“Many hands make light work”

Survival skills are all well and good but I suspect almost everyone underestimates the time it takes to complete even the most simple of tasks when out in the wild, particularly if you are trying to complete them all on you own.

Ijapanese_lashingf you watch tribesmen setting up camp, hunting or starting a fire on some TV documentary they are almost invariably doing so as a group.  There are good reasons for this.  Hunter-gatherers were exactly that – one group would hunt for protein, another group would stay close to camp and collect resources and edible plants to provide carbohydrates.  The point is that in situations like these, where survival is difficult, the work load is shared out and those humans who act co-operatively are the ones who thrive.

This is the contradiction at the heart of a lot of survival prepping strategies – the idea that you can run for the hills and live off the land, alone but safely hidden from the rest of society, is a short term solution.  Long term survival is best done by forming groups and working together.

Even something as simple as starting a fire takes more time than most people imagine, particularly in damp conditions: you need to search for and collect firewood, find tinder, prepare kindling, split wood, prepare the fireplace, get an ember … and all this can take time.  A lot of time.  

If, on top of that, you have to do all this alone and have other things to do before darkness falls (build a shelter, find water) then you may well find that you run out of time and pay the price.

There are four important lessons I have learned the hard way:

temple_fire21) set up camp early; on the equator the sun sets just after 7pm, so set up camp around 3-4pm, or earlier.

2) Prioritise the tasks you need to complete before the sun sets.

3) Know how long each task will take (think you can quickly build a shelter?  Try it one day and time how long it takes you).

4) Remember the ‘good enough’ rule:  don’t waste time making the perfect shelter if you can get away with something that isn’t perhaps as elegant as you’d like but more-or-less does the job and takes a fraction of the time to construct.

The last point is what I trying to demonstrate in this video about the temple fire.  I came across the design for this in the SAS Survival Handbook by Lofty Wiseman (a book I have a lot of fondness for and, despite its limitations, well worth the price) and the idea is to build a fireplace that elevates your fire off the wet ground, provides a drying station for damp firewood and a roof to protect from the rain.  It’s a neat idea.

The problem with something like the temple fire is that, assuming you are on your own, it is time consuming to make (it took me over an hour and that was with the help of plastic sheeting for the roof).  There is a simple alternative which is to use soil and stones to raise the fireplace and simpler ways of creating a rack on which to dry damp firewood (to be fair to Lofty Wiseman’s book he does cover this as well) – an alternative that does the same thing and takes about 10-15 mins from start to finish.

So why, you might ask, bother making a temple fire in the first place?  The reason I would recommend trying to do so is that it gives you excellent practice in shelter building techniques, teaches you how long construction of these structures is likely to take, makes you more aware of ways to cut corners that will save you time and build with the minimum use of resources (also saving you time).

In terms of techniques, some lessons I have learned are:

temple_fire1) If possible, look for a site that has suitable trees to act as support columns for your structure.

2) Try to avoid square/cubic designs – triangles and tripods are more stable structures particularly if you’re forced to make it freestanding.

3) Try to avoid structures with many lashing joints and, if you do need to do lots of lashings, then look around for some rattan (which is the strongest cordage to harvest) or vines (the fastest to harvest).

4) Use lashings that are quick and easy to tie – the Japanese lashing method is, hands down, the winner here.

Only when you’ve done it for yourself will you fully appreciate how long it takes to build a shelter and how tricky it can be if you’re doing it on your own.  Building a temple fire will teach you all of these things as it is , after all, just a miniature version of a full sized shelter.  So its a great way to practice.

Finally, a few things to remember when you are drying a stack of firewood over a fire:

1) Don’t leave the fire unattended or allow it to burn high enough that the flame ignites the drying firewood above.

2) Split the firewood before you put it on the drying rack – that way it will dry faster.

3) When taking wood from the stack, take from the bottom of the pile.  This means that you are using the driest wood and gets it out of the way, allowing the heat from the fire to reacher the damper wood on top.

I honestly believe that even someone who had never built a shelter before in their life could work out how to do if they found themselves in a survival situation – it’s pretty obvious – but someone who already has experience of doing so will do it much, much faster and build something that is more stable.