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The Next Generation – Introducing Kids to Survival

by Ryan Dotson

Tall man standing between two kids in the forest

I will never forget the message I received in March stating that my two nephews wanted to join me on a survival challenge. Jay and Dre are 10 and 11 years old, and I had never seriously considered bringing children on a challenge.

There have been times that I felt my life was in genuine danger during these challenges, and I am an experienced survivalist. How would two children with zero survival experience get by in a challenge such as this?

Over the years I have had over a dozen adults say that they wanted to join me on a challenge, but not one has followed through to this point. Would it take the blind faith of children for me to see true bravery?


I was proud that my sister and brother in law had enough confidence to entrust their children to me. At the same time, it made me immediately start second guessing my abilities.

Would I really be able to protect these boys? Would I be able to keep us all hydrated and fed without anybody getting sick? Would I be able to keep everybody warm at night?

I remember how miserable and gut wrenching my first challenge was, and I did not want the boys to suffer like that. Between cramping from dehydration, weakness from hunger, nearly freezing to death in the rain, and gashing my head open on a tree branch, I barely made it through that first challenge.

As I typically do when I doubt myself, I started planning everything to death. I wanted to know that I had a plan and a backup plan for every aspect of this challenge.

I started giving the boys homework assignments on various survival subjects a few months before the challenge date. They were required to do reports on first aid topics, venomous snakes, poisonous plants, and other relevant material. I was highly impressed with the dedication that they showed before we ever hit the woods.

I also conversed with my sister and brother in law as we planned out a location and a time when they would be in town. There is a stretch of wilderness behind my father’s property, and this would be the setting for our great adventure.

The Day Before

Having our headquarters at my father’s house was ideal for us to prepare. The day before our challenge, we were fortunate enough to spend time together eating good food and getting hydrated. There were constant questions about where we were going and what we would learn. I enjoyed the questions and could not wait to get out there and show them what I know.

Most people get sick of me talking about survival, but these young minds were eager to soak up every drop of knowledge. We had a meeting with their mother and discussed the gear we would be using. I focused on redundancy in a bug out bag (BOB) and every day carry kit (EDC kit). They seemed amazed that I had four knives in my EDC kit and another six of various sizes and purposes in my BOB. They were eager to get started.

Setting up Camp

We woke at dawn and started gearing up. Instantly the boys and their mother started noticing the way I was dressed and things they may do differently next time. I was happy to hear that they were planning on a “next time.”

I also thought that might be a bit premature. They boys had declared that there was no way they were tapping out, but we were close enough to safety that they could if needed. I urged them to eat as much protein and as many carbohydrates as possible as I shoveled down my breakfast.

As we headed out into the thick bush, we were equipped with a reasonable survival kit. It was still less gear than I took on my first challenge, but we had plenty to get the job done. We started heading down to lower ground hoping that it would lead to water. The terrain was steep and the leaves were wet from steady rains the previous day, so I urged Jay and Dre to take it slow.

They also needed to look out for cottonmouths and copperheads that might be in our path. The boys instantly noticed that I had found a game trail worn into the hillside and was following it. I explained that often the deer will take the easiest path down the hill, so it is a safe bet to trust their path.

I started pointing out some potential areas that might work for our shelter. The bush was still thick, so I was hoping for a flat spot will little ground vegetation. There was also poison ivy in this area that I had to avoid. We tromped down one hillside and up the other, over and over, weaving along the dry creek bed. I found a cedar grove that had little ground vegetation, but we still had not found water.

After leaving the grove and heading in the opposite direction, we stumbled upon another cedar grove that was smaller and more open. Just past the grove, we finally saw the glint of the sun bouncing off of water. A small pond was just on the edge of the woods, and I could not be happier. We were done hiking for now, and it was time to set up camp.

Before starting our shelter, I knew we would need lots of clean water. With three of us working, we would dehydrate quickly in the 90°F heat. I pulled out my filter water bottle and filled it to the top. I went to take a drink. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The filter was clogged and was not allowing any water to flow through. I had this happen one other time the previous summer, and I was forced to replace the filter. I could not believe that this was happening again with three people needing clean water.

Human hands with iodine pills and water bottles

Using iodine tablets for water purification

Thankfully the redundancy in my BOB meant that I had iodine tablets with me to purify the water. I dropped a few in the bottle, and put it back in my pack. It would have to sit for 30 minutes before it would be ready to drink.

While we were at the pond, I decided to do some passive fishing. I pulled out the gill net and had the boys stretch it out. I knew the gill net was not ideal for still water, but it would have to do. We needed protein. I attached floats at the top and weights at the bottom, tied one end to the shore, and cast the other end out into the water.

It appeared to be floating upright, so we headed back to what would become our camp. In the cedar grove we found a flat spot with two trees about 10 feet apart. After a short break, we started collecting poles for our shelter. I used two ridge poles with one on each side of the trees so there would be an opening for smoke to leave our shelter. Thankfully I was able to wedge them into the branches, and had to use no cordage at all.

The boys kept bringing me dead cedar poles that had fallen naturally. As they brought them up, I would cut them to length and place them diagonally against the ridge poles. This gave us an A-frame design that would have enough room for the three of us and a small fire in the center.

Admittedly, they did most of the heavily lifting as I am not as young and nimble as I used to be. Their work ethic was impressive as they scoured the forest for the poles we needed, barely taking any breaks at all.

The water was ready to drink, so I insisted that they get hydrated. It was only 9am and the boys were already asking for snacks. I explained that in a normal survival scenario we would just have to go hungry. Thankfully I had brought along some preserved survival foods to teach them about food rationing and preservation. They nibbled on hard tack and deer jerky wondering why I was not eating.

I explained that my body naturally goes into starvation mode during these challenges, and that I likely would not need to eat until that evening or the following day. Over the course of the challenge, I only consumed about 100 calories while the boys had closer to 1000 per person. We also had pemmican and granola with us for snacking, and rice with beans for dinner if we did not find anything else.

Procuring Food and Flame

The shelter was built and would be ideal for breaking the wind and keeping any animals out. Cedar is strong, lightweight, and naturally repels mosquitoes. The needles underneath give some added padding and insulation as well. I normally insist on having a raised bed, but it was summertime, and there were no ideal materials for a bed.

While finishing the shelter, one of the boys happened to find a small turtle. We also checked our gill net every few hours and were able to bring in one small bass for dinner. I had some copper wire with me, so I taught the boys how to make snare traps, and we each built a squirrel pole.

squirrel traps setup up in a tree

Squirrel pole via realitysurvival.com

Afterwards, we found some large trees away from our camp and leaned the poles at a 45 degree angle. This would prompt squirrels to run up the pole and get caught in the snares.

We had some down time, so I wanted to show the boys how to make spears. I got out a few folding blade knives and showed them how to safely use them. Within a few minutes, Jay and Dre had fashioned a couple nice single point spears that were ready to have the tips hardened in a fire.

I was impressed with how quickly the boys caught on to the techniques I was teaching, and was blown away by how well they followed direction. Now it was time for a little lesson in firearms safety. I had brought my old Nylon 66 .22 rifle, and wanted to do some target practice in case we saw any critters. I showed the boys how to hit a small cedar tree about 20 yards away. To my amazement, they both were able to hit the same spot on the first try. These boys were pros.

It was getting late so we checked our traps and gill net one more time. We had caught one squirrel, but it looked like it had worked its way free.

Human hands using ferro rod on tinder

The boys had gathered plenty of firewood, organized it by size, and shaved cedar bark for a tinder bundle. I pulled out the ferro rod and showed them how to get a good fire going. Then we cooked the turtle, fish, and rice with beans.

With the turtle being a reptile, we double cooked it to ensure it was safe to eat. We were also purifying more water to rehydrate. As the sun went down, we moved into our shelter and started a new fire. The boys read a bit while I tried to get some sleep. I would not say our bellies were full, but we got by just fine.

The Sounds of the Night

As night pushed on, little sleep was had. Either Jay or Dre would get about an hour of sleep, and then wake up from the chill in the air. They brought me fire wood as I kept the fire going all night.

At the same time, I had to make sure it did not get too big and burn down our shelter. The noises of the night were all around us, and the boys seemed worried about getting attacked. I assured them that between our fire, our shelter, and my really big knife that we would be okay.

Morning could not come soon enough!

Final Thoughts

After wrapping things up the next morning, I was very proud of the effort I saw from Jay and Dre. As a reward for a successful survival challenge, I gave them each their first folding blade knives. I had found some high quality, Scrade knives that should last them a lifetime.

They were excited about the gift, and had already asked about planning a winter survival challenge with me. I warned that a winter challenge is completely different, and that we would have to talk about it.

I look back on this experience with nothing but pride and a smile on my face. In a very short amount of time I was able to teach these boys about trapping, fishing with a gill net, knife skills, marksmanship, making a spear, shelter building, fire starting, water purification, preserved survival foods, cooking wild meat, venomous snakes, poisonous plants, first aid, BOB redundancy, and orienteering.

If the average adult would learn just half of those skills, they would be much more prepared for any potential survival scenario. I would gladly take Jay and Dre into a survival situation, and am looking forward to our next challenge.

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