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Don’t Wait for the Zombies: Learn Basic Wilderness Survival Skills

Learning basic wilderness survival skills is a good idea. No matter what type of outdoor activity you enjoy one thing is certain: in nature things change. Whether you are an avid birdwatcher, enjoy reflective nature walks, are a more serious hiker, backpacker, or hunter, being prepared for the unexpected is smart.

If you’ve read any of my books, you know that nature is a common theme. That’s because I love spending time in the great outdoors. Basic wilderness survival skills will not only allow you to enjoy the outdoors more confidently, they are also a lot of fun to learn. Then when the weather changes unexpectedly, you get lost or that hike takes longer than expected, you’ll be prepared and more comfortable in the natural world.

Recently, my family and I embarked on our first “Outdoor Survival Skills Training Day.” Our mission for the day was to make fire without any matches and make a primitive weapon for self-defense or hunting in the woods. Could we do it?

Wilderness Survival Skill Experiment #1: Make Fire

Remember that scene in the movie, Castaway, where Tom Hanks yells, “I. Have. Made. Fire!” After trying to do this myself without matches, I can understand his utter pride. Making fire without matches is hard work.

We tried two different methods to make fire: using flint and using a magnifying glass.

First though, we built little “stoves” from soda cans. Here are the materials you’ll need if you want to try this experiment:

Wilderness Survival Mini-Stove

  1. Clean, empty soda cans

  2. A jackknife

  3. A buck knife

  4. Safety gloves

  5. Dried materials for the fire (small twigs, dry leaves, dry grasses)

Put on your safety gloves. Start with a soda can turned on its side and puncture with the jackknife or buck knife. (We found a tool in our Swiss army knife that made a good hole.)

Next, draw your buck knife blade lengthwise down the can. Stop about a 1/2″ before you hit the bottom rim of the can. Cut horizontally a couple of inches. Do the same on the other front side of the can, so that it looks like you have two small doors.

Wilderness Survival Project: Mini-Camp Stove

Wilderness Survival Skills Training: Mini-Camp Stove

Bring your can outdoors if you aren’t there already. Collect the driest twigs, leaves and grass you can find in your yard or outdoor space. Pile these inside the can, keeping a little pile nearby to add to your fire once it gets going.

Does Flint Work for Making Fire?

My husband makes these really cool survival paracord bracelets. He’s made a ton of them and some have a unique feature: tucked into the clasp is a small flint and a “scraper,” a metal piece that you scrape against the flint to make sparks. Of course, you can always use a traditional flint with the same results.

Using the scraper, I got many, many sparks to fly from the flint into my dry grass. Unfortunately, not one caught fire. I tried again and again but many tries later decided to move on to the second fire-starting method: the magnifying glass.

Making Fire with a Magnifying Glass

I’ve seen this method used with great success online. Have you ever watched a YouTube video where the flames lick the dried grass with incredible speed? Yeah…well, in real life, not so much.

It took a bit of maneuvering to get the magnifying glass (another tool in our Swiss army knife) pointed at just the right angle to make a pointed ray of sunlight on a specific area of grass. Then, I waited. And waited. And waited.

Wilderness Survival Skills Training: Mini-Camp Stove

Wilderness Survival Skills Training: Mini-Camp Stove

Twenty minutes later my family had lit their little fires with matches and were warming their hands. I was still trying to get the magnifying glass to create a flame. I double-checked the survival manual nearby to make sure I was doing it right. The book reassured me that first the grass/leaf/twig would turn black and then I’d notice a flame. (The book, Survival Techniques, by Alexander Stilwell is wonderful. The problem in this case wasn’t the method but the materials used.)

I waited several more long minutes, making sure to hold the point of light in the same spot. Nothing.

Frustrated, I set the project aside. I will try it again but will wait until I can be sure the materials I’m using are actually dry. Even with matches, the little fires didn’t burn long and were hard to catch initially. During a cold, wet Vermont winter this makes sense. Everything outdoors is either sodden or at least damp.

Wilderness Survival Skill Experiment #1: Make a Primitive Weapon

Making a weapon in the woods is a good idea if you’re lost or just want a self-defense option. We chose to make a simple stake. It took a very short amount of time and required just a few materials.

Wilderness Survival Skills Training: Primitive Weapons

Wilderness Survival Skills Training: Primitive Weapons

Wilderness Survival Primitive Weapon: Stake

  1. Branch, green

  2. Saw or ax

  3. Buck knife

We started with the branch about as big around as a golf ball. Looking for a downed green branch or removing a broken one from a tree is better for the health of the tree. We found a broken branch on a pine tree and using the saw, cut it from the trunk.

Next, we cut about eight inches of the branch. My husband used the saw (optional) to cut away some of the extra width of the branch on one end. This isn’t really necessary but made the process a little faster.

After that, simply whittle away the extra wood to create a sharp point. If you’re making these with kids, you might want to make the point a little more dull so they don’t hurt themselves. You could remove the bark from the top part of the stake. Fire hardening the stake would make it stronger and more durable. Wind twine or rope over the top part of the stake for an even better grip.

Once the stakes were finished, we practiced throwing them. Using a target (our soda can stoves), we tried to knock over the can with the stakes. Every time we made a direct hit, we took a step or two back and tried again, making it more challenging. Of course, a stake is really meant more to hold in your hand, not throw like a spear. But practicing never hurts, right?

This was a really fun activity and one that was really simple.

The morning was a success: we learned some new skills, we had fun and got some fresh air and movement outdoors. Next we want to make a sling and some primitive throwing stars and cook food using hot stones on our next “Outdoor Survival Skills Training Day.”

What outdoor survival skills or basic outdoor skills do you wish you knew? Please share in the comments.

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