“Little did I know … that we were going to be blindfolded, put into a van, and driven somewhere we didn’t know…” – Ashlynn Tibbot first published this account of her Wilderness Survival Trek on her Facebook page in 2019. We loved it so much we asked for permission to publish the following summary of her inspirational experience.
Camp started on Sunday around dinnertime. It was chaotic as parents were dropping off their kids, and we are all setting up tents and such. It’s not even much of a day, really, as much as an easing into leaving parents behind, and getting comfortable with the idea of staying with random stranger hippies in the woods.
The first three days, we learned all of the necessary tools and skills we needed to survive the subsequent nights. The lessons we covered were navigation (how to use a compass and not get lost), how to start a fire, what to have on you in a survival situation, how to purify water and harvest wild edibles, and where to find and build a shelter.
For learning navigation (I can laugh about it now) we were told to get all of our “10 Essentials” together, and get ready to leave. We had heard we might be going out to practice, but little did I know that we were going to be blindfolded, put into a van, and dropped off somewhere unknown. Ok that sounded bad, but don’t worry, we weren’t too far away from base camp.
This turned out to be one of the hardest things we had to do all week. Using our compasses, and the kindly made maps for us to use, we were able to triangulate our position, and figure out that we had to head “true south” because of the magnetic poles, which are different than the geographic poles. By heading south, and to make it back in time by dinner, we had to walk straight through dense forest and brush. Bushwacking, and walking down steep grades, were key to getting home.
Once the group started losing hope, and since the instructors couldn’t help us, I was forced to take charge and figure out that we had strayed a little west off-course. So, to balance that out, we veered east a bit, and by noticing the contour lines on the map, we realized that path would actually make it easier to go downhill since it flattened out. To my surprise, I ended up leading us back to camp. Needless to say, we were all very happy to see dinner cooking, and to see our tents again.
And then the day that was constantly hanging over all of our heads came upon us: the survival trek. The morning of, everyone was groggy and cranky. I, especially, was very anxious, after hearing from multiple people that we were to sleep out in the woods to survive.
At this time, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. We all packed into the van, and made our way out to a field, with forest surrounding it all. We made our base camp, and were able to sit down for a while and rest our feet and aching bodies … until they TOOK OUR sleeping bags and pads!!!
When we felt ready to get started with surviving, we first had to venture out and find a shelter spot. We had an option to go duo with someone else, but I really wanted to try and challenge myself, so I went solo. I hiked a while, and at first found what I thought was a really good shelter spot.
Nope. They said I couldn’t build there since it was on an animal trail. How was I supposed to know?! After that, I kind of started to lose hope. I was sweaty, tired, and losing daylight very quickly. I NEEDED to find a shelter spot soon, or else I would run out of time to build it.
Earlier, I had heard that one of the others had found her spot, and I knew she was somewhere near me. The only problem was that she was on top of a huge ridge. Two problems with being on a ridge: there could be wind blowing through, and it was a steep climb.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I eventually found the courage to climb up the ridge. I realized later that there was an easy deer path going up, but at first, I climbed straight up dirt. Just dirt, no roots or anything to stabilize my climb.
Half way up, I just slid. Ok maybe only 5 feet before I stopped, but it felt like forever. At this point, I was dying of sweat, with my backpack on. So … I got on my hands and knees and eventually crawled up that darned ridge. At the top, my back was so sore that I just keeled over, and heaved deep breaths. I still hadn’t found a spot, nor did I want to go back down the ridge.
I’m not sure how long I aimlessly wandered around, but suddenly I found myself standing in the PERFECT SPOT. There it was: a beautiful vine maple was bent over in an elegant arching curve, creating a natural cover from the elements, with two downed logs on either side, protecting me from the wind.
My work was half done before I lifted a finger, but the bummer now was trying to find my lead instructor Patrick to have him validate the spot, and make sure that it was safe to build. So, of course I ended up having to hike all the way down to the field anyways!!! Fortunately the deer path revealed itself and I found him, hoping with all my might that the hike back up was worth it. He approved, and now I had to build a shelter. Ugh.
I started with collecting tons of moss to lay on (did I mention my sleeping bag was confiscated lol) and piled it on as my base layer. The main struggle turned out to be finding a Y-branch that I could use as an A-frame for the shelter. I just couldn’t find one!
So, I decided to just calm my mind for the first time, sit down on my pile of moss, and drink some water. That’s when my mind kicked in. The forest … it was so quiet. So … empty. I was so alone. So tired, and helpless and scared, and alone, and tired.
And around and around and around these thoughts went. I thought of home, of my mom, of my dad, of my animals. I thought of food – for it was my own choice to not eat food while I was surviving. That’s when the tears came in. You know what ugly-crying is? Yeah. That’s what I was doing.
Hyperventilating, tears running down my face, every anxiety and worry draining my self-confidence. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. I was so tempted to just climb down that ridge, find Patrick, and force him to call my mom. I couldn’t survive out here. I was worthless, so stupid to think that I could actually do something as intense as this.
I was so just hoping for some company, some person to come by and make sure that I was alive, when Marco, one of my assistant instructors showed up at my spot. His words were so perfect at that time, just three simple words: “How’s it going?” I broke into tears again, sobbing uncontrollably.
I talked with him, then, about my fears. My worries. And we just talked. He was able to reinforce my confidence in myself. I actually learned that I was the bravest person in my group, he had said, for I was the farthest person out from the base camp, and that everyone else mostly was closer to the base camp, for fear of getting lost. He told me that not many people would come out this far on their own choice.
After that, he helped me with my shelter, finding that perfect Y-branch that I was looking for, and getting the main frame that I needed for the shelter into place. Once he left, saying that he needed to go, I felt confident that I could do this.
Remember that freak rainstorm during what was supposed to be the driest week of the summer in 2019? Yeah, it was that night and I was in the forest in the middle of it. But! I stayed dry, and I stayed surprisingly warm – maybe from the cloud cover trapping the heat. I survived the night.
Waking up the next morning was a very rewarding feat. I just felt free, and safe, and like nothing could ever hurt me. I waited a bit for Marco to show up and escort me back to base camp, like he said he would in the morning. Once there, a few of us ventured out to the river nearby, and got some water, since most of us were out. By using iodine tablets, we were able to cleanse the water, making it potable.
It was nice having human interaction, but I was so ready to go back and survive the night again. First, though, we made a campfire, and cooked potatoes and onions, while playing a few group games. I abstained from eating the food provided, as I was trying to keep true to my fast. By that time I had eaten some wild daises, and two ants.
Little did I know, but various instructors had checked on me over the previous 24 hours, but they had so much confidence in me that originally, I was given a walkie-talkie and told I would be on my own unless I called with an emergency. I guess I was about a half mile away from base camp, and out there it felt like a vast distance.
That night wasn’t too bad. The entire group was hoping for no rain, knocking on wood every chance we got. And luckily, NO RAIN!!! But since there were no clouds, it made the night far colder. So, I just put on all my layers, trying to secure all my body heat into one big cushion. I focused on my “scout breathing” as they had taught me in the first few days, to get proper oxygen to my brain and think clearly, as well as making my body warm. I did shiver a bit more than the previous night, and used my backpack as a blanket, but I SUR-THRIVED THE NIGHT!!!
Believe me when I say, the feeling of waking up that morning was by far the most rewarding feeling I will probably ever feel. I felt matured, I walked with my spine held straight and tall. I felt like I could handle anything that was thrown at me.
All in all, this entire experience, while it was challenging, was also the most rewarding. It was definitely a get-out-what-you-put-in experience. From it, I realized how strong I truly am, the capabilities I have, and what I can accomplish by myself. Now I appreciate the small things, I look for the positive, and strive for excellence with everything that I do.
When I looked in the mirror the night I got home, for the first time in what felt like months, I didn’t see a girl. I saw a woman. While, yes, tired and hungry – in my reflection was a strong and independent woman. I wouldn’t have changed anything that happened at all.