A debris hut is the most basic of shelters for times when there are no rentals available on the market because there’s no market on the market. Keeping warm and dry isn’t just a matter of base survival, it also improves your mental state for the other challenges you’ll need to answer out there in the scary black yonder. When you’re deep in the woods or anywhere in the wild, this structure can offer enough protection to keep you warm and dry until you figure out your next move.
As with all things real estate, the secret to a comfortable debris hut is location, location, location. You want to find a place that is not too exposed to the wind, sun, or rain, but is also not so deep in brush or dense forest that it’s hard to move around in and susceptible to visits by members of the local Wolves and Pumas Association.
Find a strong, relatively straight branch, preferably at least 5 or 6 feet long and at least 3 inches in diameter. This will be your ridgepole—the spine of your debris hut. The ridgepole can be positioned horizontally between two trees, or on a downward slope between a tree and a rock formation or the ground. The ridgepole should be at least 3 feet off the ground at the high end (the higher it is, the more headroom you’ll have, but the more work it will take to complete the shelter). Either way, each end of the pole should be wedged securely in a rock crevice or the crotch of a tree. If you can’t find two supports, you can wedge one end of the ridgepole in a tree crotch, and secure the other into the ground, held fast with large rocks.
With the ridgepole in place, search for the walls of your structure. Large boughs from evergreen trees make excellent walls. You can even break them right off the tree in an emergency (survival tends to trump environmentalism). Use other large branches to create a supporting framework, leaning the branches against the ridgepole. Fill out this basic structure with increasingly smaller pieces, using large sections of brush and dead bushes, oversized twigs and even leaf litter, needles and moss. The drier the material, the better. It helps to shake the material out thoroughly before placing it on your shelter, to prevent sharing with insect roommates.
Ha lf-way done
Finally, pile more large branches on top of the fill material to hold everything in place, and clear the floor of rocks and other sharp objects. The Taj Mahal it ain’t, but a well-constructed debris hut can keep you relatively comfortable until help arrives or you figure out the next step in your survival plan.
You can actually go weeks without food, but without water? Not so much. Water keeps the body functioning, maintains energy and body heat, and a keeps your mind clear. That’s why hydration is key if you’re going to survive for any significant amount of time in the wild. Luckily, there’s plenty of water in just about any outdoor environment, if you only know where to look.
Your first line of defense is to not die of thirst while you’re on the hunt for water. That would just be too ironic. Conserve your energy and moisture by staying out of the sun and not exerting yourself. If you have limited water supplies in a canteen or bottled water, keep it cool and drink sparingly.
Realize that you’ll rarely find nature’s spigot by just meandering around. Instead, channel your inner detective. Because water follows gravity, look for natural runoff areas such as the gulley between two hills or a shallow creek bed (even if the bed is dry, follow it and you may find small pools or puddles along its course). You’ll want to keep an eye out for ideal spots, such as a level area at the base of an incline—especially if it’s shaded and otherwise protected from the elements that might cause evaporation.
You should also investigate areas that look especially green, or seem to display an abundance of insect and plant life (humans aren’t the only life forms that get thirsty, you know). If you have a sharp eye, you can follow small game tracks, because inevitably they’ll lead to a water source. Just be quiet about it; large predators often follow the same clues in looking for their next meal, and you don’t want to become a bear snack on your way to the watering hole.
Certain skills are part of the Swiss Army Knife collection; abilities useful in so many places that once learned, you wonder how you ever got along without them. Tying a bowline knot— sometimes called a bowline hitch—is one of those skills. The knot creates a loop of rope that can be used to secure a tent, make a snare, or for any of a thousand other purposes.
Hold the line in one hand and the end in another. Loop the end over the line to create a loop and leave enough rope in the end to create a 6. Put the end back through the loop of the six and continue it back under the body of the rope. Pull it back through the loop (the opposite direction you went through the first time). Tighten the knot by pulling on both sides, and the knot should cinch down on a loop.
Yeah, yeah, you’re a tough guy. But when it comes to you versus a 900-pound, angry beast with razor sharp claws and teeth like Ginzu knives, you lose. So if you encounter a bear on your next camping adventure, keep your wits about you and avoid a confrontation you would be sure to regret.
As soon as you notice a bear, go silent. Make as wide a circle as possible around it. Keep your eye on him, while making yourself as small as possible by turning sideways or crouching. Move slowly and avoid the temptation to run. Use peripheral vision because anecdotal data suggests bears consider eye contact an act of aggression. Read the bear’s body language to determine how much danger you’re in. A bear shows aggression by swinging its head back and forth, breathing heavily and growling. However, rearing up on its back legs doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready to throw down. It may just be trying to get a better look. If you’re far enough away, it may not register you as prey or threat.
In most cases, you can slip away undetected; bears normally only attack when they feel threatened. But in rare cases, an extremely hungry bear will be on the hunt for any food source. You’ll do in a pinch.
If the bear is tracking you, make noise and let it know you know it’s there. Should he actually approach in a menacing fashion, don’t run. Sadly, bears are way faster than you.
Instead, make noise and look for rocks and sticks to throw at the bear. If it actually attacks, curl into a ball protecting your neck with your hands and let nature take its course. Usually, the bear will stop once he thinks you’re dead. But stay down—bears sometimes hang out to confirm the kill.
You might think bees are bad, until you come up against a squad of angry hornets, yellow jackets, or wasps. Bees sting once before they kick the bucket; their wild cousins can go all night.
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to prevent a nasty confrontation with these foul-tempered insects. Before you go out into the wild, apply a liberal coating of insect repellent containing DEET. Avoid cologne, flowery shampoos, or scented deodorant. Allergic to bee stings? There’s a good chance you’re one of the two million Americans who are allergic to wasp, hornet, and yellow jacket stings too. Carry the necessary medication such as an Epinephrine shot.
When you come across a nest, leave it alone and detour out of the area. Ditto for individual hornets you encounter. You may feel like swatting one, but you don’t want to find out how many friends it has nearby just looking for a fight.
Sometimes though, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hornets nest overhead, but yellow jackets will make their nests in rotted stumps or the abandoned burrows of small rodents. That means you might walk right over a nest. If you find yourself swarmed, don’t hesitate, and don’t fight back. If there is water nearby, jump in. Otherwise, run. Although it will hurt, run through the thickest brush you can. Reeds are great, dense undergrowth is better. Pull your shirt up over your head to protect your head and neck, and keep running until the vicious little jerks give up.
Treat all those stings with ice if you have it, cool mud if you don’t. Clean the sting sites and use a paste of baking soda and water to relieve pain. Any signs of allergic reaction such as trouble breathing or excessive swelling merit a trip right to the emergency room.
Whether it saves your life when the plane goes down on frozen tundra, or just helps impress the hell out of your friends when winter camping, igloos are just plain cool.
Although you can build an igloo with just an ice ax, it’s best if you have an ice saw (but really any saw will do). Ski or snowboard edges are handy for shaping the blocks.
Choose a location that is level or gently sloped, with at least 3 feet of snow pack underneath. Mark out the base, but don’t be too ambitious. Room for two people to lie down in fetal position is a good size.
Mine blocks from a compacted snow bank. Dig a hole about 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep, and cut out your blocks. The sides of the blocks should slant slightly inward to create the circle of the igloo. The tops are slanted down toward the inside to form the dome shape. You can trim to fit even once the blocks are in place.
Start with blocks as large as you can reasonably carry. The blocks of each successive layer should be smaller and, after the base layer, the blocks should be cut with a slight arc on the bottom. The final block that seals the top should be shaped like the lid on a Halloween pumpkin.
Cut the entrance after you finish. It should be on the slope’s downside, dug below the igloo’s floor, and should be just large enough for you to get through. This allows heavier cool air to flow out, while trapping warmer air inside. Cut a small vent hole to release carbon dioxide. Pour cold water over the finished structure to reinforce it. Pack snow all around for extra insulation. Light a candle or Sterno for warmth, and chill out.
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It’s just your luck to take a nasty tumble on a three-day camping trip. Open up a deep 6-inch gash on your leg and, now what? Ideally, you’ll hustle to an emergency room for some tailoring. But if that isn’t an option, it’s time to channel your inner Jason Bourne and sew that thing up all by yourself.
Before you do anything else, stop the bleeding. Apply firm constant pressure on the wound with the cleanest cloth you can find. Even if it hurts, keep the pressure steady because losing too much blood is the most serious danger you face right at the moment.
Once the bleeding has stopped, you need to clean the wound to prevent infection. Run water over it for at least three minutes and then use whatever else you have in the way of disinfectant— hydrogen peroxide, iodine, even clear alcohol such as gin or vodka. Remove any grit, dirt or foreign bodies in the wound, as long as it doesn’t entail digging it out and starting the bleeding all over again.
Now find a needle. It can be small or large. As a last resort, you can even straighten out a small fishhook. Collect the cleanest thread or fishing line you can lay your hands on, the thinner and stronger the better. Tie the thread securely to the end of the needle.
Grit your teeth and remember, pain is all in your head. Start suturing at one end of the wound, making your entry and exit puncture points as far from the wound’s edges as the wound is deep (to ensure proper holding power). Skin is tougher material than you might imagine, and a doctor would use a clamp to pull the needle through the skin—you can use the pliers on your all- purpose tool if you have it with you, or just use your fingers if you don’t. The sutures will be tied off with a basic square knot, in which you loop both ends through each twice (it’s like two intertwining U’s of thread). Pull the knot down tight, but not so tight that you cut off circulation to the skin. You just want to close the wound securely. Position the knot so that it is off the line of the wound where it could cause pain, and clip off the thread. Continue with individual stitches in the same manner until the wound is closed.
Once the suturing is out of the way, the biggest risk is infection. Keep the wound covered with a sterile (or as near to sterile as possible) dressing and seek medical help as soon as possible. After all, even Jason Bourne gets checked out once in a while.
There’s only one thing wrong with that burbling stream you’ve come across in your hike: as delicious as that water looks, you have no idea what type of animal might have died on the bank upstream, or is using the stream as a latrine.
Bad water can lead to cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting that can make the trip back to civilization a tiny piece of hell, so take precautions to ensure your drinking water is safe to, well, drink. At a stream, you’re already ahead of the game. Moving water is less likely to harbor dangerous bacteria than standing water. Draw water into a container with a shirt secured over the container’s mouth to filter larger particles. There are several ways to protect against those smaller microbials. If you’ve thought ahead, you’ll be carrying iodine or chlorine tablets (chlorine kills both bacteria and viruses, while iodine only works on bacteria).
In the absence of purifying pills, boil the water. Bring it to a full boil over a campfire for 5 to 10 minutes. No vessel to boil water in? Filter the water through a clean sock filled with alternating layers of sand and chunks of burned wood.
If you’re stranded with no body of water in sight, dig a hole and place a container in the center. Stretch plastic such as a tarp (in the extreme circumstance, substitute a window from the crashed plane) over the hole, propping it up with rocks. Punch a hole in the center of the plastic right over the center of the container, and place a light rock or stick next to the hole to create a slope from the outer edges to the center. It’s going to take a long time to get a small amount of water, but in a pinch, it’s better than dying of thirst.
So you’ve managed to get yourself so lost in a national wilderness area that you have no idea where you are, where you came from, or how you’re going to get home. Should have spent a little less time watching the game of the week, and a little more time on TLC shows. You are now a walking advertisement for the buddy system and a reliable GPS.
But hindsight is always 20-20. Put your regrets aside and focus on the fundamental notion of getting found. Basically, when you are so lost that you have absolutely no faith in your ability to get yourself to civilization, start with the basics. That means WFS: Water, food and shelter, in that order. You need to keep yourself in one place and keep your body going until rescuers find you. Stay near any source of water you can find, build a debris hut or lean-to and a fire, and hunt locally for anything resembling food.
Be very economical in your actions. You want to conserve energy and calories even if it means doing nothing and being bored. Keep your fire going as big as circumstances allow, but be as quiet as possible unless you know rescuers are in the area. You want to attract the notice of other people, not hungry wolves looking for takeout.
In some cases, your campsite simply won’t accommodate a long stay, or weather may be so inclement as to threaten your well-being. If you have to move on, find a river or stream and follow it in the direction of the flow. Chances are that the course of the river will eventually come to some structure or campground situated on its banks. As long as there isn’t some toothless guy with a banjo sitting there, you should be okay.
Navigate Without a Compass
You’re so lost that even you, real man that you are, would ask directions. If only there was anybody out there to ask. Take heart, intrepid hiker. There are plenty of ways to establish the basic directions and find your path out of the wild. All it takes is an old-style analog wristwatch. Take the watch off and, holding it horizontally, turn the watch so that the hour hand is pointing to the sun. Divide the space between the hour hand and twelve o’ clock, and run an imaginary line through that spot: that’s your north-south line. Figure out the actual compass directions by the position of the sun—after noon it’s in the west, before noon, it’s in the east.
No watch? No sweat. Mark the tip of a shadow cast by a stick or tree, using a rock as marker. Wait an hour and mark the tip of the shadow again. Draw a straight line between the two marks, and that’s east to west (sun rises in the east, sets in the west).
But maybe you don’t know from directions. Maybe the best you can do is tell that you came from somewhere “over there.” Don’t just start walking because humans, left to their own devices, will inevitably walk in circles for reasons too numerous to discuss.
Establish a sight marker in the direction you want to head. Find two objects in that direction, one near, and one far. Line them up visually. Now start hiking and keep those objects lined up. When you reach the near point, do it all over again with a new far visual reference point, married to the now-near reference point. Using this method, you’ll never waste time going in circles, and you’ll eventually find your way back to the land of the GPS.
Fire is one of those things separating us great naked apes from the rest of the animal kingdom. A little ingenuity is all you need to make your own. First, gather a base of tinder—anything small and combustible, such as leaves, twigs or even dried out pine needles. Gather foot-long sticks the thickness of Harry Potter’s wand, and a pile of thicker logs, 2 to 3 inches in diameter. All these should be as dry as possible. If it’s cool to the touch, it’s too wet to effectively ignite.
Mound the tinder in a cleared area of dirt bordered with stones. Create a cone of the small sticks over the mound. Light the tinder and let the cone of sticks catch fire before layering the thicker wood logs on top of the cone.
Of course, the trick is starting the fire without your trusty Zippo. Don’t bother trying to rub sticks together. Instead, find a reasonably flat piece of wood like a thick peel of bark, a straight stick as thick as your finger, and a wadded-up piece of clothing like a shirt. Create a bow by tying a shoestring at either end of another long stick. Notch out a small V in the bark. Jam the most pointed end of the stick into the notch and cluster tinder around the base. Slide your improvised bow over the stick. Hold the top of the stick with the wadded-up shirt, and begin moving the bow back and forth to spin the stick until it sparks the tinder.
You can also use the magnification method. Focus the sun’s rays on tinder with the lens from a camera, glasses, or a clear, water-filled bottle. Be watchful with your fire so that it doesn’t spread, and always completely extinguish it before moving on.
Stop a Shark from Eating You
Humans generally aren’t on a shark’s menu. But when you’re in the wrong part of the ocean at the wrong time, they’ll make an exception. Fending off a taste-testing shark is different than fighting off other predators: you never play dead with a shark.
A shark in the vicinity is not necessarily a sign of an imminent attack. However, if it bumps you and glides away or circles, you’re about to do battle. Undoubtedly you’ll feel a little uncomfortable because you’re a land animal who’s not on land. But taking on a shark means putting on your best alpha-dog face and going for blood.
Always keep him in front of you. If you’re with another swimmer, position yourselves back to back. Sharks are crafty and they prefer to strike with surprise on their side. Be ready for them and you chalk up points in the potential survival column.
Look for any weapon. A spear gun is great, a knife is good, and a rock or broken piece of coral will serve. Cause enough pain and damage and the shark will go looking for easier prey. Injured sharks often go from predator to prey, and they know that.
When it comes at you don’t flail. Pick your shots, aiming at the eyes and gills. Although sharks carry a wealth of sensors in their snouts, it’s a common misconception that hitting them there will repel them. It won’t. Focus on attacking. A shark is too fast to evade, so if you center your attention on keeping out of his teeth, you’ll lose the battle. Damage the eyes and gills even if you get injured and you leave yourself a fighting chance at making it. Once you’ve repelled the killer, get to the boat or land and seek out help for your inevitable injuries.