If you love an adventure and the chance to get away from the every day, and if the notion of waking up with a slug in your hair doesn’t fill you with dread, keep reading.
I didn’t know what to expect from my weekend in the woods on a 2 day survival course with Trueways Survival School, but that tiny snippet of something new and wild was so much more than just a fun way to pass the time. As a child, I was in my element as both a Girl Guide and an army cadet, so I knew I would enjoy it, but what I didn’t know is that it would help me understand myself, my mettle and my many, many limitations further and also pose questions about what it means to be human. The primal, instinctive nature of what I learned fascinated me; while the techniques for survival are basic, coming up with these must have taken a lot of trial and error and goes back to the evolution of mankind.
So what did the course cover?
We were taught to build shelters from tarps and paracord with the trees to support our makeshift homes, and also made a lean-to made of the natural materials of the woods – sticks and leaves. The latter looked more exciting, but we slept in the former which was probably best, given the occasional rain shower. Key to keeping the tarp up and our belongings dry was learning a range of knots and sharpening ordinary sticks with a survival knife to make pegs. Knots are rarely taught in modern society, but so useful. Since the weekend I have been trying to expand my knot repertoire with the help of YouTube.
Making fire was a big part of the weekend, and something I need to work on as it was not my forte! The flint and steel were our main tools, and we built up techniques slowly, starting with candles and cotton wool and also using fat wood and feather sticks. Potassium permanganate and cake glycerine got involved and although these would be unlikely to be on hand in an actual survival situation, burning stuff is fun regardless. We got to make little fires individually to practice the skills, then teamed up to make bigger fires, boiling up water for hot drinks and later cooking dinner. I joined forces with the other non-meateater and we boiled some vegetables and heated beans over the flames. Although simple, the food tasted fantastic after a day of hard graft in the dirt. There was time to practice fire building on both days so we got to hone our skills and learn from mistakes.
There was an overview of natural navigation – using the sun and an array of other tools (your watch, the bend in the trees, how high the birds are flying) to help figure out which way to go. We were also going to spend some time later on using the stars for navigation, but with all the physical exertion of the day I was tucked up asleep in my bivvy before it was dark enough for stargazing.
Vital to the world of survival, we were taught how to get found when you’re lost. From what marks you should put on the ground to how to make a smoke signal, I’m now confident the helicopters would see me.
We learned about different methods of collecting, filtering and treating water, ranging from basic boiling to different contraptions designed for this purpose. Foraging for food was a highlight for me (I am a vegan after all, perhaps the stereotypes are true). I found out how to pick and eat nettles without getting stung (they are 40% protein so great for survival), and heard about how you can boil up goose grass. We were introduced to the wonder of the dandelion – you can make a coffee from the roots and eat the rest. I tasted the deliciously tart sorrel then munched on stinging nettles all day.
In terms of how the course was run, I couldn’t fault it. From the moment the teacher, Aaron, stepped out of his car with a crow in his hand, I knew I was in the right place. The crow, Eric, had fallen out of his nest and Aaron had been carrying him around everywhere for 2 weeks. Eric was a great addition to our weekend and I had the chance to hold him and feed him spinach and hard boiled eggs.
Aaron was so knowledgeable about the subject matter and also a fascinating human being. Throughout the weekend, he would drop in additional tips and stories that drew me further and further into the world of outdoorsiness and survival.
From the time of booking my trip to follow up afterwards, communication was personal and professional without being too ‘shiny’ which I think is actually important when you want to feel like you’re going on an adventure, not to a 5* resort.
In terms of atmosphere, the weekend was brilliant. There were 8 of us on the course with a fairly good gender balance, a mixture of couples and singles, and varying levels of experience in similar things. The common denominator was that we all wanted to learn and we all wanted to feel that overwhelming joy that comes with being in nature and is furthered by the opportunity to work with your hands, be resourceful and mentally tough. It meant it was a really safe space to try new things, make mistakes and develop skills. I never felt judged for my lack of ability in lighting fires, and in turn was glad to be able to help a peer with one of the knots I had mastered. It was great to just chat to like minded people too, people who value time spent outdoors and the importance of challenging your own norms.
If this sounds like a good way to spend a weekend, just do it. My weekend with Trueways was so special and I finished it a changed woman. Not only did it give me a grounding in all the skills I have discussed, more importantly it gave me the confidence to just get out there and make it happen. To get off the beaten track, explore, wild camp under the stars, push my own boundaries. I think this course would do everyone some good, so even if the prospect of digging a hole in the bushes when you need to go for a number two horrifies you, why not clamber out of that pesky conform zone that’s holding you back and try something new. I’m glad I did.