Surviving Alone In The Wilderness For a Month
Fifty miles outside defined civilization, I came to the end of an old forest service road. For the next month I’d be without electricity, Internet, potable water and most worrisome, contact from the outside world. It was the first step on an adventure that might end at my mental breaking point.
There was something fundamentally different about this Life List item compared to the other items on my list. While there was normally no discernible pattern to which items would intrigue any given person who saw my life list, this item was an outlier as it garnered a predictable reaction from a predictable group of people. Each time I mentioned my goal of spending a month in the wilderness, I received either a response of general skepticism (typically from my younger peers) or a sudden look of genuine intrigue (typically from men in my generation or older). Time after time, people stopped my girlfriend, my family members and myself to discuss this specific goal. This goal struck a nerve with a primal part of humanity that is still lurking in much of the population.
Before I detail the logistics of this experience (gear, training, daily routine), let’s get into the weird stuff! What crazy stuff happened?! What did I learn?
Noteworthy Anecdotes & Experiences (The Weird Stuff!)
Part of My Tooth Fell Out! – About half way through the experience I was minding my own business and eating my 45th consecutive meal of rice when suddenly I chewed something hard. At first I thought it was a piece of uncooked rice but upon further inspection I realized it was part of one of my teeth. I panicked for a bit (critical dental problems were one of the things on my short list that could send me home early. Think about the tooth scene in Castaway.) In response, I prematurely diagnosed myself with scurvy. I then went to my first aid kit and started eating vitamin C tablets daily. Upon getting home and seeing a dentist, I was informed that one of my fillings had come out.
Audio Hallucinations – I had a lot of audio based hallucinations (around 20 daily) while out in the woods. These ranged from hearing my name called to alien noises coming from the sky. My theory with audio hallucinations is that since the human brain works so hard to convert sounds into language all the time, that during my time in the wilderness, my brain worked to convert non-human sounds into human language. This was confusing and had unnerving results.
Visual Hallucinations – While audio based hallucinations were slightly funny, visual hallucinations were downright scary. I vividly remember seeing a man in grey and white military camouflage standing in a defensive position against a tree. This made me jump with fear. Upon looking again, I realized there was nothing there at all (not even a bush that looked like a person) and I realized that I had imagined the entire episode.
The Bow Hunter – While out in the wilderness I did see a few people. The most noteworthy occurred when I was walking through the forest during a small rain storm. Deep in thought, I was startled when a bow hunter (complete with bow, guns and scopes) jumped out from behind some trees. Apparently he had been tracking me. He was quite lonely and wanted to make small talk. I was polite but kept the conversation short as I didn’t want to chat. It turned out he was also a digital marketer. I most definitely didn’t want to talk after learning that!
The Forest Cable – About 2/3rds of the way through the adventure I stumbled upon an old cable in the ground. Being on the verge of losing myself, I convinced myself that the cable had only two possible purposes. Either it was connected to a million dollars or it was connected to a dead body. In my mind, it could serve no other purposes. Eventually I got the nerve to start pulling the cable. As I pulled, it kept tugging back at varying strengths. After pulling for about 10 feet, I lost my nerve and ran away!
Unsuccessful Fishing – I went fishing often. Despite trying multiple locations, multiple baits, multiple techniques (traditional, trotline, gill net) and multiple hours of the day, I never caught a single fish. In fact, during the entire month, I only saw one trout!
The Teenage Frog – One evening before the sun went down I heard a very unusual sound from a frog. In a voice that sounded exactly like a sarcastic teenage girl, the frog said “ribbet!” with a tone that made it sound like a fake frog that was angry it had to show up for work so instead did its job with a sarcastic voice. I could practically see the frog rolling its eyes.
Who Are You Calling Paranoid!? – For no reason that I understand, I became very paranoid of the idea of other people finding me. Several times I became very anxious and started sweating when I heard what sounded like human voices.
Plant Mole – There were mole-like creators that lived under the ground near my camp. It was not uncommon to hear their scratching under the surface of the ground. One day, as my eyes darted toward the source of the sound, I distinctly saw the animal pull an upright flower straight into the ground! It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon in real life!
Peanut Butter Mind Expansion – About half way through the experience, I decided to eat a packet of peanut butter that I had planned on using as bait for trapping. It was the first source of saturated fat that I had had in nearly two weeks and it tasted delicious! About 20 minutes later I was amazed as I felt my brain abilities expand (probably just back to normal, non-fat-deprived levels). I thought to myself that I must tell everyone about this feeling once I got home! I had discovered something amazing! Several minutes later I realized that mankind had already discovered similar and more powerful substances. We call these drugs. :-p
Wilderness Sense – For the first few days as I scouted the land, I was surrounded by what was to me essentially anonymous green plants. However, starting on day 4, I started to regain what I call “wilderness sense”. Like a sailor who finds his sea legs, I was able to see subtle changes in the forest and I started to notice a plethora of important plants. These instincts have been so vital to humankind that I believe they are still a part of us today but we only notice them if we put ourselves out in nature.
A Wealth of Useful Plants – I spent a lot of time studying plant identification while out in the wilderness. (See books list later in this post.) I found this quite enjoyable and I got moderately good at it. While I wanted to eat everything I found, the literature made a very clear and smart point. The books argued that new foragers should never starting eating what they identified (even if they felt they were correct) when they were alone in the wilderness and still new to plant identification. They argued it is in this exact situation that most plant identifiers get themselves into trouble. This seemed like solid advice and I followed it but it meant I couldn’t eat most of what I found.
A Wealth of Animals and Insects – I knew from an intellectual perspective that there were lots of animals and insects in the Pacific Northwest but it wasn’t until this trip that I realized on an emotional level how vast their numbers were.
Biphasic and Polyphasic Sleep Cycle – I didn’t use artificial lights so when the sun went down each night, I was basically forced to try to go to sleep. This led to an interesting effect. The time between sundown and sunrise was roughly 12 hours but I was only able to sleep for about 8 hours each night. As such, I fell into a biphasic sleep cycle which means I’d sleep for about 4 hours, be awake for about 4 hours and then go back to sleep for another 4 hours until the sun came back up. From previous reading, I knew that this cycle was normal for most humans before the invention of artificial light. I had known that people slept like that but didn’t know the reason (12 hours of dark but only the need for 8 hours of sleep) for this phenomenon until I experienced it myself.
Time is Relative – On an intellectual level I understood that time was relative from a scientific perspective (The General Theory of Relativity) and that it was relative from a experiential perspective (Ex. Waiting in line to use the restroom) but I didn’t realize how slow time could pass. Alone in the wilderness, I experienced the longest days of my life. The last 10 days were especially grueling as I was incredibly lonely and ready to return to society.
Firecraft – The achievement that I was most proud of during this experience was my improvement at firecraft. As a Cub Scout and later as a Boy Scout I learned to start fires with lighters or matches. This was fun but completely bypassed the hardest part of making a fire. In the field, I quickly learned that the hardest part of making a fire is actually starting it. Sparks were easy to create using friction (from a ferro rod) but going from spark to tinder to kindle was much more difficult than I had imagined. After many hours I got the process down to the point where I could reliably start a fire with only a single spark. See video below.
Trapping – I spent a lot of time studying trapping while I was out in the wilderness. I had figured that it was going to be a key source of food for me. As I did my research I was incredibly surprised to find that I couldn’t make myself trap an animal. I have absolutely no problem killing animals for food. Hunting? No problem. To my surprise, I learned that I feel differently about primitive trapping. Primitive trapping (with the notable exception of deadfalls) was just too inhumane for me to participate in without actually needing the food for survival. (The best traps only injury the animal rather than kill it as to not allow the meat to spoil. This means the animal either is trapped in pain for hours until it is killed or it is forced to bite its own limb off to escape.) I was very surprised that I came to the conclusion to not trap. I generally have a tough skin and am quite practical when it comes to survival but there was something in me that just wouldn’t allow myself to do this.
Loneliness: The Importance of Other People – By far the hardest part of the experience was the depth and duration of my loneliness. I felt a terrible despair that really rocked me to my core. I thought of people constantly and had enough time to think about each year of my life thus far and the people who had affected me during that time. I normally spend a lot of time alone and enjoy doing so. I realized during this goal though that while I had experienced home sickness before, I had never really experienced loneliness. It cut deep and was extremely difficult to deal with.
In order to pick my gear I had to define why I was going into the woods. I could theoretically bring an RV and live much like those in the modern developed world. Alternatively, I could bring absolutely nothing, that is, go full on wild, and almost assure my premature death. My goal was to go as primitive as possible but with a stated goal of surviving. This might sound obvious but it is a subtle point that makes a big difference in mindset. I strongly believe this mindset is what gave me an advantage over others like Chris McCandless (Into the Wild). With mindset confirmed, I made three rules that had important exceptions.
- Gear must not utilize electricity *
- Gear must promote living off the land and reusability
- Every piece of gear must serve multiple purposes
* I did make several important exceptions to the first rule. All of these were done intentionally as a means of decreasing the risk of preventable death. These exception items were:
- 1 one-way personal location beacon (see the orange SPOT tracker in gear list below),
- 1 HAM radio in case of critical emergency,
- 1 head lamp for critical emergencies and
- 1 camera to be used only on the last day for documentation purposes.
Other than those items, I kept strict to my gear rules.
My goal was to live off the land as much as possible but I made the intentional decision to bring enough food rations to prevent me from dying if I was unable to secure food. Normally I eat around 3000 calories per day. On this trip, I was planning for less than half of that with 1,200 calories per day. These rations included:
- 50 cups organic Long Grain Rice (Lundberg’s Wild Blend) – This ended up being too much
- 10 cups Red Lentils
- 12 bags assorted Beef Jerky
I knew going into this Life List item that boredom was going to be a real and serious concern. The body can go without activity for days with only minor negative effects but the mind suffers from inactivity after relatively short periods. (This is the reason meditation is so difficult!) Boredom is the first step toward making poor decisions.
In order to combat the threat of an inactive mind, I brought a large supply of books. Normally the amount of books I could pack on a camping or hiking trip would be limited by weight. For this month long excursion, this was not a problem as I knew I could make as many trips as necessary between my car and my camp and after reading the book, I could burn them for heat and cooking. (For the record, it is a very strange feeling to watch the face on Ben Franklin’s autobiography burn as you heat your shelter… Sorry Ben but thanks!)
(Asterisks are my ratings out of 5)
- Bushcraft 101 – Dave Canterbury (*****)
- Dune – Frank Herbert (*****)
- Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl (*****)
- Native Trees of Western Washington: A Photographic Guide – Kevin W Zobrist (****)
- SAS Survival Handbook – John Wiseman (****)
- The Illustrated A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking (****)
- The Singularity is Near – Ray Kurzweil (****)
- Pacific Northwest Foraging – Douglas Deur (****)
- Forging the Rocky Mountains – Lizbeth Morgan (****)
- Wilderness and Remote First Aid – American Red Cross (****)
- Walden – Henry David Thoreau (***)
- The Trapper’s Bible: Traps, Snares & Pathguards – Dale Martin (***)
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – Benjamin Franklin (***)
- Track Finder: a Guide to Mammal Tracks of Eastern America – Dorcas S. Miller (***)
- Advanced Bushcraft – Dave Canterbury (***)
- The Trapper’s Bible – Jay Mccullough (***)
- Practical Guide to Northern Idaho’s Edible Wild Plants – Steven Gilieb (*)
Gear is only one part of the survival equation. It is almost useless without proper training and experience. To prepare myself for this adventure, I took several classes which were tremendously practical and valuable.
7 Day Survival Walkabout
This training experience was incredibly practical, interesting and useful. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in wilderness survival. Led by an exceptionally talented and experienced staff (a botanist, a naturalist and two trackers), I along with about a dozen other people ventured out into a unknown location to live extremely primitively in the wilderness (we didn’t even have sleeping bags or matches and for the first 3 days we didn’t eat anything except for insects and tiny plants).
You can find more details on this 7 day survival walkabout here.
The last day on this training exercise ended up being one of the funnest days I have ever had in the wilderness.
NOLS Wilderness First Aid
This was interesting and practical. The staff at NOLS was extremely experienced and knowledgable and as a result of their teaching, I felt much more confident alone in the wilderness. They didn’t sugarcoat the subject (they told us that while CPR was useful and important in the normal world, in the wilderness survival courses it wasn’t taught as the survival rate of people who need CPR in the remote wilderness is almost zero)
You can find more details about the class here.
A Briefing with Retired Green Beret, Brian Morris
I was exceptionally fortunate to have the chance to talk with Brian Morris, a former Green Beret (special thanks to Kris Roadruck for making the introduction!). Among many other things, Brian taught me about the system he used for ensuring his survival, PACE and the Pillars of Survival:
Pillars of Survival
Each pillar, all critical gear and every plan had to then follow the PACE framework:
For example, for water filtration my PACE plans were:
Primary – Gravity filter
Ancillary – Boiling
Contingency – Life Straw
Emergency – Iodine tablets
Solo Treks (Minimal Supplies, Overnight)
Several times before my month long experience, I went out into the mountains outside of Seattle to field test my gear and my body. Each trek was overnight, remote and extremely light on gear (no tents or sleeping bags). I hiked into a pre-determined remote area and slept alone on the ground. This helped boost my confidence alone in the wilderness.
A month in the wilderness is a very long time. Time appears to move slowly and boredom and loneliness become real phycological dangers. After the first several days of random activities I learned that to stay sane, I would need to add artificial structure to my experience in the form of a daily routine.
- Wake up at sunrise
- Signal girlfriend/family that I was alive
- Carve notch on time keeping stick (to help me keep track of how long I had been out there)
- Eat breakfast (rice and beef jerky and water)
- Go for walk through forest (about 2 miles)
- Practice a skill (animal tracking, fishing, knot tying, wilderness first aid, etc)
- Make fire and cook rice
- Nap after eating
- Practice a memorization skill (phonetic alphabet, wilderness first aid acronyms, plant identification)
- Go for walk to get water
- Go for short walk
- Read until sunset
- Sleep for about 4 hours
- Lay awake for about 4 hours
- Sleep for about 4 hours until sunrise
Day 1: Adventure! I dropped off stuff, cut down time stick. Scouted.
Day 2: Explored south, found water.
Day 3: Explored north.
Day 4: First day with “forest eyes”. Noticed a lot of animal tracks, subtle changes with the forest.
Day 5: Saw elk herd two arms lengths away!
Day 6: Officially tired of rice.
Day 7: One week! Talked with car.
Day 8: Fishing, first day that felt long.
Day 9: Fishing under natural bridge, first day all natural fire.
Day 10: Big rain storm! Something followed me.
Day 11: Peanut butter mind expansion. Found chipmunks, turkeys laid eggs!? Removed empty fish traps and nets.
Day 12: Read, feeling confident with fire. Feeling lonely. Anxious for half way point.
Day 13: Realized long walks made time go faster and made me tired which meant more sleep which used more time!
Day 14: Great mood today! Made it half way! I think I also finally understand general relativity. [I was reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time]
Day 15: More plant identification studying. Big breakthrough with next chapter of life. Early retirement (financial independence) and focus on cultivating relationships (2017)
Day 16: Very excited about Life List deadline event. Barely slept. Saw first trout today!
Day 17: Was hunted by a bow hunter today. Nice guy! Also part of my tooth fell out.
Day 18: Last night I saw “the eyes“. Today was a lot of reading, Walden. Thoreau is very long winded. [“The eyes” refer to 4 eyes I saw at night while I was peeing. I believed they were owned by wolves or coyotes. In the morning I inspected the tracks and learned that they were deer.]
Day 19: Stressed out about work contract. Annoyed that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Day 20: Irritable, lonely, missing girlfriend.
Day 21: Hard day, cabin fever, hallucinated.
Day 22: Made huge progress on plans. Freedom Money Project. Felt a little worn down because I miscounted days left but ended the day feeling happy and hopeful :-)
Day 23: Both a long and a short day (long day, short hours). I am anxious to get home.
Day 24: Missing friends (especially girlfriend) but feeling value of thinking time.
Day 25: Lonely but otherwise satiated.
Day 26: I heard a frog say “ribbit” exactly like a sarcastic teenage girl. It repeated 10x.
Day 27: I saw a plant get pulled into the ground by a mole-like animal!
Day 28: Very excited to be almost complete.
Day 29: I’m feeling a mood of reflection and appreciation.
Day 30: Back to civilization!
What Would I Do Differently Next Time?
1. Bring a Better Knife
The knife I brought was decent but not ideal. After about a week it lost its sharpness and even after sharpening it, it never returned to an ideal tool. While I was still able to carry out my tasks, my subpar knife slowed me down and in some cases wore me out.
2. Bring a Firearm
I intentionally did not bring a firearm with me on this experience. My rationale was that since I didn’t plan on hunting (only trapping), a gun had more cons than pros.
This turned out to be idiotic logic!
A gun would have been tremendously valuable from both a safety and practical perspective. Had I brought a gun, I not only would have been able to improve my firearm skills, I also would have felt much more confident in the woods.
3. Be Strict on Not Prematurely Releasing “My Parachute”
Twenty days into the experience, I made the mistake of prematurely releasing “my parachute“. By this I mean, I started mentally checking out well before it was logical to do so. This resulted in me having the longest 10 days of my life. After prematurely starting the check-out process I found it hard to start ambitious projects and felt my loneliness grow. Each day dragged on longer than the previous day.
4. Crutch Cabin
I want to be fully transparent that I had a cabin while on the land! My intention was to use it as an emergency shelter. During my training programs before the expedition, the instructors emphasized the point that I should not go without each of the five pillars of survival on my first long-term solo expedition. While I think their logic was sound and improved my survival chances, I think having access to a cabin provided me with a crutch that weakened my efforts. I used it extensively on a rainy day and in hindsight I don’t feel good about that. Important note: While cabin had some modern amenities, I elected not to use them.
5. Fix Broken Notification Signal Timing
One of the first things I did every day was use my SPOT one-way personal signaling device to signal to my girlfriend and family that I was still alive. (They received a predetermined message that said I was okay and were provided with my GPS coordinates) I gave my girlfriend strict instructions that if she didn’t receive this message by 4:00 PM on any given day, that she should call search and rescue. My rationale was that I should do this first thing in the morning as I would have no way of knowing what time it was otherwise and by doing it first thing in the morning, I would never forget if I had done it for the day already.
This turned out to be unintentionally dangerous.
If I would have critically injured myself any time after sending the signal on a given day, my girlfriend would not have know I was in danger until 4:00 PM the FOLLOWING day (more than 24 hours later). This oversight could have killed me. If search and rescue started looking for me after 4:00 PM the following day they would have been at a great disadvantage as a full day might have passed and a nightfall would have started soon. While it is true that if I was critically injured after signaling for the day, I could have theoretically used the signaling device to signal for help, this was not a guaranteed option. Even the best technology breaks and if I was injured from a fall or as the result of water, the chance of the technology breaking increased dramatically.
To solve all of this, I should have used a system where I signaled at mid day or possibly multiple times a day (such as, waking up, eating lunch and going to sleep).
Conclusion – Looking Back On The Experience
Living alone in the wilderness for a month was the most insightful experience that I have ever had. At the same time, it was tremendously physiologically taxing. While I would certainly do 2 weeks alone in the wilderness again, I would not do a full month alone again. That said, if I had other people with me, I would be willing to go longer than a month.
My biggest surprise was that I did not miss or even really think about the things that I thought I would miss. I never missed electricity or the Internet. I did not miss modern conveniences (plumbing, air conditioning, central heating). I didn’t even miss music or art.
I did however miss people. I missed people a whole lot! In my mind I stepped through each year of my life and revisited the times and people who have affected my life. I constantly thought about people and felt a real loss in not having access to them. I was lonelier than I ever thought possible! This loneliness proved to be the greatest teaching tool I experienced during my month in the wilderness as it reinforced the value of all of my relationships in an extremely visceral way.