I have grown up and lived in the suburbs of Phoenix, AZ almost my entire life. For anyone who is not familiar with Northwest Phoenix, this means I grew up in the desert. We lived in track homes all the while being within a stone’s throw (literally) of undeveloped, uninhabited, and unending desert. Every time the surrounding wilderness would become developed, we would move further out-of-town (and so the cycle continues today). It was against the back drop of the unrelenting heat and the unforgiving desert that I would learn my first courses in survival.
One lesson I have learned from my parents and now encourage my children to participate in is being an Outdoorsy Kid. It didn’t matter if it was after school or during the summer time my brothers and I would often hear my mother say “Go play outside.” Whether this was for her sanity or ours (or both) we didn’t know but we also didn’t care because we had a blast running around doing whatever we wanted in the Wild West. We spent the majority of our free time outdoors…even when it was 120 degrees outside (don’t call CPS, we had a hose in both the back and front yards and sometimes popsicles!!).
I learned in my youth that water is essential. In Phoenix the summer temperatures can rise quickly. Sometimes when you get into your car that has been parked outside for hours the heat will take your breath away.
As we explored deeper into the surrounding desert we spent greater amounts of time away from readily available water sources such as water fountains, the kitchen sink, or my personal favorite, the hose in the front yard. We began freezing half full water bottles at night and filling them the rest of the way in the morning before our next adventure. The water would stay cold for hours. We would find larger bottles and experiment with those trying to find the perfect balance between size and how easily we could carry it on our bikes.
When we joined scouts our parents purchased us a Camelbak (which we thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread). It wasn’t very often one of us didn’t have that bright blue mouth piece clinched between our teeth while outside playing football or baseball or riding bikes. We learned from a young age that we needed to have water with us if the fun was going to continue.
While it seems like a “no-brainer” that water is requisite for roughing it in the outdoors, you’d be surprised by how many individuals neglect this important part of survival. I can’t tell you how many times inexperienced adults try to jump into prepping/camping/“outdoorsy stuff” as if it’s a fad and end up with heat exhaustion or heat stroke all because they thought a 2 mile hike in the Arizona summer would be easy and fun. This is a lesson my brothers and I already learned long before the age of 12 and one we have never forgotten. Today we all have clean water storage sources for “on-the-go” situations. I never leave the house without a water bottle.
Playing outdoors introduces you to wildlife that would otherwise go unnoticed. I remember trying to chase down lizards, snakes, coyotes, roadrunners and once a pack of wild donkey (yes, the desert wilderness in northwest Peoria has wild donkeys). We learned quickly what snakes and lizards could be caught and which of our reptilian friends we should avoid. Through trial and error we learned to pick up large stones so that the rock is in between you and whatever animal/insect you thought might be hiding underneath. We learned that if you heard the heart stopping “rattle” from a Diamond Back Rattlesnake that you ought to run in the opposite direction. We learned that although the outdoors is fun the wildlife that survives in such harsh and tough conditions do so by being harsh and tough themselves. You might consider me a “nervous nelly” but when I see inexperienced campers/hikers stopping with their children to admire a rattle snake I can’t help but think “Are you stupid or just not from around here?”
It would be impossible for me to tell you the emotions I felt as a 12-year-old getting my first Shotgun and going out with my dad to hunt dove and quail. I learned to hunt for food, to respect the wildlife around me, and to never shoot at or kill animals just for fun. I learned that edible was a relative term and that finding edible animals could be the difference between starvation and a feast.
We loved building Forts out in the desert. Sometimes we would lug our shovels and picks out to the desert and dig a pit for our fort. Afterward we would have dirt clod wars, throwing clumps of Arizona dirt at each other or neighbors. We learned that at about 6 inches to a foot deep we would have to work together to get past the hard desert clay. Many times our forts need to be built upward. We learned simple “granny” knots would “knot” do (see what I did there…with the word Knot?).
We built “lean to’s and A-frames and box frames using lashing techniques. We saw that if you wanted a fort or a shelter to last more than an hour or two, you needed to apply the proper knots (clove hitch) to your lashings.
Aside from building we learned to breakdown those things we built. I remember one evening we wanted to show our father some of the forts we had built. As we traveled to our latest edifice, we all passed prior forts that we had dug or built that were still erected or half torn down. My father was extremely angry to find out that his sons had been out littering the desert with his tools, lumber, and camping supplies. Needless to say, we spent the rest of our night filling in pits and untying blankets and lumber from trees. We learned that being in the outdoors is great but it is our responsibility to clean up after ourselves…even in the outdoors. My father taught us to “Leave no trace” and that when you run out of rope it is absolutely not acceptable to use your father’s extension cords.
It got to the point that in order to have more time playing and less time traveling to our destinations we needed to start riding our bikes. At first when playing in undeveloped land there are no paved or forged trails. Unfortunately while riding our bikes in the wilderness we popped A LOT of bike tires. My mother got fed up with buying new bike tubes every week so she purchased us a tube patching kit. This saved both time and money and it was small enough to fit in our backpacks along with a hand help bike pump.
Outside of fixing flats we learned to maintain our bikes; repair damaged chains, correct crooked handle bars, and tighten brakes. We learned that no matter what your equipment is, you should know how it functions, what tools you need to fix it, and how to maintain it. In any survival situation your equipment comes second only to your knowledge and experience. All the knowledge in the world won’t start a fire or fix a flat tire without tools. While I don’t ride bikes any longer I apply the same principle to my survival equipment, my home, and my vehicles.
We were not the most avid campers, we didn’t go hunting every year, we were definitely not professional bushcrafters, but we did learn what we needed to. My parents believed in letting us develop in the outdoors. I would be hard pressed to list every lesson I learned being an “Outdoorsy kid.”
You might be thinking that what I have just listed are “common sense” ideas and that everyone knows these things out of the womb, but I would beg to differ. When I see today’s youth (I am involved with the youth at church, and am a Scout Master for the local troop) I am shocked at the lack of outdoor/survival knowledge they possess. I have observed first hand that children are like sponges and can adapt very quickly to survive and even thrive in difficult situations.
As human beings “survival” is burned into our DNA, however we need to be careful not to snuff out that fire of survival in our children. Yes, the outdoors can be a dangerous place, yes, your child will get scrapes, bumps, and bruises…maybe even a broken bone or two. But when the SHTF I’ll bet you wish someone knew how to build a fort out of seemingly nothing, or that you knew to pack extra water and keep a clean supply at the ready, or that some wildlife and their specific environments ought to be avoided. Let your children learn these lessons in their youth, let them fail when playing and building forts rather than failing as an adult when they don’t know how to change a tire, or when they get laid off at work, or during the next economic downturn, or city riots, or fire, or flood, or plague, or famine, or war, or invasion, or… the list goes on.
This knowledge I have shared is, of course, specific to me and my environment. You might live in the boonies or even deep in the urban parts of your city. Whatever your situation whatever your environment, you and your children need to know it. You and your children need to understand the potential dangers and potential saviors of your environment. Whoever you are or wherever you are, let your kids be “outdoorsy kids,” you’d be surprised how much intelligence they gather.
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