I don’t have a lot of practical skills. I know this because, in a pandemic-fueled fit of panic, I made a list of things I know how to do in case modern society crumbles: “pretty good at slacklining” and “can decipher the precise citrus notes in an IPA” made the cut. But I realized that nobody will care about pairing the perfect pale ale with chicken wings when society collapses. People will need practical skills, and I have soft writer hands.
I don’t think I’m alone. We’re all increasingly specialized in today’s society, focusing on perfecting one task and letting skills that used to be common knowledge fall by the wayside. If my lawn mower breaks, I buy a new one. If I want fresh vegetables, I go to the farmers’ market. Fewer and fewer of us know to build a fire or navigate without GPS.
So while everyone else was using this state-mandated time at home to binge Tiger King, I decided to add to my end-of-the-world resume. Was I buying into the prepper paranoia? Maybe. I’m not digging a bunker anytime soon, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a capable individual who knows how to start a fire in the rain or clean a fish. Before the pandemic, I could’ve signed up for a series of survival-skills clinics or camps, but that wasn’t an option. So I leaned into the internet. Here are the skills I’ve been learning to become more useful.
Key Skill: Start a Fire Without Matches
I don’t understand how people “accidentally” start forest fires in non-arid places. I can barely start a fire on purpose under ideal conditions with a lighter, lots of newspaper, and wood soaked in gasoline. My lack of pyrotechnic skills has been a source of embarrassment since childhood, and I’m usually relegated to the role of gathering wood while more useful people deal with the actual flame.
The truly hardcore can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but I have no delusions of being hardcore. So during my time of learning, I focused on the flint and steel method, where you take a piece of steel (like the back of a fixed-blade knife) and rub it across a piece of flint or a ferro rod to create sparks. After ordering a kit from REI, my 11-year-old son and I set about starting fires in our backyard. Using a ferro rod takes a little practice—the key is to apply a lot of pressure with the steel—and I bloodied several knuckles figuring out the motion. Eventually, I was able to start fires using a little bit of dryer lint and some crushed leaves. It was like a magic trick.
But here’s the thing about fires: getting a spark and flame is easy, whether you’re using a lighter or a knife and ferro rod. The real art is figuring out how to keep a fire going, especially when you have wet wood. I live in the southern Appalachians, where it rains constantly, so dry wood is scarce. Fortunately, while researching fire-starting techniques, I stumbled onto this video. In it a man uses a Swiss Army knife to create a fire starter and kindling out of sawdust from a stump and shavings from the inside of a stick, where the wood is dry. Those wood chips light up like a can of hairspray. For larger pieces of wet wood, I learned to use a hatchet or large field knife to hack into the dry core. From now on, I’m definitely going to carry a field knife—I’ll be that weird guy who forages for food and has a Crocodile Dundee–style blade on his hip at all times.
Confidence Level: High. Let some other chump gather wood; I’m on fire duty now.
Key Skill: Forage for Food
Growing food is an enviable skill, but why not cut out the middleman and learn how to forage for food that’s just out there waiting to be eaten?
Chances are there’s enough food growing wild within walking distance of your backyard to provide a couple of meals. The key is identifying what’s safe to eat, because many wild edible plants have poisonous look-alikes. That makes the whole process fun—but risky. The safest way to learn foraging is to find a mentor or, at the very least, take a series of courses where you’re guided in the wild. Because that wasn’t an option for me over the past few months, I used the site Wild Edible, which has tons of information about common edible plants found throughout the country that are relatively easy to identify. The founders of that blog also contributed to the book Idiot’s Guide to Foraging, if you’re looking for something tangible to carry around.
I started by foraging dandelions; the whole herb is edible, but I focused on the big, leafy greens, which you cook like collards. Then I moved onto plantain (not the fruit), a broad-leafed weed that tastes like spinach, and violet leaves, a miracle plant that has been used for centuries for all kinds of medicinal purposes. You can even turn it into lip balm, but is always having Chapstick on hand a valuable end-of-world skill? Maybe. I’m more concerned with sustenance, so I sautéed my new finds with butter and garlic.
Once I started learning about the abundance of wild edibles, I couldn’t stop looking for them. Every trail run is a foraging event now—I spend as much time hunched over the ground looking for microgreens as I do worrying about my heart rate. I’m also starting to dabble with mushroom hunting, but it scares the shit out of me because, you know, death. Also, you have to watch out for maggots, which burrow into mushrooms and can ruin any meal if you’re not careful. Hobbies that involve maggots are out of my comfort zone. But I’m learning.
Confidence Level: So-so. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I get ahold of a bad root. Foraging is a skill that takes constant practice. For now I double-check any food I bring home by using Picture This, an app that identifies plant species.
Key Skill: Clean a Fish
I’ve been fishing for trout in the southern Appalachians and Rocky Mountains for decades, and I’d still classify my status as a fisherman as amateur bordering on hopeless. Cleaning a fish is a skill that I have avoided completely until now. When I went fishing as a kid, my dad handled the cleaning while I turned away and tried to think pleasant thoughts. As an adult, I’ve stuck to a catch-and-release ethos, so I’ve never cleaned a trout, which feels like a strange thing to say considering I’m a grown-ass man with kids and a mortgage. I should’ve mastered this skill decades ago, but here I am, having to learn the basics that most Boy Scouts pick up before they hit puberty.
Cleaning a trout is simple and barbaric at the same time. It involves either cutting the head off the fish or ripping through its jawbone. There are a bunch of different video tutorials out there, but I like this one from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. After practicing on a couple of dead rainbows I bought from the local fish market, I decided that cutting the head off is the most humane option, but I still find it’s best to avoid looking directly into the fish’s eyes. I used my Helle Harding, a Swedish hunting knife that I think is too pretty for regular use but felt like the right ceremonial blade for my fish sacrifice. (There are dedicated fillet knives out there, but I didn’t have one, so I just used what was on hand.) Once you make the first puncture, the skin almost peels apart on its own. You have to keep the cut shallow so you don’t puncture the organs as you cut from the butt of the fish to its gills, but pulling most of the guts out with your fingers isn’t hard; most of them are connected and come out in a string. The entrails felt like guilt between my fingers. After that you have to take your thumbnail and separate the long kidney from the spine of the fish, a bloody job that left me feeling like Lady Macbeth trying to scrub dirty deeds from my hands.
Cleaning the fish might have tested my morality, but it wasn’t difficult in a technical sense. The real art and mastery come with filleting the fish, a delicate process that feels like performing surgery, because you have to cut away the rib bones without sacrificing much meat. This is where my amateurism reared its ugly head, and I mutilated the first couple of fish I tried this on. The slabs of trout looked like tartar, and I had to pick through some of the smaller pin bones when I was eating.
Still, I was so proud that I called my father to brag. As far as I’m concerned, cleaning my first fish is a ceremonial accomplishment that signifies to the world that I’m finally a real man, like a messier bar mitzvah.
Confidence Level: High. My fillets might not be pretty, but this is the end of days we’re talking about, so food doesn’t have to be good-looking. Killing a fish with my own bare hands is a different matter. It’s a process that involves either whipping its head against a rock or bludgeoning it with a thick stick. My son and I had some luck on a recent fishing adventure in Pisgah National Forest, in North Carolina, landing a couple of rainbows on my Tenkara rod, but I couldn’t bring myself to off the fish. I’ll maintain a catch-and-release ethos for now—or until I actually need to kill fish for sustenance.
Key Skill: Tie Knots
My lack of knot-tying skills has held me back as an adventure athlete. I can muddle my way through a figure eight during infrequent climbing trips, but I always feel better if I ask my partner to double-check my work, like a ten-year-old in summer camp. And it’s not just climbing; knots are everywhere—they keep your hook on your line when you’re fishing, your boat on your car when you’re headed to the put-in, your food out of reach of bears when you’re camping. My father, an aeronautical engineer with a mind for minutiae, tried to teach me various knots throughout my entire childhood. They never stuck.
Fortunately, knot tying might be the easiest skill to learn at home during a pandemic. There are plenty of kits that come with how-to books and rope, most of which are geared toward kids, but you can start practicing with a shoestring or some yarn. I tried using a book called What Knot?, but I found the pictures and instructions weren’t descriptive enough and ended up feeling frustrated, wondering out loud why we don’t just use more Velcro in the world. Then I found Knots by Grog, a website featuring animated tutorials that walk you through every step of hundreds of useful knots, allowing you to pause and retrace the moves until you get them down. There’s even an app for your iPhone.
The content is organized by activity (climbing, sailing, etc.), but I focused on knots that have plagued me over the past 40 years—things like the clove hitch and bowline, two of the most useful knots for securing the end of a line. I cut two pieces of thin rope and worked my way through a few tutorials. I can’t accurately describe the feeling of satisfaction that comes from successfully tying a clove hitch around a pen for the first time. But I’ll say that, on my personal list of accomplishments, it lies somewhere between learning how to parallel park and holding my children for the first time.
My capacity to screw up the double fisherman’s knot is astounding. When tied correctly, it’s a beautiful example of symmetry, two pieces of rope joined together with equal links. I occasionally get it right, but most of the time it looks like a monkey with anger issues attacked the rope. I have the most success when I try not to overthink the process, which means I have to slip into a sort of mellow Zen state. I find that singing a song helps to keep my mind occupied. “Sloop John B” or “Yellow Submarine” are good options. I’m hoping it’s just a matter of tying and retying the same knot until muscle memory kicks in.
(For those who are wondering, Grog is a real person and the closest thing the knot-tying world has to a celebrity. His real name is Alan Grogono, he’s 85, and he comes from a long family of sailors, doctors, and knot enthusiasts. He’s a retired anesthesiologist who at one time held a world sailing speed record. He also has a sister website that’s all about folding napkins for different occasions, which as fascinating as it sounds, probably won’t come in handy when things go sour.)
Confidence Level: Low. For some reason, I can learn the knots just fine but forget them the next day. Maybe I need to spend more time practicing and less time Googling “fetish knots for beginners.”
Key Skill: Learn Basic First Aid
My wife is a nurse practitioner, so I have the habit of turning to her whenever someone gets stung by a bee, breaks a toe, or starts choking on a pretzel. She can save people’s lives, but I’m tall and can reach things on the top shelf, so we’re sort of even. Still, I want to be useful when someone gets hurt, and I’ve been putting off getting my Wilderness First Responder certificate for far too long. To get moving in the right direction, I signed up for an online first aid and CPR course with the Red Cross. It only cost $32 and took a few hours, but I had to spread the lessons out over three days because I have the attention span of an untrained puppy.
The lessons are a series of slide-show instructions followed by animated “missions,” where you respond to real-life scenarios: Karen is having a seizure in a food court, or Barry suffered a severe laceration at the factory, or Diane is a diabetic who feels dizzy in the grocery store. There’s a realistic aspect to it: you navigate the scene and make decisions on what actions to take. Should you apply pressure to Barry’s laceration right away or ask about his medical history first? Should you give Diane milk or orange juice? Sometimes a bystander in the scenario will offer bad advice, like telling you to put a wallet in Karen’s mouth while she’s seizing. Stupid bystander.
The majority of first aid is knowing the check-call-care protocol, which basically keeps you from doing anything dumb before a real professional shows up. It’s been fun reliving some of my own injuries over the years—frostbite on my toes, a dislocated shoulder on a mountain-bike trail, hypothermia while bushwhacking well into the night—and realizing I handled all of them poorly. (Apparently, drinking whiskey is not the proper response to any of those scenarios.)
I got pretty excited during the tutorial about applying tourniquets, and my favorite scenario was when Zach cut himself in the gym and went into shock. I felt like a doctor when I applied pressure and dressed his wound, laid him down, covered him with a blanket, and comforted him. I have a wonderful virtual bedside manner. If anyone gets hurt in a video game, I know what to do. But I blew it during the Severe External Bleeding: Advanced Skill Practice mission. I checked the scene for hazards (a bloody knife was on the floor), but I forgot to send the bystander to call 911. Rookie mistake.
This is the same class that most teenagers take when they’re hoping to land babysitting gigs, so it’s not like I’m an EMT or anything. But of all of the skills I’m trying to learn, basic CPR might be the most valuable, and it’s gotten me stoked to continue my education after the pandemic subsides. Given the amount of time I’m in the woods doing stupid shit, I should’ve become a Wilderness First Responder decades ago. Now I’m determined to make it happen. I’m probably not going to be a great hunter during the apocalypse (see: my inability to kill a fish). But maybe I can save someone’s life or, at the very least, keep a cut from getting infected.
Confidence Level: So-so. Virtual lessons are fine, but there’s no substitute for practicing on one of those dummies, and my wife won’t let me perform CPR or tie tourniquets on our children. But at least I have a sense of the steps I’d need to take in a variety of different situations, and I’m looking forward to getting a real first aid education when this is all over.