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Wilderness Day 1: Finding Water while Staying Warm and Dry

Posted by on 2012/04/05

Alright, so it’s day one in the wild, and it might be warm now, but tonight, it’s going to get fucking frigid, and we need to stay alive until the sun can thaw us out in the morning.  Here’s the walkthrough, as if we were stuck in some insanely boring video game. 


If we’ve got our basic SWK : a fixed blade knife, a multitool, 100 feet of paracord, mylar emergency blankets, magnesium firestarter, folding camp shovel, and cast iron skillet. We’re going to have a pretty easy time lashing together a simple shelter.  But let’s not assume that.

Let’s assume that we’re totally fucked.  We’ve got a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a dead cell phone, a key ring, some hiking boots, and a light windbreaker; and it’s going to be days before anyone knows we’re gone.

It’s around noon, and the sun sets in 7 hours.  We’ve got to hustle if we want to make it through the night.

First order of business, find a tool. Ideally we’ll pick up a sturdy 3′ long stick that’s pretty straight and has a nice heft to it.  Then we want a sharp rock, about the same size as the palm of your hand.  You’re going to use these as you walk to probe your environment for useful shit.

No sense in standing around in this imaginary void… We’re on a hill with a pretty decent vantage of the wilderness around us.  We know that water flows down hill, and we need to find water to survive, so after scoping out the valley we settle on south-east and start walking.

Don’t daydream, focus on your surroundings. Listen for animal sounds, look for animal tracks, look for useful materials like vines, reeds, flint, limestone, better rocks, forked branches, pine trees, fruit trees, signs of flooding, overly damp earth, wrecked alien space crafts, etc…

Our ideal spot for shelter is between 30 and 60 feet from a running stream, in a natural clearing, with good dense earth or exposed rock, with southeastern exposure to maximize sunlight, that’s elevated and dry. That sounds nice.  Let’s assume we find something like that because we got really lucky, and it’s only taken a couple hours.  Access to water is going to be the most important criterion here.  Water sources will be most evident by a higher concentration of animal tracks, lush plant life, and geographical features that create natural recesses, ravines, slopes etc.  If we can’t find running water, then we’ll make do with standing water; but don’t you fucking dare drink it, unless you like heart-worm, dysentery, hepatitis, or the monster from that amazing stories movie that looked like an oil slick and killed everyone.

Okay, so we’ve got our dry clearing picked out and few scant hours to make our home in it.   First off, assess the surrounding area. What have we got to work with?
Here’s what we need to collect while we have the light to find it.  Don’t take too long, but don’t exhaust yourself either. Start making piles of resources around your site. In fact, try to get as much as you can of the following in an hour or less.  Spread out piles it out on dry ground sorted quickly by general size. Dry being the key word here.

Dry Grass, oh god, so much dry grass.
Pine Needles, if they’re around, so useful.
Leaves, from trees, green; from the ground, brown and dry
Dry sticks of all sizes
Long, sturdy branches
Thick dry branches
More dry branches of various sizes
More Logs (Seriously, you never have enough firewood)
Small jagged rocks
Large round stones (not river stones)
Big flat rocks
Reeds, vines, tough grasses like Dogsbane (Anything we can make rope out of)
A hollow, or semi-hollowed log would be great, keep your eye out for one, but really we need any natural container that looks like it can hold a gallon or two of water.

We probably won’t be eating today, but we’ll need water. And that’s going to be tricky, so lets get to work before we lose the light.

There is no fucking way to tell if water is safe to drink with your naked eye, but there are ways to tell if it’s less dangerous:
Fast flowing water at high elevations is usually safer than alternatives, slow languid streams are generally teaming with life that you shouldn’t have inside your body, and standing water is a breeding ground for deadly shit that could kill you just by looking at it.
Dew and Rainwater are safe for the first few hours, but if it’s been collecting in a rock cache or something, assume it’s contaminated.
Really fucking look in the water, you want to see that it’s clear and cold, free from little swimming things.
Standing ponds, puddles, swamps and all that stuff, that’s the worst, you’re better off being dehydrated than catching a bug that will force you to shit and vomit out all your remaining moisture.

Find a clean rock basin with a nice deep recess, or a hollow log.  We’ll make better containers soon, but for now, everything should be considered urgent.   This is going to be our water treatment center for today.

While you’re looking for the basin, also look for a hollow reed – a thin one – a straw essentially.
If you’re going nuts from thirst, find yourself a hardwood tree.  Use your sharp rock to chip away some bark, then use your key to drill a hole in the tree trunk about a half inch, the tree will ‘bleed’ a thin watery sap that’s essentially sugar water. You can collect it with the straw and wet your mouth.  A sycamore tree is an ideal source, but who the hell knows what those look like.  Also, always keep a lookout for fruit trees, because, well, fruit.  Thistle, Cactus, and other water rich plants can be skinned and chewed to release water; but we only need a little bit to get us through, we’re almost there.

Anyway, you’ve got your cistern or your log back to camp.  We’ve got three hours of daylight left.  We have to start building a fire; because we’ve never done this before, we have to get it done before it gets dark.  We’ll get back to the water, we’re running out of daylight.


First, make a clearing in your clearing. If you can dig a shallow hole with your improvised tools easily, than do it, and pack the earth around the lip of the hole to make a pit.  If the earth is too hard, fuck it, just ring the site with rocks.   Eventually we want to build a low-heat reflecting wall around our fireplace, but we’ll do that tomorrow.  Today we just want heat enough and light enough to stay alive.

Okay, no time to do anything fancy here, we need to build the most efficient fire in the shortest available time.  There are lots of different ways to construct a fire, but the one we’re going to use is a simple Tipi shape.

The first thing you want to do is make sure there’s nothing flammable within a few feet of your fireplace. Burning to death will disturb your sleep.  Then line the bed of your firepit with dry grass; dry grass is really handy, but here, it will prevent moisture from the ground from getting into your fuel before your fire is lit, and also nursing the embers you create into a fire.

Put a few of those fist sized round stones you collected into the center, man those things are going to come in handy. We’ll need to go through our potential fuel to find 4 things, tinder, kindling, sticks, and firewood.

Tinder is crucial, without it, we’re going to have a bitch of a time starting a fire.  And because time is of the essence here, we can’t start experimenting and fucking around. You want dry, fibrous plant material, scrape the inside of dry bark, or dry rotted wood, again, the key is dry, really fucking dry, and start collecting a pile of this dusty, fibrous stuff on a piece of dry bark.  Tinder is worth more than gold to you right now. It should be kind of fluffy, like sawdust and paper thin strips of dry fiber.

Next, Kindling, this is what’s going to catch, and bridge the gap between tinder and fuel.

Take your sharp rock and start shaving some dry twigs down to expose some fuzzy fibers. This is your kindling. The thinnest dry twigs you can find, and arrange them carefully in a loose pile on three sides of your tinder, leaving a small window for you to transfer your ember onto the tinder to start the chemical reaction that will save your life.

Break some sticks so they’re reasonably even, they should be between half an inch to an inch thick, again, dry, Now arrange your sticks like you’re building, well, a tipi or teepee or however you spell it.  Leaning them together to form a pyramid shape above your pile of tinder and kindling.

Alright, your fire has been constructed, and now it needs to be ignited.  This isn’t easy.

Now, really, we’d like to have a bow drill to start the fire, since we have hiking boots on, we have shoelaces, and that’s awesome.  If we didn’t have shoelaces we’d need to make a hand drill or a fire plough, which are both trickier to use effectively.

Okay, so bow drill, that’s its own entry, found here. Read it and come back.

Okay so take your bow drill that you just made, a flat piece of dry bark with some fluffy tinder on it, and have a short sharpened stick standing by.

You’re going to work the bow drill like a pro because your life depends on it. This shit is an art, and there are a lot of ways to fuck it up.  The most important elements to remember are:

Keep the bow perfectly horozontal
Keep the spindle perfectly vertical
If you push too hard it will smooth out the notch/groove in the fireboard and you’ll lose friction, you’ll need to abrade it and start over.
If you don’t push hard enough it won’t work, nothing will happen, or your coal won’t be dense enough to transfer to your tinder.
If your wood isn’t perfectly dry it may not work at all.
If your bowstring is too loose it won’t spin the drill effectively.

Start with slow even strokes, applying only slight downward pressure on the hand hold so that your spindle turns freely in the notch. Then as you find your rhythm start adding downward pressure and pick up some speed to increase the friction. Friction makes fires.  In a few minutes, assuming all your materials are dry, you’ll start seeing some smoke, and a dark powder will start accumulating in the notch. Now don’t let up at all, increase pressure and speed slightly until it’s smoking like crazy.  Carefully remove the spindle from the notch and empty your hands.  Pick up the sharp stick and use it to very  gently push the smoking coals onto your tinder bundle.

Now, two hands, lift the tinder bundle up to your face and gently blow on the smoking coal. If you’re lucky, the heat from the coal will spread to the tinder and it will start smoldering. Keep blowing on it and it should ignite. Now you’re holding fire in your hands. Place it inside the Tipi and let the fire spread to the remaining tinder there. The kindling will catch, and you are Prometheus.

Okay. So the fire is going. You can gradually add thicker pieces of fuel to the fire in the same teepee formation, until its a nice blazing fire.

Now, that water we needed.

If you haven’t already figured out that you need to fill that hollow log or rock basin with water, then now’s the time.

If it’s standing water, you’ll need to sacrifice your t-shirt, in fact, to be on the safe side, lets do that anyway, take it off.  Using anything that can move water out of the source and into the container, strain it through your t-shirt into the log. Frequently shake out the t-shirt throughout the process to reduce the chances of any crawling things or bits of maliciousness from getting into your future drinking water.

Now your basin is full of water, awesome, still not drinking it.

Before we lose the last of our light, we need to do some quick construction.  Lets stick close to the fire for this.  Stake a branch into the ground and hang your t-shirt from it to dry out, upwind of the fire so it doesn’t get smoked.

We need to make three things before we crawl into our shelter.

A shelter.
A pair of big tongs.
A cup.

Okay, so we start with the shelter.
We don’t have any kind of cordage except our one remaining shoelace, so we’re going to have to build one out of sticks, rocks, leaves, and grass. It’s not going to be pretty or comfortable.

First, grab a long sturdy branch, preferably one with a fork at the end, it’s got to be pretty sturdy and at least 9 feet long, this will be the spine of your shelter.
Now, make a bed of dried grass, pile it nice and thick, you’ll be glad you did: Don’t put it close to the fire, you’ll die.
Now,  take a shorter stick, maybe that 3 foot stick you’ve been walking around with, and stake it into the ground, this is the brace for the opening of your shelter.
Laying the 9 foot branch out above the bed, so that one end is resting on the ground and the other end is propped up on your stake, create a nice acute triangle.
If it’s not resting in a sturdy enough position, secure it with the string from your bow-drill.
Now use your variety of branches to make a lattice of ‘ribs’ along the spine of the shelter. You want it wide enough that you can shimmy into it without disturbing it.
You’re going to have to use some common sense engineering here to make sure that the shelter makes sense for your body.
Once you have your rib-work done, start by heaping on thinner branches, then pile on all the leaves, sticks and grass that you collected until you have a dome.
Your shelter is insanely flammable, but it will keep you warm when it gets really cold, and dry if it rains. It only has to last a day or two, because tomorrow we start renovating.

Okay so your shelter should look like a mound of leaves with an opening in the front you can crawl into. The opening should be facing your fire, and also facing east, so that the sun will rise right on your face.

That’s done.

It’s probably dark by now, but your fire is burning nice and bright, and you’re crazy thirsty; probably hungry too.  Nothing left to stand between you and drinking water.  To make the tongs, grab two strong branches (man, I told you we needed a lot of branches), about a foot and a half long, and a third, small, round piece of wood or a rock to act as a fulcrum. Use your other shoelace to lash the contraption together, and you should have a pair of giant cheater chopsticks.  Test them out to see if you can pick up rocks, then tweak them accordingly.

Now, grab another stick and root around in your fire until you find one of those round stones you put in, and use the tongs to grab one of those rocks. Good work. Okay now carry that rock to your log full of water and carefully drop it in.  There’s a chance that the rock will explode and send shards of killer shrapnel through your sternum, puncturing your heart and killing you in seconds, but that’s pretty unlikely.  Anyway, that rock should immediately start heating up the water, go get a couple more, and you should be boiling that water in no time.

Let that water boil for about 20 minutes, adding more of your hot rocks if necessary.   While that’s going on you should be crafting a cup.  Making a cup is pretty straight forward. You want to find a piece of wood roughly the dimensions of the cup you want to make, and then using your tongs, transfer coals out of the fire onto the wood to burn out the cavity that you will fill with delicious things.  If you use a soft wood, like from an evergreen, this will go pretty quickly.  As you char the surface, you can remove the coal, dig out the char with your knife-rock and then repeat.   We don’t need a big cup here, just deep enough to hold a few ounces of liquid for now.

So after your water has been boiling for about 20 minutes. It’s totally safe to drink, probably.

Take a big handful your pine needles and chop’em up, and throw them in the boiling water.  Wait about five more minutes.

Now, if you started with a two gallons of water, you should have about a gallon of pine-needle tea that’s ready to drink. It’s not going to taste awesome, but it’s rich in vitamin c, and safe enough to drink.  Tomorrow we’ll be making a more reliable filtering device, and by day three, water won’t be an issue.

Now before you crash for the night, check your fire to make sure there’s a nice bed of hot coals in there, enough fuel to keep burning for while, and no sparks can blow over to your shelter and kill you.  If you’ve still got some steam in you, you could try your hand at making some cordage. You’ll need that tomorrow if you want to eat.


4 Responses to Wilderness Day 1: Finding Water while Staying Warm and Dry

  1. JCRogers

    Best thing I’ve read all week.

  2. natalie

    love your entire blog,learning so muccchh!

  3. Bob491

    I like the humor, maybe people will listen a bit more. A bunch of people on a weekend doing this would beat the hell out of playing warcraft or anything like that. great lesson and it may save a few lives.

  4. DarkAngel

    Awesome blog! When will Wilderness Day 2 be out?
    And also can you write about scenarios like washing up on an island or being stranded in the middle of a desert?

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