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Wilderness Survival: Living Off the Land with the Clothes on Your Back and the Knife on Your Belt

Wilderness Survival: Living Off the Land with the Clothes on Your Back and the Knife on Your Belt

3.8 8
by Mark Elbroch, Michael Pewtherer

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Do you have what it takes?

You’re alone in the wilderness with nothing but a knife and the clothes on your back. Will you survive? Do you have the skills to feed, clothe, and protect yourself? Mark Elbroch, a master tracker, and Mike Pewtherer, a woodland skills educator, put those questions to the test when they embarked on a 46-day, unprovisioned,


Do you have what it takes?

You’re alone in the wilderness with nothing but a knife and the clothes on your back. Will you survive? Do you have the skills to feed, clothe, and protect yourself? Mark Elbroch, a master tracker, and Mike Pewtherer, a woodland skills educator, put those questions to the test when they embarked on a 46-day, unprovisioned, unequipped journey into the dense wilderness of the northeastern United States.

Wilderness Survival is their highly practical and uniquely observant introduction to survival in the deep woods. Mark and Mike tested generally accepted truths, questioned conventional solutions, and distilled the best techniques for making fire, obtaining shelter, finding water, and hunting with primitive weapons. They give you:

•A life-saving handbook of survival skills that explores man's place in the natural world

•The secret to surviving in the wilderness as part of nature—not its adversary

•Explanations of more than 30 wilderness survival skills, including hunting and gathering food, fashioning tools, and preserving and storing food

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McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
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Wilderness Survival

Living Off the Land with the Clothes on Your Back and the Knife on Your Belt

By Mark Elbroch, Michael Pewtherer

The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ragged Mountain Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-145331-8



A Journal of Wilderness Survival

June 25th

Tomorrow I enter the woods, build a shelter, and sleep ensconced in sticks and leaves. Quite a contrast from this week of bed-and-breakfasts and hotels, a rehearsal dinner, wedding feasts, restaurants, and breweries. I packed on a few extra pounds for the lean times ahead.

I'm sitting in one of the greatest technological creations of all time—a massive metal craft flying from Chicago to Boston. I am eager, anxious, and incredibly nervous about my time in the woods. I expect to suffer a bit—not to a torturous degree by any means—but I will experience a niggling discomfort as I slide from plush, modern living to a rustic life in the woods. I also hope to achieve a clarity that many preach is possible only while living so simply and purely.

We are now a mobile people, so mobile that we have lost the sense of place we gain from learning and experiencing one home over time. We don't know the names of the plants in our yards or the animals that live among us. I move through life missing all but the obvious. I feel the need to slow down, and the remedy might be a lengthy stay in nature.


What do you picture when you hear the word "survival"?

For many, the image that comes to mind is of a skinny, disheveled person shivering in a damp cave with a few worn skins for clothing. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language provides the roots of the word survive as coming from the Latin "super," meaning "superior or above," and "vivere," meaning "to live." Thus, one interpretation is "superior living."

Survival need not be a struggle. Most often, survival experiences are spoken of as "man pitting himself against nature." Anytime you work against something rather than with it is a struggle! Swimming against the current, carving against the grain, going up the descending escalator—all are examples of struggles caused by working against the nature of the situation.

In the wilderness, if you're thirsty and you run randomly to the bottom of every valley looking for water, you will become frustrated, discouraged, and likely dehydrated. A better idea would be to first go to a good vantage point to see if any clear indicators of surface water are visible. If there are none, then perhaps you'll look for trees that require a lot of water, such as cottonwoods, willows, and basswoods. Knowing that water is either on or near the surface when these water indicators are present will drastically increase your chances of maintaining morale and health.

Likewise, if you make a beeline to a particular spot in the wilderness, you will probably encounter plenty of resistance—thickets, cliffs, and perhaps swamps or rivers. If you move as the landscape dictates and you go with the flow of the landscape while keeping in mind your goal, your movements will require less energy and will probably be more efficient.

In the wilderness, you must attend to five priorities in a survival situation, and the order in which you attend to them can make the difference between life or death. The following list goes from the greatest priority to the least:

1. Attitude. If you look at your situation and panic, or if you merely lament your ill luck, nothing beneficial will happen. However, comprehending your predicament and deciding on a course of action are productive activities, getting you closer to your goals and easing the journey.

2. Shelter. Without shelter, nights can be long and sleepless. Exposure to the weather, fair or stormy, can leave you hypothermic, tired, and ineffective when it comes to other survival tasks. In very cold or hot climates, shelter is an obvious need—you can die from exposure in a short time. With shelter, your "batteries" can be recharged. You have a "home," a base from which to make forays for other needs, and a physical and emotional aid.

3. Water. Without water, your mental faculties begin to diminish after about three days, and your ability to function decreases quickly from this point. Dark or strong-smelling urine and headaches are clear indicators of dehydration. Drinking unpurified water, however, can result in vomiting and diarrhea, causing a further loss of water. Finding potable water will help keep your head clear and your body healthy.

4. Fire. Fire is a higher priority than food for these reasons: Fire improves morale, provides heat to supplement a shelter, purifies water, aids in the making of tools, and makes it possible to dry clothes and supplies. Cooking food, of course, is important as well, as are drying and otherwise preparing food for consumption or storage.

5. Food. Even though food is often the first item missed when you have none of the above, it is the only one you can do without for two weeks or more. Gandhi's twenty-one-day fast while in his early sixties is tribute to that.

If you find and/or create everything described in this survival list, you can remain in the wild indefinitely. Although the prioritization should be followed strictly in a survival situation, don't think that while you are looking for a shelter location you should ignore good firemaking materials or foods that present themselves. The list is merely a guide to show you where your main focus should be.

Practice skills independently, but periodically look at the larger picture to see where each skill fits in as part of survival as a whole. Walking out into the woods and making a shelter becomes a different experience entirely when you have no gear or supplies, no backup, and no food or fire. Start slowly. Go camping and take food, knives, canteens, and clothes, but leave your sleeping bag, tent, and matches at home. While you are in the woods with supplies, pretend that you have no water. Try to find some and rock-boil it in a pot. Take your time and substitute modern gear with gear borrowed from the land.

Camping is a lot of fun, so enjoy learning how to let the land support you and practicing various skills. Never get too attached to your survival tools, though. It is a good idea to give away, or return to the land, tools you have made. Don't make just one good canteen and hold onto it forever. Make many, so that canteen making becomes second nature and not a chore. Remember, the loss of anything you can make is a chance to improve on it. The loss of anything you cannot make, however, can be devastating.


Check out your state and local hunting regulations to ensure that you are operating within the law when it comes to practicing survival skills. Here, I'll use the laws in the state of New York as an example.

In an involuntary survival situation, such as being stranded while camping or if your vehicle breaks down in a wilderness area, you are legally permitted to do whatever is necessary to survive. If you voluntarily enter a survival scenario, however, you are expected to obey all laws with regard to trespassing, fire making, camping, and so forth.

In a voluntary survival situation, numerous laws pertaining to hunting and fishing apply. New York state laws on the taking of wildlife with primitive or traditional weapons are full of gray areas. Because New York has a permission- based system, any method of taking game that is not approved in the hunting and trapping regulations is to be considered illegal. Yet some animals can be taken by "any safe means," which, according to the New York State Department of Conservation and Department of Fish and Wildlife, does not include poisons. In the case of woodchucks, however, poison gas cartridges can be used. When it comes to bow hunting, New York requires a minimum draw weight of thirtyfive pounds, and you must have a valid license; spear hunting for deer, however, is illegal, as is the use of snares for any animal.

Fishing requires a license unless you are under the age of sixteen, a resident or direct family member of a resident on an active farm while fishing on that farm, or a Native American from a reservation within New York State. Spearfishing is legal in certain waters for certain fish, such as bullhead, eels, suckers, bowfin, carp, gar, burbot, and freshwater drum. Bait and hook type vary in their legality, depending on the body of water being fished. Some specify single hooks and artificial bait only, whereas others allow treble hooks and live bait. Restrictions on daily limits and minimum sizes also need to be followed. To find out more about fishing laws in your area, check with your local town hall or the game warden.

Enjoy your catch.

Day 1

A hectic morning tying up loose ends: bills, letters, messages, etc. I shaved my head and beard. Less to deal with, as well as a ritualistic act of commitment to a lengthy experience. My new patchy appearance isn't appropriate for mingling in modern society. I stashed wedding gear at my apartment, which is being sublet for the month of July. Everything in order, I drove the four hours to meet Mike and David.

As I pulled into our rendezvous spot, the two of them dropped from a tree on the far side of the field. They had met a few days earlier to live in a semi- survival condition—meaning they were floating in and out of the woods, feeding on foods both harvested and bought in town. I had flown west to attend a wedding and hadn't been able to join them until now. I was happy they remembered to meet me.

More chores: dropping off cars and preparing them for an extended sit (disconnecting batteries, etc.), and saying goodbyes to families. It was late afternoon before we entered the woods. I wore and carried clothes: shorts, t- shirt, long-sleeved shirt and pants, as well as a knife, a journal, a handful of dogbane that I'd harvested last fall to make natural string, and a piece of leather I'd tanned several months ago. I planned to make a small bag from the leather to tote things about. I also carried a small metal bowl to help us get started in the first few days.

The lush greenery was intense; the week of rain had brought forth a thick carpet of green from field to forest floor. We arrived at Mike and David's camp in short order, which we planned to abandon the next day. I attempted to patch the vestibule of their shelter to create my own quarters for the coming night. Snapping-turtle jerky lay on a small rack from the prior evening. I expected it to be a rather gruesome culinary experience, but it was quite good. Chewy. Mike told me of the success of his turtle trap.


How do you hunt multiple locations while at the same time lounging in camp? By using traps. Traps are mechanical hunters with great patience. They never tire, cramp, or lose interest. Hunting requires time and energy and does not guarantee success. Rather than stalking and waiting, your time and energy for trapping are used to locate excellent set areas and check the traps once they are in place. Traps are used to hold or kill an animal without direct manipulation by, and therefore often in the absence of, the hunter. Yet trapping is an art that is only learned through trial and error. Making the traps is the simplest aspect of trapping.


Traps can be classified in terms of: (a) where the energy to catch the animal comes from; (b) why the animal goes to the trap; and (c) the killing or holding mechanism.

The energy required to hold or kill an animal comes from one of three sources: the animal's weight or movement, the contraction of a spring stick (sapling or branch), or the falling of a weight or counterweight.

The animal trips the trap either because bait is attached to a trigger or there is incidental contact with a trigger or noose due to placement of the trap.

There are three main types of killing or holding mechanisms: (1) snares use strong cordage and a noose or net to hold or kill the prey; (2) deadfall and live-capture traps use a weight or basket in combination with gravity to crush or capture the animal; and (3) pit traps use a concealed hole to hold (or kill by way of stakes in the bottom) game.

Trapping is used primarily when you are staying in one location, because it allows you to become familiar with the area and the game present. It is possible to trap successfully while on the move, but this requires a greater tracking ability to identify sites that will be productive within a twelve- to twenty- four-hour window. Staying in one location while trapping is conducive to setting a trapline—a series of traps set in a loop or circuit that can be checked twice daily. Trapping on the move is better suited to setting a few traps fairly near camp.


Look at a feeding area to see what foods are plentiful. For example, if the edge of a clover field is the feeding area of a rabbit, you probably won't have much luck using clover as bait. However, red maple buds or a piece of wild apple may bring success. Good bait is often food that an animal would like to eat but that is not readily available. One option is to leave a number of prospective baits close together in the feeding area overnight, then check in the morning to see which ones have been eaten.


Animals have a home range within which they sleep, den, and move to and from feeding areas and day beds. The best place to trap an animal with a baited set is on the edge of a feeding area. This way the animal is already in a feeding "mind-set" and may be curious about a different food.

Incidental (nonbaited) traps are best set over den entrances and along trails or runs used exclusively by your quarry. (On larger trails, other animals will likely walk through your set and destroy it.) If a rabbit is heading to a clover patch, it is not likely to stop on the way for some wilting clover lying on the ground, but it may not notice a noose placed in the trail.


Type: Nonbaited snare.

Materials: Strong cordage and a peg.

Placement: Trail or run, den openings, water entrances.


1. Drive a peg into the ground near the trail or run.

2. Tie cordage to the base of the peg.

3. Make a noose and set it in the trail. If necessary, support it in the open position with a few twigs or grasses. Make the noose a little larger than the animal's head so that as the animal moves down the trail its head, but not its shoulders, passes through the noose. When the noose tightens from the animal's forward movement, the animal panics and strangles itself.


Type: Baited snare.

Materials: Flexible sapling, two notched sticks, "T-bar" (a "T" shaped section of a sapling trunk with a branch growing perpendicular to it), a number of twigs, and strong cordage.

Placement: Near feeding areas.


1. Harvest two sticks about ten inches in length and sharpen one end of each stick.

2. An inch from the other end of each stick, carve a notch so that when the pointed ends are in the ground, the top of the notch will be horizontal and capable of preventing the squared ends of the T-bar from moving upward.

3. Cut the horizontal part of the T-bar piece to about six inches in length (for squirrels), with the branch at the center.

4. Trim the vertical leg of the T-bar to two inches in length, and sharpen the end to receive the bait.

5. Square both ends so that they correspond to the notches in the pointed sticks.

6. Tie a noose and a length of cordage to the center of the T-bar, and bring everything to the set area.

7. To determine the exact set location, bend a sapling so that the top comes down to within two feet from the ground.

8. Remove a number of the branches to allow the sapling to snap quickly erect. To lend strength and snap to your spring stick, parallel branches or neighboring saplings can be tied to one another so as to work in tandem.

9. With the tip of the sapling two feet from the ground, place your T-bar directly under it.

10. Attach the cordage to the sapling, place the bait on the pointed stick, and set the T-bar in the notches.

11. Place the noose around the T-bar, lifting it off the ground with twigs so that the animal must extend its head through the noose to get the bait.

The force used to remove the bait twists and frees the T-bar from the notches, allowing the sapling to snap upward. This tightens the noose and kills the animal.

The T-bar snare can be set with the bait branch horizontal for an approach from above. In this case, place twigs around the trap as a fence to prevent an animal from going under the noose. The bait branch can also point downward for an approach from the front or back (using two nooses).


Type: Nonbaited snare.

Materials: Strong cordage and a weight three times or more than that of the target species (rocks or chunks of wood make good weights).

Placement: Trails and runs in wooded areas, den openings, water entrances.


1. Set a noose on a trail or over a den opening.

2. Run the cordage from the noose up through a "Y" in a branch and onto another branch above that.

3. Tie a weight to the end of the cordage and place it on the higher branch in such a way that it will fall with a little tug on the snare line.

4. Lash a one-inch-diameter piece of wood across the "Y" just beyond the notch, leaving enough room for the cordage to move without a problem.

When an animal hits the noose, the rock falls off its perch and plummets toward the ground. The animal is pulled swiftly upward until it hits the bottom of the "Y" branch and dies.


Type: Baited and nonbaited deadfall.

Materials: Three straight branches (the size varies depending on the target species—mice to deer; a weight three times that of the target species to kill the animal, or a box/basket [with a weight lashed to the top] large enough to hold the animal)

Placement: Trail, run, or feeding area.


One upright stick, one diagonal stick, and one trigger stick. The bait or trigger stick and the diagonal stick are similar in length, while the upright stick is longer.

Excerpted from Wilderness Survival by Mark Elbroch. Copyright © 2006 by Ragged Mountain Press. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Elbroch’s numerous books include the National Outdoor Award-winning Mammal Tracks and Sign. Mike Pewtherer has contributed to Wilderness Way magazine and has practiced and taught wilderness survival for many years through his company, Woodland Ways.

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Wilderness Survival: Living Off the Land with the Clothes on Your Back and the Knife on Your Belt 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this a very interesting story. The problem is that it is mostly a day to day journal of their survival trip, with how-to information spread throughout. I expected it to have more teaching involved. For example, very often the author says something like Use such-and-such plant, but does not explain how to go about FINDING the plant.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a coming of age book by one of the great trackers and naturalists: Mark Elbroch. It is not just a journal of his life changing experience living off the land, however. It is also a book that contains very specific guidance on survival skills from pine tea to debris huts, baskets and cordage to fire, hunting and fishing to cooking and food storage, and many more, always emphasizing function over form. Thus, it's like two books in one. But it is his journal of survival and growth that will touch you most, from his crying as he held the deer he had just killed, to his realization that when he eats an animal or a plant it becomes a part of him, and creates an obligation to do good in his life. While the survival information in the book is excellent, the journal portion tells, in Elbroch's words, ''a story of learning rather than expertise.'' I for one enjoyed that, and I highly recommend this book.
ToddC4 More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. Not just another how to manual. This was a well written story with discriptions AND how to guides.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The title should be, Living off the land, a park where girlscouts go to camp. With only the cloth on your back,and a pizza place nearby,and phone were I can call my family,because I am lonely. With a knife. Killing a fawn for food when you are not starving. This is the only book I threw away,when only reading a third of it. I and my friends,when we were 10 years old,did what they did in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was like i was on their survival trip with them... going back to a simpler time.. enjoying nature for its true beauty and becoming self reliant... its a dream of mine to do survive in nature like they did.. and it has inspired me to further educate myself on tracking abilities and survival methods.. i am now planning my survival summer :'