How To Not Die In the Woods

Did the world need another wilderness survival guide? Probably not, if we’re being honest. A quick peruse of Amazon’s listings show 20 some pages of books that offer some kind of guidance for making fire, fashioning a splint, how to tell time by watching shadows, and on and on.

But how many of them are actually fun to read?

Steven Rinella’s new book, The Meateater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival, is actually the kind of book you’d throw in a pack for a backcountry trip somewhere, eager to relax by a fire and crack the book open when the day is done.

Rinella, though he’s best known for his Netflix show about hunting, Meateater, is a fantastic writer and speaker. We’ve interviewed him, and recommended a book of his here before, but anything with his name on it is going to be enjoyable. Yes, he’s a hunter, and yes the book has Meateater in the title, but that’s the name of his brand—vegetarians will find plenty here to like too.

In an age of media pretenders, where seemingly everyone who likes hiking is now fashioning themselves as a capital “O” Overlander and a hunter, and pretending to need expensive outdoor toys and justifying all sorts of cringeworthy moves from the city to the mountains, then dispensing advice they probably read somewhere else, Rinella is the real deal. Grew up hunting and fishing, but he doesn’t fetishize the experience. He builds his life around being way the heck out there and surviving based on his own wits and experience. When he holds forth on how to harvest wild plants, or to tell what animal tracks mean, or how to navigate cross country with 75 pounds of gear on your back—listen. He knows what he’s talking about.

Also, the dude is straight up funny. Relatable. Curious. Self-deprecating, and not overly serious.

The book begins with an anecdote he’s picked up from wilderness guides in remote Alaska about how most outdoor accidents aren’t of the bear-attack, accidental shooting, get lost and die of starvation variety. They’re of the whoops I spilled boiling water on myself at the campsite variety. One of the worst backcountry injuries he saw growing up wasn’t a friend stepping into a bear trap or falling off a cliff. It was his brother dropping a flaming marshmallow onto his chest while making s’mores.

When you’re hungry and cold and tired on the side of some mountain, it’s no place to realize that you’re sharing a tent with an asshole.

And thus, the tone of the book is set. There will be plenty of terrific wilderness skills put forth, but with a wink and a nod to the fact that we do most of this for fun, sometimes we put ourselves in dumb situations, and yes, that can be funny, but it’s also serious, so pay freaking attention to the little things.

Like flaming marshmallows.

I spent the first evening I had my copy reading all about the edible berries and shoots I’m likely to encounter in California’s mountains. Normally, that’s not really a page turner of a theme, but Rinella writes like he talks on his podcast—with a curiosity and reverence for his subjects.

Rinella, not dying in the woods. Photo courtesy of Meateater.

I’ve fished my whole life, but now I’ve learned that next time I’m on a high Sierra trip, I might just build a passive line with some hooks drifting from a suspended line weighed down with a rock while I snooze or hike around. I’m planning to try his technique for cooking with hot stones in a pit, and collecting dew for drinking with a simple evaporation trap. And that’s just in the first couple of chapters.

The book is sprinkled throughout with stories, tips, and lessons from subject matter experts in guiding, fishing, foraging, and hunting. They all have real world experience with the mistakes a non-expert is likely to make, since they’ve seen them all a million times. Rinella, or his editor, was smart to include those, as they punch up his library of experience with real world anecdotes to illustrate what to do, or, more often, what not to do. For example, in a section about the ocean and what to do if you’re spearfishing and a shark comes cruising by, a champion spearfisher weighs in with: “I can tell you firsthand that punching a shark in the wrong place feels like punching a sidewalk, and is just as ineffective.”

Good to know.

Even though I spend a huge amount of time outdoors, often deep in the backcountry, I don’t often run into situations that require a whole lot of wilderness survival skills. Or rather, I do, but because of my experience and planning, those skills feel like second nature. That’s the point of a book like this, to expound on what may feel practically instinctual to the practiced, so that if someone experiences being lost in the mountains for the first time, they can draw on Rinella’s advice for how to manage. (Do your homework before you leave, basically, so that if your map doesn’t line up with where you area, you can at least follow topographical clues to find somewhere that might lead out of your predicament.)

One of the most interesting parts of this book comes, I think, in a sort of epilogue. Rarely do survival guides wade into the difficulty of fellow humans when in a dicey backcountry situation. Rinella hangs his parting thoughts on that hook.

“Don’t waste your time in the outdoors with people of questionable character. Everything you see and feel is more acute when you’re amid nature. The song of a bird in the wild is more beautiful than the song of that same bird at your bird feeder. Sunrises in the wild are felt, not just seen. Blood on the snow is an art. That heightened intensity cuts both ways. You might brush off ignorance or selfishness or vanity in other people in your normal daily routines. But those traits are excruciating amid the heightened beauty of the natural world. Stress from humans erodes your ability to handle and cherish the dangers of nature. If you question whether or not you like someone, answer that question at home. When you’re hungry and cold and tired on the side of some mountain, it’s no place to realize that you’re sharing a tent with an asshole.

“Likewise, prevent yourself from becoming an asshole. Be generous with others. One of the best reasons to be prepared is to help the people you’re with. I have watched people withhold dry layers of clothing from others who were soaking wet and cold simply because having a spare set of clothes in their backpack was more important to them the comfort of others. This behavior will come around to get you in the end.”

Bravo, Steve. Bravo.

• BUY $25 – Amazon; Bookshop; Meateater



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