Friday, 31 December 2010

Figure Four Deadfall Trap

It's a rubbish trap for tons of reasons, but I made one as an exercise with the the chaps from Natural Bushcraft on one of the meets some time ago and it appears that someone has made a page about it:

I'm so proud :)

Here's the original video:

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Night Owls

You may have noticed that my posts often come late at night. Why is this, you may ask yourself. The reason is simple, my day consists of tasks which have specific or limited time frames. Meals times, school runs, phone calls, house work and even socialising fall into prescribed parts of the day. Writing is not subject to a particular time and hence finds itself slotting into the first available period outside those which are bounded.

This is also the case with certain actions and operations in a survival context. Darkness imposes a massive impeding factor on most things you want to do outside. In the RNLI, we say that everything to do with Search and Rescue in the dark takes around eight times as long as it would in daylight. I don't know if you've tried even going for a pee in the dark in the woods with no torch, but you can image it's an absolute pain with all the roots and brambles just waiting to trip or ensnare you. Imagine now, trying to build a shelter, locate dry firewood or collect water in the depths of night with no light source. These are the sorts of thing you want to do in daylight, when they are far easier.

What we are toying with now are the kinds of decision which represent the macroscopic prioritisation needed when applying the high level rules of managing a survival situation. It is generally accepted, outside of the certain arctic and tropical areas, that shelter is the first priority after managing further danger and injury. This is a simple application of a 'what will kill me first' rule; the elements are going to have you, so protect yourself from them. On courses, we generally start the day at 10:00am and there is much daylight to begin building a shelter, fire, consider signals, locate water and maybe even some food. Take a moment to consider how this situation might be altered if we started at 6:00pm, in the rain, in January. Here, knowing how our bodies can survive wet over cold, we might prioritise firewood and simply keep ourselves warm through the night until morning, when daylight once again gives us the opportunity to work more effectively.

Again and again, I have seen clients fritter away the time they have before useful daylight has passed. In the woods, this is easily an hour before that of open ground, but even with this warning, I have seen countless cups of tea brewed whilst firewood piles lay wanting or shelter roofs remain unfinished. This is partly naivety and a bad estimation of the duration of critical tasks, part knowing that this is a course and nobody is going to die, but mainly a lack of prioritisation of operations for which night time has a limiting factor. On longer courses, certainly ones in the winter months, this soon changes after beauty sleep is interrupted by cold or rain. All of a sudden, the benefit of that immediate cuppa pales into insignificance compared to the fatigue and discomfort associated with a damp, fireless night.

Never underestimate the amount of time it takes to perform such tasks as building even temporary shelter, lighting a fire or collecting wood. I noted on a recent course that even with a fire steel, lighting fires after dark, when the air was cold and riddled with moisture, was significantly harder than an hour before the sunset. Use your time wisely, it is a resource like any other and deserves to be used efficiently. Once established with shelter and fire, times of darkness, cold and even rain can still be used effectively for such tasks as water treatment, cooking, bedding construction, tool or cordage making and if you have a Bushcraft bent, spoon carving.

If you find yourself in a genuine survival situation, and I hope you never do, consider the effects of darkness when formulating your initial plan. Use your available daylight effectively and think about what you can still do in partial or fire light. If nothing else, this will save any torch batteries you have, but ultimately may make all the difference to you getting out alive.

Dear Deer

Today, I encountered a couple of cars blocking traffic. I got out to see if I could help. This wasn't entirely altruistic, I simply wanted to get home in finite time. It turned out that one cars had hit a roe deer making a complete shambles of the bonnet. The second had been the following car which had subsequently turned around and plonked itself on the opposite side of the road. The deer was still in the road and one of the passengers from the impact vehicle was directing traffic around it. The police had been informed and were en route, but it had been considered important to leave the poor dead deer in the middle of the road in case it had to be 'inspected'.

After quick analysis, it was clear that the impact driver was in shock, the following driver was acting on what seemed sensible, even though it wasn't and the person directing traffic was making the best of a bad situation. I quickly took charge, explained that the deer's position was not important, the traffic needed to flow and that it was best that the following car return to their original carriageway and double the flow of traffic. I picked up the deer and threw it onto the verge which elicited an "oh" response and people got on with the business of moving cars. I went on my way.

The 10-80-10 Rule is one which applies to disaster situations and describes the immediate response of those affected.10% of people become leaders, formulate a plan and help others. 80% of people engage in what is basically shock (acute stress reaction) and results in abject inaction or a daze. This state can last from as little as a couple of minutes, up to, in some cases, two or three days. The final 10% act inappropriately and can cause more problems than those doing nothing. In extreme cases, these people can be violent, so watch out for that.

I'll leave you to decide which of the people, including all those in the traffic, had been affected and where each fit into the rule. All in all, it was a small scale matter and my only regret is that I couldn't quickly think of a good way for the deer to now be hanging in my shed waiting to become next Sunday's roast.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Don't Panic!

You don't have to find yourself in a plane crash or earthquake to start applying survival techniques. In the UK, we are more likely to find ourselves affect by flood or cut off from our day to day by the snow. This winter, as seems to be an annual event, the British roads were crippled by a snow storm leaving countless motorist stuck out in the cold.

North Devon - 2am
How inconvenient it was for our weather system to dump a pile of snow on the roads eliciting the slightly late response of a fleet of gritting lorries to cover the road in salty goodness. This did nothing more than create a slushy film on top of an already compacted layer of snow which subsequently froze solid when the temperature dropped below minus seven, which is when the salt stops doing its job properly. Nightmare! My poor mate spun his little Cleo and reverse parked it into a ditch. With the RAC being frankly rubbish, he took refuge in a parked lorry, gave us a ring and asked us to come and pick him up. We packed a 4x4 with sleeping bags, shovel, basha, bow saw, hot chocolate and a pack of mince pies, stuck The Greatest Rock Album in the World Ever on the stereo and went to get him ourselves. He was extremely grateful and we only took the piss a little bit.

I had my own encounter with this phenomenon at one of the sites which is accessed by a long track. Without the benefit of a gritter, this track had developed a pair of icy lanes simply by the sun melting the top layer and it freezing again. I set off slowly from the top of the hill, testing my brakes as I went and it was all going well until I got close to the gate which I'd have to stop to open. Did I stop? No, of course I didn't. I couldn't even get out of the ruts and onto the fluffy stuff, the car kept sliding back down into the slippery bit and it was only by the grace of a few protruding stones that I managed to get enough traction to stop. Inching my way down, I managed to get through the gate and faced stage two which became steeper and culminated in a short glassy run to the main road. If that wasn't enough, my handbrake, which had recently had the cable replaced, was not holding consistently. I couldn't go forwards, backwards, turn around or stay still without having to be in the car myself. I did the only sensible thing I could think of; I lit a cigarette and phoned my assistant instructor to come down and get involved in the comedy.

He arrived, rope in hand wearing a deserved smirk. First we chocked the car, lit another cigarette and sucked air through our teeth. We figured that if the car was going to keep sliding, our best plan was to create an area with traction and attempt to brake before hitting the road. We stuck a few branches further down the track, just in case. Having identified the flattest section, we tried chipping it, deicing it, throwing neat screen wash on it. Nothing worked.

Plan B involved creeping down the hill then using a bit of power to get off the shiny bit and on to the side. This turned out to work well and even though it was not an exciting or technical solution, I eventually made it down the rest of the track. My colleague directed the traffic to stop and I made it back onto the tarmac and went on my way, albeit an hour or so late. I ended up returning in the dark, parked at the pub and walked up through the woods back to site. Thankfully, I always keep a torch in the car.

The moral of these stories is one of anticipation, preparation and that if all else fails, ring your mates and they'll come and help. They might make it more of a mission than necessary and they will almost certainly have a good giggle at your expense. It is important remember your priorities in these matters; protection from further danger, analysis of resources, protection from the elements and if self rescue is difficult or dangerous, enlist the help of whoever you can. Whatever you do, don't get stuck, take risks or try to man your way through a tough situation. Don't underestimate the time these things take and plan for the worst at each stage.

Be safe on the roads this winter readers. My advice is to assume you'll get affected by bad weather and always take a tool kit, sleeping bag, first aid kit, waterproofs, rope, small shovel, plenty of spare screen wash and a working mobile phone with a car charger. Ensure your car is in good working order, especially the brakes and don't wait until your tires become illegally bare before changing them. All in all, know the limits of your vehicle and don't take risks.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

My birthday falls far too close to Christmas for my liking, but it is with eager anticipation that I await the moment when the unwrapping may begin having waited 363 days since the last episode. This year, I was very happy to receive some really foodie presents; fine wine, single malt whiskey, chocolate, coffee and cheese; perfect for the man that really has no interest in cuff links, ties, slippers and ... hold on, no, I do like really good socks.

Whilst munching my way through a cold venison and piccalilli sandwich this boxing day, I cast my mind back to the last course I'd run, which had been mid December in Gloucestershire. There was snow on the ground then too and I remember distinctly standing around explaining, as I do, that there was still food to be foraged to the apparent disbelief of the clients who had basically resigned themselves to an evening meal of snow and icy mud pies.

There are around ten thousand edible species in Europe alone. Early man in England would routinely use a couple of hundred wild foods, whereas modern man uses far less. Thankfully, you don't need to know hundreds of plants in order survive; just think for a moment about the number of different vegetables an average teenager eats, they don't die from that diet, so there is no reason to die from what seems like a limited diet in the wild. If you know six or seven prolific plants in your area which cover a range of types then survival is possible.

Season is just one of the factors which affect wild food availability, and winter does pose a challenge, but it doesn't mean there is nothing. On that particular week, we came across:

  • Nettle
  • Bramble
  • Dandelion
  • Sorrel
  • Plantains
  • Silverweed
  • Burdock
  • Rose Hips
  • Haws
  • Beech Nuts (very few)
  • Jew's Ear

That's a fantastic selection of leaves, roots, tubers, nuts, fruit, seeds and fungi giving anyone a good balanced diet in a survival situation. The clients were genuinely surprised as to how many of them they already recognised and the fact that a diet of these alone would be sufficient to live.

Of course, there are many more wild edibles available in the winter months, but they generally don't all hang out together. We were in a mid successional woodland consisting mainly of Beech and Hazel. There is no Pine there, for instance, which is an excellent source of Vitamin C throughout the year.

Don't be concerned about learning every single wild edible, it's a never ending task and though enjoyable, can be seen as a mammoth task which many people give up on before they start. Instead, learn enough plants so that you'll find half a dozen or so at any time of year. If you're lucky enough to be trekking through an unusual environment, like the rain forest of South America, take the time to learn a dozen plants which you could eat, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself in a genuine survival situation.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

To begin at the beginning ...

There were the birds, the bees, nappies, school, measles, digging holes, eating dirt, grass stains and cut knees. I was a child of the seventies and I wanted to be either a naturalist, an archaeologist, a spy or a vampire hunter. My natural state was filthy, I ate black berries, wild strawberries and violets; the only edibles I could positively identify and I was not into TV. I was destined for a career outdoors, no doubt about it.

My most prized possession was a set of so called 'survival binoculars', which had an integrated compass and could be used for all manner of exciting outdoor activity. They could be folded and fit neatly into my pocket. I took it everywhere, just in case. Later, my dad bought me a pocket knife; it was very sharp. This, together with my folding binoculars, some string, a couple of dirty plasters, a Duracel torch and a water bottle, with a camouflage case, became my essential outdoor adventuring kit. I needed nothing more.
I became interested in the world of survival through Combat and Survival magazine, a biweekly publication aimed at adventurous young teens which detailed many aspects of weaponry, tactics, self defence and survival skills. My mother thought it a was a waste of money, but to me, it was the most excellent reading.

In 1986, Lofty Wiseman published The SAS Survival Handbook. I was 13 at the time and this was the book I had been waiting for all of my childhood. It had everything and I tried it all. I built shelters, traps, a bow, another bow, spears, bolas, fires ... well, anyone who owns the book knows how many things there are to try. I particularly remember spending the best part of a day with my dad making fire by friction, but I was elated (and blistered) when we succeeded. I made my first survival kit using one of my dad's old tobacco tins and as much of the equipment specified in the book which I could practically get hold of. I took everywhere, just in case.

That book piqued my interest in the outdoors. I went on every school trip made available to me including my first experience of  the Lake District, which I've loved ever since. I felt a sense of confidence out there because I knew that if it all went wrong, I had my trusty survival kit and the skills I had learnt in the garden and down the park. I used my first water treatment tablets and my classmates were fascinated. The water tasted awful, but it was clean and they all wanted a go. I'd brought the book with me and we stayed up late into the night planning what traps we could make to ensnare the teachers the next day.

I'm not entirely sure what happened next, but it involved a Commodore 64 and a lots of maths. I was a bit of loner and subsequently managed to find myself embroiled in the world of computers which ultimately led to university, a career, a mortgage and what appeared to be 'real life'. I still maintained an interest in the outdoors, enjoying what now seems irregular trips outdoors whilst concentrating on career, family and the acquisition of things. How regrettable that existence now feels.

After too many years, I moved to sunny Devon having holidayed there some years before. It was a part down size and part lifestyle change. I became passionate about the sea, got back into sailing and started spending a lot more time outdoors again; indulging my love for hiking and camping wherever possible. After years of striving for wealth, I turned my mind to matters less stressful and much more enjoyable.

I joined the RNLI as a volunteer crewman, graduated Lifeboat College at Poole and did my first work with helicopters; a childhood dream. Lifeboat shouts gave me the perfect 'out' from IT work. I enjoyed the escape, the adrenaline and the camaraderie. I've been with the service seven years now and seen a good few shouts. The RNLI has taught me many skills I would otherwise have not had access to. I'm being examined as a helmsman in January, so watch this space for further news.

Still trying to avoid IT, I taught maths at a village school. I rekindled my love for teaching, which was far more fun than software engineering. I also took a job cooking in a wholefood café for a summer. It paid bugger all, but I loved it. I felt like I needed a total change from computing. I was good at what I did and it paid well, but I was becoming more and more disenchanted with it. I was doing just enough to pay the bills in order that I could spend more time outdoors. Something had to give.

I moved to the coast, took up shooting & fishing again and partook of  such culinary pleasures as fresh mackerel, sea bass, crab, lobster, venison, rabbit and the occasional brace of pheasant, as the village is part of a shooting estate. I started looking in to edible wild plants and was soon dishing up wild garlic, sea beet and Alexanders, a plant found mostly in coastal regions. Life was sweeter, but IT was still a thorn in my side.
I started taking an interest in Ray Mears and hooked up with the Westcountry Bushcraft community. I really started slimming down my camping gear and got back in touch with the old skills. My daughter started joining me on trips out and practising the skills she'd learnt at Forest School, which she'd done at her Primary. I met an abundance of excellent people who were passionate about knowledge sharing. I noted that Bushcraft schools were popping up all over the country; I even considered starting one myself. I looked back at my career in IT and wished it away in an instant. If only I'd followed my heart and gone into an outdoor career instead. The regret was painful.

What happened next was next was part luck, part balls and another part luck. Having dusted of Lofty's book to remind me of a few thing, I looked into finding out if he'd had a school. I managed to find its modern incarnation, Trueways Survival. Though he didn't do field work any more, the ethos and skills set that were being taught were straight from his own teachings and I'd decided to go on a three day course. I packed nothing but the kit list and headed on up to see what it was all about.

It transpired that I was quite overqualified for a weekend course. It's not that I learnt nothing, but working with book and spending a lot of time outdoors had taught me a lot of the skills being used. It was good to have a it all crystallised into a unit, but I'd definitely picked the wrong length. I decided to have a word with the instructor.

"So, how much experience does one need to start working in this field?", I asked Glyn David, who it turned out was lead instructor for the company. He explained that there was no qualification outside of the military and that I should come and do some assistant work for him and see how it goes. It appeared that I had inadvertently asked for a job and had been given an opportunity, an opportunity I was not going to let slip. This was 'dream job' territory and I wanted it, badly.

I didn't need to chase Glyn as much as I expected, it was the following week that he rung me and invited me to Aberdeen to assist on a coastal survival course her was giving there. I clearly performed well as I was invited back to assist on a couple more courses before being asked to take up an internship with them. Only a year after taking the course I was offered a job as an instructor taking courses all over the country.

Steve Marvell - Survival Instructor

I've been working as an instructor for a full year now and have never looked back. It really is the best career move I've ever made and I'm sticking with it. I can't think of anything better than getting paid to build dens and make fires.

Being a survival instructor is not all about going out and teaching the same patter over and over again, the people make sure each course is unique.There is also research to be done, lesson plans to write and new locations & courses to develop. Of course, with an IT background, I get asked to do the odd tweak here and there, but I don't mind, it's just a small part of a bigger picture for me. I'm still constantly learning, but then Lofty has always said that after 26 years of active service, he was still learning, so I don't feel bad.

I love my job and so I've decided to write about it. It's not going to be a manual, rather a collection of observations, experiences, anecdotes and other words which mean the same thing. I hope you will enjoy that which is to come and feel free to comment or contact me directly with questions.

For those who skipped to the end, including you Glyn, I promise that the rest of the posts will not be so long.

Bye for now ...