I thought I would share a few of these basic and useful survival skills from my years in scouts, all valuable life skills I learned the hard way.
Lessons from scouting
1. Cut Away!
Whenever you are using a knife, saw, hatchet, or any other item that has a blade, even if it has a fairly blunt edge, cut away from yourself. Imagine missing what you are aiming at. Where will the blade go? I’ve seen enough young scouts injure themselves while chopping firewood, whittling, or even messing with their pocket knives, to know this is a very real concern. This may sound like a stupidly simple safety concept, but in a survival situation, an infected cut or a large gash could be the worst mistake of your life.
2. Dark Starts at Noon
People, especially people inexperienced with the outdoors, inevitably underestimate the amount of daylight remaining. A good rule of thumb is: dark starts at noon. In everyday life, 3 p.m. is in the middle of the afternoon, and you haven’t even finished your workday. But outdoors, it’s high time you were selecting a campsite and starting a fire.
Setting up your shelter in the dark is not fun, and cooking even less so. In fact, waiting until the sun goes down can set up a potentially dangerous environment where mistakes and injuries can easily happen. Even though I know this scouting concept very well, I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. In a survival situation, darkness makes life even harder if you have to build a shelter from scratch, get a campfire going, or scavenge for something to eat. You need to have these vital things finished long before the sun has set.
3. Common-Sense Pyromania
There are no two ways about it: fire is fun. The bigger the better. Bug spray fireballs? Sure! There are few things as manly as building a massive campfire just because you can, but in a survival situation, you need to carefully consider how much fire you need and no more. Not many people understand that wood collection and preparation is a serious energy expenditure that you cannot be wasting on a nice, big campfire every night. Also, a small-to-moderate size fire is easier to put at when it’s time to go to sleep. If you can boil water, cook some food, and stay warm, it’s big enough.
4. Clean Now
As you might imagine, a bunch of 12-16-year-old Boy Scouts who have been on the trail all day, set up their campsite, cooked dinner, and are relaxing around the fire will obviously be unlikely to take care of their dirty dishes. Maybe even less likely than they already are at home, if that’s possible! Yes, it is extremely tempting to jump into your warm sleeping bag and worry about cleaning up tomorrow, but you need to do the dishes now.
Aside from the obvious idea of just getting it over with, doing your dishes as soon as possible is a life skill that has serious survival practicality, as well. Leaving dishes and food out overnight increases the possibility of harmful bacteria growing in the food you will be eating, or even on the surface of your plates and silverware. Not to mention the scent of food attracting wildlife, which you really don’t want.
5. You Sweat
Even if it’s 12 degrees and snowing, you are perspiring. In a cold-weather survival situation, you need to conserve body heat more than anything else, and perspiration inevitably results in cooling your body temperature. When you crawl in your sleeping bag for the night, strip off absolutely everything you were wearing. Even if you can’t feel it, all of your clothes are sweaty.
Throughout the night that sweat (water) will get very cold and make you even colder. Put on clean, dry clothes right before bed if you have them. If you have a decent sleeping bag, you can sleep naked as long as you are dry and cover your head and feet.
Inside your shelter, especially a tent, you need to maintain proper ventilation. The more airflow you can create, the better, regardless of how hot or cold the outside temperature is. Obviously, in the summer a breeze coming through the tent or shelter is going to keep you cooler. The one that’s hard to believe is ventilating your shelter in the winter. It’s tempting to think that you can better conserve heat by keeping things tightly closed, but it doesn’t work like that.
Throughout the night your breath and body heat will condensate, leaving the inside of your tent wet, and thus colder. Waking up damp and wet is not a fun way to start your day, and that dampness could mean the beginnings of hypothermia, which you cannot afford.