3 Nights Alone in the Sespe Wilderness

3 Nights Alone in the Sespe Wilderness

will walk into the wilderness with nothing. This means that in order to walk out, I have to find my own water and forage for food. I have the option of building a shelter and making a fire if I choose, I can always just suffer the elements. I have never done any of these things before.

There is a rendezvous point, 18 miles away at the bottom of the mountain, that I have to reach by Day 4. I can use primitive trails, signs or any other directional help that is already there. I can use anything found in the forest.

If I come across any hikers, I will just smile, make polite small talk and move on. I cannot ask for help or explain what I am doing. No maps. No compass. No gear.

Prior to the challenge, I am allowed to familiarize myself with the wilderness and survival by skimming through books and going on more day hikes. I will conduct this experiment in the Sespe Wilderness located in the southern section of the Los Padres National Forest near my hometown in Southern California.

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The Extreme Challenge

Survive 3 Days In The Wilderness With Nothing But The Clothes On My Back.

The Dangers

  • The Elements
    The temperatures can dip into the 30′s at night and soar into the 90′s by day with a blazing sun overhead.
  • Physical Breakdown
    The human body is strong and fragile all at the same time. I’m not sure how my body will handle the abuse.
  • Mental Breakdown
    The mind can serve us or cripple us. I know that I must keep my mind still and ready, and allow my survival instincts to do their job.
  • Wild Animals
    Bears, mountain lions, rattle snakes, poisonous insects.
  • Poisonous Plants


Day 1

I’m driving up the winding mountain road at 4:30 AM as I watch the temperature gauge in the car dip fast. Low 40′s become the mid 30′s, finally the digital read out just says ICE. It’s going to be colder than I thought. At 5:30 AM I walk out into the wilderness, as morning breaks, all I know is that I have to travel directly south.

3Nature is beautiful with her dark forests and my favorite, the trees that seemingly grow out of the side of giant rocks. I enjoy all this, but I’m also carefully trying to conserve my bodily fluids. I’m holding my urine, saving my saliva, controlling my breathing to minimize sweat despite a now sweltering sun.

“As best you can, conserve energy, fluids, everything when you are facing the unknown”

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This thought is on replay in my head. I could have done a better job of this because by mid morning, I estimate that my body had released more than a liter of urine and I hadn’t anything to drink yet.

I’m making excellent time and by noon, I come to a junction where I’m not quite sure which direction to go, one way is 5 miles straight uphill to a 7,500 elevation summit (the trail leading up appears to head south), I use my best judgement and continue on the direction I was traveling, which worries me a bit as I feel I am going due east.

Time passes quickly and the sun is now beating down on me. I have been walking for over 10 hours straight, through varying elevations and terrains. Everywhere I look, I see stagnant, undrinkable water or completely dried up river beds. I remember reading that the human body can last on average, 3 days without water. I realize that average does not take into account hiking 14 miles in sweltering heat.4

“In extreme elements, the body and the entire system slow down fast”

To make matters worse, I have re-aggravated a sprain on my right foot. I use a walking stick to take some of the pressure off the foot and keep moving forward.

It is at this time that I see a mirage. In the distance, I spy what looks like 2 large gasoline containers and work tools. As I draw closer, I can clearly see that these items are very real. I look around and don’t see a soul, I say a little prayer as I twist off the cap. There is clear liquid inside. Water. [I found out later that these items belonged to forest workers who camp out for weeks at a time, working in the wilderness.]

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I pull up the tiny bit of shade I can find and drink my fill. I’m careful not to spill, and remind myself that this water belongs to someone else, who will need it just as bad as I do in this heat.5

“Accept anything nature gives you with gratitude and a full heart”

I remember that I have a Ziploc sandwich bag that was meant to hold my camera. It becomes my canteen and I fill it up with water. Rejuvenated, I commit to walk just a little bit more, to see if I can find my way off this mountain. I press on until I reach a 2nd junction. There appears to only be a north bound trail and I know that I must go south. But how can I really be sure with my lack of ability to determine direction? For the first time, I recognize and acknowledge that I am lost.

“Accept the reality of your situation without fear or frustration, simply see things as they truly are”

Four miles back, through rugged mountain terrain and lots of ups and downs, lies the 1st junction and 7,500 foot summit that appears to head south. I decide to backtrack and make camp at a clearing I had passed right in the middle of these two decisions. I will rest and decide at first light.

[The Day 1 wrap up video includes the shelter I fashioned out of a table, my water saga, the food I found and how I plan on protecting myself from wild animals]

Day 2

Written words won’t do justice to my experience that night. This video is dark, but the audio captures my fragile mindset and broken condition after physically shaking and moving my toes all night to keep them from going numb in the 30 degree cold.

The plan is to walk 2 miles back to the 1st junction and see what my instincts tell me when I get there.  I do not want to scale that 7,500 foot summit with no supplies and a bad foot, but if that is my way out, then so be it.

“Use all the information available to you, but ultimately trust your instincts, they are wired for survival

I arrive back at the 1st junction and walk around, carefully checking things out, trying to guess which way is south. “I am already on top of a mountain, should I climb higher just to come down?” It doesn’t seem right to me. I make my decision; I will back track again to the 2nd junction. This means covering another 4 miles in the heat and terrain to get back to a place that I’m not even sure about. But it also means that I will pass the miracle water again and I am already getting thirsty. My little baggie/canteen is almost on empty.6

I get started right away, I desperately want to come off of this mountain to avoid another night of bitter cold. There must be a way to go south from that clearing at the 2nd junction that I missed the first time.

I get closer to where the “water mirage” was and I encounter the first person I’ve seen since I started. She is a forest worker.  I am happy to see someone but devastated at the same time. I can’t ask her for any help or supplies. I have to walk right by the water. I smile and make polite small talk. After she asks me “Are you ok?” I smile again, say yes, and go on my way. I must have already looked a mess after shivering in the dirt all night.

I get back to the 2nd junction around noon and  I walk around that clearing, I have an idea of which way is south but I am looking for some kind of trail or marking that gives me a clear clue. Behind some overgrown brush, I find a primitive trail that heads in the direction I believe is due south. How could I have missed this the first time? Who cares, I have found my way out.

I celebrate by taking a swig of water and then stashing the last few gulps just in case I’m wrong. My celebration is short lived as all I see on the way down are dried up waterfalls and dry brush. My 2 biggest problems are now the blazing sun and no drinkable water.

“Keep your mind calm. There will be extreme high’s and lows, just do what you can with what you are given”

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The terrain is steep in many places as I make my decent

As I climb slowly down the mountain, I am just as dehydrated as Day 1 and seriously wondering where the hell I’m going to find water now. As I turn the final corner, I hear what sounds like running water. This sound has fooled me before, because most times, I get to the water, only to find that it is barely moving and undrinkable. But this time, it’s real. A mountain run off into a pool of cool water. I have found my second miracle.

I drink until I feel sick and then soak my ailing body and foot in the healing waters. I crawl out of the water and lay naked on a rock for hours.7

“If given the opportunity, stay in one place and allow yourself to get well as long as you can”

The sun begins to set and the thoughts rise about last nights bitter cold, I know I should get going and find a suitable shelter for the night. I move down the trail and discover a tree full of berries. I temporarily forget about the shelter and remember how hungry I am. Without taking the proper precautions, I gorge myself on these berries. Today has been good to me, I have found my way, and loaded up on water and berries.

I find a clearing and build my shelter. Luck shines on me again as I find a rusty old machete, I scrape it along a rock and it sparks. I work on getting a fire going for an hour and then give up to focus on insulating my shelter. As I pile on extra leaves and brush, I can feel myself growing confident.

“If I could make it through one night, I can make it through two”8

Day 3

I rise early and soak in the morning view, there is nothing like breaking dawn in the wilderness. Nothing.

I know where I am and it’s only 5 miles from the rendezvous point. I then make one of the most foolish decisions I could have. I recall a place I have been this past month on a previous hike where there is water but it is way off course.

Undeterred, I hike 7 miles to where I know there is drinkable water. I underestimate how weak I really am and how strong the sun really is. By noon I reach my destination but I am not well. Thankfully, water is flowing from a beautiful mountain run off and again, I overfill myself on water and again, I lay there unable to move for hours. I should have stayed in one place and worked on getting the fire going, foraging for food, allowing my foot to heal. Anything but going on a 14 mile round trip hike just to find water.

“Take into account all the info available to you and then make a decision knowing it may not always be the best one, just give all that you have towards your decision. Nature will tell you whether you are right or wrong”9

I trudged back the final 5 miles as the sun set directly in my eyes and looked to find a cave inside of a large rock formation that stood 2 miles from my rendezvous point. I barely make it back and have just enough energy to secure the shelter.

As night falls, I end up sitting on the front porch of my cave watching the stars. They are brilliant. I experience a surreal moment when I watch a jumbo jet appear to cut right through the middle of the big dipper.

“Everywhere we are looking for miracles, I just watched a 450 ton hunk of metal fly through the stars… Maybe we are the miracle”

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My Experience

  • The wilderness often felt like a beautiful but unforgiving woman who at times was harsh, but always fair. There is a natural order of things and I liked that. I felt like if I played by nature’s rules, she would provide for me.
  • Whenever possible, I tried to stretch those rules and it was at those times when she fiercely disciplined me.
  • I felt deep inside that I had the absolute right to be in the wilderness. In this way I always felt like I belonged. I was not a stranger, I was home.
  • I found that wild animals are shy. They left me alone to wander their forest unbothered and I never felt in fear for my life from the animals that call the forest home.
  • After day 2, I knew that I could make it indefinitely in the wilderness. It was just a matter of time, experience and learning from any hardships that nature provided me.
  • As I reflect back on my short time in the wilderness, I have changed my view on survival.Wilderness survival, in my opinion, is knowing your own limitations and capabilities and doing what you can with what is available to you. This cannot be learned from a book. Surely I will face hardships, but if I stay calm, nature will teach me what I need to know.
  • Nature has no problem taking my life or any life, it is done without malice or hate. It is simply life. I don’t say that to scare anyone, I say that because it was my experience. I was extremely vulnerable throughout this process and I knew it and embraced it.
  • You don’t have to put yourself in the situation that I did to enjoy all the splendor of the outdoors. I hope that everyone will create more opportunities to spend time in nature and experience the incredible calming effect it has on your entire system. To whatever extent is possible for you, start taking silent walks in nature.

Fun Facts

  • I gained 17 lbs in 27 days, prior to this Big Goal Hunt
  • 7 days before I was to walk into the wilderness, my right foot swells after a long hike with bad shoes. I don’t do another thing, I rest and wait. I am confident that I can figure it out when I’m out there.
  • Although my body has grown quite efficient, I did not have a bowel movement for 3 days while I was wandering the wilderness. I was so looking forward to using mother natures toilet paper (leaves).
  • The temperatures dipped into the 30′s in the higher elevations at night and soared into the 90′s by day. Crazy swings. I knew the days would be hot, but I thought it was going to be in the mid 50′s at night!
  • During times when I felt extreme dehydration, I seriously considered drinking my own urine. In eastern cultures, tipping back a bit of the “home brew” is believed to have health benefits.
  • Small animals and lizards started looking appetizing to me after day 1.
  • I had lines from movies playing in my head constantly. “Steel your mind Holmes”, “This is my mother’s lucky machete”. Can you name these movies?
  • I got pretty good at learning animal tracks and I got lost so much that I could easily recognize my own shoe prints anywhere!
  • I ended up hiking over 40 miles due to my inexperience and errors in judgement. The entire trek should have been 18 miles.1

Real Survivor Resources

  • Man vs. Wild: This video was sent to me by a friend. I watched it and a few others that he has on youtube. The guy behind these videos, Bear Grylls is definitely the real deal.
  • Survivorman: My son told me about this guy so I skimmed through his site. He is clearly a survival expert and and all around talented guy.

Whatever it is that you are going towards in your life, give all that you call as yourself to your goal and the process itself will become magical.

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