True North Blog

Using the Outdoors to Find Your Bearings

Using the Outdoors to Find Your Bearings

Usually at some point while teaching a wilderness survival course, I explain to a class that the skills and knowledge that they are acquiring isn’t just limited to dealing with an emergency situation in a remote outdoors location.  Their wilderness survival ability is also applicable to Life in general.

That’s because survival isn’t really so much about how much gear that you have in your backpack, or how much specialized training that you have.  Rather, in any survival situation, it’s what’s in your head and heart that most matters.

So if you want to be a good survivor, and even test your chances of being one, oftentimes you can just look to see how you are “surviving” in your daily life.  This may sound odd, but the simple truth is that the hardships that we sometimes experience in our daily lives — whether being laid off unexpectedly from a job; being diagnosed with a disease; or experiencing the disintegration of a treasured relationship — generates many of the same psychological and physiological responses that you would experience in some outdoors emergency.  After all, finding yourself “lost” in your life is really not so different from being lost in the woods.

Ultimately, then, working up the courage to put one foot in front of the other, even at the risk of stumbling, is, no matter the location, the essence of a survival.  And using the outdoors to test ourselves, perhaps even to help maximize our front-country lives, is a trait of the survivor.

A good example of this can be be seen in the present efforts of Rachel Buehner, a recent True North survival course graduate, who is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  The particulars of this endeavor, and why she is doing it, I’ll leave to her by giving you a link to her blog, Finding My Bearings.

Since Rachel is away on the trail now, I’m not able to request her permission to post this particular entry, which follows her Basic Wilderness Survival course this past March, as I typically would, but I don’t think that she will mind.

RB01It’s been three weekends full of high emotion.  I haven’t been able to take a step back and take it all in until now.  I’m not even sure where to begin processing everything.  I used to be able to cry like nobody’s business.  Now I find myself trying to force tears out with a dry face.  Is the world making me hard?  Is my heart becoming trapped?  How do I break free again… to feel all the things I’m too scared to feel?  I know the wilderness will help.  It’s all going to be too much at times for me not to cry.  I hope it helps.  I hope it heals.

My wilderness survival weekend was a reality check.  That is not to say it wasn’t a total learning experience that I’m grateful for.  I showed up at the trailhead the only girl in a small group of males.  I don’t know why I was surprised by this, but I figured it was something I should probably get used to.  We hiked through snow down into the campsite, me breathing hot air into my drinking tube to keep in from freezing.  I knew it was going to be cold, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for how cold it would really feel being outside for 24+ hours.  The low for the night was 15 degrees.  The day went smoothly enough, learning about shelter and gathering firewood.  The highlight of the night for me was when I successfully cooked dinner for the first time on my camp stove!  Thinking I wouldn’t finish all of my instant (eww!) mashed potatoes and BBQ salmon, I was pleasantly surprised by the time I got down to the last two bites.  How delicious!!  Maybe I can do this after all.

Crawling into my tent that night, I was happy to have my heavy Patagonia baselayers to sleep in.  What I failed to realize was all of the other factors that go into keeping you warm in sub-freezing temps.  I probably could have eaten some more to generate my internal engine.  I layered up in the rest of my clothes inside my 20-degree bag, laying on a borrowed sleeping pad, trying to get comfortable laying on my side.  I wrapped my fleece jacket around my feet… my back got cold.. laid it under my back… my feet froze!  Two pairs of wool socks and my toes are still numb.  Why did I sign up for this again??  But the worst of it all was that I had failed to impress upon my brain the importance of actually drinking enough of my water, regardless of a frozen drinking tube.  By morning, I had managed to get maybe a few hours of sleep before I heard my name being called.  I lifted my sleeping bag to attempt to crawl out.

*sniff sniff*

Is that cat piss I smell??  Gross.  I smell like piss.  Guess this is going to be my perfume for the summer.

I supposed I haven’t yet perfected the art of peeing in the woods.

As I gathered my things for the morning, I wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in a blanket, wearing sweats, inside my warm house.  Fifteen degrees is much too cold for my taste.

RB02Walking out to the campfire, I thought if I just sat there for a little, I’d warm up, make breakfast, and feel better.  I was wrong.  In addition to my frozen tube, I’d also forgotten to sleep with my extra water bottle.  It was frozen, too.  Dehydration was setting in.  My fellow comrades and instructor were kind and supportive, allowing me to head back to my tent as I felt dizzy and lightheaded.  One gave me his water.  I felt pathetic.  I was embarrassed.  I ate some trail mix, drank the water, and willed myself to give it another go.  Three minutes by the fire and I was starting to black out again.  I got back in my tent as the instructor brought over his own sleeping pad and bag to help warm me up.  While he was so helpful, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “what if I was out here alone?”  I went into sort of a philosophical dilemma at that point.  Laying inside the cocoon of two sleeping bags, trying to think of anything but how cold I was, I started to think about myself and my life.  People are always giving me a hard time about being taken care of and letting others do things for me.  I always thought that behind all that, I was still pretty independent.  I mean, I went to London for six weeks and made sure I didn’t miss out on anything just because I was scared to do it alone.  I’ve walked around New York and San Francisco by myself.  Ilike to do things for myself!  But what if I can’t do this?  What if I get myself into a similar situation on the trail and need to be taken care of?  Will I know what to do?  Will I have the strength to do it?  I don’t know.  Three letters kept popping into my head – PMA.  I repeated them over and over.  “Positive Mental Attitude.”  It’s what we had been taught that weekend was the number one priority of survival.  “I know I can do this,” I reminded myself.  I ate the energy chews that one of my outdoor survival coursemates kindly offered and drank the water that was given to me.  About two hours after I had tried to get up the first time, I regained the strength lost by lack of water, and pulled myself together.

RB03Needless to say, this was a learning experience, and that’s exactly what I took away from it the minute I felt like a human being again.  I was able to laugh about it, while also knowing that I could have helped myself evade the situation altogether.  When it’s all said and done, however, I know that I am the kind of person who learns best through experience.  If it took this one rough night to teach me the importance of staying well hydrated and making sure I can keep myself warm, then it was worth it.

And as for the smelling like piss, well, maybe that will keep the bears away.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook.

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