“Despite only getting three hours of sleep, I jump out of bed before my alarm clock goes off. I’m always so excited for survival outings that any sleep the night before is a blessing. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I can’t help but run through my plans over and over in my head. The ironic part is that all those plans go right out the window once the challenge begins. I know I am ready. I’ve studied and trained to prepare for this kind of situation. However, it’s impossible to keep my head clear knowing how Mother Nature may slap me around. “
I gear up and head out to the woods. There is a heavily wooded area on the North side of our pond that is ideal for a shelter. I know of a large birch tree adorned with a natural ‘Y’ in the trunk, ideal for shelter and for the bed design in my mind. As I hike that way, I notice that even at 6 am it is already starting to get warm. I had planned to do this challenge back in late March or April to avoid the heat, but I didn’t have the right weather conditions to get steady rain. That’s the premise of this challenge: dealing with wet weather conditions, particularly thunderstorms, in a survival situation. Last September, during one of my challenges, cooler temperatures and a thunderstorm almost forced me to tap out the first night due to hypothermia. Based on that difficulty, I decided to center an entire challenge on wet weather conditions and hypothermia. For this current challenge, the twist is that there is a chemical in human sweat that lowers body temperature. Unfortunately, sweating through my clothes could cause hypothermia as well.
As I approach the area where I plan to build my shelter, I stop dead in my tracks. A vast blanket of knee high poison ivy covers the entire hillside. I keep thinking to myself “leaves of three, let it be” like I was taught as a kid. I happen to be highly allergic and have had instances where my reaction was severe enough for me go to the hospital. Against my better judgement, I trudge on and find my birch tree. After looking over my area, I decide that it would be impossible to make it three days without getting poison ivy on my skin. The plant has an oil called Urushiol that causes the irritation, and it can be transferred from clothing to your skin days after the initial contact. This is why many people think that the rash can be “spread.” I know that I already have it all over my pants, so I will have to be careful not to touch them. I move on and scope out several other potential sites. Finally, I find an old apple tree with the same natural ‘Y’ in the trunk. This will be my home for the next three days.
The four pillars of survival are Shelter, water, fire, and food.
Keeping the storms in mind, I set up my shelter to handle the wind and rain to come. First, I cut down two long maple poles with my hatchet. Each is about nine feet long and about four inches in diameter at the thickest point. I am able to prop them up in the crotch of the tree about three feet off the ground. Then I wrap climbing rope around the two poles to create a kind of hammock or stretcher design. This will keep me up off the ground, which most certainly will be a mud puddle by morning. I then take a branch about three feet long, sharpen one end with my hatchet, and hammer it into the ground at the foot of the bed. I find another maple pole and tie it to the trunk of the tree and the branch in the ground. This will serve as a ridge pole to provide support during the strong winds to come. Next, I tie two corners of my emergency blanket to the bed. I stretch it over the ridge pole and tie a third corner to the tree trunk. I then fashion a stake out of a tree branch by sharpening one end. I stretch paracord from the final corner to the stake and my roof is secure. Finally, I take two small sticks about one inch long and used them to further stretch the blanket. To create a raised roof, I put one in the center, tie paracord around it, and tie it to an overhead branch. This will allow water to run off instead of pooling up in the center. I do the same with the other stick on the side closest to the ridge pole, and stretch it to another stake I had driven into the ground. Thunderstorm winds typically come from the South, so I put my ridge pole on that side. I hope that this design will withstand any severe weather that decides to head my way.
Now that my shelter has been established, avoiding dehydration is my next priority. I brought a water bottle with a filter built into the lid, so this makes purifying water easy. I simply attach some paracord to the bottle so I can lower it into the pond. I would have to find an area where the water was clear. Dense algae and fallen branches are blocking most of the areas around the bank, but I find a small window. Pond water always has a funky vegetation flavor to it, even when purified. Nonetheless, the water is welcomed and needed to replenish my hydration. In all of my previous challenges, I have allowed myself to get dehydrated to the point that my hand cramped into a useless fist while building my shelter. I will not let this happen again. I drink about two full bottles and am ready for fire wood.
With a storm headed this way, I need to get as much wood protected from the rain as I can. There is a nice cubby between my bed and the ground, which will keep my wood dry. After looking at the trees in my area, I notice that several have low-hanging, dead branches. This is always the best place to get dry firewood versus gathering fallen sticks or cutting green wood. The hardest firewood to find is always the large logs and the tiny tinder. The medium sized kindling, on the other hand, is easy to find. Finding logs that you can cut efficiently without a chainsaw is tough. I have a hatchet with a small saw built into the handle, but cutting anything too large will completely wear out my arm. I find several logs about three and a half inches thick that are the perfect size. Finding tinder can be tough because small material often falls off in the wind before you can get to it. I do find lots of pencil sized sticks and medium sized wood, which was about one inch thick. After stacking it all under my bed, I am ready for the storm.
Now that I have constructed my shelter, gathered water, and found my firewood, I move on to the fourth pillar of survival, food. First, I go after the wild edibles. This is typically the easiest source of nutrition, if you know how to identify the right plants. Near a large maple tree, I find everything I need. I see broadleaf plantains, which have a large wide leaf the size of spinach and also taste a bit like spinach. There are dandelions, which have a peppery flavor. The whole plant is edible including the bloom. I also find oxalis, which is my personal favorite. Oxalis has heart-shaped leaves, small yellow flowers, and it carries a rich lemony flavor. When in a survival mindset, you quickly broaden your idea of what tastes good. As a snack for later, I collect a pocket full of Maple tree seeds. These are easy to identify and are commonly known as the helicopter seed pods. The seed in the pod is not very tasty, but it has carbohydrates and protein that make it a good snack. There is plenty of mouse-eared chickweed, but it is too close to the poison ivy for me to take a chance on it. I know I don’t want survive on leaves and seed pods alone, so I decide to do some fishing.
Fishing can be a challenge even with the proper gear. I didn’t have a rod and reel, but I did have my Pocket Fisherman. Despite it only being about nine inches long, I hope that the Pocket Fisherman will be effective. A small rod extends out doubling the length. It actually has two separate rods built into one to allow more strength for bigger fish. It has a standard reel built-in. There is also a small compartment in the handle for lures. During my challenge prep, I had rigged some plastic worms with hooks so the compartment came in handy. In my prepping, I read that right before a storm, the low barometric pressure allows a fish’s stomach to expand and make them feel hungrier. This makes them more apt to feed during this time. Fish are also more likely to feed following a storm, because of all the insects and worms that the rain washes into the water. In the first few casts, I know the fish are active. After about 30 minutes, I set the hook in a monster bass. It doesn’t put up much of a fight, and I pull it in easily. At about four and a half pounds, it will make for a good meal. I don’t plan to build a fire until just before dark to preserve wood, so I put the giant on a makeshift stringer through his bottom lip and throw him back in the water. Recently, I learned that running a stringer through the lip instead of the gills will keep the fish alive for several more hours. Finding any meal is a win, but finding protein is a game changer.
All I have left to do is rest, hydrate, and wait for the storm. Unfortunately, my afternoon shower is anticlimactic. It rains, but not the storm I am hoping. I am able to tell that the shelter will keep both the firewood and myself dry, so that is a victory. I clean my fish, cut it in two big pieces, and put it in a pot with water. I bury the head to preserve it for a little fish head soup for the morning. Burying meat eliminates the oxygen and warm temperatures that cause bacteria to grow. I need to use every part of the fish while also being cautious about predators that may come after my meal.
While starting my fire, I test out several inexpensive fire-starting products which I have never used before. Fire Cubes and Wetfire operate exactly the same way. Both are waxy cubes off of which you can make a small pile of shavings. With one strike of my ferro rod, the pile lights and I am able to put the rest of the cube directly into the flame. These products are awesome and only cost a few bucks. I try out Livefire, and while it lights after one strike the flame is fairly small. Finally, I hold Firesticks over the flame. This product will not light with just sparks, but has its purpose. After about 20 seconds, it is lit and stays lit long enough for me to pile large wood on top of it and get a roaring fire going. I am able to skip right over the small sticks, and I do all of this on wet ground. In most cases, you never want to try to start a fire on wet ground. Once the fish is cooked, I scarf down the meat and drink the broth. This is always the best way to cook to get all the nutrients out of your meat. Fish in particular has a lot of fats and oils that end up in the broth and add another level of nourishment. It’s also a great feeling to have some warm broth in your belly.
I don’t get much sleep overnight, but by morning I am out like a light and get a few hours of rest. Sleep is so important to keep you focused and productive in a survival situation, so you have to take it as it comes. Once you figure out how to survive in any given situation it becomes more about routine than anything. For the next two days, I stay hydrated, munch on plants, fish, and do what I can to stay dry. It continues to rain on and off the whole time. Finally, I get my nasty thunderstorm on the second night, and it is exhilarating. In spite of the crazy winds, flashing lighting, and pouring rain, my shelter holds up nicely. I don’t get wet, and I never have to adjust or rebuild my shelter in any way. I catch another large fish on day two, and am thrilled to get the calories. Medically, this challenge has been pretty uneventful. I never approached hypothermia, and the worst thing that happened was getting a piece of bark in my eye. Still, I am ready to return home at the end of the three days.
This challenge felt more like a camping trip than survival, but I have to remember how far I have come. I spend on average about three hours a day studying survival techniques, some of which have become second nature. This challenge was so much more difficult by design than my September challenge, yet if felt so much easier. I took this on without a gun, a bow, or a standard fishing rod for the first time, but had no problem finding food. I dealt with rain every day of this challenge, but never got wet or cold. My bed design was my own invention, and it worked perfectly. I stayed hydrated the whole time, and got plenty of rest. I did all of this with a torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder, and I was still recovering from a previous case of pneumonia. However, any survival situation will take its toll on your body. I gathered more food in this challenge than any previous challenges, but still only consumed a total of about 500 calories and lost 13 lbs in just three days. I still feel that in the last eight months, I have gone from barely surviving to thriving. It just reinforces how important knowledge and practice is when your life is on the line.