“Eat These Toothpaste-Berries”: Wilderness Survival Skills

Lesson review

I felt that fire in my heart, and I was hooked!

Why then, would you want to spend your Saturday covered in leaves, eating weird berries, and making fire like a caveperson? Because wilderness survival is probably the dopest class you’ll ever take.

Joined by my 57hours compadre, Perica Levatic, we headed an hour upstate to learn survival basics with Discover Outdoors.

Our Trip is Van and Boujee

A couple of goofuses, still waking up in Union Square.

We took a train from Williamsburg to sleepy-eyed Union Square Park. The Saturday farmer’s market was being set up, and I locked eyes with some cider donuts. Not yet. For this excursion, Discover Outdoors (DO) would shuttle us to and from the trailhead. We met in front of Paragon Sports near E 17th St. and Union Square W.

Our guide was Zach, and a new member of the DO crew, Arturo, was along for the ride. We claimed our spots, buckled in, and headed up the West Side Highway. Zach has been guiding with DO for a few years, specializing in survival skills. Arturo was a former city tour guide, looking for a literal change of scenery. Together they were like baseball commentators – play by play and a “color” man.

I was more thirsty for flames than water in the desert. I guess primitive skills trigger primitive motives!”

I was relieved that our group weren’t bearded former navy seals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s a “type” that follows survivalists, but as Perica put it “any of us could easily survive the worst kind of weather, with practically no resources, in the most wild environment of them all… Manhattan!”

The one hour ride was entertaining, with a great combination of facts, getting to knows and gawking at the Hudson. Our new friends were Jude and Maryellen, natives to NYC, and Yeva, an adventure-seeking traveller who’d been on some larger excursions.

As we neared the trailhead, we made a quick stop at quaint Jones Farm. As is tradition, I made noises at the farm animals and used the outhouse because it’s there. I am a South Dakotan by birth, I believe those are instinctual reactions. We stepped into Grandma Phoebe’s Kitchen to grab some hiking fuel, and now was my time to strike. Apple cider donuts, how I’d missed you.

On our way out, we extended a quick smile and “good morning” to Grandma Phoebe. At least I think it was her. We piled back in the van for a five minute drive the trailhead.

Dogsbane and Crows Poison

Perica will eat anything. Climbers…

We got our packs ready and pulled up our socks. Zach gave a brief intro next to a picturesque waterfall. We all shared why we chose wilderness survival. If I could paraphrase the overall sentiment, two things: it sounded cool and everyone wanted to make fire with their bare damn hands.

I asked Perica what excited him about taking the survival class.

“There’s no question. Fire.” he said.

As we began our hike, the first topic was edibles in the wild. MUSHROOMS MAN. No. Zach carefully selected some leaves, berries along the way. He made it abundantly clear these were expert-level moves. It’s best practice as a beginner to gather from the wild, go home and identify online, or smartly, consult a friend who’s an expert on these things.

My favorite on the menu was a berry that tasted exactly like wintergreen gum.

Once I found out we’d be starting a fire without matches I was hooked…”

As we “dined”, Zach said something that reminded me of Pagan or native ritual. Collecting from the plants and trees, he mentioned it was good practice to ask the plant for permission, or to give reverence. Hmmm. I dug it.

We stopped at a thick birch grove to discuss its use as medicine, a material for canoe-making, and a delicious sugar-sap used to make birch beer – root beer’s cousin. If you chew on a twig, you get the analgesic properties similar to modern aspirin or ibuprofen. I had a twig in my mouth most of the trip, mostly to be a cool kid.

Gimme Shelter

Zach teaches us how to shoot a bow into an enemy shelter. KIDDING.

For a rest, we stopped at a rocky bluff. Aside from a good place to grab a handful of gorp, our next exercise was to use our senses to get a sense of location. Being in the outdoors, especially in unmarked backcountry, requires presence. We saw, listened, touched, smelled… and I guess tasted a little bit earlier.

We finished our meditation, and hiked to a flat clearing a hundred yards from a small stream. Zach had a mission for us, to collect the following:

  • A large straight branch.
  • Two sturdy, y-shaped branches.
  • A pile of smaller sticks and branches.
  • Dry leaves.

We were going to build a shelter.

The straight branch rests on the two y-branches, forming an A-frame. Around those you place a vertical skeleton of smaller sticks and branches, finishing the insulation around that frame with the leaves. It’s simpler than it sounds, and will bail you out during an unexpected overnight in the cold, dark woods.

I joked with Perica if he’d have the guts to spend a night out in the rag-tag shelter in one of the higher level DO classes.

“Once I saw a shelter I was immediately sorry we didn’t take the overnight class,” he said. “What do you really have to lose? If something happens or you cannot fall asleep, you can just hop out and go in the tent with your fancy sleeping bag.”

Arturo mentioned that his father once spent an uncomfortable night outdoors due to a navigation error and rapidly dwindling daylight. He even made the local news. We had a laugh about a basic hike going so wrong, but that’s exactly the reason the course exists. It’s dangerous to get caught out in the elements without proper gear.

Twisted Firestarters

Maryellen cheers on the pyromaniacs.

We took lunch at a nearby pond, while Zach darted around collecting tufts of dry grass and dry leaves – tinder bundles. He hiked in our firestarting kits made of white cedar, cut and shaped into a few pieces. This type of kit was called a “bow drill” kit, because its main tool resembles something an archer would carry. It’s a small step above using your hands for friction.

Zach told us about doing this exact demo at a conference and not being able to make fire, despite numerous attempts. In fact, he struggled for 2-3 days to make a fire during his first survival classes. Once he did, it was transformative.

I felt that fire in my heart, and I was hooked,” Zach said.

It’s not an easy process, and takes patience. First, we teamed up to test the mechanics and motions of the process together. Maryellen sat this one out, but we encouraged her to join us as a cheerleader. She did a great job!

Perica and I huffed as we synced our movement of the bow drill. We puffed as the smoldering ember we made was transferred to the tinder bundle. The bundle burst into flame, and we all cheered. It blew us both away.

Perica starts a fire!
The trip was litttttttt.

“Seeing the first smoke before the fire can actually be tricky, as it triggered a mini adrenaline rush in me (like, I cannot believe this is actually happening), and made me feel a bit hasty and anxious,” Perica said. “When the tinder bundle burst into flame in your hands, it was like seeing some sort of black magic happening, except it was real.

Personally, I’ve never felt closer to our early ancestors who conquered fire hundreds of thousands of year ago. It’s an emotional and powerful moment, as Perica mentioned. Easily the highlight of the trip.

Happy Trails

The cleanest survivalists you’ll ever see.

Hiking out, we talked a bit about water gather techniques. We learned you can condense your urine and drink the water. I think it’s a rule on all survival outings you discuss drinking urine at least once. Ultimately, the sun is your friend. Heat can draw water out from most anything, and the sun’s UV radiation alone can sterilize a clear bottle of water if you give it a few hours.

Need to get help? Use an acorn cap to whistle. Furry animal poop? Carnivore! There was something to learn every hundred yards. I reached for another birch twig and reflected on an awesome day. I hope I remember most things I learned, because it can be do or die when you’re out there alone.

We wanted to stop back at Grandma Phoebe’s for a post-hike treat, but they were closing a bit early. A family member just had a baby, and everyone was out to see the new kid. Congrats! Instead we made our way into Cornwall, NY, a few miles up the road, and hit up Two Alices for an espresso and pastry. Then, it was on our way back to Paragon in the city.

Where We Stopped for a Bite

Grandma Phoebe's Cafe near Cornwall, NY

Grandma Phoebe’s Kitchen

Baked goods literally from Grandma’s kitchen, including donuts, pastries, and pies. A breakfast cafe gives more pre-hike options.

Map • Menu

A final stop at Two Alices for a coffee and snack

Two Alices Coffee Lounge

A good stop for coffee or a shot of espresso. Round it out with pastries and a quiet place to sit.

Map • Menu

Lesson Details


Zach and Arturo

Class Size

Five students, one instructor, and an instructor in training.

What to Bring

Daypack, 1-2 liters of water, snacks

We Will Survive

Zach, Arturo, and the Discover Outdoors team put together a masterful class that can be enjoyed by adults, or in classes for kids. It was entertaining, enlightening and certainly useful if the sh*t hits the fan. In the end, we exchanged some emails and phone numbers, so you may make some lifelong friends out of it as well.

If surviving is your game, Discover Outdoors and other local outfitters offer classes that step up your exposure to the outdoors. If you’re more interested in finding your way out of the woods, check out our review of a local wilderness navigation course.

Header image by Arturo of Discover Outdoors

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