Thursday, May 31, 2012

Advice For Campers

This is the time of year when families and individuals get out of the house and start enjoying nature. Camping is a popular activity that puts us in close proximity to favorite hiking trails, fishing streams and lakes, and relaxation at its most basic. 

But the very nature of camping poses certain challenges to personal safety and the security of our property. Along with preparing for the rare appearance of a grizzly at the weenie roast, there are other precautions we should take to protect against accidents, injuries, or assaults on ourselves and our property. 

Here's a bit of advice that will help you survive the camping season.
  • Ideally, don’t camp or hike alone. I know there are some who prefer to go solo, but doing so increases personal risk. Alone in the backcountry, something as simple as a stumble can result in debilitating injury that leaves you stranded. An encounter with a predator (animal or human) that is bent on mischief is much less likely to result in a bad outcome if you travel in company with other people. 
  • If neighboring campers start to get rowdy (which can happen in even the most remote and pristine campground), be ready to break camp quietly and leave. Confrontation with a group of testosterone addicts who feed their egos by showing off to friends is worthless and dangerous. This is no time to engage in a pissing contest.
  • Always secure your toys while in camp. Remove ignition keys from motorcycles and 4-wheelers, and lock them up inside your primary vehicle's glove box. Use chains and heavy padlocks to secure these things to trees or logs or to your primary vehicle. 
  • Keep your vehicle locked, and valuable stuff inside hidden beneath blankets. 
  • If you're camping in bear country, DO NOT leave food or garbage inside your vehicle. A determined bear will smash a car window to get inside for a piece of a leftover burger and fries. Always secure food in a container hung in a tree some distance from your camp. Garbage that cannot be burned in your campfire should be placed in bear-proof garbage bins, if they are available. If those are not available, hang the garbage in the same manner as you hang the food until you're ready to leave camp and can take the refuse out with you. Hiking through bear country with food and garbage is like swimming through shark-infested waters while dragging a stringer of bleeding fish behind. Be careful, be watchful, and don't hike alone. 
Take responsibility for your personal safety and the security of your property while traveling and camping. It takes only a little extra preparation and awareness to eliminate some of the hazards.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wolf Attacks on Humans

Among some folks, there is a persistent disbelief in wolf attacks on humans. This might be caused by a Hollywood mentality about wildlife, due to watching too many warm and fuzzy movies involving human encounters with wild animals.

I'd like to clear up one thing — Nature is not warm and fuzzy. Every animal is desperately looking for its next meal, and trying equally as desperately to prevent becoming a meal for some other animal. It's a daily survival test. Fail the test and you die. The survivors in the world of wildlife are those who are the best hunters, the best killers, the best at escape and evasion. Nothing warm and fuzzy about it.

The fact remains that there have been wolf attacks on humans throughout history — and that continues today. No doubt, these attacks are rare. Under normal conditions, wolves shy away from humans. Most bears will do the same, if you give them enough notice that you're in the area and are not threatening to their cubs or their food collection spot. Cougars, on the other hand, will stalk humans as prey.

Back to wolves — the most recent attack on record that resulted in the death of a human took place on March 8, 2010. Candice Berner, a 32-year-old female jogger was found dead along a road near Chignik Lake, Alaska. Her body had been mutilated, and wolf tracks were found adjacent to her corpse. The official cause of death, as determined by the Alaska State Medical Examiner was "multiple injuries due to animal mauling."

This is only the most recently reported incident involving a fatal encounter between humans and wolves. The history of wolf attacks spans the world, with lots of them in Russia, some in India, even Afghanistan. Generally, this kind of behavior is seen during times of extreme scarcity of the natural foods for the wolves to eat. But it can't be ruled out that a chance encounter will prompt an attack — just as an encounter with a domestic dog can result in an attack.

These are wild animals, folks. They're not Disney characters. When startled, threatened, or under unusual pressure to locate food, they are unpredictable and can be dangerous. A "head in the sand" attitude is not conducive to safety.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Survival Is In The Details

It was just one of those things than can happen so easily around camp. George accidentally cut his arm.
Ordinarily, it would be a small matter requiring a bit of first aid treatment. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The time was 150 years ago, and George Donner was the leader of a pioneer company headed west toward the Sacramento Valley. The party, including women and children, were caught by an early snowfall in the Sierra Mountains, and they began to starve and suffer from exposure. It was a poor time for the slip of a hand to carry a sharp blade into one’s arm. 

Small problems, such as the slip of a hand, have enormous consequences in a survival situation. In George Donner’s case, with poor nutrition, inadequate sanitation, and limited medical attention, his wound lingered and became infected. Over time, he grew so weak that when the rescue party finally arrived they couldn’t save him. 

But the consequences didn’t stop there. When it became clear that George was not strong enough to be carried to safety by the rescue team, his devoted wife Tamsen chose to stay by his side rather than leave him. On that day, the Grim Reaper bought two for the price of one. 

The story of the Donner Party is instructive. During the trip West, a number of small individual mistakes were made by members of the wagon train that, taken alone, were seemingly inconsequential. But in the end, those small slip-ups along the trail resulted in delays that put the group behind schedule. Errors in judgment took a toll. Equipment breakdowns slowed the pace. Each day of getting out of camp late put the travelers behind schedule, and the accumulation of these minor mistakes ultimately trapped the pioneer company in the early snow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

And then there was the matter of George’s wound. 

What is really at issue here is not the injury itself. That is only an example of how small things have a huge impact in a survival situation. Minor details make a major difference between a pleasant outdoor experience and a full-blown life-and-death survival incident. So the first step is to pay attention to the details and constantly be aware of what’s going on. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fire When You Need It

When I need a fire, I want to be able to make one without a lot of delay.

That means having a reliable source of ignition, good tinder that will hold a flame long enough to ignite kindling, and good kindling that will hold a flame long enough to ignite the fuel wood.

If the fire is to survive, it must be built on a dry base — ideally mineral so it won't carry the blaze into the surrounding vegetation. We'll discuss fire bases in another post, but for now I want to focus on the ignition problem.

I've been testing a fire starting system made by Exotac ( and I like what I see. The "system" I'm talking about is the polySTRIKER XL ferrocerium rod. Think of it as a modern version of a flint and steel.

This is a lightweight, compact product measuring roughly 4 inches in length and tipping the scale at .4 ounces. The tungsten carbide striking tool snaps securely into a cavity in the rod handle, and a lanyard keeps them from getting accidentally separated.

I've used lots of different fire strikers over the years, and there are some that I like better than others. This one rises to the top of my list because of the quality of sparks it creates. One of the reasons it excels is the ultra-sharp, angular tungsten carbide striking steel. When scraped along the ferrocerium and magnesium rod with proper speed and pressure, a shower of 5500º F globules rain down on the tinder like a bad day in Sodom and Gomorrah. What more can be asked of a fire striker?

The sparks are strong enough that they are capable of igniting a camp stove, instead of using matches. And the striker is waterproof, able to create the ignition ingredient for a fire even after it has been dunked in water. So if I pay attention to the rest of the process — good tinder and kindling — I am nearly assured of success when using this striker.

And on that note, the company also markets a flat tin (about the size of a chewing tobacco tin) of Fatwood Shavings. These shavings are very small, so they catch fire easily. And they are infused with pitch, so they hold an aggressive flame for a long time. A small pile of fatwood shavings beneath the tinder bundle will help ensure success.

Another handy tin contains a 6-hour survival candle that offers 3 wicks. Choose to ignite 1, 2 or all 3 wicks as your situation demands. These tins are shaped for easy fitting in a pocket, and don't weight much.

So, part of my test was to see if I could ignite the fatwood shavings by directing sparks from the polySTRIKER XL, and also to see if I could light the candle wick with those sparks. The fatwood shavings lit up easily and instantly. The candle wick eventually caught a spark and ignited, but the challenge was getting the spark to hit the wick just right. The best method I found was by placing the tip of the striker rod vertically on one of the wicks and shaving down.

After using this product for a while, I have to give it a thumbs-up. My only concern is that the tungsten carbide striker is so sharp that is carves off significant slices of the rod, and I might not end up getting the advertised 10,000 lights before the rod is worn out.

But, you know what? I'm not going to worry about 10,000 lights. I only need one fire at a time, and this striker will definitely give me that. When it comes time to replace the thing, I'll pop the $17.95 for a new one. I think I can afford that every few years. By the way, the tin of fatwood shavings retails for $5.95 and the candle for $6.95. I'm adding these to my BOB.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Off The Grid — Solar Cooking

You've heard the old saying about the day being so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk — well, we just finished cooking our dinner by using solar energy, and it wasn't even a very hot day. The outdoor thermometer sat complacently at about 53º F. and there was a slight breeze, so it wasn't exactly tropical.

But inside our Global Sun Oven, the thermometer showed a temperature just above 300º F. Inside our black enamel pot was a 4-pound turkey breast resting on a trivet, surrounded by half dozen whole red potatoes, and some cut up yellow onions, A half-inch of chicken broth covered the bottom of the pot to help steam the meat.

I have to admit this was only our second experiment with solar cooking, so I wasn't sure about the outcome. None of it made much sense, because the day wasn't very warm. But at least the sun was shining, and that was supposed to be the key to the whole process.

Not knowing exactly how long to cook the food, we set the oven out in the sun about 2:30 in the afternoon, with the reflective surfaces pointing slightly southwest. Every 30 minutes or so, we shifted the angle of the oven to follow the path of the sun. They clue to when you have the oven aimed correctly is to  look at the shadow cast by the oven. When the least amount of shadow shows  on each side and behind the box, it's aimed. It's kind of a no-brainer.

After 4 hours, we decided to replace the black enamel metal pot lit and substitute a glass lid from one of our crock pots. That enabled us to insert a meat thermometer in the turkey breast and monitor the meat's internal temperature. Much to our surprise, it already registered a solid 190º F, exactly what is required for safe cooking of poultry. We tested the potatoes with a fork and they were tender. Dinner was on.

The meat was perfect — tender, just the right amount of moisture (a tough challenge with the white meat of a big turkey breast), and tasty. Our first experiment with solar cooking was s success.

So why is this story relevant for a survival forum? The answer is because this is an alternative method of cooking that can be taken with you and requires no fire and no electricity. We used zero grid energy, zero fuel of any kind (unless you count solar power as fuel), and found out that we are able to prepare decent meals with our portable solar oven. According to more experienced users, you can even bake bread in these things, although we haven't tried that yet. Essentially, you can prepare any kind of food that could be cooked in a conventional oven.

We purchased our oven from the manufacturer at but some folks experiment with building their own out of salvaged materials. The principle is the same — capture and hold solar energy inside a sealed cooking chamber, using reflectors to amp up the capture process.

We'll talk more about this later, but I wanted to let you know that this solar oven thing is not a gimmick. It really works very well, and is now a solid component in our emergency preparedness supplies. It will not only cook our meals, but it will quickly purify water through the pasteurization process, dehydrate surplus foods, dry out damp tinder, etc.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Are The Survival Essentials?

Next week, I'll be talking to a group of Boy Scouts who are working on their Wilderness Survival merit badge.

The invitation to talk with these boys came from the father of one of the young men who lives down the street from me. The troop is preparing for an upcoming campout they call "Out Without." The boys will be carrying minimal equipment, and expected to make do with that, no matter what kind of weather they face. So the topic of discussion will be about what constitutes minimal equipment — the stuff that is essential to keeping yourself alive and well in the wilderness.

That's a tricky question. If you're in outer space, a space suit or pressurized capsule is minimal equipment. If you're scuba diving, an air supply is minimal equipment. If you're falling out of the sky, a parachute is minimal equipment. Get the picture? Defining minimal equipment depends entirely upon the environment and situation.

Since these boys won't be going to outer space, or scuba diving, or jumping out of planes, we'll talk about essential survival equipment for staying alive in an earthbound wilderness setting.

But even that can be tricky. Right here on the surface of planet Earth you can face environments as diverse as arctic, desert, jungle, prairie, swamp, sea shore, high and low elevations. And every variety of environment has its own set of demands when it comes to what you need for survival.

It's not only about the environment, though — it's also about the season. I have different survival kits for different times of year. Cold weather imposes different demands than hot weather. Monsoon season requires different equipment than the dry season.

The trick is to know what the basics are for every possible situation, and make sure you're covered there. Then you can expand to meet the special needs of the moment.

For example, shelter is always needed. Doesn't matter whether it's hot or cold, sunny or rainy — shelter is an absolute necessity to protect against whatever the elements are doing. You just figure out how to adjust  your shelter to help maintain your core body temperature in the ideal range. Sometimes, that will mean you're sheltering from the wind, rain or snow, but other times the shelter will be used to protect against over exposure to the sun. Some form of shelter is always needed.

Same goes for water — you can't live long without it, so it is an absolute essential to survival in every possible condition. Even in the dead of an arctic winter, you still need to drink water to stave off dehydration and subsequent hypothermia. And because you must ingest water, it's best if you can ensure its purity so you don't get sick and end up dehydrating even faster due to diarrhea and vomiting.

Food is a necessity. If you don't eat sufficient calories to offset what is burned by the increased activity of a survival lifestyle, eventually you run out of energy and can't perform the tasks necessary to stay alive.

Fire is a high priority for survival. Use it to purify water, prepare food, dry your clothing, warm your body, signal for rescue, or to illuminate your camp. If you can't get a fire going, and maintain it, life is going to be tough. So, having reliable fire-starting equipment and skills is essential.

Basic first aid equipment and knowledge come in real handy in a wilderness setting. Bumps, scrapes, burns, and a variety of unintended holes in your skin are common around camp. It's true, you can just tough it out and let a lot of that stuff heal on its own. But sometimes it's necessary to take urgent steps to mitigate an injury. And having the ability to prevent and fight infection can literally be a life saver, especially in tropical environments where an infection can run rampant and take you down in a hurry.

All that stuff is good to have along, and I'll be telling the boys to prepare a basic survival kit for themselves so they can meet those needs.

And then I'm going to tell them that a creative mind and basic woodsman skills are probably the most valuable things to have in a survival situation. Learn everything you can. Spend time thinking of ways to improvise with whatever you have and what nature provides. Then go out and practice your skills every chance you get.

Good advice for all of us, because someday it might be us who are "out without."