Survival Course in Marin County: Preparing for the zombie apocalypse

survival course

So last month I was out on the Mississippi River and I was reminded of how much I’m lacking in the practical skills department. Being the giggly girl who struggles to put up a tent is funny only up to a point! I’ve also realised recently how easy it is to “rewrite” that story that we tell ourselves. I can actually move away from, “oh, I’m really not a practical person” and choose a different story for myself…

The Mississippi trip also brought with it a list of commitments for each member of the group, and I committed first of all to doing a new challenge every month – anything from drumming to dancing to improv – and secondly to filming those challenges, in a move to adding some multimedia excitement to my blog. As a result, I signed up to a survival course with Adventure Out to start building my practical skill set (and prepare for the inevitable zombie apocalypse) and I made a little video to prove it. And, yes, I know I say UM a lot. I decided to go with the first attempt, no retakes, to get a more authentic and raw feeling. And this is definitely raw….!

Now, the rest of this post is going to be mainly passing on the key things that we learned during the course – you can thank me if they come in handy when you find yourself alone out there in the woods one day! We were asked at the end to make sure that we share one of the skills we’d learned with at least one other person; I hope that this post will give you at least something you didn’t know before and so increase your survival chances in the event of that apocalypse…

Our teacher, Mark, told us that there are four basic human needs when we’re out there in the wild. These are, in order of importance: shelter, water, fire, food. The order is based on the “rule of threes”: we can survive for three minutes without air, three hours without shelter (in a harsh environment), three days without water, and three weeks without food. In addition, Mark gave us two overarching principles: conservation of energy, and physical awareness of our surroundings. The most beautiful message of the day, I think, was the idea that we need to get more comfortable with nature, that it’s not Man vs Wild, and this is the first step to surviving in what most of us nowadays see as an unfamiliar environment…


First, a note on rescue: the first rule is to stay put – unless you’re on an exposed mountaintop and there’s a storm coming in! The international distress signal is a big X, most visible of course if you use contrasting colours to the background so it’s not brown on brown. If you do have to move, you can add a big arrow in the direction that you’ve travelled. (I read about this recently, in fact, when a British tourist was rescued after getting lost in the Australian bush thanks to writing “Help 2807” (that day’s date) along with an arrow.)


The goal of a shelter is to provide protection; essentially, to keep us warm and dry. Our skin offers a first layer, but unfortunately we don’t have fur (well, unless you’re the “Mediterranean type”), as that would be a big help in surviving in the wild!

Debris hut shelter
Here it is, our first attempt at a shelter. It wasn’t too bad but required a lot more insulation on both the inside and the outside. A fun coincidence came in the form of the “smudging” that Mark recommended to smoke out any insects – a Cherokee ritual that I first discovered a few weeks ago on the Mississippi.

The first decision is the location. You want to be high and dry (though steer clear of the top of that mountain again!), as flat as possible, with an abundance of materials so that you conserve your energy as you build your shelter, while avoiding hazards like ants’ nests, hornets, bees, poisonous plants etc. You’ll never find the ideal place so you’ll need to balance the pros and cons.

We were shown how to make a “debris hut”, one of the most versatile types of shelter that can be made using branches and leaves. I won’t go into all the steps here but you can find plenty of information online. The disadvantage I see is that it took us an hour to make one small, incomplete shelter and there were eight of us. That means a whole day for me if I’m by myself and assumes an abundance of this kind of material for building the shelter. But at least I have a good idea of one type of construction that may provide that much-needed protection if I find myself out in the wild!


Carving my spindle
As it turned out, I was pretty good with a knife. In fact, I enjoyed this part the most and I think I might try a woodcarving class next!

Ah, fire. Something that has always fascinated humankind, from those early days of trying to control it through to roasting marshmallows around a campfire in modern times.

Now the method that we were taught is the bow drill method. (Again, if you want to see all the steps for this technique or explore the other techniques then try searching for “primitive fire starting”.) This seems to be a very reliable way of making fire, one of the easiest to master, but again requires a lot of prep work! We first made a spindle (a cylinder with tapering at both ends), then a fireboard with a burned-in impression and a notch; then we were given a bow (a notched stick with string attached) and a handhold (a piece of wood or a rock with an impression already created) – so in the “real world”, we would also first have to create these. We would also need to have a nice knife handy!

survival course Bow by the fire
Sure, I can make one of those!

The sad thing is that I didn’t actually make fire. Sniff. By the time I had made all the parts and mastered the equipment my puny arms were too tired and I eventually gave up. I did make some smoke, though, and I now have a nice-smelling cedar stick!


I felt that we sort of rushed through this piece; I drink many litres of water on a normal day so this one has me worried! Basically you can try to find a water source that doesn’t require purification – rain, snow, a spring* (make sure you melt it first so you don’t waste precious energy in your body) – but failing that you’ll need to boil the water before drinking it.

survival course Wooden bowl
Yep, I can make one of those bowls too. Mmhmm!

Now here is where I feel like we went a bit too quickly! Mark told us that we can use coal burning to make bowls and spoons, and showed us an example of a perfectly carved bowl – easy, right?! That’s definitely an area where I’ll need to explore a bit more!

Top tip, though, if you do manage to make that beautiful bowl, when you come to boiling your water: rocks! You put the rocks into the fire for an hour or more, then put them into the water and tada, you have boiling water! I wouldn’t have thought of that, would you…?


Mark took us through four main sources of plant food, readily available and easy for non-experts to identify. First, pine: chew on the pine needles and spit out the fibre or make tea; find the “cambium”, the layer between the bark and the dead wood; use the pollen to thicken your soup (yes, you can make soup!); and, if you can get there before the squirrels, get the nuts from the pine cones. How do you know if it’s pine? “Two to five to stay alive” – pine needles come in groups, with the five-needle white pines being the most delicious, apparently. Second plant source: grass. Third: cattail (those reed-like plants with sausages on the end). And fourth and finally: acorns. For all of these, the recommendation is to cook them first, just to be on the safe side. Ideally you would also first familiarise yourself with the poisonous plants in your bio-area so that you avoid those!

In terms of animals, we didn’t learn how to make any traps or anything like that but Mark did show us how to make a stick and throw it. Yep, that’s the official technique. Very effective, with a lot of practice I imagine, when targeting small animals like squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, and birds. Side throw is best and you really only need to knock them out so that you can then “harvest” them in a human way. (Err, sure, I know how to do that…) Of course, you first need to creep up on the animal and with our “modern human” pace and noise level we’re unlikely to be able to do that. So you’ll also need to practice “fox walking” and the art of wide-angle vision…!

So there we have it, a first basic course in survival skills. I do feel fairly confident about being able to make a debris shelter if I get lost in the woods. Other than that, though, I’ve basically realised how much there is I don’t know and I definitely have a lot still to learn if I’m to have any chance of surviving that zombie apocalypse. Although I do now have a stake…

*A gazillion points to you if you had the same Joey-from-Friends reference in mind as me. “Paper! Snow! A ghost!”

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