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How to Survive a Night in the Wild

Learning the potentially life-saving skill of building a “leaf sleeping bag” 

By Kyle Thiermann

Kyle Thiermann

Learning the potentially life-saving skill of building a “leaf sleeping bag” 

By Kyle Thiermann

As Jack Harrison and I walk along a path in the Santa Cruz Mountains on a recent winter day, we pass a knobby oak tree wrapped in green moss, its gnarled branches backdropped by a smokey blue-grey sky.

Besides our footsteps, which crunch in the dirt, the world is silent.

The oak disappears along with the sound of our footsteps, now muffled by redwood duff that blankets  the forest floor. The temperature drops and the smell of ancient trees fill the air. Jack points out a newt walking lazily along the pathway. 

“She’s probably pregnant,” he says.

I kneel down and notice the creature’s swollen belly as she disappears into the thicket.

I’ve come to the forest today to learn how not to freeze to death.

Over the next few hours, Jack is going to teach me how to build a debris shelter, or, as he calls it, “a leaf sleeping bag.” Hypothermia is the number one cause of death when lost in the wild, and knowing how to make shelter can save your life.

Although I grew up in Santa Cruz, I was a beach kid, and this trail is new to me. Jack moved to Santa Cruz roughly 10 years ago but knows these mountains like the back of his hand. I feel a twinge of embarrassment that his knowledge of the local landscape dwarfs my own.

The idea of getting lost in the wild has always scared the shit out of me. Drop me in a riptide and I’ll make it my dancing partner, but throw me in the forest without a map and I’ll be gnawing on my bicep before dawn. Last summer, I went on a solo backpacking trip through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and almost got hypothermia. (Or hypochondria.) I never even lost the trail, but my lack of knowledge in the foreign environment made me question myself more with every step. Conversely, I have taken multiple big-wave survival courses and often practice holding my breath during workouts. Because of this preparation, I’ve been sucked to the bottom of the ocean at Mavericks, alone in complete blackness, and have come up from the thrashing with more confidence. I’m a big believer in the adage that you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training, and I’m hoping that Jack can give me some tools to navigate the wild with a little more courage.

Jack grew up in Connecticut, and, from an early age, felt most at home alone in nature. As soon as he was old enough to read, he devoured survival books like Adrift and My Side of the Mountain. For two years straight, from ages 14 to 16, he slept in a debris shelter, using only materials that he found on the forest floor. No tent. No sleeping bag. He is now 32 years old, and has taught survival classes since he was 18. His hobbies include tanning hide, hunting with primitive weapons, and sharpening arrows from beach rocks. 

Over the years, Jack has been contacted by TV producers, including a recent offer to be on the show Alone. But the idea of fame makes Jack uneasy, and he enjoys the flexibility of teaching classes to small groups through his Santa Cruz-based company, Jack Harrison Survival.

After hiking a while longer, Jack takes a hard right off the trail. The landscape is mostly slanted, but we find a flat patch of earth nestled between two redwoods.

“Shelter, water, fire, food,” he says. “That’s the sacred order, dude.”

In other words, if you spend a night in the wild, finding shelter should be your top priority. 

As we kneel down at the site, Jack launches into the dos and don'ts of surviving a night in the woods. First, watch where you sit. He points to the ground and tells me that human bodies lose body heat one of two ways. The first is through contact with a cold surface, like sitting on a rock. You can conserve heat by creating a barrier. (This is why homeless people use cardboard when sleeping outside.) The other way humans lose heat is through exposure—this includes wind, rain, or snow. So, next time you’re lost in the wild, don’t hang out on top of the mountain where you’re directly exposed to the elements.

The debris shelter will resemble a bivouac bag, leaving just enough room to crawl inside and lay flat on my back without being touched. The skeletal structure will look like a baby whale carcass, complete with a backbone and rib cage. We will cover the floor of the structure, as well as pad the walls and roof, with a thick layer of redwood duff.

First, Jack and I claw the ground to amass a large pile of insulation. Jack gathers duff like a human rototiller. I move daintily, still holding out hope that I won’t be lathered in dirt by the end of this outing. I gather duff with the speed and grace of a sea turtle digging a hole in the sand. 

Back in Connecticut, where Jack went to high school, being an outdoorsman was far from cool, and the football players fucked with Jack because of his obsessive love of the wild. “Woodsy,” they nicknamed him. In his junior year, Jack’s family moved across the country to Marin County, on the outskirts of San Francisco. 

“I didn’t want to be known as that nature guy anymore,” he says. 

In Marin, he made friends with a crew of surfers and skaters and kept his outdoor skills quietly to himself. 

I hear a loud crack and see Jack wielding a 7-foot-long branch in my direction. We will use this for the spine of the shelter. 

We find a Y-shaped branch and dig it into the dirt, then prop another branch against it, building a small triangular entrance to the shelter. Then, we prop the end of the spine on top of the entrance, suspending the front end diagonally off the ground. Next, we lay shorter branches diagonally along each side of the spine like a rib cage, separating them in 6-inch increments. Finally, we pad the roof with a thick layer of duff for insulation. 

It takes us about 45 minutes to build the structure, and, when finished, I scoot my way inside like I’m doing the worm. Jack pushes a final bundle of duff over the entrance and I am encased in a cocoon as dark as the ocean floor.

While inside, I consider the possibility that I may have just contracted Lyme disease, or, that this “private class” was really just a ploy for Jack to carry out some ritualistic human sacrifice. But after a few minutes of wondering which primitive weapon Jack will use to end me, I accept my fate and begin to relax. 

I feel my body heat bounce off the walls of the shelter and soon I am warm. My thoughts slow and I imagine myself as a hunter-gatherer, caught in a storm, hunkering down for the night before I am reunited with my tribe. 

After a few minutes, I shimmy my way out of the shelter. We break for lunch and I pry a little more into Jack’s past. How, I ask, did he arrive at teaching survival classes if he was so adamant about hiding his skills after he moved to Marin?

One day, Jack tells me, his high school class took a field trip. The school had brought in an instructor to teach them how to build debris shelters. The students wandered off to build individual shelters. Jack considered making his shelter poorly, but he decided to do his best.  

When the class saw Jack’s shelter, the administrators asked him to teach the others what he knew. 

As we sit on the hillside on the chilly afternoon, I admire the shelter we built. Yesterday I would have walked past this debris without the slightest idea of how to use it, but now I see the sticks and greens and browns of the forest floor as potentially life-saving materials. It’s like looking at one of those paintings that changes shape the longer you stare. 

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