Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sadly, It didn't take long !

I have never been a big "I told you so !" kind of guy.  However, when it comes to survival and self rescue preparation, others unfortunate mistakes provide us the ability to drive home our points as survival instructors.

A few days ago I posted about the dangers of snowmobiling in the great Canadian wilderness.  Snowmobiling has become a huge multi-million dollar annual industry.  Droves of outdoor enthusiasts venture out with limited or no survival training or true bush skills.

At the end of that post I stated that I truly believed, from historical experience, that we here in Ontario would lose snowmobilers this year to cold water submersion and hypothermia.

Sadly, we did.  Here is an excerpt from the Peterborough Examiner Newspaper:

Peterborough Examiner - Rescuers found the body of a snowmobiler after two snowmobiles plunged through Buckhorn Lake off Emerald Isle in Ennismore. A 46-year-old man who unsuccessfully tried to save his fellow snowmobiler walked to shore safely. After being treated at the scene by paramedics, he was taken to Peterborough Regional Health Centre for treatment of leg numbness. Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield Township firefighters, Peterborough County OPP officers and Peterborough County-City Emergency Medical Services paramedics were called to the scene near the Emerald Isle Marina. Initially it took some frantic minutes to pinpoint where the snowmobiles went through the ice.

I wish that I never had to provide examples of this needless and completely preventable loss of life.  It does however provide a very close to home incident that should make every snowmobile enthusiast stop and realize that they could be next if they chose not to prepare.

You must prepare for the worst so that you can enjoy the best.  A winter survival course takes on average from 3-5 days and can arm you with the knowledge, skills and mindset to remain calm during a winter survival emergency.  The calm person is better able to provide life saving first aid for the seriously injured.  The calm one is also better able to build shelter, make fire, deal with friends and family suffering from hypothermia.  In the end the one who is prepared will also be able to signal for help or self rescue.

What happens when your snowmobile breaks through the ice?  Do you have ice self rescue picks on you or on your machine?  How quickly can you get to them.  If you do self rescue from cold water submersion - do you have fire making equipment on your body?  Or is it in the saddle bag on the back of your sinking snowmobile?  If you have that life saving fire starting material on you - is it protected in a water tight container or bag or is it a lighter in one of your pockets?  If it's in your pocket will it work?

If you pull yourself from the icy cold water how long do you believe you have before hypothermia and the inability to use your fingers sets in?  Two minutes if you're lucky.  Go ahead - take your watch and press start.  See how incredibly long two minutes feels when you're on the couch.  However, that same two minutes after a cold water submersion will feel like 10 seconds.

If you do not have the mindset necessary to remain calm and complete the task - you will die. 

Don't challenge mother nature or the gods.  Be prepared.  Be knowledgeable. Be smart.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fire vs. Shelter

It's no secret that this is a dilemma that has been debated many times by most survival instructors.  There is of course no clear answer.  Everything in a wilderness survival emergency or simulation is case specific.

This means that common sense and knowledge of the 7 enemies of survival will answer the question for you.

Most might assume that in the Canadian winter that having a fire is the obvious priority.  Well you know what they say about those who assume.  It would ring true in this case as well.

In the Canadian winter the daytime temperature could average between -7 degrees and -20.  However, that temperature can plummet dangerously in the evening and early morning hours.  So having a fire would appear to be a choice that would tip the temperature game in your direction.  True, except for one serious survival enemy - wind.

If you have ever ventured into the great Canadian wilderness for a camping or marshmallow roasting good time during a moderately breezy winter day, you will have noted the bone chilling effect it had on your body.  That wind chill is so serious that the weather man notes its effect on the true temperature of the great outdoors every single day.

So for those that still pushed on into the bush regardless of the wind chill and decided to start a nice roaring fire, you would have immediately realized the difficulty that it will cause.

That cool breeze will not just steal the beautiful heat normally experienced from a campfire but it will suck the life right out of it.  Eating through your fuel source quicker than you can maintain your pace of fuel collection.

Everything in a winter survival emergency has to be about risk and effort vs. reward.

Here in lies the debate.  If you are in the throws of a winter survival emergency and the wind chill has created a bone chilling experience that has managed to render fine motor skills non existent your first instinct should be to seek shelter.  Shelter will allow you to huddle together sharing warmth and dealing with hypothermia or the onset of frostbite.

Whether that shelter is just a single wind wall to reduce the effects or whether you construct a full survival shelter, it becomes a life or death emergency.

As much as us humans are drawn to the warmth and psychological effects of a fire, that desire to choose fire or shelter can cost you your life. 

To survive a real winter survival emergency you must have the knowledge, the skills and the mindset.  You must recognize the 7 enemies of survival.  You must choose your tasks wisely and carefully given your environment and the weather conditions which mother nature has provided.

It's never enough to just be prepared to make fire in hopes of surviving.  You must be prepared to build shelter, make fire, signal help, care for injuries, locate food, find water and maintain the survival mindset.  There is no guarantee how long before help is called or how long it will take Search and Rescue Teams to locate you.  You must always be prepared to survive for as long as it takes.  Never giving up.  Never giving in.  Never forgetting your number 1 primal instinct - to survive !

Fire vs. Shelter - choose wisely.  It could save your life.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snowmobile Enthusiasts

While driving around the back country the other night Instructor John and I came across one of the many groomed snowmobile trails that grace the eastern Ontario landscape.

It struck us how truly remote this trail was and how few snowmobiles had travelled through on that evening.  That realization sparked a conversation about snowmobile enthusiasts and their often lack of knowledge or preparation for winter survival.

If you break it down, there are few other winter outdoor activities that take you long distances across often desolate, uninhabited, unlit, and through unknown environmental conditions.  Not to mention the fact that snowmobile trails will regularly travel on or across waterways.

These waterways, whether creeks, rivers, ponds or lakes, are notorious for claiming the lives of snowmobilers every year in this great country.  However, regardless of how many warnings are provided these outdoor enthusiasts still load up there sleds on the trailer and travel to areas with grand plans of multi day excursions that will take them into the beautiful and remote Canadian winter wilderness. 

Are they prepared?

In my experience - NO.  These enthusiasts spend amazing amounts of money on their snowmobile, their matching clothing and heated, anti-fog helmets with two way radio systems.  However, unlike our cars, there is no trunk.  There is no area to support equipment storage and the areas that do exist surely don't contain enough survival essentials.

When I think of snowmobiling I truly believe that these folks are at the greatest risk of cold water submersion, mechanical failure, accidents, injury, illness, hypothermia, becoming disoriented and lost.  All of these serious winter wilderness emergencies while being in remote areas without the ability to contact emergency services.

So it begs the question - what training do they have.  If you ask the question you will often receive answers debating the need for training.  Something to the effect of "I've been sledding for 20 years and I've never broken down, never been hurt, never broken through the ice." 

Now put yourself in a room with these same people and listen to the war stories being told.  Crazy experiences and death defying adventures that usually start or end in "I can't believe I'm still alive."

I think it's time for snowmobile associations and the Provincial governments to step up and start suggesting snowmobile enthusiasts attend and complete winter survival training designed specific for their winter pastime.

How many of those who have lost their lives from drowning, cold water submersion, hypothermia, exposure, dehydration, etc. would be still alive if they had been prepared with the knowledge, skills and mindset to survive those winter emergencies.

I know that's a strong statement but I will debate with anyone the importance and possible live saving implications that good training and good preparation can have on you and your family.

If you snowmobile and don't believe that winter survival training is important, do me a favour - when you're out on your next 3 day snowmobile excursion, count the number of water crossings you make, the number of miles you travel without seeing another snowmobile, the miles between evidence of civilization, the amount of times that cell phone loses reception ( useless when wet or cold ) and the amount of times you take your mitts off and state "Man it's cold out here.", or even how many times you 'almost' ran out of gas.

You will then realize how truly crazy it is to travel into those conditions without true winter survival and emergency preparedness training.

Sadly, a winter survival emergency on a back country snowmobile trail will claim a life this year.  Don't let it be yours !

Saturday, January 8, 2011

There's More to it than That!

More often than not I've seen people preparing to light a fire with a little bit of birch bark, a couple of sticks and their lighter.  Well folks - there's more to it than that.

Whether you're camping, hiking or in the throws of a winter emergency - you must know a little bit about fire preparation.  If you expect to succeed you must plan.

When we instruct fire starting and fire care we often talk about the 10 minute fire.  This is very simple to explain and important for many reasons.   When I strike that match to my tinder I want to able to sick back and watch my fire without having to get up for more supplies for 10 minutes.

In order for this to happen you must prepare.  Rather than striking the match to your birch bark and placing a few twigs on the top and then running around collecting materials unsure of your fire's status, hold off a minute and think.

Prepare.  You require three sizes of fuel.  Tinder, Kindling and larger fuel.

Identify your fire location and prepare that area removing debris and equipment.  Travel through your area collecting that tinder, kindling and larger fuel.

Tinder being your natural accelerators such as birch bark, pine resin (sap), cattail and wood shavings.

Kindling being your dead twigs, lower dried branches of evergreens and split wood.

Larger fuel being a diameter greater than your thumb.  The drier the better and is usually best found from dead fall in your area.

Take 10-15 minutes collecting at least an arm full of kindling and two arm fulls of larger fuel.  Return them to your identified fire site and place them into two separate piles.

At this point you've collected enough fuel for approx. 1-2 hours of fire.

Depending on your preferred method of fire laying, whether it be teepee or log home, you're ready to construct the structure.

Once you've constructed the structure you will place your tinder on the bottom side ensuring that there will be enough oxygen passing through and that your fuel is close enough for contact.

When all of these items are in place it's time for you to strike that match.

With all of your preparation, two good piles of kindling and larger fuel you are well on your way to a successful fire.  With that successful fire comes heat, a cooking source and just as important as any of those, it will provide a psychological boost.

If you are in the throws of that winter emergency and you have a limited supply of lighting equipment you may only get one or two chances to successfully make fire.  This is no time to screw around.  If that match lights your tinder and you don't have enough fuel to support a fire because you rushed you will lose that fire.  If you lose that fire it may cost you your life.

Don't take the chance.  Prepare your location, collect tinder, kindling, and larger fuel, prepare your structure with tinder accessible.  Once that is all in place, take a deep breath, light that match and sit back and enjoy the heat produced from your 10 minute fire !

Practise.  Prepare.  Succeed !

Thursday, January 6, 2011

True Stress Relief

It comes as no surprise that the world around us has become an extremely hectic place.  Whether it be the traffic rush on the way to work or work itself,  we all face the reality that pulls us away from what we truly love - the great outdoors.

With the holiday season wrapping up I find myself trying to find ways to unwind and destress from the overwhelming responsibilities of creating wonderful moments while keeping everyone happy.

It brought to mind a meeting I once had with a primitive skills practitioner who once stated a truth that had never crossed my mind before but one I can't escape at times like these.

He asked me if I had ever travelled onto a well used trail and just found a place to sit.  To just sit and watch.  I of course said no.  He challenged me to do just that.  If you do, he said, you will watch many people who attend in hopes of relaxing and freeing themselves from their stressful lives for just a brief time.  However as they walk by you will observe that they move quickly, talk loudly, and see nothing !  Those people most in need of peace and relaxation will bring their city legs to the beautiful great outdoors.

It made me realize that just driving and parking at the trail head, throwing on your pack, tightening your hikers, checking your watch and blazing through the trail is not peaceful nor is it relaxing.

After that discussion I purposely travelled into the forest and found myself a suitable location to sit and did just that.  I sat there.  I sat for an hour.  Initially I could feel my body and mind fighting that desire to get up and move.  After awhile though I felt a sense of calm come over me.  I could hear the birds.  I could pick off the movements of squirrels and chipmunks playing amongst the trees.  I could hear and feel the trees sway back and fourth in the cool autumn breeze.

I had finally found my true stress relief.

I had finally slowed down enough to put it all aside and leave it at the trail head.  I didn't rush.  I had no external stresses that were overwhelming me.  It was true inner peace.

Since then I have embarked that wisdom upon my two boys.  They, as I did, initially found it hard to sit and just listen.  However I watched the transformation.  I watched their eyes wander through the forest observing, touching, smelling and listening.  It was an amazing moment.  It was a skill and a way of true stress relief that they may not have realized happened but hopefully can draw on as their lives become stressful and filled with deadlines and financial realities.

I realize that our lives are filled with time lines.  You may only have 2 hours to complete that 5 km trail and with map in hand you are concerned with not finishing it.  I get that.  I've been there. 

Next time just go and sit.  Place your pack against a tree and just sit.  Close your eyes and take in all the sounds and smells around you.  Find that place where you truly forget real life and all the stressful baggage that it comes with.  If you bring that baggage into the forest you will never truly experience what the great Canadian wilderness has to offer.

True stress relief.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Let's Have a Vote

I have always enjoyed good lively debate between a group of people educated and invested in a topic.  Survival is a topic widely discussed and as such many different views on skills, tools, shelters, hunting, primitive vs. new age, and earthly respect even during a wilderness emergency vary greatly.

I, like many others, glue myself to the television when shows like Survivroman, Man vs. Wild, Dual Survival, Ray Mears survival series, etc. come on.  Always looking to be exposed to new skills, a new mental approach and new secrets from mother nature.

I enjoy all of the TV survival personalities however being a survival instructor and life long student of the skills, some are far more informative and educating than others.

So, I thought it would be fun to have a poll for us here at Beyond the Fire School of Survival to see who our readers feel is the most compelling TV survival celebrity. 

Check out the right side of the blog and you will see the poll about halfway down, take a minute and vote.  I will display the results on the 11th of January.

Let the most compelling TV survival expert win !

Primitive Ways

The power of starting a fire by hand is an unmistakable feeling.  Whether by match, lighter or flint striker.  The feeling of peace and relaxation as you stand back and become mesmerized by the dancing flames and the warm, soothing heat that surrounds you is indescribable.  That fire mysteriously erases the stress of every day life.

However, there is truly no greater experience than watching a slow burning coal ignite a nest of grasses and cattail fluff into a beautiful flame.  There is a true sense of calm and peace that rushes through you when you successfully create fire for the first time by primitive ways.

There are thousands of books, TV shows and DVDs but none of these will prepare you for the harsh reality of primitive ways.  Anyone who is truly skilled in primitive fire making techniques will tell you that it is an endless journey.  You must devote time and energy into this skill.  It is not as easy as they make it look on TV nor is it ever a guarantee.

I practised for months with negative results before I was lucky enough to meet Chris Gilmour.  Chris is just an amazing instructor who is passionate about primitive skills.  On top of teaching proper technique and material selection, he taught a much more important piece of the puzzle.  He embarked upon us the importance of patience and mental mindset.

I have never felt the sheer exhilaration like I did that day I watched my bow drill create a coal that was nurtured into a flame that turned itself into a fire.  It was absolutely magical and filled me with a sense of pride I can't explain.

Primitive ways return us to a time and place when men understood how mother earth could provide them with materials needed to sustain life and help them survive the harsh climates of the Canadian wilderness.  It was a time when the pioneers, trail blazers and first nations people knew understood that mother nature was not there to tame or beat.  She was there to be respected and nurtured.  Primitive ways has allowed me to connect with nature in a way I never thought possible.

Since that first primitive fire, I no longer look at a cedar tree or cattail the same.  They have become gifts from the earth that allow me to provide fire, food and shelter for me and my family in a survival situation.

Primitive skills are not easily perfected.  They take a lifetime of practise and patience.  They will however provide you with a new found respect for the earth and for the persons who discovered the result of rubbing two sticks together.

Fire is life.  Why not learn how to create fire the primitive way. 

Your knowledge, skills and mindset are what set you apart from being a survivor and a person who will parish in a wilderness emergency.

Seek those opportunities to learn new skills. They may save your life !

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Almighty Coffee Can

While enjoying an amazing winter day at the Beyond the Fire bush lot with my kids and Instructor John, my kids did what kids do best - demand something not readily available.

The two boys took a brief break from their own little shelter building to demand a drink.  Neither of us had a drink on hand however trying to explain that to young children never quite cuts it.

So it was time to dig deep into the pack to find something capable of producing hydration for the hardworking survivorman wannabe's.

What I found was a piece of equipment that has been with every pack I have carried since learning the importance of survival preparation.  There has been no greater resource for me that provides the capability to provide shelter, make fire, food, hydration, keep snares, hold paracord, whistles, etc. - you get the point.

The Almighty Coffee Can.  Not one of those huge Costco cans but just your run of the mill Maxwell House 330 gram all metal tin.  Besides smelling great for months after the final scoop of coffee grinds have been removed, the coffee can provides a water proof house for many things.

The coffee can I have fits in my pack taking up a very small amount of space while providing an unmatched assortment of materials necessary to my survival and self rescue. 

When you're packing a kit bag to go camping, hiking, skiing or any other winter activity the weight and size of the pack has a huge effect on your energy, distance travelled and comfort level.  So you pack your kit bag for efficiency and effectiveness.  So with preparation in mind, what light weight, waterproof and rugged item is better than the metal coffee can.

Here is a list of the items in mine:
  • 20 ft of snare wire
  • 25 ft of paracord
  • whistle
  • compass
  • signal mirror
  • magnesium flint striker
  • multi tool
  • folding knife
  • 2 emergency blankets
  • 10 water proof matches
  • 2 Werthers candies
  • 2 tea bags
  • 2 hot chocolates
  • 1 Cliff bar
  • 5 large safety pins
  • 25 feet of 10lb test fishing line with 2 hooks
The options are endless, the storage ability is unrivaled.  The can becomes a boiling pot, a drinking cup, sap collector and even a rodent trap.

So, with snow slowly melted and eventually boiled Instructor John,  the two junior survivormen and myself enjoyed a hot peppermint tea courtesy of the almighty coffee can.

It seems so simple but it can never be argued that the contents of that little coffee can could save your life and allow you to self rescue from a winter emergency.

The next time your scraping the bottom of the coffee can, frustrated because you didn't buy a new one, just remember this post and don't throw it out.  Keep it and fill it.  It may save your life !

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Must Have

It goes without saying that when you spend a great deal of time in the bush learning and improving your bushcraft and primitive skill sets you will find equipment that you love and equipment that you believe the world could have gone without.

If you work in the wilderness or outdoor industry the equipment you carry must work.  It must be effective and efficient. 

Very few wilderness or outdoor industry workers will set foot off the helicopter into the great Canadian wilderness with a single piece of equipment that has not been tested by him or her to ensure it will work in the harshest of climates and environments.

Unfortunately many winter activity enthusiasts don't place the same importance upon testing and ensuring their equipment works and practising the skill.  They will buy equipment based on a checklist provided by the outfitter or advice from a retailer who has probably never used it.  They'll pack those items deep within their packs and not think another thought of those items until they're required.

So we here at Beyond the Fire feel that providing quality information about great products that can aid in your survival and self rescue is an important part of our mission.  We will endeavour to provide reviews that you can trust.  We will not regurgitate the companies tag line or online review.  Rather we will use it until we destroy it and review the good and the bad so that you can make an educated decision.

When we discussed what the first product we should review for the blog it was an easy decision.  It had to be for fire starting.  It had to be the best product I had every used.  So here it is !

Strikeforce by Ultimate Survival Technologies

This is a fire starting system which has an alloy flint bar, hardened steel striker, and the Wet Tinder product all contained in a great little case with lanyard weighing less than 4 ounces.

When my business partner dropped this product on my door step I thought "Great, another fire starter! Just what I need.."  Obviously overwhelmed and frustrated by the abundance of cheap, breakable and utterly unreliable fire starters on the market we ventured out into the bush to break yet another one.

This is where it get goods - I couldn't break it.  Not only could I not break it - I loved it.  Everything about this product lives up to the manufacturers claims.  I have had this fire starter for months and I use it an average of 10-15 times per week. 

I like this product so much that if I continue to write about it in paragraphs we will be here forever.  I would rather you spend your time buying and trying one for yourself.  So here is the condensed version of what I like and why I believe you need to buy one.
  • Steady stream of downward sparks strike after strike
  • Alloy flint bar takes continuous strikes and maintains ability without weakening
  • Striking when damp, cold, or wet produces the same amount of sparks
  • Case design contains all of the pieces as well as securing with a lanyard
  • A package of Wet Tinder is lodged in the but cap of the case for all time carry
  • Wet Tinder lights with one spark and maintains flame for 5-7 mins.
  • Wet Tinder will light even when soaking wet
  • Sparks produced are incredibly hot
  • Ease of use regardless of skill level
  • Leverage provided by case design reduces fatigue when using
  • Simple
  • Rugged
This product is the best fire starting tool I have ever used.  It is well designed, rugged, simple and in the end it works.  It works every time I use it.  I have abused this product and used it more in a few months than most people could ever imagine using it in a lifetime.

Its weight, its size and the confidence it instills make this product an absolute must for any survival or fire starting kit regardless of what your winter activity is.

Buy one - it may start the fire that saves your life !

StrikeForce Fire Starter