That Which Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (part 2)

The headline ran ”Hunters Find Human Remains in Pisgah National Forest“ and it occurred to me that those could have been my bones discovered decades later as a result of the ignorance I wrote about in part 1. It’s the stupid stuff in life that we hopefully learn from, and this 3-part series is about the stupid stuff I learned that will hopefully help us on our 2,200-mile walk in the woods. And now for part 2.

Arriving right after sunset, dark had enveloped the campsite, but I was greeted by relieved fellow campers and a roaring, very warm fire. The earlier nightmare turned into a nighttime dream of idyllic camping in a cold winter forest. Or so I thought.

Winters Nap

I settled my brain for a warm winters nap.

With a nice warm meal in my belly and lots of great times around the fire, we all settled into our tents for the night. I was exhausted from the day’s earlier misadventures.

We were camping on six inches of snow. I donned all my warm clothing and my coat, and I slipped into my borrowed sleeping bag stretched out over a very thin sleep mat. The mat R-value (a measure of insulation against the cold) was probably much lower than 1 (that’s very low i.e., almost no insulation against the snow below). The sleeping bag was probably not even rated for cold but warm enough that combined with my exhaustion, I was able to fall asleep fast.

A few hours before dawn I awoke due to the bone deep cold inside of the side of my body that lay on the ground. Turning around in the sleeping bag to let the cold part of body warm somewhat helped momentarily until the cold crept back in from underneath. About that same time the lack of insulation in the sleeping bag made its presence known like a cold winter draft coming in around a window in an old house in winter.

Ok, this sucks, I thought. I had gone from a fun hike, to almost lost in a forest blanketed with snow, to a fun time around the roaring fire, to a nice warm sleep, to now this miserable situation. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors knows this is how it goes, the highs and the lows.

Somehow even the lows keep us coming back to the woods. For now, though I was thinking about nothing but getting warm. I decided it was almost dawn at this point and I would wait until the sun made its presence know at first light to attempt start a fire like the toasty one I enjoyed hours ago.


Bear Grylls can start a fire when its wet?

Ignite the wood and then you have a fire. How hard can it be? The snow however is apparently made up of something wet because the wood was wet. No matter how hard I tried I could not get a fire started.

Approaching hypothermia at this point, I once again remembered panic is your greatest enemy. Too proud to admit defeat and wake someone, I decided I would go for a jog to warm up my internal temperature. So, I took off for a very early morning run in the woods.

Warming Up

By the time I returned to camp, I was internally warmed up and a fellow camper was up and moving about. “How did you all start a fire last night” I asked the veteran camper. Oh, watch this he said. He pulls out a bottle of white gas (the old way to use a camp stove), pours a copious amount on some sticks and poof instant fire.

It’s no secret that Mother Nature is trying to kill you.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was supposedly the one that coined the phrase “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In less than 24 hours I had discovered several ways in which Mother Nature can kill me and how to try to delay her success.

1: In hindsight this one is common sense, but the first lesson is to know the weather conditions you are camping in. This can vary depending on the forecast, the elevation, even the topography as some valleys may have differing temperatures than the surrounding area. Hiking the AT can be a six-month experience and the weather can vary from subfreezing to Hades hot. The AT also has higher elevations like the Whites and Smokies that can have vastly differing weather conditions depending on elevation.

2. At the very least the quality of your camping gear can make the difference between a fun adventure and one of enduring the elements. Quality camping gear can even be the difference between life and death especially in cold weather. I have learned a lot on this subject over the decades since this misadventure and especially in the last few years planning on an AT through hike.

Learn the rating of your sleeping gear. The R value of the pad below you if you are ground sleeping can be critical in comfort and maybe even survival. For hammocks it’s even more critical due to the free flow of air below you.

The rating of your sleeping bag or quilt is also critical. Many quality outdoor outfitters will give you a survival rating and a comfort rating. Survival is exactly that, but comfort is a rating that is subjective and higher than the survival rating but a temperature at which you are supposed to remain comfortable at. Usually sleeping gear for women is rated for lower temperatures than men’s gear.

3. Learn how to start a fire. I have since mastered the ability to start a fire. You must start very small with easier to combust materials and patiently build up the size of the combustible materials. “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Emerson quote is especially applicable when attempting to start a fire in less-than-ideal conditions.

One more story to tell.

In less than 24 hours I had learned that camping in the woods can kill you in more ways than one. A sane person would say “done that” and never spend another moment in the wilderness. The rest of us must be insane because we keep coming back to the wilderness after mother nature tries to kill us.

In the last part of this series, I learned that starting a fire is not the key to survival in cold and wet, but that’s a lesson I would not learn until part 3 of this series so come back for the final of this 3-part story.

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