Southwest Florida survival
Parts of our region, despite the ever-growing population, remain a
wilderness — Everglades, Big Cypress, barrier islands. Knowing how to live off
the land will increase your chance of returning home, if you get stranded.
By CHRIS WADSWORTH
Published by news-press.com on February 6, 2005
2005 , The News-Press
Sitting on the beach on a warm afternoon,
you'd be hardpressed to imagine that Southwest Florida could ever be a difficult
or even dangerous place to live. But transport yourself a few miles inland, into
the dense wilderness just outside our urban home, and survival becomes much more
It's this tough environment that convinced skilled tracker and outdoorsman Tom
Brown, Jr. to bring his wilderness survival school to Lee County.
While surviving in the wilderness is complicated, Brown offers these basic
skills if you find yourself stranded in the wilds of Southwest Florida.
BASIC SURVIVAL PRIORITIES
• If you are ever lost in the wilderness, Tom Brown says the decisions you make
in the first few hours can dictate whether you will survive. Here are his
priorities, in order:
1) Find Shelter — Most people concentrate on finding food. Brown says this is a
mistake, pointing out that many people could survive days with just the fat on
their bodies. Shelter is far more important because if you get too cold or too
wet, hypothermia and other maladies can set in and incapacitate or kill you.
2) Find Water — While the body can survive without food for extended periods, it
does need water. That's why Brown says your second priority should be to find a
source of fresh water. If a river or spring is not available, set traps to catch
rainwater, gather morning dew or build a solar still that collects ground
moisture as it evaporates.
3) Find Fire — Fire can help keep you warm, purify water and prepare food. It's
critical for survival in the wilderness. There are several techniques to create
fire, including making a bow drill, a mouth drill or using the old
flint-on-steel technique seen in so many Western movies. While they may seem
impossible, these methods are quite serviceable with practice.
4) Find Food — Only after the first three priorities are well in hand should a
lost soul focus on food. The easiest source of sustenance in the wild are the
many edible plants that grow throughout Southwest Florida. Finding eggs or
catching insects is slightly more complicated. The most difficult is the actual
trapping of birds and animals. Nonetheless, for trained trackers, this provides
the best source of food.
TOM BROWN'S BOOK
Tom Brown, Jr. is the author of more than a dozen books on his career and
tracking or survival techniques. One of his best-sellers is “Tom Brown’s Field
Guide to Wilderness Survival,” which was the source of much of the information
in this report.
If you would like to “track” down a copy of Brown’s book, here’s the
• Title: “Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival” by Tom Brown, Jr. and
• Price: $14 (Berkley Books)
• ISBN: 0-425-10572-5
• Available: Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, amazon.com
BUILDING A SHELTER
The debris hut is an ingenious shelter created not as a spacious living
environment, but simply a “nest” to protect you from the elements and keep you
To build a debris hut, you must find a sturdy Y-shaped branch or log and drive
it upright into the ground. Then, find a long, straight branch — one that is
only slightly longer than you are tall. This is called a “ridgepole.” Place the
ridgepole in the crook of the “Y.” It now will form an angled spine rising from
the ground. Lay branches along either side of the spine down to the ground,
forming a thin wall. Now begin heaping grasses, leaves and palm fronds on top of
the structure. Continue piling them on, adding dirt, sod and anything else you
can find. The thickness of these debris “walls” should be at least as long as
your arm — or thicker. The thicker the covering, the more impervious it will be
for keeping rain out and your body heat in. When you’re ready to bed down, pull
a pile of leaves and branches into the opening to close it off.
SOME EDIBLE PLANTS IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA
Southwest Florida is ripe with edible plants that can be turned into all types
of tasty treats and even medicines. Here are a few of them, but before you go
and whip up a Survival Salad, it’s important that you do more research so you
can correctly identify edible plants and prepare them safely.
View the following plants here:
• Cattails — The cattail has so many edible parts, it’s like a wilderness
supermarket. In early spring, the young shoots and stalks can be peeled and
eaten raw or boiled. In late spring, the green flower heads can be husked and
boiled. In early summer, the pollen heads can be eaten raw, or dried into flour.
The rootstocks are an excellent source of starch. They can be crushed, dissolved
in cold water, and made into flour after draining and drying. MEDICINE: Ripe
cattail flowers can be mashed and used as a salve for cuts and burns.
• Elderberries — The ripe purple or black berries can be eaten after they are
dried or boiled to remove tartness. Fresh or dried flowers can be simmered as a
tea. Fresh flowers can be dipped in batter and fried. WARNING: Leaves and roots
are poisonous. Red and white berries are toxic. Unripe fruits can cause diarrhea
• Goldenrod — Young leaves near flowers can be boiled and eaten as a potherb.
Small leaves and flowers can be dried or used fresh to make anise-flavored tea.
Seeds can be crushed and added to stews for thickening.
• Groundnut — Tubers can be peeled and eaten raw, dried and ground into flour,
or prepared and eaten like potatoes. Seeks can be cooked like peas.
• Oak Trees — Even when green, all acorns are edible and very nutritious if
properly prepared. A handful of these tasty nuts has as much nutritional value
as a pound of hamburger. Acorns from the white oak and the pin oak can be eaten
raw. All others either have to be leached in running water for several hours or
boiled in several changes of water to get rid of the harsh, bitter taste.
MEDICINE: Save the left over boiled water, since it makes a powerful antiseptic
for skin diseases and cuts.
• Plantain — Young leaves can be boiled and eaten as a potherb. Seeds can be
dried and ground into flour or dried, boiled, and served as a hot cereal.
MEDICINE: Crushed leaves are a powerful remedy for minor wounds, stings,
bruises, and sprains. Seeds are high in the B vitamins. Take one or two pods
daily as an insect repellent.
• Saw Palmetto — The “hearts” at bases of leaf stalks can be cut out and eaten
raw. The bases of terminal buds can be boiled and eaten like vegetables.
• Spicebush — Young leaves, twigs and bark can be steeped in hot water to make a
tea that is especially healthful in winter. Berries can be dried and powdered as
an excellent general seasoning. WARNING: Do not eat berries whole. Use only as a
• Wild Grapes — Leaves can be eaten as a cooked green after boiling 10 to 15
minutes. Fruits can be eaten fresh or mixed with water as a cold drink. In
springtime, the live vines can be cut and drained to yield a refreshing watery
sap. (The fruit of sea grapes plants, which are common in Southwest Florida, are
also edible.) WARNING: Grape roots are poisonous. Do not mistake wild grapes for
poisonous species such as Canada moonseed or common nightshade.
• Yuccas — Stems can be sliced, peeled, and boiled as a vegetable. Flower petals
can be eaten raw. Fruits are good raw, roasted, or baked (remove rind before
eating). Seeds can be ground and boiled into cereal.
TRACKS OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA ANIMALS
Tracking animals is an art as much as it is a science. It takes skill and
practice. If you want to track Southwest Florida critters for fun or for
potential food, here are some key tracks to watch for.