The biggest clue was right there in the course title:
5 DAYS SURVIVAL
I don’t know what I was expecting from a five day survival bushcraft course in an Oxfordshire woodland, but, on reflection, I should have packed more Hobnobs. Or any Hobnobs, for that matter.
I started to fall behind halfway through day two. You may remember the triumphant shelter that I built on the Woodland Ways bushcraft course that I took last March. This time, flying high on the arrogance of experience, I decided to eschew the tried-and-tested thermal A-frame shelter and went for the more al fresco arctic lean-to.
My problem wasn’t so much the construction of the lean-to, but rather my decision-making during the construction process. And the fact that we only had three hours to build something that would keep us warm and dry as the rain clouds rolled in.
After spending half my allotted time building one shelter, I decided to tear it all down and start again between two different trees. I now know why building sites have architects as well as bricklayers.
Ultimately, the decision to move turned out to be a good one, but it meant that my shelter was only three-quarters finished by the end of the day and, psychologically, I felt under pressure.
And what do I do under pressure? I comfort eat.
Comfort eating wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but a five day bushcraft survival course isn’t designed to be ordinary. On day three, we were expected to be cooking for ourselves, on our own fires that we’d lit ourselves using nothing but a fire steel and birch bark. That pesky ‘survival’ word again.
Naturally, on Tuesday afternoon, in front of the instructors, I’d had no problem at all in getting the tinder-dry birch bark to burst into flame with nothing more than a few strikes of steel on cerium. Wednesday morning, waking up with my feet in a puddle after a night’s steady rain, was a different matter entirely.
Suddenly, my bundle of soggy dead nettles and rotting strip of birch looked much less promising. But there is literally no other way to turn a baggy of flour into a damper bread breakfast than to add water and fire.
Without really meaning to, I’d built my shelter far from the other students on this survival course slash death camp so I couldn’t even commiserate with my fellow inmates. Instead, I imagined them all merrily tucking into their hearty breakfasts, feet up and toasting in front of the bonfires they’d all lit with careless competent ease.*
After spending two hours of showering the woodland with 3,000 degree sparks, I was feeling somewhat dejected. So I dipped into my snack pack for the last of my dark chocolate trail bars. That’ll pick me right up, I thought.
Reader: the last of my dark chocolate trail bars was nothing more than the evanescence of a memory, shrouded in the empty plastic wrapper that crumpled around my grasping claws.
Fire by friction
Needless to say, I did not dine on a breakfast of damper bread that morning. I hastily filled the empty hole with my penultimate banana and half a pack of corn cakes smothered in peanut butter and ran to the main camp for the morning demonstration session: fire by friction.
The fire by friction demo was led by Ian Nairn. The thing you need to know about Ian is that he loves a wisecrack. Whether you need a basket weaving-based innuendo or an impression of a muntjac in heat, Ian’s got gags and bon mots for every occasion.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ian boasts more quips than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace if you took every one of the Russian epic’s 587,287 words and replaced them all with the word ‘equipment’. He’s quippy as fuck. That’s what I’m saying.
Anyway, as I was struggling to light my fire, I felt justified in asking Ian for what I described as ‘some expert advice’. Without missing a beat, Ian replied:
I’m not an expert. An ‘ex’ is a has-been and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure.
Coming from a man who can make fire using a hand drill in the snow, the quip buried a lesson that I needed to learn—and wouldn’t.
Patience and perseverance
Ian demonstrated two fire by friction methods: the hand drill and the bow drill. The idea of both these methods is to use a simple stick of wood to drill through another flat piece of wood called the base board.
The drilling action shaves tiny fragments of wood from the base board and the friction between the two pieces of wood generates enough heat to turn one of those fragments into an ember: the embryo of fire.
It took Ian a couple of minutes to ‘bang out’ an ember using the hand drill—usually considered much the more difficult of the two methods. As the name suggests, Ian was using only his hands to twizzle the drill into the base plate.
The bow drill is a little more complicated, but if you’ll allow me to paint a picture with words, then imagine a Robin Hood longbow twisted around a wooden drill and then using a sawing motion to get the drill to twizzle into the base board. If you prefer pictures with pictures, then this video of Ian bow drilling in Sweden will do the job.
The mechanical advantage bestowed by the bow drill means Ian can boast that, under pretty much any conditions, he can ‘bang out’ an ember in under a minute.
For some reason, however, during the demonstration, Ian struggled. For some reason, for twenty minutes or more, his embers weren’t banging out like they should.
But he didn’t struggle like I did. There was a lot less swearing, a lot less cursing of bad luck, bad tools, bad birch bark. There was a lot less finger pointing and he didn’t comfort eat, not even once.
Ian struggled with patience and perseverance. That twenty minutes was a calm demonstration of strategic problem solving.
Instead of raising a sweat, sawing away at a base board that wouldn’t give up its embers, he paused after each failure, reassessed the situation and tweaked his approach. He tried different drills and different base boards; he tried cutting new notches to catch the wood shavings and tried working with a larger ember pan to protect the heat from the cold earth.
Eventually, Ian’s tweaks paid off. Wisps of smoke rose from the base plate and, among the coal black shavings, the ember glowed like mined ruby. Ian cupped the jewel into a bundle of tinder and blew it into fire.
Later that night, Ian shared how embarrassed he’d felt that the so-called instructor had been seen to struggle. But his virtuoso demonstration of patience and perseverance was a far more valuable lesson than mere demonstration of mechanical technique. Would that I could learn that lesson.
Monkey see, monkey throw shit at walls
Suitably inspired by Ian’s methodical struggles, I trudged determinedly back to my camp to light my fire. Not by friction, but by any means necessary. If I’d thought there was a time imperative for making my breakfast, the deadline of twelve o’clock for lunch was far more pressing. I had ninety minutes.
Ninety minutes later, I had run through the last of my snacks and my hands were red raw from gripping the cold fire steel in the rain. I staggered, hypoglycaemic, back to the instructors to collect my lunch ‘ingredients’: one pigeon (deceased).
I may have spent the last year as a vegan, but even I know that pigeons are most nutritious after the application of a heat source.
After taking out plenty of my frustration during the butchering process (sorry pigeon), I shuffled over to Ian, shame-faced, and told him that, nearly twenty-four hours after collecting my fire steel, my fire still wasn’t lit.
The other instructor, Jay, later told me that, in that moment, I looked ‘utterly dejected’. I can assure you that Jay was being surpassingly polite in his assessment of my mood.
Wet feet, no fire, no breakfast, no hot tea, no snacks—and we’d barely reached the halfway point of the five days’ survival.
I suggested to the instructors that, for now, perhaps I should cook my lunch at the main campfire. Ian and Jay told me to sod off back to my own camp and light my own damn fire.
Please note: Ian and Jay said nothing remotely like this. They were hugely supportive the whole week through. But my hungry brain was in the midst of what can only be described as ‘a wobbly’. My brain didn’t want a learning opportunity; it wanted pizza.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but, standing there in the rain with dead pigeon breast in my hand, I honestly felt like I was losing the fight for survival. After precisely fifty hours in an Oxfordshire woodland. Ridiculous.
No prizes for going hungry
Back in reality, Ian and Jay did me the biggest favour they could as instructors. They didn’t give my wobbly brain an easy way out. They didn’t let me cook over their blazing campfire and they didn’t schlep up to my camp to light my fire for me.
Instead, after some gentle words of encouragement, they showed me, not an easy, but an easier way out of my cold fire syndrome. One that still allowed me the satisfaction of solving my own problems.
Side note: This can’t be an easy teaching moment for instructors faced with a hangry student who’s run out of trail bars. Sorry Ian and Jay! In my defence, all I can say is that snack fear is real, people.
Ian told me to grab an ember from the main campfire and carry it over to my gaff—transporting fire in exactly the way cavemen would have done. And do you know what? I made a fucking fire and I ate my fucking pigeon.
From that moment on, I learned how to keep a fire going. I learned that, when the fire goes out, I can blow up a fire from an ember. I learned that, even when there are no embers, I can use the heat from the ash to get a flame from my own tinder supply. Sod collecting wet dead nettle stems: my tinder was toilet paper coated in the petroleum jelly that I’d brought for my chapped lips.
It might have felt like cheating, but, as the instructors liked to say: I was using all the resources at hand. Vaseline and a lighter might not be the way they teach in all the show-off bushcraft books, but there are no prizes for going cold and hungry.
And what a difference a fire makes. I could boil a billy can of water! I could make a flask of tea! I could warm my feet!
For the first time, I understood the identity of ‘hearth and home’. Despite the fact that the instructors were periodically handing me dead animals to cut up and eat, I genuinely felt a little bit self-reliant. The fact that I’d picked a campsite far from the other students became a source of pride, rather than anxiety.
Rising before dawn yesterday morning, I propped myself against a western red cedar and listened to the chorus of birds greeting the new day. Then I went back to my camp, blew up a fire from an ember, and baked myself a massive banana Welsh cake.
Life is good.
Did you see that asterix earlier?
* In the woods, I’ve learned, my imagination is an enemy. It turned out that my fellow students were all struggling, each of us in our own way. One student spent their first night lying in a steadily expanding pool of rain water and, soaking wet, was eventually forced to swap shelter for tent at three in the morning, cackling with incipient hypothermia.
I think every one of us resorted to lighters or meths to get our fires going at one time or another. If only I’d pitched up next to them, I thought to myself, I would have been reassured by our shared struggles. But I’d never have realised the satisfaction of self-reliance and, above all, the patience and perseverance needed to earn that self-reliance.
In spite of—no—because of my mid-week struggles, the Woodland Ways 5 Day Survival Course is highly recommended. After a farewell fry up and a billy can hot shower on Friday, I really didn’t want to leave this beautiful, comfortable, hospitable woodland.
There are still nine places available on the October intake. Forget the kit list: pack your patience and perseverance.