Building Survival Skills with Children, Part 1: Shelters and Birch Bark Tinder

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We spent Labor Day weekend at the in-laws’ off-grid cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula. We took long walks on the trails, ate way too much delicious food and managed to keep shoes on (most of) the kids (most of) the time. When we weren’t admiring the beautiful landscape or battling hordes of mutant mosquitoes we tried to fit in a few preparedness exercises for ourselves and the kids. 

The weather was chilly and damp, with rain through the first night and much of the next day. When the weather finally broke and we escaped from the cabin, the bugs followed suit; Justin set to work building smudge fires, and showed the older kids how to use birch bark as tinder. They went hunting around the edge of the camp and found several downed birth trees with huge chunks of bark that could be peeled right off. 

10 year old Lauren found some birch bark that was totally dry

10 year old Lauren found some birch bark that was totally dry

9 year old Sadie found a downed birch with tons of usable bark

9 year old Sadie found a downed birch with tons of usable bark

The younger kids got a refresher course in fire safety instead

The younger kids got a refresher course in fire safety instead

 

Justin and 12 year old Kristen

Justin and 12 year old Kristen

He explained how the oils in the birch bark are still flammable even when it’s damp, and the older kids tried it out for themselves. They tried using other wood, lichen and dead leaves that seemed dry, but the birch bark shavings still worked best.

Dillon put prior knowledge to good use

Dillon put prior knowledge to good use

 

Dillon's tomahawk, finished

Dillon’s tomahawk, finished

 

 

 

 

Our 5 and 3 year old sons were given the job of gathering firewood. They got down to business and had an impressive pile of sticks (and a few stray rocks and other random objects they picked up) built up in no time. We want to keep them as involved and engaged in these activities as we can; not only are they busy (therefore out of trouble) they’re also contributing to the group effort and building confidence. They sought out wet moss and bark for Daddy to add to the fires too, and we talked about how the smoke makes the mosquitoes leave us alone. 

9 year old nephew Dillon has been camping since he was an infant. He loves deer hunting, frequently goes fishing and is an avid watcher of all survivor shows. as soon as the rain stopped, he set to work finding rocks. When he found a good one he worked on sharpening it on river rocks, then set it in the split of a strong green stick he had found. Using a scrap of yarn scavenged from Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Justin’s van, he tied his masterpiece together. After a little more sharpening his tomahawk was ready for use.

 

We discussed the 3’s of Survival (you can live for 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food) and talked about how to prioritize if they ever found themselves in a survival situation ( not looking for food when they hadn’t established shelter and a source of water, ect.) In line with that train of thought, we moved on to building shelters.

We let the kids decide what they wanted to build, and where. Dillon decided to go the one-man teepee route, while the girls (12 year old niece Kristen, 10 year old niece Lauren, 9 year old Sadie and 7 year old Ivy) opted to build a lean-to that would accommodate all of them. We talked about choosing a site based on the weather and conditions as well as safety, and the girls quickly noticed that the first spot they picked had a dead tree hung up in the branches of the tree next to their site. We picked up the long branches we’d collected along the way and moved on to find another place.

 

 

Lauren (10) and Ivy (7) found a lot of good sticks to use as poles for their lean-to

Lauren (10) and Ivy (7) found a lot of good sticks to use as poles for their lean-to

Interlacing the poles on top of the tree branch

Interlacing the poles on top of the tree branch

The girls, led by Kristen, started setting up the main support poles for their lean-to. They added horizontal sticks tied on with long grass and vines, and added ferns and pine branches. One of the large birch bark pieces they had found earlier became the roof up at the top of the poles, and a thick carpet of ferns went down on the floor.

 

 

 

 

5 year old Rikur and 3 year old Alarik moved from group to group helping (when they weren’t following frogs, absconding with the building supplies or making zombie noises in the bushes.) 1 year old Eivin was crashed out in the Babyhawk on my back. Hunter (dubbed Survival Puppy by the kids) made a general nuisance of himself until he discovered the soft floor of the lean-to and passed out.

The skeleton of the lean-to coming together

The skeleton of the lean-to coming together

 

Securing cross branches with tough, long grass

Securing cross branches with tough, long grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zzzzzzz......

Zzzzzzz……

 

His name is Survival Puppy, and he approves this lean-to

His name is Survival Puppy, and he approves this lean-to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13-month old Eivin woke up just in time to check out everyone's handiwork

13-month old Eivin woke up just in time to check out everyone’s handiwork

The girls finished up by piling leaves, dirt and more wood around the base of their shelter to block the weather even more. by that point, the little boys had wandered back to the cabin to ask their grandparents for food and the girls were more interested in decorating the shelter than wind-proofing it, so we called it a day. We talked about what we might’ve done differently, such as making a longer, lower shelter and using more bark on the outside. We visited Dillon at his teepee and were very impressed! 

Dillon's masterpiece

Dillon’s masterpiece

 

Room for 1 boy and 1 large fluffy puppy

Room for 1 boy and 1 large fluffy puppy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We tried to emphasize as much as possible that none of these activities were meant to make the kids afraid. We’ve known a few prepper families whose children are growing up under a cloud of ‘doom and gloom’, which we do NOT want for the kids in our lives. The goal is to instill knowledge and build skills without making the future seem bleak and grim. Our nieces and nephew also live on a farm, surrounded by farmland, and are involved in a lot of activities where they could get lost or caught outside by severe weather. Rather than let them assume the popular “sit-back-and-wait-to-be-saved” attitude, we want them to have the confidence they need to stand up and save themselves. No one should cower like a deer in the headlights when they have the knowledge and ability to get out of the situation, or at least keep themselves alive until help can come for them, even kids. We were extremely proud to see them put their skills into action, pick up a few new ones, and have a lot of fun while doing it. They taught us a few things too!

 

What skills do you think are most important for kids to learn for if they’re ever in a survival situation? What are the best ways to teach those skills?

 

 

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