Rons Primitive Skills

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Old Survival Articles

Here are a few articles I did a while back for my now defunct website. Enjoy!

Basic Tools


Here I'll cover some of the basic tools I use for primitive skills and survival. Fire making is one of the most important skills one can possess. Some of the techniques I use are flint and steel, ferro-cerium spark fire starters, magnifying glass, hand drill, bow drill, and fire plow. The spark fire starter is about the easiest way I know other than match's and lighters. I make my own tinder or "fire fuzz" which is cotton or Dogbane fibers mixed with vaseline. The vaseline gives the fibers a good waterproofing as well as having the ability of producing a hot flame. This technique for fire starting is rather simple. I take a piece of "fire fuzz" about as big as my little finger nail and pull it apart to expose the fibers. I then build up a bundle of natural tinder such as Cedar or Cottonwood inner bark and set the "fire fuzz" in the middle of it. The sparker is held so that you pull on the flint rod with the knife held steady against the tinder. This technique works for me and the tinder isn't knocked around. There are many brands of fire starters available. One nice little kit I picked up has the tinder and a small sparker called a "metal match" and is put out by Coghlans. They are available in many outdoor stores and catalogs. The fire starting kit comes with 6 or 8 pieces of tinder and if you use a small piece from one they will last a very long time. I don't know what they use on the cotton tinder but they are pink and feel a little waxy. They work fine, none the less. I have seen several other brands of tinder on the market, one being the Strike Force replacement tinder. I have never used it but have heard it works good. The nice thing about spark rods is they are always available and they are waterproof so they even spark when wet. I've also used a tiny bit of tinder to start a trioxane cube for boiling water or cooking. I have used knives, broken glass, pieces of files and sharp flint to throw sparks with one. I have several. One is on my jacket zipper. Its the boy scout type. Others are in various kits I've made up. Buckshots Camp sells several variety's including a 3/8" by 4" monster. One that size should last a lifetime and it throws enough sparks to light natural tinder. For bow drill and hand drill fire starting I use Cottonwood and Agave stalk as a hearthboard and Cottonwood or Yucca stalks as the drill. These combinations work very well for me. The best way to find a combination that works for you is to experiment with different woods and shrubs. Usually a softer wood works for drills and a harder one for hearth boards. Some people use the same species of wood for drill and hearth. My experience with fire plow has been using Cottonwood on Cottonwood and Mullien on Agave stalk.


Water is hard to find in a readily usable form. 99% of the time it must be treated or purified. Some folks like to carry and use water filters and others treatment chemicals. Either way works but you may notice an off taste depending on the type of chemical treatment you use. Iodine tablets are famous for this and you can remove the taste by adding a few vitamin C tablets after the treatment period is up. Clorox and other do it yourself chlorine treatments leave water tasting like it came from some city water supply. Depending on the brand, certain chlorine treatment tablets leave this tap water taste also. One of the best ways to purify questionable water is to boil it. It would make sense to boil as much as you can carry so you have plenty of water to drink instead of waiting for the boiled water to cool down before you can use it. Even water in the wilderness may not be safe due to various disease organism's. Giardia being one. It causes severe diarrhea and stomach pain. Remember, you loose water from vomiting or diarrhea and being in a weakened condition makes it hard to get around and find more. My favorite method for use in the desert is the transpiration bag. This is a clear plastic bag tied over some leaves on a tree or shrub. This only works during daylight hours. The plant gives off water and its trapped in the plastic bag. It may taste a bit odd depending on the plant species used but its water none the less. Always make sure the plant you are using this technique on is not poisonous as the water will be affected. Springs, stock tanks, creeks, lakes and rivers can all be utilized with a little common sense. If a spring is coming out of the ground or a rock outcrop theres a good chance its fairly pure. The only time this would be a problem would be ground contamination from chemicals or natural mineral deposits. Natural mineral contamination is usually confined to desert areas, alkaline water being one type of this. Water from near mining operations and areas where chemicals may have been stored or spilled is best avoided. Personally, I treat any water I use from stock tanks and any natural source such as rivers and lakes. I use chemical treatment or boiling to purify my drinking water. As for cooking water, it depends what method I use to cook. If it requires water to be added to the recipe I use treated water. If the food will be boiled I use it from the source since cooking to a boil will make it safe. See the article about water from trees in my webjournal on this site.


Some folks may wonder why its important to find shelter in the desert. If you have ever been here when the summer temperatures reach 120 in the shade you'll understand. And it gets mighty cold at night as well. In the winter the temperatures can dip into the 30s (even colder up in the mountains). The only time to travel in the desert during summer is in the evening, night (if you're very careful) and in the morning hours. Stop before mid day and get shade. For summer shelter the best bet is a good shade tree which will at least keep the sun off of you. One problem with this is in the middle of the summer trees out here tend to loose their leaves to conserve moisture and shade is a bit scarce. The trick is to hopefully find a nice big Paloverde tree and get under the low branch's as close to the trunk as you can. A little shade is better than none when your life depends on it. The native Americans who live in the desert country build what is called a "ramada". This is basically four posts set in the ground with a roof of loosely spaced brush, usually Ocotillo branch's, on a simple post to post frame. The advantage of this system is it lets in light as well as giving shade. Also, the natives never work in the hottest part of the day in the summer. Other makeshift desert shelters can be lite tarps strung from tree to tree (or in most cases shrub to shrub) and a convenient dug out in the side of a dry creek bank facing east. Space blankets work well as an expedient shelter provided at least two are put together some way. They are usually too small to use just one. Most tents are not very useful unless you're lucky enough to be able to set it up under some shade. Other wise you'll roast to death. When I was a survival instructor in the army I always advised my students to use their parachute, if one were available, or pieces thereof to make shelter. In the desert this works great and if you carry a nice big piece of lite fabric for shelter, you'll have it made. Once we did a class in expedient shelters and the students were left on their own to figure something out. Most opted for digging a large hole in the east facing bank of a dry creek (arroyo) and using shrub to shore it up. This will work perfect unless there is a storm farther up the way and then you and everything with you will be washed away. Bad idea in monsoon season. The others erected brush shelters and these are great too. Just leave the sides facing north and east open so you don't have an oven. In the winter most any regular type of shelter such as tents and lean-to's will suffice. One more caution about desert camping and survival. Most everything out here either bites, stings or pokes holes in you so be very cautious and check out your bedding and shelter before you crawl in. After all, the critters don't care who built the shelter. They'll be more than glad to occupy it, too.


To most people it may come as a surprise that the desert contains an abundant supply of edible plants. Some folks are familiar with cactus jelly and candy. This stuff is made from the fruit of the Saguaro an Prickly Pear cactus. The Saguaro fruits are a little hard to reach as they grow at the top of the cactus. The Indians use long poles made from the skeleton of a dead Saguaro to reach the tops and knock the fruit to the ground where it is easily gathered. As for Prickly Pear, a crude set of wooden tongs or just a plane old stick is used to gather the fruit. Saguaro fruit doesn't require any special treatment before its made into jelly, candy or drink. Prickly Pear, on the other hand, has nasty little needles called glochids, in little clusters on the fruits. These glochids are a pain to remove from fingers and anywhere else you touch the fruit. Duct tape will take most of them out of your flesh as well as carefully scraping with a knife blade. The way the Indians deal with them is to put the fruit in a basket and throw in a hot coal as you vigorously toss the fruit around. They also build a small fire and singe off the tiny needles. The fruits are then peeled and mashed and the seeds are strained out. Saguaro fruit is red when its ripe. Prickly Pear and its near relative, the Cholla, have fruit that is red, yellow, or purple depending on the species. My favorite is the large purple fruit from the Prickly pear. They are usually very sweet and tasty. A good number of these can be gathered in a short time and the plant is usually not that tall. Other desert plants of note are the Mesquites, Palo Verdes, and Ironwoods. These all have seed pods very similar to beans and they are from the Pea Family. According to ethnobotanical literature all have been used as food by one tribe or another. The only ones I have tried are Honey Mesquite pods (Prosopis juliflora) and the seeds from the Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota) and Blue Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum). The Mesquite pods are very sweet and make nice hoe cakes when ground up. The Ironwood seeds need to be roasted before use and make a unique coffee like drink. Unfortunately the Ironwood is becoming somewhat scarce due to over harvesting of the wood and loss of habitat. The wood is one of the heaviest in North America. It will not float. I once made a knife with Ironwood scales and the wood is very dark and takes a nice polish. The seeds from the Palo Verde pods are cooked like beans or ground for mush. The seeds of Ironwood and the various species of Mesquite are ground for flour, pinole, or mush, too. These trees usually have an abundance of pods and they are easily gathered. There is a species of weevil, a tiny beetle, who lays its eggs in most of these species pods. These tiny larvae are usually ignored by the Indians and looked at as a bonus source of protein. I never had a problem after eating "larvae enriched" Mesquite flour. I'll go into some details of other desert edibles in the next article on this subject.

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