to stay warm preserving calories, easier to stay cool preserving hydration) than to fumble around seeking a food & water source in the initial phase.

Once we transition to the instructional sections of this article I’ll give you step by step detail on how to create a water proof, cold proof shelter requiring no tools or string. You’ll only need your hands and what is given freely by the landscape.

2. Fire
Yes in the initial phase Shelter AND Fire are more important than water. Fire really does give some sense of not being alone & a sense of companionship. But the main psychological task of fire is that it incredibly instills a huge sense of confidence to have power over one’s current life and ability to improve one’s current existence. In the movie “Cast Away” actor Tom Hanks started his first fire on the island after failing with a ridiculous hand drill set up and succeeding with the Fire Plow. In the ensuing scene Tom danced gleefully and triumphantly around his fire and made claims & announcement (if you’ll notice –TO- his fire, his companion- directly) of his abilities & achievements in a “conqueror of the world” type demeanor. This was a REALLY WELL researched scene and NOT Hollywood drama. Ask any single person that has created fire by friction (far older than fire by percussion/ spark) and they will tell you they experienced the same EXACT sensation & emotion.

It is simply not describable to explain the emotion of creating something so close to and vital for basic existence. The emotion comes from accomplishing the primeval act VITAL to survival through ancient primitive means.

This sensation is so profound and dramatic that it is the center piece of wilderness therapy for at-risk teens. I worked as a professional backpacker at one of the leading Wilderness Therapy organizations in this country for a few years. I have had countless students tell me that because they created fire (opposed to “lighting” a fire) that they knew they could do anything they set their mind to once back at home in society.

On the physical plain, our fire provides many utilitarian needs. It provides us light and like the lore can protect us from animals. It fire hardens our wooden tools and weapons etc. It burns out our bowls, spoon, cup and even our dugout canoe. But most important in the physical is that it maintains our core temperature as well as cooks our food and boils our water that we would otherwise be STRONGLY tempted to eat/drink in an unsafe condition when obtained had we not ALREADY created fire.
We’ll go over some of the more reliable means of starting fire by primitive means soon.

3. Yes you can finally say it: Water!

Food is good one. So many “cool guy” survivalists will tell you all about snaring techniques. All you have to do is pull wire or string out of your rear end to use those techniques. I again love the look on their faces when I say, yeah, but it’s so much easier to run down a Dandelion! A wise man puts equal or more time into plant knowledge as he does trapping.

6. Utilitarian items.
The one GREAT thing about a survival experience is you have time on your hands. Keeping up with the production of utilitarian items will keep you plenty busy. These include making string, string, string more string and a bunch more string as well as weapons, tools, more trap parts, clothing, footwear, etc.

Empty Handed into the Wilderness Chapter Three: The Debris Hut

Here is the basic method of making a great survival shelter than can be made in most places with nothing but bare hands, good effort and what the landscape provides.
A Debris Hut when made to the proper dimensions & depth will keep you comfortably warm in SUB bitter cold conditions & totally dry in a day after day down poor. And it can be made when standing naked in the woods with nothing practically as efficiently as if you had your “survival kit.” And it does not rely on any auxiliary heat source unlike the totally inefficient lean-to of outdoor lore does.

There are only two deal breakers for this shelter:

Size: SMALLER is better. We are using the word “shelter” but you need to be thinking more along the lines of “permanent, waterproof, immobile sleeping bag.” The only heater warming the square footage will be your tired, fatigued and hungry body. Do your body a favor by making the space it must warm the smallest feasible. Yes you can get away with a little roomier accommodation in summer (or maybe three seasons if you have managed to get lost with some warm gear. But anybody can manage with gear, the scope of this article is getting by pretty good “empty handed” or with –nothing.-)

Depth: of debris/insulation. Here is where I see the vast majority of students nullify the shelter as well as make a total waste of their overall effort. In a deciduous forest we use leaves as depicted in the following photographs. In other geographical areas you simply use the litter and duff found on the ground. Regardless of the material you use the most important part regarding your insulation material IS YOUR ARMPIT. I will teach you how to layout the arrangement and proportions of the frame in the coming pages- but let it sink in from the beginning that regardless of the insulation you use, it must be so deep at -A MINIMUM-, did you get that? MINIMUM, as in AT LEAST, as in MORE IS BETTER… that if you carefully worm you hand down into/through the insulation towards the underlying framework you quickly find yourself extended armpit deep into the debris but CAN’T reach/touch the frame with the tips of your fingers. You must have this much insulation +++ over the frame- at all points of the shelter.

It’s hard to describe the site one should choose for their primitive shelter and associated new home in The Great Lost. I see many armchair survivalists merely cut & paste text on how to go about picking the perfect “camp spot.” But we are not camping. We do not have three liters of water & a backpack full of calories. Also when was the last time a backpacker factored in “there’s a mother load of limbs and leaves on the ground here to use in shelter construction!” ?

So the best I can boil it down to is to pick the greatest combination of several decent averages. For example: We don’t have the caloric surplus to hike all God’s creation to find a perfect spot. We don’t even have a container (made yet) to even put water in so we are better off to be in a so-so spot near a water source than in a perfect spot way away from water. Or there may be a ready made cave that is perfect and cozy, but it’s a killer of a scramble to get to it. Three trips in to our bed and we’re fresh out precious calories with no more in the pot. See? So we cannot afford for all the criteria of “the perfect spot” to be demanded. Use your head and go with the spot that offers the crude best of ALL averages.

Having said that there are ideal settings; the most overlooked is elevation. Middle elevation is ideal. Camp at the very lowest elevation next to your serene babbling brook and you will chill far quicker and burn all the more calories as the cold air descends and pools all around you during the night. And like every wanna-be ”expert” writer mentions- the danger of flash floods. Yes a true threat in a FEW areas, but it needs to be “touched on” not given it’s own entire chapter for Pete’s sake.

Camp on top and every venture & task results in all the more caloric burn as you head back UP to camp for every time you stepped away. Not to mention you’ll have less protection from the weather, be blasted by the wind and perhaps catch a widow maker (standing dead tree) with your sternum as you sleep away the wee hours of the night.

So middle elevation or good walking ground is ideal for our new Lost Camp.

In the survival situation you need to use the logic of the Trout. The typical places trout live is an environment of constant current. He is a master of judging caloric investment in regards to caloric return. He rests behind a rock in it’s calorie efficient eddy. With each morsel that he see’s coming his way he has to quickly decide if it is worth him kicking out into the full-on calorie consuming current to retrieve it, which will carry him down stream, only for him to have to kick back up to his calorie efficient eddy.
Now do you see, though you have been matching the hatch of #18 Adams flys coming off why your not catching anything? Simple- Your not offering him enough calories. You need to think not in dollar cost in this new life, rather calorie cost & caloric income.

The frame:
So you got your spot. You were wise to choose an area that had a decent natural cache of ready materials. The first thing you need to do is scribe you dimension in the ground. For this you will need a stylus. A pointed stick will fit the bill. Rake off the litter on the ground to bare dirt. This is a great time to remove any items that will torment your back during the night. Get centered up in your spot and sit down, legs crossed and straight out before you. Use your stick to scribe a line, right up against your body starting at your hip, down your legs around your foot and back up the hip on the opposite side. Now lie back and scribe as best you can around your torso to your shoulders. Finally with one arm stretched out as far as it can reach above your head scribe around that as best you can.

Now stand up and connect any gaps in your scribed line.

Next you will need a ridge pole long enough to more than cover the length of your scribed template. You will also need at least some forked branches to prop up the high end of the ridgepole. The ridge pole will be on the ground on one end and needs to be crotch high on the other. A crotch high stump or rock, etc. is really handy but not always around. So finding lying forked branches that can be broken to length is the norm and will suffice to elevate the upper end of the ridge pole.

In the following picture I have my ridgepole set up at the proper length and height.
Remember for the duration of this article and pictures, NO TOOLS nor “STORE BOUGHT STUFF” we’re used. For the creation of this shelter We used bare hands and what we picked up off the ground only. Not a knife, not a string, notta.

Next we add on our ribbing. This is just upright sticks & heavy branches to add strength and to keep our insulation material from falling through. Make sure you stay just on the outer edge of your scribed line with the ribbing.

Lastly we add “lattice.” This is just (longer the better) fine sticks thrown over the heavy ribbing this way & that to further keep our insulation from poking through our framework. Think “woven wall” when adding the lattice but it is neither art nor needs to be a tedious task.

In the following picture you can see we started adding lattice.

[Note: this is not enough lattice really. And in the final picture there is not enough insulation. I recruited two willing child slaves from my neighborhood to help me build the shelter. They had to be home for a soccer game, and I did not get into the woods quite as early as I needed too to do the actual shelter to full scale. As I say, the great thing in a survival situation is at least you got plenty of time! ]

Lastly we pile UP (not “on”) our insulation material. Grab handfuls of litter from the floor of your area and carry it over to your frame. The trick is to pile it on from the bottom up. Sure you can hold it over the ridge and let it fall down, but this only makes progress deceptive and leads to skimping on quantity of insulation all the more.

So now we have a wind, water & cold proof shelter. But we need to add on the final fixins. If we attempt to sleep on the bare earth, all night long there will be a war of you trying to warm up planet earth, and earth trying to suck the heat out of your body. Guess who will win…every time? So at the least we need to PACK tight/solid the sleep area of the hut with more insulation material. I have slept warm & wooly this way several nights. I lay down with my feet pointing to the opening of the hut. I point my toes and do a little flutter kick while squirming my way into the CENTER of the packed insulation as best I can, opposed to worming in UNDER the insulation. This manner is “adequate.” You will not get hypothermia, but you’ll not be roasty toasty.

An upgrade is to line the floor of the sleep area with non compressable layer: bark & twigs over light limbs, etc. Establish a comfortable layer that will keep you entirely off the ground, if only a fraction of an inch. Then pack in your insulation and you’ll be comfortably warmso long as you did a good job.

The ultimate set up I have ever used was tall grass. I made a shelter and slept in it two nights made in the above format. While out exploring for groceries to eat and goods to make utilitarian items I discovered about a 1.5 or 2 acre patch or waist high grass. I pulled up three “bear hug” loads of the stuff and took it to my shelter. I sawed off the roots from the stems (with a jawbone & attached teeth I had found) and lined the floor of my shelter HEAVILY with the hollow stalks of the grass. I laid it “log cabin” style or warp & weft to you survival weavers. The overall grass floor mat was a full three inches thick & quite dense. Violin! All natural Dupont Hollowfil just like in a real sleeping bag. This was amazing. It was –totally- comfortable, and protected me from the ground so well I had to sleep in an EMPTY debris hut to keep from waking up hot.
If a person is creative and observant it is not hard to come up with a good insulating & comfortable floor mat such as this. Even a quarter bazillion little sticks & twigs tightly laid in lattice style would work amazingly well. Top that with a bazillion pine needles etc and you’ll be needing to vent your shelter to keep from being too hot.

And finally:
The door. Again the crudest door plug is a pile of insulation you drag over to plug the entire opening of your shelter as best you can once inside. A multi forked limb used as a rudimentary rake helps.

In the past I have propped up bark and rotted half sections of logs to form a door opening that I could barely slither through- these too of course covered to the pit in insulation material. This makes it all the more easier to completely seal the opening by dragging up a door plug.

My ultimate door I had ever made was where there was a downed tangle of poplar trees. Inner bark of poplar trees has an abundance of awesome fibers, [as well as giving up huge sheets of intact bark: think shelter, quivers, bowls, work sheds, crude clothing{buff the hound out of it} etc.]

I gathered a lot of fibers and basically made me a 3’ x 4’ net. I fixed one end of the net to the opening of the door. I pulled it out horizontally and propped it up on sticks. It kinda looked like a net awning on the side of a camper so to speak. On top of my net I piled A BUNCH of insulation materials. When I was in my hut for the night I would kick out the prop sticks dumping a mountain of insulation over my door sealing me in TIGHT & 100% draft proof for the night.

Again, not that you need to precisely repeat a grass bed or a net door, rather it’s just to illustrate that if you are creative and have a open mind you can fair far better than you’d initially think if you use what’s on hand.

Do take time to make you a full scale debris hut, and of course SLEEP IN IT!

Coming in the next chapter we will look at a couple ways of starting a friction fire. More to come.

A last note: Take a kid(s) into the woods, and teach them to shoot, fish,hunt, track, trap & rub sticks together for fire. Our heritage & subsequently our freedoms are being lost to Nintendo Wii (etc.)

Debris huts are wonderfully camouflaged. Sometimes this is a good thing. And with additional large limbs/small downed trees added on (in a self supporting way, don't mash the loft of your insulation) to further break up the moundish silhouette the things really do become invisible.
However, within the scope of this article, the average person would REALLY APPRECIATE being FOUND.
So it's a good idea to make large mobiles like over a baby's crib out of very bright materials and hang them all around your camp. In the "empty handed" theme, bright white wood works: poplar in my area. The movement of your mobiles in the wind are quite eye catching. IF you find trash/litter, polish any pieces you can with creek sand and make wind driven noise makers out of the others.

In a "kit" context: When I was search ground team commander I made all my guys carry a 50 cent K-Mart (I just dated myself) bright orange disposable poncho. The things were so frail I imagine rain would damage them, but they were "air weight" , took up practically no room in the ruck, and made great signal markers. Of course all our military gear blended in the woods nicely. But oddly enough there is a freakishly high incidence of the rescuer becoming a rescuee as well. The old saying is "if you don't want to get lost, stay on the trail." But EVERY searcher/rescuer must bushwack. And accordingly they get snake bit, injured & yes LOST.
So our SOP was to sit tight in shelter beneath a tree you wrapped your orange poncho around, and drum your time away on your pack frame or canteen- if it came to that.

So unless you don't want to be found, construct visual & audible attention getters. But you say, "I got a huge signal fire ready to torch, or I'll just walk up to them, or.." That's great, unless your dehydrated, hypothermic, snake bit or ______ and practically comatose in your invisible mound when the rescuers pass through.


"Tres has an extraordinary ability to explain the mysterious science of long range shooting. If you need to understand all of the factors that effect shooting from 400 to 1400+ yards this is the class for you. I think this guy will be one of the names you will hear in the future as an instructor that is a must to train with."
B. Hubbard Read More