Surviving in the wild can seem like a romantic proposition, at least as it often plays out in popular culture and our imagination. We picture ourselves confidently navigating the obstacles of nature, pulling trout out of mountain streams, and building a snug shelter inside a tree.
But the reality of wilderness survival isn’t so rosy. Few people know that better than Jim Baird. Jim and his brother won the fourth season of Alone, a reality show that’s actually real, and leaves contestants in the wild to face the elements and live off the land. Today on the podcast, Jim shares his experiences surviving on Northern Vancouver Island for 75 days, and what he learned from them as to what’s true about survival and what’s simply a myth.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Season 4 of Alone
- “Four Survival Myths That Could Get You Killed” — Field and Stream article by Jim
- AoM Podcast #848: The 5 Priorities of Short-Term Survival
Connect With Jim Baird
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Surviving in the wild can seem like a romantic proposition, at least as it often plays out in popular culture and our imagination. We picture ourselves confidently navigating the obstacles of nature, pulling trout out of mountain streams and building a snug shelter inside a tree. But the reality of wilderness survival isn’t so rosy. Few people know that better than Jim Baird. Jim and his brother won the fourth season of Alone, a reality show that’s actually real and leaves contestants in the wild to face the elements and live off the land. Today on the podcast, Jim shares his experiences surviving on Northern Vancouver Island for 75 days, and what he learned from them as to what’s true about survival, what’s simply a myth. After show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/survivalmyths.
Alright. Jim Baird welcome to the show.
Jim Baird: Hi, thank you for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you and your brother were the winners of History Channel’s survival reality show Alone, for those who aren’t familiar with the show, what’s the set up and how long did you and a brother last on it?
Jim Baird: Okay, yeah. Well, Alone is a legit survival show. There’s no camera crews, you have to film everything yourself. One of the things they do is they teach you in-depth how to capture footage, or you have to not only survive out there by yourself, but you also have to film it while you’re doing it, which makes it way harder because you have this other whole task at hand on top of just trying to survive. Right? So it’s like another enormous job you have to do. And how it works is that there’s typically individuals go out there alone, film their survival stint, and then whoever lasts the longest wins a half a million big ones. Now on the season my brother and I were on, instead, each season has sometimes a little bit of a different twist. Well, ours had a big twist because they did teams of family members. There’s brothers, there’s father and son, there’s even husband and wife, however, those team members had to start separately, so they’re calling it Alone: Lost and Found. So literally, I’m dropped off by a helicopter in the wilds of Northern Vancouver Island. I have a very small amount of rations, probably the equivalent to like a light lunch. I have a compass, I have basic survival equipment on me, no map, and I’m told, “You have to find your brother. He’s at the end of this compass bearing.”
And then the helicopter takes off, and I start walking through some of the craziest terrain on planet Earth that you can possibly walk through. And that has a lot to do with the logging there and the regrowth, let alone the many, many lakes and ponds and streams and undulating mountainous terrain. And anyways, so each group had to do this, one person had to find the other. And when you find them, you had to survive together as a team, which is good in some ways because you’re not alone. But also sometimes two people hungry, we can all get a little hangry, can start to drive each other crazy bit and also it’s taxing because there’s only a finite amount of calories in a given area. And when you’re hungry, you don’t really have that energy to move too far potentially to find no more food, if you do move.
So anyways, my brother and I ended up surviving out there all in. We were out there for 75 days through the late fall and winter. Basically, all the food you have, you can bring limited rations. We brought, I think two pounds of pemmican for 75 days, but other than that, absolutely everything that we ate was forage harvested somehow off the land, and we ended up winning after a 75-day stint. It was the rainiest November on record, and we’re talking about one of the rainiest places in the continent and it was the coldest winter in 30 years. So when you have that really damp northern rainforest dampness and that cold, it’s the opposite of a dry cold, man, and you just feel that right in your bones. But we managed to pull it off and come home with the W. I think I lost about 26% of my body mass.
Brett McKay: Man, that’s a lot of weight. So did you have any survival experience before you went on Alone?
Jim Baird: So that’s interesting because I didn’t think I really did, but it kind of turns out that I did. And by that I mean, you think of… Survival for me was something I learned and practiced to an extent because as somebody who has kind of a background in more expeditionary travel. So my big thing is, I’ll take a canoe and enough gear and some food to be in the wilderness for a month. And I’ll travel in extremely remote areas in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic on point A to point B expeditions that include serious, demanding whitewater rapids to be run, portages or portages, as they say, with the English pronunciation of the French word that can take multiple days and up river travel and all this kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll do those alone. I’ll tackle some of the most demanding whitewater rivers, for example, in the Yukon Territory. I’ve traveled across Northern Quebec and Labrador, well off of the road system. So I do this. I’ve walked solo in the Arctic in winter on remote trips that have taken up to 36 days. So that same year before going on Alone, I walked solo across the Northern Ungava Peninsula, essentially Arctic Quebec, and that was a 36-day solo expedition in the winter.
So, but I’m not lighting bow drill fires, I’m not completely… I’m not eating lizards and flint knapping arrowheads, and I’m not doing these kind of core skills and activities out there that you typically might relate to survival. So I wasn’t really sure how well I would do against people that have those sort of raw traditional skills. However, it turned out that really just having real bush time, real outdoor time in real and real places where you’re forced to get a fire going or you’re pooched or you’re hypothermatic where you can’t just kinda go back inside or walk back to your truck. So those real situations and the drive to push on when things are scary and things aren’t going well and you don’t have any way to get out of there other than on your own two feet. So those things proved to be the survival skills that were really helpful for me out there.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned contestants on Alone are able to bring a certain number of items with them. You guys brought some pemmican, what else did you guys choose to bring and did they turn out to be… What turned out to be the most helpful and useful?
Jim Baird: Yeah. Everybody can bring stuff, so you get 10 items. You also get some items that you automatically are allowed to bring too like clothes. I think a sleeping bag was one that you automatically were allowed to bring, but then you have to pick 10 items. And you can’t just pick any 10 times. You can’t bring a shotgun and a case of scotch, you know what I mean? You have to bring an items… Unfortunately, but you have to bring items out of a specific list. Right? So you can’t just bring any pot, if you choose a pot, it has to be X… It can’t be bigger than what’s specified, I forget what that was. So we brought a fishing line and hooks. We brought snare wire or trapping wire. We brought a bow and arrow. We brought a tarp. We brought a pot and… What else did we bring? Oh yeah, we brought an axe. We brought a saw. We brought a net, a gillnet, but it could only be like two meters long, which is barely any over two yards long and not very tall, so very limiting the size of gillnet you could bring. But one of the things that I kinda learned about is that a lot of kinda emphasis is put on what did they bring? And the show kind of emphasizes what survival items are they bringing out there? Right?
But what we learned is that even though there’s a lot of emphasis on these things, what will they bring? At the end of the day, I don’t think they really make that big of a deal. I think that the fishing line and hooks definitely helped us. You could have picked parachute cord, but you’re only loud like 50 feet of it. And so even though we weren’t allowed to actually actively trap and because there are rules. Right? You can’t… It’s just not no holds barred survival, you can’t catch seagulls ’cause they’re protected. We were Canadian, so Canadians could have got their trapping license in British Columbia, but we were the only Canadians on the show and Americans couldn’t.
So in order to make it fair, there was no trapping. On top of that, there’s no rabbits, there’s very few squirrels, and there’s not really a lot to trap for food there. Anyway, so we brought this snare wire, trapping wire and we used it because we were allowed a significant amount in all different gauges of it. We were able to use it to build a tarp canoe, we were able to use it to build our shelter and a bunch of other things. And the other thing that came in handy that we brought was just fishing line and hooks. And in our gillnet, we did catch some stuff with it for sure, but because of the tides and the waves bringing in all this bull kelp and the barnacles everywhere, really to set up this gillnet was honestly at the end of the day, might have been, even though we did get some food with it, might have been more work than it was really worth.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So your fishing net, the fishing line came in handy, it sounds like the saw and the act came in handy for fire, would that look like… That was very useful.
Jim Baird: That’s true actually. Yeah, that’s true. We brought this big saw, I don’t know how good it really was in the end, we should have brought the saw I had more experience with, but yeah, I think cutting wood, ’cause it was so cold out to be able to cook, warm up, dry stuff out. I think… And just for morale, I think that was pretty important.
Brett McKay: The bone arrow, not useful?
Jim Baird: Well, you know what it’s like. So the rules were, when we were out there, is that, first of all, there’s very few deer on Vancouver Island, right? So we could get a deer, but we were only allowed to get a buck and you weren’t allowed to get a doe, which greatly reduces your odds, and then we were allowed to get bear however, we weren’t allowed to bait bear. Which we could have gotten some rotting fish or whatever, and baited bears, which is the way to do it really, and so that’s pretty much a shot in the dark, also, on a lot of other seasons in Vancouver Island, there’s bears everywhere. Well, we got in a little later than other seasons significantly, and bears are smart, they knew that it was probably a cold winter on the way, and they decided, I think to just shutter down, so sometimes they don’t even really hibernate on Vancouver Island ’cause it’s warmer climate, but I feel like they did that year because they knew that the coldest winter in 30 years was upon them.
Brett McKay: So you guys were dropped off separately, how far apart were you separated and how long did it take you to get back to each other?
Jim Baird: Yeah, so we were only 10 miles apart, which seems like the thing you can kinda bang off in an afternoon, but what most people don’t realize is how far that really is, it’s quite far north, and daylight was already minimal, so we weren’t getting much daylight. It wasn’t safe to travel at night, so we weren’t even allowed to travel at night, and the terrain was so crazy that 10 miles took me eight days. And you’re talking about… I remember one time I was traveling and there was a bunch of trees that had fallen down on top of each other, and we’re all crisscrossed, and then there was this salal, dense salal bushes growing up everywhere that’s hard to penetrate, and I’m using all my energy carrying a pretty heavy pack, and I climb way up all these crisscrossed tree stacked on top of each other on the side of a hill, and I climbed way, way up this thing… Probably 20 feet in the air, and I step over and I climb all the way back down and into the bushes, and I’d made it like three yards and that to get up and down probably took me like 20 minutes, then I struggled pushing myself through trying to stay on my bearing.
Climbing up, there was one part where it would have been considered a technical climb for me to just get up a cliff that I couldn’t really get around to stay on my compass bearing, so if I had fallen, I would have gotten severely injured and I’m climbing up this thing with a heavy pack, right? Then I hit a lake and it’s a big lake with all kinds of bays and steep mountains, thick, dense hills all around, because as part of the island and it had the crap logged out of it. Right? So then you gotta pick a bearing, you’re gonna pick an object that’s on you’re bearing on the other side of the lake, and then you gotta walk around the lake to get to where the object is, but you’d be surprised at how hard it is to tell where that object is when you’re on the other side of the lake, so then you…
Typically, what I would do is I’d mark the other side where I’d take the bearing from, but some of these lakes were big and it’s hard to see things across the lake, so I’d get sticks or I’d look at my back if there’s a tree that was obvious, it stood out, I just used that, but I’d be stick sticks in the water and bows, and I try to mark it and then I go on, weave my way all the way around this, walking on the shore, and then try to pick up my bearing and I just walk this enormous distance out of my way, and to get to the other side of the lake, which might have been 300 meters, right? And so 10 miles walking through this is extremely different than what one might think in a typical situation, walking 10 miles would be.
Plus, you also are dealing with the lack of food, all I was eating out there, it was wild mushrooms, and I just grabbed like a gaiter, ’cause one of the things we are allowed to bring is ankle gaiters, so I use that as a bag and I tied the end together, and I clipped it to the strap of my bag up by my shoulder upside down as I travel, I collect oyster mushrooms and chanterelles, I’d be throwing like banana slugs in there, I had an opportunity to try to get a gross and I whipped to stick at it and missed by one inch, which was devastating and… Yeah man, and that’s what I do every night I get to camp. I’d set up my tarp and then you gotta make a fire and when everything is soaking wet, soaked, it’s very hard to get a fire going. I can do it, it just takes time. You don’t have a lighter, so you just have a Ferrocerium rod which throws out sparks, so what you gotta do is it’s driving rain, you’re soaked, you gotta find a standing dead tree because anything on the ground is gonna be pretty much soaked right through a very challenging work to whittle out the dry Center, so it’s the inside of the tree you want.
So the inside is dry, you gotta bring that under your tarp, you gotta split it out, you gotta whittle little feather sticks like little curls that’ll light from a spark I’d be taking Usnea moss, which is called old man’s beard drying that out, keeping it with my sleeping bag in a water-proof pack to try to… A waterproof compression sector to try to keep that. Try to use that as tinder, but you’re looking at a long process to get a fire going probably a couple hours to get a fire going because you gotta whittle your tinder then little matchstick size pieces, then cigars size pieces, then bigger, then bigger. And then eventually you can start putting the wet stuff on through the process, and then I cook up all my mushrooms at night, and I’d eat a whole bunch of these soggy boiled mushrooms. The other thing I tried eating was lily pad tubers out there, and I reboiled them a few times, but they still almost made me barf ’cause they’re just so bitter and… And then I put them in my hat and I’d wake up the next morning and I just eat these soggy ice-cold mushrooms the next morning, they’d be like the old slogan there, I just eat it.
I called it the breakfast of champignons, and then… Yeah, and then I’d pack up. I usually set my tarp up in such a way that it would collect water ’cause it’s always raining, so I’d be able to scoop rain water out of the back of my tarp, I put rocks there to kinda make a little catch, and then I just keep going the next day, but it was very mentally challenging because you don’t know if you’re gonna get there that day, you don’t have a map, right? And I guess this is kind of the reality too of a survival situation, you don’t know if you’re gonna be saved that day or never. Right? It could be the next minute, it could be years, it could be never. So it plays with you mentally, and so I keep traveling, traveling, traveling and thinking that I was gonna get there, and I think what they thought when they gave us this mission, was it’s gonna gonna be like four days, so they kind of alluded that it might be like a four-day hike, I don’t think they realized it was gonna take us this long and be that challenging, so… Yeah, it was really, really, really, really hard.
Brett McKay: You know, yeah, it looked hard, and I think the thing I learned from that is, never underestimate a hike in a survival situation. Because I think people they think like, “Oh, I’ve been on a 10-mile hike before. Not a problem.” You’re on a trail, you guys didn’t have trails, you didn’t know when the hike was gonna be over, you had to deal with the weather. Sometimes I saw some people, they didn’t even hike on some days, because it just rained too much, it was just downpour.
Jim Baird: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And then the food, the food, the calorie element really came into play, you could see, a lot of the contestants, they’d start off strong, but as the days wore on, it just… They got slower and slower because they just didn’t have the calories.
Jim Baird: Yeah, like no way I could have done that survival hike on day 75, right? Because at the beginning, I could really push myself despite the fact that I wasn’t eating anything for… Other than these mushrooms, right? And I’d try fishing, but it’s kind of like, you think… You don’t have a boat, right? And you come up to these ponds and there’s probably trout in them, there’s probably small rainbow trout in them, right? But, the spot that you’d come out in, it’s like, the water is like 6 inches deep for many, many feet out from shore, and there’s not gonna be any fish there. You don’t have a boat really, how do you get out to where there might be fish, without putting in a lot of effort and then potentially not catching anything? So I tried to fish in these lakes, but I think maybe the fish were just deeper. And then maybe over on the other side of the lake, that could be a good spot.
And then you bush whack all around the lake and you’re going through mud and you’re trying to follow the shore, but there’s boulders and you’re on the side of a steep bank and it’s super hard using a ton of energy, and then you get over to the spot that you thought would be good for fishing, and you look down and it’s too shallow. So I was trying to fish, I maybe had one spot, I put a lot of time trying, but I couldn’t even get a bite, and I think maybe by that time, it had just gotten colder and the fish had moved to a deeper water far away from shore, so I think, yeah, I think that a lot of people think, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna catch fish.” I think sometimes because of those logistics, like I explained, it can be more challenging than you assume it might be, to actually catch fish in a survival situation.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So, if you read survival books, they had to talk about the survival priorities, and like one of the first ones is shelter. What did you guys use for shelter, for your stay there?
Jim Baird: Yeah, I think that’s for sure. Shelter, fire, water, food. Sometimes, fire and shelter can be maybe, arguably interchanged. But yeah, I think that’s super important. My brother and I, we actually… We didn’t really… Like, we’re not in an area where we get those winters of minus 20, and we had a decent winter sleeping bags too that were good down to minus 30. Of course, they don’t really block wind. So, we basically ended up building. My brother was more or less sleeping in a tarp tent, then we had a more substantial shelter going, and my brother was mostly focusing on trying to fish, trying to get food. And when I got there, he’d already started building a boat, but he hadn’t put a ton of time into a shelter. So, we had something more substantial going, and we found that we just didn’t have the resources at hand, in our site to complete that shelter.
Because, everywhere else, it was this… Stuff that had been logged for the most part, but as we got to where our specific site was on the coast, there were no small trees, everything was these gigantic trees, right? So, you know, 1000-year-old, 2000-year-old cedars and probably Doug-firs and hemlocks, a lot of massive old hemlocks, and you can’t chop those down and drag them over to build a shelter. So, just to find the wood that we had… And then we started… Everything is like an underground stream there, so we had torrential downpour for days and days and days, and… Or even where we had our fire place, under the fireplace, there was a stream going through, and when our fire place dried out that dirt so much, it collapsed into an underground stream. So like, there’s so much water, everything’s so wet. And if it rains enough that underground stream starts to come above land, so it’s really crazy, if you’re not used to this kind of environment.
You can be… You know set your tent up on a spot that looks perfectly dry and flat, and be sitting there, all tickety-boo, and you get a ton of rain and all of a sudden your tent is in the bottom, pitched on a creek bed. Right? So, this started happening to us and watching the show, a lot of other people got swamped out, so my brother and I saw this was gonna happen, and in the middle of the night, we ended up basically building a raised platform, so no matter what, if it flooded and if the bottom of our shelter turned into a stream, we would be off the ground, but I think it took 21 logs to build that platform. And that was all the small logs we had in our entire area. So, I’m talking about… Hemlock is heavy, man. Like Hemlock is a heavy, heavy wood, it’s technically a softwood, but it’s probably the heaviest softwood.
So, imagine you’re already gassed, I already walked for eight days, bush whacking through hell, eating freaking nothing but mushroom, to show up and still have minimal, minimal food rations, working a lot, expending energy to try to get more food and then putting whatever time we have into building this shelter, and then all of a sudden having this push because we’re about to get flooded, and at night, probably two weeks into this with never having really a proper meal yet, and expending a ton of effort, I’m bush whacking in the dark, going through like steep, up and down hills. Like, abrupt, steep, up and down hills through dense bush, trying to find smaller trees, chopping down these hemlocks and dragging them back, trying to keep bows on them, trying to keep branch on them too, because we utilized those bows as kind of a bedding mattress, pulling them through, cutting them up, laying them down.
It took over 21 of these logs, and we’re talking about two… Maybe five inch thick logs to just make a platform for both of us to sleep in, and then stakes and ridge-pull, and after that there was no other material really for us to build a proper shelter, so we ended up basically just deciding that, what we do is we just pull back on this bigger shelter idea, sort of like a smaller kind of cabin idea, and we would just build this raised bed and then make a tight A frame. So we didn’t really… We just had a sleeping platform and it was open at both ends, so we’d have to crawl in from either ends, but it was like an A-frame with a tarp, right? And then we had another tarp just adjacent to that, outside, where we would have our fire and that’s basically all the shelter that we went with for the entire time.
Now, we planned on getting out there and not going crazy with the shelter, sort of maybe getting more established before putting a ton of energy into building a shelter, because we’re not… We don’t need the comforts of home so much, my brother and I, we don’t really care about that so much, about a good shelter. Like, we’ll just sleep outside on the dirt really, right? So it ended up kind of becoming okay, but what we did, because we had this really cold winter is, we would cut firewood, and then, as we are cooking our food, we’d heat up all these rocks around the fire, I don’t think they show this in the show, but we’d warm up all these rocks and then we’d just tuck all those rocks in our pockets, at the small of our back, down by our feet, and we’d have a toasty warm sleep, because we had this wonderful heat source keeping us warm all night.
Brett McKay: The shelter thing was really interesting to watch all the contestants, you’re trying to figure out… Because it was basically, you’re always doing these calculations, like, “Okay, we can invest a lot in a shelter”, but if you invest all that time and energy in a shelter, well then, you’re gonna wear yourself out.
Jim Baird: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But then also as you said, there’s the risk of… Okay, you build this nice shelter, but then it’s gonna get flooded out. And so, one of the takeaways I got there, maybe when you’re in a survival situation, simpler is probably better when it comes to shelter.
Jim Baird: I think, yeah, as simple as you could do it, but it really depends. When the… A season of a Alone, when they’re up on the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, north of 60, you need that or you’re gonna freeze to death. You need a much more… A simpler… You can build it the faster… As long as it’s efficient, it’s about efficiency is what it’s about, right? That is mandatory, but we won the show, so obviously we did something right, as many things as we felt we could have done better, we obviously did something right. And I think the takeaway there is that, you are reduced to the resources that are available in your area, and one of the things that we don’t realize is when you get there, you very quickly become hungry and you very quickly lose energy and you don’t have the energy.
And maybe at a certain point, this is like a ship wreck scenario, at this point, you don’t have the energy to just get up and bush whack through hell, to try to get somewhere over there where the grass might be greener, only for the odds on finding a spot, that is just the same as where you just were in all likelihood. You think, “Oh, we’re gonna build a shelter. Oh well, there’s all these wild edibles, you can pick… This is great. Are there any of them… Are there any of those things around you? You’re gonna build a shelter, great. Are there any materials available to build that shelter around you?” Right? If the answer is no, well, the answer… It’s the other thing too, that we think that if you’re this really good survivalist, and if you have all these skills and abilities… You remember like in the movie Rambo, right? He was this like, crazy bad ass that could… You could drop him off naked at the North Pole and he’d show up with a dog sled team, in a polar bear jacket and all this kind of stuff, you know the issue with that is that, that would take like magic, right?
Because it doesn’t matter how good you are, if there’s a finite amount of resources in your immediate area, no matter how good you are, you can’t manifest any more calories that are gonna be harvest-able, so you really are limited to that reality, when you’re out there in a survival situation. So sometimes you just… You have to adapt, you have to do the best you can with what you have, but even… No matter how good you are at times, you might not be able to get a sufficient amount of food, and we’ve forgotten so much how much food we eat. We’ve really lost touch with how much we eat because you don’t realize that if you’re expending all this energy and time goes by, you can’t just get one more big meal and be right back where you were a week before after eating nothing. You need a sustained amount of significant meals, day after day after day, to not feel very weak and to be on a slow decline to starving to death.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that was, I think the biggest challenge was food for the contestants who made it past the first few weeks. What I thought was amazing, or what I thought was interesting is, a lot of the contestants, they washed out really fast, ’cause they just weren’t mentally ready for it. But also something they just got… There’s little things, they just slipped and you fell, and you think, if you’re in civilization that wouldn’t have been a problem, but when you’re out in the wild, that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.
Jim Baird: Yeah. So, it’s so easy to kind of be an arm chair quarterback, because there’s things you hear and you learn, but you don’t really know them. There’s only so far the language can go in articulating these things, you don’t really know them until you’re really out there. So when I went out there, I remember watching a previous season and it took a guy 21 days to build a boat, and he built a really nice boat, like a nice kayak, I guess it was maybe a little tippy, but it was just freaking beautiful. So, I remember thinking, “Well, you know, geez, we wanna build a boat, but we’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna build one, not as pretty, but we’re gonna build it faster, so then we have a boat right away. Geez, why did it take him so long to build that boat?” And when I got out there and we built it, my brother was doing most of the boat building, it took him 21 days, the exact same length of time.
And that is because I didn’t realize the amount of time it takes each day to find food, catch, forage, prepare that food, cut firewood, cook and eat. And so then at the end of the day, you have a couple hours maybe to work on a project, one of the things that me and my brother built, which you didn’t see or that I made, was really nice cedar paddles. I did a really nice job of building these beautiful paddles, and then you just saw us using them, and I think people thought they were one of our items, but I built these paddles. But yeah, and then… So, you’re limited, where as if you’re at home and you’re working on a project in your garage, you could bang off in three days, what would take you two to three weeks out there.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, yeah.
Jim Baird: You know what I mean? Yeah, so that’s the difference. So that’s my calculation from my experience, three days a project… Okay, so me and my brother just for another little video that we did, we did for Field & Stream magazine, building a tarp boat that we shot, it took us two days, it was a hard two days, but it took us two days basically to build… To find the materials and build this tarp canoe. On Alone, that took us three weeks.
Brett McKay: Right.
Jim Baird: And just kinda let that sit with you for a minute and compare that to so many other things, and that’s something that I think we really don’t understand. And so that brings us into, kind of, one of the myths, which is in that article for Field & Stream magazine that I wrote… And this is sort of a myth that I’ve never really… I’ve read other articles on survival myths, but I’ve never seen this expressed, probably because most people have never, wisely, have never fallen into a situation where they need to survive long-term like I did, and sure as hell didn’t do it for fun, to test these things out. [chuckle] Because they didn’t have a $500,000 reward. So yeah, you look at these survival books, and they have all these cool things in there, you know what I mean? And they have all these different kinds of shelters and they have all these different kinds of traps, and you look at them and you’re like, “Well, maybe we’ll build two shelters. We’ll build a shelter like this here, and then… ”
It’s good to know all these different kind of shelters, don’t get me wrong, because each shelter might take different materials to build, and those materials may or may not be at hand, so the more different types of things you can build with, the better. But we’re, “Maybe we’ll build a shelter here, then, if there’s a good fishing spot, down on the coast, maybe we’ll build a second shelter there, and then we’ll build the boat and we’ll build this and we’ll do… ” But in reality, it’s like, you can pick one or two of those things. You can’t do all these things, right? And so it’s kind of a myth, that you look at this survival book and you think in a survival situation, there’s all these things that I can do, but in reality, you can’t really. You can do one or two of them and you have to choose wisely, because it could… What you spend your energy on, will potentially waste all that energy and then you won’t have the energy left to do anything else that actually would help you. So it gets to a point where you’re constrained by the walls of your own weakness.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, it was interesting to see all the contestants, like the last three. Like, when they started doing things, they just talked in terms of calories like, “Well, that’s gonna take a lot of calories.”
Jim Baird: Totally! Yeah.
Brett McKay: “So maybe I don’t do that.” So, you mentioned… So, one of the myths… So, you wrote this article talking about the myths of survival, you mentioned one of them there is like, you can complete a whole bunch of survival projects or these bush craft projects, and you’re saying, “No, you’re limited. It’s gonna take you a lot longer because the calorie restrictions is gonna prevent you from doing that.”
Jim Baird: The calorie… The calorie restriction, but also the amount of time that it takes you to get those calories, to find those calories and then eat them, you only… You can’t just work all day, day after day, on projects, right? Maybe at the very beginning, you have… For me, all that energy was soaked up from my hike.
Brett McKay: So I think the takeaway here is that, a lot of people think when they’re out in the wild, they’re gonna be be able to do all these survival projects, but projects, they take energy, energy takes calories, and then getting calories when you’re out in the wild, that just takes a really long time. It’s like most of your day trying to get food, so you’re just not gonna have either, the energy or the time to do very many things. You and your brother did attempt a couple of survival projects, you built a crab trap, and it seemed promising, but then, you ended up losing it, it sunk. And then you also built this really cool tarp boat, but then you found out, using it took a lot of effort, and then the fishing didn’t turn out to be as effective as you hoped, so beyond the fish, you did catch, what did you and your brother subsist on?
Jim Baird: The other thing we could get was limpets, and we learned that limpets are like these half-shelled snails that cling to rocks and they’re very hard to pry off, and you can’t see very many of them in the daylight. But what we learned was that at night, at night is when you get these kind of super tides and the tide would go way out. So, we ended up spending a lot of time at night because what would happen is the limpets, we learned, are nocturnal and they’d come out from under the rocks and when they’re on the move, you can just grab them and pick them off with your hands, instead of having to pry them off with a knife, right? So, we’d come out and I’d get these… Like, we used our gaiters as basically foraging bags, these like, ankle leg gaiters. And we’d just pick these, pick, pick, pick and just throw them all in these things, and then we’d get these other things called chitons or gumboots, they’re also called, which have this… The shells across the top, but they almost taste like chewing one of those super, super bouncy balls. And so, they were super hard to chew, but they were edible, and I actually cracked two molars and had to have a root canal when I got home, from biting into one of these shells too hard, that I didn’t see ’cause it was dark. And then, the other thing on that…
But the thing is that there’s kind of this myth too that on Vancouver, people say, “Oh, you’ll never starve on the coast.” But unfortunately it’s just not the case. These limpets, they’ll get you somewhere, but there’s no fat in them. And we are eating shore crabs, shell and all, even. We just gave up on that ’cause we realized it wasn’t worth our effort. So there’s no nutrients in it because the French Canadians call it mal de caribou, caribou sickness. It’s also known as rabbit starvation. But the word, the technical word for it is protein poisoning. And it means rabbits are so lean, no matter how many rabbits you get and snare or even lean venison or a moose you will still starve to death because your body will not be able to digest the protein. If you get a moose early in the rut, late August, there might be fat on it. But yeah, if you get a caribou with not a lot of fat on it, you could eat that freaking caribou. You could be eating steaks every day and you’ll still starve to death. So it’s, there’s another myth for you is that you think that you get out there and you harvest a moose, that you’re good. Well, not really. And so that’s why you realize how important fat… Fat is life. Beaver, to a lot of indigenous people in North America, Beaver is very, very fatty. And not just for the meat in the beaver, which is good, but that fat could be used in other things.
Black bear has a lot of fat on it, waterfowl. And that’s one thing I forgot to mention in the article. A lot of people… Once people got shotguns too, especially the Northern Cree on James and Hudson Bay, where there’s a lot of migration paths would focus on… A lot of them would eat geese and fish. They wouldn’t even… Sometimes they’d get some meat, some caribou, some moose, but they’d focus mostly on their diet through waterfowl and fish because waterfowl are really fatty. But without that you’ll starve. And so that’s what was happening to my brother and I. We were focusing on these chitons and these limpets and shore crabs. And one night I went out and I picked a thousand limpets and we would eat… We’d boil them and we’d eat and we’d eat and we’d eat. And it just wasn’t doing it for us. It was the weirdest feeling. But one thing we did have was we got into these things called gunnel fish, which were basically these gross, writhing eels that can kind of breathe outta water. And they’ll kind of hide and breathe just through the kind of moisture on their gills and they’ll hide under the rocks at low tide. So we go out when the tides are out and we’d lift these huge boulders and flip them over and we… But close to the end we’d be literally blacking out. We’d have to sit down because our energy levels were so low and there’d be nothing.
And you’d lift up a huge boulder and there’d be nothing. You’d sit down, then you’d lift up a huge boulder and there’d be five or six of these gunnel fish. And some of them were not longer than your pointer finger. And some of them were some of the biggest, we caught fish we got the whole time. Some of them were a foot long and you… We’d try to stab them, we just start stomping on them. That’s how we figured we’d kill… We figured how we’d kill them. The best way is you’d stomp on all these things. So that was actually some fish and it was a sour-tasting fish. It wasn’t good. But that’s actually was still fish. So I think even though we weren’t able by angling methods really to get as enough fish to sustain us as long as we did, we were able to eat all these gunnel fish and that’s what probably won us the show.
Brett McKay: Okay. So that’s, I think it’s interesting even if you’re eating food, it doesn’t mean you’re getting nourished necessarily because you gotta have that fat component.
Jim Baird: Yeah, and that’s definitely one of the myths. Who thinks that you couldn’t go out there? Especially after the rut, which is a moose, which is the ungulate of the deer family, their mating season, moose, elk, caribou, and all the different types of deer, white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer. You’d think that you get a moose and you’re good but it’s just unfortunately not the case because you need more fat or you just cannot digest that protein and you will still starve over the winter.
Brett McKay: So something you’ve said you found out through this experience on Alone is that practicing survival skills is not the same as practicing survival. What do you mean by that?
Jim Baird: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s kind of what I was getting into when my concerns about going into this. Well, am I really a survivalist? I plan my trips and I do these extreme remote wilderness trips, but I’m bringing a good fishing rod with me, fishing rod reel, a backup one, I’m bringing good quality store-bought manufactured lures. I’m bringing a shotgun with me for bear protection or food if I… In season, if I have to. And all these things. I’m bringing lighters. I don’t just bring one lighter, I bring 10 lighters, I throw them all in each bag just in case. But what I realized is that… So put it this way. You can, practicing survival skills and real survival are two very different things. We could head out into the backyard and we could practice lighting a bow drill fire, that would be fun. But an enjoyable kind of skill to learn. But try that when you’re exhausted, soaking wet, you have to source all the parts. You just walked through hell for days on end. You haven’t eaten a thing on days on end. And if you don’t get this fire going, you’re gonna die of hypothermia. That is terrifying. It is not fun. It’s not a situation you wanna be in. So what happens is that somebody can learn a lot of different really cool survival situations, survival skills, bushcraft skills.
But if they’re never actually using them in a real scenario, in a scenario where they can’t just walk back to their truck or walk back into their house instead, if it starts raining, they’re never actually gonna learn the actual mindset that survival actually takes. And so I remember I was on this trip and we were getting the tail end of Hurricane Irene in Labrador and we are living off of fish and berries for almost a 1/3 of our calories. And we did hunt some wild geese and stuff and we’re on a 33-day expedition and it was… We are soaking wet, we are cold, it was miserable out. And I said I said to my buddy Marty, I said… Marty’s like, “Oh, my God, how are we gonna get a fire going?” And I’m like, “Don’t worry Marty, this is a good opportunity to practice how to rig a tight camp when it’s cold and raining. And he looks at me and he’s like, “This isn’t practice man. [laughter], this is the real thing, Jim.” [laughter] And I just remember that being so funny. But sure enough, because I’m a nerd about this stuff, I cut down that standing dead tree, I set up the tarp, we got a fire going under the tarp and we eat in the smoke and everything that. And that situation, those situations I was in are the situations that give you those survival skills that you can’t learn from a book, that you can’t learn on YouTube.
And that skill is just being able to not give a crap. And not giving a crap is probably the best survival skill. And the only way you get that skill is through real bush time. And typically that needs to be in areas that are pretty remote, and where the weather’s not always good, where you have to deal with getting tortured by mosquitoes to the point where you don’t give a crap about the mosquitoes anymore. Where you might have to… Because you know. You say, are you… Am I cold? Or you’ve been this cold before and you know that, you know what, I am cold but I’m not gonna get hypothermia so I’m just gonna stop thinking about it because it’s not really an issue, because you’ve had that experience where if you’re somebody else might be scared. They might be scared that they’re in danger, they might know all these survival skills, but they don’t really know if they’re in danger or not, or they’re just not used to the discomfort.
And a way you can start, you start to realize that you’re getting this skill is through let’s say you’re out on a long adventure on a camping trip with other people and you’re still having fun and they are not having fun anymore. You’re in the exact same situation as them. They’re starting to complain, they’re miserable, you’re still having a wonderful time. You’re in the same situation than them, it’s just that you have learned to not give a crap anymore because of your experience and being able to rough it and knowing that it doesn’t matter. And so that essentially is the best survival skill to have. And so that’s why having survival skills, as long as you can get a fire going, having all these survival skills from what Alone has kind of proven. There’s all these kind of survival experts on it and some of them… It’s usually the guys with the real bush time, the longest periods of time spending outdoors that do the best. Not necessarily the guys with combat training and not necessarily the guys in these scenarios, with the most primitive skills. I don’t like to use the word primitive, but the most traditional kind of skills aren’t always the guys that win. It’s the guys that can just kind of take it the hardest. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, that’s the key to the mental game. Just don’t give a crap. I think you can apply that, that’s applicable to anything in life. Just don’t give a crap.
Jim Baird: Sure. Yeah. I like that actually. I should start applying that to other trolls that troll me on my YouTube channel. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. You should trademark that. Don’t give a crap. So you mentioned at the end of this thing you lost about 25% of your body weight. What else? Health-wise, what were you guys like? Did it just totally wreck you physically?
Jim Baird: I would say, yeah. I was pretty ripped afterwards. My brother was kind of looked emaciated maybe because I might have had just a little more fat and muscle than him going into it, even though I was bigger. So technically I take more calories to go into it. So what they… What they tell you is they give you kind of a refeeding program and this is part of the torture. You can’t just get back and just hammer a freaking pizza. The torture continues ’cause you have to slowly wean yourself onto food. You can’t even eat anything. You’ll vomit if you try. And if you eat a whole bunch of sugar all of a sudden, it can be really, really bad. It could trigger horrible reactions in your body that could kill you even. So I ended up kind of weaning myself back on, but then I kind of went… Started going a little crazy. I had something called iritis, which is arthritis of the eye, which is caused by refeeding syndrome. The doctors don’t know anything about this ’cause which is testament to our society, very few people are starving to death anymore. There’s the Minnesota starvation experiment during World War II where they starved… A bunch of people starved and they tested them and they followed them. So that we have learned about starvation through that, but in general it’s not really something doctors understand around here.
And so I felt like it was hungover, I had a headache for two months coming out of it, which was pretty miserable. And then eventually I was okay afterwards. But yeah, if I probably, if I had been a little stricter on a refeeding program regimen… The only thing doctors are kind of used to is the same thing that a severe alcoholic who’s not eating any food, who’s malnourished might experience when they’re… When they stop drinking because they’ve malnourished themselves. That would be the only kind of comparable thing that doctors might deal with nowadays on average.
Brett McKay: So Jim, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work and what you’re doing these days?
Jim Baird: Yeah, I’ve been putting a lot of time into YouTube, doing some awesome adventures, survival stuff and all that. Check out Jim Baird-Adventurer on YouTube. I’m also on Instagram at JB Adventurer and Facebook too, Jim Baird adventurer. So follow me online, check out some of my videos and drop a comment and say hi.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jim Baird, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jim Baird: Thank you Brett. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jim Baird. He was one of the winners of season four of Alone. You can find more information about his work at his YouTube channel, Jim Baird-Adventurer. Also check out his articles on Field & Stream and check out our show notes at a aom.is/survivalmyths, where you’ll find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Header over to Stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate you taking one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.