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.

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