by Todd Walker
From the biblical perspective, sin is “missing the mark.” In wilderness survival, not hitting your target in one skill doesn’t have to mean certain death. However, fall short in these three critical survival skills, and, dude, you’re screwed!
You won’t get a second chance to see your family again if you can’t stay warm and hydrated. Core Temperature Control (CTC) is the redeeming factor.
Cold and Wet: The Perfect Storm
Your body does a remarkable job regulating core temperature. However, add moisture to the equation, drop the temperature slightly, and you’ve got a perfect storm for hypothermia.
Water saps body heat 25 times faster than air. And 70 to 80% of your body heat is lost through your head and neck. The remaining heat loss goes through your fingers, hands, and feet. The simple act of breathing in cold air and expelling warm air will chill your body.
A slight change in core temp, even by a degree or two, will affect your bodily functions. Shivering, lack of coordination, slurred speech, and numbness in the extremities are signs of hypothermia. Decrease to 91.4ºF (33ºC) and you lose consciousness. Complete muscle failure occurs at 82.4ºF (28ºC).
Core Temperature Equipment
This article is not addressing wilderness living skills or long-term self-reliance. We’re talking about surviving. You can’t very well pursue long-term stuff if you’re not equipped to survive the a short-term storm. And, by storm, I mean – when you need immediate help and none is available – in the wilderness or urban setting.
The first step to being equipped is to always carry equipment. No matter how many debris huts you’ve built, you’d be a stupid survivalist, and possibly a dead one, to not pack some sort of emergency shelter option, fire kit, metal container, cordage, and a knife.
Below is my emergency kit I carry no matter how long I plan to be in the woods.
- Emergency Space Blanket ~ The best 12 ounce item in my kit for core temperature control. I also carry two contractor grade garbage bags – too many uses to mention here.
- Fire Kit ~ Three different ignition sources – open flame (Bic lighter), spark ignition (ferro rod), solar ignition (magnifying lens), sure fire (diy and commercial), duct tape, and a bit of dry tinder material.
- Knife ~ There is no such thing as “The Best Survival Knife”. However, your cutting tool should have multipurpose attributes and be hair-popping sharp.
- Metal Container ~ A metal water bottle can be used to boil water, make char cloth, cook meals, and perform self-aid duties.
- Cordage ~ I carry both 550 paracord and tarred mariners line.
These items are my bare bones kit and go with me camping, hiking, backpacking, and hunting. Don’t think you’ll ever need these kit items? Think again. Read this real-life survival story of an injured hunter in the Idaho wilderness.
Core Temperature Control Skills
Conserving body heat is the key to survival. Your body produces heat from biochemical reactions in cells, exercise, and eating. Without a furry coating like lower animals, insulation to maintain a body temperature at 98.6 degrees F is critical.
It all starts with…
Skill #1 ~ Shelter
Sins of Sheltering: Not carrying an emergency space blanket and wearing improper clothing.
While having an emergency space blanket is important, your shelter is built before you ever step over the door sill of your warm and cozy home. Your clothes are your first layer of shelter.
Ever see men with Sasquatch hair at the beach. No matter how thick it appears, that rug won’t insulate when wet and cold.
To trap body heat, layer your clothing. Layers create dead air space much like the insulation in house walls and attics. Layering is activity-dependent. But the basic concept applies to any outdoor cold weather activity.
Here’s my layer system…
A.) Base Layer ~Your base layer should fit snuggly to your body. Long sleeve shirt and underwear made of polyester blend for wicking perspiration away from my body. Sock liners go on first before wool socks. Thin wool glove liners are worn inside my larger leather mittens.
B.) Insulation ~ Yes, I wear cotton, and sometimes fleece, on top of the base layer. This is dependent upon my activity. If I’m really active in really cold weather, I wear a wool sweater. Wool is my favorite insulation layer. Here’s why…
- Wool fiber absorbs up to 36% of its weight and gradually releases moisture through evaporation.
- Wool has natural antibacterial properties that allow you wear it multiply days without stinking up camp. Not so with synthetics.
- Wool wicks moisture, not as well as synthetics, but better than cotton.
- Wool releases small amounts of heat as it absorbs moisture.
- Wool contains thousands of natural air-trapping pockets for breathable insulation.
Remembering the importance of dead air space, your insulation layer should fit loosely and be breathable. Apply the acronym C.O.L.D. to your insulating layer…
- C – Keep CLEAN
- O – Avoid OVERHEATING
- L – Wear loose LAYERS to create dead air space
- D – Keep DRY
C.) Outer Layer ~ Waterproof is not your friend. Yes, it will keep rain and wetness out, but it will also seal perspiration in eventually soaking your insulation. Wear a weather-resistant shell that allows moisture to escape. The main concern for this layer is to block wind.
Your head, hands, and feet are included in this layer. I’m partial to wool hats to keep my bald head warm. In subzero temps, I wear my shapka, a Russian red fox winter hat, I bought in Siberia in the early 90’s.
Cold feet are deceptive. Frostbite can happen before you know the damage is done. Wear polyester sock liners with wool socks inside your footwear of choice.
Jamie Burleigh under an emergency space blanket shelter with garbage bag bed at The Pathfinder School.
D.) Waterproof Shelter ~ Again, for emergency essentials, you can’t beat a good space blanket to block wind, rain, and reflect heat back to your body. Combined with a plastic painter’s tarp, a Kochanski Super Shelter can keep you warm in subzero condition in street clothes.
Use two large contractor garbage bags filled with leaves, wet or dry, for an insulating ground pad. They don’t add much weight or take up much space in your kit.
There are many more options for waterproof covering. The above list is for your emergency kit.
Skill #2 ~ Fire Craft
Sins of Fire Craft: Not carrying multiple ignition sources and all-weather fire starters.
Fire covers a multitude of ‘sins’ in your survival skills. Even if you deliberately commit the offense of not packing emergency shelter, fire forgives your lapse in judgement. Scantily clad in the wilderness? Fire covers your wrongdoing. No matter how you “miss the mark” in skills or equipment, fire can redeem you.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the woods I’m sure you’ve heard Mother Nature humming these classic lyrics…
“… Like it always seems to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Are you a fair-weather fire crafter?
That’s a good place to start. Nothing wrong with learning in the most fire-friendly conditions. You’ve got dry tinder, kindling, and fuel to burn. This may not be the case when your life depends on making fire in the wind, rain, and snow.
Cheating is NOT a Sin
There is absolutely no such thing as cheating when it comes to building a life-sustaining fire. Who cares what Bushcraft purists think! Your loved ones aren’t worried about style points in fire craft. They want you home alive. So cheat!
For the weekend camper or woodsman, carry these foul weather fire cheats…
Fire Cheat #1 ~ One of the most overlooked fire starters that should already be in your pack is duct tape. Loosely wad up about 2 foot of tape and ignite it with an open flame. A ferrocerium rod will ignite duct tape. However, you have to shred the tape to create lots of surface area. This isn’t your best option if your fingers are losing dexterity in freezing temperatures.
Fire Cheat #2 ~ DiY fire starters made of wax-soaked jute twine or cotton makeup remover pads. I also carry commercially made sure fire that will burn on water.
Fire Cheat #3 ~ Always carry enough dry tinder material to start a fire in sucky weather.
Fire Cheat #4 ~ Know where to find the best possible tinder material and how to process it to create surface area. Dead hanging branches, pencil lead size to pencil size, provide kindling even in the rain.
Fire Cheat #5 ~ Fat lighter’d (aka – fatwood, resin-rich pine wood) is my lifesaver in the south. Discover your best natural fire starter wherever you’re located or plan to travel. I keep this stuff in all my kits. It’s abundant where I live.
Fire Cheat #6 ~ Dry wood is available in all weather conditions if you know where to look. Standing dead Tulip Poplar (Magnolia) is one of my go-to fire resources. The trick to getting to the dry wood is splitting the wood down to tinder, kindling, and fuel size material. The inner bark makes excellent tinder bundles!
One 2 inch diameter stick of tulip poplar made all this: L to R: Thumb, pencil, pencil lead, and bark tinder
And that brings us to the next skill that forgives survival sins…
Skill #3: Knife Skills
A knifeless man is a lifeless man.
The “survival” knife market is full of gadgetry. Gadgets are for gawkers. You don’t need a Rambo knife to survive. You just need a solid knife and some skill.
Carry a good knife and practice with what you carry. Your knife may become your one-tool-option. Here are a few characteristics I look for when selecting my main knife…
- High carbon steel blade that is non-coated. Coated knives can’t be used to create sparks off the spine with a rock to ignite charred material. Carbon steel is easier to sharpen in the field than stainless steel.
- Blade length between 4-5 inches.
- Full tang (solid metal under the entire handle) lessens the chance of breakage when an ax is not available to split wood and you have to resort to the baton method.
- A 90 degree spine is useful to strike ferro rods, process tinder, scrape wood shavings for fire, and many other uses.
- Most importantly, your knife should feel right in your hand as you use it. The best “survival” knife is the one you have on you and are proficient with.
Knife Sins: Carrying a knife but never becoming competent with your blade.
You’re not going to be carving spoons and bowls in a short-term survival situation. Your cutting tool will be used to make shelter and fire to control core temperature. Knife skills can be easily developed and honed in your backyard.
Since fire is the most forgiving if you “miss the mark” with proper shelter, we’ll cover the cutting tool’s use in fire craft first.
Have Knife, Will Burn
Even if you’ve committed the first two survival sins, your blade can save you. A knife in skilled hands can create fire from scratch. I don’t rely on friction fire as my first choice but do practice the skill in case I run into unknown unknowns.
With my buddy Bic in my pocket, I still need to process sticks to make fire quick. Both the cutting edge and spine of your knife are used to create surface area needed for ignition.
Remembering that you’re cold and wet, your fine motor skills are probably suffering. Pretty feather sticks are for style points. Style won’t save you. Fire will!
Split a dead wrist-size stick with a baton and knife into thumb size pieces to get to the dry stuff. Split a few of those pieces into smaller kindling. Grip your knife with a reverse grip (cutting edge facing up) and use the spine of your knife to scrape a pile of fine shavings off one of the larger split sticks. If you’ve got fat lighter’d, scrape off a pile of shavings the size of a golf ball. Ignite this pile with a lighter or ferro rod and feed your fire its meal plan.
Here’s a demo of a one stick fire in the rain…
Knife and Shelter
Debris shelters can be built without a knife. Sticks can be broken to length between two trees without a cutting tool. Keep in mind that this type of shelter will take a few hours and lots of calories to construct correctly.
The role of the knife in emergency shelter building is secondary compared to its importance in making fire. You won’t even need a knife to set up a space blanket shelter if you prepped your emergency kit ahead of time.
Blades are expedient in cutting cordage, notching sticks, harvesting green bows for bedding, making wedges to split larger wood without an ax, and a number of other self-reliance tasks.
Basic emergency knife skills every outdoors person should practice include…
- Safely handling a knife ~ cut away from your body, avoid the triangle of death (the triangle between your knees and crotch), cut within the blood circle when others are nearby (an imaginary circle made with your outstretched arms as you turn 360 degrees), never attempt to catch a falling knife, keep it sheathed unless in use, and keep your blade sharp.
- Creating surface area for fires ~ splitting sticks, feathering sticks, and shavings.
- Grip and body mechanics ~ standard grip, reverse grip, chest lever, knee lever, and thumb assisted grip for push cuts in fine carving tasks.
- With a piece of quarts, chert, or flint, use the spine of your high carbon steel knife for spark ignition on charred material.
All three of these survival skills are needed for emergency core temperature control, but I’d place fire on top of my forgiveness list. Fire can make water potable for hydration, warm poorly clothed pilgrims, cook food to create body heat, smoke signals, illuminate darkness, and comfort the lost.
What’s your top skill for controlling your core temperature? Share if you don’t mind.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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