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Phobias

Fear of the dark, fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of spiders and fear of snakes, what do they all have in common?

Most of us have one or more of these common fears and there are plenty more too.

We have a type of evolutionary memory that is hereditary.  This was at one time a very useful fear that protected us from harm.  In many ways, well, most ways, we are built for the stone age and our body and mind are entirely unsuited to our modern life style.  Many people live in deep shame about their fear of heights and cannot understand why they have it.

My time spent as a rock climbing instructor involves me spending many hours dangling from a rope over the type of exposed drops that would mean death if i fell.  I don´t suffer from vertigo but I do have a healthy awareness that I had better pay attention to what I am doing as I am never very far away from a deadly fall.  I often meet and climb with people who are very much terrified by heights and in fact I noticed that almost everybody I meet has a fear of heights somewhere on the scale, most of us can still function well enough and find the fear useful as it focuses the mind and helps us to avoid dying.

Evolution, the survival of the fittest, has already weeded out those that had absolutely no fear of heights at all, they all died, probably in avoidable falls.  Those with a healthy fear of heights survived and passed on their genes to us who all still maintain a healthy fear of heights.  So don´t worry or feel ashamed if you cant stand heights, it´s not unusual and actually it´s OK and helpful if you can just learn to use the fear instead of fighting it.

Likewise with spiders and snakes, in many parts of the world, these can be really dangerous and are best avoided, this is why so many of us have such an irrational fear of spiders and snakes, many years ago, our ancestors that respected these creatures enough to stay away from them survived while those that got too close did not.

This fear mechanism that we have is designed very much to keep us alive but as we move from a life lived in nature to one lived in a metropolis, it is a system that seems wildly inappropriate to the level of risk that most people face.

I hate job interviews, at least I used to, I have not had one for so long I don´t really know how I feel about them anymore but years ago, A job interview was my most feared activity.

I would arrive the usual 10 minutes early but feeling a general jittery excitement which would escalate the longer that I was left waiting for the interviewers to show up.  Often by the time they had arrived, I was a joyless, sweaty, tense mess.  I would have a dry mouth, fast pulse, shallow breathing and found it hard to think clearly. All of these bodily responses are designed to improve our physical ability to run or fight.  They are completely useless in a job interview though.

I later learned that this was my built in fight or flight system activating and performing it´s routine function.

My prehistoric brain was preparing me to either fight or run away from a Sabre toothed tiger!

When we undertake certain events in life that can change the path that we are on, give us increased income or a different role, a certain level of value is assigned to it in our heads and we want to make sure that we get it, this generates stress which eventually leads to our prehistoric brain that thinks ¨ah, the sabre tooth tiger is back, we had better fight it or run away¨.

Where this system is still very effective is when we go back to nature and they become a key system again.  Fear of the dark, well Humans are diurnal, daytime creatures.  Most predators in the wild are nocturnal, night time creatures.  Our fear of the dark leads us to either create light or to stay in one place when it is dark, this helps to keep us safe, away from danger hidden by darkness and away from the predators that might enjoy eating us in the dark.

Our sight is obviously not very good in the dark but our other senses still work, in fact they become more sensitive in the dark in order to compensate a little for the absence of vision.  We can use our sense of smell and sound to build a picture of where a threat might be.  The problem with this is that without a visual reference, that loud rustling sound or the footsteps we hear sound like huge wolf or a bear when in fact it is a mouse sniffing around the camp.  As our senses become more acute, things tend to seem bigger than they are.

Fear of the forest is not something that I have ever had a problem with but I know other people that are intensely scared of being in a forest alone.  One person who was a student on a course that I was running was paralyzed by it, literally, at night, he was screaming in fear which actually was pretty scary for the rest of us because we all thought that something was seriously wrong!e learned how to live in the forest, how to use its resources and how to identify all of the trees, plants and animals that live there.  Soon, nothing in the forest was strange or new to him, even the foxes that sound like screaming babies in the night.  As he got to know the forest and accept it, a little bit at a time, he found himself become calm and comfortable there and it is now a place that he goes to to feel peace and quiet and ironically, safe.

I used have a fear of flying, I never let this fear prevent me from flying but it always made the experience of flying more stressful that it needed to be.  After a while, the fear vanished but would return from time to time.

Being sealed into a pressurised aluminium tube and propelled at great speed to 30,000 feet is not a natural position to find yourself in.  The fact that you cannot leave and have absolutely no influence over the successful or unsuccessful flight can cause a stressful reaction in some.

The last time it returned, I spent the entirety of a 1.5hr flight having a panic attack but just about managing to stay in my seat and not spring up and start running for the door.  It was pretty uncomfortable.  After that I decided that as I was in no danger, it was a ridiculous situation to find myself.  I did not know why I was so bothered by flying, probably the feeling of being trapped inside but I made a firm decision that it no longer mattered and that I would fly whenever I wanted to no matter what my pre-historic brain thought about it.  I stopped any thoughts or feelings of resisting the fear, I did not try to be brave or courageous, i just got on the plane, sat down and read my book.

Quite often I would get half way through the fight and  suddenly realise that I was not at all concerned by the flight and then i´d start to feel the fear again.  These days I don´t feel anything on flights except boredom, a niggling resentment the seats are far too close together and the desire to lie down flat instead of trying to sleep in those seats.  Fear is not part of the equation anymore.

I stopped feeling fear during flights because I opted to not resist the fear and instead to just let it be to do it´s thing.

There are many different way to over come these fears and a good one is simple exposure but perhaps the most effective, long term cure is to simply accept that these things happen for a reason and that we can use these fears to sharpen our senses and to keep us alive.

Attempting to suppress fear never works

A great analogy I heard once was that in nature, a tree bends in the wind, it does not stand stiff and try to hold itself still in face of such force.  It bends and in doing so is able to absorb the strength of the wind and not break.

A river moves around a large rock in it´s way, it does not try to break the rock, it simply flows around it.

If we let fear takes it´s course and do not try to stop it, it flows through us and eventually it looses it´s grip on us.

With practice, fear need not be a hindrance to you, it need not be the reason that you choose not to do certain things and in fact once you get the hang of using fear for it´s intended purpose, it can be really fun and exciting.

Without fear there can be no courage

Prevention is better than the cure, you can´t really talk yourself out of a state of panic as the chemicals that create and influence your mood are mixed in such a cocktail that fighting or running are the only courses of action that your brain is able to cope with.  The trick, and this may seem obvious, is to not allow your subconscious mind to whip you up into a panic in the first place.

This can fairly easily be achieved by

  • Accept the situation as it is – You may be trapped in an aero plane, there might be a spider in the bath, yes that might be a snake in your sleeping bag
  • Take deep breaths.  Breath deeply and slowly.  One of the first reactions to fear in the body is to begin breathing quickly to oxygenate the blood in preparation to run away or fight the snake.  Breath in for 5 long seconds, hold it for a few seconds and exhale for 5 long seconds.  Repeat as necessary
  •  Focus on stillness, do not process any fleeting thoughts or images and allow your mind to become clear
  • Relaxation should then become an option in which you can forget about the flight, catch the spider in a glass and throw it outside or gently slide out of that sleeping bag with the snake it it.

If you have a fear of heights, forests or something else, get in touch with me and I can help.  I have about 15 years of experience living with fear and panic and have come to enjoy the process of eliminating the control that fear can have over our lives.  You can not, nor should you, remove fear from your life but you can learn to control it so that it helps rather than hinders.

Get in touch with me

The Ocean is Full of Plastic

Go to any beach, anywhere in the world and you will find plastic washed up on shore.  That is just what has washed up, exponentially more is out in the seafloating around.  The worlds oceans are full of plastic and it is a very big problem that grows worse every day.

I read Ed Stafford´s book ¨Naked and Marooned¨ last year in which he spends 60 days alone on a desert island with no clothes, no tools, nothing apart from some filming equipment.  Drinking water was an immediate and lasting problem for him as it would be for anyone, not least because you cannot store water to drink later if you do have something to store it in.  You cannot purify it if you do not have something to put it in and collecting it, even drinking it with no cup or bottle can sometimes be impossible.

In the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation, somewhere in the Pacific, none of this was a problem because the idyllic beach with it´s coconut palms and white sand was absolutely littered with plastic refuse that had washed up from all sorts of distant places.  He found hundreds of plastic bottles complete with lid´s, a straw, flip flops, plastic rope, a toothbrush, a comb and even a Fijian rugby ball called Gilbert.

This is a familiar story all over the world, polystyrene blocks and plastic everywhere.  The trouble is, plastic is cheap to make so virtually every company on earth uses it as packaging material.   In the UK alone, about 38.5 Million plastic bottles are discarded each day.  Every day.  The scale of the volume of plastic waste is all but impossible to measure due to it´s immense size but we do not need to look far to see it´s effects on nature.

The trouble with plastic is that it never degrades fully, it is not bio-degradable.  There are many different types of plastics with different characteristics but generally speaking a plastic bottle can take about 450 years to degrade full in a forested environment.  It is not known how long it takes in the sea but it is known that although after many years, the plastic bottle may appear to break down and decompose, it only ever breaks down as far as it´s component form which is a tiny pellet or grain.

These pellets or grains happen to look very similar to the food that fish eat and fish are not the sharpest tools in the box so they eat it whenever they see it.  These fish then have plastic inside them and are consumed by other fish and sea bird.  The sea birds then have plastic in them too and then the thing that eats them has too and all of the other health complications that this brings.

Grim death

Many animals are hurt and killed by plastic litter on the surface but the real, long lasting problem is plastic in the food chain.

It has become such an enormous and hugely important problem that must be solved that in recent years, many European countries have switched to a 60% recycling target, plastic carrier bags cannot be given away for free and various other things are being looked at.  All of this is just putting a plaster over the real problem which is companies using the stuff in the first place.

Anyway, A bright young Dutch man called Boyan Slat had a think about this while he should have been studying for his Aerospace Engineering degree and noticed that most, about 50% of the plastic was floating in the top 6 inches or so of the sea.  He then figured out a clever system, cost effective and scalable system to scrape the stuff out of the water.

The first large scale clean up operation begins in the Pacific in 2018 (this year) with a 1200 Nautical mile shakedown, once complete in 2020 there will be a massive upscale of the system and deployment into the other oceans of the world.

They estimate that they can clear 70% of the plastic in the oceans using this system.  Take a look at the website for an idea of how it works.

Usually at this stage of the ¨We are saving the world pitch¨ comes the request for a donation or some outrageous monthly subscription that you know full well will be spent on nothing but travel expenses and stationary (or worse).  Not this project, they don´t want your charity because he actually figured out how to make money from this as well.  Not only has he worked out how to massively reduce this problem to a level that we can tolerate and deal with, he is able to make his living out of it and generate jobs for people too.  This is inspiring.

Oh and Boyan Slat was 18 when he figured all of this out and once he realised that this is what he wants to do he dropped out of his aerospace engineering degree.

The the 18 year old university drop out may well have saved us all.  Imagine if he had stayed at school and not bothered with this.

When I was growing up, like almost everyone else, I associated doing passionate things for the greater good with doing it for free.  You don´t get paid for doing the right thing.  Well, that paradigm seems to have shifted and now after decades of stagnation and a failure by government and corporate charity organisations to deal with the problem, this guy is dealing with it and getting rich in the process.

I would encourage anyone with a good idea that they are passionate about to put some real thought into how they could make their living from that instead of doing it in their spare time for nothing.

If the world was run by people who are passionate about their area of expertise then imagine how the rate of human progress could leap forward.

Academia has it´s uses but it should not be viewed as the be all and end all, a university degree in anything other than hard sciences is not a very useful thing to have and you should be wary of any future employer that demands that you have one.  Practical experience and good ideas are much more valuable and if you cant find a job in it then create your own job by starting your own company.

Some people actually commit suicide when they do not meet others expectations in academia, such is the pressure put upon us by society, a great many more become depressed or anxious.  I would love to be able to tell all of those people that it´s really not that big of a deal and it does not matter if you fail you exams, what matters, what really matters is that you identify what you are passionate about and then figure out how to make a career out of that.

Unrelated to the main article but I am receiving requests from people for information about training with me in expedition and bushcraft skills – I am not currently offering a program of courses but am working with individuals on a one to one or one to two or three basis.  If you would like to do this too then you can contact me to make an application here:

Pro Tips #1

The first in a series of Pro Tips gleaned by me from my lifetime of Bushcraft and Survival training, Wilderness Expeditions, Teaching and Instructing.  I work with some amazing people with some amazing experience behind them and I make a point of making sure that I learn from them so that I can benefit from their experience too.  I want to pass this on to you too so that you can get access to this hard to come by information that can only be learned from the best.

Before making camp, stop, sit, listen, look, breathe and take ten minutes to tune into the place and take in the details. You will be amazed at the extra things that you will become aware of, the ants nest by the sleeping spot, the firewood availability, the proximity to other wanted or unwanted things that are important may not be obvious at first glance.

I was on an expedition in the Arctic at the end of summer and we were finding it difficult to find a good campsite that head everything we needed.  It was cold and it was raining.  We all just wanted to get the camp set up, warm up, dry out and have dinner.  We settled on an area by a river but it looked like firewood was going to be scarce.

Everything was wet, we couldn’t see anything suitable to get the fire going.  To dial up the urgency of the situation, it was getting dark so we knew that we had to get a move on and get enough dry wood to last us the night.

We frantically scoured and search the area, nothing.  We ended up several hundred meters from the campsite, chopping, sawing, lifting and carrying only to find that what we had collected was damp and no good.

Tired from the days exertion and the past 45 minutes of frantic effort, we decided to take a break.  We rested at our chosen camp site, I let my mind wander as i looked around and took in the view.  A massive river was by my side, several hundred meters across and the far bank gave way to a series of mountains with snow on the summits.

I watched as some bird flew around nearby, a Robin was switching between branches around us and angrily chirping away trying to scare us off.  I like it when they do this, I find it endearing.  As my mind drifted back to our predicament, I noticed a very old fallen pine tree a few meters away.  The stump of this was bone dry and saturated with pine resin.  The stump was splintered into perfect sized kindling, i did not even need a saw to collect it.  next to that was a fallen branch that once cut up, would be good for a few hours of firewood.

My team mate had a similar experience of his own and found several standing dead pine right there next to our camp, once cut, these would fulfill our firewood needs for the night.

The moral of the story, if i need to point it out, is that everything that we needed was right there in front of us but we were so rushed that we failed to notice this.  By sitting for ten minutes, slowing down and finding the rhythm of nature again, we were able to see things that we had not seen before and everything suddenly got a lot easier.

 

Evacuating an Aircraft

While extremely unlikely, it is possible that you will have to evacuate an aircraft at some stage.

I found this air crew training video quite interesting and useful in understanding how air crew are trained to deal with forced landings and how good they are likely to be at handling this stressful situation.

It´s worth a watch if you are interested in understanding more about surviving a forced landing.  Bear in mind that it is just a training film, nobody is under any stress or in any danger here.

I found this both reassuring but also lacking in scope in that the crew seem to take no interest in what happens after the aircraft is evacuated.

It reinforces my belief that we must take responsibility for our own well being in the event of an aircraft evacuation or even any other type of public transport, be it trains, buses or cars.

You would do well to heed this advice should you be offered a choice between placing you life in the hands of an employee of a corporation concerned only with making money or with taking responsibility for your own well being.

Some points about the evacuation in the video are

  • I could not understand what the female crew were shouting immediately after the aircraft came to a halt, stand up stand up?
  • I can´t help but wonder if there should be a holdall full of water and snacks for each crew member to take with them as they evacuate (into the ocean, where dehydration becomes their next problem).
  • There is no way that the half liter per person on each life raft is going to be enough, particularly if they are in a hot part of the world.
  • In a cold part of the world, hypothermia is going to be an immediate problem, handing out those little fleece blankets that they have for everyone to take one with them would be very helpful.
  • This could all be done in the 25 minutes warning time that they had. I accept that in a dire, time critical emergency, there may not be time for this but in this scenario, there was no fire and the aircraft was intact, they had a few minutes before it would have filled with water.
  • This is part of the reason I always try to have a bottle of water with me when I board a plane as well as keeping my important items (wallet, passport, house keys, phone) in my pocket when flying. If I have to get off an aircraft in an emergency then I want to be able to go home without having to go through administrative hell because I have no passport, no money and no comms.
  • I am also highly skeptical of drills like this where everyone just calmly ambles off the aircraft. One thing that I know for sure, if you put a lot of humans into a confined space, people act like idiots and block the way for others. If you add the danger of a smoke filled, burning or sinking aircraft into the mix, I would expect people to panic and most likely act selfishly too.
  • When the cabin crew select a passenger to assist with the opening on the door and raft deployment, perhaps instead of just grabbing the closest person, they should grab the most suitable looking person (ie: the strongest and most switched on looking person there).
  • We should always pay attention to what the crew want us to do but we must also take responsibility for our own survival and that of those around us too. We should do nothing to slow the egress of people from the aircraft, if anyone gets in my way by trying to retrieve their baggage then they will be forcibly pushed out of the aircraft by me however, jumping out into the sea with just what is in the life raft and our pockets is perhaps not the greatest option.

For a more realistic look at how this might play out, this is a video of an actual evacuation taking place as the aircraft is on fire.

Notes

  • Several of the passengers had retrieved their carry on luggage in spite of the extreme and immediate danger, you can see them all exiting the rear of the aircraft with their bags.
  • The rear slide was blown out of position either by the wind or by the engine exhaust.  None of the passengers intervened to help.  At last, after a long time, a baggage handler came and helped.  The consequences of that slide becoming unusable are unthinkable.
  • It took several minutes for the fire service to arrive on the scene.  Until they get there, somebody has to take charge and help.
  • Most of the passengers just hung around near the read of the aircraft and did not seen to recognise the need to move away from the burning aircraft full of fuel.
  • The passengers that were first out did not man the bottom of the slides to help other passengers stand up and get clear of the burning aircraft.
  • It seems that passengers in general, cannot be relied upon to do anything useful or sensible in an emergency, they must be coached, shouted at or forced to help if needs be

For a view on what it is like inside a burning aircraft during an evacuation take a look at this

  • It takes time for people to filter through the exits
  • Some of the other passenger who had seen the fire were shouting at people to hurry up and move
  • You can now see why it is incredibly selfish, dangerous, callous and cavalier to stop and retrieve your carry on luggage during an evacuation

It is important that during take off and landing that you have your passport, wallet, house keys, mobile phone and any essential medications on your person, your shoes must be on and laces done up ready to move.  This way, if you do have to leave the aircraft, you can just go and once outside you can do everything that you need to.  You need to do this on every flight.  Not only when there is an emergency.

You can get out of the airport no matter where you are (passport)

  • You can go home (housekeys)
  • You can contact friends, family, order a taxi, find a hotel (phone)
  • Take medication to maintain health (meds)
  • You can pay for food, water, transport or hotels (wallet)

Nothing else matters, it can all be replaced.  If that aircraft in the second video had exploded, the lives of the people killed would be on the conscious of men that stopped to collect their carry on luggage.

I would love to take a full survival kit with me on flights so that I could have some basic tools with me for any eventuality but Airport security rules have completely prevented this and I see no possibility of this ever being relaxed.  You can forget about taking a knife or rescue tool with you.

You can however, have your urban survival kit with you which is those items listed above.

During take off and landing, the aircraft is at it´s most vulnerable, have those 4 items in your pockets at least during the most vulnerable times of take off and landing and be ready to get out if needs be.  If you see anybody stopping and holding up the line to get their bags, you can forcibly push them forwards while shouting at them to move, it´s OK.  Your life is worth more than their laptop but be mindful that panic and stampeding are not conducive to getting out safely but neither is being a selfish idiot.

Large groups of humans together tend to heard like sheep until somebody takes charge.  Everyone sort of stands around waiting to be told what to do next.  If you see this happening and people are in danger, have the courage to take charge, at least until somebody else get´s their whose job it is to be in charge.

What do you do when you get out of the aircraft?  Where do you go?  Find out in the next article.

Adendum: I completely forgot to mention Life Jackets.  In an aircraft evacuation near water, you will be grabbing the life jacket from under or in front of your seat.  These are inflatable buoyancy aids designed to support your head and keep your head above water.   They are self inflating by way of pulling a cord to release some pressurized gas to inflate it.

It is critical that you do not, must never, inflate that life jacket until you are outside of the aircraft.  Many people have died as a result of people inflating them inside.  The serious problem with inflating a life jacket inside the aircraft is that they are extremely bulky and the interior of an aircraft cabin is very confined.  You will struggle to squeeze through the cabin, past the seats and out of the door if you have an inflated life jacket on.

If you inflate yours, the people around you will see it and hear it and most likely inflate theirs too.  Now instead of one person getting tangled up in head rests and life jacket, you can have 200 people doing so and progress out of the aircraft (which is already painfully slow) is even slower.  People have died as a result of this.  If you inflate that life jacket inside the aircraft, you are putting other peoples lives at risk.

Stupid Internet Bushcraft Stuff #3 Attempting to build a tolerance to contaminated water

Over the years, I have heard some pretty dodgy advice from people who do not know what they are talking about but this one was repeated to me recently.

In countries or places where the water is not safe to drink, just mix a little bit of dirty water into your clean water, about 10% dirty to clean they say.

This is bad advice.

The most recent person who suggested this claimed to have never had a problem and soon worked up to drinking only dirty water with no ill effects whatsoever.

The key piece of information that these people are missing is that bacteria and protzoa, the causes of most water borne problems are microscopic and the mechanism in which they ¨infect¨ and the severity of the symptoms that they cause are not equal to the amount of them that you ingest.

A Giardia worm does not care if it is alone of if it surrounded by many hundreds of thousands of it´s friends however there is some evidence that suggests that the amount of some parasites in your body are directly proportional to the severity of the symptoms that you receive.

There are few reasons to drink dirty water, building a tolerance to it is not a biologically sound idea though as for this to work, even hypothetically, you will have to first become infected in order for you body to learn how to produce antibodies to the infection in the first place.

This has come up on courses and expeditions that I have run and my advice is always the same.  Do not take chances and serious risks with your health through ignorance.  Being in blissful ignorance has got most of us through some tight squeezes in life but we, as a civilisation, know enough about how waterborne infections occur that we do not need to take such risks.

A sick person is a liability to a group.  In a wilderness expedition, a person who has become sick through an entirely avoidable circumstance put´s other people at risk and can ruin a whole expedition.

There is no tangible benefit to be gained without you paying the price of infection.

Water, water, everywhere. But not a drop to drink

The average human body contains 40 Litres of water, which is roughly 57% of our total body weight. We need water more than anything else with the exception of oxygen. Water is critical to our continued survival. We need water to carry nutrients around the body to aid digestion of food, to regulate body temperature and remove waste and toxins from the body.

We obviously also use it to wash and maintain hygiene.

The average person in average conditions can survive no longer than 3 days without water.

On average, under normal conditions we need about 2.5 litres of water per day, of which we get about 1 litre from the food that we eat, about 300ml from chemical reactions at a celular level and the rest should come from drinking.

Dehydration

Dehydration is defined as the excessive loss of water and electrolytes. If we dont drink enough we become dehydrated.

Symptoms include

  • Decreased urinating
  • Dark and foul smelling urine
  • Dry and sore lips
  • Thirst
  • Headache – a dull, thumping headache much like a severe hangover
  • Tiredness and Fatigue
  • Seeing stars when standin up suddenly
  • Dizzyness and Fainting

More serious symptoms include

  • Delirium
  • Seizures
  • Sunken eyes
  • Increased respiration and heart rate
  • Death

The only effective way to treat dehydration is to rehydrate. In severe cases the victim should be encouraged to sip water little and often to gradually bring ther hydration levels back to normal levels. If they gulp it down, and they probably will want to, it may induce vomiting which compounds the problem and causes further loss of water.

An electrolyte drink should be carried in your equipment, these contains salts and minerals that are lost during sweating, diarea. There are many electrolyte drinks on the market but if you dont have one, they can be improvised by adding one tea spoon of salt and one tea spoon of sugar to one litre of water.

In practise, when out in the wilderness, hiking, camping or in a real life survival situation our diet’s are not full of fruit and veg, we are unlikely to be getting our 5 a day and a lot of purpose designed expedition food is dehydrated in the first place. Combine this with hard, sweaty work and the outcome is that we need to drink a lot more.

In hot conditions, deserts, jungles and even the UK during summer months, excessive sweating, which is our body’s way of keeping us cool, cause us to loose water at a higher rate that is considered normal. It has been known for people in the desert to drink up to 9 litres of water a day while they are becoming accustomed to the heat.  Once the body acclimates, the amount of water that they require have to drink reduces to a more reasonable amount.

Pay regular attention to the colour of your urine, clear or straw coloured is a good sign. Brown, yellow and smelly is a sign that you need to drink more. Thirst is not a reliable indicator as by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Our aim is to stay hydrated and at peak performance.

How do we know that water is safe to drink?

We dont, there is no way to tell if water is safe to drink by looking at it or smelling it. There are indicators such as dead animals, dead vegetation or animal remains that could indicate a problem with the water source but the absence of these indicators does not confirm that the water is safe.

If we see birds or animals drinking from our prospective water source does this mean that is is safe for us to drink? No, most other animals have more tolerant digestive systems to our own. Think about your dog at home who eats just about anything he fancies, including other dogs feces with no ill effects.

Does that mean that dog feces is OK for us to eat? No, it means that your dog has a tougher digestive system than our own.

The problem is that many of the contaminants that can hurt us are microscopic.

We must treat all water sources with suspicion in order to avoid a number of unpleasant and sometimes life threatening problems.

Lot’s of people that I have taught assume that running water, that is a fast flowing stream or river will be safe to drink. I’m afraid that this is not the case, it is however advisable to collect water from a running source it will generally be less turbid and clear

There are five categories of Contaminants that we deal with before drinking water collected from an unknown source

Turbidity – Cloudy water containing mud, plant matter animal feces and other organic matter. Turbid water can cause upset tummy’s and can fortunately be filtered by using a tightly woven cloth such as a couple of socks put one in side of the other or a purpose designed filter such as the Milbank Bag.

Milbank Bag

Parasitic Worms – There are many different worms that live in water, notably amoebae which causes dysentery and Giardia lambli which is a particularly unpleasant worm to catch.

These can be killed by boiling the water. Bringing the water to a rolling boil, until it bubbles up is sufficient to kill the worms.

Chemical treatment is also known to be effective providing that you follow the instructions fully and give it enough time to work. However, Cryptosporidium is know to be resistant to Chlorine and Iodine so where possible it is best to boil the water.

BacteriaAgain, Boiling is effective against all bacteria and there are some nasty ones in there that we really don’t want inside of us, E-coli for one. Boiling and Chemicals will kill them.

Viruses – Things like Hepatitis A and E and even Polio can be present in water, again, Boiling will kill these.

Chemicals – Pesticides and agricultural run off along with heavy metals fall into this category. They can be a pain to remove but can be by means of a carbon filter. Area’s to be wary of are agricultural area’s where chemicals are used in the fields (most of the UK low land area’s) and mining area’s for heavy metals. The risks form Chemicals are far outweighed by the Parasitic worm, Bacteria and Virus risks.

Metals – Things like Mercury and Lead are toxic.

Filter and boil all of your collected water and you should be fine.

Collected fresh rain water does not need to be purified.

I mentioned Chemical treatment several times up above, Chlorine or better still Chlorine Dioxide which works faster are what I was referring to, both are readily available fro outdoor / camping supply shops. Iodine is no longer on sale for water purification purposes in the UK which is not to say that it is not an effective disinfectant, it is, but for political reasons it has vanished from the shelves.

Sawyer Mini-filter

This thing is a bit of a revolution in mobile water purification, it is tiny and has a universal screw thread so that you can attach it to a wide range of different water containers and if maintained correctly by back flushing to clean the filter, it will be good for about 100,000 Gallons (US) which is a lot.

I have faith in this product not only because I have used it all of the world with no ill effects but because they test the water that they purify and publish the detailed, unedited results of those tests.

They test water from a range of different sources and even some with known contaminants.

An example can be found here

Finding Water

So now that we know what to do to make our water safe to drink, where do we find it?

There several indicators that can give you clues to the whereabouts of water.

First of all, water runs downhill, so looking around at the foot of hill and mountains will invariably yield results. Plants and trees can also betray the presence of water, Willow tree’s for example prefer wet or damp ground as do Reeds, Cat tails and some Alders.

Several species of bird live on, in or around the water such as Heron, Ducks, Swans, Geese and Finches. Observe their movements and follow them and you may well be led to a water source.

Indian Well – If you dig a hole in the ground, as long as you go deep enough, you will eventually hit what Is known s the water table. In many areas you may not need to dig very deep, In some areas you may need to dig deeper than is reasonably practicable.

If your going to dig, remember that water runs downhill and look for low ground or natural dips in the terrain. When you hit the water table, allow it to fill, scope out the muddy water and then let it fill again, this time the water will be clearer.

Rain water will also collect in the base of tree’s. Older and coppiced tree’s often have natural bowl shapes in them, Oaks especially, these can be useful reservoirs on the trail.

In extreme cases you can retrieve water from vegetation by tying off a plastic bag around a branch with lots of leaves on it. Allow condensation to collect on the bag throughout the day and return later to collect your drink. This is not an especially effective way of sustaining yourself but with enough plastic bags you could set up large scale water harvesting system.

Dew. Collecting morning dew that has collected on grass and other vegetation is an easy way to get a drink, simply tie off some spare clothing around each leg and as you walk through the vegetation the dew will soak the clothing tied around your legs. This can be wrung out into a cup and drunk.

Again, this is not a high yielding method of water collection.

Salt water distillation. At sea or in coastal area’s you may find yourself remembering the words ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’. You cannot drink salt water, it will kill you faster than dehydration. You can remove most of the salt by heating up the salt water and collecting the steam which is fresh water. However, in coastal areas there will be many fresh water outlets finding they´re way out to sea where all rivers flow.

These coastal outlets where fresh ground water is finding it’s way out to sea can be a life saver, they are not always large flowing river, sometimes they are merely drips, of trickles of water seeping out of a crack in a rock like a dripping tap. Put a container unde it to catch it and move on to soemthing else, come back in half an hour and you will surprised to find that the water has collected and that you have a near infinte supply as long a you are prepared to wait for it.

Stuffing a rag or a bit of cord into a damp crack in the rock face can help you to wick the water into your bottle.

Hygiene and it´s increased important in the field

In the field, that is, when you are living out in the woods, on an expedition or otherwise not at home with home comforts exposes us to additional problems not usually encountered at home.  Good hygiene become more important than it is at home.

For a start, hygiene is harder to enforce as you wont have a bathroom to use or a tap to quickly wash your hands.

In the Arctic, even when cabin´s are available, it is extremely rare to encounter one with running water from a tap let alone a hot tap.  This is because the temperature is so consistently low that pipes freeze, then burst.  People in the north look to other ways to keep clean such as a sauna if available.

If no obvious means of washing are available, we must look for other ways.

Indoor, flushing toilet´s are also something of a rarity for the same reasons, an outhouse is the standard up here and is simply a small cabin, just large enough to sit down in and a seat over a hole in the ground.  A good one will have a polystyrene seat (actually really nice to sit on even in extreme cold)

Picture this, Your stomach is rumbling, you bowls are loudly protesting and you have a uneasy feeling that something is about to happen.  You realise that you need to get to a toilet, quickly.

You first have to get out of bed which is a depressing prospect in itself as it is warm in there and cold out.  You get dressed and prepare to go to the outhouse.

First you have to put your thermal underwear on, then your socks, trousers, jumpers, coat, hat, gloves and boots.  This can take 5 minutes and all the time, the urgency of a visit to the outhouse is increasing and when ill, you may run out of time while getting dressed and then you have an even bigger problem to deal with as you will now have to find a way to wash your clothing too.

Then you have to get out side and make your way in the dark, to the outhouse.  Once inside, you notice that the cold is biting on exposed skin and your hands are hurting due to the cold.

The general advice for ¨how to shit in the arctic¨ is simple, you do it quickly but not so quickly that you do not finish the job properly.  Repeat visits to the latrine or outhouse are a thing to be avoided if at all possible.

You sit down and wait for business to care of itself, it could be -40 degrees centigrade but your bowels do not care.  It is important to not rush this and you do not want to have to come back to repeat this any time soon.

Once finished, there is no tap to wash your hands, it is so cold, the thought of putting water on your skin is almost unthinkable anyway.  At this point, an alcohol based anti bacterial hand gel is the best option as your only means of preparing hot water is to fill up a billy can of water and heat it up on the wood stove, this will likely take 20 minutes or so.

You go back to the cabin, get undressed, get back into bed and then as you breath a sign of relief, your bowels again begin to protest and you need to get back to the outhouse.

When you are ill, this can go on for days, you get very little sleep and the amount of time and energy you expend just going to the toilet is staggering.

With most stomach upset´s, colds and flu´s, your energy will be low anyway, this will simply make it even worse than it is at home and our ability to look after ourselves is greatly diminished.  Firewood still needs to be collected and prepared, food still needs to be acquired and cooked, the wood stove still needs to be fed and water still needs to be collected and prepared.

It is therefore much more important that we maintain a good level of hygiene when out in the field to help us to avoid bacterial and viral infections at all costs.

Getting sick out in the field is so much worse and potentially more dangerous than it is when at home.

Antibacterial hand gel will only get you so far, it is not enough on it´s own but it is extremely useful.  You need to clean your whole body to get rid of the build up of grime and remove the conditions for bacteria to breed in.  Armpits, groin, hands, feet and face seem particularly prone to this and an infection in any of these areas can turn into a serious problem.

Wet wipes or baby wipes tend to leave a slimy residue behind and seem to just push the grime around instead of actually cleaning you so I do not recommend these.

I have found that the easiest and most satisfying method is to heat up about 1 liter of water then add 1.5 liters of cold water to that.  This is probably more than is needed and you could get away with less.  Then with some soap and a wet flannel or small towel, you just wet the flannel in soapy water and wash yourself with it.

You usually cannot not just strip off entirely because of the cold but you can do a bit of your body at a time, only undressing that part of your body and then replacing clothing as you move onto the next bit.

You will feel much better too, something about being dirty has a really negative effect on our mood and once clean you feel refreshed and like a new person.

If anybody in your group is sick, keep them well away from any food preparation and give them a small bottle of anti bacterial hand gel to use throughout the day.  You don´t want them to pass on whatever it is that is making them sick by touching things like equipment and door handles.

Get their water for them so that they do not infect the water supply.

Ultimately, washing is all about routine, the sooner you get into a new routine the cleaner and fresher you are going to feel and the less likely you are to pick up an illness.  Don´t go days and days without washing and if in the cold north, do not be fooled into thinking that bacteria and viruses cannot survive the cold, they can as they use you as a giant heat source to stay warm.

Once on a canoe trip in Scotland of all places, I made the mistake of drinking some bad water while in a rush.  I did not have time to properly filter and boil the water so I just dropped a purification tablet into the water.  That night, I had the most explosive and debilitating diarrhea of my life and sometimes you just cannot control it, when it comes, it comes, weather you are ready for it or not.

It turned out that the purification tablet was out of date and not effective.

I got no sleep, despite being exhausted, the next day I could not eat and could barely drink but had to cover many more miles of hard paddling into the wind.

It was horrible, trust me.

I think what it really boils down to is motivation, a lot of people just think ¨I can´t be bothered with this and i´ll be alright¨.  The chances are that you won´t be alright and even if you do not pick up and infection, you will smell bad and feel bad at the same time so make a point of washing every day, You will feel better for it.

In the Arctic, some advice against the cold is to not wash exposed area´s of skin as the oily residue that builds up on your skin helps to protect against the cold.

I have put this to the test and found that it made no difference at all to me.

Keep yourself clean, maintain a high standard of hygiene and take extra care to avoid passing on an illness if it all possible, at all costs because coming down with the run´s or the flu while out in the field can be a major nuisance at best and a life threatening problem at worse and can usually be avoided by good hygiene and good camp discipline.

Repairing your kit

Being able to repair your equipment, yourself, while you are out in the field is extremely important.

This could mean repairing a puncture in your thermarest, fixing a seat in a canoe or sewing up a hole in some clothing.

Today I noticed a rip in my outer mittens.  This was disastrous news as it is extremely cold at the moment and I need these gloves to function.  This rip will let snow and ice inside which will turn to water and then freeze, making my hands cold.  Loosing a glove in a cold climate can mean the difference between life and death.  Your gloves must be cared for and protected at all costs.

I carry a roll of thread and a few different needles with me and with the help of my leatherman, I was able to sew up the hole well enough that I can use the gloves as before.

The repair does not need to be pretty but it does need to be strong.  Repair everything as if it is a permanent repair so that you do not have to do it twice.

A basic repair kit should be carried by all, one that will enable them to make minor repairs to their own equipment and clothing.  If traveling by canoe then take some nuts and bolts, a spanner or screw driver and some paracord.

If traveling by vehicle, then ensure that you have the tools to make simple repairs on the roadside, a spare wheel, a jack etc…

If in doubt, a small roll of gaffer / duct tape will go along way when the chips are down, that and 10 meters of para cord.

Some points about food and survival rations

Food is usually quite heavy due to it’s water content.  Carrying several days worth of food with you when out in the woods can lead to a very heavy backpack.

I do not enjoy cooking as much as some other people however I do like to eat something tasty and wholesome when out in the field.

I look for the following qualities in outdoor food

  • Calorie content
  • Weight
  • Ease of preparation
  • How much mess does it create
  • Taste
  • Likelihood of causing digestion problems
  • Potential for slow release of energy vs fast release of energy for different meal
  • Storage life (fresh vs dried or canned.  How long will it last with no refrigeration)

I am not going to go into food in any great detail here but it should suffice to say that Men need about 2500 calories a day and Women need about 2000 calories a day.  This number depends of course on how hard we are working, how much energy we are burning, the climate and our own individual requirement.  Some people need to eat like horses while others only need to eat like a small bird.

In light of this, on an expedition on foot or other human powered endevour, we can expect to be needing to eat anything from 2000 to 4000 or 5000 calories per day.

Ideally, I want to take some food that is light weight, easy to cook, does not create any mess to clean up, tastes good, gives me plenty of energy and easy to digest.

I have found that Military rations do not generally meet these requirements for me and are too expensive anyway.  I once took 3 old British Army 24hr ration packs on a 3 day walk and ended up caching 2 of them along the way as they were too heavy.  It is interesting to note that the British Army have started to use dehydrated food now in their ration packs.

Dehydrated meals are a good option when water is easy to come by, some are better than others but in general, these are a great option as they should be decent and ca be eaten out of the pouch so the only cleaning up that you need to do afterwards is fold up the pouch and put it in your rubbish bag.

I have used the Mountain House dehydrated meals extensively in expeditions in the past and I have to say that they are pretty good, especially if you get the larger packets and add just a little bit more water in them than they suggest.

Today I checked out a new dehydrated meal and thought that you might be interested.  Click here to see that post.

Adventure Food

This is not a review as such, I bought this from a shop out of curiosity and just before I prepared it to eat I thought I might as well take a few pictures and write it down.

This is the second one of these meals that I have eaten, the first was a Spaghetti Bolognese which was surprisingly decent.

Take a look at this for the ingredients and nutritional information

Preparation could not be more simple.  Boil some water, about 400 ml, Fish out the oxygen absorbent packet inside, Fill it to the black line with water.  Stir it.  Seal the pouch, Wait 8 minutes, Eat it.

As a general rule of thumb with these types of food, looking at them before you eat is not always recommended as it may put you off.  However, we should really apply the taste test, smell test and sight test when trying out new food as this is our primary way of determining if it is safe to eat or has been compromised in some way.

I was surprised to see that this thing looked more like real food before I put the water in

It smells like Parmesan cheese, at least I hope that it what it is because if not then it smells like sweaty sock.

It tastes OK though in that, this is safe to eat.  It claims to have 600 calories and 4 hours after eating it I am beginning to feel hungry again so I suppose this is about right.

This was not my favorite dehydrated meal, I am not sure how they did it but they managed to make a pretty poor carbonara.  That it is a dehydrated meal is not he problem, I think that this was not a nice meal even before it was dehydrated.

I think I will give this one a miss in future but the Spaghetti Bolognese was much better.

7/10, extra points awarded due to ease of preparation and no cleanup required.