Practice Makes Perfect- Making Fire

22 December 2017

My son and I are always testing ourselves, no matter what we do. We make everything we can into a learning experience, do our best to find better ways to do things, and to get better at what we do. It could be a physical test, by turning a 5 mile canyon walk into a 15 mile walk for example. Or a skills test- I might let Nicolai do the packing for a trip, have him navigate and route-find as we hike, or have him get our stove set up or fire made for the night’s dinner.  Making fire is a classic test for us, something we can never practice enough. We use many different methods- a single match, a lighter, a metal match (a rod composed of a metal alloy known as ferrocerium) and tinder, a metal match and magnesium shavings, or a bow and drill. We make it a point to practice all these techniques in varying temperatures, different levels of wind, with different moisture levels, and types of tinder and fuel, essentially training for any possible conditions that we can. This is the way we get better, and master our skills.

Much can be said about fire making techniques and tools- everyone has their favorite methods, and opinions of different methods, not to mention opinions of countless other variables- how many methods you should carry with you, whether or not to carry natural tinder or a commercial variety, a small lighter or a large one, a book of matches or strike anywhere stick matches.  These are all questions that each person has to work out for themselves. No matter how many books you read, how many blogs you visit, or how many Youtube videos you watch,  it all boils down to your skill and comfort levels.  If you can make fire in a few seconds with your eyes closed by rubbing two sticks together, you probably don’t need to carry 3 or 4 different methods with you.  If you have trouble lighting a fire with matches, you should probably have a large, well-stocked fire kit with plenty of redundancy.

fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, magnesium block. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Three fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, and magnesium block with imbedded ferro rod. No matter what your favorite method, it is important to become proficient. Being skilled in many fire making methods just adds insurance.

Start With the Basics
Fire making, like any skill, begins with practice. Depending on the method or methods you choose, it could be lots of practice. The key is to learn the skill before you need it- practice and become proficient with with the basics first- starting with matches or a lighter, then moving on to the metal match, the fire steel, bow and drill, hand drill, or fire plow. Did I mention you need to practice fire making? And if you decide to carry and use one of the “primitive” methods at the end of the preceding list, you need to practice even more- don’t wait until your life depends on it and assume you can work out how to use a fire steel, flint and charcloth. It may be too late.

Start with considering the placement of your fire- think about where you want to build it. Ask yourself if this is the right place for it now, overnight, and tomorrow. Think about wind and weather, what is overhead (remember the lessons of Jack London!), and if this is where you want to sleep if it is for the night. Consider reflectors, natural and those you put in place. Are there rocks or a rock face to direct the warmth towards you? Finally consider safety, dry grasses and branches for example and Leave No Trace principles.  Try not to build a raging, night-long fire where its existence will be visible for years.

No matter which method you use to get that all-important spark, all fire-starting methods require a tinder bundle for your spark, kindling to build it up, and fuel to feed the fire. Spending the time to create the perfect tinder bundle will insure success. Collecting and preparing kindling and a sufficient pile of fuel for your fire may mean the difference between being warm, and starting over.

Birds nest of juniper bark, photo by Gerald Trainor

The perfect birds nest with glowing spark from a bow and drill.

Where we operate in the Four Corners region bark from the Juniper is the best tinder available. It is easy to find and remove from any Juniper we  come across. Our second choice is the hairlike, inner material from dry cottonwood bark. Chunks of dry cottonwood bark are usually found at the base of larger cottonwood trees; look for those that have large, dead branches. Either material should be twisted in the hands, or pounded between a couple of rocks to break it up and create the fine powder that is so easy to ignite. Of course there are countless other materials that can be used for a tinder bundle. The idea is to find something that can be reduced to fibers, and pounded nearly into powder. Other desert plants to look at include sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and some grasses if they are fine and very dry. After making your tinder bundle, simply hold your match or lighter underneath, place the spark from your bow and drill or charcloth into the bundle, or direct the sparks from your metal match into the bundle. Once you’ve reached this point the rest is fairly easy- slowly and carefully feed the fire with tinder, kindling and then larger fuel until it reaches sufficient size for your needs.

For more on fire making in general, see our Learning the Basic of Fire page.  Also see our page on the Metal Match and Magnesium Fire Starter. Visit the Desert Explorer website to peruse other skills topics as well as the highlights of some of our adventures.



Tracking Practice on Our Recent Desert Trip

8 December 2013

When Nicolai and I are in the bush our eyes are always open, constantly searching for signs of the ancient inhabitants, for birds and mammals, and for tracks along our trail. There are tracks to be found everywhere; often they are not human tracks in many of the places we find ourselves, but always tracks of coyote, lizard, beetles, and other desert dwellers. All tracks are interesting, and all tracks tell a story. We often stop to read tracks when we find them- we spend some time looking at them, find out where they came from, where they are headed, and try to deduce what the track maker was doing at the point we found them. It is much like detective work. We look around us collecting all the available information: track size, stride, gait, the path of the track, the details of the immediate vicinity including vegetation, water, and even geology. All of these details added up help us build our tracking picture; that is, the overall disposition of the track maker. They inform us about what happened when this animal passed through this exact location when it did, what the animal was doing, its purpose. Tracks and other sign help the tracker decide whether the animal was hungry, thirsty, frightened, tired, old, young, injured, or healthy.

A typial canyon bottom in southern Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Looking down canyon from the canyon rim. Nicolai and I easily followed many sets of tracks up this canyon including lots of deer- tracks in the moist, narrow canyon bottom are some of the easiest tracks ever to follow. We weren’t sure if there was a way out, but based on the deer sign we guessed the deer know something we didn’t. At the canyon head we found an old cattle trail leading up to the rim.

But it is not just a matter of looking at the tracks in the sand, or the grass that is pushed aside, or the bit of fur left in a thick section of brush. All of this is important- these are absolute pieces of data which add to our picture. But just as important is what we perceive on the inside, what we feel about the animal that passed by here and left the clues. When we are following sign, we are not only collecting  clues, but we are doing our best to mentally become the animal we are following. Based on the clues we collect and the tracking picture we build, we put ourselves in the animal’s skin, we make our mind its mind. This is the way, we are told, that the best trackers work. They become their quarry, the develop a relationship with it. And if they are hunting it for food, and they are successful, in the end they mourn for the animal they have tracked and hunted, because the animal became part of them.

These very basic tracking concepts- especially the part about thinking like and becoming the animal- are something that Nicolai and I talk about, something that we have been practicing- or at least doing our best to practice, for years now. I think that many of the books that we have read, and that we have put on our Tracking Bibliography on the Desert Explorer website, discuss these concepts. Some go into it more than others. One book that really dwells on the point is Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking and the Origins of Science. I mentioned this book in a recent post, and noted that it is available for FREE as a PDF download from the author’s website. I have downloaded and had my own copy printed for our library. Liebenberg’s approach to tracking is unlike any other author I have yet read. He begins at the beginning- he starts way back with our hominid ancestors and works forward to modern Homo sapiens, speculating along the way about how tracking came into being and how it developed, and complemented the overall development, of our species. I highly recommend the book to anyone who really wants to get a feel for tracking in the most primal sense.

Another canyon bottom in southeast Utah. Gerald Trainor photo

Another section of canyon bottom. We found deer, coyote, lizard, chipmunk, turkey, human, and of course cow tracks here.

Another book that Nicolai and I have just finished reading is called The Harmless People.  It is about the bushmen of the Kalahari desert, written by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. This book does not cover tracking specifically as much as The Old Way, another book by the same author. Both books are studies of the bushmen lifestyle and the author’s experience there with her family in the 1950’s. This was before the profound changes that occurred which have catapulted the bushmen into the 21st century, causing them to abandon many of the skills that kept them alive for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Both books have a revised afterword that was written in the late 1980’s which addresses the changes. Both books are written more for the laymen rather than the archaeologist, but will be enjoyable and important to both, if they have an interest in the hunter gatherer societies and how they lived.

Read more about our desert adventures at the Desert Explorer website, and more about us specifically on our biographies page.

More Tracking Books, Michael Yon Online, and Primitive Technology

6 December 2012

It has been two full moons now since I last left Utah. It is nearing the time of year when I start dreaming of returning, when I start really planning for next year. It is also the time of year when I re-read all of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn stories. It helps bring me closer to the desert I am so fond of. Those stories also get my mind thinking about tracking- if you aren’t familiar with Hillerman’s writing, tracking plays a part in every story. Jim Chee was an especially good tracker.

Besides Hillerman’s stories, I have recently re-read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi In Two Worlds. Kroeber’s writing is scientifically interesting and informative, as well as entertaining. The book is not necessarily a book about tracking, but it is definitely a book that addresses what I call “wilderness mind”, or being tuned in, a necessary part of tracking. For Ishi, “the last wild Indian in North America”, what I call “wilderness mind” was just everyday life. Ishi’s life was unique, living as he did on the cusp of “the old way” and modern America. Reading about “the old way” can help anyone interested in tracking develop a better understanding for the attitude that native people lived in, being one with nature, and how they were in a state of awareness, naturally, that few will likely ever achieve in this modern age.

Another book I recently read is Freddy Osuna’s Index Tracking. Osuna, a Yaqui Indian, was a Marine sniper and tracker, and taught tracking to the military. His book is a very clear, quick read, outlining tracking in general including basic terms and concepts as well as his own adaptations to the ancient art. While there are references to hunting and tracking animals, the book is written with a human quarry in mind. The book is full of clear, well-captioned photos and leaves one with a good sense of what tracking is, and a yearning to delve further into it.

My final book reference is one that is highly recommended. Tom Brown’s Case Files of The Tracker is both thought-provoking and at the same time a bit disturbing. In this book Brown outlines what he feels are some of his great mistakes, and at the same time he really brings home what tracking is about to him. The endings to many of the stories are far from what he hoped they would be, and definitely not what I as a reader had hoped would happen. But there are lessons to be learned in every experience- that is what Tom Brown is telling us here, along with the countless other lessons on every page of the book. Again, in this modern age, few will ever achieve what someone such as Tom Brown has, and after reading some of his accounts, we might be thankful for this fact.

Michael Yon Online
Michael Yon is writer, photographer, journalist, and tracker. He is also and old friend from a “past life”. He is rather outspoken in nearly every field he writes about, often criticised, always critical and straightforward in his research and writing. The field he is currently writing about that I want to highlight is that of tracking. He has recently begun a series of articles about tracking and its application for soldiers in combat. Whether or not you care to read about Afghanistan, no matter what side you might take in the issue, the fact that tracking has very practical applications in the modern world cannot be denied. In his first few dispatches on the subject, Michael gives clear and concise examples of the importance of tracking for combat soldiers. Please take a look at his latest articles at his website.

Print from a Bates desert boot, size 10, in a canyon bottom about 28 hours old.

Print from a Bates desert boot, size 10, in a canyon bottom about 28 hours old.

Primitive Technology
I have mentioned the Society of Primitive Technology many times in my blogs, as well as praising their journal The Bulletin of Primitive Technology.  I am going to introduce them one more time. I learned about The Bulletin and the Society about 20 years ago as a student of anthropology, and found it to be one of the best real-world resources out there. In terms of experimental archaeology, that is, physically learning the skills that are studied and conjectured from the archaeological record, The Bulletin is invaluable. If you have even the slightest interest in primitive technology, then I recommend visiting their website and considering joining up.

The Bulletin comes out twice a year and its cost is included in membership, which is minimal and affordable at only 30 dollars a year. One look at the journal and you will be convinced it is worth every penny of membership.  The Bulletin is a full-color, magazine-style publication with articles that run the gamut of simple, clear and informative, to being so detailed and scientific that you will need to do research in order to  fully understand the concepts. And this is the beauty of The Bulletin- you can learn to make a functional scraper from a piece of quartzite and hammer stone after a couple of pages of reading, or you can learn the mechanics of flintknapping in all its intricacies, the qualities of materials, the benefits of heat treating  raw materials at various temperatures, and be on your way to making eccentric lithics like those made by the ancient Maya.

I would also like to mention that I have heard that the printed Bulletin may be going away. Costs are always rising for printing and distribution. And my guess is that memberships have lapsed over the last few years of lean economic times. To let this valuable resource go away would be a shame. Please take a look and consider a membership.

For more on tracking, primitive skills, and our desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website.


Planning For the Next Utah Trip- Hiking, Hafting, and Hunting

23 January 2010

Normally this time of year finds me working away  at reviewing the past season, posting blogs, photos, info, and adding new web pages to the Desert Explorer website. The cold of the winter usually keeps me indoors, and thus affords the time for writing and planning for the coming summer. But this winter proves to be quite busy- with the holidays, new business ventures, and a notebook full of things to do, my time has been taken up elsewhere. My apologies to those looking for new info from Desert Explorer.

The Next Trip
Nicolai and I had planned to take a trip to Utah before Christmas, focusing on Horseshoe Canyon and a few other points of interest around Hanksville. But the cold put us off. My five-year old is quite tough, but the constant low temperatures and snow forecast for the area made both of us think twice about 8 or 10 days out in the bush at this time of year. At this point we have re-scheduled our trip for mid-March, once the temperatures start to rise and the days are longer.  We are both really looking forward to the trip as we always are; Nicolai now brings up ‘going to Utah’ as much as I do.

As for our itinerary, we  are planning a couple of hikes in Horseshoe Canyon, with an overnight up a side canyon (camping is not allowed in the Horseshoe Canyon unit of Canyonlands). We are also planning a recon of trailheads and entrances into a couple of canyons in the San Rafael Swell and a look at the river for a future float, some hiking in Robbers Roost Canyon,  a day or two of canyoneering in North Wash, and some time looking at the geology of the region.

The area around Hanksville has some very interesting geologic features. First there is the Factory Butte area with its mesas of Mancos shale capped with sandstone.  Near Factory Butte, on the road to Hanksville, you can see fossilised oysters in the exposed Mancos shale and Dakota sandstone. There is Goblin Valley to the north- Entrada sandstone eroded into animal, human, and various other sculpted forms.  There are the igneous lacoliths that make up the Henry Mountains. And there is the Dirty Devil River canyon and its tributaries, starting in the Entrada formation and emerging at Hite in the Moenkopi formation. If you are interested in the geology of the region, one of our favorite books  is Halka Chronic’s Roadside Geology of Utah.

Rabbit Hunting and Primitive Weapons
Nicolai is very excited about the prospect of hunting rabbits on this trip. He has been practicing his tracking and stalking techniques on the countless squirrels, and the few cottontails, that inhabit our neighborhood. He has been talking about shooting a rabbit and eating it for months now. He plans to eat all the meat, the marrow (which he already does with chicken bones), keep some of the bones for tools, and keep the hide to make a bag for his tools. I am not averse to killing and eating a rabbit, although I can honestly say I haven’t done it in many years. I am not sure if we will use our primitive weapons for the task (I am not even sure it is allowed in Utah). Most likely we’ll take a long a rifle. Either way I think it is an important task for him, something I remember doing when I was his age. It will help further his understanding of the power of a rifle and its uses, the concept that we use all we can of an animal if we kill it, and even death itself and our responsibility  for the life of an animal. I think these are all concepts that are overlooked by most people, and are too far from the lives of most children these days where meat comes from the supermarket.

We have finally finished hafting an obsidian blade on a handle and a point on an arrow shaft.  I collected chunks of hardened pine pitch recently on a couple of mountain runs, and we melted it down in a can in our fire pit. We then painted the sinew holding the point and blade with the liquid pitch and dusted it with clean, dry, white ash from the fire. The white ash causes a  reaction when it contacts the warm pitch and creates an epoxy-like bond. Whether or not we use the tools on our trip, Nicolai now has them in his tool kit.

For more information on primitive weapons and skills, Utah trip guides, and desert hiking and backpacking, visit the Desert Explorer website.


Tracking and Observing Coyote and His Friends

21 May 2009

My son Nicolai and I went out tracking coyotes a few days back. We left late in the day with the intention of finding a hide and watching the coyotes come out at dusk.  As usually happens, we found so many other things to look at, so many tracks to follow, that by the time the coyotes started to yip and howl we were still following some fresh horse tracks from the previous day.  The coyotes did appear right on time- they saw us first, but not until they had been communicating for some time just over the ridge from us. We got to hear them up close, and try to translate what they were saying.  Coyotes use yips, howls, and yip-howls to communicate with each other and between groups.  The Desert Explorer website has more on the lives of coyotes. When they saw us they headed off  quickly in a safe direction.

nico_trackWe found the usual fresh coyote tracks throughout the area, and the track we chose to follow led us to a curious feature in some tall grass.  It appeared that a few coyotes, including a couple of pups whose tracks we were following, had stopped and played there.  The tracks led into the grass, and then out of it. We found a couple of pieces of old garden hose that they had chewed, possibly thrown around or played tug-o-war with as pups do (much of the area was farm and ranch land in the past and old dumpsites can be found in some of the washes). There were small teeth marks on the ends of the hoses, as well as on a few other pieces of hose that had been chewed off.


Tall grass pushed flat from coyotes playing in it.


The Racer posing for us in the grass.

As we left the feature in the grass to continue tracking the group up the wash, we met a Racer that stood perfectly still for us, probably very frightened. Its bright color made it stand out against the green of the grass. They average between 56-82 centimeters in length, with females being longer, according to Hammerson’s Amphibians and Reptiles in Colorado.  Ours was on the long end of the range, near three feet in length.

Besides the Racer and the coyotes we met up with three Great Horned owls.  Nicolai was leading as we walked into a stand of cottonwoods along a creek and two of them took off right above him.  We stopped to watch them fly off and land in some more trees close by.  It was then that we heard the third owl just 20 feet away.  The three began communicating with hoots, barks and what might have been the call of a juvenile. The barking, perhaps of the female, is the most interesting of their vocalisations.  After they flew off we concluded from their sign that they had been using the trees as a perch for some time. We watched them for a while with binos, and got to see and hear them again at dusk as we left by the same trail.


Great Horned owl perched on the roots of a cottonwood tree over a stream.

We spent a couple of hours just following the trails the coyotes had made up and down all the washes.  They are so prominent that it is impossible to lose them.  It offers a great opportunity for Nicolai to practice his tracking skills.

Well-traveled coyote trail in the bottom of a wash.

Well-traveled coyote trail in the bottom of a wash.

The area we visit is alive with wildlife.  Many birds live and travel through the area.  At this time of year the Killdeer are everywhere.  They were screaming at us during our entire hike, from the ground and the air.  Some were undoubtedly trying to coax us away form their nests, as plovers are known to do.  The chorus frogs have quieted down some, but we still heard them here and there.

Our next trip out we will be sure to settle down as the sun sets and let the coyotes begin their evening in peace, and if we are lucky we’ll get a couple of good photos of them.


Tracking- Getting Started, Guidebooks

12 May 2009

I have been tracking in some form as long as I can remember. As a kid I would find a track, or what I thought was a track, and follow it.  I remember searching for and finding sign of different animals- birds, muskrat, rabbit, beaver- from a very young age. I never had any sort of formal instruction and did not know that there were any formal terms or techniques for tracking until after I had done it for many years. Not that my tracking followed any form of technical or traditional tracking lines of thought, or so it seemed- I went out, found tracks, and followed them.  I used common sense- moved quietly, slowly, moved around tracks, observed them from high and low and made it a point to try and think like the animal I followed. After reading a number of tracking guides I found that these are the basics to tracking.  And again I was reminded that our  nature as creatures of the wilderness has not been lost to the modern world.  If you let yourself go with it, it will come back to you.

Tracking With My Son

Since my early endeavors at tracking I have read a few of Tom Brown’s guides including his Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking and his book The Tracker. I have picked up bits of tracking skill over the years from other books such as texts about the Kung of the Kalahari desert, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee novels (it’s true- Chee can teach you something), and from locals during my travels in the jungles of Mexico and Belize. In recent years I have given much more thought, time and effort to my tracking endeavors.  Much of this has to do with tracking with my son and teaching him the skills. Tracking is an important part of his wilderness education and is something I am now “formally” teaching him.

Nicolai on his way to visit our local coyote friends.

Nicolai on his way to visit our local coyote friends.

Tracking is another great way for us to spend calm, quiet time together as we hone our powers of observation and enjoy being outside. We are lucky in that we have access to a few square miles of old ranch land close by which has become a sanctuary for wildlife escaping the encroaching subdivisions. We visit the place often observing coyote, fox, prairie dog, rabbit, and red tail, Swainson’s and marsh hawks, to give a short list. My son really loves the aspect of stealth- we walk slowly and quietly together, without talking, and when we get close enough, we change from tracking posture to stalking posture, crawling along the ground and observing from behind cover. We have even developed our own hand and arm signals for communication.  My goal is to make tracking second nature, whether we are walking across the grass at the park or up a remote desert canyon in Utah.

Tracking Humans

In a recent post I mentioned an old friend of mine who was attending the British Army Tracking School in Brunei. You can read his informative posts at MichaelYon-online. Since reading his near daily posts from the school, I have become motivated once again to move forward with tracking skills. I have done some research on tracking, tracking schools, and books on the subject.  Much of what I found had to do with military and law enforcement tracking, and many of the guides were written with tracking mainly humans in mind.  However, I personally recommend both of the Tom Brown books noted above as a place to start.  They are simple and clear with story lines that develop as they entertain and inspire.  They introduce you to basic animal tracks as you read along and treat tracking as an almost spiritual undertaking. When you reach the end of them you will have a thorough understanding of basic animals tracks, tracking techniques and of the “tracking mind”.


One of the benefits of tracking- adding to the collection of skulls and bones. Nicolai holds the skull and mandible of a house cat he found along our track. It's likely that it had been a meal at some point for the coyotes we were tracking.

Another recommended title, which has just come out in a revised edition, is Bob Carss’  SAS Guide to Tracking.  Carss was an SAS soldier for 20 years and taught at their tracking schools. His book starts by giving definitions and explanations and is aimed not only at soldiers, but at teachers and parents- he wrote it as a guide to help teach tracking to his son. The book is much more technical in its layout than Tom Brown’s guides, and has chapters on finding lost tracks, types of sign, aging of sign, stalking, and observation.  You cannot come away from this book without learning at least the basics, even if you do not do any of the exercises or drills that Carss provides. This book has become our textbook for the formal study of tracking.

These volumes together are very complementary, covering human and other mammal tracking, and the technical, military side of tracking as well as the spiritual side.  They both stress the same points for the beginner who wants to explore tracking, such as lots of practice, moving slowly and quietly, observation, study, and thinking like your quarry. Both volumes also discuss the need to let go of the modern world and move into the tracking mind to be a competent tracker.  Tom Brown explains it as developing a “deeper awareness”, making the process a sort of meditation, which is reason enough to read his work.


Wilderness Kids- Survival Skills for the Four Year Old

24 April 2009

When we go hiking my son carries his own Camelbak with water, snacks, his bird guide and a few survival items including a whistle and a flashlight.  I have stressed to him since the very beginning the importance of being prepared, of having all he might need with him, just in case. As a father I feel one of the most important things that I can do for my son is to teach him the skills to stay alive in the bush. Of course our frequent practice of primitive skills goes far beyond the average person’s idea of being prepared, and of being self-sufficient. For the average hiker these skills are not entirely necessary, to say nothing of the average four or five year old. But it is very important that they know what to do if they become separated from you on a hike.

A note on terminology- I avoid using the term “lost”.  “Misoriented” is a term used in the U.S. Army roughly translating to being lost.  The philosophy is that you never really become “lost”- you are somewhere on your mapsheet and the mission depends on your continuing. “Misoriented” in this context is always proceeded by the term “temporarily”.  There are psychological advantages to never allowing yourself to become “lost”, but rather “temporarily misoriented”, and to teaching this perspective to your child. With that said, I personally have never been lost in my life, and never will be. I stress this point to my son as well.

The Basics of Hiking Together

The following discussion assumes that you are teaching your child wilderness skills as you hike, discussing topics such as trees, plants, rocks, animals, and even the weather.  It is assumed that you are carrying a map and compass, and that you are actively teaching your child about them, allowing him or her to use them as you hike.  Teaching children about nature in general and about maps, about how to find north with or without a compass, and about basic navigation techniques empowers them and will help them develop a healthy relationship with the wilderness. For more on teaching children wilderness skills, see our Wilderness Kids pages.  For more on land navigation see the Maps and Navigation pages at the Desert Explorer website.

The first thing to teach your young one before you ever take your first hike together is to stay close, at least in sight distance.  Children are naturally and healthily attached to their parents- they want to be near us.  They stay close to us at the grocery store, and keep us in sight at the park for example. Hiking in the bush should be no different.  Talk to your children about the potential dangers where you are hiking- this might be a stream, animals, steep slopes, or thick brush where you could be quickly separated.  Explain to them that you are not in your back yard, that they need to stay close, closer than normal- stress the importance, but do not scare them with it.  You want them to enjoy the wilderness, not to fear it.

Each situation will be different, but if my son and I are following a discernible trail, I often let him take the lead. I then have him in sight all the time. If I lead I am constantly turning to check on him.  We often hold hands and walk together on our hikes, taking in the sights and discussing everything we see.

If We Become Separated

Should we ever become separated my son knows what to do.  I have taught him that if he cannot see me, cannot hear me, if I do not answer when he calls for me, that he should find shade and sit down. I have taught him to be calm, have a drink of water and continue to listen and call for me.  In his pack he carries a very loud survival whistle.  He knows that this is not a toy- it is to be used only in such a situation. That is his next step; get out the whistle and blow it at intervals.  This whistle is so loud that there is little chance of me not hearing it.

My procedure is the same if we become separated- I stop and call for him, listen for him, and wait for the whistle. With him stopping in place and sitting down, I am given the advantage of being able to easily follow my backtrail and locate him.  He knows that if he stops and sits down he is making it easier for me to track him.  If I cannot find him on the backtrail, I can find where he wandered off our trail and begin tracking him to where he sits.

Thoughts on Being “Lost”- Panic or Calm?

Panic is the primary danger to people who become misoriented in the bush. Once a person realises they have lost control of their situation, that is, they are lost, a downward spiral can quickly occur.  Stories abound of hikers hundreds of feet from the trail, or a mile from a road, heading off in absolutely the wrong direction, thrashing through the brush, leaving their gear behind, exhausting themselves, and putting themselves in extreme danger.

The thought behind stopping immediately could have saved many hikers from uncomfortable and unplanned nights in the bush, and worse.  When people are lost, out of panic, they often begin to travel aimlessly-  to wander, to cross their paths again and again, or to travel in circles looking for the lost trail or a recognisable feature.  For rescue personnel who might be tracking them this makes the job all the more difficult.

The first thing to remember if you do “become lost” is to remain calm. Sit down, take a drink of water, and relax a moment.  Then consider where you have come from and where you are heading.  If you calmly and logically assess the situation, chances are you will quickly realise where you went wrong.  If you are indeed unable to find your way back, you must remain calm and gain control of the situation. For more information on how to address being lost, and a survival situation in general, see the Survival Kit pages and the Primitive Skills pages at the Desert Explorer website.