After just one afternoon with a trained survivalist, I feel more confident about hitting the trail, pretty badass about my new survival skills, and oddly more empowered as a person.
Making fire by friction—you know, like with two sticks—is an extremely meditative process. I say this as someone who's done it (and developed a whole new appreciation for the miracles that are matches in the process). It takes a wild amount of concentration and patience—there's the furious rubbing, followed by the careful collection of the smoking bits of sawdust that it produces, the painstakingly careful blowing on said sawdust to get it to smolder, and then the holding of your breath as you carefully transfer that spark into something that will actually burn—you wait forever for the teeniest lick of a flame.
Making fire was just one of a long list of vitally important wilderness survival skills I learned while hiking with Michael Ridolfo, a naturalist and trained survivalist at Mohonk Mountain House in the mountains north of Manhattan. My wilderness safety crash course left me feeling cooler than Cheryl Strayed—and also hoping that I'll never actually need to use any of these skills on a hiking adventure gone awry.
"You don't purchase health insurance in the hope you'll get sick—that would be insanity," Ridolfo told me. "It's the same with survival skills. I'm not on a quest to be a master of survival skills and praying for a zombie apocalypse so I'll get to use them. I hope I never have to use them."
As Ridolfo puts it, educating yourself about the beauty and danger of spending time in nature is like life insurance—knowing some survival skills before you hit the trail could save your life.
The benefits of hitting the trail this fall are easy to list. Research shows that the physical act of spending time in nature has a serious psychological effect. A 2015 study from researchers at Stanford found that hitting the trail for just 90 minutes can lower activity in an area of the brain associated with negative thoughts and mental illness. But we often forget that heading out on the trail, especially alone, can also be risky as hell. A wrong turn on a hike can leave you lost as evening approaches, a twisted ankle on a trail run can leave you stranded with no way to get back to your car (check out 8 Essential Safety Tips Every Trail Runner Should Know), a sip from an unsafe stream on a camping trip can land you in the hospital.
"You need to pay attention," says Ridolfo. "You need to participate in your own survival." Even if you have no interest in learning to make fire, being aware is the number-one thing you can do to think like a survivalist and stay safe when you head out on the trail. "You could be the fittest, best-equipped person on the trail, but if your awareness sucks, you're a candidate for getting into trouble," he says. "There is absolutely no substitute for awareness."
Whether you're heading out for a casual hike to nab those fall foliage Instas or grabbing a backpack for a fall camping trip that looks like it could give Cheryl Strayed's Wild pack a run for its money, here are the nine survivalist skills you need to know to keep yourself out of trouble—and stay safe if something does go wrong.
To prevent an oh sh*t moment...
The whole point of taking the time to learn some wilderness safety skills is that you'll hopefully never have to use them. Do these five things to help keep yourself out of danger.
1. Know your limits.
Don't get cocky. If you're not an experienced hiker, this is not the time to show off by choosing the most advanced trail. It's easier to get in over your head in the wilderness than you might think, says Ridolfo. Remember, warnings on the trail are there for a reason.
2. Know your gear.
Even if you're just heading out for a couple of hours, a few key items tossed in your backpack might just get you out of a pinch. Number one, always bring extra water or a water filter and a couple of snacks. Secondly, you should always pack a small first aid kit, an extra layer to protect you from the elements (think a light jacket that can provide added wind and rain protection and help shield you from the sun's rays), and an extra phone battery (even if you don't have service, you'll be able to access your phone's compass). And since (trust me) you don't want to be lighting a fire the old-fashioned way, it's not a bad idea to toss in the book of matches you picked up at the bar.
3. Practice a few survival skills.
It's not enough to have a few emergency items in your backpack. You still need the skills to use them. A lighter in the hands of somebody who doesn't know what to do with it isn't very effective. "If you take a lighter and just try to light a big chunk of wood, you're going to get very frustrated when that doesn't work and you run out of lighter fluid."
The solution? Practice. If you hike with matches, practice using them to start a fire in a barbecue grill at the park. If you're hiking with a water filter, make sure you've tested it out once or twice so you know how it works. Don't wait until you're desperate for a drink and trying to read some diagram. Practice reading a paper map when you're on your regular commute so you'll know how to do it out on the trail. "There's no substitute for training," Ridolfo says.
4. Don't believe everything you see.
Mother Nature can be a master of deception. Recently on a hike on a scorching hot day in Yosemite, I ran out of water. Though I knew I was only about an hour from a ranger station, I still felt like a desert wanderer seeing an oasis when I happened upon a clear stream—but was it safe? "Not all clear water is safe to drink," Ridolfo told me when I asked him what the best call would be in that situation. "Likewise, some nasty brown ponds are totally safe."
If you happen upon a tempting stream, the first thing to do is check for any signs of visible contamination (like a dead animal) upstream that might make the water unsafe. Secondly, evaluate how easily you'd be able to get to a doctor in the next 24 hours just in case sipping does make you sick.
The same approach applies to any berries or leaves you encounter on the trail. Edible flowers and forest foraging might be super ~trendy~ but unless you know for sure what you're eating, steer clear. One handy rule of thumb Ridolfo gave me: If a plant has thorns and opposing leaves (meaning they point away from the stem to make a V shape), it has edible fruit.
5. Play it extra safe when you're solo.
When you're pulling your own Wild and heading out alone, play it extra safe—even if it's a trail you're totally familiar with, a twisted ankle means you're stranded. "When I'm out alone, I'm extremely diligent about where I place my feet and paying attention to where I am, because the consequences could be grave," Ridolfo says. "Whenever I've injured my ankle, it's been when I kinda took my eyes off the trail and really wasn't looking where I was walking."
In the midst of an oh sh*t moment...
To keep a misstep from turning into a life-threatening situation, remember these four survival skills.
1. Don't panic.
The number-one thing you can do is stay calm, says Ridolfo—panic makes it harder to make smart decisions. That's easier said than done. "What I recommend to people is to take three to five minutes and just breathe," he says. "Then think your scenario through." Are you really lost? Think about how you got to where you are. Can you retrace your steps? Are there any familiar landmarks? If you're injured, can you still walk? Crawl? "Get as much information as you can about your situation and get as much data on your side as possible," Ridolfo says.
2. Know your stats—and your priorities.
"If you're healthy, most people can last three days without water, and three weeks without food," says Ridolfo. Your most urgent priority is finding or making shelter, he adds—even it's not the dead of winter, the temperature can drop to dangerous levels overnight. To make a shelter, remember your favorite childhood fall activity and collect a massive pile of leaves and debris—we're talking huge, several times your size—and crawl in it. The leaves will act like a giant sleeping bag to keep you warm through the night.
If you get stranded, remember your priorities in this order: shelter, water, fire, food.
3. Get creative.
In the afternoon we spent together, Ridolfo encouraged me to get out of my creative comfort zone—a skill you need to stay sharp in the wilderness. Think of any problems you encounter as creative thinking puzzles. For example, how can you collect the dew that collects on plants and use it for drinking water? "How about taking a cotton shirt and using it to sop up as much dew as you can and then wringing it out?" says Ridolfo.
4. Think of failure as feedback
No matter what kind of sticky situation you're in, try to think of your missteps not as failures, but as valuable information that can help you keep moving forward. "There's no substitute for experience," says Ridolfo. "Your 'failures' just go into your experience and build your character and make you more tenacious."
Developing a set of survival skills that are as badass as Ridolfo's might realistically be out of reach for the average day-hiker like me (for an entire yearlong camping trip, he challenged himself to only have hot food or drinks if he could create the fire himself from scratch—major props). But even taking an afternoon to pick up a few tidbits and spend a little time thinking about how to prevent the need for wilderness survival skills made me feel significantly more confident and oddly empowered.
"Participating in your survival is very empowering," Ridolfo told me before we returned to the land of running water and readily available matches. "There's a tremendous sense of freedom and empowerment in having even just a few survival skills." From now on, that's the one thing I won't be hitting the trails without.