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Learn to survive in the wilderness with Greg Humphries from Future Tracks


Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley

Since leaving his job in the film industry 15 years ago, Greg Humphries has been working as a woodsman, making bows and arrows and green wood furniture, and generally pursuing his passion for the great outdoors.

Greg’s mission is to rediscover western society’s forgotten survival skills and pass them on to us. In 2009, he set up Future Tracks to provide woodland management services as well as running a wide range of courses at the Plan-it-Earth eco-site in Sancreed to get people understanding nature.

In the name of research, he has trekked through the Amazon and the Arctic, and tracked down knifemakers in the northern reaches of Norway. “I’m constantly learning and bringing back information that I try to make relevant here. The more I learn about being self-sufficient the better I feel – it makes me feel happier and certainly more connected to the environment,” he explains.

“People have become very disconnected from the natural world and rely on an external system to provide for them the four basic things needed to survive: food, water, shelter and fire. We’ve lost our sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. But nowadays more people want to get back to nature and to regain that lost independence.”

If you’re in a survival situation with Western Europe’s wet climate, the first things you need are fire and shelter. From that base, you can start looking for food and water. The thought of starting a fire outside, from scratch, can be a little daunting and even frustrating. Learning with an experienced firestarter like Greg is the best way to gain confidence while ensuring safe practice.

“Many people think you can just chop a tree and turn it into a fire. What they don’t realise is that trees are mainly composed of water like the human body, and take about a year to season. So it’s important to try and find wood that’s as dry as possible,” says Greg.

“Fire making is all about preparation, so before you begin anything, make sure you have the twigs and sticks you need. Look for sticks that are hanging off trees, and avoid wet ones on the ground. As a general rule, if it snaps then it’s probably burnable. When you’ve got enough, arrange them into small bundles from the smallest to the largest and make sure they’re close at hand”.

There are lots of different ways to start a fire, from the obvious match or lighter way to more primitive methods that are of course much more fun. To begin with, find a sheltered spot and clear the earth so it’s free from leaves and away from tree roots, which can cause fire to spread.

Firestrikers are a handy tool, as they’re light and it doesn’t matter if it’s wet or windy. Striking sparks onto cotton pads creates an instant flame; so do the fluffy seed heads you find on reed mace in the summer, so it’s worth collecting a few bags of the stuff. Cramp ball fungus and char cloth also make great tinder – the latter can be made at home.

When your tinder is burning or glowing, put it in a handful of hay or dried grass and blow into it in the direction of the wind so it catches fire. “The trick is knowing when to blow into the fire and not to overdo it,” says Greg.

Wild food is quite easy to find when you know what to look for (see last month’s feature on wild winter greens). We all know what stinging nettles look like – these are high in vitamin A and make a lovely if rather tangy tea.

But finding clean drinking water is a lot trickier as chemicals, pesticides and herbicides can cause real problems and the only truly safe way is to take it from a tested source. The general rules in a survival situation are firstly to filter the water to remove any particulate matter and then treat it to kill any bugs.

Some people use a pair of jeans to filter out any particulate matter; and then add either chlorine or iodine drops (available from good camping shops) to kill off the bugs. Greg prefers a simpler option: “My favourite way of making water safe to drink once it has been filtered is by boiling it on a rolling boil for two minutes or more. Whichever method you use it is best to get water from as near its source as possible.”

Even better, bring a bottle of clean water from home to avoid any complications, even if it’s not very survivalist.

Shelter is a lot more fun and a lot less dangerous. “Shelter begins with the clothes on your back to keep you warm and protected from the elements – from that point, you move onto building structures,” Greg explains.

A quick and simple bed is the leaf litter shelter inspired wild boar hideaways that the creatures borrow into for the winter. To build the structure, create a tripod with three sticks – crisscross two smaller ones at the front to make the entrance then attach a long one, the length of your body to make a roof that slopes down to the ground. Cover this with smaller sticks, then pile litter leaves on top to create a thick roof.

So there you have it – the four basic steps to surviving in the wilderness. If this has got you itching to venture into the great outdoors, why not visit www.futuretracks.co.uk and book yourself onto a course to learn these skills first hand.