This Wilderness Survival Expert Will Keep You Safe and Alive
Interview with Dave Canterbury
Dave Canterbury’s wilderness survival videos have attracted a loyal and exceptionally popular following on YouTube. His
RailRiders: Is there a large nearby forest where you do a lot of your wilderness experience training?
Dave Canterbury: I do a lot of stuff in the
RR: How many sessions do you have each year with your Pathfinder school?
DC: It varies. In 2009, I've already got about eleven sessions scheduled.
RR: Are they husbands and wives or mainly guys?
MC: It's a little bit of both. Sometimes it's family; sometimes it's husband and wife; sometimes it's just guys.
RR: Do you put them through the trials and tribulations like on “Survivor?”
DC: No, no, no. It's nothing like that. Instead, we go through the basic five principles of survival.
RR: What are the five principles?
DC: You've got basically fire and shelter, which are interchangeable depending on what type of climate or environment you're in. Then basically you've got food and water; you've got first aid; and you've got signaling.
RR: Let me go through each one then. Let's take fire and shelter. I read on the Internet that you could actually start a fire with a Coke can and a bar of chocolate. Have you ever done that?
DC: No, I've never done that, but what you do is take a chocolate bar to shine the bottom of the can to make the aluminum a very reflective surface and they use that to reflect the sun to start a fire with dry kindling.
RR: Can that actually work?
DC: I haven't tried it, but I would say that it would work if you had a very, very hot sun and a lot of time to wait.
RR: What are some quick ways to make a fire if you don't have a match or a Bic lighter?
DC: Probably the quickest way to make a fire is just with the bow-drill method or fire plow. For the bow, you can use your boot lace, or anything like that will work as string. You can also make natural cord in the wild, but it's only going to last probably one time. If you use the right wood, it doesn't take very long to start a fire.
RR: Another wilderness survival principle you said was water. I understand that humans cannot survive more than three days without water. Is that true?
DC: Well, yeah, depending on conditions. One of the things that I teach in my basic course and also in the Pathfinders system that we do by correspondence is what's called the Rule of Threes. Basically, you can survive for about three minutes without air; about three hours exposed to the elements, depending on how severe it is; three days without water; and three weeks without food.
RR: Why is eating snow not a good way to replenish fluids?
DC: It cools down the core temperature of your body. It puts you at risk for hypothermia quicker.
RR: So you can't really quench your thirst eating snow?
DC: It's not a good idea to do that. It's better to melt it over a fire and drink it warm.
RR: Say you're in a desert - what's a good way to get water?
DC: There are plenty of desert plants that hold water, especially cactus.
RR: What about in the Appalachian area? If you couldn't find a river or stream, what would you do?
DC: Because there's so much moisture in the air anyway, it's very easy to collect morning dew; it's also very easy to make a solar still.
RR: How do you collect dew?
DC: In the morning when the dew is on the trees, you can place a bag over the limbs and shake them vigorously to knock the dew into the bag.
RR: In some survival manuals, I've read that you actually can drink your urine? Is that safe? I know they're going to do that in the Space Station in which they are recycling urine to use as water, but that's a little bit different.
DC: Right. That is a little bit different. Urine is not a good thing to drink. I think it's scientifically proven that drinking urine one time will not hurt you; urine is about 95% water anyway, but it's the other things that are in your body that you're body's trying to get rid of that makes your urine yellow and nasty. But you can drink it one time pretty safe; after that, basically, all you're doing is introducing toxins back into your body over and over again and dehydrating due to the sodium content.
RR: What do you recommend to purify water? Do you use iodine tablets?
DC: No, I don't. I actually use chlorine dioxide tablets most of the time or straight chlorine.
RR: Isn't chlorine harmful to your body?
DC: No, not if you use it in minute amounts.
RR: Why don't you use iodine?
DC: Just because of the way it tastes more than anything else.
RR: And what about those water filters that everyone sells?
DC: I use Aquamira water filters; they filter out about 99.9% of harmful bacteria including giardia and they work really well. They will screw right to a soda pop bottle; there are not too many places you can't go in the wild nowadays that you can’t find trash, and pop bottles are pretty easy to find. The Aquamira will screw right to the top of a pop bottle and fill with water out of a lake or a stream-- and then squeeze it right through the water bottle just like you were sipping out of a sports drink bottle.
RR: Speaking of trash -- do you see a lot more trash these days in the woods?
DC: Oh, yeah. There's not too many places you can go nowadays, especially in the eastern part of the
RR: Why is that? Why can't people just leave the wilderness alone?
DC: We're just generally lazy. I don't think that people appreciate the fact that, you know, their grandkids and their grandkids are going to want to use this earth too, and I think it's just they know they're time here is limited and people are selfish in nature and they figure, `Okay, I've got what I want out of it, so it doesn't matter if I mess it up.'
RR: Okay, what about building a shelter? What do you recommend?
DC: The best way if you've got nothing with you at all is to build a debris shelter, especially in the eastern woodlands. I generally carry some type of tarp with me all the time just to make a quick shelter.
RR: What kind of debris do you use? Is it leaves or twigs or both?
DC: Both. I prefer hardwood foliage which is the best.
RR: And what about in snow conditions? Have you ever built snow caves?
DC: Yeah. I've done a little bit of that stuff, but because of the area that I live in, it's almost as easy to dig into the side of a hill or the side of a mountain in snowy environments than it is to try to build yourself a snow cave or a snow igloo. It really doesn't snow enough here to build snow caves with, but you can actually dig into the side of the hill fairly deep and then pack the snow in around it and it stays pretty warm.
RR: How much insulation do you get from something like that?
DC: Well, you're going to get insulation from the ground around you.
RR: What if the ground is frozen?
DC: Well, then it's a little harder to dig, but most of the time in this area the ground doesn't freeze more than a few inches deep anyway.
RR: But how much temperature loss is there staying in one of those debris shelters? Does your body just heat up the area?
DC: It depends on how well you build the shelter. You obviously won't sleep on the bare ground, then you've got that cold ground coming right up through your body, but you've got to insulate your body all the way around. One of the really good things to do, especially in the fall or wintertime if you're going to build a debris shelter, is just basically fill it with leaves and sleep inside the leaves for insulation.
RR: Okay, let’s talk about food.
DC: Food goes with the water as far as the five survival principles go.
RR: How long can you live without food?
DC: It depends on what your body's used to; you can live probably three weeks without food if you had to. I think most people wouldn't want to go more than a couple of days; some people have got their bodies used to living on food deprivation for a lot longer period than that.
RR: What's the longest you've ever gone without food?
DC: About three days.
RR: How did you feel?
DC: You kind of start to get a delirious feeling. You get a really bad lack of energy and your start to get dizzy from the lack of nutrients in your body. If you don't put food in your body, you're going to get weak.
RR: Then it's part of survival training?
DC: It is, but it's more mental than anything else. You can take your mind off being hungry and if you drink enough, you really won't feel the pain of hunger. It's more the breaking down of your body and loss of energy that you have to get past.
RR: In terms of identifying edible plants and medicinal herbs and roots, the North American Indians could do that, but I don't think most Americans can.
DC: Well, probably not. That is part of what we teach.
RR: Americans can't even go shopping without buying junk food.
DC: You're absolutely right, but most people don't realize that 90% of the plants that grow in their front yard are edible.
RR: Come on! Like what?
DC: Grass is chewable for Vitamin A. Dandelions are edible straight off the ground; they're highly edible, high in Vitamin C, high in Vitamin A.
RR: Dandelions? The whole thing?
DC: You can eat the whole thing except the stems which are kind of nasty, but the flowers, leaves, and roots you can eat.
RR: What about crab grass?
DC: Any kind of grass is chewable, not necessarily edible. Grass is very hard to digest, but chewing it and getting the vitamins out of it and then spitting it out is not going to hurt you.
RR: How about roses?
DC: Rose petals are edible. I wouldn't want to live on them, but I mean, they are edible. There's what they call the Big Four food groups, and grasses are one of those Big Four food groups. When you're talking about grass, you're also talking about wheat and barley and hay. If you let your front yard grow into a field, they would all be there.
RR: We should tell the reader that they shouldn't fertilize their lawn.
DC: Probably not! Not if they eat out of it anyway.
RR: What are the other three food groups?
DC: You've got grasses; you've got pines; and then you've got basically oaks, which are your acorn trees and your nut trees, and then you have cattails.
RR: What do you eat from a pine tree?
DC: You can use the nettles to make tea. You can eat the inner bark raw or you can cook it. You can eat the seeds out of the cones; you can actually eat the young cones.
RR: What about oaks? I understand that if you don't boil the acorns, you can get really sick from tannic acid poisoning?
DC: Well, yeah, any oak tree has a lot of tannic acid in it. The tannic acid attacks your kidneys, and is very hard to digest and hard for your system to get rid of. You don't want to eat acorns without cooking them, but I also lump in hickory and walnut with oaks in my teachings. Most have edible parts.
RR: And you said `cattails'. I never knew you could eat those.
DC: Oh, cattails are like nature's supermarket. Cattails are the best.
RR: Explain how they're like the Safeway of the wilderness.
DC: Well, there's just so many things that you can do with cattails. The roots, green stalks, and the bottom of the new shoots are edible. The actual flower heads at the top of the cattails that turn brown in the fall, those are edible when they're young. They also make great fire starters and torches in the winter time. The juice from the cattail is very antiseptic and an anesthetic; it's almost like aloe vera and is very good for burns, scrapes and minor injuries. You can use the hard parts of the mature leaves to actually scrub your teeth with. There's also a very good numbing factor to the juice of the cattail so you can use it for toothaches.
RR: Do they grow in swampy areas or all over?
DC: Any wet area. Even roadside ditches grow cattails.
RR: So if your car breaks down and you're stuck in a ditch, you can survive on the cattails.
DC: I guess you could, yeah!
RR: Let’s move onto the fourth wilderness survival principle--signaling. What's a good way to signal somebody or rescue worker?
DC: Well, that depends on your situation. Obviously, if you're in a wilderness situation where it’s thick with underbrush, and you're expecting an overhead-type rescue -- if you've got planes and helicopters looking for you -- then smoke can be your best friend. The smoke's going to penetrate through the underbrush and go up in the air.
RR: In terms of being lost, do you recommend people to just stay where they are, or wander around aimlessly?
DC: I think that's a matter of personal preference. People are better off staying where they are, at least for the first 48 hours because generally rescue attempts are the strongest during the first 48 hours. If someone knows where you're at or knows where you were at the time you got lost, you're better off staying where you're at. Once you get beyond the 48-hour mark, you may be forced to move for shelter or food-gathering reasons. If you don't believe you're going to get rescued and nobody knows where you're at, you're just going to have to walk out and then you just have to take your best guess at which way to go. If you were intelligent when you went in, you're going to know what direction to go out.
RR: Every winter, you have skiers in the
DC: You're right, they do. I don't think people get as disoriented direction-wise as they don't realize where they came from and how to get back. Most people understand that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Most people realize that they can put the sun on their left shoulder and they know what direction they're walking, depending on whether it's afternoon or evening or morning or whatever. But most people don't realize where they came from and that's how they get lost.
RR: And the final principle-- first aid. What do you recommend here?
DC: I myself don't carry a very extensive first aid kit. A lot of people do and it's not a thing that you shouldn't do necessarily, but if you have a pretty good knowledge of medicinal plants and you have some parachute cord and a bandana. I usually carry some spare slingshot rubber bands in my kit which works well for a tourniquet. It also works well for a straw for drinking out of puddles of water.
RR: You mean surgical tubing like what doctors use?
RR: What else do you keep in your little survival kit?
DC: It depends on how long I'm going to be out. But I don't call it my survival kit. I don't call it a first-aid kit. What I like to call it is a self-aid kit, and the reason I call it that is because it basically contains the things that I believe I can take with me and do whatever I need to do. There are about four items that I always carry no matter what. Number one, I always have a fire steel, which is probably the easiest way to start a fire and the most reliable way to start a fire other than having a flame. The next thing that I always tell everyone they need to have with them is some type of a compass. The other thing that I have is a whistle. The fourth thing that I carry with me all the time is a light -- it's just a small 40-hour LED light. With those four items and a large knife, you're in pretty good shape.
RR: What kind of knife do you use?
DC: I actually carry a knife that I promote on my website. It’s a signature series knife called the Pathfinder Utility Knife. It’s like a kabar on steroids.
RR: How much does it cost?
DC: It's $180.00.
RR: What makes it so good?
DC: There's a lot of different realities when it comes to knives. Do you need a big knife, do you need a small knife, do you need more than one knife? If you're going to carry a knife and you're only going to carry one knife, that knife has to be big enough that you can use it to cut down trees if you need to; it has to be big enough to split firewood and make kindling; it also has to be small enough to do delicate work like skinning animals. So, my signature series knife is about 12-1/2 inches long total; it has a 7-1/2-inch blade. It is 1-1/2 inch wide; it's made of 5160 carbon steel, which is the same steel that truck springs are made out of and it has desert-tan Micarta handles on it.
RR: Okay, let's talk about other gear— RailRiders clothing.
DC: The Versa-Tec pants, I wouldn't wear anything else. In the summer time, the Versa-Tec Lites are the best pants I've ever worn. They're almost bullet-proof. I had a pair that I wore for almost a year solid and wore them almost every day and they just now have a couple of very small holes in them that you can't even really tell unless you're up close and looking at them.
RR: And you've never had that experience with any other pants?
DC: Never, never, never had that experience. I've got a pair of Versa-Tec Mids that are just perfect for cooler winter weather like in the thirties; they're a heavier material, but if you put a pair of Under Armor underneath them, they can usually go down to temperatures in the teens and twenties and you'd be very comfortable. I've also got a pair of RailRiders lined
RR: Is there anything else you want to say about wilderness survival?
DC: I don’t like the word `survival.’ I prefer the world ‘self-reliance.’ What I'm trying to do is not what a lot of people out there who teach survival do. They train people how to survive in the woods not how to become self-reliant; but what I'm trying to do is make it affordable and understandable for the common man. And that's why all my videos on YouYube are free I created the Pathfinder System so that it will be understood by almost everyone. I spent a great many years researching basically every technique of self-reliance in the wilderness from days of Paleo man to modern day, and I threw out everything that was crap and took everything that worked and that's what the Pathfinder System is. My system doesn't teach blood and guts, carrying guns in the wilderness and shooting everything in sight; at the same time, it also doesn't teach you to go out in the woods and leave no trace, such as don't start a campfire. It does not teach that you have to have the most modern equipment in the world to be able to survive in the woods; it also doesn't teach that the only way you go in the woods is to be totally primitive. What it does is it trains people to realize that having modern items in the wilderness is a luxury and if you were to ever lose, damage or break one of those items, you have the means and the knowledge to survive without them. That is the Pathfinder way!
RR: So it's like a bridge between ancient man and modern man?
DC: That's exactly what it is. It's an eclectic system.