Basic survival tips: a guide for city folks venturing to the outdoors

A photo I posted of myself holding a mushroom in the Swedish forest garnered a lot of comments from my friends. Could I actually EAT the mushroom I was holding? Per found it really amusing – because why would I be picking it in the first place? But I might have asked the same thing myself a few months ago.  I was amazed that Per’s family gathers their yearly mushroom supply from walks in the forest! Per grows a lot of his own food, compared to me, where I don’t even know how to water houseplants properly, let alone grow my own food.

When I travelled, I was amazed and impressed by rural people’s relationship with the land, particularly in Bangladesh’s and India’s remote hilltribes. It’s hard to put into words what I am amazed at – everything they needed, the land provided for them. And they treated the land with respect, because it was their source of life. They consumed very little (from outside their village), and produced very little waste. I associated this with relatively poor, undeveloped countries and people, most of who would never have the chance to leave and see much of anything outside of the area immediately around their home.

But in Sweden, they also have a close relationship with the land.  The food they consume is based on what time of the year it is, their food is harvested and enjoyed at particular times of the year. Their celebrations and traditions show this: crayfish parties in August; preseved lutefisk at Christmas; herring, new potatoes and spring onion in spring (of course); and Per’s yearly strawberry harvest which includes making preserves and freezing the excess.  Now I see the possibility of becoming more self sufficient in my own food production, and I see the value in learning the lay of the land.

Now I’m finally going to blog about the overnight survival “course” Per took me on! The setting: southern Swedish forest, in the dead of winter (end of December). The rules: no tent, no matches/lighter, no firewood or kindling brought from home. The task: survive one night outside.

Most important thing to surviving outside is managing heat loss. The ground is really good conductor in losing heat. Therefore, insulate yourself from the ground as much as possible!

Scoped out a spot for our bed on a flat area, under a tree where we could hang the tarp to shelter us from the possibility of rain or snow. Using a knife, we cut and gathered armfuls of evergreen (fir? I don’t remember the species…) tree branches. Stuck the cut end of each branch into the ground, each branch stuck into the ground close to the next (about 3″ away). You’re aiming to create a springy “mattress” that will lift your body completely off the ground when you’re lying on it. The more branches the better! The branches insulate the air underneath your body, and act as a cushion and spring for your body. If you think you have more than enough, you probably don’t, as we made the mistake of making the bed too narrow for the 2 of us, and our thermarests shifted out from under us during the night.

Testing out whether the “mattress” would keep my body lifted off the ground – success!

The morning after – you can see that the “mattress” wasn’t wide enough to keep the thermarests from shifting

Next task was to start a fire!I was at least allowed to have a carbon steel stick and a knife to create a spark to start the fire, but it’s not always easy to start a fire that way. Gather lots of kindling and firewood, including dry birch bark, fir trees, and deadfall, before attempting to start the fire.You want to gather more than enough firewood and kindling on the first try, because if the fire doesn’t sustain itself and goes out, you’ll be cursing that all the work you did in gathering the wood that went to waste.

Peel dry birch bark from trees, taking care to keep it as dry as possible  – I collected it in a plastic bag. It makes excellent kindling, as it will easily catch fire from a small spark, though it will burn out very quickly. Fir tree branches, excluding the needles, will come next in the fire, as it will spark and burn long enough to start the main fire. For the main fire, assuming you only have a knife and no axe and aren’t chopping down trees, gather plenty of branches, sticks and deadfall. Break and cut the wood into small pieces with the knife as necessary. Again, you’ll want wood that is as dry as possible. Once the fire is going, you can dry out any damp pieces around the fire. Throwing wet firewood  on could potentially smother the fire!

Once all the kindling and firewood was collected, we found a spot that was open enough that we didn’t burn down the forest above us. Piled and lined up the wood in the order I would need them – bag of birch bark, small to large piles of fir branches, and small and larger pieces of firewood.

Used a flat piece of dry firewood as my surface to start the fire – put a few handfuls of birch bark on top, held my carbon steel stick with the end braced down into the pile, and pressed down hard with the blunt end of my knife at a 45 degree angle to the steel, trying to create a spark that would catch in the bark. Once I saw  small flames, I threw the small fir branches on, as they spark and burn for a long time. As the pile sparked and smoked, I threw more and more fir branches on, Once the fir branches were burning well, I then put on more and successively larger pieces of wood…Once the fire starts growing, it’s important to keep adding the wood quickly to keep the momentum going.

Shortly after getting the fire started (ignore the bag of firewood, which we brought from home as a backup – I didn’t need it!)

I was lucky enough to get the fire started on the first try! Success was mostly due to collecting enough wood to get the fire going on the first try. And believe me, it was a lot of work gathering the wood.

Enjoying dinner. Again, you can see that ground insulation is important to preserving heat loss.

Fire is good for your well being

You actually don’t need a very big fire to cook food. Actually, we started with a much smaller fire for cooking dinner and still ended up burning the sausages. Mostly, the fire is good for your morale and well being, especially given that it was the dead of winter and snowing lightly at times. Plus it looks cool!

Another tip: before slipping into bed, we skipped back and forth (high knees!) to raise our body temperature.  If, during the night, you get really cold, get up and run around some more again. It’s surprising how much warmer it can make you.

I had 2 sleeping bags, one inside the other, to keep me warm during the night. I was getting so fed up with the slipperiness of the 2 bags, plus the thermarests, and slipping off the too narrow bed of branches, that I tried to close everything up as tight as possible. I woke up in the middle of the night almost in a panic attack because I thought I was trapped in the now too hot sleeping bags and didn’t want to wake Per up to loosen the strings on my bag, and I would overheat to death. But he did wake up from my squirming around, and managed to reassure me. Somehow later I managed to close up the bag too tightly again when I got cold during the night after the first ordeal.

Morning. Don’t do this – condensation builds up inside the bag, and wet stuff is bad news

Nutella and freshly made bread

Per made bread and oatmeal on the portable gas stove, as the temperature is much easier to regulate when cooking. It’s too easy (and fun) to make big, overkill campfires.

Portable gas stove

Lakeside campfire. Good thing about winter camping is absence of bugs!


One thought on “Basic survival tips: a guide for city folks venturing to the outdoors

  1. =)
    Glad you learned a lot! Next time we’ll do it with out the “cheating”. Which means no sleeping bags and thermarests. Then we’ll also try to see what the forest offer us to eat. 😉

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