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Outdoor Programs in Desert Survival and Bushcraft

Monday, December 29, 2014

A New Survival Book by Tony Nester- Survival Q & A: Practical Solutions for Staying Alive

Now available on Amazon Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and other digital platforms

Can you really get water in the desert from a solar still? Should you ever attempt to suture a wound, Rambo style, in the backcountry? What is the best treatment for a rattlesnake bite? How do you distinguish cougar tracks from dog tracks? Should you drink from your swimming pool during an urban disaster? How do you survive a night in the snow without any gear? These are just a few of the many questions survival instructor Tony Nester answers in his informative, and at times, humorous book. Culled from the past twenty-five years of teaching, writing, and responding to readers of his popular Practical Survival book series, Tony delves into the Q & A of survival as it relates to forest, desert, jungle, and urban settings along with the often misunderstood realm of living off the land. Survival Q & A is now available as an eBook on Amazon and other ereaders.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Distinguishing Cougar from Dog Tracks

How do you tell the difference between cougar and dog tracks? 

Two of the most difficult types of animal tracks for beginning trackers to distinguish are cougar and domestic dog. Cougars, also known as mountain lions and pumas, range throughout western North America, Canada, Mexico, and South America. There are even cougar populations east of the Rockies such as in Michigan. 

One of the most common differences illustrated in animal tracking books is that the dog family has claws showing in their tracks and the cat family has no claws present. While this can sometimes be the case, there are several other features that are more reliable and used by veteran cougar biologists to distinguish feline prints from those of other carnivores. 

Cougar left paw showing "pinky finger" (on right side) and protruding "middle finger." Note 3 lobes on bottom heel pad.

The first and most significant feature is the heel pad. Regardless of the type of cat (jaguar, bobcat, housecat, etc.) the heel pad will possess three lobes on the posterior (bottom) and two lobes on the anterior (top). The latter is not as common and I only find this feature under perfect conditions in fresh snow or mud. You are far more likely to see the three lobes. Compare this feature with the arched presentation of a canid track and you are on your way to more accurately deciphering whether a feline or canine passed your way. 

Red track cast is cougar. Yellow is wolf.

The second feature is the asymmetrical layout of the toes in a cat track. Like us, they have a pinky and middle finger so to speak, contrasted with the symmetrical spread of a canid’s toes. 

When I worked for the forest service years ago, I had the good fortune of spending time with several third-generation cougar hunters (how did my high-school guidance counselor fail to mention that career!). Many times, they recounted stories about getting calls regarding rogue cougars from concerned homeowners whose property was adjacent to the wilderness. One cat biologist told me he would get frequent calls about “problem cougars” only to drive out to the home and find the tracks of the homeowner’s Great Dane or yellow Lab. 

Again, when considering cougar vs. domestic dog, first look at the heel pad and identify those three posterior lobes. Next, study the position of the toes—asymmetrical or symmetrical? Lastly, if there are claws present, they will be fine and slit-like in a cougar’s tracks vs. the wider, blunt appearance of the dog family. When I have observed cougar claws in a track, they appear as if they were made with the tip of my knife. 

Where I live in northern Arizona, animals spend their lives traversing slickrock and boulder-strewn volcanic fields. Here wild dogs have their claws pretty worn down and this feature is reduced in canid tracks. I see this in my own dogs after a few months of living out in the wilds with me on field courses. Claws or no claws in a track is not a very reliable method for differentiating the two species. 

For further reading on the subject of cougars, check out Harley Shaw’s fine book Soul Among Lions which documents his years afield as a professional cougar biologist. And keep in mind that if you’ve spent time in the western U.S. hiking, then you’ve already been in striking distance of a cougar.  Fortunately for us they mostly prey upon deer, rabbits, and porcupines (their favorite delicacy). 

The above is an excerpt from Tony's new book, Survival Q & A: Practical Solutions for Staying Alive. Available on Kindle, Nook, and other digital platforms on December 27, 2014.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New wilderness survival book series by Tony Nester

I have been busy finishing up two non-fiction survival books which will be released shortly. Also new this month is the release of a boxed set of all four eBooks from my Practical Survival Series which focuses on the skills, gear, and mindset for handling urban and wilderness emergencies.

Lastly, I had the recent pleasure of having an interview on Fiona Quinn's fine Thrillwriting blog. This one focused on flash floods and what to watch out for when traveling in canyon country.

I will be returning to featuring survival tips in the upcoming newsletters. If there is a subject of interest you would like me to cover, please let me know.

Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy the wilds!

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Yellow Lifesaver-Emergency Firestarting or How to Start a Fire in Wet Weather

The Yellow Lifesaver

If you spend enough time in the backcountry, you will find yourself having to make fire under extreme conditions where it’s a downpour, snowstorm or the risk of hypothermia nipping at your heels. 

Getting in the habit of always carrying 3 firestarters (Stormproof matches, spark rod and lighter) and a vial of cotton balls smeared with Vaseline is a critical step in being prepared. 

Your other friend, found in most forests throughout the world, is resinous wood particularly the old stumps and logs from dead pine, spruce and other conifers. We have used this wood on winter survival courses in the deep snow and in wet weather during the summer months and it has been key in getting ignition and warming our bones during cold nights. 

Look for old stumps in pine or spruce forests or use dead-standing trees. I have done this on stumps buried under the snow and gotten instant ignition. 

This shaving technique is a woodcraft skill that you can practice in your backyard. Keep an eye out for that yellow-tinged wood on your next hike and try it for firestarting. It can be a real lifesaver.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Long-Term Wilderness Living Tips and Thoughts

Lessons learned from life on the trail long-term

Having spent extended periods of time ranging from 21-90 days living off the land in wild regions or under primitive conditions (no sleeping bag, tent, stove, firearms, food drops, etc…), I’ve jotted down a few things that were discovered along the way. 

Life in the wilds is about sweat and calories. You only need a handful of bush essentials to transition from surviving to living and those few tools can be critical. The following list is not about my 72-hour survival kit or EDC but gear that would augment that and can be useful for long-term life in the wilds where resupply is limited, non-existent or in an extended grid-down situation. 

1.  A sleeping bag is a great asset for reducing calorie expenditure and allowing the body to recuperate during those precious 8 hours of warmth at night. Being on the move in the constant search for food and then having to build a shelter wears on you physically after a while and eats up valuable time that can be spent on making more traps, hunting, gear repair and so on. I will take a small, down sleeping bag any day as part of my survival kit. 

2.  A poncho and 550 cord for making shelters, windbreaks, sun-protection, rain-collection, carrying bedding material (pine needles, leaves), and improvised pack. This will provide you with so many shelter variations. I prefer to string mine up in a diamond shelter or if wind is an issue, then as an A-frame or pup-tent style. The poncho and 550 are companion items.

3.  Quality footwear is essential. You can abuse your feet with poor footwear on a short dayhike near home but long-term, don’t skimp on quality boots. Going barefoot may look nifty on the theatrics of a TV show but the last thing you want to have happen in real-life is to have your feet shredded and mobility reduced to zero while they recover.  If you lose your ability to move, you lose your ability to procure food and also hamper the efforts of the rest of the group while they wait on you to heal up. Find footwear that works for you and make sure it’s well broken in. My preferred for the past ten years are the SWAT Original Desert Boots and they continue to serve me well but it took many different brands to find one that suits my particular set of feet. You probably have your favorites too. Lastly, as any combat soldier will tell you, the inserts are as important as the boot. Toss out the inserts the boots came with and spend an extra $20 to get some decent shock-absorbing inserts that match your arch and foot contours. SuperFeet is one brand to consider. 

4. Leather Gloves- same as protecting the feet, you want to have a few pairs of work gloves to reduce the punishment of your primary tools: your hands. For years I went without ever using gloves while living and working outside. Your hands will develop a tough exterior after weeks in the elements but it only takes one mishap and then your ability to work is comprised. I once suffered a nasty gash deep into the muscle of my palm while breaking up juniper branches for firewood and had to do everything one-handed for the next four days. A lightweight pair of garden-type or leather gloves is a must-have item in my kit now.

5. Spark-rod firestarter: 500 fires in one rod, works when wet, works when you are down to gross motor skills from hypothermia, works one-handed, just plain WORKS- Enough said!

6.  Small tin of Bag-Balm salve. Long-term you feel the effects of the wind and constant campfire heat on your dried out hands and cracked lips, especially in the arid Southwest. Sure I don’t need this to survive, but it sure helps with my PMA and helps the hands recuperate from constant punishment and cracks. Heck, my ranching friends use it every day so don’t worry about losing your rugged, calloused hands- it’s for maintenance of such hands.

7. A small cooking pot is a good friend. Sure you can coal-burn bowls, use gourd containers and cook on a spit but these methods take time to become proficient at and require maintenance. I have used 64 ounce coffee cans for all of my meals on several 21-day survival trips and a stew is a good way to go for conserving nutrients and providing a constant broth to add to the next night’s dinner.  32 ounce Pineapple and juice containers are a good size for one person and will allow you to nest a water bottle inside. A handle of (22 gauge) snare wire or a metal coat-hanger affixed to the can will give you a handle and allow the pot to be suspended over the fire. Short of that I have my metal canteen cup that is always in my kit.

8. Needle and Kevlar thread. I’ve temporarily mended torn clothes and boots before with duct tape which is good for a day but, long-term, it helps to have a small sewing needle and a few yards of Kevlar thread. The last thing you want is grit seeping in through a split in your leather boots or gloves comprising your skin over time. The Inuit in the Arctic thought a simple sewing kit important enough that every man, woman and child carried a bone needle and shredded caribou tendon-thread for repairing damaged footwear and parkas- necessary in an environment where flesh can freeze in seconds when it’s bitter cold. I carry two heavy-duty sewing needles in my waterproof match case for ease of extracting when needed.  The inner strands of 550 cord can work but the Kevlar is fine material, mighty tough and affordable.


9. Tabasco, brown sugar, and bouillon cubes are must-have ingredients to spiff up meals of a repetitive nature (such as rabbit or squirrel for the 9th night in a row). Out of these three, I’ll grab the Tabasco first if I had to choose. We ran out of this once towards the end of a month-long trip and all we talked about at dinner for the last three days was that red elixir and the magic it imparted to our meals. Both Tabasco and bouillon will also impart much-needed sodium to your diet. 

10. If weight and continual movement are not an issue such as when holing up in a permanent basecamp for a few weeks, the following tools are most helpful: 

-a bucksaw or a folding pruning saw

-Japanese whetstone for honing my Mora knife and other camp blades

-collapsible woodstove: sure is nice to have one in an earth shelter, shack or canvas tent and is 100x more fuel efficient than having an open campfire. You will sleep better, feel better, and burn fewer calories gathering firewood. Again, this is for a fixed basecamp. I have a mini-galvanized stove that is 20” long by 12” wide and 10” high and have used this in small hogans as the primary heat source. It has been with me on extended trips and even winter treks via a toboggan. I’ve slept out on many a cold night for weeks on end with a lean-to/campfire combo and other primitive shelters and they eat wood constantly- on the average of ½ cord of wood some times and that’s not even below zero! A small woodstove is a critical piece of gear for a long-term scenario in a permanent basecamp. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bug-Out Gear for Travelers

 Bug-Out Gear for Travelers

I travel a great deal in my work as a survival instructor. For much of my that time, I can easily pack up my truck and have enough gear to take care of my needs on the road for a week. At other times, I fly throughout the US or abroad and all of my well-laid plans for a bug-out bag modified drastically to comply with various federal and international restrictions.

I think this is the case for many travelers who are preparedness-minded. You have well-thought plans for handling a grid-down crisis at home or evacuating your city during an urban disaster complete with bug-out gear, a well-stocked vehicle, and contingency plans if the routes out of Dodge are congested. However, when you fly with restriction on your gear, you are thrust into an unfamiliar world where the location of medical resources, water, power supply capabilities, and major highways are vague or unknown altogether.

Having a few critical items and plans in place prior to boarding a plane or heading to another state can provide you with peace of mind and enable you to handle a crisis away from home.

A Carry-On Bug-Out Bag
I like having a small US Palm or 5.11 daypack with me on trips. These are built for rough use and are in the 2500-3000 cubic inch range allowing them to store snugly under my seat. In this daypack, I carry my laptop, shemagh, rain jacket along with extra food and clothes. These items are kept apart from the small bug-out bag that follows.

Within this daypack I have a small Eagle Creek Guide Trek Shoulder Bag that contains the critical bug-out gear. I have also used Pelican and Otter boxes and BDU Wallets but find the shoulder bag to be very compact and unobtrusive. There are also shoulder bags designed for tablets that are ideal. Remember that in a true disaster, you may be donning your gear for several days so purchase something that works for your body type and comfort level.

The diminutive Eagle Creek bag is kept within reach at the top of my pack. When I am out and about in the city or any time I am away from my hotel, it’s with me--- no exceptions. This is in addition to the previously mentioned Everyday Carry Gear in my pockets. This gear will at least allow you to deal minor emergencies in the event of a grid-down scenario where you are stuck on the couch for several days in Terminal Two.

The following is what I carry in my kit. A detailed description of each item and the reasoning behind it follows the list. I am already assuming you will have your cellphone, cash, passport, etc...on you.

Bug-Out Gear

Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets

2 N95 Dust Masks

Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheet Space Blanket

Leather Gloves

Mini-Roll of Duct Tape

3 Myoplex Meal Replacement Bars

Spare Prescription Glasses or Contact Lenses

Wet Wipes

Cellphone Charger

Universal Power Adapter

1-Person First-Aid Kit by Adventure Medical Kits

Obviously a knife is left off this list as the regulations vary tremendously from state to state as well as with international travel. You will need to check with TSA or Amtrak on their specific regulations and then for the given state or country you will be visiting. When I travel to Latin America I often come back with several machetes in my checked luggage and have never had a problem, even after an inspection. This is in addition to the Mora knife, Spyderco Endura and Leatherman that accompany me in my checked luggage. Any blades are secured in their sheath with a zip-tie or duct tape to prevent an accidental opening during baggage handling.

Additional Gear to Purchase after Arrival

When you disembark a plane or train, you already have a bug-out kit that will take care of a portion of your survival priorities. You need to make a quick stop at a big-box or grocery store to cover the rest of your needs.

Depending on the length of your trip, time of year and geographic location, you may want to flesh this list out far more than what I have here but this is a place to start for augmenting your existing gear.


Three 1-liter bottles is a good place to start. In addition to staying hydrated, you have a simple means of purifying water using the Sodis Method. Visit their site and see for yourself how this low-tech method works using clear plastic bottles and UV rays. It’s an excellent technique to file away between your ears.


A small tube, rather than a spray bottle. According to the latest research, SPF 30 is all that’s needed.

Bic Lighters

Enough said! One of anything critical is a weak set-up so I pick up two lighters and then leave them behind when I fly home.

Three Days of No-Cook Foods

Purchase some packets of tuna, jerky or freeze-dried meals. I also add in bouillon cubes which are a great additive to hot water for making a quick broth on cold days and it helps with replacing lost sodium. If you are a fan of MREs then, by all means, bring some along. From past experience, there is no way I am going to get that “food” down my gullet and my menu reflects that. If you have rations in your kit, then try it out long before you plan on using it. Some of the items on the market are comparable to chalk and will be hard to gag down in a true crisis.

You want to strive for roughly 2000 calories a day. Yes, you can live on survival rations averaging 1000 calories a day, as the packages indicate, but that’s a road to mental anarchy. Survival is hard enough so don’t skimp on quality food when assembling a bug-out bag.

My usual menu is to purchase one packet each of tuna, jerky and a freeze-dried meal per day. Even when I am traveling throughout the U.S in my truck I have three days’ worth of this chow in my rig.

Preparedness Gear to Have in Your Rental Vehicle

When I need to rent a vehicle during a trip, I purchase the following items (*) prior to leaving the city near the airport. The remaining items are brought with me from home and placed in my checked luggage.

2+ gallons of water depending on location and time of year* 

Can of Fix-a-Flat* Tire Repair Sealant 

18 ounce Coleman Stainless Steel Mug for heating water, melting snow, and more. 

Cellphone Vehicle Charger

This article is an excerpt from Tony's eBook, Bug-Out Gear for Travelers

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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