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Many of us would love to be able to take a few weeks off and travel to a remote, privately owned forest where we can practice wilderness survival skills without fear of violating a city ordinance or, perhaps worse, incurring the wrath of our homeowners association. The reality, though, is that unless we're somehow picked for the next round of contestants on some goofy reality show, we're not going to be doing a lot of primitive camping any time soon. We simply don't have the time for an extended trip. And if we did, most of us can't afford it (not all of us have the scratch to fly to Jasper National Park in Canada or the rain forests of Costa Rica).
Fortunately, these skill sets don't require a background of towering pines and the gurgle of a babbling brook to be successfully learned. Many of them can be practiced right in your own backyard. Doing so has a milder impact on your wallet — plus, if things go awry, help is likely just a scream away.
The ability to reliably make fire under both ideal and adverse conditions is one of the most important survival skills to master. Plus, you earn massive field cred when you're able to get a fire going where others have failed.
Backyard Bonfire: Even if there are city restrictions on what you're allowed to burn and when, I doubt there are any rules at all dictating how the fire is started. Many homeowners have invested in some sort of patio fire pit in recent years, whether it is a permanent brick structure or just a metal bowl that gets moved off to the side when the kids are playing basketball. Either way, they work great for practicing your pyrotechnic talents.
Spark Selection: Try using a variety of different fire-starting tools and techniques, from the reliable butane lighters and strike-anywhere matches to ferrocerium rods and perhaps even the bow drill. Don't overlook the magnifying glass or the fire piston, either. Practicing these techniques in the backyard is a great way to learn which are easiest for you to use and under what conditions each seems to work the best.
Tinder Finder: If you lack natural materials to use as tinder, mimicking what you'd find out in the field, search for “Michigan Wildfire” on Facebook. Their fire kit consists of about a dozen different types of natural tinder, a full pound of it total, along with a custom-handled ferrocerium rod. The materials, such as birch bark and chaga fungus, are all separated and labeled, making it a great tool for learning how to use varied materials in fire-making.
Fuel Placement: Try out different fire lays, too. Most of us are familiar with the teepee fire lay, where you build a cone of sorts out of kindling over the tinder bundle. How about the Dakota fire hole? You won't be able to use your patio fire pit for it, but it can be very useful out in the field. Dig a hole about 10 inches deep and maybe a foot in diameter. Dig another hole the same depth but half the diameter, about 18 inches from the first one. Then, dig a tunnel to connect the two holes.
Sounds like a lot of work, I know, but it's worth it in the end. Build your fire in the larger hole. Once it starts burning well, it will draw air through the second hole, causing the fire to burn hotter and consume the fuel more efficiently. This results in far less smoke being generated, making the Dakota fire hole a great option for keeping things on the down low. Plus, it is quite easy to lay a few green branches across the fire hole, on which you can place your pot or pan for cooking.
Make no mistake, cooking over an open flame outdoors is as much art as it is science. While campfire cooking traditionally means impaling something on a stick and holding it over the fire until it burns, with the right tools and some practice you can cook just about anything. The following are some considerations.
Coal Cooking: First things first, though. You don't cook over the actual flames, you cook over the coals. Those provide a much more consistent temperature. Flames will reach up and scorch the food, leaving the outside burnt to a crisp and the inside cold and raw. What experienced camp cooks will do is get a good fire going, then once it dies down, scrape the coals to the side for cooking.
Side Burner: Another thing to keep in mind is that most grills, unless they have a side burner, are horrible when it comes to boiling water. They are very inefficient because the heat kind of goes everywhere rather than focusing on the bottom of the pot. You folks who sprung for the side burner feature, though, are good to go.
In theory at least, anyone can heat up a can of soup over a campfire. But, if your outdoor cooking experience tops out at turning hot dogs into briquettes, you have some practice ahead of you.
Cookware: For potentially long-term situations, consider investing in at least a couple of cast-iron pots, such as a deep skillet and a small Dutch oven. While you can sometimes get by with using your normal kitchen pots and pans, they typically aren't made to withstand the higher heat generated by a campfire. They may warp or bend, and plastic handles will almost certainly melt. Good cast iron isn't cheap but, if cared for properly, it will last several lifetimes.
I will readily admit that I am a die-hard carnivore. A meal just isn't a meal unless something had to bleed before it hit my plate. That said, if I'm hungry and the only food available has leaves on it, I'll be filling my plate with greens and possibly coming back for seconds.
Being able to not only recognize wild edibles in your area, but knowing how to properly use them can be a crucial life-saving skill. Rather than trying to properly identify a whole ton of plants most of the time, concentrate on being able to identify a short list of plants all of the time. The goal here is to learn what you can put into your belly to stop the missed meal cramps, not give a botany lecture.
Edible Education: Start by visiting your local library for a few books on wild edibles in your area. Two references I highly recommend are the Peterson Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson and The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer. See also “Urban Foraging” in Issue 8. An important thing to remember is you'll need to be able to identify the plants at various stages of their development. Many guides only show what the plant looks like when it is ready for harvest. By knowing what the plant looks like as it grows, you can spot it earlier and note the location for later.
Plant Compatibility: Another important aspect of wild edible gathering and use is that just because the plant is edible doesn't mean it will necessarily agree with you. We all have certain foods that just don't get along with our digestive systems. I'm not talking about being lactose intolerant or having issues with gluten. I'm referring to the fact that many of us are no longer able to wolf down Taco Bell at 3 a.m. without some serious repercussions. The same basic principle applies with wild edibles. Each person's body is different, and the body changes over time. Learn what you can eat safely now, when medical help, as well as working indoor plumbing, aren't issues.
Continuing Education: Another possible learning resource is your local county extension office. They are the folks who manage the Master Gardener programs. Reach out to them and find out if they have someone who is well versed in wild edible identification who could work with you for an afternoon or two. You might be surprised — there could be existing classes you could join.
Animal Analysis: Identifying animal tracks is a great way to learn what animals are living in your area and thus would be available as a potential food source, should the need arise. Back to the library you go, this time for a couple of books on animal tracks. The Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks is a good place to start, but don't overlook the children's section of the library, too. Many of the advanced guides have so much information it can be overwhelming. You probably aren't interested in the mating habits of the Eastern Humped Whatsit; you just want to know what made the tracks that lead to and away from your upended garbage cans.
Get Outside: One great thing about winter is that snow allows for easier tracking. Rather than just staying bundled up by the fireplace, only venturing outside when your paycheck is threatened, take some time to get out there and practice tracking. Learning to identify prints is just the first step — you need to practice following the trail as far as you can. This is something you can read about, sure, but you'll never be any good at it unless you spend some time outside.
As he recalled later, this is right where he lost most of his readers. I know, exercise isn't all that high on the fun list for most people. But, the fact is, poor physical conditioning will be a hindrance in a true survival situation. I'm not saying you need to be a fiend about lifting weights and running laps until you are in such good shape that you cause professional wrestlers to stop in their tracks. But, if you can't walk from the kitchen to the upstairs bathroom without getting winded and there's no underlying health issue at work, you need to get your heart rate up a bit every now and again.
Get a Checkup: Before embarking on any sort of exercise routine, you should probably get the all-clear from your physician. The last thing you want to do is end up hurt or worse when you've finally decided that while a sphere is indeed a shape, it isn't the shape you want to be in any longer.
Move Your Butt: If it's been years since you put on gym shorts, start small by walking the perimeter of your yard. Or, do a few jumping jacks on your back patio — anything that will get you up off your butt and working up a little sweat. (Check out the Health column in this and every issue of OG for more fitness ideas.) You don't need to invest in a fancy workout machine or even a set of free weights. Join your kids in a game of tag. Play catch with your family.
Grab a length of clothesline and start jumping rope. If your neighbors look at you funny, remind them that if the zombies do come, you don't need to outrun the brain-eaters, you just need to outrun the neighbors.
No matter what your living situation might be, you should be able to find some space for practicing some survival skills every now and again. It might require some creativity on your part, but being able to think outside the box is a survival skill in and of itself. Don't get wrapped up in finding reasons you can't do these things. A true survivor never gives up.
An easy dish to make while you're camping — whether off the grid or in your backyard — is something this author likes to call “campfire potatoes.” Here's the recipe:
Add some hamburger, peppers, and other goodies before tossing it on the coals, and you have a meal fit for a grid-down king.
If it's truly a long-term grid-down situation, you're going to want to try to salvage the refrigerated and frozen foods as best you can. It might turn out that the best thing to do is to cook as much of it as possible and have a little feast. That's preferable over letting it all just go to waste, right?
Meat can be cooked on the grill, of course. Invite the neighbors over and have a cookout. Hopefully they'll have buns that match what you're serving. Hot dogs can be sliced for hamburger buns, but burgers on hot dog buns is troublesome.
Frozen Fries: Many of us have one or more bags of frozen French fries in our freezers. Here is one way to make use of those fries before they defrost: Take a sheet of foil, lay it on a counter, and spray one side with nonstick cooking oil. Toss a few handfuls of fries on the foil, then wrap them up. Cook this over hot coals for about 20 minutes or so, moving it around every now and again to shake up the fries so they don't get burnt. Once the fries are about done, open the foil and pour a can of your favorite chili over the fries, then sprinkle with cheese. We always have a bag of cheddar or Colby mix on hand for quesadillas and such. Wrap the foil closed again and put back over the coals for five to seven minutes. When the cheese is melted and the chili is warmed through, unwrap the foil and grab a fork.
Frozen Veggies: Of course, you can always make vegetable soup with all of your frozen beans, peas, and such. Add some pasta noodles to boiling water, toss in chicken bouillon and veggies, then simmer until the pasta is tender. If you cook up a chicken breast and dice it for the soup, so much the better.
Premade Dough: Refrigerated dough, such as the kind that scares your mother-in-law when you pop it open, can be cooked over the fire, too. Take the dough and roll it into a snake, then wrap said snake around the end of a stick that is roughly an inch thick. Hold it over the coals and turn it slowly to avoid burning.
Dairy: Milk should be consumed before it goes bad. Eggs will last a fair length of time without refrigeration so put those toward the bottom of the “Need to cook before it might kill you” list.
Take a peek in your freezer and refrigerator today. What foods do you routinely have on hand that you'd want to cook up before they go bad? How would you prepare them?
Dandelions are universal. There just aren't too many places where dandelions don't grow, at least not in the United States. The entire plant is edible, despite the general “milky sap means bad” rule of thumb.
Garlic mustard is the bane of oh so many homeowners. It is extremely invasive and will take over a flower bed in no time at all. A great way to get rid of it is to eat it. All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves have something of a bitter taste so some folks like to cook them or at least mix them with other vegetables rather than just eating them raw and alone.
Clover can be eaten raw, though the taste is improved a bit by boiling. Up to you whether you want to check for any having four leaves before munching them.
Many plants tend to get bitter as they grow and plantain is no exception. The leaves are best when fairly young.
Wood sorrel grows almost everywhere. The roots make a good alternative to potatoes after boiling. The leaves are typically eaten raw.
As you research wild edibles in your area, don't be surprised if you find out a fair number of them are usually thought to just be invasive weeds. That works in our favor, though. The gardening rule of thumb has always been if it pulls up hard, it is a plant. If it pulls easy, you're holding a weed.