My girlfriend used to think that I was crazy for overstuffing my backpack every time we would head out for a hike or paddling trip. To me, a knife, tarp, space blanket, stainless steel cup, 2 water bottles, various fire starters, one hundred feet of cordage, compass, whistle, rain jacket and extra snacks are the bare essentials. She would say things like; “it’s too warm for that coat”, “there’s not a cloud in the sky so I’m not bringing that raincoat”, or “It’s only a three miles hike so we don’t need all that stuff”. However, if she is going to hike, fish, or paddle with me, she is going to take all these “extra” things.
Last January‘s newspaper headlines told of a U.S. Air Force Veteran and his two sons who died while hiking in Missouri. I wanted to be shocked when I heard that this father was an experienced hiker and outdoorsman, however I wasn’t. The fact is that most of us outdoors lovers are ill prepared for that slight chance that the unexpected may happen. I spent four years in the Air Force, so I know this man had some formal training. However, he was ill prepared for the rapid weather change that would take his and his two sons’ lives that evening. They started their hike on a sunny sixty degree day and their light jackets and fleece pullovers didn’t protect them from the cold heavy rain that came that evening in Missouri. My heart goes out to their family, but we must learn from this tragedy.
When things go bad, it happens fast. We cannot rely on others to save us all the time. We must be prepared for the “what ifs” and not only have the gear to help us through the rough times, but we need the knowledge on how to use it. That is why I signed my girlfriend and myself up for an Emergency Overnight Survival Course. I have taken a few outdoor survival courses before, so I knew who to call. Kevin Estela of Estela Wilderness Education is an expert outdoor survival instructor. He has even been featured in several T.V. shows and magazines. There is no better instructor than Kevin to teach how to spend an unexpected night in the forests of New England. After all, he lives right here in Connecticut and his Emergency Overnight Survival Course was to be held just over the border in Massachusetts.
We signed up a little over a month before the course date and took the last two spots. We received great communication and a very specific packing list. The course was purposely held in late winter early spring as the weather can be very unpredictable. A week before the course, we saw temperatures as high as 55F, but just a few days before, mother nature dumped about 18 inches of snow all over the area we would be camping. The course is designed to provide participants with the knowledge and skills to make it through an unpredictable night out in the elements so the snow seemed fitting.
We arrived at the schools property on a Friday evening. The drive onto the property was beautiful, but difficult. We saw where a large area was cleared for cars to park, but we decided to drive our Jeep on the snow covered road to the cabin where the course was to be held. We made it about a quarter of a mile until we were blocked by a Chevy Suburban that was stuck in the snow. Just ahead of the Suburban were two more 4×4’s that could go no further on this narrow mountain road. This was obviously where we would park for the night. Kevin Estela provided a sled to pull our gear the rest of the way to the cabin. It wasn’t quite dark so we had a beautiful hike through the snow. Kevin greeted us and made introductions. Those who had arrived so far included retired police officers from South New Jersey and New York, a nurse from Western New York, a contractor from Vermont as well as my girlfriend and myself. Of course my dog Woody was along for the trip as well. That night we sat around the campfire telling stories and eating great food that was provided by Kevin. We talked and laughed till well after dark. Then we all said our goodnights and went to bed in the heated cabin dreaming of the day of instruction that awaited us.
We awoke at about 7am and the temperature was just below freezing outside. Kevin let us know that in one hour we were going to meet up by the field where the trucks were for the start of our course. Six more people showed up by the time we arrived at the field, Kevin introduced everyone and started with his instruction. He spoke very eloquently and it was no surprise to anyone to learn that he was a high school teacher by trade. He was born to teach and his passion for learning and sharing knowledge was present in every word. He explained how the number one priority when in the elements is “shelter”.
After explaining the different types of shelters to the students it was time to start making them. We all constructed different types of Shelters as a group with Kevin’s instruction. We made a massive quinzee shelter utilizing all the snow we had. That was easily the favorite all though a lot of work. We learned the pros and cons of each. After “shelter”, we talked about the importance of hydrating and how to find, collect, and purify water. For Lunch we had an amazing shrimp boil complete with sausage, potatoes and corn. After lunch we learned how to construct different types of fires with different modern methods of ignition. Kevin then brought out a box of gear from Adventure Medical Kits. The box contained Emergency heat sheets and single and two person emergency bivy sacks. We were taught how to use each one and then every student was raffled an item from the box! Each person was given an emergency whistle as well.
At about 4pm, Kevin brought all the students together and announced that there was just about 3 hours of sun left in the day. The scenario is that we have now come to the realization that we are lost and will be spending the night. We all had to construct our own shelters with the skills we had learned earlier in the day. The shelters were to be built in area within a shout of each other. Kevin and his two helpers were around to assist anyone who needed it. We all finished up at about sundown. Kevin then called us down to the cabin and fed us a great dinner! He stresses the importance of calorie intake in these frigid temperatures. We stayed by the fire of the cabin until late, then he made sure all who wanted to sleep in their shelters were prepared. Most of the students decided to give it a shot and Kevin went with all of us to our shelters. He slept out there with us for the night in nothing but an Adventure Medical Kits Bivy. If any student got too cold they were escorted to the cabin to spend the rest of the night. Come morning most made it all night in their shelter without retreating to the cabin. Some stayed up all night and other slept for an hour or two on and off. We all learned that survival was not comfortable and the cold can be quite the alarm clock. The point is we all survived.
We learned how to properly insulate ourselves from weather with both natural materials we found as well as simple things like a space blanket. It is a unique experience to sleep in a shelter that you yourself built. It’s amazing how much warmer you stay inside your properly built and insulated shelter.
Once we were all up, we were treated to an amazing breakfast sandwich cooked up by Kevin consisting of fresh eggs, locally made cheddar cheese and a heavenly amount of Bacon! After breakfast, it was time to clean up and gather our things. Then we all got a bonus lesson on vehicle recovery. Five vehicles had to be freed from the deep snow. We learned some neat tricks like using evergreen boughs under tires to gain traction. The best was the importance of being prepared, as shovels and tow straps worked wonders! Once all vehicles were freed we met at the local country store for some fresh coffee and a recap of the great weekend. We all shared what we learned and what worked and of course what didn’t work. My girlfriend had a great time and I loved watching her work on her shelter.
I have taken many wilderness survival courses in the past, even a week long program that was instructed by Kevin Estela. But I found this course helped to hone my skills and I definitely learned some new things. I definitely feel more confident knowing that my girlfriend now has the knowledge and skill set to get by in case the unexpected happens. Every participant took away a new found respect for the outdoors and a little more confidence in themselves for making it through a below freezing night with little more than the clothes on their back and the materials that nature provides. Students also went home with some great memories, new friendships, and an Estela Wilderness Education Patch.
New England has so much outdoor beauty to offer, but also some of the most unpredictable weather in the country. It is my opinion, that if you spend any time in the outdoors you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be prepared for the unexpected.
For more info on this course or others like it please visit kevinestela.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Estela-Wilderness-Education-LLC/132214083520356