Natures Tools and Making Fire

Nature Has Many Tools to Offer

water seeping through rocks

water seeping through rocks

Drinking Water

Water is an essential for survival. I typically don’t drink from rivers or streams as I don’t want to be downstream from beaver feces or other impurities. It can make you pretty sick. The closer I am to a water source the more confident I am in drinking it. I’ve often found the beginning of a creek, where the water is literally flowing under my feet shallow below the earth. I also drink water that is coming out of cracks of rock and cliff faces.

Noise That Carries a Distance

If you are lost, and didn’t bring a noisemaker to help people find you, then keep your eyes out for an acorn shell. The cup can be made into a referees whistle. Put the acorn shell between your thumbs, with a small space by your knuckles. Then put your lips firmly over your knuckles, and blow. Move the angle of the acorn shell up and down until you find that perfect spot. You’ll know you have it right when you hear the piercing whistle. 

Another thing you can do is to pick up a dry solid hard wood stick, and periodically bang it against a large tight bark tree. It will make a chopping sound that carries far though the woods. Any normal person will know this sound isn’t made by an animal, and will start to search in your direction.

Starting a Fire

One of the most important things in woods survival is starting a fire. On damp days it can seem impossible. But even if you are dealing with wet wood, if the fire is hot enough, eventually the wood will dry, and burn. The trick is in getting the fire started. Luckily the woods has incredible lighter fluid all around - birch bark. Birch bark is absolutely amazing in retaining its properties and structure even though the tree may have died decades ago. Do not remove bark from a living tree as there are plenty of dead ones on the forest floor.  Even in wet conditions, simply get a flame on it and you’ll have instant fire strong enough to get a stubborn branch red hot. 

If you don’t have a lighter and brought a flint instead, then you’ll need to find some dry tinder to get things started. Cedar trees are throughout Northern Michigan. The bark is often dry (especially on the opposite side of the rain or underside of a tree growing at an angle). Simply shave some  superficial surface bark from the tree. Then find some dry very fragile branches and make a small bundle with them. Be sure your birch bark is nearby with the larger branches for the permanent fire. Ignite the cedar tinder, then the small branches, then the birchbark and finally your large fire.

Other excellent tinder is the inside of a cattail. Even under very wet circumstances, the dense cattail keeps the inner fluffy stuff nice and dry. you can simply break them in half, exposing the dry innards and easily light it.

Survive the Night

It can be scary, but it is entirely possible to make it through a night (or two) in the woods. Especially if you brought with you the tips from What to Bring in the Woods. 

One of the first things you’ll want to do is establish a fire spot. Be sure to find a good area with no trees or branches located directly above the flames. Be sure to clear the area of dry leaves and grass so the fire can’t spread outside your desired pit. 

Next gather up some firewood. If you have your headlamp then you don’t need to collect a night’s worth before starting the fire. Otherwise you had better gather a little more than what you think you’ll need. Dry wood burns pretty fast. Don’t pick up wood directly off the forest floor, as half of it is likely to be rotten and damp. Instead find wood that has fallen and is leaning on other trees. Look for dry dead wood, and not pine. Pine will light fast, so you could use it in the beginning, but it emits lots of sparks that could become a problem later. 

Be careful to not hurt yourself (knees/eyes) while trying to break branches into smaller pieces. Since you probably don’t have a saw, use the crotch of a tree instead. Simply put a long stick between the trees with the end on the other side about the size you want, and then push or pull until the branch breaks. Then move the branch forward and repeat. You’d be surprised how big of branches you can break. For the truly unbreakable ones, you can slowly feed them into the fire, just be sure the fire doesn’t creep up the log and outside your pit.

Making a comfortable spot to sleep might not be as easy. You’ll just have to face it that your night won’t be the same as in your own bed. But it doesn’t have to be awful. I like to sleep next to the fire, and typically level the ground a few feet away to make a spot. You can lay foliage to offer some bedding. If using something flammable (like pine branches) to sleep on, just be sure you are FAR from the fire as pine lights very easily. The sap takes a flame real fast and it sparks. What is often helpful in starting a fire (sap) can become a nightmare when you don’t want the fire to spread. Obviously you’d never sleep under a can of gasoline next to the fire, so be sure to use common sense when using nature’s lighter fluid.  

If it looks like it might rain you can make a shelter by getting a little creative. I’ve made tee pees by staging long straight branches in a cone. you can then layer pine branches with fresh needles around the structure layering like shingles on a roof. Or, you could make a smaller area by putting a long stick between two trees about hip high, and then putting branches resting from the top and sticking the other end in the ground. Again, you can layer fresh pine branches across the structure to keep much of the rain off you. 

Nights can be long, but eventually it will end, the scary noises will go away, and the sun will rise.

What do Animals Want

For the most part, wild animals want to be left alone. That doesn’t mean they won’t sneak in your campsite and forage for food. They just prefer that you didn’t notice them doing it. You can learn more about some of the specific animals in the U.P. by visiting the Animals in the U.P. page.

The better you understand them, the more you can enjoy sharing the woods with them. It’s good to have respect for them, but it would be a shame to outright fear them and avoid any encounter. Wild animals are truly magnificent creatures worth our admiration and interest. They are also vital for our existence. The better educated you are about the animals the more you will appreciate their world.

Remember these basic truths about animals. They live to eat, sleep, mate, raise young, and the woods is their home.

Getting Between a Mom and Her Babies

There are countless warnings of female bears protecting their cubs. Yes, any worthy mother (and father for those species where the male also parents) will be protective of their kin. But this doesn’t mean they kill anything that gets in their path. I read a story in one of Richard Smith’s excellent outdoor books where Terry DeBruyn, who studied and traveled with bear families for years, had a people encounter with his family of bears. He was hanging out with a mom and her cubs when suddenly the bears ducked down very low and hid, so he did also. Moments later a couple came walking through the woods. They were only yards away, stood, and talked while they looked through the trees. Terry stayed hidden behind a stump and had a hard time not laughing. Finally, the couple moved on, totally unaware of what was near them. 

Here’s my personal take on a mother and their young, don’t put the cubs in harm, give the family a route to leave the area, and then you do the same. Luckily I didn’t learn the hard way while I chased a cub mountain lion near Naubinway trying to get a better look. When I realized that mom was probably crouched in the ferns nearby, I stopped the chase and made my way carefully back to my car. Sure enough, her tracks were larger than life right next to the cubs tracks in the sand. Only I never saw her.

I would be more concerned with a young inexperienced animal that didn’t get proper training on how to forage food from their mom, or from an old carnivorous animal that is having a difficult time finding food than I would a mother and their young.

Animals Eat

All animals need to eat, and can become creatively opportunistic. Bottom line, try not to give them the opportunity to get at your food. And if you don’t want any rude surprises in the middle of the night, then by all means don’t sleep near your food. It’s very important to not train wild animals that humans can be a food source. We should all do our part to make sure human food remains just that.

Be especially careful driving in the early spring also. Deer just pushed through a tough winter and are hungrily feeding on the sparse grass along roadsides.

Animals Sleep

All animals, both predator and prey, sleep. Although the predators probably sleep a little more soundly. Animals like to sleep in areas of dense cover, or advantage points. Deer often sleep on the downwind side of a hill. They can smell something coming behind them over the hill, and can view what’s in front of them below. Bears often sleep in thick tall grass that borders rivers. I’ve kicked quite a few of them from their beds while trout fishing. Sometime it’s so thick I’ve only been a few feet away but never saw them. Just heard their warning signs telling me they didn’t like being waken up. Animals often frequent the same spots for bedding, so it’s best back away and make a mental note not to walk there again.

Animals Mate

Animals and fish have different mating seasons. Rabbits I think never stop, as I believe mountain lions also. Bears mate in May/June. Wolves and coyotes are in late winter early spring. Deer and moose mate in the fall. Steelhead in the spring while salmon and brown trout in the fall. 

Why is it important to know the mating cycles of animals? It helps you understand their motivation. If you see two large bears in May/June, it’s pretty likely they are in a mating ritual, which can last for days. You’re probably safe unless you look like another male bear - then you had better be ready for a good fight. In the fall deer will be running around the woods acting crazy, with bucks covering vast lands looking for a potential mate. This is an especially important time to drive carefully, trying to avoid a highway deer accident.

The Woods are Their Living Room

The woods are the animals living room, not yours. They have travel routes, sometimes trails, and often have patterns. If they are using one of their trails and find you in the middle of it, it may seem like they are acting aggressive and not moving away. When in reality, they might just want you to move so they can be on their merry way. Never make an animal feel cornered, like they have to fight to get away. Look around, if you are blocking their exit, move to the side and let them go. In that respect, people aren’t that much different. We often get defensive and act out of character when we feel threatened by another.

Animals Generally Fear Humans

Unlike people, animals don’t have a hospital to visit when they get hurt. They know an injury can mean death if it interferes with their ability to feed or protect themselves. Therefore they will almost always avoid confrontation. Try not to breach one of my above tips, and you won’t make the wild animal feel that the confrontation is worth the risk.

How Not to Get Lost

Walk in a Straight Line

Walk in a straight line. Seriously, there’s isn’t a place in the U.P. that you can’t get out of if you walk in a straight line long enough. You’ll either hit one of the great lakes, river or a road. Either way, you’re not too far from help. The problem is that many people have a very difficult time going straight, even some experienced woodsmen. 

The most common reason is that we can’t help but take the path of least resistance. Going straight might involve climbing over massive deadfalls, or through extreme wet thickets of swamp. 

What I like to do is zero in on something tall in the distance, and walk toward that. It might be a large white pine tree one hundred yards away, or maybe an eagle’s nest atop a hill a mile away. No matter how close or far, I let something lead me as a destination point and then make sure I get there, if not directly. 

Another obstacle? The rotating earth. If you are walking for a short while the sun is your friend. Take note of the direction of your shadow and then keep that consistent to head in a straight line. But as the earth rotates, this strategy could guide you a bit off track. Hopefully you read what to bring in the woods and have your compass. If you do, then you can check your compass every half hour or so, notice the direction of your shadow, and keep walking. This is an ideal way to head in one consistent direction.

Put a topo map in your pocket when you go for a hike. It will help you recognize roads and what direction they might take you. Go to Maps to find where to download some for free. Sometimes you’ll get to a road and not be sure what way you should go. Unlike in the city, roads don’t always just go north, south, east or west. Sometimes they wind and twist their way along the contours of the earth. Especially the gravel roads or two-tracks found deep in the woods. Nonetheless, if you get to any road at all it’s safe to assume you can take it. Hopefully it’s not a dead end. But even if it is, worst case scenario you can turn around and head back in the other direction. Keep in mind some of the two-tracks can go through some nasty swamps. Just because the road may begin to look less traveled doesn’t mean you aren’t going the right way.

What to Bring in the Woods Always

Always Carry a Second Compass

I like to have a ball compass pinned to my shirt as a convenient directional glance. But I don’t rely on the ball compass, I also carry a second compass. This needs to be a good quality compass with a lanyard line that I can loop through a sturdy button hole or belt loop. I want to make sure that this compass is always on my person and can’t get lost if it falls out of a pocket. 

Map of the Area

Even if you aren’t planning on going for a long walk, you need to know the direction of the roads around you. That way you’ll know what the best heading would be to travel to get out. When I’m exploring the woods I carry a topographical map. Some of my favorites are also free thanks to the State of Michigan. Just click here to find one for your area. I cut and paste some together, make an image of it, and then custom print maps for the area I want to explore. 

When I’m going to get out and traverse miles of wilderness, I’ll put contact paper on both sides of my map to give it a layer of water resistance. A real lifesaver!

You might not need a map in your pocket every time you go in the woods, but you at least need to have a map of the nearby roads permanently fixed in your mind. 

Here's a link to free State of Michigan Topo maps.

A Knife or Two

I’m a big fan of the Leatherman for a multi-tool pocket knife and find the Juice CS4 has the most desired tools for my outdoors extravaganzas. Although like most things that do many things, not always are their individual components as reliable as the stand alone they replicate.

That’s why I often also carry a second knife equipped with a bigger, stronger, or more adequately formed blade for the necessary task. For a pocket folding knife I really like Benchmade Summit Lake or Grizzly Creek Folder (for hunting). 

For a fixed blade and sheath I love the quality and design of a Rapid River blade. My favorite being the Drop Point. The steel is top quality, takes a perfect edge and can stand some abuse. Word of caution - I lost a family heirloom Marbles knife in a swamp once because it fell out of the sheath. Since then I prefer to carry a sheath that goes up most of the knife handle or snaps around the thumb guard.

A Flint

You might want to carry a lighter or matches, but I love the reliability of a flint. Although it’s not a bad idea to practice a few times before you use it for the first time. Don’t fight nature, use her tools to help you get warm. Wet is wet, no matter how hard you try to light it. You can find dry tinder under tree bark or by shaving bark from a cedar tree. And natures lighter fluid is birch bark. If you’re walking and see birch bark on the forest floor it’s worth it to put some in your pocket to carry for when you’ll need to light a fire.

Water Bottle and Purifier System

I carry a stainless steel water bottle. I bought an army glove, sewed a belt loop to it and use that as a carrier. It stays out of the way and is always accessible.

Bringing a purifier system on the hike means you won't have to carry a real large bottle of water. Options include filters such as Katadyn, UV light Steripen, or even iodine tablets. While Iodine tablets saved me in a pinch on a long trek once, it would not be my first choice.

Optional Protection

I’ve never had to use it, but often carry a .357 with me in the woods. If you don’t carry a pistol, and want the security of thwarting off a large animal you can carry bear pepper spray.

Optional Rope or Twine

I generally carry a bit of rope or twine in my pocket. There are things in nature that can be used to fasten things together, but in a pinch it sure is handy to have rope other than your shoelaces!

Eating Wild

Giant Puffball Mushroom

Giant Puffball Mushroom

I’d love to spend a day with Samuel Thayer, author of The Forager’s Harvest. I’d magnify my knowledge of what the woods has to offer in food tenfold or more. I’ll give you some ideas of what I eat in the woods, but I am by no means telling you to do the same. You should get specific instruction, read books, ask questions and really make sure you know what you are looking for. 

wild mint

wild mint

Even something easy, like a blueberry, can be confusing if you aren’t totally familiar with what the wild plant looks like. Most people have only ever seen them in a plastic container at the grocery store. In the wild, there are more than one berry that looks like a blueberry. A close cousin, we call huckleberry, is also delicious. And once you know what they both look like you’ll really enjoy nibbling during your travels. But until then, always err on the side of caution because there are plenty of other round blue berries in the woods that are poisonous.



Here are some of my favorites, some cooked and some raw. Blueberry, huckleberry, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, apples, asparagus, fiddleheads, cattail roots, wild carrots, morel mushrooms, shaggy manes, puffballs, ramps, and mint leaves to chew on.

wild ramps

wild ramps

Survive the Bugs

About 20 bites per square inch all over my arms and back during a day of trout fishing

About 20 bites per square inch all over my arms and back during a day of trout fishing

One of the best things about the changing seasons in the U.P. is reprieve from the bugs! I know we depend immensely on their existence, and in some way should be thankful for the pesky biting creatures. But that’s of little solace when an army of 1,000 mosquitos is buzzing about your face sucking the blood from your body!

It’s a fact that there are lots of bugs in the woods. So I try my best to live with (tolerate) them, rather than let them dictate my day.

Here are just some of the bugs I love, and some I hate.

Bugs I Love

Ones that live in the river. Fishing for trout is a favorite pastime. As far as I know, the bugs that trout like to eat don’t like to eat me. Grasshoppers, all kinds of nymphs, mayflies, and other big juicy bugs. 

The U.P. has tons of colorful butterflies and lots of bees. I don’t know if it’s because there aren’t as many pesticides per square mile up north than there are in the lower, but they seem to flourish. Chasing butterflies as a kid provided many hours of summer fun.

Bugs I Hate

Mosquitos can be as thick as a light fog, especially in swamps or wet drizzly days. They are at their best as warmth leads to summer up until the early days of fall.

Black flies are tiny pests that pack a punch. When they are done feeding blood oozes out and forms a raised scab. Because you don’t hear them like a mosquito, you might have twenty or more around the brim of your hat. You don’t even know you’ve been hit till you wipe your brow and see blood on your hand. 

Horse flies are huge beasts that actually feel like they have teeth. They land with a thud and sink their digs instantly. They are often around lakes. Sometimes your only escape is to dive headfirst into the water!

Ticks are creepy crawlers that can make even the toughest guys scream. The little deer ticks can carry lyme disease. As far as I know, I’ve never seen one or had one on me. Their larger cousin, the wood tick, I’ve had all over. In fact, during spring hikes when ticks are coming out in full force, I’ve had as many as 50 on me in a day. At that amount, there’s no point in getting freaked out. You just keep an eye out for them and pick them off one at a time.

Deer tick (also called black legged tick) on the left and wood tick on the right. Wood ticks are at least twice the size of a deer tick. I’ve never had a tick embedded in me. Mostly I see them crawling on my clothes or on my skin. I’ve had them begin to get into my skin, but a gentle pull has removed them quite easily. Click here for a link to the DNR State of Michigan site with information on ticks, diseases and proper removal. And click here for a PDF from the State of Michigan site on tick information.

Bug Repellents and Defense

Deet is the most widely known bug repellent, but it’s dangerous stuff. I sprayed so much around my face on one particularly bug infested fishing trip that I couldn’t feel my lips. 

Another day I got some in my eyes, and spent about a half hour trying to rinse it out. Thankfully there was no permanent damage, but my eyes were as red as a cherry and the eyeball itself was as puffy as a marshmallow.

Because of those experiences, I try not to use deetanymore than I have to. 

There are more “kid friendly” deet alternatives such as “Bull Frog”. We’ve used it often with great success.

The best bug defense is a strong breeze. There’s nothing better than a summer wind, trapping the bugs in the trees and away from me! 

When I’m at a cabin I’m sure to bring a fan for the porch. It makes a world of difference to sit outside and enjoy the day. Tall osculating fans work best as they clear the whole area.

For fast mosquito and other bug bite relief - try putting a wet tea bag on the spot. Just let it sit for a few minutes, or wipe slowly across a number of itchy spots. Hydrogen Peroxide also works wonder. For a more stubborn bee sting, try mixing water and baking soda into a paste, apply and let it soak the pain away.

I go to great lengths to keep my tent bug free. There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep at night and having a few rogue mosquitos buzzing in your ear. Keep your tent zipped, open only to jump in or out. And its worth it each time you are in the tent to take a minute and look around for a flying insect.

ExOfficio (Orvis partnered with them and has a line of insect shield clothing) has a clothing product with insect repellent in the fabric which seems to work well. I don’t own any myself, but have friends that do and they say it helps keep bugs at bay.

There is a newer product called Thermacell. It’s a device that burns a repellent and builds a bug free perimeter around you. I’ve heard good reviews on calm days, but I actually returned one after reading the warning label. I’m a little apprehensive about breathing that stuff in myself.

When walking through tick infested woods I wear my socks over my pants. It keeps more ticks out than anything else I’ve tried.