Friday, April 24, 2015

Smoke, Mirrors, and Misdirection: What We Don’t See About Wilderness Skills

This post was prompted by several different things that have been brought up recently. The main theme here is that these days we have very easy access to all sorts of wonderful information regarding the outdoors and wilderness skills. Unfortunately however, for the person who is not very familiar with the skills involved, there can be a lot of incorrectly inferred ideas. 

When we write about our outdoor experiences or demonstrate different skills, a reader or viewer has to always have at the back of their mind what information is being left out. Sometimes the omission is unintentional or the result of incorrectly assuming that the reader or viewer understand enough of the concept to see that, while other times it is an outright deception. And let me make it clear, here I am talking about not just bloggers or guys with YouTube channels, but also professionals and television shows.


So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself when viewing or reading any outdoor related material. I can’t give you a way to know the answer to each question, but at least you can ask yourself and the writer for that information.

1. Is what is being said an outright lie?

I find that this doesn’t happen too often with people on YouTube or bloggers, but it is certainly very prevalent when it comes to survival TV shows, the most notorious of which is of course Man vs. Wild, although I think these days we have come to accept that just about all such shows are scripted and fake. We have now seen hosts staying in hotels, staying in tents, performing staged hunts, “caught” game being provided by the producers, faked danger all over the place, etc. Recently I watched an episode of dual survivor where Joe found some Fomes fomentarius (Horseshoe fungus), which by the time he was ready to start a fire with his flint and steel had miraculously turned into dried Inonotus obliquus (Chaga). Not to mention that the “preparation” of the fungus was that for Chaga, not for Horseshoe fungus. Intentional deception at its finest, and extremely dangerous. I wish I could give you a clear cut way to determine when a show is being deceitful, but I can’t. As a general rule of thumb, if you see it on TV, there is generally a producer making the calls, leading to the all too familiar pattern of deception. 

2. Is the author being paid to present the information?

This of course is most directly related to gear reviews. It can range from intentional deception to unintentional misdirection. Some authors will outright push merchandize regardless of quality, while others will try to be neutral. Knowing where the money comes from can help guide your evaluation of how reliable the presenter is. With most reputable bloggers and people with YouTube channels these days, you will see disclaimers when gear is provided for free or through a sponsorship. There is no clear way to avoid this issue, but knowing the relationship between the writer and the product can help with your evaluation.

3. Where is the activity taking place?

Here we enter into misdirection that is probably unintentional, but could be misleading none the less. Mainly, here we are looking at skills or adventures that are being performed on private land without it being clear that it is private land. There are simply some things you can do in your own woods behind the house that you can not do in a national forest. Some are easy to spot such as building log shelters, other are more subtle, such as hunting. There is a huge difference between hunting on your own prepared private land, and hunting national or state forests. The differences between the two types of locations can be very large, so one has to be careful about asking where the skill is being performed before thinking that it can be duplicated under a wide range of conditions.

A derivative if this problem is that a lot of times we think we are observing a skill or project being performed in the wilderness, when in fact it is being performed in a prepared permanent or semi permanent camp, usually on private land. Knowing the difference can alter how valuable the skill would be under the conditions you are likely to encounter.

4. How long did it take?

We see this issue both on TV shows and blogs/YouTube channels. A skill is perfectly demonstrated, a shelter is built, traps are set, fire is made, but no one mentions exactly how long that took. On TV, or in a post, it can seem like it took twenty minutes. In reality it probably took hours. Sure, the skill looks cool, but if you knew the time requirements, would it be practical for what you need to accomplish when in the woods. I too love seeing lean-to shelters with raised log beds, and a large fire burning in front, but I understand the time requirements of such a project. So, when you are trying to evaluate a skill or project, try to make an honest evaluation of how much time it requires and whether it is worth it in the end. After all, time is a resource as well.  

5. Are the skills and projects being demonstrated actually used, or are they theoretical?

By that I mean, does the person doing the demonstration actually utilize that skill in the woods themselves, or are they just demonstrating it in a controlled setting. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but knowing the difference can help you evaluate the usefulness of the information. Talking about how leafs can insulate you is one thing; spending the night out using them as insulation is another. I have found that the reality is usually very different from the theory. Tarp shelters in lean-to configuration look great…until the rain starts and you realize the protection is horribly inaccurate. That is something you learn by doing. Whether the author has used the skill in the woods makes a difference.

6. Is the author making assumptions about the reader’s knowledge with respect to gear and skills that the reader may not actually have?

This is usually done unintentionally, but it does happen that the writer will speak about a project, assuming that the readers are familiar with the wider skill and gear set, when in fact the reader does not have that information. This can quickly lead to misunderstandings.  


Now, I’ve seen all of the above things, and I’ve been guilty of some of them myself. I’ve reviewed gear that has been provided to me for free, even though I provide disclaimers to make that fact clear and try to be as neutral as possible. I very often do not account for the time it actually takes to do something. You’ll see me say in some posts that I went over the mountain and camped on the other side. It’s a sentence is the post, but in reality took hours to accomplish. These days I also end up mistakenly assuming that people know more about existing data and studies than some actually do. All of these things can lead to misinformation and confusion.

So, if you are not sure about any of the above when it comes to my writings, please let me know and I’ll try to answer.  

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