Words and pictures: Richard Croasdale
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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I’m sitting on a tree stump, having skipped breakfast, wearing skinny jeans and no midge repellent, with a rucksack full of beer in a primeval-looking forest. “When you’re in a survival situation – maybe your car has broken down in the highlands, or you find yourself cut off by the weather – the first thing you’ll want to do is sit down, take a deep breath, and take stock of your options and resources,” says my infinitely more prepared companion for the day, Primal Bushcraft & Survival’s Paul McCusker. Clearly, this is not what I want to hear.
Fortunately, Paul and his colleague Laura have brought enough survival toys (and knowledge, of course) to keep even the softest, most metropolitan beer writer warm and dry should society suddenly collapse. Personally, I’m here raise my outdoor game a little – on the basis that beer tastes best after a long hike with a tent on your back – and to find some wild ingredients for our summer office brew (see page 45).
“We always talk about the ‘rule of three’ when it comes to sorting your priorities,” continues Paul. “In extreme conditions, you can generally survive a minimum of three hours before things like hypothermia get you. Then you can survive for three days without water and food, though it will become increasingly difficult to function over that time. Then you can survive three months cut off from the rest of the world – if you’re completely isolated for longer than that, your mental state can begin to deteriorate seriously.”
In many circumstances then, the first thing you will need to think about is finding shelter, probably constructing something with whatever you have around you. While there are several basic designs to choose from, we decide to go for a classic A-frame shelter, which should give us plenty of protection from the elements and take the three of us about 30 minutes to put together.
First task is finding three fallen branches to make our basic frame: one long and straight, and two shorter, ending in forks. These three branches lock together with the long, straight limb (trimmed of any spikey bits) forming a central spine from the apex down to the ground. Once this is up, we gather shorter fallen branches to form regular ribs down the sides of the frame, layer these with thin sticks and bracken, and then pile leaf brush on top to a depth of about a foot. This last stage takes forever, but does result in something that looks remarkably competent and is, I’m assured, pretty rain-proof.
Awash with accomplishment, I crack open a round of beers from last month’s South Africa box. I get the sense this isn’t what usually happens during Paul and Laura’s survival workshops, but they have the good grace not to let me drink alone, and we sink a cold one sitting in the mouth of our temporary home.
Next up, we move to another part of the forest, to go through some knife and fire-lighting skills. During the walk, we talk foraging, and Paul recommends a classic nettle beer for the office, as it’s the perfect time of year to harvest nettles and they’re all around us. I agree. He and Laura go on to guide me through some of the other edible plants we encounter on our way, including Sticky Willy (delicious – who knew?) and wild mustard garlic, with its beautiful flowers and pungent leaves. Laura becomes a bit locked onto the idea of finding something called Pig Nut – a delicate white flower with a macadamia-flavoured rhizome just below the surface of the soil – but despite much digging, we never find one.
Eventually reaching a clearing with several felled logs for seats, Paul shows me a few very basic knife techniques and some general rules for staying safe (see box out) and we set to work making temporary tent pegs as practice. We have the land-owner’s permission to be here, and to thin out the long, straight sycamore saplings all around us, so we identify a plant that Paul says will never become a tree and start sawing.
“You wouldn’t normally do this unless you had permission,” explains Paul. “You certainly couldn’t just go to a national park and start sawing down saplings to use. Bushcraft has got a bit of a bad name recently, because people go out and try to replicate what they’ve seen on TV, cutting things down without understanding their impact and making a real mess. A key part of good bushcraft is conservation and leaving nothing behind.”
Having ‘mastered’ the cuts required to make a basic tent peg, it’s time for lunch. And for lunch, we need fire. Paul and Laura have brought along a selection of fire-starting tricks and tips, ranging from the relatively modern through to the Neolithic, and we’re going to try them all. First up, we have cotton wool with a dab of Vaseline, and a modern fire stick (basically an easy-to-use update of the classic flint and steel). A couple of sparks is all it takes to send the fluffy ball into a jolly but short-lived flame; a fluffed up tampon daubed with chapstick apparently works just as well in a pinch.
Next we use a ‘fat stick’: a short piece of wood saturated in pine resin. We only need a few scraped shavings and another spark to get a small flame from this. Moving onto a traditional flint and steel (or quartz and steel – flint doesn’t really get to Scotland), I’m shown how a piece of char cloth can be laid on top of the stone and – with patience – catch a spark to smoulder slowly. Finally, and most demandingly, Paul demonstrates the iconic ‘bow drill’ in which a wooden spindle is spun using a long bow, on top of a flat piece of wood until the hot sawdust fuses and creates a fragile ember. I am entirely hopeless at this one, but Paul reassures me it takes hours of frustrating practice to master.
With all of these techniques except for the conveniently flammable cotton wool, the tiny orange ball of heat created must be coaxed into a more impressive flame through several stages. We use dried grass as our tinder, making a round nest in which the ember is enclosed and repeatedly blown upon until the whole bundle erupts into flame. Onto this we gradually add kindling: thin, dry twigs which burn quickly and will sustain the fire once the dried grass begins to fade. If the ground is wet and you can’t find any dried twigs, take a wrist-thick piece of dead standing wood (so, away from the damp ground), split it with a hand axe and gently shave layers of its dry interior into long, curly fronds – this makes amazing kindling.
We gradually build up the fire with larger pieces of wood until it’s contained but burning well, and ready for some chorizo and tomato kebabs. Paul assures me these are the very best things to eat off a camp fire, and to be honest I’m not sure I’d argue with that. Paired with a mug of instant soup and another South African beer, the kebabs leave us fortified and ready to set out again, but not before tidying the site and making it safe.
“It’s very important to put fires out properly before leaving, even if they look dead,” says Paul. “Douse them with a lot of water so there’s no chance they could start up again and burn out of control. The only way to be sure is by running your hand through the wet ashes, which should then be picked up and scattered, and kick scrub back over the fire site. We don’t want someone else coming through and thinking this is an established place for lighting fires – they might not know what they’re doing.”
Thankfully, Paul and Laura have brought a spare pair of thick gloves, which makes the nettle-top harvesting a lot easier, and we quickly amass a good crop for our brew. On the way back, we chat about life, nature, and the other wild herbs and funguses we could potentially use to flavour beers throughout the year. As Laura had remarked earlier, there’s something about this sort of environment and activity which brings out the best in people, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed (not to mention the sense of achievement that comes with starting a fire with a knife and some rocks). No wonder beer and the great outdoors go so very well together
WORKING WITH SHARP STUFF
I’m so uncoordinated that my primary school had me sent for tests, but I still managed to spend the day chopping and whittling without bloodshed, thanks to these handy rules:
When working with a blade, don’t open it until you’re ready to use it, and close it as soon as you’re finished.
Sit or stand in a stable stance. Crouching on the balls of your feet is a great way to end up with a knife in one eye and a pointy stick in the other. Not a strong look.
Always work away from your body, and consider where the blade would end up if it slipped. There are recommended ways of holding the knife and the item you’re working on – Google it, or better yet take a course.
Make sure there’s nobody else within stabbing distance. The reach of your knife arm is known (rather theatrically) as your ‘blood bubble’. If someone strays too close, tell them to get out of your Grylls.
Our sincere thanks to Primal Bushcraft & Survival – particularly Paul, Laura and Matt – for their generous help. The guys run courses ranging from basic day skills, through to overnight survival adventures and luxury island hopping experiences. If you were interested enough to read this feature, we’d strongly recommend visiting primalbushcraftsurvival.com to find out more.
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