Over the last few months all my spare time has been spent writing about how to survive anywhere; from the Arctic to offices, and yesterday I was thinking about desert islands. They are the go-to metaphor for survival, and you don't have to look far to see them in popular culture's idea of what survival is all about. But I'm writing about real life, not reality TV, and the real difficulties of desert islands aren't the obvious ones. The island in the picture was the scene of several people's real-life survival ordeals, over a few decades. It holds many challenges physically – there's no easy water source for a start – but the biggest challenges to any castaway are psychological. That's where I'm focusing my attention this week.
People often ask what's best to wear when it's really, really cold. This short animation of all my arctic clobber laid out on a parachute gives an idea of just how much you need to have on to stay warm; this lot worked for me when it got to below -60 Celsius, less than -80 Fahrenheit.
Base Layer – Your next to the skin clothing traps a boundary layer of warm air and wicks away sweat, but it also needs to be comfy – there's nothing worse than an itch you can't scratch through 6 inches of clothing; merino wool is good. Really warm socks are a must, I prefer Thorlo mountaineering ones.
Warm Layers – The layers above your base one are there to trap pockets of air that will stay warm. Wool is best, I like the Swedish ones made by Ullfrotte and you can't beat a Norwegian Army jumper over that. The other, super-warm gear I really rate is made by Austrian firm Carinthia. I've worn it making Survive That and teaching SERE in the high Arctic. The jacket and trousers here are their ECIG (extreme cold insulation garment) ones.
Shell Layer – The outer, windproof layer is the key to keeping the warm air trapped near you, not blown away. Braces on trousers help prevent overheating if you're working by venting excess heat, but it's always best to remove some warm layers before work starts too. Sweat kills in the Arctic because it soaks your clothing, and water conducts heat away from you 24 times faster than air. Really warm boots with thick innersoles, like these Baffin Shackletons, stop warmth leaving by conduction to the snow, they're rated to -100 Celsius.
Head Stuff – To protect your head and face, a warm hat – mine's an old Norwegian Air Force one, neck warming 'headover' and then fur round your windproof jacket's hood works really well, plus goggles for when it's very windy; like under a helicopter.
Hand Stuff – If you lose your manual dexterity through the cold it can mean death in the Arctic, so good hand protection is vital. For working I wear Hestra gloves. For snow-machining (skidoo-ing) or where you don't need to use individual fingers, mittens keep your hands warmer. I wear three layers; inner silk flying gloves, wool-pile warm layer mittens, then fur outers - with wrist lanyards to prevent losing them in high winds.
The final layer is for the E & E part of SERE, snow camouflage protects you from hostile detection, 'nuff said. It takes a long time to get dressed.
I was over at the home of ejection seats recently; the Martin Baker factory. My job was to advise on what survival kit should go into the seat pack for the RAF's new F35 jet. The kit will help keep a pilot alive after ejection on land or at sea, as their aircraft will be flying from the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. There will be different kit options if they're operating in Desert, Arctic, Jungle or Temperate regions too. That's a lot of gear to fit in a small box – it's all about prioritising.
I've had the bonnet up on one of the chapters that I'm writing for my new book. I've had some great feedback from my publisher, very useful considering how different it is now from the first draft of six months ago. Editing 7000-odd words was too eye boggling on the laptop for me, so I had to go at it old-school; paper and crayon style.
I was asked to design a ‘challenge' coin for the annual SERE symposium. The winged boot motif came out ok, it's a modern take on the WW2 badge of the Late Arrivals Club. It was originally awarded to RAF airmen who made it back to friendly lines after being forced down in the North African deserts.
Over the summer I was invited to talk as part of the Sunday Papers Live, representing the travel section. I spoke for about half an hour and gave survival themed tips on how to arrive in new places with the least amount of stress; ideal if you're going away on any trip.
I've been up to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island with the Canadian Forces Survival school. It was the coldest training I've ever experienced; we had a low of minus 64 Celsius (that's a mind bending minus 83 Fahrenheit). They have a great setup there, and I learned lots of new skills and techniques, including making a candle lantern from a block of snow – it burns all night and makes a great location aid.
I was lucky enough to spend the other day learning how to make traditional willow lobster pots. My teacher was a true expert, a retired shell-fisherman who’d been making ‘withy’ pots all his life, learning the craft when he was a lad from an uncle.
The day started early with a trip to the withy beds- willow that is coppiced right back each winter to produce long, straight, pliable rods. You need to cut a lot of willow to make a pot.
Once they had been stripped of any leaves and the wider tips had been whittled, we set the rods out in the pattern jig and started weaving. There’s a lot of difference regionally between traditional crab and lobster pots, due to local resources and individual techniques. I’ve made bamboo fish traps before in Asia and the aim is the same there- entice the prey into a baited chamber through an entrance that won’t also serve as an exit.
The form of a cornish lobster pot slowly started to emerge from the jig, as I was taught each step and then practised practised practised. The real bonus of learning from someone who’s lived the life is knowing why each feature is so important. Fishermen have been dragged overboard by poorly made pots.
It was a great day but above all it was nice to work with my hands practicing a disappearing craft from close to home. Thank you David.
I was interviewed recently by Newsweek asking for some input to their one off survival special, released in the States as “Off Grid”. We chatted about the importance of clean drinking water in dire situations and it was great to be able to get tried and tested advice out to a big readership.
Naturally “big bubbles, no troubles” got a mention, but just as important to survive is knowing what not to do. Thats why the magazine also debunks common misconceptions or practices that actually accelerate dehydration, some of which you may even see wrongly advocated on TV.
My last game of Survive That! – it was all about water…
I got dropped off (cut-away?!) into a Cenote during the “Mayan Sacrifice” episode of “SurviveThat!”. Cenotes are deep caverns, often linked like a maze, that are formed when the limestone in the Yucatan region collapses. They are usually flooded and were very important to the Mayans as a source of water. When the light catches them they are beautiful, but swimming around inside what is actually a toilet for millions of bats was minging.
As soon as I exited I felt at home- Jungle. The instant heat and humidity was a welcome change to the cold dark caves. The problem with that region, I soon discovered, was that because the limestone is porous all the water in the region soaks away downwards. There were no streams- not even any mud. All the vines were dry too. I tried everything I knew to find jungle water, even attempting to use the caving helmet as a well bucket to reach the cenote water deep below. Nothing.
That’s the paradox of jungles- at certain times they are dry, it’s why Deiter Dengler postponed his escape for months during the Vietnam war. They remain hot and you sweat but there’s nothing to put back in. Dehydration is the inevitable result. I’ve never been that dehydrated before or since but I kept going til I found water at an old Mayan site and then coconuts at the beach. We were playing a game, but in the real world I would always have enough water with me and access to more.