Wilderness Survival. What can you learn from failure?

posted in: Bushcraft, Gear, Knowledge, skills, Survival, Wild food | 0

Welcome to Undepend 72 Hour Challenge.

This years Undepend Challenge started out in pouring rain. We went from ten participants to two in just two weeks prior to departure. I received the last three cancellations the day before departure. I suppose someone had seen the weather forecast.

As my friend Casper and I drove the 300 km to the pre-challenge base it was already raining heavily. And it didn’t stop until the next morning. When we woke up and packed our things to leave for the wild it was dry for a short while.

The rules
The rules were similar to previous challenges: Spend 72 hours in the wild with 4 items only. Your total gear was limited to: Underwear, socks, pants, footwear, a shirt, a belt, 2 liters of water and 4 items of your own choice. So no shell layer and no sleeping bag unless you chose them as one of your 4 items. My 4 items were a hatchet, a pot, a fire steel and a knife. I know that the hatchet and the knife are outweighing each other a bit but I just like having my knife with me as well.

The concept
The idea behind Undepend 72 Hour Challenge is to challenge the participants and teach them how to thrive in the wild with less gear than they are used to. Once you learn that everything you need can be found in nature you will feel more comfortable and confident if you end up in a survival situation.

Chances are that if you end up in a survival situation you don’t have acces to a sleeping bag or even your rain jacket anyway. Because you don’t normally plan for accidents. You don’t always bring a jacket in your car and you don’t bring your sleeping bag on a plane. Even on short hikes people usually don’t plan for getting lost. They don’t expect their short day hike to turn into a survival situation. However it is often people like that who get lost in the wild. And they are often found exhausted or disoriented close to civilization.

Challenge start
We drove our car as far into the forest as we could before the trail became to rough to continue. We parked the car and got out. The challenge was on.

It was raining just a little bit as we headed into the forest. But the night before it had been poring down so everything was extremely wet and slippery. I think we walked for no more than ten minutes before both my socks and shoes were soaking wet. My pants were wet up to my knees. I had expected this so it wasn’t a problem at all. My plan was to push through, build a shelter and get a fire going later on. The bigger challenge was to find some dry tinder since we couldn’t bring anything with us at all. Everything around us was wet. I found a few semi dry pine branches as well as a piece of fairly dry birch bark that I brought along in my pot.

Walking in circles.
We soon passed a small stream and we talked about camping in that spot since we would have easy access to a safe water supply. We wanted to go deeper into the forest however and figured it would be easy to find water in this weather. After walking for about an hour or so we suddenly realized we had returned to a place we had passed half an hour earlier. With no compass, dense vegetation and heavy clouds, navigation was difficult. We had to try again. We set a tree behind us as a marker and used a tree further ahead of us as another marker. We were trying to avoid walking in circles again. But the terrain was also very rocky with a many differences in height. It wasn’t easy and I think it was down to luck rather than skills that we didn’t end up walking in circles again. Instead we walked straight out of the area and suddenly we stood by a paved road. We had to turn around again and try the opposite direction. At this point we had spent a couple of hours walking around and we decided that we should find a place to camp within the next hour. It had been raining on and off ever since we left the car so we were very wet at this point.

Imperfect spot
About four hours into the challenge we finally found a spot to camp in. It wasn’t the perfect spot but we were under pressure to make a camp before sundown. Casper had brought a tarp as one of his items, so he was fairly quick to set up his shelter. I was still walking around a bit restless trying to find some leveled ground and a spot with some natural materials to use for my shelter. I decided to build an A-frame lean-to in order to get as much protection from the wind as possible. It’s a classical wilderness survival shelter. Since I didn’t have a jacket or anything else to protect me from the elements, I figured this was a the right thing to do. I made it tall enough for me to be able to sit up straight under it if I wanted to. This is a good thing to do if you have to spend a lot of time inside it. If it’s raining you want to have a fair amount of indoor space to stay in.

A race against time
Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of materials around. We were allowed to stay in the area but we didn’t want to cut down trees unnecessarily. So I spent a lot of time walking back and fourth scavenging for materials. It took me about 4 hours before my shelter was finished. I made it just before sundown. We had spent much of the day hiking so I was desperately trying to gather some spruce branches from the bottom of the trees at the same time as I was collecting branches to use as bedding for my shelter. There was no way I would be able to sleep directly on the ground since it was extremely wet and cold. When I was done with the bedding it was already getting dark. I had only managed to collect a few spruce branches to use as kindling. And they were still a bit wet. During our hike through the terrain, I had dropped the tinder I collected earlier, so I had to look for suitable tinder as well. I found some birch bark but it was soaked. I thought it might dry out so I brought it with me anyway. It was a race against time and I was loosing it. I found a fallen tree where I was able to collect some semi dry wood from the inside of it but now it was so dark that walking around in the forest was becoming too risky. I settled with the thought that I would have to spend the night in my shelter without getting a fire going.

Spending the night
Knowing that the coldest time of the night is usually around 4 to 6 in the morning right before the sun rises, I decided to get some sleep right away while the air was still somewhat warm. Without a fire this was going to be a cold night. On top of that I was wet from my thighs down. And I mean soaking wet. Luckily I was wearing wool socks, a wool t-shirt and a long-sleeved wool shirt on top of that. But my pants were made of cotton.

I was knackered as I lay down on the branches I had used as bedding. so I didn’t pay any attention to the rain outside. I just closed my eyes and fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning I was so well rested that all the struggle I had been through the day before was forgotten … I’m kidding of course. I woke up a few hours later from a drop of water hitting me right between my eyes. I was shivering heavily and I had severe muscle cramps in my left leg. It was really cold and it was only 11.30 PM. I sat up for a while trying to get rid of my muscle cramps before I lay down on my other side and fell asleep again. Throughout the night my body was shivering to stay warm and I remember two dreams reappearing throughout the night. Hugging my wife and eating a burger. Basic needs covered in my dreams I guess.

The next morning
The night continued like this. Me waking up, trying to get rid of my muscle cramps and turning to the other side to get some sleep again. At 4 o’clock in the morning I got up. It was till dark but the cold prevented me from getting any more sleep. I waited another hour or so before I could see a bit of light appearing in the sky. And yet another hour later it was finally becoming light enough for me to see what I was doing.

I immediately started searching for dry firewood. The weather was actually fine right now but it had been raining all night and everything was wet. Even the mushrooms couldn’t hold more water. At the same time I was exhausted from the cold night, the physical activity and a lack of food. Last year we had plenty of berries to eat but this year it was as if we had come later in the season. There were only very few berries to be found and the ones we did find were either tasteless or not ripe. We found loads of mushrooms however but they don’t provide the same amount of energy as berries do. And some mushrooms you have to cook before you can eat them so the lack of fire was an issue again.

At this time Casper woke up. Or at least I thought he did. You see he had been awake for an hour or so without being able to move or speak he told me. Since he was also soaked when he fell asleep it seems his tarp had worked more like a greenhouse keeping all the moist inside instead of protecting him against the rain. He had also suffered from muscle cramps during the night and since he had slept directly on the wet ground with only the tarp as protection he was probably even more cooled down than I was.

We agreed that we would not spend another night out there unless we got a fire going. Since we were both extremely wet it would be too risky and not worth it unless we were able dry up.

The last battle for fire
I managed to find a bit more kindling but not much. However the tinder was still wet so I still wasn’t able to get a fire going. But now the sun was actually shining so I was hoping that it would dry things up during the next couple of hours. Often however if the sun is shining early in the morning the weather becomes cloudy later. This morning was no different. Soon clouds began to fill the sky again. We were a bit low on water now and since we had moved away from the stream earlier we had to locate some safe drinking water soon. We were very close to a lake this time however so we walked down there to fill our bottles. On the way I collected some Broadleaf plantain that I thought would give me some energy later. I was still hoping to get a fire going so I kept them for later.

When we got back from the lake we sat down to make a plan. Casper told me that he had heard me walk around looking for firewood this morning, but unable to talk to me he thought I had woken up well rested and fit for fight. But when our eyes met he was relieved to see that he wasn’t the only one who had suffered. At this point we both realized that we didn’t have any more in us left to give. We looked at each other and ended the challenge right there. About 25 hours after start. It immediately felt like the right thing to do. At this point I wasn’t thinking clearly. My energy and my motivation was gone.

The interesting thing is even before we decided to end the challenge you could tell by our conversation that we had already given up mentally. We discussed how impossible everything was, how little energy we had left and so on. It was a looser’s talk.

So what mistakes did we make and what can we learn from them?

We didn’t S.T.O.P.
It was my own suggestion to keep pushing through in the rain because I was looking to get a bit further into the wild. This was probably the biggest mistake we made and the mistake that prevented us from succeeding. If we had stopped by the small stream in the beginning of the challenge we would have had plenty of time and energy left to build a shelter and possibly even a fire. We would have had easy access to water and we wouldn’t have become as wet as we did from hiking through the wilderness for hours. So even without a fire we probably wouldn’t have ended up on the border of hypothermia. During the hike I also lost some of the dry tinder I had found so the chance of us getting a fire going would have been much bigger.

Walking in circles.
Even if the terrain was hard to navigate in without a compass we could have done more to check our direction. Despite the rain clouds we could still sense the direction of the sun and we could also have used the trees to set a direction. But because we were too eager to get going we didn’t do any of it. And we ended up wasting energy unnecessarily.

We picked the wrong spot to camp in.
Because of time pressure and fatigue we picked a spot without sufficient supplies in the vicinity. This meant we had to work harder to build our shelters and we didn’t have easy access to food and firewood.

We gave up.
It is very likely that we would have made it if we hadn’t lost our motivation. After all it wasn’t raining when we ended the challenge. It was wet but not raining. Possibly we might even have gotten a fire going within a few hours if things had dried up a bit. But we lost the will to try. This is probably the hardest thing to acknowledge but also the biggest lesson we learned from our trip. Never give up and keep a positive mental attitude because mood affects your abilit to act.

 

 

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