Ancient Pathways, LLC

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Outdoor Programs in Desert Survival and Bushcraft

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The Inuit of the Arctic referred to hunger as the "Great Want." Something few people have experience with in our modern Western world where food is but a step away in our fridge.

People often ask about food on our survival courses. It is certainly not something of concern for the stranded dayhiker lost for a few nights. Our bodies are hardwired for fasting from our hunter-gatherer past when such things were a part of one's existence.

One of the most harrowing survival stories regarding long-term food deprivation that I know of comes from the Himalayas where a trekker was stranded in the snow-covered mountains for 43-days. He endured bitter cold days and nights with little more than a sleeping bag, snow which he held to his lips to melt, and sheer willpower. He lost close to one third of his body weight but survived. If you need calories it is in a cold-weather environment and the only food available was his lean muscle mass. Nothing was available to eat in his stark setting and supplies in his pack were quickly exhausted. Still, he prevailed and lived.

On winter survival courses in the subarctic, I regularly consumed 8,000 calories a day. A typical snack in camp would consist of a bagel with cheese, butter, and a slab of bacon. Every hour, I would down a cup of hot cocoa with a tablespoon of butter. To my body, this was just wood in the furnace. Dinner was a feast like you wouldn’t believe but it was necessary to cope with nighttime temperatures that dipped to –40 F below. Steger Expedition members that crossed the Antarctic unsupported consumed 12-15000 calories a day! Cold-weather requires a higher than normal daily intake of fat and calories. There's a reason that the Inuit ate large quantities of seal and whale blubber.

Yes, we humans can endure amazing hardships and go long periods without food. Our genetics are encoded for such events but the question remains: why not plan ahead and carry food with you? My philosophy is that skills and preparation trump suffering so bring chow with you on outings, especially in the colder months. Jerky, cheese sticks, fruit, chocolate, and PBJ sandwiches all make great trailfoods that will keep your furnace stoked. If you work in the cold, bring a thermos with hot cocoa and a few spoons of butter.

Then, the "Great Want" can be something best left for blogs and conversation around the woodsmoke of the evening campfire.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Winter Travel Tips

Just finished a long but rewarding season of teaching and guiding. Spent most of the Fall out in the wilds teaching our 9-week Southwest Semester Program with an amazing group of folks. Now, with the colder months here, it is time to start writing more and enjoying the warmth of home.

With two days of rain and snow on the way here in northern Arizona, I have been updating my truck supplies that I carry for roadside emergencies. Each year, there are many tales of stranded motorists having to weather out a night or two on the highway when the interstate is shut down. Being prepared, as you would when hiking in the backcountry, is essential to handling a roadside emergency during the unforgiving months of winter.

Remember, even if you live in the desert Southwest like I do, it can get mighty cold and inhospitable during the winter. On a recent desert walkabout a few weeks back in early November, the nighttime temps were averaging 24 degrees! Where else, but the desert regions of the world, can you go from worrying about heat-exhaustion during the day to hypothermia at night?

In addition to having the usual gear in my truck like a small air compressor, quality jack, a can of Fix-A-Flat, LED flashlight, cellphone and charger, I also have the following items below.

Shelter System
Your clothing is your primary shelter system so dress appropriately when venturing out in the the elements or taking to the road. I once had to change a blow-out on the highway east of Flagstaff while driving home one December morning. I was glad I had plenty of layers as the temps hovered around 10 degrees. So, you may not even be in the wilderness when encountering Murphy's Law.

Here's my "shelter system" that's stowed in the truck:

Winter jacket
Wool or fleece sweater
Wool hat
Sorel (insulated) boots
Spare wool socks
Long underwear bottoms
Sleeping bag
Emergency blanket (not the cheap Mylar blankets)

Once you have spent a few bone-cold nights out in the wilds with the clothes on your back you will see how essential a sleeping bag is for winter survival. Nowadays bags compress down to the size of a loaf of bread so we're not talking about a bulky item here. Slumberjack makes inexpensive bags in this size range or you can get a quality bag from Western Mountaineering. Carry one- you won't regret it if you become stranded on the road! Short of that, carry a few wool blankets.

Minimum of 2 gallons per person in your vehicle. I have a couple of 64 oz plastic juice containers along with two 1-quart Nalgene bottles. One of my Nalgenes is wrapped with black duct tape which will turn the bottle into a snow-melting device. Water is a critical survival item, even in the winter so don't skimp on this.

Yeah, you can go without food for weeks as real-life survivors have, but why?! I've been without food under survival conditions for days on end and it isn't fun, so why suffer. Bring some quality food not far off from what you normally eat. Remembering that such items freeze in the colder months, I usually opt for M & Ms, a small jar of peanut butter, crackers, raisins, and jerky. This is all stored in a small tupperware. High-calorie, high-fat foods are a must in the winter. I also bring along some packets of instant soup and hot cocoa (see below).

In addition to the sleeping bag, I also carry a Nu-Wick candle. This is a non-toxic candle in a tin that comes with 5 wicks that burns for 120 hours. You can add or subtract wicks to boost/reduce heat output and these candles can even be used for heating a small pot of soup or cocoa.

A small cooking pot or enamel cup is essential for melting snow and heating up water. Nothing fancy here- mine is a recycled peach can. A small (32 oz) apple juice can would work too or you can buy an18 oz enamel cup at Wal-Mart.

In both our vehicles, we have small first-aid kits made by Adventure Medical Kits. These start at $20 and are quality kits.

I also have a small shovel and a canister of cat litter for digging out when stuck in the snow. This has come in handy more than a few times.

The Campmor company carries the aforementioned sleeping bags, Nu-Wick candles, and AMK First-aid kits in addition to other outdoor gear.

What to do when stranded on the road
So, let's say you become stranded on the highway during a blizzard. Use your vehicle as a survival shelter and consider walking out as a last resort.

Hopefully you topped off your fuel tank before leaving home. To conserve fuel, run your engine 15 minutes each hour to warm up the interior. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO CRACK OPEN A WINDOW! Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer so make sure your exhaust pipe (muffler pipe) outside is clear of snow and then crack the window open slightly while running your engine.

The coldest part of the vehicle will be on the floor as cold air settles so put your feet across the seat. Wrap up in your sleeping bag, put a hat on, have a snack, and settle in. It could be a while before emergency services clear the road or get to you.

If you have kids, bring along extra winter clothes, food, and water. Every winter it seems, there is a disheartening story about a family who decides to take a "shortcut" home on secondary roads and become stranded, often without any supplies. So plan ahead and BE PREPARED!

Depending on your lifestyle and travel interests, you may wish to carry more gear but at least start with the basics above.

Take a few minutes to prepare while in your driveway at home and you will be able to handle an emergency should it befall you.

Stay warm and enjoy the wild places,


Monday, June 9, 2008

Knowing Your Local Water Sources

While talking with a former survival student of mine about disaster-related, the issue of water resources came up. Concerns like: what to do when your tap runs dry during or after a disaster, where are the best sources outside of your home, outside of your city, which lakes/rivers/springs are nearby and are they safe?, etc....

Every region of the country has it's survival concerns to factor in with regards to disaster preparedness, and here in the Southwest, water is at the top of the list.

I have a "water map" that I've made up over the years, it is a Forest Service map that has red-ink marks for all the water sources I am personally familiar with and also info on their reliability, access (only in summer?), and purity. This is something I think everyone should do for where they live, if water is a major survival concern (not you folks in the Pacific NW or Great Lakes!).

Get a local map, start with a 10 mile radius and move it out from there as time permits. Then drive/hike around one weekend and check them out. Are they safe to drink from? What's upstream (farms with pesticide runoff or an old mine)? Is the water year-round or just seasonal? And so on.... Check on your water sources a few times a year or more, especially the primary ones you'd consider using in an emergency.

Now, I'll qualify all this by saying that I live in a high-desert region so my water map and concerns look different than someone in a big city but the principles are going to be the same: where, outside of your neighborhood or metropolis, is your nearest reliable water source(s)?

Don't rely on topographic maps to be up to date either. Most I have are dated 1965 or 1983 and out here water availability in the wilds changes each season. I remember doing a land navigation exercise with my students where we trekked to a designated "water tank" on the map. When we arrived, we found a rusty cattle trough turned on its side and riddled with bulletholes. So much for slaking our thirst based on the topo map features!

And yes, being prepared and having quantities of water on hand at home are essential but there's no substitute for "local knowledge" of nearby water sources for a potential long-term situation. Such knowledge costs little and can go a long way if your well-prepared stocks at home run low or are comprised in some way.

Whether one is talking about survival in the wilds or the urban jungle, it's all about being prepared and taking care of yourself and your family by having a few basic necessities in place and a PLAN.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Survival Myths & Misconceptions

Here are a few of the more common myths that show up in survival literature and that we address during our fieldcourses.

Water From a Barrel Cactus

The notion of slicing open a juicy barrel cactus and scooping out a cup of water to quench your thirst sounds appealing. The problem is that, due to the alkaloids present in the cactus, most people experience severe cramping and vomiting, which only increases their dehydration.

Furthermore, the amount of moisture found in a barrel cactus depends on
seasonal rainfall. Assuming that you have the tools (i.e., machete, tire-iron, etc...) to cut into the spiny cactus without injuring yourself, you have just killed a succulent that may be over one hundred years old not to mention protected by law.

The few times I have had the pleasure of choking down barrel cactus fluid (notice I didn't say "water") made my stomach churn like a cement-mixer and required a Buddhist's monks meditative effort at keeping from vomiting. Like I tell my students- there's a reason why you don't see "Cactus Juice" sold at the grocery store!

Save the romantic notions for the Hollywood westerns and rely on this method only if there is no other alternative. By the way, the only barrel cactus that isn't toxic is the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus

Collecting Water With a Solar Still
The solar still involves digging a two foot deep pit with a three foot diameter, placing a container in the bottom, and covering the whole pit with a six foot by six foot piece of clear plastic. The plastic
condenses ground moisture on the interior covering where it funnels down to the center and drops into the container.

Constructing a still involves expending considerable amounts of your precious sweat to dig the pit. It also presupposes that you have a sheet of clear plastic and a shovel. If you had the foresight to bring this gear then you probably had the good sense to pack plenty of water. The solar still just isn't that useful in the desert and yet it still shows up in survival books as a reliable water-collecting device.

I have constructed many stills over the years in each of the four North American deserts. Each time I arrive at the same conclusion after seeing the results: Plan ahead and carry plenty of water! If you hadn't already guessed, this is the mantra that a wilderness explorer has to live by.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Getting Rescued In A Flash

Just finished teaching a ten day course in the mountains to the military. Seems like the wind never stopped blowing during that entire time as is often the case this time of year in the West. Some days we had fires, some days we went without as it was just too risky.

Each year, though, we hear about lost hikers who light up a signal fire to expedite their rescue and then ends up torching the forest instead. With much of the Western US a tinderbox, my advice is to carry a quality (glass) signal mirror and learn how to use it- something that takes a few minutes in your backyard.

A decent signal mirror will run you $10 and can shoot a flash for miles and miles and, most importantly, doesn't endanger the forest and the dozens of searchers on the ground headed your way.

Signal fires have their place; such as when the ground is covered with snow, it's the rainy season, it's a non-windy day, and you have exhausted other means.

Since survival is all about being prepared, carry a signal mirror and whistle, at the very least, and you'll have a much easier time drawing Search and Rescue personnel to you in the event you become stranded in the wilds.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Romanticism of Living Off the Land

Got a call today from a magazine writer who asked if I would provide some "tips" for helping the average person learn to live off the land during a crisis in the city or countryside. I said that it would take more than tips- more like a whole lot of practice, sweat, and time out on the land and even then it can be a dice-roll as to whether you fill your belly that day.

The area of food procurement in the wilderness is, by far, the most challenging area of study in the field of bushcraft and survival. In my opinion, it's an area that requires a few lifetimes to delve into and one that I have been pursuing for many years with no end in sight. Our ancestors spent their entire existence on an eternal food quest and it took the cooperative efforts of the whole tribe survive. Trying to acquire the skill set of our ancient hunter-gatherers during or after a disaster is like learning to sail a ship during a storm. Better to be prepared in the first place with some food supplies at home.

Food procurement, and being an effective modern hunter/gatherer, involves some of the following skills:

-Tracking and animal behavior.
-Ability to effectively use archery gear, atlatl, and throwing sticks along with proficiency with a rifle.
-Stalking and camoflauge skills.
-Fishing skills: both primitive and modern.
-Knowledge of the common edible plants for your region and how to harvest and use them.
-Ability to construct and properly use deadfalls and snares for trapping.

Just looking at the list you'll see that living off the land takes TIME and PRACTICE.

If you read the old accounts of mountain men like Jim Bridger, you'll quickly see that it wasn't anything like Dances With Wolves. Old Jim described one time that he was so famished due to lack of game, that he took off his deerskin moccasins and crisped them over the fire until they were crunchy and then ate 'em! And this coming from a veteran trapper/hunter who had spent over 4 decades in the wilderness. Living off the land is not romantic!

I've taught bushcraft courses where we are out in the wilds for a few weeks, hunting & gatheirng, where the acorns are dropping on our heads, the berries are abundant, and the fish are jumping into your lap. However, I've also had courses that saw us chowing on cattail roots and pine bark for three days because the drought, that season, left the landscape barren.

My advice, if you want to learn to be self-sufficient, is to learn as much as you can: spend time with experienced hunters, fishermen, edible plants instructors, trappers, and bushcraft folks and slowly integrate your skills into your lifestyle at home. My kids know how to pick and eat amaranth, cattails, dandelions and other wild edibles but it something that my wife and I have introduced them to over the years and build on with each trip out the back door.

My advice to those who simply want to be prepared for an emergency, and have no desire to go Jeremiah Johnson, is the same I gave the writer who called: Plan Ahead and Be Prepared. Stock up on basic food supplies at home, enough for a few weeks, to weather out a crisis and you will be way ahead of the game. You can bet our hunter-gatherer ancestors took the same precautions.


Monday, March 24, 2008

From the Oven to the Freezer: Spring Travel in the Desert

Just finished another glorious trip in the desert. What a spring we are having in Arizona- perhaps the best in ten years due to the heavy precipitation this winter in both the high-country and lower desert. An amazing array of wildflowers that are a sight to see and probably won't come again until the next productive winter which seem to be few and far between.

We actually saw waterfalls cascading over canyon edges in the Superstition Mountains a few weeks back and many of the "dry" washes were flowing.

Typical of the desert, though, we were hiking in t-shirts and shorts during the day with temps in the 70's and then donning wool hats and down jackets around the evening campfire where the temp plummetted to 20 degrees, only an hour after sunset. The "Land of Little Water" is indeed a land of extremes. The city of Yuma holds the record for most drastic temperature change when it went from 120 degrees during the day to 39 degrees at night!

I remember one spring dayhike I was leading in the Western Grand Canyon on Hualapai tribal lands. We were hiking in 80+ degree weather and soaking our shirts in the nearby stream to help us cool off. My shirt would be bone-dry in 30 minutes. After finishing lunch in an a remote gorge, we headed back to the vans which were a few miles downstream. The wind kicked up and ominous clouds began rolling in. By the time we started our drive out of the Canyon, it was raining and by the time we finished atop the Rim, it was actually snowing. When I arrived home in Flagstaff a few hours later, there were white-out conditions and a storm upon us that would dump up to two feet of snow. So, in a short period of time, we went for the potential for heat-exhaustion to hypothermia and frostbite! Ah, welcome to the desert.

Along with my trusty survival kit and water, I always bring some fleece or wool layers on those balmy spring hikes in the sun. You never know what the coming night and weather will bring.

About Ancient Pathways

Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. When not on the trail, he lives in a passive-solar, strawbale home in northern Arizona. For information on Tony’s books, gear, or bushcraft courses, visit

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