Last weekend I went upstate to Saugerties, NY for a wilderness survival workshop with about 25 complete strangers. Sounds like a cold weekend of sleeping in piles of leaves, fighting off bears and wolves with flaming sticks, purifying my own urine until it’s safe to drink, and hunting down squirrels (or fellow survivalists) to tear apart their disease-ridden bodies in a bloodied frenzy, right? No, it wasn’t a Bear Grylls, “dump your ass in the middle of nowhere with nothing more than a knife and a compass” kind of thing. It was a “stay in a warm, cozy cabin with hot cooked meals and plenty of alcohol” kind of thing.
But I did still learn some valuable lessons, including how to track and kill rabbits, but let’s save that for a day when I’m not snacking on Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies while I write.
I give you 12 Lessons on How to Survive in the Wild in hopes that, if you’re anything like me, the number one thing you’ll learn is to surround yourself with a bunch of surviver-types any time you walk out your door.
1. Apparently I’m not as adventurous as I thought I was, since I’ve never looked at a table and thought “table bouldering.” The challenge is to start on top of the table, climb under it and back up the other side without touching the ground. Some went the width of the underside, while others attempted to do the whole length. Many tried, only a few succeeded. I watched.
2. If you didn’t succeed in climbing the rope in high school PE class, you probably won’t succeed in climbing a limbless tree. Unless you’ve got two guys to help push your ass up like I did. Plus most animals are better climbers than humans, so if a predator is chasing you like you’re a giant piece of steak, don’t climb a tree to escape it.
If you’re not running for your life, but instead just looking for some random “tree parachuting” fun, find a firm but bendy tree, wrap your thighs around that bitch, and pull yourself up inch by inch. Once the tree starts to bend towards the ground, let go of your feet and ride it down. Just don’t get one that’s too thick or you’ll end up 20 feet high with no bend in sight like Ed here, and you’ll have to slide down.
3. Hiking in complete darkness is not as difficult as you’d think once your eyes have a chance to adjust to the light. Although it’s not that easy either, since we couldn’t find our way back to the trail. It’s always better to build a shelter before dusk, stay put for the night, and set out again in the morning. (Or just turn your headlamps on and make your way back to the cabin like we did.)
4. Guns aren’t just good for hunting down your dinner. They’re even more fun to pass the time until someone finds you by shooting beer cans.
5. Any idiot can start a fire with a bunch of dry leaves, some sticks, and a book of matches. Even me. Keeping it going without getting bored or causing a forest fire is a different story. Smokey the Bear was right, “only you can prevent forest fires.” Sadly he does not come rushing in the second you do something stupid. So make sure you clear the ground of any possible tinder before building a fire, or you could end up causing an endless trail of flames when your shoddy teepee of sticks collapses.
6. Speaking of fire, it’s always a good idea to have a professional flame twirler (and a bottle of whiskey) on hand to keep warm. And for pure entertainment.
7. Most plants have medicinal properties. If I remember correctly, our instructor actually told us that all plants are medicinal, but I haven’t found any evidence online to support that. Either way, “most” still sounds like a gamble to me so unless it’s aloe or a dandelion, I don’t really know what to do with it. Side note (and I think I learned this back in like second grade) tobacco is highly medicinal, but sadly somewhere along the line us humans decided to use it for more harm than good. Bad humans, bad!
8. Apparently the only four types of plants you need to know when you’re lost in the wild are pine, oak, grass, and cattails. They’re all edible, versatile, and do lots of things that I can’t really remember. So if you’re curious, Google those four and you’ll see how to boil acorns for a hearty meal, cook cattails like corn on the cob, and even get a sort of “flour” from them. But I recommend when you’re out in the wild you wander your way to a Farmers Market and load up on some delicious treats like thick-cut bacon, homemade granola, pumpkin butter, and pumpkin cannolis. Just make sure you’ve got some cash because chances are they won’t take credit.
9. In extreme conditions where huddling with a group of strangers to battle hypothermia may be necessary, you can fit 14-16 grown adults in an 8-10 person hot tub if you really try.
10. You could build a simple “debris hut” with sticks and leaves just big enough to fit around your body to give you the warmth and shelter you need to make it through a cold night…
11. …but surviving in the wilderness is much easier when you retreat back to a cozy cabin with home-cooked meals every evening.
12. I would still definitely die if I was lost in the wilderness for more than two days. But I can survive the hell out of a weekend in a cabin with running water, electricity, and a hot tub!