In 1999, survival expert Tim Smith founded the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Ashland, Maine. It’s a college-accredited, full-immersion wilderness school where students live and learn in the North Woods of Maine from anywhere from one week to an entire year. It’s the perfect place to hone your friction-fire skills, learn to build survival shelters, and study the woods.
Smith has been involved in wilderness survival for most of his life, and his resume is impressive. Before founding the school, he participated in a 30-day primitive living experiment in the backcountry of Alaska; learned wilderness skills from native Cree people of northern Quebec; studied extensively with survival legends like Mors Kochanski; and has spent countless days on solo backcountry trips. Smith has also written seven books on survival, bushcraft, and outdoor living and has been featured on the Discovery Channel.
Apart from being extremely capable in the woods, Smith holds a master’s degree in education and is a Master Maine Guide (one of the most difficult guide licenses to obtain in America). People from around the world travel to learn from him and his fellow instructors. Simply put, Smith has dedicated his life to living and studying survival and bushcraft. That’s why we decided to ask him a few questions.
Q: Most folks try to avoid survival situations, but you seek them out. How come?
A: I’m drawn to the honesty of the off-the-grid lifestyle. In the woods, life is that much simpler. There are few problems that can’t be solved with an axe and a knife.
Q: What about the wilderness scares you the most?
A: Cold-water immersion. It is silent, kills quickly, and is a constant danger in the North. When you’re traveling by water, you should carry a firestarter in your PFD. If you go for an unexpected swim, get to shore and light a fire to dry out and warm up.
Q: What’s the nastiest thing you’ve eaten to stay alive?
A: Does fast food count? When traveling in northern Quebec with some Cree friends of mine, I ate beaver brain and beaver eyeball one afternoon. Once you get over the squeamishness, they are both pretty good.
Q: That’s disgusting. When beaver brains aren’t on the menu, what’s your go-to survival food?
A: When planning a trip, you should bring the most calorically dense foods you can find. My personal preference is homemade pemmican. There are lots of recipes, but mine is rendered fat, dried meat, and salt.
Q: What’s the No. 1 mistake a person can make when they’re lost in the woods?
A: Keep getting more lost. Once you don’t know how to get to where you’re going and can’t find your way back to where you started, admit you’re lost. Then sit down, build a fire, make a hot drink, and reevaluate your situation.
Q: What do you look for in a good survival knife?
A: It’s all about the steel and the grind. The blade’s steel should be hard enough to hold an edge for a long time. The blade should be ground into a flat bevel that is easy to sharpen and maintain in the field.
Q: Here’s a survival scenario: Everything is soaking wet. How do you start a fire?
A: First, find a dead standing tree bigger than you can wrap your hands around. Fell it and section out a piece that was at least 10 feet above ground level. Split this section into small pieces, shave feathers on the small pieces with a knife, then light the feathers with a match or lighter. The challenge, of course, is finding the right tree.
Q: What’s more useful in a survival situation: duct tape or parachute cord?
A: Cord is more versatile. For example, you can use it to make pot suspension systems to boil water more easily.
Q: What’s something you keep in your survival kit that might surprise other outdoorsmen?
A: Tang. It’s part of my full-tang lifestyle.
Q: What advice would you give to a lost outdoorsman as a quick way to boost his morale?
A: Keep a photo of a loved one, even a photo of your dog, in your wallet or survival kit. Seeing that friendly face will get you out of your funk, and you can start to focus on how great the eventual reunion will be.