Survival: The Last Laugh
Chapter 3 – The Woods Master
By Ron Hood, Ed.D. (ABD)
He’s sitting in his office, suit coat on a hanger, tie loose, talking on the phone.
"I’ll be back in about five days. I’ll fax you a list of where I think I’ll be going and some of the alternate routes. If I change my plans before I leave, I’ll call you. The numbers for the Forest Service will be on the fax… Thanks, buddy… No, I’m going alone this time. I need some time to think… Sure, I’ll leave the keys to my car in the magnet locker. You know where I hide it. OK, OK I’ll be fine. Give my love to the wife and kids… OK. Bye…"
He’s driving along a lonely mountain road, stops, gets out, and looks back down the road. He takes in the view, then climbs back in and drives on.
The most important part of survival training is learning how not to need it. You can’t just wait for an emergency and then hope that your survival "instinct" will bring you through. There’s no such thing as an uneducated instinct. Instincts are made of correct choices based on knowledge of potential threats. The Boy Scouts had it right when they chose Be Prepared as a motto.
Some people think that preparing for an emergency is a gloomy process motivated by fear and insecurity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Preparation is an enlightening process filled with discovery and freedom. Preparation is when you know the mechanics of nature, when you see the grand architecture of the skies and the land, and it is when you learn to respect this architecture. Learning wilderness survival skills is much like learning the meaning of stop lights in the city. The skills tell you when to stop and when to go, when you should turn and when you should continue on your way.
Off in the distance the man can see the glint of a car windshield almost hidden in the trees. He turns away from the reflection and continues walking down a wooded trail. He stops, bends down, and picks up an old, rusty soup can. He puts it into his shoulder bag. A little further down the trail he spots a piece of glass on the trail. It’s a nice view here. He picks up the glass, walks to a small bolder by the side of the trail, sits down and begins to make a glass knife. He pulls a piece of leather and an old horn from his shoulder bag and begins to press off pieces of glass. After a few minutes a crude but recognizable cutting instrument is in his hands.
In ancient times, humans would search for natural materials from which to make their implements. Today many discarded bits of human flotsam litter the wilderness. These bits can make fine tools for the woodsman. Using them achieves two purposes. They provide tools and artifacts, and using them helps to clean the wilderness. Glass can be used instead of flint and obsidian for cutting and for hunting tools. Tin cans and old canvas can easily replace clay pots and boiling skins.
Finished with the glass, he puts it in his kit and he moves on.
The sun is starting to get lower in the sky. He lifts his hand to the edge of the sun, and counts the number of hand spans to the western horizon, where the sun will set.
Ancient folks knew that they could estimate how much time was left in their day by simply counting how many hand spans it is to the spot where the sun will set. Conveniently, the hand, extended at arms length, will bisect about 15 degrees of arc. Because there are 24 of these 15 degree segments in a circle, that means that the sun will move approximately 1 hour for every hand span. Hell, in the wilderness, that’s about as good as it gets, or as good as you need it to get. Put yourself on a timetable here and you may as well be back in the city. Still there are times when it’s nice to have some idea of the passage of time.
As he walks he punches his walking stick into the ground occasionally. Periodically he stops to look back. A bush catches his eye. He walks over to it, gathers some and suddenly with a quick motion, snatches a lizard from a rock. The lizard wriggles in his hand, he strokes it’s belly and it stops struggling and lies still. He brings it to his mouth, opens his lips just a bit to blow on the lizard, and then releases it back to the wilderness.
Lots of folks come up here to get lost, at least it seems that way. They get caught up in the joy of nature and forget that eventually they need to go home. When they turn around to go back, they don’t recognize the landscape, get panicky, and then they really become lost. One of the keys to not "getting lost" is to learn what is behind you by looking back occasionally. It’s also a good idea to use a walking stick. The marks it makes in the trail are easily recognizable. If you can’t follow your own tracks, you should at least be able to follow your stick marks. Even light rains will leave behind the small pits left by a stick. (Other benefits of walking sticks include the fact that they change you from a relatively unstable biped to a much more stable tri-ped. They distribute the effort of walking to other parts of your body, and they can be used for digging, investigating snaky places, pushing brush out of the way, and a myriad of other things. Learn to use a walking stick. We’ll discuss the selection of a good walking stick later.)
Lizards are pretty good food. They taste like chicken. Actually everything tastes like chicken when you’re hungry. The problem is that most lizards are small and it takes a lot of them to make a difference in your survival chances. Usually it takes more energy to catch them than they are worth. If you decide that lizards are worth the effort, the best time to catch them is in the early morning when the night chill makes them slow and the sun hasn’t had a chance to warm them. I just like to feel their bellies and wonder what they think of the giant carnivore that’s holding them. (They’re probably pretty dim in the wondering department.)
He finds himself in a canyon at an open sandy area near a stream. There’s a nice tree nearby and some rocks. He walks to the sandy spot, drives his walking stick into the ground, and checks to be certain that it is secure. He bends down in the sand. His finger traces the shadow in the sand. At it’s tip he places a smaller stick, point down, into the sand, then moves away. By the rock he finds a piece of wire. He removes his knife from it’s case on his belt and, using the knife, makes two small holes near the top of the can, on opposite sides. He threads the wire through the holes and using a small stick as a tool, wraps the wire around itself to form a hook. The can will now hang from a stick. At this point he gets up and walks over to the stick. The shadow has moved and he marks the new location of the shadow tip with another small stick. There is a distance between the two points marked by the sticks. He connects these points with a third, longer straight stick. He draws a line perpendicular to this longer stick, in the sand. At the tip of the drawn line, farthest from the base of the walking stick, he writes a big "N" This is north.He really doesn’t care. It is important to stay oriented. On other occasions he has used the shadow cast by the tip of a tree, and that of a telephone pole, to identify directions using this technique.
There are a number of methods one can use to tell directions from the sun. Things like moss on a tree, the bending of the top of a tree, etc. are inconsistent and inaccurate. Sure there may be places where these techniques seem to be accurate most of the time, but don’t count on them. There are better and more reliable ways… the sun compass for one. Even the sun compass has it’s drawbacks, far north and far south on this planet, the technique can force circling. There are other ways to tell directions up and down there…
He looks back up at the sun and decides that he has just enough time to find a shelter site. He looks longingly at the place he just used for his shadow tip direction finding technique. If he were backpacking this would be a good site, water close at hand, wood and rocks nearby. He knows, however, that capable backpackers, deprived of their equipment, have died because they selected the same sorts of camping sites they did when they had all of their equipment for protection. Backpacking is gear oriented; the gear protects you from the wilderness and from your mistakes. Survival is knowledge oriented; knowledge protects you from mistakes.
He begins to climb the side of the canyon. When he is higher than the canyon floor by the height of the highest tree in the canyon, he goes a little higher and starts to search for a spot to make his shelter.
Cold air goes down, warm air rises. This basic information forms the basis of a number of survival oriented decisions. At night, cold air settles into a valley. In a canyon, it settles to the bottom and then moves down, following the drainage. The movement of air is called wind. If you were in the bottom of a canyon you would be in the coldest air as well as in a wind caused by the movement of that cold air. You would feel a wind chill.
Canyons are subject to an effect called the diurnal wind. That means that the wind moves down the canyon at night and up the canyon during the day. Count on it. How much colder is the bottom of a canyon? It varies, but we commonly measure an 8F to 10F degree difference between the bottom of a canyon and a point 50 to 75 feet up the side of a canyon. Diurnal winds commonly move at about 4 mph giving about 5F to 7F of wind chill. This works out to a 13F to 17F degree difference between a camp site in the bottom of a canyon and a shelter site up the side of a canyon!
As he searches for an adequate shelter site he notices that the sun is hitting some rocks nearby. At the rocks he realizes that this part of the canyon is facing South. Good. The rocks are as large as small cars and there is a pine tree struggling up through them. Captured between two large rocks, beneath the tree, is a flat space covered by a thick layer of pine needles. This is home for tonight.
He sits on one of the rocks to enjoy the view and feel the heat of the last rays of the setting sun. He knows that it will be cold tonight, but probably above freezing. At the bottom of the canyon it will freeze tonight.
If you want to stay warm in the northern hemisphere, pick a site on a south facing slope. The sun will have heated the ground and the rocks. The earth will give up this heat during the night creating a micro climate. You have probably noticed micro climates before. You may have been riding a motorcycle or bicycle at night and noticed that the air is suddenly warmer or cooler than moments before. The next time this happens, look at the ground over which you are traveling. If it got suddenly warmer you are probably traveling over asphalt. The darker surface traps the daytime heat and releases it at night. If it is cooler, it may be concrete you are over. Concrete won’t hold as much heat and therefore cannot give it up at night.
Solar radiation also effects the character of the land it hits. Sunlight dries out the topsoil faster and tends to influence the growth of different types of vegetation on the south facing slope. Less moisture also leads to less complete control of erosion and therefore south facing slopes tend to have more exposed rocks and less grass. Trees tend to produce thick blankets of insulation to protect their roots. All of these effects are good for the survivalist.
He moves back from the rock to the thick mat of needles covering the ground below the tree. Carefully he removes the sticks and pine cones that might make his sleep less comfortable. Moving as little as possible of the material, he flattens the sleeping area and creates a depression about 1 1/2 inches deep where his shoulders and hips will go. Then he lays down on his bed. It is comfortable… gotta test the bed. It is comfortable and warm, too…
Heat passes from the body by five heat loss mechanisms:
Conduction, Convection, Radiation, Respiration and Perspiration (or wetness).
First, a Law: Heat passes from the warmer body to the colder body.
You are the warmer body. If you want to stop heat loss to the ground, conduction, use insulation below you. Pine needles are good insulation. They are found under pine trees.
If the wind is blowing (or you are moving through the air), convection will occur. Move out of the wind. Rocks and trees help block the wind. Moving up the side of a canyon out of the wind also helps.
Radiation is heat loss to space. Cover your head and neck. A hat and a scarf help a lot. A roof over you head also helps a lot. The spread of a tree over you offers protection, too.
If your feet are cold, cover your head. The brain automatically cuts off blood flow to the extremities when you lose heat. Reduce the heat loss and the surplus heat will be returned to the extremities. Your socks are more valuable on your head and neck than they are on your feet. Just be certain to keep your shoes on and have them laced very loosely.
Respiration: breathe in cold air, breathe out warm air. You are losing heat each time you breathe. Don’t do unnecessary exercise, because it will increase heat loss along with your increased respiration rate. If you need to do exercises to warm up, do isometrics in place. They are much more efficient in creating heat and they have a minimal effect on your respiration.
Perspiration… Don’t sweat. Don’t work so hard that you will wet yourself with perspiration. Try to stay dry. Water increases heat loss by a tremendous amount (but not as much as the 640 times claimed in some manuals).
If you take steps to control these five heat loss mechanisms you have a good chance at survival. Under ideal circumstances, you can do a lot to control the mechanisms. If conditions are rotten sometimes there is very little you can do.
When you make your bed, try for comfort as well as efficiency. A few minutes making the bed just right may pay off in hours of much needed and beneficial sleep.
He dozes and as he does he sees himself selecting his shelter… Part way up from the valley floor, on a south facing slope, in a micro climate formed by large rocks, beneath a pine tree and on top of a layer of insulating pine needles.
Protected from the winds and holding in his heat, he is happy and warm. Sometimes survival is so simple.
Copyright Ron Hood 1995