Sunday, 24 June 2012

Acronym Insanity

There is a lot to be said for an aide mémoire in a situation where you might find it hard to remember what you need to do and there is some strict protocol as to how to act, but in the world of survival, understanding and common sense trump survival acronyms every time. In my experience, they are numerous, incomplete contrived and remembering the meaning of the letters is lost over time.

I used to teach PLAN, as Lofty Wiseman prescribes, but being a good scientist, I tested the memory of a number of my students some years later. In almost all cases, they had forgotten the interpretation of the letters or some additional information, here's why:
P is for Protection: That's protection from further danger and protection from the elements using appropriate clothing, shelter and fire. That's two components, one of which is split into three, so really five things to remember from one letter, as well as the word itself, so six.

L is for Location: That's not finding your location, but advertising your location to rescue agencies and passers by using active and passive signals. This is an example of something that might be remembered, but the meaning misremembered.

A is for Acquisition: That's acquisition of water and food, in that order. Again, two components and the letter that is most contrived and that most people forget.

N is for Navigation: More specifically, this is orientation and navigation and is associated with making an informed and effective move from camp. This is a low priority and is not normally required for some weeks.
Can you imagine trying to remember that next month, let alone in a slightly panicked survival situation.

Another example, which Ray Mears favours, is STOP, which has a number of interpretations, though they all come to the same basic conclusion.
If you ask me, STOP is just common sense and essentially boils down to "take a minute to have a think about what you're going to do next".

One of the more complete examples is that of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association:
Know and recognize
That's all pretty sound stuff, but KISSWEP is a bit of a pain to remember and has an unfortunate double letter in it. I think I'd be most likely to get annoying stuck at the first letter too.

Finally, one that really cracks me up is that of the US Military who contrived to use the acronym SURVIVAL with frankly comedic results:
Size up the situation
Undue haste makes waste
Remember where you are
Vanquish fear and panic
Value living
Act like the natives
Learn basic skills/Live by your wits
Dave Canterbury of The Pathfinder School took a different approach, using the same letter over again, introducing the Five Cs of Survivability:
Cutting tool
Very important stuff, but once more, not too easy to remember. Not satisfied with this level of Confusion (pun intended), this list was upgraded to ten:
Cutting tool
Candle (or light)
Combination tool
Now, I don't know about you, but remembering ten words, all beginning with the same letter, in order, is frankly a nightmare. They are based on a sound principal of acquisition of equipment that is hard to come by in nature, but it's all a bit much for the old grey matter.

So who have we forgotten? Bear Grylls of course. Known for his mad cap crusades and frankly barmy survival techniques, one would expect him to use the most contrived and insane acronym of all, but no, he simply presents these four basic priorities:
No acronym, no memory, just succinct rule based on the following few basic principals associated with that which is likely to cause you to die quickest or prolong your survival situation:
  1. Extremes of cold or heat can kill you in hours, though more generally the first night
  2. Unless you are in the middle of the ocean you're never more than two days from rescue*
  3. Dehydration can be staved off for around three days if needs be
  4. Malnutrition is a serious consideration, but not nearly as much as the above
* if someone knows you are missing and knows roughly where you are

Yes, there is more to it than that, but those four basic priorities won't take you far wrong. The rest is arguably instinct, common sense, skills and informed decisions, supported by further knowledge, of course.

No two survival situations are the same, however, by understanding the basic needs of the human body, a little about Search and Rescue (see SAR Starting Point series), nature and the limits of natural resources, we can prioritise and improvise without relying on memory and the strict adherence to an incomplete task list.

As I'm teaching in my Wild Food and Natural Resources Course that you don't need to rely on books, so I am teaching in my survival courses and articles that you don't need an aide mémoire to know what to do in a survival situation. Knowledge & understanding once more supports skills; the basic tenet of all of my work.

Forthcoming articles will develop your knowledge and confidence. Keep reading and do look out for updates via Facebook on the Survival's Cool Blog Page.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - June - Set One

Welcome to the first of the Summer instalments of this Free Wild Food and Natural Resources Course. The weather is hot which is great for the coast, which is where I've been, which is why this is late, for which I apologise. The sun is bright, which is great for some of the plants and trees, but shocking for photography, for which I apologise. 

For those joining us anew, I'll be going over some old ground and referring back to former articles for more detail. Please do not try to catch up, it's insane. The idea of this course is to be light weight and progressive. To catch up the whole of a season which spanned about twelve articles will only lead to information overload and very little will be retained. As I've said before, it's better to remember a little than it is to forget a lot. Stick with the course and pick up Spring next year and all will be well. In any case, what's the point of learning things that have either passed over or progressed when there is so much to take in that's current.

Plant - Wild Mint(s)

A Wild Mint
There are loads of different mints; about fourteen species in the UK and many many more throughout the world. Here, they are all edible, as far as I know. Many are found on the fringes of hedgerows, with generally purple flowers (in various formations) and generally thick looking, hairy leaves with toothed margins (wonky edges). 

The most distinguishing feature is that they smell and taste of mint. If you are unsure about your potential mint, crush a leaf in your fingers and give it a sniff. If it's not minty, it's not a mint. Then give it a little taste. If it's not minty, it's not a mint. If the taste is particularly strong, bitter or something tells you it's not right, then you should either photograph and double check or seek the opinion of an expert. 

Mint can be used as a culinary herb, but also works well as a tea. Especially good for calming the stomach. 

Tree - Elder

We've already looked at Elder as when dead it's a good indicator for Jew's Ear fungi. So you may recognise it from its branch structure. At this time, however, it's blooming and in full leaf. 

The leaves are Pinnate, that is to say the leaf stem has many opposite pairs. This is also the case with Ash and Rowan, but not many other native trees. Ash you should be able to distinguish from previous courses and Rowan leaves have far more serration.  The flowers are heavily clustered and quite unmistakeable

The flowers can be eaten as they are, but their form often supports many insects, so have a check first. They can be frittered, used in a tea, but more traditionally turned into cordial or wine; yes the flowers as well as the berries. 

Dead elder not only support fungi, but makes an excellent wood for stating fires. It's light and hollow and takes to flame easily. Not so good for cooking or stating through the night though. The branches can be used to blow into the base of a fire like a straw, invigorating it when it's looking a bit sorry for itself, or if fresh wood has been put on and you want to give it a hand. Top tip ... don't suck. If you throw on the some leaves, they really do niff, which is good if you're in the West of Scotland, where there are tons of midges.

Fungus - Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods
Here's as easy one to spot and is almost impossible to confuse with others. It grows on both live and dead trees. They can grow singly, in groups and often in lines. I was warned once not to take it if it's growing on Yew (which you can not go and look up, because it's dead easy to identify) which is highly toxic and that seems like sound advice to me. 

This fungus is said to taste of chicken, but I don't think it does. It certainly has the texture of chicken though. You should take the tenderest parts for the best eating. Don't rip it from the tree or it won't grow back next year, rather, take a large chunk down to the bark level and leave the internals alone.

Chicken of the Woods needs no special preparation. Simply brush it clean, slice and fry in butter. It works well in risottos, curries and casserole.

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

NOTE: This article was written from a UK perspective and identification will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advice to confirm positive identification.

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Friday, 8 June 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resource Course - Spring Round Up

This Wild Food and Natural Resources course has been running for the three months of Spring and has had great feedback and support. Initially, it was to cover one tree, one plant and one fungus per month, but by popular demand, generally doubled that and added in a few supporting articles. I thought it worth rounding up what we've learnt and how things have changed.

We have learnt a great deal about habitat and how it affects the things that grow. The major habitats are important, but also the fringes and transitional borders between them. We've learnt about water, altitude, light & shade, leaf morphology, companion & indicator species as well as how things change throughout the season.

I'm hoping you have maintained the regime of not taking notes or books with you on you wanders or tried to take on too many species if you don't get out much. This forces us into a progressive learning pattern with repetition reinforcing what we know. By now you will have proved to yourself that you don't need such trappings and in fact, they can be a hindrance as they compel us to take on more than we should.

Here's a quick test. Find a long pictorial list of wild plants online, such as this one. Read through it, taking in all of the pictures and descriptions. Now stop looking at it and try to recall the contents. Which of the plants you saw were inedible and could you positively identify them? Which of the plants are growing now? Can you recall them all? If not, what is the use? Maybe you would see something outdoors and decide you might have read about before grabbing a guide and checking.

This is the problem with trying to learn too much at once. The human mind can't hold too much new information. Here's another experiment. Spend as long as you like trying to memorise this list letters and numbers.
G 6 J 3 9 K 8 R 3 U 0 E L 2 B 2
Got it? Now go and find a piece of paper and try to write them down from memory. See you in a minute. I mean it, go and write them down on a piece of paper.

How many did you get? Six, seven? Eight, nine or ten with a few mistakes? It's hard work taking in new info. Yes, there are lots of techniques for memorising series, but you get the point.

Now here's the proof that what we've gone through has taught you a great deal and that you've not only retained it, but added to it yourself in such a way that you probably won't remember to specifics of what was written and what you picked up by learning to look at the natural world in a different way.

Each of the links below will take you back to the original article, but you'll probably not need them. Take a look down this of all the covered species. Maybe you didn't read each of the articles, and if that's so, don't beat yourself up about it; be happy with what you've learnt and know there is more for next Spring. For each one, try to recall what they look like, how they've changed throughout the year, where they grow and which grow together. Try to remember all you can, you'll amaze yourself.

Trees - buds, catkins, flowers, branch structure, bark, leaves and leaf development as well as uses for each one.

Silver Birch
Sallow (Pussy Willow or Goat Willow)

Fungi - size, grouping, shape, colour, smell and uses.

Cramp Balls (King Alfred's Cakes)
Fairy Ring Champignon
Jew's Ear or Jelly Ear
St. George's Mushroom

Plants - flowers, leaves, shoots and taste

Field Sorrel
Jack by the Hedge (Garlic Mustard)
Navelwort or Pennywort
Ramsoms (Wild Garlic)
Three Cornered Leek (Wild Garlic)
Wood Sorrel

Learnt loads, haven't you. Nice work! Take a few minutes to look back over a few to remind yourself of a few details, but also to show how much you've taught yourself on top of the basics.

If you fancy a reread, of all of the Course and Supporting Articles, be careful that you don't overload yourself with information to try to catch up. Remember, it's better to remember few than forget a lot.

For doing so well, here's a special bonus for sticking with it. These sweet violets should still be around and although the leaves are edible, the flowers are where it's at. I'm sure you'll have seen them in the hedgerows and many of you, like me, will have learnt them as a child. They are a tasty trail treat* and when combined with other flowers make a mighty mouthful*. 

With Spring over, we have Summer on the way there is still much to learn and enjoy, such as elder, hawthorn, rose, blewits, wild mint and many more. Try to keep a good learning pace and don't forget the trees, plants and fungi you've learnt already. Watch how they change throughout the Summer and which of our new sets overlap and interact with them. 

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal. 

NOTE: These articles were written from a UK perspective and identification will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advice to confirm positive identification.

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* I love alliteration :)

Monday, 4 June 2012

SAR Starting Point Two

When does Search and Rescue (SAR) start looking for for you? Where do they start looking? How long do they look for? These are three important questions and by understanding the answers, you can greatly increase your chances of survival. SAR Starting Point One answered the first of these, this article takes on the second.

Most people think that SAR teams start looking for you where you were last known to be (last know position), but although this is useful, it's not the case. Quite often, the last known position is vague at best and almost always, you're not still there. The truth of the matter is that SAR start looking where they think you are (estimated position) though this is generally an area and though calculated using a simple algorithm, can involve complex maths, psychology and analysis of the environment; all this is taken over time and re-evaluated in the context of any new evidence. By understanding this method in conjunction with good signalling, you can give yourself the best possible chance of being located, should you find yourself in a situation where you want someone to find you, which let's face it, is rather the goal in a survival situation.

First SAR starts with where you were, then where you were going. They consider route, speed, weather, motivation and "other" and now add time as a factor. A simple example might be a plane which checks in a 1200 with position, course and speed. Having not checked in at 1300, we have a rather good idea about the possible places that plane could be based on a maximum of an hour of travel from a known position at a known speed in a known direction. Of course there are some interesting weather consideration and a few unlikely affectors, but to give the greatest chance of rescue, resources are initially deployed into an area where the plane is almost certain to be, with a probability of about 80%. 

Let's next take this partial Mayday call:
"Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is fishing vessel Polly, Polly, Polly, mayday, BD123 Polly, two miles north of Hartland Point, engine and power fai..." and the radio goes dead.
You may have wondered why the mayday call is in that order; there is a very good reason. From a SAR perspective, the more we know, the better. It would be very nice to know that there were ten people on board, all wearing life jackets and that the there were no medical problems or fires, but if the radio had cut out whilst the casualty (remember, it's just a term) was relaying that, they would have missed the position, which is frankly far more important. That's why it's one of the first things in the call. With only the information above, the coastguard sets to work. An approximate starting position is given. Chances are someone would have mentioned if it was sinking, so it sounds like it's just drifting. The license number will give the coastguard an accurate size and aspect of vessel and with wind and tidal information, a trajectory. If it's going to take 30 minutes to get on scene, then they can have a good idea where Polly will have drifted to. By applying an error factor to all the input variables, a resultant search area can be determined.

Walkers and mountain bikers represent a much more interesting problem when determining a search area, but the same basic principal or position, direction and speed are applied. On Dartmoor, for instance, even the footpaths represent a maze of possibilities for changes in route, let alone areas where going "off piste" is considered the norm. The two principal reasons why recreational walkers don't come back on time is because they are lost, or because there is a medical problem, even if that's simply fatigue.  My plan from the first article gives route and approximate timings for the day, and so if I didn't make it back to the camp site, or more likely, if I didn't check in (which is something I do), then sufficient information would have been given to give a minimal search area over Snowdon. Conversely, someone with no route plan could be anywhere in North Wales (well, not really if their car is found), which is a much wider area to search. Let us suppose we check in at the top. That's a nice last known position and time and with a route set, so I've realistically got to be in the second half of the plan. A quick survey of a few walkers coming off the hill on intersecting routes may give extra info about where I'm not, which is arguably just as important in reducing the search are down.

I recently performed a safety check on a coast path route for a sponsored walk. This was not only to determine the quality of the track, but to gauge progress, chances of getting lost and dangers en route. With this, I gave recommendations for check in points, medical stations and watering areas. This was not only to reduce the chances of a situation occurring, but to give the ability for a swift response over a small search area, which is important when the poor chaps from St John's have to carry all the medical gear up and down the steep paths.

Whilst out with Exmoor Search and Rescue, I was enthralled by the level of detail to which they applied age, gender and history as well as the basics when setting up search areas for despondent and mentally ill "wanderers". With extensive training and statistical backup, they are able to make what appear to be staggering assumptions, greatly reducing the search area giving excellent results.

So what have we learnt here? Essentially, any SAR agency has limited resources and by application of basic principals, experience and some maths, they will determine a search area where they can apply those resources giving the best probability of detection possible. With position, direction and speed as the main contributing variables, the greater the accuracy of these, the less margin for error has to be applied and importantly. the smaller the time window over which the calculation has to be applied, the smaller search the area will be and the more likely you are to be found quickly.

Here are some thoughts on route plans. Have a good hard think about your route and how you imagine SAR teams might try to find you. That will give you some idea of how accurate your route plan should be in conjunction with how often you should be checking in. The more accurate and detailed your route plan, the more likely the SAR agency will assume that you are following it and so tighten the search area around it. The more you deviate from they think you are going, even if this is to try to take a short cut, the more likely it is that you will find yourself outside of the initial search area and so the more accurate your plan, the more important it is to log ad hoc changes. An alternative (or better, a combination) is to log short cuts and "bug out" routes as part of the original plan. If, however, your route plan is woolly or subject to change then state is as such, but then check in more often as this will mitigate the problems caused by an inaccurate estimated position.

Balance route planning with checking in. Always know even roughly where you are. Think hard about the effect of changing route. Know your capabilities and know the capabilities of the relevant SAR agencies and you'll greatly increase your chances of being located and hence increase your chances of survival.

Once again, if you think that all these routes and check ins lack spontaneity, then be aware that the spare paddle bearer will necessarily take longer to find you up the proverbial creak.

In the next article on this subject, I will discuss what happens if SAR don't find you in that initial search area, how long they keep looking, what happens if they find clues, how you can help them if you have no ability to check in, what to do if you do get lost and how best to manage route changes.

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