The 30-Day Survival Challenge, Part 5
Follow my journey in this series of articles and videos as I survive for 30 days off of the foods I can get through foraging, hunting, fishing, and trapping. Along the way, I’ll pass along my strategies, tips, and tricks for survival.
Read Part 1: “Living Off the Land: Surviving Week #1”
In my previous articles, I talked about my two primary calorie sources during the first week of my survival challenge and about 15 foods I’ve been relying on during my 30-Day Survival Challenge. I also walked you through the second week of the challenge, including how to find an incredibly important nutrient in the wilderness: sodium.
Today, I’ll discuss the last leg of the challenge—my attempt to hike barefoot through the 156.7 mile Ozark Highlands Trail, while surviving only on those foods I can forage, hunt, and catch.
I kept a journal of each day’s progress and challenges, and I’d like to share it with you here. As you’ll see, I had plenty of ups and downs, both literally and metaphorically, and made plenty of mistakes. But in the end, it was quite an adventure.
And, as you’ll read in this final article, things don’t always go as planned . . . .
Day 5—20 Miles (32.2 Kilometers) + 4 Miles (6.4 Kilometers)
To my surprise, I woke up alive the next morning. The sun wasn’t awake yet, so I spent my time studying maps by flashlight. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The last forecast I’d heard called for more storms. As soon as light allowed, I packed up my supplies, racing the coming storm.
I soon found that while I’d been worried about bears, I should have kept an ear out for smaller creatures.
Something had dug through my pack in the night and made off with the cover for my rainfly and my toilet paper.
I can only imagine that raccoons were going to TP a bear.
Or maybe I hadn’t given those giant rabbits enough credit.
In any event, the first raindrops were falling as I threw my poncho over myself and my slightly lighter backpack.
The storm grew angry in a hurry, and I spent a miserable morning buffeted by rain and winds. Lightning and thunder were my companions on a slow, uphill climb. If I’d had a cell signal then, I probably would have called the hike off for safety’s sake.
I’d like to take a moment to point out another strange trail phenomenon.
Every section of the trail has its own little peculiarities. Maybe it’s a preponderance of creeks, or blueberries, or mega-rabbits.
This section of trail seemed to have a strong affinity for fallen trees. Nowhere else had I seen so many trees across the path. At one point, I even made a game of it. I’d look all around for fallen trees and then see if the trail would cross them. The trees ended up being nearly as good trail markers as the white rectangles. But let’s get back to the story.
A Trail Tip for Preventing and Treating Bug Bites
The rain slowed me down quite a bit, but I finally dragged myself out onto a forestry road. I followed the road, bypassing a couple of miles of trail on my way to meet up with Ryan. Go ahead and call me out for skipping part of the trail. By this point, I assure you I was far too wet and cold to care.
When I finally met up with Ryan, the rain had stopped and the sun was making an uneasy appearance behind heavy clouds. He said that he’d lightened his pack quite a bit and that his knee was feeling a lot better, as long as he didn’t work it too hard.
He also asked me why I had mud all over my legs.
I explained that once the rain stopped, I’d taken some of the clay mud from the forestry road and speared it all over my legs to draw out inflammation from my bug bites. The clay also helps to protect you from future bites. (That’s a little tip I just worked into my story, in case you missed it.)
We meandered through hills and hollows, only getting lost once at an open field where the marker tree had fallen over. Our pace was slow, to protect Ryan’s knee, but we were moving and I had company again.
Things were looking up.
A Rookie Mistake
Then we came to another forestry road and made a stupid, rookie mistake.
We split up.
Ryan checked his map and saw that this road should wind around and connect with the trail further down the road. He suggested that we take this longer route, because it would be easier on his knee. I was concerned that I was skipping too much of the trail, so I suggested that we split up and meet at the next intersection.
My plan was to blast ahead, hiking at full speed, to reach the meeting point well ahead of Ryan, and enjoy a good break. When I arrived, I shed my pack, found a comfortable spot to sit, and waited . . . and waited. For 40 minutes, I waited.
An uncomfortable feeling began to crawl over me. Eventually, a car drove by. I flagged down the driver, and she informed me that this road was essentially her driveway. It didn’t connect to any other roads in the direction Ryan was traveling.
Had I stopped too early? Was the real road just a bit further ahead? How far did Ryan’s map say the intersection would be? I couldn’t remember. My trail guide’s map didn’t have that level of detail.
Was Ryan waiting for me up ahead?
Was he backtracking down the trail to find me?
I pulled out my phone and, surprisingly, had a signal. I called Ryan, but he wasn’t in one of the seemingly random pockets of cell phone reception.
I decided to hike on and see if the road intersected further ahead. The further I went, the surer I was that the intersection would be just around the next bend. I hiked faster and faster, desperate to get there before Ryan gave up waiting and left to go searching for me.
Finally, I broke out of the woods onto a wide gravel road, and a sign informed me that I’d hiked all the way to the Arbaugh trailhead.
Now I was certain I’d gone too far, and not by just a little.
I’d left Ryan miles behind me. Anyone wanting to feel like an idiot should try this method. It’s super effective.
With no other solution in sight, I prepared to hike back to meet Ryan. I knew I would have to move even faster this time. I mean, what kind of terrible person just hikes away and leaves his friend alone in the wilderness?
So I dropped my pack, taking only my canteen, compass, trail guide, and a knife. I could hear thunder approaching, so I also stuffed my poncho in my pocket.
I found myself jogging down the trail, mentally calculating how long it would take me to get back to the road and how long it would take us to hike back to my backpack with all of my supplies. About a quarter-mile in, I heard my phone ding. I stopped, quite surprised to have stumbled upon the only 2 square feet of cell reception for miles
It was a text from Ryan. He said that his map was wrong and that the trail did not intersect with the road as he’d thought. He had backtracked and was sitting at the same intersection where I had waited for him. His knee was getting worse with every step and he had to call for a ride out.
The Only Fire Ring in Standing Water
Needless to say, I felt terrible about the whole situation.
I tried to text him back, but the magic cell phone window closed. I couldn’t get a message to him to let him know I’d received his message. I couldn’t get a message to my family to let them know where I was, or that I was hiking alone again.
I was alone, and no one knew where I was. And if I’d known what kind of storm was rolling in, I would have turned south onto the road by the Arbaugh trailhead and walked as long as it took to get cell service.
Instead, I jogged back to my pack, tossed on the poncho, and hiked into the woods.
The trail took me deeper and deeper into the valleys, to a stream called Lewis Prong. The rain was coming down heavily by the time I made it to the first of three crossings. A combination of rainfall and awkward terrain made it difficult to find where the trail restarted on the far side of the creek.
What’s worse than being lost by yourself? Being lost by yourself in the rain.
After much backtracking and studying the trail guide, I found the white marker on the opposite bank. By now, the wind was kicking up and the thunder was getting closer.
At the second crossing, the markers were easy to see. However, they seemed to want me to cross the creek by scaling down a sheer rock wall and up the other side. It took another little while to find a safe way down, and to pick up the trail again on the other side. By this point, the rain was coming down in sheets, and the lightning was frighteningly close.
I honestly don’t remember the third crossing all that well. There was a lot going on at the time. I was dealing with torrential rains, rising waters, and thunder that could bring you to your knees.
I found the campsite easily enough, though. It was the only fire ring in standing water.
I remember pausing long enough to think about how ridiculous I must have looked, as though I were a character in one of those National Lampoon’s movies. “Sure is a charmer of a campsite. No crowds and easy access to water.”
The White Flag
This wasn’t going to work. It was officially time to bail out. I checked the trail guide and found a forestry road up ahead that led to a highway. Unfortunately, the sun was getting low and I still had around 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) to go before I got there.
Not for the first time that day, I set out hiking at top speed. I knew I was going too fast to be safe, but if I let the light fail, I’d never find my way out.
I won’t lie to make this more exciting than it really was. It was stressful and suspenseful, to be sure. But it’s like holding the same, suspenseful note for a long time. It gets old.
The short version is like this: The rain comes and goes; comes and goes. Hike, hike, hike. Check the compass. Check the map. Hike, hike, hike. Is that the road up ahead? No, it’s just trees. Hike, hike, hike. “I wonder what life decisions brought me here?” Hike, hike, hike. Repeat a dozen or so times.
I finally broke out onto the forestry road just as I was about to give up on the sunlight. The open sky was so welcoming that I had to pull the hood off my poncho, despite the continuing light rain.
Along the road I found a few more of those magical 2-foot windows of cell service. My wife was out of state at the time, but I managed to trade a few messages with my father, describing where I was and asking if he would pick me up.
Darkness had fully set by the time he reached me. I was wet and exhausted, and the crystal had fallen off of my homemade walking stick. It will probably reside there forever, somewhere on the highlands trail. Insert your own symbolism here, if you like.
Recuperate and Resupply
I didn’t go back to the trail the next day. Rather, I let my body rest and worked on my gear. I grabbed another roll of toilet paper, and managed to get the GPS tracker working again. I also took out a few unused items from my pack to lighten it up and added some things I’d been missing.
The most missed item was my Kindle. Those nights without human conversation showed me that I needed something to keep my mind occupied.
Day 6—26 Miles (41.8 Kilometers)
I jumped back on the trail at the same location I’d hopped off, and traveled a quick 7 miles to Highway 21 and the Ozone campground.
The Zombie Game
This is where I met the only other hikers I’d seen on the Ozark Highlands Trail.
I was jogging and singing at the time, as I’d gotten in the habit of doing on especially good sections of the trail. I’m sure I looked quite silly, but I noticed them in time to win The Zombie Game. Oh? You don’t know what The Zombie Game is? Allow me to explain.
Whenever I’m out in the woods, I always play a little situational awareness game that I call “The Zombie Game.” It’s silly, but it gives me something to do.
The rules are simple. You imagine that anyone else you meet is a zombie. If you notice them in enough time that you could have either fled or defended yourself, you win. If not, you’re dead.
(Like I said, it’s pretty silly, but you catch more scenery when you’re doing “zombie checks” every few minutes.)
‘As Hot and Humid as a Razorback’s Armpit’
Back to the trail: I passed the campground and headed over a series of repeating hills and valleys. The hills rose and fell gradually at first, and the valleys often had enough water to allow me to refill my canteen.
This turned out to be quite a boon as the day wore on. Summer had finally decided to take itself seriously, and the heat was becoming more and more of a challenge. I believe my exact phrasing was “as hot and humid as a razorback’s armpit.”
Soon, my off-and-on jogging became more off than on. I gradually settled for a fast hike; then a normal hike; then a slow hike. Finally, I was just happy with forward movement.
Any time I pushed my speed, I started to become nauseated. I knew I was getting too hot, but I didn’t realize how bad it was while I was walking. As long as I was going somewhere, the breeze kept my skin cool. But when I stopped to rest, I could feel a pulsing heat radiate off me.
I distinctly remember envisioning a baked potato.
Hiking a Marathon
My goal for the day was Haw Creek Falls Campground, a whopping 26 miles from my starting point.
Why, you may ask, was I trying to hike a marathon? That’s an excellent question, and I dearly wish I had an intelligent, well-thought-out answer for you. The truth was, I was just being overconfident and perhaps a tad arrogant.
In order to escape the flooding at Turner’s Prong on my previous outing, I’d had to hike half of the next day’s distance. So I said to myself, “Why hike a mere half day today? I’ll just do another day and a half. That will put me back on schedule.”
It was a nice idea in theory. But by noon, my arrival-time calculations were becoming pretty bleak.
Comfort came in the form of frequent changes of scenery. And though the blueberries and blackberries were a bit sparser, I finally found some ripe raspberries. Normally, I would eat as I walked, but I was so happy to find them, and they were so perfectly sweet and tart, that I stopped to eat every last berry I could find.
Walk? Crawl? Or Flop?
Toward afternoon, I started having trouble lifting my legs.
Interestingly, pushing off wasn’t a problem. It was literally just the lifting-them-up part that was becoming an issue.
That made crossing fallen trees a real challenge. Was it easier to walk around, crawl under, or flop myself over the top?
Each tree was a puzzle. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I assure you that, if I’d had a camera man, it would’ve made a killer YouTube video: “Life brings you an obstacle? Flop over it.”
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why didn’t you just stop and set up camp there?”
Believe me, I was thinking about it. And I passed several good places.
But I had talked with Jeremy the day before. He was planning on driving out to Haw Creek Falls with his son and hiking to meet me in order to join me on the final leg of the day’s journey.
With no cell service the entire day, I had no way of contacting him.
The thought of him hiking hours just to find me napping in a hammock didn’t sit well with me. I also didn’t want him to turn back, thinking I was lying at the bottom of a ravine somewhere. So I pressed on, mile after painful mile.
By the time I met Jeremy, my legs were chaffed so badly I was walking like a cartoon cowboy. Still, I was overjoyed to see him. He soon informed me that my GPS tracker hadn’t been working all day. Everyone was wondering how I was doing and if I was still alive.
Good to know that if I’d gotten into trouble, the search party would have only had to cover 26 miles of rugged, heavily wooded terrain.
We crossed the 100-mile mark, then stopped at a small campsite and rested on a stone bench. Haw Creek was only an hour away, Jeremy assured me. And though I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stand back up, I managed to drag myself to my feet and limp the last couple of miles to camp.
Jeremy helped me pour some of his cooler’s ice water over my head, and I collapsed onto a picnic table to rest, talk, and let my body figure out how badly it was hurt.
I don’t think there’s any more satisfying sense of comradery than that of absolutely destroying yourself in the company of friends. I’m not sure if that’s a guy thing, or just a peculiarity of certain personality types. (Feel free to let me know in the comments.)
The Final Signal
We sat, talked, and laughed until darkness began to set in. The plan was to camp together that night and for Jeremy to drive out in the morning. I was still trying to pretend that I could go on the next day, but I had a strong suspicion that I wouldn’t be able to move in the morning. Having Jeremy there as a bail out option was a huge relief.
As it turned out, my body made the call for me before we fully settled in for the night. Random muscle twitches started passing over my body. They became rather strong and disconcerting, not to mention uncomfortable.
This was the final signal for me. Wisdom finally overcame pride, and I asked Jeremy if he would mind bringing me home that night.
My prediction came true, by the way. I couldn’t move in the morning. At least, not any further than back and forth between the bed and the bathroom.
I got my feet back under me in a couple of days, though. And the memories will last longer than the pain.
The adventure ended early, but I was still satisfied. I’d thrown my all into it; tested myself against the trail and lived off the land.
I made plenty of mistakes, but I’d also found out what I was made of, and had the opportunity to further refine my foraging skills. And by the way, I never did get a reaction from the poison ivy.
Read More: “Eat a (Poison Ivy) Leaf to Get Relief?”
Have you had any foraging (or other) adventures that you’d like to share? Let us know about them in the comments.
Psst! Our Lawyer Wants You to Read This Big, Bad Medical Disclaimer –> The contents of this article, made available via The Grow Network (TGN), are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may be suffering from any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention. You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information provided by TGN. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk. And, of course, never eat a wild plant without first checking with a local expert.
Scott Sexton is a TGN Trailblazer, a highly experimental gardener, an unrelenting weed-eater, and a largely non-profit herbalist (much to his wife’s chagrin). When Scott is not teaching foraging classes, testing out theories in the garden, or grazing in the forest, he can be found at his Facebook page, “A Forager’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.”