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Into the wilderness

Surviving without luxuries

Into the wilderness
14 November 2011

How would today’s generation of office workers cope in the outdoors? We sent Joe Ellison into the wild to see if he could last 24 hours with basic survival skills.

I may be tired, on my knees and caked in mud, but I’m reassuring myself that, just as it’s acceptable for a grown man to cry at a film (provided that film is Field Of Dreams), it’s also fine to be scared of the dark, as long as you’re alone in 1,000 acres of pitch-black woodland. And as I fruitlessly scramble around making feeble attempts to light a log fire while nightfall rapidly descends around me, the idea of freezing to death in the wilderness grows ever more likely.

As my arm grows wearier with every downward thrust I make with a handheld spark-creating device on to some cotton wool that refuses to burn, I’d give anything to be back in my bed where I lay 12 hours earlier. Not that I managed to get much sleep the previous night — I was too busy worrying about the impending 24 hours I was to spend outdoors to gauge how a city-dwelling, 21st-century man would cope in a survival situation.

I was the ideal person for the job — being completely naive. The closest I had come to camping was at a music festival. And it certainly seemed like I was out of my depth, I thought, as I arrived at a remote location in Cornwall’s rugged Lizard Peninsula, having already come to terms with the fact that I’d forgotten everything I’d learned from my days as a Cub Scout. The only complex knots I knew were now entwined in my stomach.

No gear and no idea

I was met by John Hudson and Kevin Newton, two full-time survival instructors from Survival Wisdom (a company that works with Shelter Box) who have experience in arctic, jungle and desert terrain with the British military. Their task was to teach me the best survival techniques I needed to make it through the night.

As they approached, I noticed the pair’s rain-sodden trousers and mud-soaked boots, which were completely at odds with my fresh-off-the-shelf garb. It made me feel as if I’d turned up at a Sunday league game sporting a pair of gargantuan headphones and clutching a Louis Vuitton man-bag. Thankfully, John softened the blow by pointing out that having “all the gear and no idea” was better than nothing.

“You need to utilise all you can in a survival situation,” stressed Kevin as he handed me an SOS package that contained a knife, cord, survival blanket, spark-making device, cotton wool and a few other gadgets I couldn’t identify.

Following a lesson on how to build an effective shelter, the pair sent me off to find an area to create my own. I tied the survival blanket to two trees, with two improvised pegs stretching the bottom of the sheet out at an angle. Sharpening the branches down to points for the pegs was a struggle. Until, that is, my mentors dropped by and suggested that I “peel the wood like potatoes”, before helping me put two logs underneath the sheet and plumping copious ferns on top for a mattress finish.

My next challenge was to build a fire. Having been instructed that my fire needed to be off-ground so that oxygen could get underneath it, I used five chunky pieces of green wood (which doesn’t burn) as a base, gathered a pile of kindling for initial fuel, and various larger branches for when the flame was ready for them.

Not long afterward, my teeth were chattering to the point of resembling a wind-up toy, the sun was vanishing, and my hands were toiling to produce a flame. And then, just as I was considering how low the temperature would have to plummet for my heart to stop beating, it happened. A spark, a flame, triumph — I held the blazing material aloft, triggering a Neanderthal sense of pride, before nestling it on to a bunch of kindling in the centre of my fire.

Conquering the wild

Having previously been told that I could “last weeks in the wild without food, but only days without water,” I adhered to John and Kevin’s advice and used my fire to boil some water I’d sourced earlier from a nearby river — the only sure way of ridding it of toxins.

While I was getting toasty, John and Kevin paid me a surprise visit with an evening feast: locusts. Although I grimaced when I pulled the insect’s head off with my thumb and forefinger — firmly, to ensure its entrails followed — I did manage to cook it over the fire on a sharpened stick. I took a bite. Naturally, it tasted like chicken.

I was in no rush for dessert. My tongue had already undergone a bushtucker trial during my survival tuition when I chanced upon an edible mushroom. Jelly ear — or auricularia auricular-judae, to give it its catchier title — is tough fungi that can be eaten straight from the wood it dwells on. Tasteless, but certainly filling.

Slinking into my shelter in the dead of night, I realised how the head-torch is so much more than a tool for middle-aged men wanting to change a fuse it can also be used by city-slicker types to find their sleeping bags with ease. In many ways — such as knowing a badger could easily traipse in and rummage around in my belongings — sleeping in the open was the ultimate test. And it was just as gruelling as I feared; every branch within a one-mile radius creaked incessantly, and wind brought odd splashes of raindrops on to my face, ensuring I amassed a patchy three hours’ snooze at best, before I was up scavenging for firewood.

As my departure neared, John and Kevin came into my camp and gave me one final task: to construct a signal fire. I say ‘construct’ — due to my dishevelled, sleep-lacking state, John and Kevin did the hard work by stacking large, flammable branches into a towering pyramid formation, on which I draped numerous ferns before cramming its middle layer with kindling. A few moments after lighting it, a thermal punch of thick smoke rose up over the treetops, and in the immortal words of Destiny’s Child, I’m a survivor.

With that, I was soon back in civilisation — well, a Roadchef — looking forward to getting home and unfurling on a sofa in front of the TV and checking my local pizza takeaway’s menu to see if it has a locust topping option.