Friday, January 10, 2014

The Modern Woodsman and Wilderness Survival Gear, Training, and Preparation

So, there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding the issue of being ready for a survival situation. It has gotten me thinking, so I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on the subject and how it relates to the concept of The Modern Woodsman.



The Modern Woodsman: an individual who is able to undertake long term, long distance trips, deep into the wilderness, only with supplies one could carry and what could be gathered from the surrounding environment. The equipment and skills used are guided by their actual practicality and are not restricted by any historical period limitations or aesthetic factors. The trips undertaken occur in the present, within the context of our current society, laws, and regulations.

Wilderness Survival Situation: a situation occurring in the wilderness, where there is immanent danger to one’s life. Circumstances and one’s own actions have conspired to create conditions under which unless one can alter his position, he is likely going to die. That is to be distinguished from nuisance situations where one has all of his backpacking gear and is in good physical condition, i.e. no physical injury, but is stuck in the woods for a few more nights.

From this discussions I am excluding exotic survival scenarios such as being kidnapped and stranded in remote wilderness or a deserted island where you have to build your new life with an assortment of randomly selected tools. As always, the above are just my definitions, and are provided just for purposes of clarity.

Of the realistic survival situations the modern woodsman is likely to encounter, I can think of three categories:

  1. You have sustained some sort of physical injury, i.e. a broken leg. It is unlikely that you will be able to treat such an injury yourself, and either have to wait for rescue, or literally drag yourself out of the forest. For a scenario such as this one, watch the documentary, Touching the Void.
  2. You have lost your gear. You have gone on a backpacking trip. You planned for it to take you five days. Unfortunately, during day two of the trip, you attempt a river crossing, get swept by the current, and watch your pack float away. Or, you are climbing up a mountain, you stop to rest, the ice gives out under you and you start sliding along with your pack. You manage to self arrest, but your pack slides off a cliff. You are now left having to complete your trip, or backtrack for a day or more with just the gear you have on your body.
  3. You have gone out for a day hike. You have only the gear you would need for the day, perhaps in a day pack. You get lost, or bad weather moves in, diminishing the visibility, and you find yourself stuck out in the woods for the night.

From the above three categories, the most realistic one, or at least the one of which I have seen the most accounts, is the third one. It is most often hunters out for the day, or day hikers who get stuck out for the night that have to deal with a survival situation, usually because the weather has turned for the worse.

So, assuming we are talking about realistic survival situations, what do we do and how do we prepare for them? What gear do you carry, and how do we carry it?

My advise, for what it’s worth, is to start by accepting that once you find yourself in a survival situation, something has already gone wrong. There has been a lapse in judgment on your part, or something unexpected has occurred. By definition, it is hard to prepare for the unexpected. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the moment, decisions get made, and things happen which can quickly cause a survival situation.

That is not to say that you should be careless, or that you shouldn’t try to avoid putting yourself in a bad spot. However, know that the reality of being in a survival situation is different from thinking about being in a survival situation, and many of the decisions you think you would make, and the things you think you would do when you are planning at home, will quickly go out the window when the fact washes over you that you are in a survival situation. 

So, what can we do? Is there any point in trying to prepare? Is it a hopeless endeavor, with as left to our faith? Of course not. However, we have to prepare in a practical and realistic manner, and we must practice with gear we are likely to have, not gear we think it would be cool to have in imaginary survival world.


Let’s start with the skills. There are some things for which we can not prepare. There is no way to prepare for a lapse in judgment. It happens to all of us and all we can do is deal with the consequences. Other things such as a broken leg with a compound fracture, there is little we can do. However, with respect to many of the factors we are likely to encounter, there are things we can do to prepare.

How do we gain such skills in order to prepare for a realistic survival situation? We do it by realistically planning and practicing for realistic survival situations. I know the word “realistic” seems redundant, but it’s not. There are two separate aspects in which the preparation and planning has to be realistic.

The first is to accept the reality of a survival situation, and come to terms with the fact that something has gone wrong. Many of the things we hear about survival such as STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan) are great in theory, but more often than not ignore what is actually happening on the ground under such conditions. Not only do conditions often not allow for such actions, but very often, our own mind reacts in ways which make such rules impractical. When planning for a survival situation, be realistic about what would be happening both in the environment and your own mind. It is easy to say in hindsight that once you were lost, you should have stopped and re-evaluated your options. However, did you realize you were lost? Even if you realized there was a chance you were lost, would the likelihood of you being on the right path and getting out in time provide you a better chance of survival than trying to spend the night in the location where you find yourself? It is hard to say. Plan for the reality that you will not make the best choices, that things will go wrong, and that few things will fall into order. After all, that is why it is a survival situation to begin with.

The second aspect is easier to see, in that we should plan for realistic survival situations. We often get carried away when planning and practicing for wilderness survival situations and get wrapped up in romantic notions and elaborate scenarios along the lines of “What would I do if I was dropped of in the wilderness for five years and I could only have five tools?”. They are fun to think about, but much of what would be good preparation for such a journey, has little use in a survival situation in which the modern woodsman is likely to find himself.

For example, take the leanto shelter. There is much literature on the subject, both in books and online, showing amazing feats of construction. With enough practice, anyone can learn to build a cozy waterproof leanto with a raised platform for a bed, and a long fire with a heat reflector in front of it. Ray Mears had a beautiful demonstration of exactly this in one of his Extreme Survival series. And indeed, if I found myself stranded in the untouched wilderness for a month, that may be exactly what one should build, and it would serve them well. However, such a project is of little value in a realistic survival situation as defined above. The construction of such a leanto, and the gathering of enough firewood to keep a long fire burning through the night, takes up the better part of a day, of course working with your trusty axe. Two problems become clear. The first is that when you are actually lost, whether because you were on a backpacking trip and lost your pack, or were on a day hike or hunt and got lost, realistically, you will not have nearly enough time for such a project. Most likely, you will have an hour or so before the sun goes down in which to construct your shelter and gather sufficient firewood to keep you alive through the night. The second problem of course is that you have to do all that only with the tools you have left on you, something which I will discuss a bit later.  

Another example is fire lighting. Being able to construct bow drill sets, or making beautiful feather sticks is great. They are useful tools in the fire lighting process. Similarly, when we know we are practicing for a survival situation, we keep collecting birch bark along the way as we see it. In a realistic survival situation however, how useful are those skills? What if you are hunting? Are you going to gather tinder as you walk along? What if you are out for a day hike? Do you still gather tinder just in case? And, if you are backpacking, do you store the gathered tinder in your pockets or the backpack that you just theoretically lost? This of course takes us back to realistically preparing. It is often when we least expect to end up in a survival situation that we actually do. That is why we usually end up being unprepared. So, how good are you at using your fire lighting skills when things have gone wrong? Can you do it right after you drag yourself out of that river that just swept away your pack? Can you do it when the sun is going down and you are shivering? Can you do it when the place where you are forced to spend the night is less than ideal when it comes to resources? And just like with the prior example, do you have the tools on your body which will allow you to do that under such difficult conditions.

Ultimately, in my opinion, preparation and training with respect to skills which would be utilized in a survival situation, is most useful if practiced under stressful conditions. Knowing how to build the perfect survival shelter is not as important as knowing how to build a functional shelter in 20 minutes. Knowing how to start a fire with two sticks and a rock is less important in a realistic survival situation than knowing how to quickly build a fire with a lighter. I forget who said it, but it goes along the lines of “Knowing how to start a fire by friction is cool, knowing how to make a fire with a match is essential”. Survival in the context of the Modern Woodsman requires that when polishing your survival skills, focus on the practical, not the fanciful; focus on the reality, not the fantasy.   


As we continue onto a discussion of gear, I strongly believe that any gear selection should follow from the above theory and skill sets. By that I mean, it should be gear targeted for realistic survival in a realistic survival situation. Also, if we subscribe to the theory of The Modern Woodsman, the equipment used should also be guided by its actual practicality and should not be restricted by any historical period limitations or aesthetic factors. For a look at The Modern Woodsman and Technology, you can check this post.

Looking at the three likely survival situation that may be encountered by the modern woodsman, gear selection will be more important for some than for others.

The first example, of a physical injury is the hardest to prepare for from a gear standpoint. Realistically, there is very little one can do to himself when confronted with a serious injury. A broken leg can be stabilized, but it is highly unlikely that you will be able to reset the bone, and repair the damage enough to allow you to walk out, regardless of the amount of equipment you have. That is not to say that one should not fight to survive, but from a gear standpoint, we get diminishing returns as the degree of trauma escalades. I believe one should ideally strive to be prepared for injuries that a person in that condition is likely to be able to treat. I would divide that into three categories. The first is minor scrapes and cuts, the ones that we encounter most often. The second is heavy bleeding. The third is medications for conditions we are likely to encounter. I say that we should “ideally” prepare for such occurrences because the reality does not always allow for it or make it practical. If the injury is combined with a loss of your pack, or occurs on a short day trip, you may not have all of the items you ordinarily would if you had your full pack.

The second example is the one where you have lost your gear, i.e. your backpack. Obviously, in such a situation your gear will be severely restricted to items you can carry on your body.

The third example is the one of the lost day hiker, which would leave you with the items on your body and in your day pack.

So, let’s look at some examples of gear for each of the above situations.

For the first example of a physical injury, obviously you would need a first aid kit. Looking at the first aid kit from a modern woodsman perspective, we can eliminate certain aspects of medical treatment from consideration. We don’t have to worry about extreme hypothetical examples of “What if I had to live in the wilderness for five years and needed to treat a bad case of tuberculosis, or extract a bullet from my torso?”. That should eliminate long term treatments and surgical equipment. That would leave us with the three likely areas of treatment, common conditions while in the woods (allergies, diarrhea, muscle pain, heartburn, etc), small cuts and bruises (cuts and blisters), and more serious bleeding injuries (deeper cuts). Below you can see an example of a possible first aid kit which would address those likely injuries. It is not exactly the kit I carry these days, and yours will be specific to you.

First Aid 

In terms of medications, it contains a small box with pills (Imodium, Excedrin, Benadryl, Zantac, etc). For small injuries it contains band aids and mole skin for blisters. For heavier bleeding it contains gauze and a Quik Clot sponge, which uses chemical clotting agents to stop heavy bleeding. It packs up small, and a similar set up comprises the first aid kit which I keep in my backpack.

Now, let’s look at the second example of a realistic survival situation for the modern woodsman, where you have lost your pack. Your gear is now immediately restricted to the items you have on your body. What will those items be? Well, that depends on what you are willing to carry on your body. It will always be a balancing act. On one hand, the more gear you can have strapped onto your belt and in your pockets, the better off you will be in a survival situation. On the other hand, the more gear you have on your body, the more uncomfortable you will be, and the more likely it will be that the gear will eventually get tossed back into your pack. Again, here we are talking about realistic preparation. Theory is fine, and theory will tell you that the more items you have the better, but the reality is that the more gear you have, the less likely it is that you will carry it as you are supposed to. There was a time when I used to carry a lot of stuff on my belt for this very reason. I had a canteen with a canteen cup, a good size pouch with all sorts of gear, a knife, etc. It was very annoying, and gradually, more and more of those items started to get carried in my backpack, or I would remove the belt along with the backpack, which largely defeated the purpose. The right balance will be a personal choice. For me, I only carry what I can fit in my pockets.


In my right pocket I carry the Mora #2 knife you see above (actually these days a Mora #2 custom clone). I keep it in a leather sheath that I got from another knife. The knife together with the sheath weighs 4.0 oz. The Mora #2 is my favorite knife in terms of blade and handle design.

In the other pocket I carry a small pouch in which I keep a Fenix E01 flashlight, a mini BIC lighter, and three Altoids Smalls tins. One of the tins holds my repair kit with a few fishing hooks thrown in on the bottom (duct tape, artificial sinew, dental floss, etc). The second tin holds some medications I commonly use and water purification tablets. The third tin contains tinder (waxed jute twine) and matches. On the pouch itself a have attached a mini compass. The whole pouch weighs 4.5 oz.

For me that is the right amount of gear. I should point out that these items are not in my pockets as a survival kit. These are items I use regularly on most trips, and I need them to be easily accessible. However, if I was forced to survival after losing my pack, that is what I would have with me. If I was to practice for such survival, I would do it with this gear. Obviously, if I had sustained an injury while losing my pack, I would be in trouble because I have only minimal first aid items, i.e. a few pills.

Now, let’s move to the third example where we have a lost day hiker. In this situation, the modern woodsman would have the items on his body from the above example, whatever they may happen to be, as well as whatever gear is carried in the daypack. Here again we face the same balancing problem as above. The more gear you have in your pack, the better off you will be in a survival situation. On the other hand, the more gear you have, the more of a nuisance it will be. We certainly do not want our day pack to be as heavy as our regular pack. I remember years ago, when Survivorman first came out. I think I was in high school or college. I decided that I need to carry a survival kit on my backpacking trips. I started gathering items that I would need when surviving. When I was finished, my survival kit needed a small backpack to fit everything. Of course, it never got taken out into the woods. The balance one strikes, of course is a personal thing. The contents of my daypack is minimal.


In addition to the items I have in my pockets, I have a Nalgene water bottle with a metal cup (Stoic 750ml Ti Kettle), food, extra clothing (puffy jacket for when I am resting and rain gear) and on the advise of a few people, I carry an emergency thermal blanket. I have it not so much for insulation, but as rain protection. In many cases I also have a Bahco Laplander folding saw. That’s it. I could easily carry more, but I don’t want to. I am not willing to carry more gear on every day trip just for the unlikely event of a survival situation. I am fairly confident in my abilities to survive with this gear. There is a wide range of gear choices reasonable people can make here, and mine is certainly not for everyone.

This brings me to a general point about some commonly seen gear items. Too often we see “survival” shelter and fire construction with the use of an axe. This stems from the “What if I had to live in the woods with just three tools?” imaginary scenarios. In such a situation I too would chose an axe. Realistically however, for the modern woodsman, this is not an option. We can certainly come up with some type of scenario where that could happen, but realistically, you are unlikely to have an axe in a survival situation. If you have lost your pack, odds are your axe has suffered the same faith. It is unlikely you will have none of your gear, but still have an axe. Similarly, if you are a lost day hiker, you are unlikely to have an axe. There are much better options for the modern woodsman to carry on a day trip for the same weight, if one chose to do so. For the weight of an axe, one could bring a sleeping bag and bivi.

Another tool that is often seen in survival preparations is the bucksaw blade, which is put inside a belt, or carried in the day pack. The tool itself is quite useful, and easy to carry. The problem with its realistic use is not one of weight or size, but rather goes back to the realistic application of wilderness skills. How long does it take you to construct a sturdy buck saw or bow saw? If you have an hour of daylight left to set up camp, are you going to spend half, or all of it constructing the saw, or are you going to spend the time actually gathering firewood? Maybe you are very fast at making such a saw frame, and for you it is worth the effort. However, make sure you test yourself. The reality is often not as accommodating as the theory.

Another tool I want to mention is the ferro rod. You probably noticed that I do not have any in my kit. The reason is that I do not find them to be as useful as other fire lighting tools. The reason most often given in support of ferro rods is that they can start thousands of fires. That again goes back to the “What if I had to live in the woods for five years?” fantasy survival scenarios. For the survival situation the modern woodsman is likely to encounter, that is hardly a selling point. A few hundred fires should be sufficient for a life time of survival situations. Of course, a ferro rod will work after it has been wet, but it works only in that it makes sparks. A box of waterproof matches will get you further in the survival game if you just dragged yourself out of a frozen river. In terms of speed of starting fires when the sun is going down, nothing beats a lighter. There is nothing wrong with carrying one, but if that is your primary survival fire lighting tool, make sure you are able to start a fire (not just make sparks) under the conditions you are likely to encounter in a survival situation.

Lastly, the modern woodsman has at his disposal devices like cell phones and emergency locators, which can be a life saver in survival situations. I have not discussed them at length here because they serve to remove you from the survival situation, and are slightly outside the skills and gear needed while surviving. That being said, they may very well save your life when your skills and gear prove no match for the conditions you have encountered. Carry whatever device you see as appropriate and is within your means.

So, how can we summarize the issue of wilderness survival in the context of The Modern Woodsman? Well, it is simply to focus on the reality of your wilderness experience rather than a theoretical fantasy, and then use the most practical tools and skills at your disposal to achieve your goal. Much like when it comes to discussion of regular gear for The Modern Woodsman, the focus is on gear that is designed to function in the realistic wilderness outing one is undertaking, rather than in some fantasy where you are transported back to the 1800s and have to make a living only with the gear you have on you; when it comes to survival, the skills and gear for The Modern Woodsman have to focus on reality rather than fantasy survival. Being able to build elaborate shelters with an axe is cool, and so is being able to start a fire by mixing chemicals no one has used for decades, using rocks to ignite charred pieces of your underwear, and having devices which in theory can start thousands of fires. What is essential however is being able to throw together a usable shelter in under half an hour, and to build a fire using the lighter in your pocket in under a minute.

I know, I know, that is all well and good, but what if you were then stranded in the untouched wilderness for a decade or more? Or, you magically find yourself in 19th century America on the frontier? I enjoy a good hypothetical discussion as much as the next person, but The Modern Woodsman is first and foremost connected to the reality of the wilderness. At least that’s my thinking on the subject.  

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