Posted by: wolfcampcollege | February 6, 2010

Wilderness Survival: Food, Fire, Shelter

A wonderful group of 20 adult and 2 youth joined us today for our first in a series of 3 survival workshops. Today we would focus on food, fire and some emergency shelter.

Explaining the moch survival scenario.

We began with a test of leadership and survival skill, imagining that we were had taken a day hike to the top of Mt. Si when a massive earthquake hit, and all paths leading down were destroyed by rock slides and tree debris, while the entire infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest was simultaneously destroyed, meaning no one was coming to save us lowly hikers.

Heading up to gather resources for survival.

Two groups formed, and each elected to spend the night after assessing resources. I also shared my idea of what to do, which would become the overview of the day: 1. Bring everyone together to assess our status and then explain the order of survival. 2. Assess our resources, then walk together to survey the area, gather resources, and identify a campsite. 3. Have moderate nourishment, take questions, and agree to a plan. 4. Dived into teams to work on priority projects, setting a time to gather again to reassess and get comfortable for the night.

Searching for Dry Tinder Material. Here from Cedar bark where squirrels had pre-processed fibers for us!

So we headed up into the woods, looking for food, fire and shelter materials. We learned to find dry fire materials using sticks and dead plant stalks that were still standing up off the ground, and we also looked under cedar trees which shed water to their edges. Under one we found a dry side of a trunk where squirrels had been running up and down, causing the bark to shred into perfect tinder lighting material. There were also hollowed out logs, and places where pileated woodpeckers had bore holes into punky wood for us.

Gathering Nettles for Food

Next we found a wonderful patch of Stinging Nettles, which on our quest for starches, proteins, digestible vitimins and minerals, fats and sugars, gives us good plant protein, iron and vitimins that actually fill you up! We learned to eat nettles raw if crunched up first to break down the hairs full of formic acid, and someone called them “citrusy spinach”. We also gathered last year’s dead nettle stalks for firemaking fuel. Later you’ll see how we cooked the nettles for a tasty treat.

Gathering miner's lettuce for a tasty treat, and bedstraw to steam as a potherb later.

We also gathered cherry bark off an old dead standing branch, leaves to insulate the fire from the ground and stuff our shelters, plus we came across minor’s lettuce as a tasty trailside nibble, plus bedstraw/cleavers and dandelions to eat as potherbs. Time was ticking, so we went back downhill, with one group following Kim to the natural artisian springs to gather water, and another following Jason to gather hemlock tree twigs which are just about the most reliable firemaking materials once you get a flame started.

Checking out the artisian springs.

Our next task was to gather cattails so we loaded up into the vehicles and headed over to a stream and pond chock-full of them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t gather many because cattails suck up toxins (so are used in bioswales) and there isn’t a super clean cattail source within in many miles. However, we learned how to do it, as you can see in the great pics, and later we roasted some over the fire as well as fried some up on the grittle, both new shoots as well as rhizomes for a great starchy meal.

Gathering Cattail Down as a Coal Extender for Tinder Bundles

Feeling for Cattail Shoots & Rhizomes

Can't be afraid to get dirty for Cattails!

This cattail shoot was worth it!

This cattail down will go a long way in firemaking and shelter stuffing!

We continued our sojourn back to the Wolf College home office, gathering for lunch and to review the Survival Spiral, which takes the following order of survival a step deeper: 1) Air for Awareness, 2) Shelter for Warmth, 3) Fire for Water, 4) Hunting/Gathering/Processing for Food. We also discussed the most critical tools, which when you are fully trained, starts with carrying metal pot, but for the novice, requires a blade or two, wool blanket or synthetic insulation, tent or tarp, lighter, and fat/dried meat. Of course the 10 essentials are key for hiking/backpacking.

Reviewing the Order of Survival before starting group projects.

But first, Jason did a wonderful demonstration of bow drill firemaking, bringing his coal over to our new firepit, where we went over the kinds of materials needed to get a fire started in wet conditions, including a firepit 4 inches deep plus air-draws to self-fan the fire, tee-pee structure of wood for shelter from rain and to insulate from the cold, a layer of insulation between the fire and the ground (we used the abundant tall standing dead grass around which is great tinder also), tinder which today consisted of fluffed cedar bark, cattail down, dead dry grasses, dead dry nettle stalks, and punky dry wood. Then since it wasn’t raining, we created a “log cabin” style fire starting with hemlock tree twigs, then progressing to “pencil-sized” branches, then “marker-sized” then kindling and split wood.

Darkfeather's first bow-drill fire (see kit on ground in pic) at point of ember being put into tinder bundle.

Darkfeather blowing ember in tinder bundle up into a flame!

Darkfeather enjoying the warmth of her first bow-drill fire with other students.

Other students also got their first bow-drill fires, and I’m not sure how many made kits to bring home, but hopefully everyone learned how to construct them properly and develop good form when drilling. Other projects commenced as well, including the building of fire pits, the construction of a lean-to shelter in front of (but not too close to) the fire, the thatching of its roof from grasses to make a waterproof roof, the cleaning and cooking of cattails, the steaming and sauteing of nettles, the removal of spruce needles from branches then steeping them into a tasty tea, and more:

Darkfeather after sauteing and steaming nettles for everyone to try.

Les and Gary cleaning Cattials to fry up.

Les showing off the Spruce needles he took off the branch in order to steep in hot water for a tasty, vitimin C tea.

Luis digging a firepit, constructed for perfect airflow and safety.

Nif with grasses she collected for tinder, bedding, and thatch roofing!

Join us for the 2nd of our 3 part survival series! March 6th (in puyallup) focuses on herbal first aid, natural water purification, and emergency shelter, while April 10th (in marysville) focuses on emergency shelter, long-term shelter and navigation skills.




  1. Wow! What an amazing day/week! Nice handhold, Darkfeather and Jason! I have been renewing my faith and strength for a season of solo treks, and these photos are really inspiring. Thanks for posting these, Chris! I miss you guys!

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