While we all wonder how we would fare if we had to survive for months in the wild like Brian does in the book Hatchet, the reality is that most survival situations only last a day or two. You get lost or injured in the woods and have to spend a night out that you hadn’t planned on. And as my guest, Dave Canterbury says, as long as you know some basic skills and pack the right gear, you can turn a potentially life-and-death situation into what’s just a night of inconvenient camping.
Dave is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, including his latest: The Bushcraft Essentials Field Guide. Today on the show, Dave unpacks the five priorities of short-term survival and what you need to pack, know, and do to deal with the risks of venturing into the wild. We discuss the biggest concern when it comes to first aid, the three elements of a proper shelter, Dave’s favorite method for starting a fire, the safest bet for water purification, what to look for in a perfect survival knife, the five knife skills you should master, the essential knots every outdoorsman should know, and more.
Resources Related to the Episode
- How to Use a Tourniquet to Control Major Bleeding
- 6 Trees Every Survivalist Should Know
- How to Harvest and Use Nature’s Aspirin
- How to Keep Your Course in the Wilderness
- Series on land navigation
- 6 Unconventional Outdoor Shelters
- How to Build the Ultimate Survival Shelter
- How to Build a Campfire That Will Last Through the Night
- The Ultimate Firestarter: How to Make Char Cloth
- How to Choose the Perfect Survival Knife
- 5 Critical Knife Skills for the Outdoorsman
- How to Fell a Tree With a Knife
- 7 Basic Knots Every Man Should Know
Connect With Dave Canterbury
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. While we all wonder how we would fare if we had to survive for months in the wild like Brian does in the book Hatchet, the reality is that most survival situations only last a day or two. You get lost or injured in the woods and have to spend a night out that you hadn’t planned on. As my guest, Dave Canterbury says, as long as you know some basic skills and pack the right gear, you can turn a potentially life and death situation into what’s just a night of inconvenient camping. Dave is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, including his latest, the Bushcraft Essentials Field Guide. Today on the show, Dave unpacks the five priorities of short-term survival and what you need to pack, know, and do to deal with the risk of venturing into the wild. We discuss the biggest concern when it comes to first aid, the three elements of a proper shelter, Dave’s favorite method for starting a fire, the safest bet for water purification, what to look for in a perfect survival knife, the five knife skills you should master, the essential knots every outdoorsman should know, and more.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/survival.
All right, Dave Canterbury, welcome to the show.
Dave Canterbury: Hey buddy, glad to be here.
Brett McKay: So you’ve been teaching bushcraft and survival skills for over two decades. I’m curious, how did you get interested in that? And when did you realize that you can make a career out of starting fires and building shelters in the wild?
Dave Canterbury: It was kind of a strange happenstance, I guess. I started doing 18th century reenacting back in the early nineties and going out and doing the woods with basically loincloth and leggings and moccasins and all that stuff and a flintlock rifle and hanging out with other guys that did the same thing. So I learned a lot of those old time survival skills while I was doing that. And then my brother-in-law actually asked me one day, I was napping some flint arrowheads in my kitchen. And he asked me one day, have you ever thought about making a YouTube video? This was back in 2008 and YouTube was brand new then. And I was like, I don’t even know what YouTube is. And so he kind of explained to me and I made a couple of videos and the videos just kind of took off. And then people started sending messages asking me, “Hey, do you teach in person and can you teach me that? Can you teach me this? Will you make a video on this and that?” And it just kind of exploded from there to where I started kind of doing, I opened an online shop where I sold some of the gear and things that I was using in videos because people were asking where to get it.
And I was like, well, if they can get it from me, then they’ll buy it from me. So kind of being an entrepreneur, I did that. And it kind of exploded to the point where I couldn’t do two things at once. I couldn’t do all of that and work a full-time job as an automotive engineer. So I just kind of one day came home and said, “Hey, I’m going to quit my job and we’re going to do this.” And she’s like, “If you think it’ll make a living for us, then you can do it.” And I did it. And here we are today.
Brett McKay: So one of the things you’re doing, you’ve written lots of books about wilderness survival. We’re going to talk about one of them today, but you also, you’re an instructor, the head instructor at the Pathfinder School. And this is where you teach these skills in person. What are the type of people that come to you for classes?
Dave Canterbury: You know, we get all kinds of people. We get military personnel that come here. We do some government contracts. We’ve taught people like the Michigan DNR, guys from the UP deep winter survival. We’ve taught some search and rescue teams, but we also teach lots and lots of civilians. That’s our main market really is civilians. And we get everybody from the father and son who want a weekend of bonding to learn survival skills to hunters that are wanting to learn better survival skills for longer term hunts and trucks that are way off the beaten path to just normal people who watch TV and they’re like, “Oh, survival is cool. I’ll learn that.” And they come here to learn.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious, obviously you teach these skills and they can help people actually survive in the wild. Like these are things you can actually use, but in your experience, when you talk to these regular people, right? These civilians or father, son. What else have you seen happen when people learn these how to start fires or build shelter, for example?
Dave Canterbury: What happens really at class a lot of the time and really what kind of trips my trigger and keeps me doing this, and my instructors as well, my instructors eat this stuff up. And I think what mainly happens is you get people that come to the school that have either never done this kind of stuff before or they’re very new to it. And so they’re very intimidated by a lot of this stuff and it seems like it’s a lot of information and it’s really hard. And the first couple of days are really tough on people, but as they start to repetitively learn the skills, we use what we call an EDI methodology here where it’s educate, demonstrate, imitate, and they get multiple chances to imitate these skills.
And then they build on each other to where they start off by doing one thing and end up doing 10 things at once to accomplish what you would need to do in an emergency scenario. And they can do that in 15 or 20 minutes or less, depending on the weather conditions. And the light kind of comes on in their mind of I don’t have to be worried about this anymore. Now it’s becoming muscle memory to me and I can do it without thinking about it. And so I’m much more comfortable in an outdoor environment than I was. And now that you always see things on the internet in a survival situation, 99% of what people call survival is nothing more than inconvenient camping. And if you get that through your head, I didn’t plan to be here overnight, but I’m going to have to be, then you’ve got to look because the mental game is a huge part of survival.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I know when I’ve done like a navigation course, land navigation course, things like that, it feels awesome. In a world where you have GPS that tells you exactly where you are and how to get to places, it’s cool knowing that I can do this stuff without that. I mean, there’s something, I don’t know, it’s a big confidence boost.
Dave Canterbury: There’s no question in my mind about it. I mean, the people that leave here, their confidence level is 1000% of what it was when they first showed up on day one. And that happens no matter what the class is, whether it’s a survival class, a bushcraft class, a trapping class, it doesn’t really matter what it is. It seems to be a theme with every class that when they start, they seem a little intimidated, maybe a little shy, maybe a little overwhelmed with some of the information that they’re getting and information overload and skills. But by the end, everything is like, man, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.
Brett McKay: So in your latest book, it’s the Bushcraft Essentials Field Guide. You distill what you call your five by five survival system into this really easy to read and digest book. You can carry it in your back pocket. That’s what’s so great about it. And I’d like to unpack this five by five survival system for our listeners today. And so basically the five by five system, there’s five priorities you got to think about in a survival situation. The first one is self aid. So this is like first aid, but for yourself. When you’re in a survival situation, that inconvenient camping situation, what are the medical conditions you have to be most concerned about?
Dave Canterbury: Well, obviously bleeding is your biggest one, right? You’ve always heard, everybody talks about the rule of threes. Three minutes without air, blah, blah, blah, right? Well, you can’t go three minutes with an arterial bleed before you die. So that has to be always your number one priority is your self aid and bleeding and stop blood loss is probably the biggest part of that. A twisted ankle, something like that, a jammed finger, those aren’t big deals. I burnt myself pulling my pot out of the fire, those are all self aid items you need to worry about. But as far as what you really want to know before you step foot in the outdoors is how do I stop major bleeding?
Brett McKay: I like how your system with these numbers and lists that are really easy to remember. You’ve got the five B’s of self aid and first one is bleeding. What are the other B’s of self aid?
Dave Canterbury: So they’re really not in any particular order other than bleeding being the first priority, but these are just five things that are the most common types of injuries that happen in the outdoors. And obviously you’re not trying to cure some chronic illness out there. You’re trying to attack things that are going to happen to you on the fly while you’re hiking, while you’re camping, while you’re hunting. So you’ve got bleeding, you’ve got break sprains and strains, you’ve got blisters, burns, and then bites and stings. Those are the most common things that are going to happen to you. So if you take a wilderness first aid course or study material that teaches you how to address those type things, you’re going to be much more prepared in the beginning to go outside.
Brett McKay: So what do you think you should pack? So you’re ready to treat some of these five B’s. Like what’s like the essential you think you should have if you want any outdoor expedition?
Dave Canterbury: I think that depends on your skill level. I think that depends on the setting involved and how many people are there. If you’re from an instructor standpoint, it’s a little different than from an individual standpoint and depending on your skill level, your emergency kit or your IFAK, your individual first aid kit, could amount to a lot or a little. For me, really it boils down to I want a tourniquet, first and foremost, handy. I want to be able to stop bleeding immediately if I have to from an arterial bleed. Then I want things that I can use for pressure dressings. So your shemagh will work for that. There’s plenty of things that you can carry in your kit that’ll work for most of that stuff. And then things that you can use to isolate a break or something like that. Obviously you can get things off the landscape and you have a shemagh, duct tape, those types of things in your kit. The majority of the things that I carry in an actual first aid kit, what I would consider a first aid kit would be something like a tourniquet, an Israeli bandage and some kind of blood clotting agent.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And with a tourniquet, it’s something you probably need to practice. You don’t want to do it all the way, right? But like you want to know, you want to be comfortable with how to use that thing when you need to.
Dave Canterbury: I mean, that’s probably the biggest problem that I would say in the world today of everything that you read on the internet is everybody understands that a tourniquet is an important piece of kit to have because it can save your life. How to use it effectively in a short amount of time to save your life and having it within reach is a whole different ball game. So you have to understand, you have to practice putting this thing on. You have to force yourself to carry this thing at close proximity. It’s not really good enough. I would say to most people, it’s not good enough to have it in your backpack because your backpack could be over leaning against a tree when you cut yourself 15 or 20 yards away chopping wood. So if your tourniquet is not right there and you’ve got to take time to get to it, that’s time you don’t really have. So you also need to understand stopgap mechanisms, things like your belt that you can just pull off your waist and throw it around an arterial bleeding until you can get to a proper tourniquet. So those things are important to understand too, because nobody that’s not a professional in the industry of an EMT or a paramedic is going to carry a tourniquet on their waist 24/7 when they’re in the woods. Most people will not do that. They just don’t have the discipline.
Brett McKay: So in the book, in the field guide, you go into detail about medicinal herbs and plants. What role does that play in your self-aid rubric?
Dave Canterbury: Again, I think a lot of that is going to depend on your personal skill level and your knowledge level of the landscape. And part of being a good woodsman is to understand what trees and plants can help you with things like stopping bleeding, with things like an upset stomach, with things like a possible food poisoning, with things like some type of a burn. And there’s lots of things on the landscape that can help you with those type issues, but you have to know how to use them, how to harvest them and how to prepare them. And that’s again, that’s part of… That’s a more advanced intermediate level skill than a basic level skill. And this book really covers what we teach from the basic to the intermediate level. It doesn’t cover what we teach in the advanced level courses. However, learning plants, trees, especially trees. And I say, I harp on trees a lot because trees are a four season resource, plants are not. So the chance of you finding the right plant at the right time of year at the right location when something happens to you, is much less than the chance of being able to find a tree that will do similar or the same, whether it’s harvesting the inner bark, the root, the leaves, all those types of things, and then preparing them.
Brett McKay: What was an example of a tree that can be used for a medicinal purpose? I think most people when they think trees, they think, well, that’s just a source of firewood or they don’t think…
Dave Canterbury: Yeah, for sure. I agree with that. Yeah. I mean, you have to remember that oak is, well, pine, let’s just start with pine. Pine’s probably one of the most common trees of the Eastern Woodlands and pine has some fantastic medicinal properties. A white pine, all pines are antiseptic and antibacterial in nature with a sap that runs through them. So not only is it a good accelerant for fire and things like that, it’s also a great resource medicinally. You can use pine sap to actually pack a cavity or a cut that you lost in the woods from your mouth to pack it, to keep bacteria out of it until you get where you need to go. You can use it almost like a new skin over a large abrasion area. You can spread pine sap over that and it will protect things from getting into that abrasion wall. So help to give it some antibacterial properties and antiseptic properties as well. And you can use white pine bark for bandages if you take a small sap and you cut it off, you can use it for a bandage. You can obviously use all types of inner barks and things like that for splints.
The inner bark of certain trees does different things for you. White oak, which I talked about a minute ago, was the actual symbol for Materia Medica in Europe for 500 years. Like we have the cross with the snake on it in the United States. The oak leaf was that symbol in Europe because the oak is such a powerful medicinal tree. Anything basically that you have wrong with you from the neck up, you can address with the inner bark of white oak. Whether it’s a sore throat, a stuffy nose, all that stuff can be affected with a simple decoction of white oak inner bark.
Brett McKay: And I imagine this is the sort of thing using plants as medicinal herbs. It’s something you need to actually do with an expert so you know you’re doing it right. You can’t just read about it on the internet. You probably need to actually do this stuff.
Dave Canterbury: Yeah. I mean, I would never dissuade someone from self-training. Most of the… 99% of the training I have was self-taught. So I would never dissuade someone from that. But what happens with training and the reason people go to training is number one, they’re getting expert advice. But number two, they’re also reducing the learning curve dramatically from how long it takes to learn something on your own.
Brett McKay: So the next priority in your five by five survival system is shelter. I’m curious, is this in an order? So it’s like, did shelter come before fire for a reason?
Dave Canterbury: Shelter is before fire for the reason that your clothing is your first line of shelter defense. It shelters your body from the elements. And so clothing has to be a priority very close to the top of the list because if your clothing becomes compromised, then your first line of defense against the elements becomes compromised as well. So shelter really has to become second over fire because of that.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So the first rule there is wear clothing appropriate for the environment you’re going to be in.
Dave Canterbury: Exactly. And environmental changes. I mean, obviously I’m not sure where you’re out of, but here in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky area, the weather can change, swing 50 degrees in a single day very, very easily. And you can experience three to four seasons in a day depending on the time of year here as well. It could be 70 in the afternoon and that night it could snow. It’s just the way the weather runs here. So you have to be prepared not only with the clothes that you’re wearing, but with the clothes that you have packed in your backpack to be sure that you are prepared for any elements that may come.
Brett McKay: All right. So beyond clothing, what are some basic go-to shelters that people should know how to make?
Dave Canterbury: When it comes to shelter, more importantly even than shelters to build, like what you’re talking about tarp configurations, obviously, correct?
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah.
Dave Canterbury: Okay. More important than that is understanding the elements of a shelter. That’s not as simple as just putting up a tarp. A tarp is just like putting on a raincoat or a wind jacket. It’s going to keep you from wind and it’s going to keep you from rain and keep you from snow, but it’s not going to do anything for you as far as being able to sleep because you have other elements that you have to think about. So when you learn to build a shelter, there’s really three main elements you have to understand. And that is you need something to sleep in, something to sleep on and something to sleep under. And the under becomes the tarp. Something to sleep in becomes a sleeping bag or a bivvy bag. And the on becomes something that you can sleep on top of on the ground that will insulate you from conduction from the ground in cold weather. So you need all three of those elements within a shelter. It’s not as simple as I’m going to carry a tarp or a space blanket and I have a shelter. To build a proper shelter, it takes three elements.
Brett McKay: So for the sleeping on, what do you recommend for that, for the insulation?
Dave Canterbury: It depends again on the situation. Obviously if you’re going into a wilderness area or into the country or whatever you call it with the intention of camping, then you’re going to take all of your camping stuff. You’re going to have a sleeping pad, you’re going to have a sleeping bag, you’re going to have a tent. It’s the problem that you run into is when you don’t have that kind of stuff. And everyone should carry a certain amount of emergency gear with them, even if it’s just for a day hike. And so the three things that we usually tell people to carry is we tell them to carry an emergency space blanket, a large contractor trash bag, like six mil trash bag, and that becomes your mattress. If all else fails, you can stuff that thing with debris and get that four inch offset of insulation from the ground. And then, obviously, you need something to sleep inside of. And that could be as simple as a small bivvy, a stuffable sleeping bag that becomes very small, something that will protect you. We make a survival bivvy that will actually take it down to about 40 degrees if you’re wearing proper clothing that is the size of a baseball. It’s not the optimum thing, obviously, but for one or two nights you could use it. And you can always stuff that with more insulation if you need to and just slide into it like a squirrel’s nest.
Brett McKay: On the space blanket, you pointed out, I thought this was interesting in the book, you want to get an actual good quality space blanket, not like those cheaper ones that you can get at Walmart that fold up into a little square.
Dave Canterbury: Yeah, I mean those origami blankets, I call them, you’re never gonna get that thing back to where it came from in that bag. Nobody’s gonna be able to do that. And they’re very flimsy. They’re not a trashy piece of gear. They’re not something that’s not worth having one of, especially because it’s so small you can put it in your pocket. However, if you’re building an emergency kit, that wouldn’t be my first choice. My first choice would be a reusable emergency space blanket. That’s gonna be more robust if I have to use it for a ground sheet, if I have to use it for some type of rain gear in an emergency, if I have to hunker around a fire with that thing and wrap it around me to trap body heat, I want it to be more robust than just that thin piece of mylar.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we talked about shelters. So if you just got something you can, like you talked about that trash bag, the space blanket, and maybe just an emergency bivvy bag, you’re gonna be good for most situations.
Dave Canterbury: You’re gonna be better off than not having it. That’s for sure.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, so beyond that, like let’s say you wanna start thinking about more complicated shelters, like a lean to or whatever. Is there one that you think that it’s good to know?
Dave Canterbury: Once you understand the elements of the shelter, then it’s shelter design. And we teach five shelter designs here at the Pathfinder School as our mainstay. So you have… You know, and you can do all of these with an emergency space blanket and a trash bag. So you have a lean to, which is basically two points on the ground, two points suspended. You have a plow point, which is a triangular shelter where you’ve got three points on the ground and one point suspended to a tree or a pole. You have a fly, which allows maximum airflow if you’re trying to keep yourself cool in hot weather, which has no points touching down and two points suspended. And then you have a raised bed, which you can use your trash bag for this to suspend your bed completely off the ground on tripods. And then last but not least, you have the typical A-frame where you have four points touching the ground and two points suspended. And that’s gonna give maximum trapping of heat. If you can stuff one in there with your backpack or whatever, and we have one open then you’re gonna trap more heat that way in cold weather environment.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Let’s start with the next priority, which is fire. Why is fire so important in a survival situation, even if you’re in a warm climate?
Dave Canterbury: Well, number one for water disinfection. I mean, groundwater disinfection is important for any time, and you can carry filters and things like that, obviously, if you are just hiking around and you’re carrying some of my water filter with you, but the problem with water filters is they have a lifespan. And if you don’t have a brand new one in your emergency kit, who knows what the lifespan is gonna be for the one you’ve been using for the last 10 hikes? So you need to plan to be able to boil water. And so that’s the number one priority of the fire is to be able to boil water. Then number two is obviously signaling for rescue because fire is a good way to signal for rescue if you’re trying to be found. Then there’s a multitude of other things that fire will do for me from obviously keeping your body warm, rapid rewarming from the inside. If you can heat water up and drink it, things like creating a hot pack with your water bottle that you can put against your body while you’re sleeping or down at your feet. If your feet are getting cold, you can use that fire to sterilize instruments that you have to use to like pick thorns out or stingers or splinters or things like that out of your skin.
You can use the ashes in the charcoal. The charcoal is good if you feel like you’ve been poisoned. You can basically mix the charcoal and a slurry of water and drink that. And it will absorb some of those toxins and make you throw some of that stuff up. The ashes are antiseptic in nature. They’re a good styptic and they’ll stop surface bleeding and capillary bleeding very well, like from a shaving cut or something like that. So there’s a multitude of things that fire can do for you in a survival scenario. So the very important aspect of survival in general is to be able to start a fire on a moment’s notice.
Brett McKay: Do you have a preferred fire lay?
Dave Canterbury: You know what? [chuckle] My preferred fire lay is a pile of sticks. I think that most people overthink the fire lay. Unless you are purposely building a fire for a certain reason, like you’re trying to build a top down fire where the thing burns from the top down so it burns longer overnight with bigger logs and things like that, that’s a purpose built fire. But to get a fire going immediately, really you just need a good large tender source and a pile of the smallest driest sticks you can find because fire loves chaos. So if you’ve got enough airspace underneath to create a venturi effect or updraft so that fire sucking air from the bottom and pushing it up and you’ve got plenty of airspace for it to breathe and you’ve got dry sticks that can catch fire quickly with lots of surface area because they’re small, you don’t have to have a particular fire lay. You just need a pile of sticks on the fire.
Brett McKay: What about fire starting methods? Do you have one that you recommend for a survival situation?
Dave Canterbury: Yeah, it cost a $1.79. It’s called a BIC lighter. That is always gonna be my number one priority or my first choice because it gives you instant flame and BIC lighters are very robust. You can get them cold and you can warm them up. You can get them wet and you can dry them out. You can pretty much run over them with a vehicle and you’re not gonna break them. And even if they run out of fluid, they’ll still spark so they can still start a fire for you if you’ve planned ahead. Then I would say probably next to that would be a ferrocerium rod only because of the longevity of the rod versus the longevity of the flint and the lighter and the longevity of fuel that you have. That should be your next choice would be the flint and steel or what people call flint, which is a ferrocerium rod. And then the last choice for me would always be a magnification lens probably on my compass that I could light charred material with off the landscape. Once I have that next fire mentality in place, I start my first fire and I immediately char something off the landscape or a piece of clothing like cotton material so at the next fire, any of those fire starting elements will give me a burning ember.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned char. For those who don’t know what that is, what is char and how do you make it?
Dave Canterbury: Okay. So char is a very important thing that’s very underrated in the survival world. Char material is basically carbonated natural material. So whether it’s a piece of cotton bandana, a piece of your blue jeans that are made out of cotton or something off the landscape that will readily char like punky wood, something that has lots of surface area where the wood’s starting to rot away. Those things can be put into a sealed container and your water bottle and cup will work for that without the lid on it. Cover them up, put them in the fire and you’re basically carbonizing that material and not allowing oxygen in. For fire to happen, you need fuel, heat and oxygen. If you don’t get any oxygen in, you’re just creating a large lump of coal, just like they make charcoal now, like they made charcoal pencils in the past. And that material will readily take a low temperature spark and create a live ember. So whether it’s a magnifying glass in the sun, a small strike off a ferrocerium rod or even the spark from a spent BIC lighter will light that material and give you a live ember to put into a bird nest to give you the next fire.
Brett McKay: What’s your take on things like the bow drills? Is that more just interesting to know as opposed to… That wouldn’t be your first go to?
Dave Canterbury: No, I mean, we teach the bow drill fire here. We teach the hand drill, we teach pump drill and all of those things have lessons built into them of how to handle material off the landscape and variability within a process. I don’t really teach them as a survival technique per se, because I think if you’ve gotten yourself into a situation where you have to make a bow drill fire, you’ve done so many things wrong already. I mean… It just shouldn’t ever happen. And the chance of someone being able to build a fire like that off the landscape are very, very slim if they haven’t done it hundreds of times.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we’ve talked about self-aid, we’ve talked about shelter, we’ve talked about fire. The next part of the five by five survival system is hydration. So how long can we go without water? Is it like three days or what’s the rubric?
Dave Canterbury: The rule of thumb is three days, just like the rule of threes, which in my opinion doesn’t really count for much to be honest with you, because most of that stuff has so many variables within it that you can’t call it. You understand, you know what I’m saying? I’m saying if you, 90% of people go to the woods dehydrated to begin with, because as a race, we don’t drink enough water. We drink milk, we drink pop, we drink energy drinks, we drink beer, but we don’t drink much water. Drinking more water is becoming a thing now that we’re all feeling like we all want to be healthy. More people drink more water. But most of the time, people go to the woods already partially dehydrated. They’ll add to that heat, stress, exercise, and the dehydration becomes that much faster. So that three days can be dramatically reduced depending on what you’re doing, what your hydration level was to begin with. That can go down too. In a sunny, arid environment where you have no shade, that could go down to hours.
Brett McKay: What are the biggest issues when it comes to hydration in the wild?
Dave Canterbury: Truly speaking, I think the biggest issues are people just don’t do it enough. I think people forget to hydrate. I know that happens here at the school. No matter how much you tell people to hydrate, they forget. And we almost invariably get someone who gets at least slightly dehydrated almost every class because they just haven’t drank enough water. It’s not because they don’t have the availability, it’s because they just don’t do it. So I think that when you talk about in the wild, I think that you should plan to, at every time you cross some type of water source, you should plan to hydrate. Whether that plan becomes I’m gonna use a water filter or I’m gonna stop and I’m gonna boil enough water to carry with me to the next water source, then you need to be collecting water at every opportunity and drinking water at every opportunity because the best canteen you can carry is your belly.
Brett McKay: Alright. So make sure when you go out into the wild, have water on you, and then along the way, look for water. And recommended for water purification, boiling water is probably your best bet?
Dave Canterbury: I mean, it’s gonna be your safest bet is to pre-filter that water through a bandana or something like that and then boil it. However, there’s lots of water filters on the market that are 99.99999% effective and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that they’re unreliable sometimes unless they’re brand new. And even then, if you don’t filter the water prior to using the filter, those filters tend to get clogged up very badly and then you have another problem. So even with a great water filter, like the GRAYL, which is probably my favorite water filter, I tend to pre-filter my water if there’s any turbidity in it whatsoever before I put it through the GRAYL.
Brett McKay: So the last thing in the five by five survival system is navigation and signaling. What navigation, like basic navigation skills you think people should have in order to survive in the wild?
Dave Canterbury: Well, I think everybody should learn to use a compass well enough to walk in a straight line, to shoot a bearing, keep the needle in dog house, leapfrog their way from point A to point B so that they are walking a straight line because the lateral drift is really the main reason for carrying a compass to begin with. If you don’t have a map, then the only thing that compass really does for you is keep you in a straight line. And that’s why people walk in circles over time is from lateral drift and a compass eliminates lateral drift. So being able to shoot an azimuth, follow that travel bearing and understanding how to leapfrog from one point to the next so you don’t have to look at the compass continuously is probably the mainstay of skills you need so that you can at least walk in a straight line in one direction.
Brett McKay: And like navigation is definitely one of those skills you actually need to do it to understand it. You can read about this stuff, but I think that the game changer is when you actually learn how to shoot an azimuth, things like that. That’s how it just, the light bulb will go on once you do it.
Dave Canterbury: I agree with that wholeheartedly. I mean, I think that people don’t understand the power of that right there. The power to walk a straight line even is something that people don’t understand until you take them out and put them in a squared off coordinate area and tell them to walk straight from one side to the other and they can’t do it. They’re gonna be off one direction or the other. Once you put a compass in their hand and say, plug this bearing in and now walk from this tree to that tree to that tree that are in that same line of travel and get to the other side and you get where you’re supposed to be, the light bulb automatically goes on. Hey, now I got it. Or you put them on a navigation course and you give them an azimuth from one point to the next and they find it by walking that straight line, that’s when the light bulb comes on that, man, this is a tool I need to have.
Brett McKay: For signaling you mentioned fire can be a good signaling tool. Any other tools you like for signaling?
Dave Canterbury: I mean, your compass should have a mirror on it for sighting. So you should have a signal mirror readily built into your compass. It’s not the best signal mirror because it’s got a shroud around the mirror itself. So when you get to that 270, trying to reflect 270 you have a problem, but it’s a good, good signaling device. Fire’s a good signaling device. Anything that you have that’s orange is a great signaling device within your kit. So space blankets should always be bought orange, not green or camouflage. If you’re gonna use a space blanket, you don’t want to be a secret squirrel. You want people to know where you’re at. So taking that space blanket that’s five feet by seven feet, taking it out of the package at your house before you ever need it and putting SOS or three big black X’s on the back of that that are universal signals for needing help, as soon as you erect the shelter, you’ve put up a five by seven signaling device that can be seen from the air on the ground. And then really I tell my students that you should carry a 3X, 4X, something that’s two or three times bigger than what you would ever wear t-shirt that’s orange, that’s a hundred percent cotton, throw it in the bottom of your pack, and if something happens to you, put that thing on over everything else you’ve got so you can be seen.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we did the five by five. So we got self aid, shelter, fire, hydration, navigation, signaling. I noticed that food isn’t in there. Why is that?
Dave Canterbury: Well, there’s several reasons food’s not in there. Number one, food’s not a priority in the short term of survival. It’s just not. Most people have plenty of food in the tank already. Most of us are… I don’t think there’s very many people out there that are five or 10 pounds overweight nowadays, some a lot more than that. So you’ve got some food storage already. And then in a 72-hour scenario, it shouldn’t be a problem for you not to eat other than psychologically. It’s not gonna do your body any harm for you not to be able to eat for two or three days. People go a lot longer than that without food. The problem becomes the psychological factor of not having food, but in a two or three day scenario, that shouldn’t be a problem either. So food should be the last thing that you think about. Now, obviously once you’ve got all your survival priorities taken care of, now it’s time to think about the peripheral things. Okay, well can I go over to this pond and catch some fish or catch a frog or grab a snake to eat? You know, things like that. Those are your peripheral things that you think about after your survival priorities have all been handled and checked off the list.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So yeah, again, survival, it’s not like my side of the mountain. You’re not Sam Gribley making an oven inside of a tree and cooking things.
Dave Canterbury: Right.
Brett McKay: But yeah. Okay. You don’t have to worry about that.
Dave Canterbury: It shouldn’t be. I mean, that’s long term survival. That’s living off the land. That’s pioneering. That’s a whole different concept than I just flipped my four-wheeler in a ditch while I was scouting this year’s deer hunt area and I twisted my leg and now I’m gonna have to wait for somebody to come get me because I can’t walk.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been mentioning some gear throughout this conversation, but one thing you did in the book that I really liked is you provided a list of five containing like just some really basic essential gear for survival situation. And you call it the five Cs of survivability. What are the five Cs?
Dave Canterbury:So your number one is a cutting tool of some sort. And those five Cs aren’t single necessarily single items. There are five categories, right? So you should have cutting tool or cutting tools, right? My recommendation to most people is a folding saw, a belt knife and some kind of a pocket knife or SAK. So they got plenty of things that you can use to cut. Your second C is combustion devices to start fire. Again, we talked about three. And most of the stuff falls into those categories. You should have three of these things. Your cover element is gonna provide in, on, under. So there’s three things there. Your container should be a metal container that’s impervious to fire, single walled, and you should probably have two of those and at least one nest and cup. So you’ve got three containers. And then the last one is cordage, and cordage is what you’re gonna use to tie lash and bind everything. You can carry one type of cordage or 10 types of cordage, but I would say at least some kind of a Mariners bank line or what’s called a tarred line and then also paracord would be the minimum.
Brett McKay: And like how much space does this stuff take? ‘Cause it sounds like a lot.
Dave Canterbury: You know, it sounds like a lot, but you could put it in a 10 liter dry bag or a 10 liter day pack.
Brett McKay: Okay. So it doesn’t take up… Yeah, I mean if you think about… So like a BIC lighter, you can just keep that in your pocket.
Dave Canterbury: Correct.
Brett McKay: Flint and steel. That’s super small. A good knife, you’re gonna have that on your belt probably.
Dave Canterbury: Yeah. I mean you definitely want a belt knife, something that’s full tang. Now if you’re just going out day hiking or something, you might be able to get away with a non-full tang knife if you’re not gonna beat the crap out of it. And it’s not really, really cold weather, but I would recommend a full tang belt knife and I would recommend a folding saw. And then again, like you said, an SAK will fit in your pocket. So you’re looking at all these five items. Most of your combustion devices are gonna fit in your pocket. Most of your cover elements are gonna easily fit into a small dry bag or day pack. And then your container, everybody carries a water bottle anyway. Why not make it metal? And so that’s gonna fit in your backpack, on the side of your backpack. And then cordage doesn’t take up hardly any space at all. You can sit on the bottom of your backpack.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned the knife, the full tang knife. It’s like a good survival knife. What are the elements of a good survival knife you think?
Dave Canterbury: You know, what I think is that there’s a lot of confusion about knives. I think that there’s a difference between a bushcraft knife and a survival knife. A survival knife is something that you could use for a crowbar if you had to and not break it. And you could also use it to baton wood with if you had to. And at the same time, it has to be small enough in size that you can do some fine carving with it in case you have to carve things like tent stakes, in case you have to make notches to put things together for shelters. Any of those types of things, you’ve got to have a knife that’s small enough to do that. But some of that can be done by the knife in your pocket. So the knife that you’re carrying on your belt just needs to be a robust enough knife that you’re not gonna break it if you twist it side to side or if you start beating on it really hard with another log to break into dry wood from a wet log situation or split small wood down into kindling.
Brett McKay: And here in the book, you list out five criteria that you think every belt knife should have. The first one is full tang. We’ve mentioned that one. That’s just one continuous piece of material throughout from the blade to the end of the handle. You want a sharp spine because it’s gonna allow you to use it as a striker for a ferrocerium rod. You can also use that to process make tinder with. You want your knife to be carbon steel because it’s easy to sharpen, but they can also be used as a flint and steel ignition. You want the blade to be about four to five inches because it allows you to process wood for shelter building or fire lay materials. And then you want a simple grind, just a blade, the single bevel, like a V grind or a saber to zero grind. And that just makes things easy to sharpen. So those are the five qualities you want in a belt knife. You also list five essential knife skills you think you should know on how to handle your knife. So what are those skills?
Dave Canterbury: I mean, I think that everybody should understand how to be able to cut down a sapling, to be able to make feather sticks if they need to and do fine carving work. I think you have to, with any knife, you should be able to strike a ferrocerium rod. And that comes down to the attributes of the knife because you should never use a blade for that. You should use the spine of that knife. You should understand how to use that knife as a flint and steel device in emergency where you can just pick up a rock, bang it on that knife and get a spark so that your next fire mentality can be utilized with charred material. And I think that everybody needs to be able to understand how to baton a knife. So you’re asking for five and I gave you more than five there, but I think that the base of that is, can I cut down a tree? Can I make proper firewood materials? Can I do carving with this blade? Can I start fire with this blade in two different ways?
Brett McKay: Yeah. People would be surprised if you think I can cut down a tree with a knife, but you can’t. You’re not gonna be felling a big giant sequoia or an oak. It’s like small and you just kind of beaver it. You do like what a beaver do, kind of take chunks out of it until a…
Dave Canterbury: Absolutely. Absolutely. I tell people a lot of times in my classes that when you’re talking about survival and you’re talking about trees and you’re talking about cutting down trees, you don’t need anything over four inches anyway. Four inches is a big enough tree as a cylinder to make good firewood. And four inches on a live tree is structural if it’s hardwood. So if you’re trying to make a structure, four inches. If you’re trying to make fire, four inches. You don’t need anything bigger than that. So your knife only needs to be large enough to take care of four inches of lumber.
Brett McKay: What about knots? Are there essential knots that you think everyone should know for a survival situation?
Dave Canterbury: Yeah. We teach several knots here at the Pathfinder School, but at the basic level, you need a slip knot that you can turn into a rope tackle. You need a half-inch that you can tie that off with, a slippery half-inch. You need a bowline knot so you have an end of the line loop that can be put under any amount of pressure and be able to get it done quickly and easily. You need a double fisherman’s knot or a single fisherman’s knot that you can use to make a prusik loop. And then you need to understand how to make a prusik hitch. If you can do those things on a Marlinspike hitch, you can take care of 99% of anything you’d want to do in camp.
Brett McKay: Okay. Well, let’s imagine, let’s say someone’s listening to this stuff and like, well, this sounds great, but I might not have time to get to a survival school. Can you practice these skills even if you live in like the suburbs or the city?
Dave Canterbury: You can practice these skills in your backyard. I mean, there’s no question about it. You can practice these skills in a park. You might not be able to sleep overnight in a park, but you could surely find some kind of state land somewhere or a campground that you could. You can definitely spend overnights outside in your backyard for sure. So there’s really none of these skills other than the navigation part of it, which a navigation is a little harder practice because you need a bigger area to do it. But again, I go back to all cities have parks and most parks have trees or some type of a landmark that you can use to set up a short navigation course for yourself.
Brett McKay: Well, Dave, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Dave Canterbury: So the best place to go, honestly, if you really wanna find everything you wanna find link-wise is to go to my Instagram, which is Pathfinder Survival and hit the link tree in my Instagram because that has links to my website, my school, my author page on Amazon, my Amazon influencer page, my website where we sell gear and my Facebook and my YouTube and my Twitter are all in that link tree.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Dave Canterbury, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Dave Canterbury: Hey buddy. I appreciate you, man. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dave Canterbury. He’s the author of the book The Bushcraft Essentials Field Guide. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/survival where you can find links to resources and where we delve deeper into this topic.
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