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Lake Puskus Survival Challenge

by Ryan Dotson

Lake Puskus Survival Challenge

Being a wilderness survival expert puts me in some pretty interesting situations.  Every year I pick several locations around the country to test my skills and document the experience.  Survival knowledge is worthless if you do not take the time to practice and test yourself. Over the years I have had to get creative to make these challenges difficult for myself despite my experience. I like to pick areas that provide unique challenges through resources, climate, and wildlife.  I also set the length of the challenge, the required activities, and the items I am allowed to take with me.

Gear List – Tools I plan to need:

camping trip back pack contents laid out on bed

Primary Gear

  • Large Full Tang knife
  • Pocket Knife
  • Steel Cup
  • 2 Emergency Blankets
  • 1 Bivy Sack (Emergency Blanket With a Zipper)
  • 15 Feet of cordage
  • Medium Thickness Zip Ties
  • Folding Saw
  • Pocket Fisherman
  • Fire Starter
  • Bear Bell
  • Bottle Water Filter
  • Net Trap
  • Small Roll of Duct Tape

Secondary Tools for Life Threatening Scenarios:

water filter iodine tabs and a second head lamp on a blanket

Secondary Gear

  • Second Bottle Filter (backup for if the first one stops working)
  • Iodine Tabs for Water Purification
  • Head Lamp
  • Fire Starting Pack (includes a Zippo, Waterproof Tinder, and a Pocket Gas Stove)

Be aware that I do most of my challenges alone with no camera crew.  I travel to some of the most remote areas in North America, so there is a very real risk of getting into trouble and not being able to survive.  Because of this, I bring two sets of gear.  There is the normal everyday gear that I plan to use and test for readers.  There is also a backup gear set that will only be used if I feel my life is in imminent danger.  In most cases, I could survive without most of this gear, but I like to show you how some of these inexpensive survival items work in a real survival scenario.

This particular challenge would be in one of the most remote parts of Northern Mississippi.  I would have no tent, no sleeping bag, no food, no water, and no lighters or matches for fire.  I would have no map or compass for navigation, no first aid supplies, and no way to signal for help.  This area is known for being one of the least visited parts of the national forest.  I would have to survive for three days among the black bears, wild hogs, panthers, alligators, and venomous snakes that live there.  I would also be required to swim across the lake and back in a simulated supply run. The total distance would be almost half a mile, and the water temperature was around 43F.  This is cold enough to induce hypothermia in just minutes.  Even after I finished my swim, the wind was whipping, and the temperature was cool.  The wind chill was sitting around 50F.

Please note that unlike most of the survival experts you see on television, I complete most of my survival challenges alone.  There is no camera crew, no partner, no medical staff, and no way to call for help.  If I get into serious trouble, I am completely on my own.  This is absolutely not advised for anybody, and only a handful of survival experts anywhere in the world do true solo challenges. Because of this, I always bring backup gear that I only plan to use in the event of an emergency.  These items could keep me alive if I am seriously injured or if something else goes horribly wrong.  I also bring certain survival items specifically to demonstrate their use and test their value for readers.

map of lake with containment area laid out

I have labeled this map in a few ways to show you my intended activity for the duration of my survival challenge.  The large circled area is the overall area that I will use to collect resources. The lake is fairly large, so hiking around it will burn a large number of calories.  The ‘X’ is where I will park to begin my journey.  The small circled areas represent two locations that I am guessing could be good to build a shelter.  Once I get to the lake, I will hike from the ‘X’ to the small circled areas to check them out.  If I do not find a good shelter location, I will continue hiking West along the North shore of the lake until I find a better spot.

I arrived at the lake around 8 am on Tuesday and parked my vehicle.  As expected, I was the only person in that part of the park.  I hiked down to the edge of the water to look around.  I could see some of the landmarks I had noticed on the satellite image of the lake prior to the challenge.  There was a cove in the Northeast corner of the lake with an evergreen grove along the shore.  This was one potential area for my camp since the evergreens would block the heavy winds better than the bare deciduous trees.  On the East side of the lake was a dam with a stream running off of it. The stream could be a good spot to collect food and water, so setting up camp near there could be another ideal option.

I geared up and headed along the Southern shore of the lake toward the stream.  The ground sloped aggressively down as you got closer to the water, and footing was iffy. Rotting leaves were thick on the ground making it slick.  My pack was heavy and affected my balance, so I had to take it slowly.  When I got to the dam near the stream, my path dropped off even more aggressively.  Once I worked my way down, I dropped my pack to check out the area.  I would need to be at least 100 yards from both water sources so that I could avoid predators and biting insects.  Just to the north of the creek was a large, flat area that looked like it had previously been flooded.  I had to guess that the creek used to flood regularly before the dam was built, so the soil in this area would likely provide plenty of wild edible plants.

picture looking over the lake

In addition, I could see through the trees for about 200 yards.  This was ideal for avoiding predators and searching for resources. I hiked over to check out the evergreen grove but decided to stick with the first location.  There were just more readily available resources.

I found a spot where there were two mounds with trees at the top and a dip in between.  This would be perfect for my shelter.  I wanted to display the versatility of good emergency blankets, so I used two of them to make a modified double lean-to.  I started by cutting down two frame poles.  I typically like to use green wood for shelter frames because it is strong, and you can get a thin pole that is very long.  I cut down two poles that were about two inches thick at the thickest point and over 10 feet long.  One of them I tied between the two trees as a ridge pole, and the other I attached to the ridge pole letting the other end rest on the ground.  I used 550 paracord for the frame so that it was solid and tied square knots so they would be easy to remove later.

man holding an edible mushroom in the woods

I then split open my 550 paracord and pulled out the interior strands.  I used these to tie off one side of the first emergency blanket to the ridge pole.  These were tarp style blankets with eyelets at the corners, so they were easy to use for shelter.  The reflective side was facing down so it would reflect heat back to my body.  The other side of the blanket was pinned to the ground with a log about four feet long.  The first side was done.  The other emergency blanket was tied to the other side and one corner was tied to the secondary frame pole.  The final corner was pinned down with a log, and a support pole was inserted underneath the blanket to prop it up like a circus tent.  This would keep it high enough that I could build a fire underneath that blanket and lie underneath the first one.  I piled up dead leaves for a bed, and my shelter was good to go.

turtle floating in a stream

I was now ready to go after food and water.  I started heading to the creek to fill my filter bottle and set my fish trap.  Along the way, I noticed lots of wild edible plants.  When I arrived at the creek, I was frustrated to see that the water had eroded down the banks so much that there was a 20-foot drop off on both sides. I used tree roots to climb down the side of the bank like a ladder and filled my filter bottle.  The fish trap was a net style basket trap with openings that would allow fish in but not back out.  I threw a large rock in the trap to weigh it down and added some bugs for bait. Then I tossed it in a part of the creek where the water was still and tied it off to a rock so it wouldn’t float away.  I climbed back out of the creek and headed back to camp.

edible flowers located in the woods

Then, I dropped off the water at my shelter and started looking around for food.  There were fiddlehead ferns everywhere which are okay raw but are less bitter when cooked. I also found wild violets which are delicious raw, and wild onions that are good both raw and cooked.  I gathered up as much as I could carry and dropped it off at my shelter.  I had enough wild edibles for several meals even if I never caught any fish in my trap.

pile of sticks in the forest for starting a fire

The last resource I needed to collect was firewood. I brought a ferro rod to get it started but needed to find the rest of my supplies.  The beauty of a deciduous area like this is that there are dead branches everywhere. I found plenty of small sticks for kindling and plenty of logs between two and four inches thick for fuel.  For a tinder bundle, I snagged a bird’s nest which is one of my favorite options, and I added to it with some charred pine cones and bark from a recent fire.  I now had everything I needed to survive for the rest of my challenge.

Before it got dark, I checked my fish trap.  It was empty, so I moved it to a part of the creek with a little more water movement and headed back to camp.  I laid down in my shelter to rest and ate some of my wild edibles.  It was still fairly warm, so I did not need to keep a fire burning all night.  In the early hours of the morning, the temperature dropped to freezing so I got the fire going.  I was not able to get back to sleep until the sun was up, but I got a few more hours after it did.  As the sun got high in the sky, I put on my wetsuit for my swim.  Since I was on my own, I needed to make sure I didn’t get so cold in the water that I was unable to swim.  However, there was still a very real risk of hypothermia.  My wetsuit was rated for 50F water, and I was swimming in water that was much colder than that.  In addition, even once I was out of the water my body would lose heat 20 times faster when wet versus when dry.  I jumped in, and the shock of the cold water made me gasp.  It took a little while for me to get adjusted and start swimming, but I got across and back in about 30 minutes.  I immediately stripped off my wetsuit, dried off, put on dry clothes, and boiled some water to drink.  I was in pain and quite disoriented, but the warm water quickly brought my body temperature back to normal.  I have been hypothermic several times before, so this was not a new experience. It is never fun.

The rest of the experience was just repetition.  I kept collecting water, gathering wild edibles, moving my fish trap, resting, and collecting firewood. The second night was much warmer with a low temperature around 45F, so I was able to get more sleep.  I was also much more tired.  After getting some rest, hydrating, and eating I was ready to break down my camp.  I packed everything up and hiked back to my vehicle.  Over the course of the challenge I hiked around 20 miles, so I was quite sore.  I have done challenges during which I hiked further, but the hiking combined with the swimming and the cold made this one tough.  I said goodbye to my Mississippi paradise and headed home.  It took me three days before I could make it up and down stairs without help, so I was in pretty rough shape.  However, I am very much looking forward to my next challenge in a few months.

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