I have hunkered down toughed out blizzard conditions with temperatures below zero, thunderstorms producing hail and winds as high as 40 mph, and the scorching summer heat beating down on me as I lay in a life raft on the open water. However, sometimes staying put is not the best solution.
Lately I have written several articles on bug out scenarios and thought this might make for a good challenge. Imagine that you have a designated bug out location that is roughly 30 miles from your home. The roads are all jammed with traffic, and the safest way to your location is hiking through the wilderness along a creek.
You had to leave your home in a hurry and only had time to grab a handful of tools for your journey including your knife, hatchet, survival bracelet, water filter, some copper wire, a ferro rod, and some char cloth:
The toughest part about a challenge like this is that you have to establish the four pillars of survival each day. With stationary survival situations you can often build one shelter, rely on one source of food, rely on one source of water, and keep one fire going the whole time. In addition, the hiking itself takes a huge toll. With the physicality of the challenge one would expect to burn almost twice as many calories and they would remaining still. This is in addition to the blisters, sore muscles, cuts and scrapes that come from a hike such as this.
There is also the additional risk that you face traversing this terrain. All forms of communication have been cut off, and there are dozens of bluffs and ridge lines covered in slick moss, wet leaves, and loose rocks. One wrong step could send you tumbling to your death, but even a broken leg or twisted ankle could be catastrophic. Nighttime temperatures are cold enough for hypothermia if you get wet, and you will have to cross the creek several times to keep moving towards your destination.
There is a good reason why you hardly ever see survivalists participate in solo challenges without a way to call for help. Even the most experienced woodsmen normally have a satellite phone or a cameraman with them in case something goes wrong. I knew my cell phone would not have reception, so I would have to be especially careful on the journey. Between the potential for injury and the possibility of getting lost, I would have to think through every step.
For months I had studied a satellite printout of the path I would follow. Unfortunately, this was a portion of the Mark Twain National Forest in which I had never camped or hunted. I knew there were some bluffs towards the middle of my trek, but I had no idea how large an area would be considered difficult terrain. Just two days before my departure a woman in her early 20’s fell while hiking in these woods and had to be rescued on horseback. She was younger than me, in better shape, was following trails, and had three other hikers with her. I would have none of these advantages.
When I first set out at dawn on the first day, I was greeted by a herd of cattle that thought I was there to feed them. They followed me for quite a distance before turning back. I quickly found that the area running along the creek was thick with thorns and brush, so I knew I would not be able to stay so close to the water. With it being overcast I could not use the sun to navigate, so it was important that I did not stray too far from the creek.
I also needed the creek as a reliable source of drinking water. With all the hiking I planned, I figured I would need to drink close to three gallons of water per day to replace all I lost from sweating. I had my filter with me so purifying water would be easy as long as I could safely get to the creek. This would prove to be more difficult later in my journey. I also found resources in the recently harvested fields along the creek. An ear of dry corn would serve as the majority of my calories for this trip. I attempted to boil it to soften it a bit, but to no avail. I would have to grind it into powder between my teeth and choke it down. I also found chickweed, wood sorrel, and wild onions to round out my meal.
I was making good time until I came to a wooded area that appeared to be sparse and easy to cross on my map. Instead, the spaces between the cedars were filled with chest high thorn bushes. The only way to push through this area was to stick to the cedars and push the boughs out of my way. The dried cedar foliage stuck to my sweaty brow and fell down the back of my shirt causing me to itch all over.
By the time I made it through the patch of cedars, I was so exhausted that I was forced to make camp right there. I had not made it nearly as far as I hoped so a good night’s rest would be the only way I would have the energy to make up ground the following day. The bluffs on both sides of the creek had gotten high and steep, but there was a holler leading to the edge of the water. I got a cool drink and found a rock outcropping for my shelter.
My plan was to use the rock to reflect heat back into my shelter, and to build a lean-to on the other side of the fire to hold in the heat. There was dead wood everywhere for building, so I got to work. As I cleared away the leaves under my rock I found ashes where somebody had also built a fire years before. I remembered that the safest way to break poles was between two trees, so I started breaking them to size. I used my hatchet to notch the poles keeping them in place. When finished I put a thick layer of leaves on top of my lean-to for insulation and piled leaves underneath for a bed.
I still had some daylight left so I thought a few traps would be a good call. Several squirrels had been bouncing around in the trees, so I made a squirrel pole. The copper wire was perfect for some snares, and I secured them to the pole. I leaned it at a 45 degree angle against a large tree and rested the loops of the snares on top. With luck a lazy squirrel would run up or down the pole and catch his head in one of the snares. I also found a large flat rock in the holler and build a two stick deadfall. In this design the bait stick is actually placed between the rock and the support stick. I shoved a hunk of corn cob onto the end of the bait stick. When an animal tried to pull it out, the rock should fall crushing the animal.
As I made it back to my camp I heard a ‘cluck, cluck’ sound from across the holler. Down the hill came 11 huge turkeys single file. I assumed they were going to the creek for water, but they came back up the hill towards my camp. I sat inside my shelter starting my fire as they surrounded my camp and came within a few feet of my location. As I laid down to get some rest, several deer moved into my area and started snorting and stomping. The animals were curious and defensive of their little grove.
The next day the climbing was even more intense. I had no luck with the traps but found some autumn olive berries in the morning and got a nice boost from the sugar. This was the area in which that girl had fallen, and I had to be even more careful than the first day. The mosquitoes were also out in force and were making it hard to concentrate. I was making good time and just needed to make it to the creek for some water before finding a camp for the night. As I approached what looked the creek on the map, I realized that I was well above the tops of the trees on the other shore.
I was looking down a 250 foot cliff between me and my water. Looking North and South along the bluff it appeared that there was not a good way around this obstacle, but the elevation did drop a bit to the South. I worked my way to a spot that was closer to 150 foot high and started climbing down. I kept thinking “three points of contact at all times” and tried to focus on the deer trail that faintly gave me a path to follow. After about an hour of climbing I finally made it to the base.
As I left the tree line I was greeted by a plush white sand bar. I collapsed and gathered some water to hydrate. As I laid on the soft sand I decided that I would have to make this spot my camp. Across the creek was a huge sycamore that had recently been uprooted by a flash flood, so sleeping in this canyon made me nervous. I was simply unable to hike any further. I used a shoulder bone from a deer to dig out a pit in the sand and then used driftwood and willow branches to make a lean-to and a bed.
For some reason, I thought that the sand would make a good insulator for my body heat. I was wrong. By the time the sun went down the sand was already cold and would only get colder. I also knew that there were probably dozens of cottonmouth snakes living close to the water, so I worried about one wandering into my camp. The driftwood was wet on the inside despite being dry on the outside, so my fire was out by 11pm and I had to do squats every few hours to keep up my body temperature.
Little sleep was had as the cold sand chilled me to the bone. At this point hunger had started to really affect my strength, and just pulling myself to my feet was difficult. From the start of the day, I was faced with tough terrain and had much climbing to do. Despite eating dried corn kernels, the acid in my stomach was making me sick and causing sores in my mouth. I stumbled upon two sweet and sour packets in a bag by the creek. I was desperate for the sugar, so I choked them down.
As I followed what I thought was an easy path through the national forest, I came to a sheer drop off which had to be descended. This cliff as with all of them was covered in wet leaves, slick moss, loose rocks, and mud. As I approached the base I took my first fall, but thankfully was not injured. It was a stark reminder that I needed to stay focused even when I had passed what I felt was the most treacherous terrain. As I finally approached the area in which I planned to sleep, I realized that there was a chunk of private farm land between myself and the forest. I had to hike along the creek in thick brush and every step felt like it would be the last I could muster.
I was completely drained and the weeds and thorns tugged at my legs as I attempted to wade through the mess. I finally made it to the other side of the field but faced a 100 foot bluff. I was done. I did not bother building a shelter or a fire, but instead laid down in a ditch on the side of the field and passed out. I knew the night would be cold, but that was fine. The whole journey had been a big game of “would you rather”. In this case I would rather sleep in the cold than expend another ounce of effort. As I drifted off I heard a pack of coyotes attack a dog in the distance. The sound was haunting, and I prayed I would not be next.
I woke up early on my last day. I wanted to reach the extraction point early so I would have some time to rest. I envisioned sipping water and catching a nap under a shade tree. I was completely exhausted and hoped that the terrain would be easy. After two miles of hiking through fields I came to a sight that brought me to my knees. In front of me was another 100 foot bluff, and there was no way around it. I could barely lift my feet to walk, and now I had to deal with this.
This is the point where God started to talk back to me. I remember thinking that there is no way I have the strength to continue. Surprisingly I heard back:
“Yes you do. I would not ask you to do anything that you cannot handle.”
I shook off my fear and started climbing. Half way up the cliff I looked down and shuttered at the thought of falling and never seeing my wife and son again. As I finished climbing the cliff, I collapsed overcome with emotion. God guided my feet the rest of the day, and thoughts of my family kept me moving. I finally made it to my extraction point and laid down to rest. The sun sifting through the trees kissed my head as I dozed and let my clothes dry out. When my ride pulled up it was like a dream. I was finally headed home.
During this experience I pushed my body and mind to points which I did not think were possible. I only consumed about 300 calories during the whole trip and expended about 19,000. This caused me to lose 17 pounds in just three days. My planned journey was 27 miles but with all the terrain related detours it ended up being 34 miles and I completed it in 3.5 days. I had definitely underestimated the difficulty of the terrain, and I will not make that mistake again. I was able to stay hydrated and maintained enough energy to get through my trip in a reasonable amount of time. I felt this challenge was a huge learning experience and plan to incorporate similar hikes in future challenges as well.