Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Things in Tins

Born from the military concept of "you might have to survive using only the stuff in your pockets and your knife when you ditch your bergen and webbing because you're running for your life", the compact survival kit has to be small and light enough that you'll carry it on your person, rather than in your bag, and large enough that it can contain all the useful kit you might need. This is very similar to the "possibles pouch" which neatly contains all of the kit you would carry around the woods or a bushcraft gathering, giving you the opportunity to perform general tasks without having to grab something from your sack.

I find the "tobacco tin" survival kits of a suitable size to be carried in a jacket pocket, thigh pocket, or in some old first aid or camera case on the belt. Contrastly, the larger Web-tex one is a bit big and not so robust and although has more capacity, breaks the first rule of survival kits, see above.

All of the items in the kit should be multi-function, so rather than packing snares, pack wire, which might be useful for other things. Little hooks are good for catching both big and little fish, but big ones can't catch small. A tampon is a good source of tinder, as well as a good wound dressing. A condom, though good for holding lots of water (albeit quite unstably), might be considered not as versatrie as a zip lock bag which can hold "enough" water whilst still being useful for holding food, or to cover a burn, say. Metal tins could be used as pots and the shiny lid as a signalling mirror. This is not possible with a plastic or canvas pouch kit. For Christ sake don't keep your kit in the handle of your knife. Even Ray Mears released one of these back on the day, as they were all the rage after the film Rambo. All they do is weaken the knife, which is kinda silly.

Again, similar to the possibles pouch, the survival tin is supplemented with other carried items such as a knife, steel, compass, whistle and first aid kit, which I tend to keep on me at all time I am hiking, camping, teaching or bushcraft socialising. Again, none of these are in my bag. To this end, it can contain smaller versions of these items, which although not as good as the real thing are still useful. Rather than remove lesser versions, however, we keep the kit complete so that is can be used in isolation and is a "one stop shop", should it be the only thing you can grab.

My Current Kit
An off the shelf survival kit should be seen as a starting point, to be updated and added to depending on your whim and the environment you are travelling to. Some things can't be sold with the kit, such as pain killers or other medicine you might take regularly. You might like to add such as a survival straw, heliograph, tinder card or cotton wool, which also stops it rattling. Some people update the tin by replacing the electrical tape with duck tape, some wrap it with paracord. I've replaced the knife in the mine with the Web-tex knife, which is a slimmer, generally better knife; I've seen some with a mini Opinel blade. If off to the jungle, you may wish to put in a broad spectrum antibiotic and some anti-malarials.

Most importantly, is that you learn to use all of the equipment inside. It's not good learning on the job when it all goes pear shaped and given how cheap most of the components are, they are easily replaced, so get out and have a go. Don't forget to replace anything you use or break and remember to sharpen the knife. There's no point in having a well collated kit one day if it's half empty when needed.

Of course, there is the general debate about the need for such things, but having one in the car or one in my hold luggage on a plane or even a "non-sharp" version in hand luggage (please call your operator for confirmation) makes me feel confident that I have some useful kit should the proverbial hit the proverbial. I don't tend to take them to bushcraft meets, but I do if I'm wild camping in the middle of Wales. I don't take one on the train, but I do take one on a plane.

Survival kits are, like first aid kits and flares, the sort of things that are carried and never used, but can be life savers in situations where you needs their contents. It's all well and good knowing you can make a compass from a needle, fishing hooks from bones, cordage from nettles and a whistle from a reed, but how useful would it be just to not have to bother when you've got more important things to think about, like icy wind, water treatment and hungry children?

Monday, 27 February 2012

Igloo Man

Swedish man was/was not trapped in his car for two months/a bit living on only snow, but maybe other stuff

Peter Skyllberg may or may not have survived an ordeal which may or may not have been a miraculous survival story.

Frankly I don't care if this recent survival story is true or not, but it does raise some interesting survival questions. Let's take them in a pretty standard order of priority; that is to say, let's deal first with the things that would kill us first.


Apparently, he was stuck in the car, under two feet of snow. Well, it wasn't an avalanche, so I have to wonder how he managed to get stuck inside during even the heaviest of snow storm. Might have been worth checking the weather forecast to if there was an indication of such a storm for him to have been so quickly snowed in. Maybe packing a snow shovel would have been an idea. There was no mention of him being knocked out, and even if he slept through his snow storm, it's not beyond the wit of man to open or even break a window and poke your way out. He had to have some form of ventilation, or he'd had suffocated.


They say the temperature went down to -30°C, but let's assume that's the press playing the statistics cards. I had a quick look at the statistics for the area and it turns out.
The month of January is characterized by essentially constant daily high temperatures, with daily highs around -3°C throughout the month, exceeding 3°C or dropping below-12°C only one day in ten. Daily low temperatures range from -12°C to -10°C, falling below -22°C or exceeding -1°C only one day in ten.
February wasn't much different. That's not actually that exciting. Yeah, you wouldn't want to stand outside in your birthday suit, but it's not exactly Arctic conditions. Given that the guy had a sleeping bag, we can assume that he also had some sensible clothes too. Pretty good preparation, I'd say.


What's immediately apparent about a car, is that it's already wind and waterproof, which is nice. Something else that's useful about a car, is that's it's insulated from the ground rather well, it being not only raised off the ground, but held up by inflated rubber tyres. So far, so good.

My former colleague was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that trying to survive in a car was going to be gruelling, since it was made of metal. If this was an isolated fact, it would be true, since a metal shelter is highly conductive of heat and quickly evens out the inside and outside temperatures, basically, making the inside temperature fall to that of the surrounding environment. I imagine the quote was taken from a quick phone call, which is the normal way the press gets a sound bite for a story.

It turns out, if you have a look at the press photos, that there was a good 50cm of snow on the top of the car and given that he was dug out, we can assume that was covering the whole car. Snow is about 80%, which makes it a great thermal insulator. Snow has a thermal conductivity (k) of around 0.16 W/m K, which is better than brick (0.18), but not quite good as wood (about 0.12) but it's about 7 times better than glass (1.1), 250 times that of steel (55) and 1400 times better than Aluminium (237). We can assume the car had some form of meagre insulation, but we all know how quickly a car gets chilly after you've stopped blowing warm air into it.

Heat transfer is inversely proportional to thickness of material, that is to say that twice the thickness of material yields half the heat transfer and hence half the heat loss over the same period of time. Standard  maximum roof insulation is around 270mm thick, which is around half the thickness of our snow. The materials vary, but it has a conductivity of around 0.04, which if four times better than snow. That makes good roof insulation only twice as good as the snow. So, that's not all bad either.

Other than the igloo and snow hole, another example of snow insulation is that of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which famously crashed in the Andes and became the subject of a book and the film Alive. Other than the well publicised cannibalism, an avalanche covered the fuselage of the plane, killing nine, but arguably aiding the survival of the remainder.

So, what's heating up the air in the car? Well, as far as I can tell, there was only one heat source available, and that was our guy. We humans emit energy at a rate of about 100 Watts, normally, which is why a party in a small room always get a bit warm. A cheap bathroom heater is about 400W and a car is a rather a lot smaller than even my tiny bathroom. As the air in the now insulated car heats up, we cool down more slowly, so burn less calories keeping warm, unlike standing outside, where we just keep loosing heat to the largely constant temperature air and ground. 

All in all, the snow covered car is not a bad shelter at all.


Our hapless 'igloo man' was next to a wood. I still don't think he was stuck in it, so I'm going to assume he could have got out. Now let me think ... I'm cold and next to a wood. I know, I'll light a fire. Bit a no brainer. 

"But what if he didn't have anything to light a fire with?" you may ask. Well, other than the quite difficult "rubbing two sticks together" methods, he had a car, and there are loads of ways of lighting a fire with bits of car. More realistically, however, someone who travels out to photograph Elk (as it seems he was) in those conditions, should be carrying something to light fires with. If not, then frankly, get out of my gene pool. That's basic preparation.

Sat by a fire by day, sleep in the car by night. That the most efficient way of keeping warm if you don't have the skills to keep a fire going all night.


Our chap was obviously remote and said to be about 1km from a road. This road was described as "main" and there were reportedly hundreds of mapped snowmobile tracks. I don't really understand how he could not have signalled for help or gotten to the road. Either he didn't bother, or he didn't want to get rescued, or he wasn't there for long at all. Hmmm.

Sensible solutions for someone wanting to get noticed from an off road position are signs and smoke signals. That's a blog post by itself, but he obviously missed a trick there.


So, snow, that's water right? Well yes, but it's cold. This chap was said to have survived by "eating snow and ice". Good old Daily Mail, but even the Telegraph alluded to the same. More likely, he would have eaten melted snow, see above for methods of melting. 

What's wrong with eating snow? Well, consuming snow directly means that you have use energy to melt it. Even if we use body heat to melt it in advance, we're still using our own energy, albeit not from the core directly. Even if we let the nice warm air in our car warm it up, we're still taking heat from the air we heated up ourself which we'll then have to heat up all over again we have to find another way.

I'm just going to assume the car wouldn't start, because that would be a sensible way of melting snow, even if you were trapped in the car. Would also keep you nice and warm for a bit. I reckon even a little Fiesta would idle for 30 hours or so on a half tank.


He had a bit of food, but it would have run out. Snow doesn't have any nutritional value, nor does any part of a regular car. So, let's play along with the whole "trapped in the car" lark. What's going to happen here? Well, first we'll consume the sugars stored in muscles and the liver, then we're going to burn lean muscle and fats. The rule of thumb is that we can last about month without any food and make a complete recovery. There are a few contributing factors to this, largely environmental, but also some biological. 

So how did he last that long? Well, I'm going to assume that he had a bit of food kicking around, he kept as warm as possible, he had a little more fat than the average guy and was just one of those people who last longer. 

He was reportedly malnourished, which you'd expect. There is also a possibility that's he's had permanent internal damage, but at least he's alive.


Some sources suggested he went into a state akin to hibernation. Really? Come on!


This section is left for an exercise for the reader.

All in all, I don't buy it. It seems to be that the chap did not make the effort to try to survive, just curled up and waited to die. Maybe there was something more psychological going on. Maybe he wasn't really there for two months. Maybe he wasn't really trapped in the car. Who knows. It was interesting exploring the possibilities though.

Give some thought to the preparation you might now make, if you risked ending up in the same situation and the actions you might take to get yourself out of the situation in a more timely fashion.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Make No Mistake

Whilst walking through the woods with my daughter today, she began then inevitable "what's that?", "can you eat that?" stream of questions. Although she knows many wild edibles, we tend to avoid talking about fungi as it's a topic within wild food which should be metered when working with children since it's one where getting it wrong through misidentification can have have deadly consequences. However, this time, she pointed to these, which were worth pursuing.

The Jew's Ear (or Jelly Ear) fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) is rather unique in the world of fungi as it's edible, easily identifiable and have no confusion species. This is why when running general survival courses, it is the only fungus I allow students to use.

High in iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc and very high in numerous B vitamins as well as Selenium, this foodstuff is an very useful component of a survival diet for those who have no meat or handy guide to wild fungi (see below).

This fungus must be cooked thoroughly, so no munching on the trail. Although used extensively in Chinese cuisine, I think it tastes rubbish, as do most Westerners, so it's one of "throw it in the stew" foods. I suggest shredding as the texture us not my favourite either. My daughter quickly went off the idea of eating them after touching one and the topic soon changed back to wild greens and flowers, such as gorse and primrose, which are presently out here in Devon.

Jew's Ear has to be dried if you wish to store it, and at about 90% water, it shrinks down quite a lot. They can often be found on trees in this dried state (photo to follow) in the summer or early autumn. However, in this context, there is a distinction between dried and dead; and you don't want to be eating dead ones. Thankfully, there is an easy test; just pop them in some cold water and if they swell, they were dried and if not, they were dead, and should be discarded.

In summary, this fungus is a no brainer. You can't really get it wrong in terms of identification, it's easy to cook and can be stored. As it's generally found on dead elder, more specifically dead and not rotten elder, it's an indicator for easy firewood also.

Please note that this article has been written from British perspective and although I am aware that there are confusion species internationally, I am unaware of any in Britain or if any of the international confusion species are poisonous. Please complete local research before foraging.

Remember, there is no "safe food test" for fungi, so positive identification is essential. Never ever take risks with fungi, even a tiny bit of some of them can send you loopy or even kill you. For those interested in learning more about fungi identification and uses, there are a few good books about. Mushrooms by Roger Phillips is considered one of the best for us Brits.

Another post on the topic of confusion species: Caveat Comestor.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

A Little Knowledge ...

... can be dangerous, but equally a little of the right knowledge can save your life.

I hope you're finding this blog useful as well as entertaining. In each post I attempt to impart enough useful information to provide you with the knowledge required to understand why we do the things we do in a survival situation. This way, we can make informed decisions as well as use time and resources efficiently. I also attempt to provide information at multiple levels to satisfy those with a more scientific bent. I'm happy to receive comments on posts; not only about their content but also style and detail.

Though survival situations themselves present in multiple and largely unpredictable forms where the nature, environment and resources are varied, the general principals I present cover the overarching concepts which should apply in most scenarios. Sometimes, however, posts will be quite specific. I have recently given some Sea Survival training to the RNLI lifeboat team I crew with, so there is post about that on the horizon.

So, what would you like me to write about? I'm open to suggestions. Please add them in to the comments on this post.

Don't forget, knowledge is only one portion of your training. It's important to get hands on experience in order to get the skills you need to put understanding into action, regular practice is also important so skills are not lost. There are many other Survival and Bushcraft courses available, but do watch out, the quality of some can be shocking. Also, don't always assume that those with a military background are better informed, or better teachers. I was told on one that the rule about drinking urine is that you can drink your own. I didn't even know where to start telling him how wrong they were.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Whilst researching my most recent post, All Things Being Inequal, I found an interesting set of formulae and some data which had me reaching for a pencil and paper to play with the figures which turned out to have quite interesting results.

Let's start with a question: If you have to go and get something, should you walk slowly or walk quickly? The aim of the game is to minimise calorie loss. Let's assume you've got plenty of water and there would be no additional risks with any of the strategies.

Let's first determine the amount of calories that we burn walking in general. This largely depends on your weight (or more strictly mass), gait and conditions and of course, some combination of speed, distance and time. As your mass, gait and conditions will be the same for each case for this question, we can ignore them.

Within normal parameters of ability (ie. not dawdling or speed walking), it has been shown that  it doesn't really matter how hard you work, the calorie burn is associated with the distance you travel, rather than the actual speed. Put more simply, walk for twice as long at the same speed, you'll burn twice the number of calories. Walk twice as fast for the same time, you'll cover twice the distance and you'll burn twice the calories. Walk twice as fast for half the time, you'll cover the same distance and you'll burn the same number or calories.

Here's the  paper, The mass-specific energy cost of human walking is set by stature.

So, it would seem that it doesn't matter how fast you walk, you'll burn the same calories. However, in a genuine survival situation, one might consider advantages and disadvantages to either strategy. Walk slowly, and you're more likely to spot exciting foodstuffs and useful resources, however, you'll be away from camp for longer, which keeps you away from camp longer, which might include your signals. It's all well and good finding a patch of chanterelle, but if that means you can't light your signal fire when the chopper goes over, then that's a bit of a pain. Maybe consider additional signals on your normal walking routes? Maybe consider moving camp closer to regular resources?

A corollary to this are the considerations about walking up and down hill. If you're walking up hill, it takes more calories, if you're walking down hill, it takes less. This is because you're working against or helped by gravity respectively. Scrambling notwithstanding, it takes the same amount  of extra calories to walk up hill as the amount you save walking down. That is, assuming you are the same mass for each portion of the journey. So, if you're going to go and collect, say, wood, or water, then given no other choice, make sure you walk up hill to fetch it and down hill to get it back. Generally speaking, people will consider water as something they should walk down hill to find, but if you can walk up hill to get it as an alternative, then all the better. Something I've advised people to do on courses whilst collecting wood is to walk up hill to find it and roll it down hill back to camp.

Something that is quite interesting about the research, as the title suggests, is that it shows that calorie expenditure depends not only on mass and distance, but stride length. The longer your (normal) stride length, the less calories you expend over the same distance. This makes sense if you think about how much walking is associated with muscles and how much is associated with pivoting, but this leads to an interesting set of questions about who should go and get the water. Would it be the tall skinny guy, the short fat guy, the short skinny guy, the athlete, the older guy or the child? Well, so long as it's not me, I don't really mind.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

All Things Being Inequal

I'm sat here watching Hugh's Three Hungry Boys, which is a slightly disappointing incarnation of a "get from A to B without any money" challenge where, at least in my expectation, there should be a lot more foraging and a lot less scavenging and working in exchange food. However, working for your food itself brought to mind an important concept in survival; that of the inequality.

In mathematics, an inequality describes the relationship between two quantities, stating that one is either less then or greater than the other. So simple is this concept, that we use it every day. If the temperature is less than is comfortable, we turn the heating up. If the amount of money in your pocket is less than the bus fare, tough luck. These are luxuries we might not have in a genuine survival situation, but there is one day to day inequality from the human biology which is extremely important in survival:
calories taken in compared to calories expended
If calories in is greater than calories out, then we put on weight, if less, then we lose weight. From a dieting perspective, the latter makes sense meaning we either eat less to reduce calories in or work harder, increasing calories out. Either way, we're trying to tip the inequality the other way, thus losing weight. In addition, the greater the difference between these two quantities, the greater the rate of weight loss or gain.

In survival situation, it would be unusual for us to find ourself concerned with weight gain, more likely weight loss and more concerningly, rate of weight loss. Loss can be mitigated by reducing calorie expenditure by doing less work, keeping warm and generally sleeping as well as eating more, but here in lies another inequality dressed in a question.
At what cost is in calories is my food coming?
That is to say, are the calories I gain from the food I eat greater than the calories expended getting it? If it costs you more in calories to get the food than you gain from it, then that's a net loss, which is a bad thing. I remember Bear Grylls climbing a huge tree to get a single egg, which is not only a massive risk of injury, but a net loss in calories, which didn't help his cause. An example from the show is that the three chaps did fifteen hours of weeding in exchange for five pounds of vegetable. Was it worth it? Let's see.

Weeding costs about 300 to 350 calories an hour, depending on how much you weigh and how hard you work. The chaps worked pretty hard, so they probably expended about 5000 calories each over the 15 hour period.

I seem to remember the box containing, leeks, turnips, chard, spinach, potatoes and beetroot amongst other, so an average of, say, 50 calories per 100g. That's about 1200 calories in total which doesn't seem to offset the work. The boys were in luck, however, as they were subsequently given a kilo of honeycomb. Whilst standard, jarred honey is around 30 calories per 100g, honeycomb is more like 400. So that's 4000 calories for the kilo. Giving us a total of 5200. Hurrah, we might think, until we realise they had to share it between the three of them, making about 1400 calories each. Damn! Back to a loss.

But, you might argue, they would have used a certain amount of calories anyway. This is true. Each of the  chaps would have burned around 80 calories per hour just sitting around. So, assuming that's not been taken off of the weeding rate already, that's about 1200 calories. How are we doing so far?
calories in = 1400
extra calories out  = 5000 - 1200 = 3800 
so far
calories in are less than extra calories out
For those who saw the show, you might remember that they said one of the advantages of weeding is that you can collect wild food on the way. The really observant amongst you will have noticed one of them with a stalk of chickweed. They also had some stable in the van. So, if we want to flip the equation around, we'd need another 2400 calories in wild food, rice and spuds, which about the amount that an average male needs per day.

In summary, even with the honey and some wild food, they would have been better off, calorie-wise, just sitting on their arses.

This might seem like a contrived, TV example, as is the case with the egg up the tree, but it illustrates an important point about calorie expenditure in a survival situation. It's important to ensure that we waste as little of our calories as possible, by making sure we're always on the look out for foragable food whilst, for instance, combining gathering food with getting water and checking traps. We might consider placing our camp nearer to such daily resources as water, wood and food, in order that we expend less calories walking, which takes up about three times as much as sitting.

In cold weather, we should ensure we make small, efficient fires we can sit close to and reflect the heat in, rather than huge fires we have to constantly go searching for wood for. There's another inequality there. Are the calories I'm wasting keeping myself warm internally greater or less than those I'd expend gathering wood for a fire? If you're walking around all day getting wood for a fire you're not sat next to, you're collecting wood for nothing and wasting even more calories.

This same concept can be applied to water in a low water environment. We use water all the time, but sometimes more than others. Rather than sweat a litre of water in the mid day sun collecting from a small drying stream, it would be better to wait until it's cooler. Is it worth using the water you have to cook rice, or is it better to just drink it, staving off dehydration rather than hunger? Another inequality:
if water in is less than water used then you will dehydrate
The greater the difference, the faster you'll dehydrate and the quicker you'll die.

There's no need for a calculator and calorie counter in a genuine survival situation, just use your head. Limit and combine activities, work efficiently and think. Consciously applying this simple concept of comparing benefit an loss to your actions might save your life.