The Guy’s Guide to Surviving the Wilderness

Couple Camping And Sitting Around A Fire In The Mountains

We’ve gone soft. Spoiled. We’re coddled by smartphones, GPS-controlled, and won’t cut the cord to the Internet. It’s gotten so bad we need smart watches (or fitness trackers) because our phones are just too damn far away.

But what if technology breaks down? What if we’re stranded in the wilderness? What if our camping trip goes to hell? We need training!

That’s why early one morning I left my Brooklyn home and hopped on a train to the forests of Upstate New York. I’m off to meet outdoor guru Shane Hobel, head of Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, NY, which teaches classes like Animal Tracking, Tree ID, and Fire 1, Fire 2, and Fire 3. (They don’t screw around with fires.)

When I arrive, Shane picks me up in a van packed with gear. He’s in his 40s—tough, wiry, with a thousand-yard stare—but looks 28. He nods at me. Curt. “The four most important survival skills are food, water, fire, and shelter,” he says as he drives us into the wilderness.

“Oh, God,” I think, and look at my phone with panic. “No service.”

Fire it up

Shane leads me down a twisty path through the woods, all the while pointing out rare birds, trees, and boot marks. “See this trail of footprints?” he asks. “I see it,” I lie—all I see are leaves. (This type of conversation happened a lot.)

He starts our training with fire (for more advice on how to get a fire going, check out this step-by-step guide). This makes sense, as fire isn’t just central to survival but as linked to our manhood as the ability to change a tire, throw a ball, or copulate. “Grab more kindling than you think you’ll need,” Shane says. “And get it from more than 100 yards away from your shelter—that way, you’ll still have some nearby later.”

I scrounge for twigs and branches. Shane shakes his head. “Smaller,” he advises, then gives a rule of thumb: The first kindling layer should be as skinny as pencil lead, the next as thick as a pencil, then a pinkie finger, index finger, then thumb. The thinner the wood, the easier it is to light.

Once we’ve collected enough skinny branches, we arrange them into a vertical tepee, of sorts (flames like to climb), stacking the pencil-lead twigs against one another, then layering on the pencil-thick twigs, and so on. “Don’t leave a gap between layers,” Shane warns, “or the first will burn out before it torches the next.”

Next he whips out a made-in-the-wilderness “bow saw”: two pieces of wood and a thin strand of rope made from tree bark (for instructions, go to He “saws” the rope against a third piece of wood, back and forth, faster and faster, harder and harder, creating friction.

I give it a try—after three back-and- forths, the wood flies from my hand. Damn it! I make another go at it… and once again lose control. A third time—better. “Faster,” Shane urges. “Almost there. Look!”

And sure enough, I’ve created smoke! I think about jumping around like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Shane finishes the job by lighting a spark and placing the tiny flame into the kindling tepee, which lights the first layer of pencil lead. Then the pencils. Pinkie. Index finger. Thumb. Soon we have a mini inferno.

“The fire will make charcoal,” says Shane. Just outside the fire, he digs a little hole, scoops in some just-created charcoal, and repacks the dirt. Presto: instant seat warmer.

Be a piss artist

Now we have a fire. Next, we need drinking water.

Many trees have “water vines” that look like branches. “See that?” Shane asks me, pointing up. “It’s full of water.” We cut it open with a machete, and out come a few drops. But what if that’s not enough—or if, like me, you can’t tell a water vine from a tree branch to save your life?

“Then you can drink your own pee,” Shane says. Wait. I didn’t sign up for this.

“You find some soft ground,” Shane says, pointing to the dirt, “dig a pit about a foot deep and a foot wide, and take a leak in it. Then you put an empty cup at the bottom.” Cover the pit with a tarp, a garbage bag, or even a piece of clothing; pile dirt on the edges to keep it in place; and put a small stone in the center, so it sags.

Next step: Go to sleep.

By the next morning, the condensation from the mud, and your piss, will be clinging to the bottom of the tarp and flowing down (due to the sag) into the empty cup. And voilà! Fresh(ish) water.

Final step: Five years of therapy to erase this memory.

Don’t bug out

I now prepare myself for the ultimate outdoor survival hack: eating bugs.

That’s what they do on all those man versus wild shows, right? So I peer into the brush and begin hunting for, say, a plump caterpillar. “Don’t eat insects,” Shane warns, looking at me like I’m insane. “Why the hell would you want to eat bugs? Some of those reality shows are dumb.”

It’s true, he explains, that many bugs are packed with protein—but unless you lug around an insect manual, it’s tough to tell which are dangerous.

There’s a better way, he says: Eat dandelions, plantains, and cattails, which are common in forests and offer vitamins and antioxidants. “Mother Nature’s always giving, you just need to know where to look.”

Rock it like The Revenant

Our final task: to create a debris hut—the shelter that basically saved Leonardo DiCaprio’s life in The Revenant.

As we walk deeper into the forest, Shane scours the terrain for clues that could spell the difference between life and death.

Me? I’m just trying not to trip on my own boot laces.

He asks, “See those trees that are a little bent?” I look up. Not really. They all look pretty straight…hold on. He’s right. It’s subtle, but some are bent in one direction. “Don’t stay under those—they could fall in a storm.”

Shane’s quick and dirty hut-building lesson: Find two tree branches about four feet long that have a Y at one end (where another branch has broken off); stick them in the ground about four feet apart and lean the tops (the Y part) against one another. Now take a third, very strong branch, about twice as long as you are tall, and lay its end in the Y’s of the two sticks to create a long tripod. Coat the ground with leaves, then lean smaller branches against the long one to create something of a mummy’s coffin.

Plug the gaps with twigs, then fill in the rest with leaves, more leaves, and more goddamn leaves. You should have so many leaves you never want to see a leaf again—then add more leaves. (Leaves are your best friend in the cold, Shane tells me: “Crumple a bunch up and stuff them into your clothes—instant insulation.”)

The finished hut should be just big enough to lie down in and will keep you warm even in subfreezing temperatures. “You can make it in 90% of the world, and it’s effective 90% of the time,” he says.

Essentially, it’s the Sex Panther of wilderness survival.

Our day is done. We walk back to the van, me feeling (somewhat) more confident I could survive if the shit hit the fan, but also humbled by how much we modern men have forgotten. This has whet my appetite. I’ll come back and test myself again.

And if I can’t build a fire, quench my thirst, fill my belly, and sculpt a shelter, I’ll just ask Siri to call me a Lyft.

@JeffWilser is the author of Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life.

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