Survival shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivorman are endless sources of guilty-pleasure entertainment–but can they actually help the hapless endure the perils of wilderness? In "I Will Survive," (October 2008) writer Steve Friedman decided to find out. An outdoor novice, he entered the Oregon backwoods with his more experienced 16-year-old nephew Eddie, hoping to weather nature's onslaught using wisdom gleaned from from Bear Grylls, Les Stroud, and John Rambo. Backpacker.com's TED ALVAREZ found out what worked, what didn't, and which superhero Friedman would take as his backcountry wingman.
Let's get right to it. You mention in the story you're much more accustomed to the world of comics and sci-fi than outdoors pursuits. If you headed back into the wild, which superhero would you ask to come along?
I'd say Silver Surfer, the early years. That's when he was a symbol of existential angst, a stranger in a strange land, separate from all humanity yet oddly drawn to the strange things (humans) and the mortal sensations they called "emotions." I identified. Plus, he had great super powers and that silver surfboard.
Ok, now back to the assignment. Out of all the techniques you tried from Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, which ones worked the best?
The spruce (or pine) tea was GREAT and the bed of pine (or spruce) boughs seemed very soft and would have been nice to sleep on. The wilderness compass was very cool and accurate (I checked it with a compass) and the 'tinder bundle' made of wood shavings and 'old man's beard" was super flammable.
Which techniques from those shows failed completely?
Making a fire without matches. Even with a flint/metal gizmo that created sparks, I could not for the life of me make those sparks translate into a fire.
I would love to feel like I could go into the wilderness without matches, or having lost my matches, and be able to make fire. That said, at least I now know about tinder bundles. And I'm glad my nephew and aide-de-camp Eddie had matches.
Which, if any, wilderness techniques will you remember, say, 10 years from now?
That ninety percent of blue/blackberries are edible, fifty percent of red berries are edible, and only 10 percent of white berries are edible-ut I got that tip from an ex-army guy, not Bear or Les. Also, that live grasshoppers can carry tapeworms.
Overall, who was more instructive–Les Stroud or Bear Grylls?
I identified more with Les, in his dour, stoic I-will-survive-no-matter-how-crappy-this-gets vibe. Bear did things that seemed insane under any circumstances, but especially so when he was ostensibly alone in the backcountry. When you separate out their personalities, I think the nuggets of wisdom were of about equal value.
Which one would you most like to have had there in the wilderness with you?
Les seemed to spend most of his energy reasonably, spotting and avoiding danger, whereas Bear liked to court danger, then show how he could wriggle from its clutches. Bear would probably be more fun to hang out with, but you might die in the process.
Were you satisfied by your experience of quasi-wilderness survival, or are you left hungering to go back and test yourself again?
I don't really have a big desire to test myself, but I feel nominally more confident that I could survive without my French press coffee maker if I had to.
What's the manliest thing you've done since completing the story?
I put together a bookshelf from Staples. For Eddie's 16th birthday, I flew him to NYC and rode the subway with him to Coney Island. We had hot dogs and watched the "Shoot the Freak" show.
For more on Steve Friedman, check out his website at stevefriedman.net