My novel, The Smuggler’s Gambit, takes place in 1765.
I’ve been researching Colonial America for close to two decades. It’s definitely my favorite place and period in history.
While the European settlers who came to America in the early 1600s certainly brought cutting-edge technologies with them — at least compared to the indigenous populations along the east coast who had no firearms, teakettles, or blown glass — they still knew many basic skills that are often looked upon today as interesting, but largely unnecessary.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I think it can be great for so many wonderful things.
But everything has its downside, and as our dependence on modern technology has increased, our basic skill set has decreased.
The more I learn about the lifeways of my ancestors, the more I am amazed by them and admire them. While they might be lost in today’s world of smartphones and the Internet, they possessed a far greater wealth of knowledge about the most basic thing in life: survival.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to feature a few of my favorite tips about traditional survival skills: firebuilding, finding or making fresh water, shelter-building, and finding food.
Do you know how to do any of these? Which survival skills would you most like to learn?
How to Start a Fire
Of the skills necessary to survival, I’d say that finding fresh water and being able to build a fire, are paramount, but since the one of the best water purification methods uses fire, I decided I’d start with a video that shows one of the easiest firebuilding techniques: the bow drill, or friction technique.
How to Find or Make Drinkable Water
While a man can survive up to three weeks without food, if he goes three or more days without water, he’s pretty much dead. That makes finding or making drinkable water absolutely crucial to basic survival.
There are two kinds of water in the world, fresh water and salt water, and it takes different techniques to make either of them drinkable.
If you can find a clean, fresh water source, great! Now all you need to worry about is purification. Obviously, boiling clean, fresh water will make it drinkable, but if you have access to rocks, sand, leaves or grass and charcoal, you can also make a natural water filter.
Additionally, I love the method of using a well, sometimes called the ‘sip well’ or ‘gypsy well’ method, which involves digging a hole some specific distance from a larger body of water and allowing the earth to do the filtration for you. This method can be used for both fresh and salt water, however, when you’re trying to get fresh water from a salt water environment, you’d need to dig your well about a hundred feet or so from the shore, otherwise you’d risk getting brackish water that could make you very sick. Read more about this and other water collection methods here.
How to Make a Basic Shelter
A lot of people wonder why the shelter isn’t the first task on the survival to-do list. It’s a reasonable question.
The answer is that fire will provide light and warmth, as well as protection from some dangerous creatures, but it can be tricky to build a fire once it gets dark outside, so it’s something that you’ll want to get started right away.
And water? Well, you’ll die without it.
Once you’ve gotten those things under control, you can relax and build your shelter.
But what kind is best? Well, obviously it depends on the environment.
My favorite kind of natural shelter is a wigwam — hands down. But that may be due to the fact that some of my ancestors were Algonquian Indians from right here in coastal North Carolina, and wigwams were their favorite housing style. Maybe it’s genetic. Anyway, here’s how to construct one.
Basically, it involves using young saplings and lashing them together into a dome shape and then covering them either with leafy branches (in a survival situation) or mats woven from bulrushes and tall grasses (in a more permanent situation).
It might not be the best kind of shelter for every biome, though. Have no fear, MCRP 3-02F FM 21-76 Survival Manual, a free document produced by the United States Army, describes how to build many different kinds of shelters, both natural and employing items like ponchos or blankets. Another great resource is Shelters, Shacks and Shanties by Daniel Carter Beard, available for free on Google Books.
How to Find Food
Foraging, hunting, or fishing. It’s gonna be one of those three things that’s going to get you sustenance.
Look on the bright side. No matter where you find yourself, there are always available energy sources around you.
They might be gross. They might not be very tasty, but whether plant, insect, or animal, there is something to eat just about everywhere.
You just have to identify what that is, and the best way to get it.
If it’s some kind of animal, here is a great video that clearly and easily explains how to make both a bow and arrow, as well as a spear (which can be modified to use for fishing).
I also think it’s a good idea for everyone to study up on what they can forage locally. There might be certain edible wild plants that grow where you live. Chances are (unless you live in a big city), you pass some every day in your own yard, on the way to work, or wherever. For instance, did you know a common weed called plantain can be used for both culinary and medicinal applications? It’s true.
Dandelions are also edible, as are acorns (although you’ll want to leach out the tannins by crushing and soaking them before you try to eat them). Here is a great article from Mother Earth News on foraging for food. (It mentions grasses, pines, and cattails as often overlooked, but common, food sources found in abundance in nature.)
Could you make it in a survival situation?
We all like to think that we would find a way, but the fact is, many of us are just not very prepared in these modern times with our dependence on all kinds of gadgets and conveniences (like electricity, refrigerators, indoor plumbing and grocery stores!) in order to survive.
Then some of us enjoy studying about these kinds of topics. Whether we’re just fans of traditional lifestyles, camping and bushcrafting, or we just like feeling prepared in case we ever were faced with a survival situation, we study all of the options and try to familiarize ourselves with them as much as possible — and just hope we never actually need them. (This is a favorite survival book in our household, by the way.)
Our earliest colonial forebears built a nation from scratch. Think about that for a minute. They came here with nothing but the limited supplies they brought with them from Europe. They had to do some variation on every single topic covered above just to survive. Having a shortcut in the 17th or 18th century often just meant having a metal hand tool to do the job rather than having to craft a tool from scratch.
As a challenge to yourself, why not spend some time watching videos, visiting websites, and reading books about basic survival techniques, and then go out and give what you’ve learned a try. You never know if it might come in handy.