Earlier this summer, I was challenged by Fieldcraft Survival’s very own Mike Glover to spend 72 hours in the desert with nothing more than the contents of a Ziploc bag. I took up the challenge, suffered through the heat a bit, and made it back only to find another challenge waiting for me. This time, the challenge included our coworker Rikki who is slowly learning about wilderness survival skills with just one bag’s contents for two people. I was pulled early by the team to challenge Rikki in the final 24 hours. These challenges created a significant amount of buzz online, and as a result, we created a challenge for our followers. That challenge was scheduled for October 1-3 in Spanish Fork, UT. Students only had to survive 48 hours with their Ziploc bags and a reasonable amount of clothing on their backs. We had 11 signed up at one point, and on the morning of the challenge, nine adventurous souls showed up. The takeaways from the event were noteworthy and the focus of this blog.
Right at 10am, students were told to line up and take a group photo. We wanted to see the morale on their faces before and after. For the first 90 minutes, students were given time to build their shelters. Most used the social media content from my challenge and the challenge I did with Rikki for inspiration in building theirs. Every 90 minutes, we pulled the students and provided some guidance. We covered topics like the concept of using a kit, the challenges they will experience if they proceed alone, working as a team and the reality of solo survival, how to use small knives, tie knots, and so on. I was joined by a member of SERE West named Austin, who, along with Austin Lester, explained how to get by in austere conditions. The instructor cadre checked in on the students and the shelters they were busy creating throughout the day. As instructors, we all stressed the need for more bedding and insulation. We pointed out a few more optimal placements for shelters with some additional pointers here and there. To add a little additional stress, we explained the temperatures that could be expected at night and reminded the students how much time had passed. They were told they could tap at any time and enjoy a table full of food deliberately left out. What felt like a full day of work was amplified by knowing they only had 39 more hours left.
On the first day, we challenged students to build a fire. If they were successful, they could hang out by the group fire we set up that night. All students built sustainable fires, and they were instructed they could use the group fire as an emergency hangout if their shelter became too cold. The instructors slept on a nearby hilltop overlooking the fire, and around 1 am, the first student came down to warm up. This was not a tap out in our eyes, and we let the students continue with the challenge. The next day was filled with instruction on food gathering down by the local creek. We pointed out edible and medicinal plants along with how to make cordage from willows. During day 2, we provided students an opportunity to sleep, which most took advantage of. Later that night, we continued with short lessons, let the students adjust and move their shelters, and continued with the experience. As was proven by their shelter plans, having a fire is a game-changer. Even with an emergency blanket or bivy, the fire provided external warmth that didn’t need to be generated by the body.
The second night by the fire had a different tone with far more camaraderie and banter. Throughout the entire challenge, the students kept up the positive mental attitude, joked about their situation, talked about the food they wanted to eat in Spanish Fork afterward, complained about Chick-Fil-A being closed on Sundays, and how they would never take certain things for granted ever again like a simple sleeping pad, a metal cup, and a spare set of socks that could be kept dry to sleep in at night. That second night, more students slept by the fire and used teamwork to keep it going throughout the night. They discovered the importance of fire and having a schedule to stick to. So many of these topics are easy to list, but they are not as easy to experience and genuinely learn from. When you have a lesson you experience authentically, you tend not to forget those.
On the second morning, I greeted the students with hot coffee. Many brought coffee that they consumed cold. With less than a couple of hours to go, they earned this reward. Austin conducted an AAR, and I prepared breakfast. Right before the muffins, fruit, candy, and breakfast burritos were served, I passed out special patches that Yellow Birch Outfitters handcrafted. I told the students the leather is bridle leather that will last a lifetime, much like their skills if they continue to train and are willing to put in their work. We took a group photo with the same nine who started, and food was served. It became very quiet during that time. As we broke down the camps, most students came over to me to express how grateful they were for the opportunity to test themselves. They couldn’t believe more people didn’t take up the challenge, and they were excited to learn the challenge would come back in 2022 in different conditions.
This challenge stemmed from a simple idea this past summer, but it grew into something greater. Collectively, the experiences of each student were brought to the forefront, and the group learned from one another. In courses like this, the shared feedback allows one person to live through what everyone else discovered. Additionally, there were friendships made that originate from shared hardship, shared fires, and shared food. Through experiences like this, we build our community at Fieldcraft Survival of folks who are more prepared. We’re all about making students more capable, and this crew definitely walked away stronger.