Winter outing teaches the 7 C’s of wilderness survival
The spindle glided back and forth under the tension of wrapped paracord, squeaking for a few seconds before a tiny puff of smoke grew into a sizable cloud.
“I feel like getting the ember is the easy part,” Bob Ronan said, working the bow drill rhythmically. “Primitive fire is one of those things that’s fun to know how to do, but it’s not something I’d ever want to have to depend on.”
Ronan, the database manager for the Montana Wilderness Association, recently led one of the organization’s wilderness walks. From the top of MacDonald Pass west of Helena, he took a group of about a half dozen through wilderness survival skills, including building fires and shelters that could keep a dangerous situation from turning deadly.
“Growing up and going out hunting with my dad, we always talked about being prepared,” he said. “His favorite saying was, ‘It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.’”
Ronan prefaces his advice by noting that he is not a certified survival instructor. But his interest in bushcraft has made him a student of woodsmanship, learning about knots, lightweight shelters, building efficient fires and the tools necessary to navigate the backcountry. He looks the part too, clad in wool, a bushy graying beard and aging snowshoes that keep him floating atop the snow.
Ronan preaches the “Seven C’s” of survival, but recognizing a survival situation is the first step.
“Admit it and stay calm, have a drink of water,” he said. “A lot of people start to panic immediately, so take a second and assess the situation. The first step is always admitting that you have a problem, and that can be hard for a lot of people when they’re lost.”
Cover includes a layering system of clothing and also some form of easily deployable shelter. Ronan demonstrated a “super shelter,” which he constructed and is designed to radiate heat from a “long fire” by using a plastic front and reflective material inside.
Next to the fire, Ronan erected a cot, using sturdy logs for the base, willows for the springs and fir bows for the mattress. Once topped with the super shelter, the space quickly warmed and filled with the fragrance of freshly collected evergreens.
“It’s a room with a view,” Ronan joked.
A snow cave or a snow shelter called a quinzhee can also be used for cover in emergency situations. They are warm, but also labor intensive, and those who use them can easily get wet as condensation builds and snow melts.
Ronan spends more time discussing fire than any other element of survival. Carrying multiple means of starting a fire is critical in case one fails. Commercial and homemade fire starters can provide the spark needed to create a flame.
Zippo lighters, windproof and waterproof matches and steel strikers are all part of Ronan’s pack. Cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, “char cloth,” fatwood and a long piece of wick are just a few suggested fire starters.
When it comes to primitive fire, Ronan acknowledges the fascination and satisfaction of making fire by using friction with the bow drill or hand spindle. His step-by-step demonstrations come with a healthy caution about depending on primitive fire in a survival situation, stressing that it is not a practical substitute for a spark and dry tinder.
Ronan also demonstrated a Swedish fire torch, splitting a log into fourths, then tying them back together and igniting a fire in the center. The torch not only produces heat but provides a surface for heating water.
Finally, Ronan recommends a long fire built with several lengthy logs. Built parallel to the wind, a long fire allows all the coals to feed off each other and makes a welcome companion for an unexpected night in the woods.
“I never leave home without my knife,” Ronan says, “simply because it does so much with building shelters or even starting a fire.”
Processing wood is essential in a survival situation, and a saw is preferable to breaking branches between trees or burning logs in half.
Although plant roots can work in an emergency, cordage is not readily found in nature and is a staple of Ronan’s pack. He carries two 25-foot lengths of paracord for building shelters, repairing equipment or anything else that comes up. And most importantly, he says to know how to tie various knots, particularly those tied without removing gloves and untied without cutting the cord.
Containers to melt snow and heat water are also not found in nature. A metal water bottle or cup with wire handles can go near the fire and do the trick.
While Ronan also uses modern technology, he points out that reliance on a GPS or smartphone is only a dead battery away from potential problems. There is no substitute for knowing how to use a compass in concert with a map.
“First and foremost, it’s important for your own personal safety to know some of these skills, like how to use a map and a compass,” he said. “Then it’s important out of consideration for those that might have to come haul your ass out of the bush if you get lost.”
A light source to “C” with
Survival situations do not always happen during the day. A portable light source — whether a headlamp or flashlight with fresh batteries — makes working or navigating at night possible. Ronan also carries a glow stick as a backup.