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How to: Survive when you're lost in the (Irish) wilderness

Headed away this weekend? These essential skills will help you in case it all goes wrong…

Carrauntoohil in Co Kerry
Carrauntoohil in Co Kerry
Image: LeonDolman via Flickr

YOU’RE HILLWALKING, and you take a wrong turn for a short cut. Suddenly, you’re lost.

Alternatively, you go out for a few drinks, which turns into more. Next thing you know, you wake up sitting in a field with no idea where you are and nothing on you but a fuzzy leprechaun hat.

Either way, getting stranded in the wilderness is no joke. Earlier this month, the story of Victoria Grover emerged. She survived four days without food after breaking her leg while hiking trails in Utah, and described the onset of hypothermia during the cold nights.

Ireland might not have quite the same terrain – but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous if you find yourself up a mountain with nowhere to go in our cold, wet climate.

“You need four things to survive,” says bushcraft and survival skills expert Aebhric O’Kelly, of the Institute for Permaculture and Nature Awareness in Kerry. “Food, shelter, fire and water.” And how do you get them? Well, turns out it’s easy. Here goes:


Shelter is your first priority – you need to stay dry and (ideally) warm. But if you’re thinking about making yourself a Robinson Crusoe-style tent from branches, you may be out of luck. “Ninety-one percent of Ireland doesn’t have trees,” O’Kelly says.

Luckily there’s an even better solution: just collect a giant pile of stuff, and get in the middle of it.

You can easily make a shelter out of a big pile of heather, or tree limbs, or debris. Make a big nest like a squirrel. Squirrels live pretty well in Ireland, right? Get a big pile of debris and crawl into it. You need it to be the length of your arm beneath you and on top of you.

Simples. If you want to change up the decor, you can use pretty much any materials you like – O’Kelly teaches students to build shelters from rubbish bags and animal dens. He says he once spent six months in a debris hut near Seattle. “It was bone dry.”


OK, so you’re no longer getting snowed/hailed/rained on, and you have a place to keep your spare socks and Desperate Housewives DVDs. (No, I don’t know why you brought them either.) Your next challenge is getting enough water to stop yourself getting dehydrated.

“In Kerry, you can mostly just put your head back and open your mouth,” says O’Kelly.

But if the weather gods aren’t obliging, all is not lost. “Take off your t-shirt, and wipe the dew from the grass. Then wring it out into a cup.”

You can get a surprising amount of water this way, as this video shows. (And boy, does that water look tasty.) Listen out for the useful advice “Don’t drag your rag through poisonous plants.”


The main thing, O’Kelly says, is never, ever to drink out of streams. “You might think that you’re looking at the most crystal-clear sparkling water, you’re in the most beautiful Lord Of The Rings environment. But then you follow the stream up and there’s a dead sheep.” Right then.


O’Kelly has one important lesson when foraging for food: don’t listen to Bear Grylls. “I call him the Father Ted of survival,” he says. “Don’t eat bugs, don’t eat grubs. Don’t do anything that eejit will do.”

So in case you need a refresher, here’s what NOT to do:


Got it? OK. So what’s the right way?

“Eat the things that all gardeners try to kill,” O’Kelly says. “Dandelion, thistle, plantain. The nettle is the best.” Ready for a nettle-eating primer? Here goes:

All the stingers are underneath. So you grab the leaf from the top, fold it up, crush it, and roll it around. All the stingers are crushed up and all the formic acid dissipates. Pop it in your mouth. It is fantastic. It has a high protein content, a lot of iron. It’s your daily multivitamin.

This should be enough to keep you going for a while.

Oh, and one last: don’t eat any mushrooms, unless you want to take your life in your hands. “In my school it’s forbidden. Never, never, never.”


In the world of survivalism, fire is kind of a luxury. “It’s important but it’s not mandatory,” O’Kelly says. “It’s more of a psychological benefit. It’s good if you have fish you can cook, or if you need to boil water.”

However, humans have been obsessed with fire since the first man singed his eyebrows, and the internet is awash with people setting things aflame in novel ways. For example, did you know you can start a fire with ice? ICE?


In the event that you became lost while carrying supplies for a children’s birthday party, you can also do it with a Coke can and a chocolate bar:


However, O’Kelly points out one major flaw with these approaches in an Irish context. “You need sun,” he says. “Powerful sun.”

So that’s out. What about the old rubbing-two-sticks-together approach? It’s possible, he says – but there’s a catch. “I can go out in the woods without anything, and make a fire with two sticks. But my record is eight hours. That’s non-stop work, making the kit to rub two sticks together.”

So what does he advise? “A lighter, or matches.” Oh right. “In the woods, unless you have training, you will not get fire without a lighter.”

So, there you go: now you can survive all alone in the Irish wilderness. If you’ve got a lighter you’re probably settling in for a nice cup of nettle tea already. I ask O’Kelly if he has any final pieces of advice.

“Don’t do a Bear Grylls,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I have to stop my class to tell people not to do things he has done. So don’t crawl into a dead seal skin, or anything.”

Over to the Father Ted of Survival himself (warning: contains graphic footage):


Aebhric O’Kelly runs basic and advanced bushcraft and survival courses at the Institute for Permaculture and Nature Awareness in Kerry. For more information, check out their website.

About the author:

Michael Freeman

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