The method behind the madness
April 19, 2013 8:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to come up with some quirky actions that a survivalist or adventurer might do in the wilderness, actions which might seem odd or random to the uninformed but are actually useful, clever or at least have a specific function which is not immediately obvious. For example, rubbing an unknown berry's juices on one's skin. If you don't know that this is a method to tell whether the fruit is poisonous, it might seem like a wacky thing to do. Once you know WHY someone is doing it, you realize it isn't nutty at all. What are some other examples?

The wackier the action, the better.

Please nothing involving modern technology as I'm looking for more timeless tricks of the wild that someone in touch with nature might know, whereas someone from the city might not.

posted by MrHalfwit to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
There's the whole "moss usually grows on the north side of trees" thing, but that's sort of a trope folks of my gen learned in grade school while studying the underground railroad (heh, I noticed while watching the Hunger Games the other day they had this scene) and not always true. - A non outdoorsman
posted by jng at 8:50 PM on April 19, 2013

Best answer: Collecting deer urine or leaves where a deer has urinated looks very crazy. But, if you're out to lure deer, or disguise your own scent, using the urine of your prey animal - especially females during the mating season - is a great trick.

The way I was taught to deal with a blister in a survival or low medical situation - using a sterile needle (fire hot works) and thread (harder to come by, but can be done using boiling water and normal thread). Thread the needle, sterilize it again use the needle to lance the blister all the way through from one side to another. Clean the blister, and drain some but not all of the fluid. Then pull the thread through and leave it in the blister. The thread will wick away the fluid, and will keep the hole from closing. Bandage over the thread with a clean dressing, and change every morning and night.

A paste of mud and ashes works great on bee stings once you have removed the stinger.

Maggot therapy for a highly infected wet wound. Expose to flies for a day, cover again. Check for maggots each day. Clean out maggots as they get full, being sure to flush the wound with water once all the dead flesh is gone, but BEFORE the maggots eat any healthy tissue. You can also use fresh urine to do this, if no sterile water is available.

Finally, if you are anywhere with a fairly clean salt marsh, you can actually wash your clothes with the black mud. It contains huge numbers of diatoms, which act as billions of little scrubbers in the fabric.
posted by strixus at 9:05 PM on April 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: See the recent Bush Tucker Man FPP. Les' schtick is derived largely from ancient aboriginal knowledge of the Australian bush, combined with the pragmatism of a lifelong army career. From beginning to end the show is riveting demonstrations of handy tricks and natural solutions.

Les' British mate Ray Mears also knows his stuff. Some clever tricks that springs to mind is his regular use of fibrous mushrooms to make effective kindling and knife strops, and he mentions about a dozen uses for sphagnum moss - from wound dressing to water filter to sanitary towel.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:15 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're starving by a lake and lacking the material to make a fish hook or fishing spear, you can blindly stick your arm into muddy underwater holes and hope to pull out a giant catfish before he bites your fingers off.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:39 PM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Watching someone prepare for firestarting can look pretty perplexing to a novice. You gather unexpectedly tiny bits for a long time. You may obsessively tease fibers from a seed pod to get just the right airy-ness. You may put medium sized tinder against your cheek to feel how moist it is. Lots of tinder needs prep (scraping off bark, ect). If I'm making a bow drill I can easy spend an hour or more: testing flexibility, strength, getting a super-dry base, etc.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:07 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My ex used to eat one unburned matchhead a day while in the field in certain places. In fact, he would start eating them a week or so before leaving. The sulfur discourages chiggers from biting you. While others were miserable and covered in chigger bites he was essentially untouched.
posted by Michele in California at 11:02 PM on April 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Pick up a few old books by Bradford Angier and you'll be swarming in tips. He was a classic outdoorsman/survivalist who wrote 35 books on all aspects of survival in the wilderness, books such as How to Stay Alive in the Woods, books on edible wild plants, wilderness shelters, staying alive in the desert, Backcountry Basics, and more. I spent years tromping around the Colorado Rockies and put many of his ideas to use, more for the experience than for the necessity, but I learned a lot and enjoyed it all. He's the real deal.

The best way to learn what berries are poisonous is to study and learn; there is no substitute for knowledge when it comes to poisonous materials in the natural world, period.
posted by aryma at 11:23 PM on April 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you spend a lot of time walking around in the mountains, you learn to walk differently. I don't necessarily mean more silently, although you can learn that too. I mean you approach topography differently when there is no man-made trail. The novice in the wilderness thinks that straight lines are still the shortest way from one point to another, and so when given the choice, they will go straight up, and straight down, any hill, plateau, ridge, or mountain in their path. They will also either climb straight over, or walk straight through, the following: fallen trees, large rocks, blackberry bushes, talus fields, and the deepest sections of streams, swamps, and marshes.

Once you've spent some more time walking in the wilderness without a trail, you stop walking in straight lines. When you are above treeline and can see clearly where you're going, it takes a lot less energy to walk around small rises and dips than it does to keep going up and down them. In the woods, you start finding animal trails and follow them through the brush and around fallen logs, or you simply starting looking for places with less brush and wind your way through the woods by those.

On a larger scale, if you can get to your destination by going around hills, ridges, mountains, etc, instead of going over them, then that is often more efficient, because a more experienced person will calculate efficiency not just by how much energy you'll have to exert by walking over a ridge or a pass, but also how much energy you'd have to exert to get out of a situation if something went wrong up there. And if you do have to go up things, often it is worth walking a bit farther to get to the right approach instead of just starting up blindly. And then when you're walking up, zig-zagging and following the micro-terrain is easier than trying to follow a straight line.

Walking until you find the right approach also applies to other types of terrain: the more experienced person will sometimes walk along a stream for quite a long time to find the right crossing spot, because they know in the long run it's more efficient to cross in a safe spot than to just barge across somewhere sort of dicey.

So basically what I'm saying is that, to a novice, the more experienced person looks like they're travelling very inefficiently through the wilderness, because they wander, seemingly at random, over a much larger area, and the novice keeps thinking, 'Why the heck are you all of the way over there? Why can't you just walk in a straight line for once?'
posted by colfax at 1:28 AM on April 20, 2013 [14 favorites]

Just a picky point:

but BEFORE the maggots eat any healthy tissue

Maggots will not eat healthy tissue, which is why they are so effective for debridement. They will also crawl out of a wound on their own as they end the larval stage.
posted by Specklet at 2:56 AM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Specklet, that depends on the species of flies. In the wilderness, very hard to control if you get ones that will or will not.
posted by strixus at 3:39 AM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

The steps to built a simple solar still look completely bizarre unless you know why they are being done. But the end result makes drinkable water from a hole in the ground, plastic wrap and urine.
posted by cellura p at 3:42 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Use of pine or other evergreen needles, generally brewed in a tea, to prevent scurvy.

Euell Gibbons also might be a helpful source of foraging information.
posted by pie ninja at 5:19 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am currently reading "Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass" (available here) and there are all sorts of things the author talks about around land navigation. Not sure if you're after survival stuff rather than navigation tips but worth a look nonetheless. Colfax covers a fair bit of useful information above but literally just the introduction chapter of Gatty's book gives a load of really useful information.
posted by longbaugh at 8:41 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Crush a plantain leaf between your fingers & rub it on a mosquito bite to stop the itching.
posted by belladonna at 9:19 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Michelle in California, I'm not so sure about eating matcheads. It seems like the stuff in them can vary a lot and can be not-so-nutritive.
posted by spbmp at 11:06 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is colorful, though!
posted by spbmp at 11:07 AM on April 20, 2013

I was just answering the question, which specifically asked for "the wackier the better." My ex later switched to taking garlic pills to accomplish the same thing and he specifically wanted the smelly garlic pills, not the brands that advertise they don't make you smell. It is the smell that supposedly drives off the bugs.

But I didn't see any reason to mention that because I didn't feel it was relevant to the question as stated. Taking supplements isn't particularly wacky. So I wasn't recommending eating matchheads as a method. The question strikes me as research for fiction or satisfaction of idle curiosity, not a need for real advice in a pragmatic, how-to fashion. So I didn't feel I needed to treat it as such.
posted by Michele in California at 11:51 AM on April 20, 2013

Fair enough.
posted by spbmp at 2:51 PM on April 20, 2013

I hunt mushrooms, and know two relevant things: a single bite of the deadliest mushroom on earth is not nearly enough to kill an adult, and taste is an important identifier, mentioned in all the ID books. If you see a mushroom hunter in the woods, they may well gather, bite, chew, and spit out a mushroom. Harmless (since you aren't even swallowing a bite), but powerfully informative.

And one whackier one. When I lived on the edge of a nature preserve, I'd carry sugar-free tonic water to drink, on the theory that I'd sweat out the quinine and the mosquitoes would avoid me. Doubt that had any effect.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:56 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I imagine tonic water does absolutely nothing to deter mosquitos. The original gin and tonic was a preventative treatment for malaria, not mosquito bites. Mosquitos are the vector for malaria but a gin and tonic was not intended to stop the mosquitos from biting. The intent was to try to kill any parasites in your system before they could multiply. So a daily nightcap of gin and tonic was done in hopes of stomping the infection out early, before you were symptomatic.
posted by Michele in California at 7:02 PM on April 20, 2013

Best answer: I once knew a person like this. He used to "borrow" dried pine needles from suburban landscaping and spread them out in roads, then return later to collect the run-over needles. He said they were great for making fire by friction.

One also learned quickly to be mindful of your feet, when around him, especially if you were walking in the area where he lived. What the uninitiated would view as underbrush and weeds, this person viewed as his medicine cabinet, spice rack, and pantry. He would get really annoyed if you trampled his plants (even though they weren't cultivated, per se), so one begins to view walking through the woods as if one were walking through someone's flower bed.
posted by ZeroDivides at 10:01 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sulfur in one's clothes, esp. socks, will discourage chiggers. A mixture of liquid soap and chloroform dabbed on any chigger 'bites' will kill them.
posted by theora55 at 12:37 PM on April 22, 2013

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