Surviving A Cold Night With Nothing But The Clothes On Our Backs

Picture of a cold night outside in the desert

We greedily drank water.  Our cupped hands gathering it up from the little spigot on the ‘water buffalo’ – which was an old army water tank mounted on a trailer.  It was the main supply of water for the entire camp.

“No water bottles, no chap stick, no flashlights – nothing but the clothes on your back” had been the directions.  So we were all wisely filling up and carrying water the old fashioned way; in our guts.

It was just after dark and already cold.  I zipped up my jacket the last few inches and wished there was a hoodie on it.  The sparkling clear sky told me it would get much, much colder before it was all over.  The full moon was going to be helpful.  For miles all around us was nothing but chaparral bushes.  Well, OK, there were sometimes saguaros or barrel cactus, scorpions, and kangaroo rats.

Most of the plant and animal life here had the attitude of stabbing you first and asking questions later.  So the bright moonlight would at least help keep the kids from getting punctured.

Twice a year my daughter and I attend primitive skills gatherings where we learn, practice, and trade the skills from the Paleolithic era.  My daughter now 12 years old, is beyond the kiddie crafts, but not quite into all the adult activities.  She and a pack of kids her age were getting restless and I was worried about that old adage of ‘idle hands and the devils workshop’ being manifested.

When I asked the kids what they wanted they all agreed; a challenge.

The real guide of this group was David Holiday.  Like many of the others from camp, David had been picked up and featured by Nat Geo, Discovery, or the History Channel for some crazy reality show.  Cody Lundin “Dual Survivor”, George Michaud “Mountain Men”, and Jason Hawk “No Man’s Land” are all regulars at these gatherings.

The thing about these guys is they are the genuine real deal.

Sonoran desert

So when word got around camp we needed a leader to take the teens out for an adventure, David jumped in.

I would have been quite content to sleep in my comfy tent and double thick sleeping bag, but when teens go out overnight, you need to have separate boys and girls camps.  And you really need a woman.  While all the other moms thought this was a fantastic project, uh, apparently I was the only one who was up for the whole enchilada.

“Thousands of people are doing what we are doing tonight” David set the tone for the evening as we circled together before leaving the main camp.  “Thousands of people have been suddenly awakened out of bed, grabbed what they could carry on their backs, and are getting away into the night as fast as they can.   Their homes behind them are being destroyed by civil war, by fire, by oppressive Governments, by any number of things.  Like us, they are going to walk for a ways and then they will try to find a place to sleep.  Unlike us, they will not be able to return back to camp in the morning for breakfast”.

“You will be miserable tonight.  It’s a cold night, and we are taking nothing with us into a harsh desert environment.  You’ll experience tonight a small piece of what is a very hard reality for many people all over the world.  But you are really lucky; we are not that far from the main camp with your parents who love you.  And we will be back after sunrise”.

We walked out into the desert.  We played games in the moonlight picking out buddies for a buddy system.  We ran some foot races.  We talked about what makes a good camping spot.  We setup systems so everyone would stay safe.

David had brought the materials for a hand drill fire and showed us as a group how to make a fire even though none of us could do it alone.  We spoke in circle around the fire sharing our deepest fears and hopes.

Teens can stay awake so long into the night!

Then we tried to sleep.  In the girls camp we readily snuggled up into a big puppy pile to keep warm – which helped.  The boys roughed it out in their own ways around a huge bonfire; roasting on one side and freezing on the other.

The cold hard ground sucked warmth out of everyone and no one was really comfortable.

How much longer would these kids bear this?  Most of them had only minimal experience camping.

The warm afternoon with its enthusiasm for adventure seemed so far away now.

But the thought of the homeless in other parts of the world kept haunting us and no one complained.  And not a single kid left camp.  They all hung in there.

“You have deep survival in your genes.  All of your ancestors were survivors or you wouldn’t be here now” David told us.  “Humanity has faced plagues, famine, wars, floods, and every form of disaster you can imagine.   In your lineage are people who fled, or fought, or learned, or adapted.  The people who didn’t make it, died.  You are direct descendants of all those who survived.  You have it in you even if you don’t know it.”

In the morning, way before dawn, (well, this is one way to get teens to rise early) we got up to watch the moon set.  And then turned around to see a spectacular sun rise.

It was so beautiful.  And empowering.  Each of us knew we would never be afraid of walking out into a cold night if we had to.  It really helps to be prepared.

We felt like champions.

And we were.

(Updated:  originally published April 2014.) 

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Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of "homegrown food on every table." Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her "Grow Your Own Groceries" video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.

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  • d'13

    Great story!
    The first thing I though of was that if you all had just had on jeans and in one of hte back pockets or in one of those fanny/belly/hip bags you had the foresight to have one or two of those Space Age Ultra thin metalic blanket/wraps then you all could have stayed warmer, especially the young men.
    It was a grand tale one well shared and evoked the feelings of long ago when I too used to go out into the wilderness for a week or two at a time. Good to know what you can consume vegeitarian wise as there is far mor fauna than there are bugs and such and lord knows I’m still not into taking the life of another animal the size of a deer etc as it would not only be cruel but hecka wasteful for a single fella to act so preumptuously. I mean I had the clothing and all no need fo a hide to make a coat or anything like that. Besides that sort of thing has to be processed and that takes time. A thing better done down in the environs where it isn’t so cold at night.
    4 yards of 15/20lb test fishing line and a couple of hooks would be a wise thing to tote along as well. Fish are easy enough to catch.
    Thanks for the story!
    Started out this Tuesday morn in a most delightful way!
    Graciously and my blessings be rained down upon you and yours,

  • Richard LaQuey

    Please publish the full article. I enjoy reading your articles.

  • Ron Shook

    You bet, do the full write-up. I’m always ready for new tips and tricks. I’m glad that your daughter is up to some challenges and even gladder that you are.

  • bill

    That was so way cool to read. The thought that we are all direct descendants of those who survived brought on a new feeling of confidence that had never entered my mind before. I feel so emboldened!! Thanks for a great story and, yes, by all means, give us the full story.

  • Mkacy

    yes! I would love to see the full experience!

  • Hawk

    I have spent the night with my brothers around a campfire with nothing but the clothes on your back. you tend to roll over periodically to toast the other side. your story would be interesting to read. thanks, jmh

  • Nancy Mugridge

    Thanks for posting this—an inspiring tale.

  • Wonderful! Yes, please do tell more!

  • Bev

    I’d love to know what the full experience is like!

  • Rustaholic

    If I was to stand up and walk out of here with you i know you would be happy to be with me and not alone. I carry fire making stuff all the time.
    I can make my first bow string with my shoe laces.
    The next one will be leather from what I kill to eat.
    If there is no suitable wood for bow and arrows I am deadly with a sling.
    I have knives to sharpen sticks for spears.
    I am a former scout and a former scout leader.
    I had a very short list of what my scouts were allowed to take on a survival camp out.

  • Gail Vance

    I have found numerous errors in your reports, but this one is too egregious to allow to stand.
    Dian Fossey is Gorillas in the Mist. She is dead. Killed by rebels in the African country of Rwanda. Jane Goodall studies CHIMPANZEES, not gorillas. She is very much alive and did most of her studies in the Gombe Reserve in Tanzania.
    PLEASE spend a couple of minutes verifying your information and NOT perpetuating the massive amount of misinformation on the internet. You have spent so much time self-promoting and are now picked up by other blogs and newsletters. You OWE it to all of us to make sure your information is correct.

    • Hi Gail,

      Hmmm, I do my best. And yes, I do make errors. I am a horrible speller – as anyone who has read my writing for a while knows! LOL. I didn’t know other blogs were ‘picking my posts up’. I suppose that is a good thing.

      I do my best to ensure things are correct, and I highly value authenticity and integrity. I do this because I am called to do it – and I don’t owe anybody.

      Self promote? Hey I am working to get more homegrown food in the world and sometimes it takes jumping up and down a making a bit of noise. Try running your own small business for a while and you’ll quickly see what I am talking about.

      good luck in the garden. And don’t let my mistakes stop you form listening to Jane.

      • Geno

        An honest error Marjory, and certainly not critical enough to alter anyone’s well being. Don’t let the harsh criticisms get to you. By the way, for every one person who gets a bee in his bonnet, there are a thousand plus, like me, who appreciate what you’ve accomplished with the Grow Network. Keep on chooglin’….

  • eftey

    Jane Goodall is not the “Gorilla Lady,” she is the “Chimpanzee Lady.”
    Diane Fossey was the Gorilla Lady, and, yes, she died many years ago. She was murdered by poachers who didn’t like her ruining their fun.

    I enjoy your newsletter.


    • This is the beginning of my Internet Life. I have reitred from the grind. I can see that there is a rich diversity in the blogs I am reading and I am trying to leave some comment whereever I visit. I think that you have to put some attention on a blog to bring it above the dry and boring verbage that is common, and you have definitely accomplished that. I am approaching this from all sides, sonce I recently started my own website with its own blog. There was a place to include an email and address, so I have done that. Is it ok that I included them? ThrVeeyBest2You 13 9

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  • Pat Powell

    Would love the whole story!
    By the way, 2 great women: Dian Fossey worked with gorillas, hence “Gorillas in the Mist”; she was killed. Jane worked primarily with chimps, and is still very much alive at 80, travelling around 300 days/year to support wildlife, the planet, and to inspire us all, especially children, to do what we can.

  • Nan Johnson

    David sounds like a very anointed teacher. A very inspiring tale of surviving and learning to thrive.

  • Bonnie

    Hi Marjory,
    Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in the wild. The “gorilla woman” whose story was told in “Gorillas in the Mist” was Diane Fossey, who was murdered by poachers.

  • Susan

    Hi Marjory,

    I’m writing in reply to your email about this post–or specifically, about the postscript you included in it.

    Gorillas in the Mist was the movie about U.S. naturalist Dian Fossey who studied and advocated for Mountain Gorillas and was killed in Africa.

    Dame Jane Goodall is a British anthropologist who studies and advocates for chimpanzees and has been featured in many NatGeo films.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

    I love all of the helpful information you share. Thank you for being such a great resource!

  • Terry

    Great article! I would be interested in an article on the full primitive skills gathering experience too.

  • Barbara Roberts

    Please write up the whole thing – I know it would be fascinating to read and we would probably learn a lot.

  • The WE2's

    Really enjoyed reading the article. And you know what? I really didn’t pay much attention to the gorilla/chimp thing…I was focused on what was happening with you and the group you were with and what The WE2’s could learn from your experience. Sure glad you don’t let the fault-finders mess with your brain 🙂 I’m with those who want to “hear the story”…LOL

  • Thrivalista

    Would especially love more details about: “We setup systems so everyone would stay safe.”
    Thanks for an inspiring, heartening story.

    • Part of that was having a buddy system so everyone had someone they were responsible for. We also set it up so if you had to go pee in the middle of the night the girls would wake me up to let me know, and the boys would awaken David. Don’t want to lose one in the middle of the night right? We also talked about the problems with sleeping under the few trees or big bushes there were – as those were already home to scoripans or other creatures. Some fire safety lessons.

      That sort of thing.

  • Phyllis Lowe

    Hi Marjorie, I did enjoy your article. You also handled the repetitious editing from helpful writers about your mistakes with such grace! I was really impressed with that! As a reader, over 75, I am wondering if there is advice for someone one the older side who has to grab survival items quickly and head for the hills. We can’t walk far, probably not run, and we get cold easier. I would love to see more help addressing the seniors among us who want to be prepared, at least mentally, to escape or survive in stressful situations.

    • Hi Phyllis,

      Thanks for writing in. Yes, I am in serious need of a good editor… Ha ha, not my strength. But it will come.

      I take your comments to heart. I suppose the first thing is to develop some kind of plan now- that is our advantage. Planning ahead. I don’t really enjoy thinking about ‘bad possibilities’ but I do know that in an overwhelming circumstance – such as an armed robbery – I can get so shocked as to be paralyzed. And just going through the mental exercise of ‘what if” helps tremendously.

      I will focus on more specific and helpful articles though.



    • Donna g

      Just the fact that you want to be prepared is a huge jump more than most folks! IMHO, I’d start with a packed(at all times)bag that is light enough to carry. Lots of things can be bought at the dollar store, comfy shoes, poncho(it’s also a blanket, pillow, seat cushion)think multiple uses for one item, and a cane or walking stick (it’s also a weapon, door brace, shelter pole)Don’t get caught up in the pricey gadgets, you need workable for a bad situation, not necessarily to survive a long term zombie apocalypse!

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    • Dymphna, it is indeed sad when a friend goes a direction perceived as wrong or so different as to make them no longer a friend. It matters not if the bond was intellectual or emotional (though true bonds have the flavor of both). In the past year I have given up a 53 year subscription to National Geographic, and a 10+ year subscription to Reason for the same kinds of reasons. The former was over a willful distortion of science, which when pointed out was ignored, and the latter was due to a drift to the left and irrevelancy. They continually confused a marginal dealings with a real problem with what was actually a change in principle.

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  • Scott Preston

    I have tried an experiment to see if my body could adapt to the cold. During the winter I wore the same clothes I wore during the summer; I let the season change around me. At first it was uncomfortable, but I did adapt as the season got cold. Finally there was snow and ice and I was still dressed the same. I did this carefully though, never being far from my home, car, or a warm coat if I ever got the shakes. The real proof that I was adapting came when I was on a winter hike in Virginia with two warmly dressed friends in down jackets, gloves and hats. I was wearing very light long gym pants, practically pajamas, and a teeshirt, hiking shoes of course. After the sun went down, we stood around talking for over two hours, and I didn’t show any signs of hypothermia, but one of them did. They knew what I was trying to accomplish and were impressed. They asked me if I was felt cold and I did, but it was just a slightly bitting sensation on the skin, nothing more. It took about two to three weeks to adapt to that extent. David Blaine tried this adaptation even more aggressively, and there is a French guy who carried it to a further extreme and survived in an ice bath in laboratory well beyond the time the scientists thought he would be dead. I read a journal by one of the early English settlers in Massachusetts that remarked at how strongly the native people stood up to the winter cold. I think it is a good idea to toughen up to our native environment, both hot and cold on occasion because you never know when you will be thrust out into it. I think that it also may be good for your overall health by adapting. This year I wore coats and jackets and when I went outside in the cold without them, I was shivering. So the adaptation isn’t permanent. I think it’s a good idea to push our selves a little bit, rather than go from house to car to workplace in totally controlled temperatures.

  • Deborah Schultz

    i had the biggest wake up call just a few days ago. i volunteered for the Ogden, UT marathan which starts up in the mountains a little higher than I live. I was wearing layers: jeans, longish underwear, a sweater, a flannel shirt and over that a pull over cotton hoodie. On my feet were regular ankle length cotton socks and boots. I suffer from I consider mild neuropathy in my extremeties, from Type II diabetes, but nothing that has stopped me from doing anything before.
    My job was to greet runners as they started arriving at the starting point around 6:30 AM, for a race that started at 8:00. I was pretty much stationary, standing without a lot of activities. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet getting cold. After the runners were all in the area and waiting for the race to begin, I was really cold and decided to go wait in my car and warm up for a bit. I wanted a piece of string cheese, and my cold hands didn’t have the functionality to open the string cheese wrapper, even holding the wrapper with my teeth and trying to pull with both hands. I think if I had been outside for more than the 2.5 hours i was there before the runners took off, i could have even started having frostbite and not even known it. I would guess the temperature up there was in the low 40’s. The point is, if we have an illness that affects circulation, we need to be even more aware of what to do and what additional steps we need to take to be prepared. Yes I want the full scoop, and what I am doing for the rest of the summer is to become as strong and prepared physically as I can.

    • Deborah, that is a sobering story. Yes, I’ll get trhe whole experience up there soon.

    • I’m imspesred. You’ve really raised the bar with that.

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    • What a wonderful experience! To hold such medals in your hand. I feel more interested in the Olympics already, although this is from rather a low base point.Happy New Year to you and to everyone, including little ones toddling off to school for the very first time.

  • arlene

    Really keen to get to read more about this!

  • Stella Stone

    When I get cold my fingers turn white. I carry a flannel cloth bag about 13 x 13″ with about 3-4 lbs of white rice in it which has been heated in microwave 3 min. When I drive in cold weather I alternate putting my hands in it, and being in my lap helps to keep me warm. I also have one for my feet at night.

  • Gale Green

    Your title: “Surviving with nothing but the clothes on your back”–is seriously misleading!!! You did not do that. With “Nothing” ?? Really?? and you had how many others to make a “puppy pile” ?? A WHOLE different challenge than truly surviving with NOTHING but the clothes on your back.

  • David R.(Canada)

    We should also keep in mind that all of our ancestors managed to survive disease and pestilence without antibiotics or vaccines. So it’s also in us to survive those dangers as well.

  • Rick

    Working in Arabia, I discovered that the two easiest ways to die were to drown in a flood and to freeze at night. The one day a year that it rained, a 20-foot high wall of water WITH BOULDERS, would come rushing down every ravine and destroy everyone in its path. As for the cold, I found a way to handle it: every two men should sleep back to back and cover themselves with a sturdy sheet of plastic; after a couple of hours, the heat would be so unbearable that we would get out from under the plastic, take off our shirts and cool off for a few minutes in the freezing air. Then, back under the plastic.

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