A few weeks ago, I drove to Port McNeill on Vancouver Island to take a wilderness survival course. It was a 2 day introductory course aimed at beginners. I’m not a prepper, a hunter or a back-to-the-land type, so why did I take a wilderness survival course? Read on to find out.
If you know me, you know that I’m a planner: I like to be super prepared when I go hiking or camping and I don’t take unnecessary risks. But I also know that $hit happens and sometimes people have to survive in the wilderness longer than they had planned. I bring everything I think I’ll need to survive on my trip, plus some emergency supplies.
But I had started to wonder, do I really know how to use those emergency supplies I’ve been carrying? Can I really start a fire with wet wood from the coastal rainforest? I carry a tarp and some cord, but can I really build a survival shelter? And I know the names of a few plants, but I have no idea which ones I can eat.
I knew I should take a wilderness survival course to learn how to prepare for an emergency, but to be honest I was a bit intimidated. I was worried that the courses would be full of amateur bushcrafters and survivalist preppers who know 150 different knots, own 2 dozen types of knives, and bowhunt in their spare time… using bows they made themselves with things they found that morning in the forest 😉 I’m a city girl, a Leave No Trace advocate and a lover of ultralight hiking gear. While the bushcrafters and I both love the outdoors, we do it in a different ways.
I was really excited when I heard that Megan Hanacek and Carleigh Fairchild were leading a wilderness survival course. I had watched both of them of season 3 of The History Channel’s reality show Alone and was so inspired to see women kicking ass at wilderness survival. (If you haven’t watched “Alone”, go do it now. It’s amazing!) From what I knew of Megan and Carleigh from watching them on TV, any course that they taught wouldn’t be intimidating. It would be inclusive and educational. So I booked a room at a motel in Port McNeill and Greg and I braced ourselves for the ferry ride and the long drive up island.
Introduction to Megan and Carleigh
On the morning of our course, we were among the first to arrive. The course was held at an old school that now serves as a community center. The school is located near a patch of second growth forest so we could have both indoor and outdoor classrooms. As the class participants began to trickle into the room, I realized that my apprehension was unnecessary. The group ranged in age from a teenager to a senior citizen with most people falling somewhere in between. As well, the majority of the group were women.
The course opened with an introduction to our instructors, Carleigh and Megan. Together they brought a pretty diverse skill set. Carleigh has been taking and teaching wilderness survival courses since she was a teenager. Megan is a forester and biologist with tons of plant and animal knowledge, especially in coastal BC. Since everyone in the course had watched the show, we all had questions about it. While Megan and Carleigh were busy answering everyone’s questions, Greg Ovens from Alone came in! Apparently he had driven in from the Kootenays to have a mini-reunion with Megan and Carleigh. Greg sat in on portions of our course over the next two days.
Soon we moved on to more of the course content. We first talked about how to do an initial assessment of the area when you find yourself in a survival situation. This entails going through your supplies to figure out what you have, figuring out how much daylight you have left, locating water, finding shelter and looking for hazards like animals, weather or terrain that can injure you. Carleigh also stressed that the most important thing is to maintain a constant positive mental attitude as that is most often the key to success.
Next we talked about basic first aid and what to keep in a first aid kit. It wasn’t a wilderness first aid course so we didn’t go in depth. But Megan did walk us through what she carries in her first aid kit when she works in the forest. I learned that she always has a small first aid kit strapped to her chest since you may not always be with your backpack.
Shelter building was next. Carleigh used the blackboard in the classroom to draw us a few examples of classic survival shelters. She explained that you wanted to be sheltered from rain and wind, but that you could also use forest debris (like leaves, moss, ferns and grass) to make insulation. Carleigh showed us a picture of a debris shelter that she made and slept inside in below freezing temperatures. It looked like a leaf and stick cocoon. Next we went out to the forest near the school and the group practiced making a simple A-frame tarp shelter.
Starting a Fire
After lunch we learned the basics of making fire with a ferro rod. A ferro rod is a metal rod that produces sparks when struck. (Flint or firesteel are alternative names for ferro rod.) It will still spark when wet, so it makes a better alternative to matches. Greg and I brought our own ferro rods since we use have been using them to start our backpacking stove for years. But I had never made a campfire with one so I was excited to learn that skill.
Carleigh and Megan showed us how to make a quick fire starter using a cotton ball with some vaseline rubbed on it. The petroleum in the vaseline is flammable and the fluffy cotton makes the flame last longer. This type of fire starter is very simple to make and very lightweight to carry. I have actually started to carry a few of them in a tiny ziploc bag as part of my emergency kit.
We went outside with our ferro rods and cotton ball firestarters. First we practiced striking our ferro rods to make sparks. Then we each lit our cotton balls. I was surprised how quickly they lit and how long they burned. It turns out that getting a vaseline soaked cotton ball to light is actually really easy! Next we practiced lighting a commercial fire starter stick. These were a bit harder to get lit, but once they were going, lasted a very long time – probably several minutes.
Greg Ovens brought the ferro rod he used on Alone. It was giant at over 12 inches long and it threw amazing sparks. (For comparison, most ferro rods are only a few inches.) Greg Ovens demonstrated how to crumble cedar bark into dust and then light that. We tried to find some similar cedar bark later and it was difficult as it was all too wet. So it is possible to use cedar bark, but that seems to be a more advanced skill.
Making Friction Fire with a Bow Drill
The next morning Carleigh started the day by showing us what she does best: making friction fire. First we prepared a fire pit. We lined it with rocks so that we wouldn’t damage the soil or any tree roots. As well, it is important to keep the fire warm when it is just getting started so the rocks insulate the fire from the cold ground. Next Carleigh prepared her tinder. She stacked up a bunch of very small western hemlock twigs in the fire pit. She also has some fluffy twine she made into a little nest, ready to hold the ember she would make.
Next Carleigh assembled her bow drill. A bow drill is a method of making fire through friction where you use a back and forth motion to twirl a spindle against another piece of wood with a notch in it. The bottom piece of wood called a fire board. Carleigh has been making bow drill fires since she was 13. She brought her own kit for making a bow drill and she has had parts of it for years. Carleigh brought a cedar spindle and a cedar fireboard for the bottom. She also brought a few options for handles on top: a rock with a circular indentation, a piece of wood and a cow kneebone. The cow kneebone was her favourite as it is the easiest to hold but it is something that you won’t be able to find easily if you are in a survival situation. We also learned that you can use wood for a handle but that you will end up burning the handle at the top as well so a rock or bone is a better choice. Carleigh cut a branch locally to serve as the bow and tied a simple piece of paracord to it.
After Carleigh assembled her bow drill, she knelt down and started to move the bow back and forth. She moved the bow smoothly and quickly, but not exceptionally vigorously. The secret is apparently in applying the right amount of pressure. Before long, we saw small curls of smoke begin to appear. Soon there was quite a bit of smoke and Carleigh laid the bow drill aside. We could see a small black smoking lump on the fire board. The lump is called a coal. It is basically wood dust that is almost on fire. Carleigh carefully tipped the coal off of the fireboard onto another small piece of wood. She picked it up so we could all see the coal.
After showing us the coal, Carleigh put it into her tinder nest. She held the nest with both hands close to her face and carefully blew into it, adding oxygen so that the coal would ignite the tinder. After the tinder caught, Carleigh quickly transferred the burning nest into the fire ring. She had arranged her little teepee of sticks so that there was an opening on one side. She put her tinder bundle into that opening.
After putting the tinder into the stick teepee, the sticks began to light. Carleigh then added bigger sticks on the outside so that the fire could grow. One of the students timed her: it took Carleigh about 6 minutes from the time she assembled the bow drill until she had her fire lit. Pretty fast!
Fire Making Challenge
Later in the day Carleigh and Megan gave us our own fire making challenge. We had 20 minutes to gather wood and tinder from the forest and start a fire with our ferro rod. The goal was to get our fire to burn unaided for at least 5 minutes. In a survival situation, we could use those 5 minutes to go gather more firewood to make the fire even bigger. We were allowed to use a vaseline soaked cotton ball for a fire starter if we wanted, or we could try using natural tinder.
Greg and I worked as a team to gather wood. Carleigh and Megan had given us some pointers beforehand so we knew what to look for. We chose dry branches with no leaves that make a “crack” noise when snapped – that’s how you know they aren’t too wet or too green. We looked for these branches on the ground under large trees where they would be sheltered from the rain, or branches that were dead and had fallen off the trunk of the tree but were still stuck in the other branches. It had rained the night before, and we were in the coastal rainforest of BC, so most things were pretty wet.
Carleigh had also taught us to look for several sizes of branches. So we looked for branches the diameter of a pencil lead, the diameter of a pencil, the diameter of a finger and the diameter of a wrist. For the pencil lead sized branches we looked specifically for the under branches of the Western Hemlock, which Megan and Carleigh recommended. Greg and I also looked for dry cedar bark and found some good rotten but dry-ish chunks. I separated the branches into piles and then started to assembled our teepee. We built our teepee in layers as Carleigh had, with the smallest branches in the middle and the biggest ones on the outside.
When it came time to light our fire, we attempted to make some natural tinder from our cedar chunk. We wanted to shred it a little bit and fluff it up so it would catch fire easier. We tried for quite a while to get the fire lit, but I think it must have been too wet and we couldn’t get it going. In the end we did end up using the vaseline and cotton ball fire starter. Our fire lit quickly and stayed lit for a long time. We passed the test 🙂
Back inside Carleigh taught us how to make our own cordage from natural materials. She brought in some (non-native) palm leaves from Megan’s yard for us to practice with. When Carleigh showed us the cord she had made with the palms, I didn’t believe her: it looked just like store bought twine. She taught us to twist the pieces of palm around each other so that they interlocked, making a strong cord. It took a bit of practice (and some sore fingers) to master the technique, but eventually I got it. The material of choice for cordage and basketry in BC is cedar bark or cedar roots but apparently they aren’t as easy to work with for beginners.
After learning about cordage, Megan used her biology knowledge to teach us about edible and medicinal plants. She recommended quite a few plant identification books for our region, some of which Greg and I already owned. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast is pretty much the bible for plant ID in coastal BC. Since Megan spoke so highly of it on our course, we have brought it on a few hikes and have found it pretty easy to use, despite the fact that it has a huge number of plants in it. Megan also recommended Nancy Turner’s Food Plants of the Coastal First Peoples and All That the Rain Promises and More, an excellent mushroom guidebook by David Arora.
We also spent some time out in the forest learning about the plants. We learned to recognize several types of edible berry bushes. Even though it wasn’t berry season, we still got to taste some of the edible plants: we tried salmonberry shoots. In the spring, the branches send out new shoots. You can peel away the outer bark and eat the shoots. The texture was like celery and the taste was similar, but not quite the same, maybe a bit sweeter?
Back inside, Carleigh and Megan explained how to use some wild plants to make tinctures, a type of medicine. You can infuse vodka or vinegar with a plant such as usnea (a lichen commonly called old man’s beard) for a few weeks. After you strain out the plant, you can take a few drops of the tincture as medicine. Carleigh had made some usnea tincture for us to take home. Usnea has anti-viral, anti-fungal and antibiotic properties so it is good as an immune system booster when you feel ill.
The last topic on our course was trapping. Like many of the other things we learned, you could spend a whole course just learning about how to build traps. Megan drew us a diagram of the triggered tension fishing traps she built in Patagonia while taking part in the Alone show. We went outside to where Greg Ovens had set up a working example of a hair-trigger trap. (For an example of how to make this type of trap, check out this tutorial on YouTube.) Greg Ovens’ trap had a real spring to it – we had to stand back when he trigger it, since he warned us that it could “take an eye out” if we weren’t careful.
Trying Out the Bow Drill
At the end of the day, Carleigh gave a few students the opportunity to try making fire with her bow drill. Greg tried it and after a few false starts, was able to successfully light a fire! In the last few weeks, he has been putting together his own bow drill kit at home. So far he has managed to make smoke quite a few times, but hasn’t made fire yet. He thinks the flaw in his system is his top handle, and he vows to keep trying.
My Thoughts on the Course
Sadly after Greg’s turn with the bow drill, our weekend in Port McNeill had come to an end. We hugged Megan and Carleigh goodbye and jumped into our truck for the long drive to the ferry terminal in Nanaimo, and then home. I felt so honoured to have spent the weekend learning wilderness survival skills from two amazing women. Learning from women in a supportive group of beginners was really beneficial and inclusive. I never felt intimidated or out of place.
While I hope I will never need most of the skills I learned, I did pick up some skills that I have been using on my hiking and backpacking trips since then. I can now confidently make fire in a wet rainforest: I used Carleigh’s teepee of various sized branches along with a cotton ball and vaseline fire starter to build some fabulous campfires a few weeks ago. I’ve been carrying some of the books Megan recommended in my backpack and am learning to identify some of the more common plants. And of course Greg is still working away on making a bow drill fire.
If you have the opportunity to take one of Megan or Carleigh’s wilderness survival courses, I highly recommend it. It’s a great introductory course for anyone with an interest in the outdoors – no matter their skill level. Megan and Carleigh have both said they want to continue teaching courses but right now, they have not scheduled any. Megan will probably continue teaching on Northern Vancouver Island. Carleigh lives in a remote village in south eastern Alaska but plans to travel to various survival schools in North America to teach.
And if neither Megan or Carleigh area available, I still recommend that hikers, backpackers and anyone else who spends time outdoors take a wilderness survival course. It’s one thing to carry waterproof matches in your emergency kit, but as I learned, it’s a whole other thing to know how to start a fire in a wet rainforest.