In the 1970’s I taught wilderness survival skills at a Boy Scout camp for several summers. It was a lot of fun. The BSA had created the Wilderness Survival merit badge around 1974.
During each week at camp the scouts learned basic skills of survival in the outdoors. They put together personal survival kits, learned how to create fire using a handful of methods, how to conserve energy and stay warm and dry, find sources of water and purify it, and many other skills. They practiced and practiced.
We wrapped up each week with an overnight wilderness survival experience. After hiking for a couple of miles, we camped at the same outpost area each week for the six-week camp season. Nearby was a pond with cattails and a variety of frogs, snakes, and small fish. Teams of scouts built lean-to shelters covered with debris and brush.
The scouts were tired from an afternoon of hiking, making shelters, starting fires, boiling water to drink, and catching frogs and other critters for a meal. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad either. By midnight the young men had settled down to rest; some were asleep.
Molten Rubber Is Not Your Friend
It was around 1 a.m. and I was catching a few winks to the sound of bullfrogs, when I heard yelling and commotion coming from a shelter about 25 yards away. One of the boys had fallen asleep with his feet toward the campfire outside his shelter. His boots had been wet from scavenging for food around the pond and he hoped they would dry in the heat.
Unfortunately the boots were a little too close to the fire. The rubber soles on the boots were smoking and started to melt. The other boy in the shelter noticed this and yelled to the scout by the fire. And the first thing he did when he awoke was… you guessed it… reach down and grab the soles of his boots with his bare hands. The molten rubber burned the hell out of his hands. I half-carried him and dragged him screaming down to the pond to plunge his hands in the cool water.
We had packed a CB radio walkie-talkie (this was the 70s, remember) and I was able to reach the admin building and call for an evacuation by jeep. In about 20 minutes I was relieved to hear the jeeps coming up the logging road that ran by our outpost site. The scout was taken to the local hospital and treated for serious burns on his hands.
It’s not all about skills and equipment
The lesson of the melting boot wasn’t in the merit badge pamphlet or any survival manual that I’d read. Nothing else could have prepared us for the accident. The scouts knew the survival techniques and skills we had practiced all week. They had them down cold. They could light fires like nobody’s business.
But the unexpected, the bad stuff, always can happen and usually does – especially when we’re tired, wet, cold, hypothermic, or dehydrated. Survival is about saving your life and avoiding serious injury until you are rescued. Practicing wilderness survival is a whole lot more than learning a bunch of skills and having the right equipment. We can teach some of it, but there’s no substitute for experience.