Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival school is located in Catawba, Virginia, USA and another location in Tillamook forest, Oregon. The school has received rave reviews from the likes of the NY Times, the Discovery Channel and USA Today. This praise is well earned since the school trains everyone from the Boy Scouts, Army Special Forces and even professionals from the C.I.A. The school offers multiple types of classes that include basic to advanced wilderness survival techniques, team building programs and even leadership classes for business professionals. The head instructor at the Virginia location is former Airforce SERE (Survival.Evasion.Resistance.Escape) instructor Reggie Bennet.
I participated in the Humble Thunder Survival course. This course is a 4-day, 3-night excursion and described as their most challenging course (to civilians I assume). Let me assure you, the course delivered.
Mountain Shepherd’s location is beautiful. Located on the edge and partial interior of the Jefferson National Forest, it is surprisingly easy to find. Although fair warning I did use a GPS device and found that with AT&T I had no service within 20 miles of the school. Had I not brought the GPS device and relied on my phone’s GPS I would have been screwed.
The school itself is a large wilderness lodge. Two floors, all hardwood, porches on both levels surrounding the front and one side of the lodge. On the first floor there are gender specific dormitories that guests may pay an extra fee to stay in the night of their arrival or departure (assuming they arrive a day early or stay a night late). The dormitory arrangements include bunk beds in one common room, plenty of wall outlets, WiFi access and two showers and baths each.
The second level of the lodge serves as a living room for Reggie and family while instructing courses as well as a classroom for some of the multi-media portions of any given course. There is also a small store located on this level that provides guests with the latest in wilderness survival gear from a variety of different manufacturers. There is a kitchen on this floor, although not for guests use. (Hint: Reggie does brew fresh coffee every-morning that all guests and students are welcome to if you get up early enough.)
The remainder of course activities will take place on the over 100-acres of property that comprises the school grounds, as well as some portions inside of the Jefferson National Forest. During the Humble Thunder course in particular, most of your activities will take place at makeshift camps that have been set up and your sleeping quarters are outside, located inside of the make-shift shelters that you will construct after provided training and materials.
Humble Thunder is specifically described as “A survival course for adults that includes our complete survival curriculum, moderate hiking, map and compass, and survival challenges. Our most difficult, yet most popular course.” Other courses available are, Survival 101, Survival 101 for Women, Hidden Pursuit, Wild Inspirations, Travel Safe training, Wild Comforts, Wilderness First Aid 101 and Team Building/Leadership Development courses. (visit the Mountain Shepherd website for in-depth descriptions of each of the other course offerings)
Humble Thunder is four days and three nights in duration. I arrived the night early and slept in a tent on the grounds. Since the course starts promptly at 9am the next day, I did not wish to be driving through the night only to be hiking the whole next day. The first day began quickly with introductions and backgrounds of all participants. My group was diverse consisting of 10 people of backgrounds ranging from mechanic, professional CPA, coast guard engine mechanic as well as a professional novelist. It was explained that the course would cover the 7 priorities of survival. The 7 priorities as detailed by Mountain Shepherd’s curriculum are as follows:
Positive Mental Attitude
Wilderness First Aid
Shelter (and relevant skills such as knot tying and lashing)
(Land navigation was also included in the curriculum using map and compass)
After the introductions we got right into the training. First we covered Positive Mental Attitude. There was no specific technique or fix for satisfying this priority. In some respects you either have the will to survive or you don’t. Yet there are some important things to consider and remember when attempting to maintain the motivation to survive. Keeping busy is key according to Reggie. Especially if you are stuck in a situation where you are alone, you must keep busy. Whether this involves work or even simple games keeping yourself busy will keep you sane. We then delved right into shelter craft.
Shelter craft also involved knot/lashing work. We learned a few simple knots that were relevant to most shelter making we would be doing. The shelters that we learned to make included, Reggie’s own “Bomb Proof Shelter”, A-Frames, Lean-to’s, Fan shelters and while not in practice, in the classroom section of training we went over methods for creating field expedient snow shelters, sand shelters along with a variety of others.
The first day culminated before dark with an intro to Fire Craft. The tips given in this lesson involving getting a knee high fire started were worth the cost of the trip alone. After very little instruction we all were able to get a knee high fire started and sustained within a very short period of time.
On day 2 of training we began the day with a longer lesson on wilderness first aid. The section was not meant to be a certification course, as these courses themselves are often full day even 2 day or longer courses. What the lesson did stress was the importance of immediately addressing and treating injuries (no matter how minor they seem) when in a survival situation. The mechanisms of injury were covered and this linked into putting together a first aid kit that would, at the very least, cover all of these different mechanisms of injury.
After wilderness medicine we continued with shelter craft (the shelters mentioned above were spread out over the first two days into 2 sections). This section was shorter than the first day’s shelter craft section since we already knew the knots and lashings required in order to construct the shelters. Finished with the last of our shelter craft the class moved on to water purification.
This section covered everything from good water sources that do not require filtration, to means of filtration. The means of filtration was wide ranging, including, boiling water, tablets and chemicals for filtering water, and also modern filtration devices, such as filter pumps. The pros and cons of each were discussed and Reggie gave his opinion on the best devices and or methods. An interesting new product that was discussed was a new technology that uses osmosis in order to pull water molecule by molecule out of a source. This was explained to be similar to the way a tree pulls water out of the ground. Apparently this is a very new technology and the only full proof method of purifying water of everything including chemicals or heavy metals and was used in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.
We finished the second day with another section on fire-craft. This was, much like the shelter craft section, more advanced methods of building and starting a fire. We covered “pitch” wood or “fat” wood as its called. A natural tinder source that effectively takes a flame even after soaked. To demonstrate the effectiveness of pitch wood, we hiked out and gathered enough to start a fire and then we were instructed to dump our haul into a bucket of water. After letting the wood soak for 5 minutes or so as Reggie went over methods of crafting your own tinder out of larger pieces of wood we used the soaking wet “pitch” wood to start a fire. To our delighted surprise the “pitch” wood started without fail or issue. Pitch wood is essentially a piece of dead pine wood that died in the right conditions that the wood was saturated with resin. This resin is what gives it its flammable quality. Modern tinder sources were also covered, such as a product called Wetfire that, much like pitch wood, will take a flame even when wet.
Day 3 was our land navigation day. It began earlier than the rest and started in the classroom inside of the lodge. We covered topographic map terminology, different types of compasses (lensatic and map), the Universal Transverse Mercator System (UTM), and matching map to compass. This included the importance of knowing the declination angle of the area that your map is detailing in order to adjust your compass accordingly. After we went over these basics and practiced adjusting our compass we went outside with our topographic maps of the area and map compasses.
We were to “bushwack” our way up to the Huckleberry Knob, a large hill close to the lodge in the Jefferson National Forest. By ‘bushwacking” I mean that rather than taking the clearly marked trails we straight-lined it through the underbrush to the top. Using our topographic maps and compasses we took turns leading and setting headings for the rest of the group to follow. With Reggie’s guidance and others in the group to help or correct if we went slightly off path, everyone eventually became pretty comfortable leading and setting the next heading. On the course of the hike we covered other field expedient methods for navigating, such as the handrail method, where you use easily recognizable terrain markers on to keep you in line to your destination. We arrived about two hours later at the top of Huckleberry Knob and sat down for lunch. After lunch we repeated the process and made our way back to the lodge. A huge bowl full of cut watermelon and a cooler full of Gatorade and water was waiting for us when we got back. This was a great surprise considering the heat that day.
Day 3 culminated with a final lesson on firecraft that detailed the bow and drill method. While Reggie got a fire going with the method, he stressed that one must really practice this method extensively if they ever hope to get a fire going in a survival situation. His demonstration also illuminated how great of an energy expenditure that the method was.
Day 4 was the final day and only a half day class. The course covered signaling techniques and implements. These included signaling with mirrors, fire, glowsticks and even natural materials. The Spot GPS signaling device was discussed. The Spot is a emergency device that hikers, campers and hunters can take with them that when activated acts as a distress beacon that will signal rescuers to your location. One model can even be used in conjunction with a cell phone to send out text messages if you just want to tell a loved one that you are fine and just checking in.
After signaling we covered gathering food. Food sources ranged from small animals to bugs. Bugs were stressed as the easiest source of quality nutrition but guidelines were given as to what types of bugs were safe to eat and which types should be avoided. Natural colors that blend in with surroundings was one guideline, six legs or less was another guideline, nothing that could hurt you while you try to get it, and nothing fuzzy or hairy was another guideline. In the area that we were in a very viable source of bug protein happened to be wood roaches. After the lesson on bugs, the class was happy that we moved on to discussion of edible plants. Plants can be a food source but unfortunately it is very risky to eat plants since there are no hard rules with what is safe to eat. Finally we ended a lesson on snaring. We used floral wire, the kind that a florist would use in order to make a bouquet, and practiced setting our snares in locations of obvious animal traffic. With the conclusion of this lesson the course was effectively finished and we wound down with goodbyes and discussion of the course as a whole.
This course was great! It was well worth the money, in fact, just the lessons on fire-craft were worth the cost of admission. It was fun, challenging and extremely informative. In retrospect, my one complaint would be that I wish that the course was twice as long in order to go over the material more slowly in order to make retention easier. I did bring a notebook and took notes at the end of the day in order to reference at a later date but in the future I would have brought the notebook with me and taken notes directly in the field. My favorite part of the course was the hiking day. Land navigation as challenging but very rewarding once understood. By no means was I anything close to an expert by the end of the lesson but at the very least I felt that given a map and a compass I would be able to get myself to safety if the situation ever called for it. The hike itself was great, and when we were about to sit down for lunch we had some excitement when we heard a rattlesnake. There turned out to be 2 snakes and each had to have been roughly 6 feet in length and were none too happy that we had decided to use their sunning spot as our picnic location. Reggie took care of both snakes quickly and effectively tossing one away with his hiking poles and trapping one inside of its hole with underbrush. Another highlight of the course were Reggie’s dogs Holly and Scout. Both were along for all lessons and hikes and provided a great amount of comic relief during some of the more serious portions of lessons. I would highly recommend this course to anybody who enjoys hiking, camping or hunting or anybody feels that they would like to be capable of helping themselves or others out of a jam in the wilderness. Although you do not have to be in amazing physical condition, some of the hiking can be moderate to difficult and I would be hesitant to recommend this course to anybody who would consider a mile walk a daunting task. All in all, a great experience and I fully plan on taking more of their courses in the future.