Befriending the Wild in Outdoor Survival Class

Text and Photos by Erica Flock, EarthShare Online Manager


If you found yourself lost in the wilderness without a phone or water or food, could you survive? Would you know how to keep yourself warm and avoid illness? Despite the sense of superiority conferred to us by our many modern gadgets, most Americans (myself included) would be sorely ill-equipped to tough it out in the woods the way Native Americans did for thousands of years.

Luckily, city slickers can empower themselves with fundamental survival skills by taking courses from one of the many wilderness schools around the country. I signed up for Earth Connection’s “Primitive Survival Crash Course” in rural Virginia and showed up a few weeks later in barely used hiking boots and ratty Dockers to see if I could learn to feel more “at home” in the outdoors.

When I arrived, a handful of students were gathered around instructor Tim MacWelch as he went over the basics of survival and the importance of having a positive mentality in difficult situations. I was quickly struck by Tim’s geniality, humor, and his almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature, history and wilderness medicine. He knows the name of every tree and bush on his property, how the human body responds to various kinds of hardship, which plants and animals are edible and which are best avoided.

Tim demonstrates how to make a dogbane rope

We started the day by breaking into groups and building twig and leaf shelters capable of housing one person. Some students would be staying overnight in these shelters, but as I was only taking the “crash course,” I wouldn’t have the honor this time. The huts were easy to construct and surprisingly warm when you slipped inside. It can get really cold in the mountains at night, even in the summer, so staying warm is vital.

In the afternoon, we learned how to chip rocks into various shapes to use as tools. The youngest student found a little ring neck snake and wolf spider and carried them around on his arms while the class took target practice at a stuffed squirrel Tim had dubbed “Rocky II”. Only one person managed to knock Rocky II over at a distance using thick, short branches.

Tim led us into a patch of Dogbane to harvest for making rope. We peeled the reddish-brown stems into long threads and twisted them together in a way that reminded me vaguely of knitting until we had a tough little rope we could potentially use to secure tarps, bind bandages or build a trap among other possibilities.


Water is at the top of the list of priorities for survival, but unfiltered water from most surface sources contains potentially harmful pathogens like Giardia. To purify water without the help of a filter or even a metal pot, Tim placed smooth rocks in the fire, carefully removed them with stick tongs and placed them in a wooden bowl filled with water. The rocks were so hot that the water boiled and became safe to drink.

Tim’s point about the importance of having a positive attitude at the beginning of class came into play when it was time to practice building a fire. He showed us how to work the bow and drill until a small ember appeared. The class watched spellbound as he carefully placed the ember in a nest of dry plant material and blew gently on it for several seconds until the nest caught fire.


For the rest of us, starting a fire would prove less straightforward. After my drill popped off the bow for the umpteenth time, my inner voice said simply “you can’t do this.” I was burning up all my calories, which would be a problem were I actually lost in the wilderness. Sweat dripped down my face, my knees were hurting from kneeling on the ground, my language turned colorful.

Finally, after what must have been 40 minutes, two women who had successfully started their own fires came over to provide advice and moral support. It worked: moments later my own drill started smoking and I blew on my nested ember, giggling happily as it burst into flame. I made a mental note that ignoring the “I can’t” voice might be useful not just in survival situations, but life in general.

Enclosed in our temperature-controlled buildings day after day, it’s easy to forget that the basic necessities of life still come from the ground beneath our feet, the water falling from the sky and surging in our rivers, the precise chemical composition of the air we breathe. Getting out in the woods for a while is a great way to reconnect with that reality.

EarthShare member organizations can help you get outside too. Here are some resources to get you started:

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics*

Serve, The Student Conservation Association*

Get Outside, National Wildlife Federation*

Outings, Sierra Club*

Travel with National Parks Conservation Association, NPCA*



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This is a program that should be replicated in every urban city and not just for the youth. I work with a group (the Keen Group inc). We teach photography and environmental education, take kids fishing and hiking. Your program has given me some additional ideas.

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