Chances are, if you are drawn to the wild, you might, someday, have to survive in the wild. Whether you’re a hiker, biker, floater, fisher, hunter or gatherer, there is always the inherent possibility that, at any moment, mother nature is capable of reminding you and your iPhone just who is in charge. Any number of events can quickly put even the most experienced outdoor-types into a dangerously intimate relationship with nature-revealing both the majesty and terror of the wilderness.
Consider this scenario: You are plunked down in the woods alone, 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks, with nothing more than maybe a pocketknife, a little water and a couple granola bars. The daylight starts to fade and those darkening skies are no longer just threatening, they’re raining. What would you do? How long could you survive? Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks out there who find themselves in that very predicament. “There are between 600 to 700 search and rescue missions in Washington State each year,” says Chris Long, the state’s search and rescue coordinator. “Two thirds of which are wilderness searches.”
The 336th Training Group, U.S. Air Force Survival School at Fairchild AFB (located just off “Rambo Road”) teaches nearly 10,000 men and women in uniform every year how to survive in the wilderness. The 17-day class includes 40 hours of classroom work, followed by five days spent in the mountains of the Kaniksu and Colville National forests. “We take them out in the woods and teach them basic survival skills such as fire craft, building shelters, signaling, navigation and food procurement,” says Sgt. Patrick McGrath, a survival instructor.
Sgt. Mark Van Orman is the 30-year-old Flight Chief who’s responsible for overseeing the 26 instructors and 62 students that will be camping out and practicing different survival skills for the next five days. All of the instructors must complete a more intense, six-month program designed to teach future survival instructors how to instruct aircrew members to survive in any environment. Their training grounds read like a field guide to the Northwest’s natural wonders. Arctic training is taught in Colville National Forest; desert training in the arid sand dunes near George, Washington; tropic/rivers survival is taught in the Olympic National Park; and coastal survival is conducted on the Oregon Coast. Among other requirements, they must be able to run four miles in 45 minutes while carrying a 60-pound pack. They also complete a 600 question psychological test. “I think they’re looking for the narcissistic, type-A types,” jokes Van Orman.
He says the first day is “static day” where they stay in camp and practice making different types of shelters, building fires and learning procurement methods for food and water. The class is broken up into smaller groups of six students and two instructors who spread out and set up camps throughout the 500,000 acres of forest service land.
Van Orman drives around to the different camps, checking in on the training. As we walk up to one camp, a group is standing around an instructor as he demonstrates how to make a wire snare for trapping squirrels. “This,” he says pointing to the loop of wire, “is food.” He explains about positioning snares and their probability for success. “These snare’s have about a 15 to 1 ratio, “he explains. “For every fifteen snares you put out you can expect to catch one squirrel.”
Each student is provided just three MRE’s (meals ready to eat) for the six days. The only other food they are given is two live rabbits to share among the group. Any thing else they want to eat they’ll have to kill or forage themselves. Walking out of the camp, I notice the group’s two live rabbits under a tree. “That’s dinner and breakfast,” says Van Orman, pointing to the oblivious little critters.
“We teach them how to take care of their animal and how to keep it alive,” explained Sgt. McGrath, earlier by phone. “Then whenever they need to eat it. Take care of it that way.”
Driving to another camp with Sgt. Van Orman we come upon a group just as the instructor is demonstrating how to clean a rabbit. “Anyone here gutted a deer?” he asks. Several hands went up. He makes a few precise cuts on the animal and carefully pulls off the entire hide. “Just peel his shirt off,” he explains. “Just peel back the legs like you’re pulling a shirt off a little kid.” Once skinned, the rabbit is cleaned by cutting open the abdomen. “As a rule of thumb, anything that falls out, you don’t want to keep,” he instructs them.
Other than trapping, students learn how to make improvised weapons for hunting and fishing. One instructor used an improvised fish net made from a Y-shaped branch and mesh netting from a parachute. As he demonstrates the use of a throw stick, which is exactly what the name implies-a heavy stick thrown at small game-Van Orman says that sometimes the simplest weapon is the best. “We got four rabbits and six grouse in one day with a rock and a stick.”
Along with learning about edible plants, students also learn about edible insects, “six legs good, eight legs bad,” Van Orman says about which bugs to stay away from. He says students are put through drills to overcome certain food aversions. That is, they learn to eat bugs without losing their lunch. “We have them eat grasshoppers (take the legs off so they don’t stick in your throat), ants, worms and beetles.” Although bugs may not satisfy like a fried rabbit leg, they are easy to gather and have high nutritional values. Van Orman says some are better than others. The best tasting, he says, are ants, “they taste like sweet tarts.” The worst was a four-inch banana slug he ate while in the Olympic rain forest. “It tastes like a deflated balloon filled with slime on the inside and the outside, that gets stuck in your teeth for hours and that refuses to be swallowed.” He paused for a second, then adds, “I threw it up first, then threw it back in my mouth and chewed it down.” On the other hand, “grubs,” he says, “are awesome.” And what if a student refused to eat a crawly critter? “Then we have a problem.”
“Every student has a puss factor,” says Van Orman. “We don’t want them too comfortable. We want to make them cold and hungry so they can test their skills without putting them at risk.” Other than the occasional sprained ankle, very few injuries or medical issues occur. Just in case, there are two medics on duty full-time, who, on my visit, appeared as lonely as Maytag repairmen. “Our goal is to instill confidence in our war fighters so they know they can survive anywhere,” says Van Orman. “We give them information so they can adapt and improvise to the situation,” adding, “all survival is the ability to improvise.”
As society becomes more tech-driven and our lives are filled with more virtual experiences than actual ones, there are signs that we’re coming back from our mass amnesia of the natural world. T.V. shows like “Survivorman” and “Man vs. Wild” are turning millions of viewers into wilderness voyeurs. The new film, Into The Wild, tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young honors grad from a well-to-do East Coast family who, inspired by his heroes Thoreau and Kerouac, burns his cash and credit cards and heads out to the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. He identifies himself as an “aesthetic voyager,” determined to live a more a authentic life. In his backpack, he carries with him a little more than a ten-pound bag of rice, two sandwiches and a couple of his favorite paperbacks. In four months he is dead. His body weighed 77 pounds when searchers found it in the abandoned bus in which he’d been living.
“He didn’t respect the primary tenet of nature,” says David Cronenwett, who, as coordinator of the Wilderness Arts Institute, teaches wilderness survival skills. “He had no real humility about the landscape. You look at traditional peoples, they come with a tremendous bank of skill and knowledge, but they also go out there knowing they’re not the boss.”
There’s a survival reminder known as the “rule of threes,” which says that the average person can live for three minutes without oxygen, three days without water and three weeks without food. “Most people who die in a survival situation, die in less than 40 hours,” says Cronenwett. The biggest threat to your survival, he says, is your own psyche. “People die because they panic and freak out,” he continues. “We call it panic-induced hypothermia. They’re running around, wasting energy, lashing out at inanimate objects, blaming themselves and needlessly running around in the dark. Basically, the mind dies before the body”
Most people who are lost in the woods are rescued within 72 hours, says Cronenwett. “Search and rescue apparatus in the U.S. and Canada are so good, you’ll usually be found in three days or less. So, what you really have to do,” he says, “is keep yourself alive for 72 hours or even up to a week and they’ll find you.” Cronenwett says that your situation and environment will dictate and prioritize your needs, and that Darwin was right about adaptability being the key to survival. “What it takes to kill or keep alive a human body,” he says, “is pretty universal.”
If forced to survive in the wild, Cronenwett identifies four key areas. “Number one, you’ve got to keep yourself at 98.6 degrees. Whether it’s cooling your body in the heat or warming it in the cold. Number two is to stay hydrated. Number three is getting enough sleep. Sleep is very underrated,” he says. “You get totally delusional if you don’t sleep for two days. It’ll kill you before dehydration does.” The fourth key to survival, he says, is often the hardest for people. “Stay put and wait to be rescued.”
Jackie Bell agrees. As the chair of Spokane Mountaineers Search and Rescue team, she’s seen both the joyous reunions and tragic discoveries of people lost in the mountains. “The one common mistake people make is they keep going and going, thinking they can find a way out of it. The lost person can travel so far and it’s often in the wrong direction,” she says. “The false confidence of thinking they know the country gets them into trouble.” Bell often uses data based on behavioral characteristics of different categories of people who get lost in the woods to help predict their location. Hikers might behave different than fisherman and skiers respond differently than climbers. “Not to disparage hunters,” she says, “but it just seems they get lost more often.” The data suggests hunters tend to “concentrate on game, not navigation,” and “tend to overextend into dark and push beyond physical limitations.”
The most common group who get into trouble in the woods are those light travelers who thought they were just out for the day. “Eighty percent of the people who are the object of search and rescue missions are day trippers,” says Cronenwett. “That’s their first mistake, preparing just for the day.”
Back at the Fairchild field camp, Sgt. Van Orman checks in on another group and inspects a recently built pine bough shelter. “This is awful. This wouldn’t keep anything dry. I’d have them rebuild it.” Van Orman says he gets students who come from the city who have never been camping in their life and have never even seen the woods before. “We had a woman freak-out on her first day because all the trees made her claustrophobic,” he says. The motto of the school is “Return with honor.” And many graduates have had to use the very techniques they learned here to escape some extreme conditions in hostile territory. One of the school’s most prominent graduates was Capt. Scott O’Grady who used his training to survive and escape capture for six days after his F-16 fighter was shot down over Bosnia in 1995.
Although it’s not a tangible skill, the will to live is considered the difference between those who survive and those who don’t. “They give up,” Sgt. Van Orman says when asked to name the biggest mistake people make in a survival situation. “They no longer try to do what they need to survive.” David Cronenwett agrees.
Cronenwett believes it’s dangerous to rely too heavily on techie devices like cell phones or GPS systems in the woods. “They have their place in the world,” he says, “but if you’re staking your life on something that has a battery in it, then you shouldn’t be out there … It’s kind of a high tech/low skill approach. I kind of advocate the reverse: a high skill/low tech approach.” He says the more we rely on forces outside of ourselves, the more likely we are to panic when they don’t come through for us. “And, once you let panic get a hold of you, you’re going down the tubes.”
If it’s true, as the saying goes, that, “nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species,” then Cronenwett believes in the value of shifting our views of nature. “If you can build a kinship with nature,” he says, “and not see it as something to survive, then you don’t seem to panic as much.” He pauses for a moment as if he’s thinking of how to sum up his philosophy succinctly, “kinship with the land does a lot to assuage the freaking-out of being lost there.”
Survival Training and Education
Fairchild AFB Survival School:
Go to: http://public.fairchild.amc.af.mil Then click on “Units” and “336th Training Group.”
David Cronenwett of the Wilderness Arts Institute offers one and five day survival courses in Western Montana. More info: (406) 590-8070, or www.wilderness-arts.com
The Spokane Mountaineers hava a Search and Rescue Committee and an annual Mountain School. More info at:
Twin Eagles Wilderness School in Sandpoint, ID offers wilderness education programs for kids. For more info contact: email@example.com, or (208) 265-3685
By Dan Egan