It’s Sunday afternoon, and I don’t smell very nice. I have also been bitten on the arse.
While I know a number of people for whom that would be a pretty run-of-the-mill result for an average weekend, it’s been an unusual one for me. Typically I prefer to interact with the outside world as little as possible, however I have just returned from an outdoor survival training weekend.
Usually, I am not a stinky person, but I have spent the last 48 hours alternating between sweating into a pair of steel toe-capped boots, and sweating into a sleeping bag. I have also intermittently added thick layers of campfire smoke to my person. While baby wipes and KFC takeaway lemon-scented towelettes go some way to keeping you clean, they are frankly limited and there’s not a thing in the world they can do for big curly hair.
So yes, I smell pretty offensive (although that was really just a Best Guess until I stopped for a carvery dinner on the way home. As soon as I stepped into a place full of fresh people, it became abundantly clear that I smelled like I had been barbequed over the charred remains of some vagrant).
So! Let’s add some detail shall we? I shall dial events back to last Friday afternoon, 25th July…
I didn’t really know what to expect from this course, apart from coming away a bit less likely to die quickly and horribly in the event that civilisation falls prey to a zombie apocalypse (hopefully). Oh, and I was also fairly confident that I would get pretty much no sleep, given my track record of being a bit shit at it, even in the best of circumstances.
My sister and I arrived at the designated place an hour early, and it was a Scout campsite. It smelled decidedly spunky, which I am firmly assuming was due to a Linden tree and not any misbehaviour on the part of any Scout leaders. Apart from the smell, it was all rather pleasant, and included an extremely friendly cat, who managed to cover Kelly in cat hair and drool in a matter of minutes.
We were eventually coralled down into a different car park where we were to meet up with everyone else. There ended out being 11 of us in the group in total, and after a few issues with the M6 being its usual ballbag self, everyone arrived and we headed off up to the site where we would be staying. I was initially a little bit put off by the amount of food and equipment we were being provided with at the outset, but I ended out being really quite grateful by the conclusion of the weekend.
Our main tasks for the Friday evening were to set up our accommodation for the next couple of days and to get a couple of fires going. Our instructor for the weekend was Matt, and he was funny, knowledgeable and interested in helping everyone – regardless of daft questions or previous experience (real or imagined…). Whenever he showed us something new, he talked about the rationale and gave us background and context, and while he was able to drop in a comedy story for a lot of situations, he never failed to impress on us just how much trouble we could potentially be in.
I’d always known that your average human being can go a few weeks without eating, and a few days without drinking. I had however never really appreciated the urgency of getting shelter (I think I had always assumed it was more of a nice-to-have) but Matt explained how certain conditions in a usually temperate environment can knock you out in a couple of hours. It really did help me to readjust my thinking in terms of priorities.
For the sake of not completely wiping out a large chunk of our time on a 2 day course, they provided us with tarpaulins to put together the shelters that we would actually be staying in. First things first, please enjoy a picture of me actually doing something – I’m normally behind the camera, so you don’t often get action shots.
…and the finished product. Really basic, and I can immediately see things I would do differently. We did, in fact, end out essentially pulling it apart and repositioning the whole thing…later on…in the dark. Brilliant.
One of the other big things Matt initially talked about was safety when using things with blades – so knives, machetes, axes. A lot of it was perfectly common sense once he had said it – if you are stripping knots off of a tree branch, if your axe/machete bounces off, it will rebound at you – therefore strip the side of the tree opposite to the one you are stood on, so that the dangerous stabby thing will always move away from you. Also, if you are chopping something on the ground, kneel down; if you are swinging at arms length while you are stood up and you miss your aim, the blade will keep going and very likely embed itself somewhere in your thigh. If you are knelt down and you miss, you’ll only hit the floor. If you are swinging a blade around for whatever reason, ensure you are the full swing radius away from your friends – the ‘blood bubble’ as he called it – before you start, to avoid accidentally gutting or maiming anyone that you would otherwise like to keep around.
Due to the fact that we didn’t get the group together until late, and the priority was getting the shelters up first followed by fires, we didn’t end out eating until after 10pm. There was a whole Too Many Cooks thing going on, so Kelly and I just got out of the way and focussed on gathering wood for the fire. I developed a reasonably successful ‘saw & stamp’ method of cutting through logs, because frankly I am a big wuss and can’t saw very successfully.
As it turned out, there was a food miscalculation, and there wasn’t enough dinner for everyone. I ducked out and had a coffee instead – being the clearly awesome and self-sacrificing individual that I am – and let them apportion the food a bit better. It of course had NOTHING to do with having eaten the weight of a small dog in hot sausage rolls from Gregg’s earlier in the day, and the fact it was about 5 hours past when I would normally eat so I wasn’t hungry anyway…no, no… I am obviously a hero.
Kelly and I crawled off to our shelter to get our heads down for the evening, but before I go any further in the tale, I need to dip into a bit of personal history for context. I have a phobia of slugs. When I was maybe 14 or 15, I was in the kitchen doing some washing up, and my step-dad walked in and said “There are loads of these bloody things all over the garden!” I turned around and there was a massive black slug in his hand, stretched out over his fingers, looking all interested in the nice new kitchen it found itself in.
I froze. I was stuck in a corner with nowhere to go, and it would be exactly like my step-dad to throw the fucking thing at me. As it happens, he didn’t. It’s entirely possible he was genuinely just pointing out the horror-film monstrosities roaming around the lawn. He took the slug back outside and I breathed out, carrying on with the washing up. He then returned to wash his hand in the side-sink. I froze again, because I expected him to wipe the slug-gunk on me. He didn’t, he just washed his hands and went back out.
Those two moments re-wired something in my brain, and for about 15 years afterwards the mere sight of a slug would make me freeze and panic. It is no longer a crippling phobia – I have got to the point that if there is a slug about, as long as I can clearly see it, I can work with it, and externally no-one would know anything was wrong. However…
On this occasion, we were in a wooded area. It was after dusk. There were slugs all over the place. And I was supposed to sleep outside. On a slidey plastic sheet. That led straight to my FACE.
Nevertheless! I put on a hooded jumper, tied my hair up into a tiny bun on top of my head, pulled the hood up over as much of my face as I could, got into the sleeping bag and zipped the fucking thing as far as it would go. I was way too hot and there were roots and lumps sticking in my hips and shoulders, but I was so tired that I could feel myself falling asleep anyway.
…I then spent the rest of the evening panicking every time I started to drift off and shaking myself awake.
It wasn’t just me waking myself up. I am a really light sleeper at the best of times; the smallest variation in the conditions around me will shock me out of the deepest sleep. At home, I have blankets pinned over the curtains in my bedroom and I wear earplugs to cut out road noise. My ex used to say that if he descended into the bedroom on a rope from a hole in the ceiling, the movement of air would wake me up, and he probably isn’t far wrong.
As I had expected from the start, and no doubt emphasised by the barely-suppressed panic, every little thing woke me up; the flicker of the fire behind us reflecting onto our tarpaulin roof, someone walking past with a head torch, a breeze, a high pitched noise (the ear-plugs cut out the bass). Once the sun started to rise, the birds all found their voices. They clearly couldn’t decide what they wanted to sing though; if you cast your mind back to the days of really basic Nokias with monophonic ring tones, when knobheads would stand in a public places and skip through the ringtones, playing 2 seconds of every damned tune available REALLY LOUDLY, you will get an idea of the birdsong cacophony that that was happening to my ears.
All of that aside, the temperature dropped as the sun was rising and I drifted off for a couple of hours. Kelly got up around 7:30 so I got up too – and found that across the back of my rucksack (which I had been using as a pillow) there was a slug trail. I cannot adequately convey how close I was to dropping the entire bag on the fire, walking down the hill to the car and driving off home again.
I didn’t though. I put my Big Girl pants on and got on with the most important task of the day – coffee. I am fairly caffeine-dependent; if I don’t get enough first thing in the morning, I get a migraine. To that end, I had brought some self-heating coffee cups so that I could get the drop on my caffeine requirements without having to wait for the fires to get going. These drinks are handy bits of kit – although I could only find cafè latte with sugar, which is so far away from how I like to drink coffee that it might as well have been hot chocolate.
While I was firing my coffee up, there were a couple of people taking the last night’s pots down to the stream to wash out, so I tagged along to make myself useful. Due to being quite fast flowing and not full of dead livestock or road run-off, this little waterfall/stream ended out being our water supply after we finished the initial few bottles we brought up on the first evening.
When we got the pots back to the camp, breakfast was announced as being porridge. Now, in a real life emergency situation, there is a good chance that I would stab someone in the eye and steal the porridge out of their mouth. In this case though, we were only here for two days, and since I would on the whole rather chew my own liver out than eat plain porridge, I stuck to coffee for breakfast again. I did managed to snag a couple of hard boiled eggs and some bread later on though, more because it was there than because I was really hungry.
One thing that had quickly become apparent since setting up the fire pits the evening before, and has stood out for me above pretty much everything else that I have learned, is the sheer volume of resources that you require to simply sustain yourself for any period of time.
Granted, there were 11 of us and if this had been a serious situation, we would probably have been more frugal with water and fire resources, but it was a full time job collecting wood to burn. This may sound like a complete no-brainer to everyone else, but I had never really considered the role of fire in such depth. Not only is there warmth, protection and cooking, but it is more than likely going to be essential in providing a safe form of water to drink, which sits above food as a survival consideration.
On the Saturday, Matt talked to us in some depth about water, which was next up on the list of priorities. Basic purification of water involves boiling the fuck out of it. Obviously you try and collect water from the freshest source possible and not somewhere that has a dead sheep in it, but he showed us how to make a filter to take out the largest particles in any water you find, before then boiling the living shit out of it. The filter itself consist of layers of moss, charcoal, and grass, but you can use a sock if needs be.
We had brought about 16 litres of water with us initially, but once that was finished we used the water from the stream, which needed lugging up the hill to the site.
I have thought about my monthly bill from Anglian Water since I got home – I am actually way happier for them to filter and purify my water for what I pay them now, because I know what is required, and I cannot imagine the sheer amount of time and effort that it would take me to do what I needed for myself for any period of time.
In the afternoon, we spent quite a bit of time walking through the wood and along the river banks, talking about plants, trees and flowers, what is edible, what isn’t and what has other properties.
I am not going to relay a lot of it because I do not wish to be in any way responsible for anyone taking something that think they know and getting it wrong. I am on the other hand happy to share some DON’Ts;
- Unless you 100% know otherwise, don’t eat anything that has a milky sap
- Unless you 100% know otherwise, don’t eat anything with red, black or yellow berries
- Don’t eat anything that has tiny hairs or barbs on it (throat/mouth catching possibility too dangerous)
- Don’t eat anything that has shiny leaves. (although Rhododendrons smoke like fuck so are good for signal fires)
- Don’t camp under Beech trees, they have a habit of going “I’m bored of this look.” and dropping branches. If you’re under them, that’s bad news.
- Any plants that look like a blown out umbrella, leave the fuck alone.
- Mushrooms – unless you REALLY know what you’re doing, leave the fuck alone entirely
If you’ve eaten something you shouldn’t, try mixing some black charcoal into a paste, then dilute it with water and chug it down, because it will make you hurl your entire stomach contents. White ash from a fire on the other hand will apparently a) settle your stomach and b) work as an effective toothpaste.
Matt talked us through some trap setting (e.g. rabbit snares), and while I get the principle, I would have to be really close to death before it was something I considered. I appreciate the hypocrisy because I do eat meat, but I would seriously struggle to sacrifice a life to sustain mine for a day. That’s if I could even catch anything in the first place. I am fairly confident that most animals are way better at avoiding predators than I will ever be at being a predator myself.
This is where I became really grateful for the food we’d been provided with, because I genuinely cannot imagine trying to find the resources for three meals a day, for eleven people, for even the short period of time we were there.
In the evening, we looked at building an actual shelter from scratch, if you have nothing like a tarpaulin or waterproof blanket to act as a roof. Matt showed us how to create a frame between trees, and then how to layer up branches and nettle bundles for the roof to make it waterproof (to elbow depth) and then another foot deep of other plants on the floor to work as insulation from losing all your body heat into the floor. As with the firewood, the sheer volume of material required to just make an effective shelter for one person is unbelievable.
That of course was based on being in a forest full of resources. There are lots of alternatives in terms of shelter, because obviously you have to use the things you actually have available. If you’re in the snow, use the snow and ice igloo style. If you’re in a field, you use sods of earth…incidentally also igloo style. Mudloo? Another key thing that I learned was about looking at what you actually have, and seeing it in a different way, being really open with your ideas about what those things can BE, not just what’s on the label.
So, a stinging nettle can effectively become a green ribbon, useful for – you know… – tying things together. To start a fire (to catch a spark) you want a material that is light, with low density, lots of airspace – so dried grass…or cotton wool. To stop it burning out in a fraction of a second, it needs a fuel, so it requires soaking in oil or grease… A stripped open tampon, smeared with a chapstick, makes a perfect thing to catch a spark, and start a fire. Two tiny little things, that I personally would never have thought of in that context, but that Matt genuinely carried in his survival tin.
Saturday night was even worse than Friday night for me in terms of sleeping. We had gone to bed a bit earlier, and I had actually drifted off but after a while it started raining. Luckily, we had oriented our shelter well and didn’t get much rain inside, although we did have to scootch down a bit to get further under the overhang. The bit that was worse was on the inside of my head; more rain = more wet = more slugs. The downpour brought with it a load of leaves that stuck onto the top of our shelter, and it wasn’t until the sun came up and injected some colour into the world that it became clear that they weren’t all slugs hell bent on terrorising me.
Almost as soon as I had calmed myself down, I looked across the other side of the shelter and saw one of the most horrifically grim things I have ever seen in my life. Bearing in mind that I have spent a LOT of time on the internet, that is really quite a statement.
In the tree – in a direct line above my sister’s head – were two big brown slugs, fucking. They were dangling off some – I have no idea HOW – self-generated stringy thing, and it looked like they were going to drop into our shelter at any moment. I couldn’t look away. It was awful, and I am certain it is going to give me nightmares for years. I do not even want to dwell on it enough to commit the details into text, but if you’re curious, I am sure you can find plenty of videos on Youtube.
Before we left on Sunday Matt talked us through navigation – at night the Polestar is a static point that you can use to identify North, but that’s obviously not an option during the day. He showed us methods for using shadows cast over a period of time to identify which direction is North. He also showed us a neat trick using analog watches, in conjunction with the sun. It’s neat, but does rely on you having kept your watch wound and on the correct time. I don’t fully understand the maths behind why either method works, so I need to go off and do some research about the WHY, but I tested it when I got home and it does indeed work.
I had a great time – barring the whole slug-inflicted trauma – and while I have learned a lot of really useful things, the key things I have taken away are 1) I need to get a really good knife, 2) I am never going anywhere remotely outdoors again without a box of slug pellets or a bag of salt and 3) I really sincerely hope I am never in the situation that I will need to use anything that I have been taught this weekend.