Please enjoy this transcript of my second interview with Steven Rinella (@MeatEater, @StevenRinella), the host of the Netflix Originals series MeatEater and The MeatEater Podcast. He’s also the author of seven books dealing with wildlife, conservation, hunting, fishing, and wild foods, including his newest, The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I’m going to keep my usual preamble short. I want to get to the meat and potatoes of this conversation with Steven Rinella, Instagram @meateater, @stevenrinella. He is the host of the Netflix original series MeatEater and the MeatEater Podcast. He’s also the author of seven books dealing with wildlife, conservation, hunting, fishing, and wild foods, including The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Survival, which is his newest, and you can find it now. On the web, you can find all things Steven Rinella at themeateater.com and then on Facebook, he is Steven Rinella that’s with a V, Steven Rinella, R-I-N-E-L-L-A, MeatEater. Steve, welcome back to the show.
Steven Rinella: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it, man.
Tim Ferriss: I have so many questions for you, in part, because you are not just an expert in survival wilderness skills, but you actually practice and showcase this on a regular basis. You’re not describing in your books or on television some type of fetishized, romanticized version of survival, which I think is highly, highly common these days. Perhaps we could start with just survival fantasy versus survival reality, and I’ll leave it broad on purpose. But where should we start in terms of discussing the common misconceptions of survival or portrayals of survival versus the realities?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, I think you set it up as sort of a dichotomy or two mindsets. One is the impulse to run away from the woods, that it’s this bad place that you found yourself stuck in and you need to get out as quickly as possible before something terrible happens to you.
The other is, and it’s sort of my mindset and it kind of captures the ethos of our new book, is that it’s a place worth running toward. The outdoors, nature, wilderness is a place we want to be. It’s fun to be there. And a few skillset and knowledge base helps you do it fairly risk-free, or at least having a good sense of what the actual risks are, do it safely, risk-free, enjoy it for you, enjoy it for your family.
You might imagine like a lot of survival materials, like you said, it’s like this fantasy thing. There’s this fixation on drinking your piss, which is really, really—it’s nonsense. It doesn’t do you any good to drink your own urine. And these cockamamie ways in which you would kill large animals, that would never in a million years work unless you trained and studied those approaches every day for your entire life, which you’d be prevented from doing because of the regulatory structures that govern such practices. It’s just hogwash.
And then there’s people who through passion, through professional discipline, through wanderlust, want to be out in the woods. They want to be up in the mountains. They want to be smart. They want to be able to stay a long time. That’s the information I try to provide and that’s the people I want to speak to.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s just jump into some of the recommendations that you might have, and we can weave to this in a more indirect fashion. But as we were discussing possible points to touch upon in our conversation before hitting record, you mentioned a number of things. You mentioned technology and how you can buy your way out of trouble relatively easily in certain respects. You referred to something known as paradoxical undressing, which aside from being the name of my forthcoming memoir, is unbeknownst to me. We talked about odds, in other words, perceived threats versus real threats, and much more. Let’s begin just because—
Steven Rinella: Yeah, that, when I think of the threats that are fun to think about, that are exciting to think about, and the ones that are just the real, that no one likes to think about.
Tim Ferriss: The first blood threats, like carry a serrated machete into the wilderness, versus other. Let’s begin with paradoxical undressing. What is paradoxical undressing, just to scratch my own itch because it’s stuck in my head?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I first wrote about and got to thinking about hypothermia. I’ve come up close to feeling like, “Oh, wow. I’m in the initial stages of hypothermia.” I’ve had that happen to me a few times, one time in a very pronounced way. It was being in a river in Alaska, in October, with a dry suit on that had a ruptured seam and my dry suit was full of water. And some of the things that happened, and it was kind of this, over the course of 45 minutes to an hour, intense thirst, just this intense desire to quench my thirst, and being disoriented, realizing that I was very cold, realizing that I didn’t have the ambition to remedy that situation, trying to talk myself into doing the things that would be required to get warm again.
And then oddly, the sensation that the cold had passed, though there was no plausible explanation for why I would all of a sudden not be cold anymore. And in researching this I got to reading a fair bit about hypothermia. And in addition to some interesting things, like the number one state for hypothermia deaths is Alaska. Number three is New Mexico, which caught me by surprise. Number two, I think, bounces between Wyoming and Montana, but then jumps down south to New Mexico, which many people have in their head as being a plenty warm place.
Tim Ferriss: That’s surprising.
Steven Rinella: In terms of the paradoxical undressing, as you’re getting cold, your body starts to restrict blood flow to your extremities. The blood vessels constrict. That’s why you might notice it, as you’re getting cold, your fingers turn white, right? Your toes get cold, your fingers will turn white. Your body doesn’t want to be pushing all that blood out to places where it’s getting cooled.
I want to add in a thing here to talk about, a lot of animals use the movement of blood into thin parts of the body as a way to shed heat. If you look at an African elephant, an African elephant has these giant ears, right? Compare that to a woolly mammoth, an Ice Age animal, the woolly mammoth, very small ears. Woolly mammoths lived in these very cold climates. They didn’t want to have that blood out in their ears because the heat gets sapped out of it. An African elephant, a very hot place, puts a lot of blood into its ears to try to cool that blood off. It’s like running it into a radiator, so to speak.
Your body is thinking the same way, in as much as we can call it your body thinking, where your body doesn’t want to send blood out to the extremities where it’s getting cold. It tries to keep things in your core and keep your internal organs warm. That requires a lot of energy.
There this thing that happens to hypothermia victims where they’ll find someone who’s died of exposure, died of hypothermia, and their clothes will be laying all around them. Because it requires all that energy to constrict the blood vessels, eventually they tire. You run out of the energy to restrain it. And all of a sudden, your body allows all that blood back out into those places because it’s difficult to keep it in as your energy fades. That hot blood goes out to your cold fingers and goes out towards your skin, and gives you this sensation of burning up.
Some people paradoxically undress to the point where they start discarding jewelry. You’ll find victims of hypothermia with a shoe and a sock off, a wedding ring off, clothes scattered about, but then lying there dead. The paradoxical undressing, so it starts to make sense, is it’s like you’re dying of being cold, but you’re discarding your clothing. It’s kind of like—
Tim Ferriss: Spooky.
Steven Rinella: Dude, yeah, it’s just such an unnerving thought. I think too, when I think of people dying of exposure, it wasn’t too long ago, not far from where I am right now, where an ice fishermen fell through the ice. And just speaking of spooky scenes, an ice fishermen falls through the ice, and there’s no snow on the ice. And imagine how slick wet ice is like? Imagine trying to pick an ice cube out of a drink, right? When ice is wet, what it’s like to hold on to. You try to squeeze it, it just pops out of your hand. There’s no snow on the ice and he goes through the ice. And because he’s punched through the ice and he’s splashing around, water is getting up on the ice, so there’s nothing to grab onto.
You had mentioned you can buy your way out of a lot of bad situations through preparation, but they make a device for this, these little ice picks you just wear around your neck. He doesn’t have a set of these. Someone finds him a couple of days later, frozen to death, up to his armpits in a hole in the ice with one of his boots laid up on the ice, just perched there.
Dying of cold, man, is a real thing. Dying of exposure is a real thing, and just the mental images that come up from it are kind of more ghastly than some of the more fantastical ways that we imagine ourselves getting injured in the woods, being like fixated on grizzly bears and mountain lions and such.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about exposure for a second. I remember I was told many years ago, and this I’m sure it’s just a convenient mnemonic device, but someone said to me you can go three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without some type of protection in really extreme conditions, environmentally speaking, right, or something like that.
Steven Rinella: That threes thing, I’ve heard it described in various ways. Yeah, three weeks’ food, three days’ water, and then it will be three whatever, without air, say. But yeah, no, I’m familiar with the thing and I’ve heard it used a handful of ways.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the ways that you can buy your way into some margin of safety? Maybe you don’t eliminate risk entirely, but what are some of the easy purchases that would go into a basic kit of some type. It doesn’t have to be even basic, but just some of the specific purchases that are easy ways to remove a lot or mitigate a lot of risks? Like you mentioned, the ice picks that hang around the neck for someone who’s doing a lot on ice, right?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, so those ice picks are common for—not common. They should be way more common among ice fishermen, but ice fishermen are the ones who use them. They’re generally manufactured by companies that make fishing equipment, if that speaks to who it is. But it’s like these little—imagine an ice pick inside a retractable sleeve, so there’s nothing sharp sticking out. But the minute you jab it down, the sleeve retracts on a spring and the ice pick goes into the ground or into the ice. It’s like—
Tim Ferriss: It’s like an EpiPen for getting out of the ice.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, exactly. And you can be on the slickest ice in the world, ice you could never stand up on. You can take the slickest slice in the world, put water on it, lay down, take that pick and just drag yourself all over the place with that pick.
When I was mentioning to you, just in private conversation earlier, I was mentioning to you buying your way out, I’m reminded of a thing that—I don’t know if you’re familiar with John McPhee, who wrote that Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy—
Tim Ferriss: Coming into the Country.
Steven Rinella: No, no. His geology, his geology.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.
Steven Rinella: He wrote this Pulitzer Prize trilogy. It came out and it was like Basin and Range, whatever. It’s Annals of the Former World. It’s three massive books all combined together in the Annals of the Former World. And I remember that within Annals of the Former World, John McPhee says, “If I was going to sum this book up in one sentence, it would be that—” I’m trying to capture what he says without—this is not an exact quote. But he says, “If I was going to sum this book up in one sentence, it would be that the peak of Mount Everest is marine limestone.”
If I was going to sum up the Wilderness Skills and Survival book that we just finished, I would say onX, inReach, and I’ll tell you what these two things are. onX is a mapping service. There are many. I like onX. And just for full clarity, I also work closely with the folks at onX. Bear that in mind, but let me continue. There’s a reason I do that. It’s a mapping device that you use on your phone, and there are other ones; there’s like Gaia and a handful of other ones. I’m not sure if Google Earth has download function quite like onX does, but it’s a mapping service that you can download maps on your phone. You can download aerial imagery, topographical maps, and hybrid maps. It’s aerial imagery with topographical line overlays. And you can download maps of areas you’re going to that are highly detailed, that are five miles wide, and then 10 miles wide. And in lower detail, lower resolution maps that are 100 miles wide.
What it does is, your phone has a built-in GPS function that does not require a cell signal. If you’re using an iPhone and you’re going to some area for whatever reason. You’re going there for work, you’re going there for pleasure, you’re going backcountry skiing, you’re going on a hike with your family in Yellowstone National Park, you’re whatever. Whatever you’re doing. You’re on a rafting trip. You’re doing an afternoon hike into a little area you’ve never been into before.
You can go online and download a map. And then even when you have no cell signal, all you need to do is turn on your phone, put it on airplane mode. You now have two or three days’ worth of battery because you’re on airplane mode. And there’s a blue dot that shows you where you are. When you aim your phone in any direction and hit a button, it shows you what direction your phone is pointing relative to your map.
At any time you should be able—if you take the early pre-game preparation, the idea of getting lost is almost becoming an obsolete notion, or you have to almost self-select to be lost by not taking preparations. Of course, things can happen to phones. People lose phones, they drop them in water. All this kind of stuff has happened, but—
Tim Ferriss: They destroy them in a puddle of mosquito repellent, as I saw you do once!
Steven Rinella: You can destroy it in a pool of DEET! That’s why I was saying onX, inReach because there’s also a device that’s, I don’t know, a third the size of a phone, called an inReach device. Some people call them spot devices or inReach devices. And what it is is it allows you to send text messages through satellite. You can take an inReach device and no matter where you are on the face of the Earth, if you have a line of sight to the sky, you can save addresses in your inReach. You can take your inReach and set it so that it’s sending preprogrammed messages every day, saying you could type your message ahead of time, you hit a button, it sends a message says, “I’m okay.” But you can also hold down a button that says “SOS.” And it’s satellite-driven, and the batteries last for days.
So when talking about buying your way out, if you’re the kind of person who takes preparation seriously, there are steps you can take that really reduce a lot of the risks. There are still things that can happen to you, right? You can still—and I joked about it earlier, but yeah, man, you could get mauled by a bear. The bear doesn’t give a shit about the fact that you have any of these technological devices. But, if you’re still able to crawl around, it’s pretty nice to be able to hold a button down and get help.
And so these are all things that I spent a great deal of time on in the book, because it’s not trying to treat survival, like you’ve survived a plane crash and you have a large Bowie knife, and you’re stuck on an Island. It’s like it doesn’t start with that mentality. It starts with the mentality, it starts with the reality that the vast majority of trouble that people get in outdoors is somewhat willful.
We do things, we go places. We take drives during inclement weather. We decide to go on a route through the hills when we’re driving that we’ve never been on and we don’t know the road conditions, and your car gets stuck. And then you wait there two days and no one comes and you’re like, “Screw this. I’m walking out of here.” But you don’t quite know what to do or your car is not loaded properly. That’s how people get in trouble.
It isn’t shipwrecks and plane crashes, though those things do happen, but pondering those and fantasizing about those throws off people’s ability to actually think and behave properly. And these little technological preparations are just things you can do that just make you breathe easy and allow you to go into wild places and do what it was that you intended to do, just to be successful and be impactful and pursue whatever goals you have, whether it’s finding a mushroom or bagging a peak, without feeling as though you’ve entered a survival situation.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to comment on a few things that you’ve said. Number one, totally sort of unbeknownst to me, or I should say rather I had no pre-existing awareness that you used onX Hunt. I also ended up using onX and have for the last five months. And I should just mention to people that if you search for it on the App Store, I think it will show up as onX Hunt. The hunting certainly is one application, but it’s not a requirement.
Steven Rinella: My realtor uses onX.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so this is related to my point. I was exploring the wilderness in New England during COVID lockdown, and I wanted to know a number of things. I wanted to be able to track my own movement so that I could retrace my steps, which onX allows you to do. I wanted the offline maps, which you mentioned. I also wanted the ability to know where property boundaries were so that I wouldn’t end up wandering right up to somebody’s house or into someone’s property that would get me into trouble, so I was able to overlay the property information, which is just fascinating. I’ve never quite experienced anything like it.
So onX, I’ll second that. And then the inReach, I’m not sure if more brands make it, but I used a Garmin inReach when I was in South America, at one point. The pre-programming with the texts is, I think, a key step pre-departure because they can be a little unwieldy for actually typing out messages. If you are in an SOS situation, you want to have your contacts and messages pre-programmed.
Steven Rinella: Let me give you some hot tips about that when you’re done here.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, fire away. I’m done.
Steven Rinella: Oh. There is an iPhone app called—I’m going to give you the right name so I’m actually looking for it on my phone right now. There’s an iPhone app called Garmin Earthmate, and Garmin Earthmate pairs with your inReach device over Bluetooth.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God, this is the solution that I didn’t know I needed.
Steven Rinella: Man, you just have at it, man. There’s an important thing to remember though here—yeah, no, then you just have at it, then you’re just you’re just flying.
Tim Ferriss: Then you can send out novellas.
Steven Rinella: Dude, yeah, I think there’s a limit. It’s more than a Twitter message, but then you got to go to number two. But the other thing to keep in mind, when you’re using it, you’re using satellite. You can text someone who has cell service. Someone with cell service can text you at your inReach number. But if you’re in a remote area using your inReach address, trying to contact, say your buddy who’s two miles away at camp, you need to know their inReach address.
Let’s say I go to text my wife and I know that she’s at home and has cell service. I can text her directly to her number that she can then reply, but she’s replying to my inReach number, which is independent from my normal phone number. A lot of people mess this up. Because let’s say you go down to South America, no one’s got cell service. If you don’t communicate with your travel mates like, “Hey, man, what is your crazy-ass sounding inReach address?” you can’t send each other messages.
So you have to build an address book ahead of time, or else you are in a situation of texting someone back in the US who has cell service, and they’re texting around—we were doing this the other day. I could see a person, and I’m trying to send them an inReach message, but instead I’m inReaching his wife. Does she—if she can—and she’s like, “Well, is everybody okay?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m looking at your husband. He’s fine. I just want to send him a message.” So you’ve got to do a little bit of—take five minutes and make sure that everybody is communicating everybody’s inReach address.
Tim Ferriss: In the process of separating more fact from fiction, or really just pointing out essentials versus nonessentials, as you mentioned, little things can be really costly. Right? And a lot of the mistakes that end up in disaster are not of the outdoor, thriller, action movie variety. They would make the most boring television show in the world, right? It’s like, “Oh, shit, I forgot the batteries in my headlamp.” And then I die, right? Or something stupid.
Steven Rinella: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the essentials that you routinely use that listeners may not find obvious, or may not grok the subtleties of? You mentioned the Bowie knife. I think a lot of unseasoned outdoors men or women are inclined to get these big, honking, jump off a ravine and kill a grizzly in an action movie knives, as one example. But what are some of the essential pieces of gear that you would have in your kit?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I’d like to talk for a minute just about the kit, which is something I spend a lot of time in the book explaining how to assemble, and how to make it adaptable and versatile. To get a sense—a somewhat widely available product, there’s a thing called an OR Backcountry organizer. And there’s a—various companies make different ones that are in various heavy-duty fabrics. But I’ve long been a fan of a thing called the OR Backcountry organizer. It would be like a slightly flattened, pretty big coffee mug size, okay.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Steven Rinella: It’s this little bag, and it’s got a bunch of zippered pouches in it. And me, the folks I hang out with, we all have a kit that we—we call it a kit, it’s your essentials, and a lot of us assemble ours in one of these little bags. I put that thing—I take it virtually everywhere I go. I don’t mean to my office, but if my—for instance, we go to Baja every year for winter vacation to go spearfishing, and just messing around, spending family time together. I always pack it, because in it I have all the things that I know I might need, regardless of the situation. If I had a kit and I go on a day hike, if I’m just going for an hour hike up a hill with the dog and the kids, I bring my kit. Now, when I say my kit, I would say a survival kit, I would say it’s a first aid kit, but it’s all of those things and more.
In it, I keep several single sized ibuprofen tablets, acetaminophen tablets, Benadryl, okay, various medications. I have one or two things of DayQuil and NyQuil in there. Antihistamine things, single serving packs, very, very small. In there I also keep two 25-foot length Dyneema cords that are very thin, they’re three or four mil cords that I keep in there.
Tim Ferriss: Dyneema cords are like very thin paracord?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, it’s a souped-up, strong, lightweight paracord. There’s nothing wrong with paracord, paracord 660 cord, 600 pound cord. Stuff is great, man. I use it all the time. But for my things, I like to keep it very small, as small as possible, I use that stuff. I keep a small thing of dental floss, and taped to it is a heavy-duty needle that can be used to sew up clothing and stuff. I keep that in there at all times. I have a small sharpener, there’s a small knife in there. There’s a small backup headlamp in there that’s about the size of the end of your thumb. That burns on a coin battery and has a retractable little head strap. I also put my primary flashlight in there as well.
I have a basic first aid kit assembled inside a plastic envelope. That includes a variety of bandages, alcohol swabs, antibiotic ointment, a very small tourniquet, other items like that. I keep a chew tin, a tobacco tin full of cotton balls that have been thoroughly rubbed in with petroleum jelly, or Vaseline, which are phenomenal firestarters. The reason I use Vaseline rubbed into cotton balls stuffed inside a chew tin, is because one, Vaseline is also helpful for chapped lips, chafed skin. It can be helpful for alleviating pain from blisters. The primary reason is that the TSA agents at the airport—I travel a lot. They will pull fire starting devices, like incendiary devices, or not incendiary. What’s the word I’m looking for, Tim? Like accelerants, fire accelerants.
Tim Ferriss: Accelerants, yeah.
Steven Rinella: They will pull accelerants from your bag and fine you. There’s no problem with having some Vaseline in your bag.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Steven Rinella: Now, a cotton ball rubbed with Vaseline burns. It’s a great fire starter, it can get wet, it doesn’t mess it up. And TSA guys never steal it, so it’s just always in your bag. I keep a small multi-tool. I have a multi-tool that allows for a certain bit adapter. So I’m able to keep some basic screwdriver bits that fit various things that I own and use in there. I hunt a lot, so I have archery stuff, firearm stuff, little screws and bits that I like to have on hand. I keep those in my organizer, and it’s filled out like that. Two small lighters, tape, med tape. When I say that it’s adaptable—so let’s say I’m spending some time up in Southeast Alaska. There are places in Southeast Alaska that get 13 feet of precipitation annually, okay? Where I am right now gets 20 inches of precipitation annually.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, let me just put this in perspective for folks. So yesterday I was looking at historic ski reports and precipitation for Taos, New Mexico. This is a place famous for skiing, and I was looking at end of November to mid December. And it was an average of something like 0.8 to one and a half ski days per week. That’s not a lot of snow, and this is a place that ultimately is well-known for skiing. So then you imagine the amount of precipitation you’re describing. That is a fuckton of precipitation.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, oftentimes—here’s a survival trope, is that you’re going to be in an environment like this and fashion a fire drill, a little fire bow and start a fire. Or that you’re going to take a flint and steel and start a fire, or you’re going to take a hatchet and a rock and start a fire. There are people on the planet, including the native Alaskans who lived in that place, and grew up there feeling as though they had excellent equipment. And they used equipment that their grandfathers had used, and their fathers and mothers before them. And it was just a part of life and they knew how to use it, all right?
There are people on the planet who can do that, but I’m going to say though, I’m talking to you, I’m talking to the collective you out there. You are not going to go to a place that gets 13 feet of rain a year and start a fire. Just the 99.9% of you are not going to go there and start a fire using anything other than matches or a lighter. You’re just not. It is so hard. It’s so hard.
Tim Ferriss: So hard, it’s so hard, yeah.
Steven Rinella: So when I’m going to a place like this, I will have—I have a drawer in my garage full of kits that go within my kit, okay. And I have my super hard to start a fireplace bag that goes into my kit. I have other little envelopes that I will stick in there. I have a little envelope that has some survival snares and some very basic fishing equipment. If I was going to an area like an extremely remote area in Alaska, I might, for peace of mind, grab that little enhanced food acquisition envelope. Just to give me peace of mind that in the event of there being a grounding of aircraft, or something else that prevented a timely pre-arranged pickup, that I would have extra stuff.
And in those situations, my kit might blossom. Now you might think, “What are the odds of that?” Well, after September 11th—so on September 11th, there were people in backcountry Canada and backcountry Alaska who had arranged to be picked up at airstrips. People out hunting, could be that they’re out prospecting, gold mining, whatever the hell they’re doing—were waiting at airstrips to be picked up. And the one thing, no matter where you are in Alaska man, most days, sometimes all day, you hear aircraft. Aircraft is their car in Bush Alaska. You wake up one day, you don’t have news, you don’t know what’s going on, but you know that the skies are quiet, nothing flies. You’re supposed to be getting picked up, no one shows up. It’s as though the world ended and you don’t know what happened.
There was another occurrence in Alaska. I believe this occurred in the ’80s, where there was a big volcanic eruption that put a lot of ash in the air. And they resumed flying shortly after, but a jet is coming in, and this ash gets picked up in the engines, and turns to a sort of glassy like substance and blinks out all four engines. Eventually the stuff shatters out somehow and they’re able to get a couple engines relit. And they land, but they grounded aircraft for a long time. I had a friend who was out taking—he was out at a remote wilderness camp taking care of some horses, and he got stuck for weeks. No supplies, nothing flying, had no idea what was going on. He ran out of food and had a salt lick for a horse, like a salt block. He would eat porcupines and go out with a pocket knife and scrape salt off a salt block in order to get some salt to put on the porcupine meat.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds terrible. Oh, God.
Steven Rinella: And it’s a thing. Then you enter the fantastic, but think about the people I’m talking about. These people aren’t people that fell out of an airplane. They’re people that went willfully into a situation. Where if you do a good risk assessment, and you think about what are the problems that would actually happen, to go into a very remote area of Alaska, or Canada, or wherever. Frank Church in Idaho, I don’t know, a remote area. And you’re flying in, anyone that does any amount of homework can realize, now and then you simply don’t get picked up. Because of weather, because of a terror attack on the East Coast of the United States, because of a volcano on the Alaska Peninsula, or the Aleutians. So that’s the thing that we’re thinking about often, is, “Okay, in our risk assessment, what’s the real problem that might occur? I would say high on my list of shit that might occur would be that we’re going to sit here for three or four days. And are we prepared for that? Because that could be a little miserable.”
Tim Ferriss: And I want to also emphasize for folks who are listening, that I consider you—and no one bats a thousand, but I consider you an expert in risk mitigation with simple and elegant insurance countermeasures. If that makes any sense, it’s a very wordy way to put it, but—
Steven Rinella: Yeah, I appreciate the sentiment and I understand what you’re talking about.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, because there are a lot of—let’s just say we’re in the perfect era right now with COVID, sort of Mad Max-scenario planning. Where people are thinking, “It’s going to be The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and people are going to be trying to eat my kids. And I’m going to stockpile silver coins, and shave off gold bars to get tampons with the guy in the back of the 7-Eleven.” And it comes down to probabilities, the historical likelihood, and the cost of the intervention, right?
I’ve never had a significant fire of any type in my kitchen. Nonetheless, I have a—let’s call it $20 or $30 fire extinguisher that sits there gathering dust. Because it’s cheap, it’s easy to use, and if you need it, you’ll want to have it. On the other hand, you might have—let’s just say, using a bow drill to start a fire, which I’ve practiced doing. And I have got to the point where I could do it very infrequently successfully, and that took a lot of work. But to rely on that, to get to the point where I would feel comfortable relying on that, that becomes my new sport. That’s like learning—
Steven Rinella: Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m saying. Is people that can start a fire with a bow drill are people that start fires with bow drills. Because they do it recreationally.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Steven Rinella: They live with it and practice it, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Just to dig into the Backcountry organizer—and that I would just—again, to perhaps restate the obvious, is taking something that is half the size of the, say, water container you might take with you on a hike.
Steven Rinella: It’s smaller than that, it’s smaller than a Nalgene bottle.
Tim Ferriss: Right, so this is—we’re not talking about a lot of inconvenience here. Is the OR Backcountry organizer just the container, or does it come preloaded with a lot of these items?
Steven Rinella: No, man. It’s just the container. I have—and there are other ones, there are other companies that make similar products, and the difference tends to be weight and durability. They’re susceptible to tear, the seams give out, but it’s lightweight. There are other companies that make—FHF makes certain organizers that are pretty heavy-duty, they’re great. That one is just a very lightweight one. And it’s empty—
Tim Ferriss: What is your preferred multi-tool, do you remember what you carry?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I use a Leatherman. I like the Wave a lot. It’s heavy. I’ve got friends that really don’t like them. I’ll tell you what I like on them. I like a regular blade. And we’ve been joking about big-ass Rambo knives, and Bowie knives and stuff. I’ve done a lot of anything that you would need to do with a knife. And there are cases where it would be great if you had some giant machete type knife. But generally for the kinds of things we’re talking about, like keeping yourself out of trouble, handling basic repairs, the knife on a multi-tool is a good backup to also having—I carry a very high quality, very lightweight pocket knife called a bugout. But I have a multi-tool with me.
Tim Ferriss: Bugout?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. It’s very lightweight, very sharp, and you get it in a variety of ways. You don’t even know it’s there, it’s a good knife. So the Leatherman, I like one that has a saw on it, like wood saw, bone saw. I like one that has a serrated blade for doing work that would very quickly dull your normal blade. I like it to have a normal blade, two or three inch blade on it. And I really like it to have a pair of needle-nose pliers. I use those things all the time. In the book, we provide lists of all this kind of equipment. But in my kit, I carry a little sliver remover. It’s like nothing, it’s—earlier I mentioned something being the size of the end of your thumb. This is like a couple thumbnails.
It’s a sliver remover pair of tweezers, which is invaluable. Especially in areas of the South and Southwest, for just the annoyance of getting junk stuck in your skin, which can drive you crazy. But I also use the needle-nose pliers for all kinds of stuff. We’ve used needle-nose pliers for everything from pulling porcupine quills out of dogs, fixing ingrown toenails, repairing clothes, fixing firearms. So I can do anything with a pair of needle-nose, man. I like that to be on there. And then a number two Phillips bit, a flat head screwdriver of a fairly universal size. If I actually wound up in some situation where I was stuck out in the woods for a week—and I’m going to return to my point, but I just want to make something clear. For a living, for a long time, I travel to the remotest places out there.
I did it as a writer. I’ve done it for a decade doing television, magazine work, and such. I go to really remote places. I go to the places where people imagine trouble occurs. And I travel with a crew of highly adept, very skilled individuals. Someone might say, “But you’ve never had to live out for a month with no food or anything.” I’m like, “That’s kind of the point.” To have done the things that we’ve done, and figured out the ways in which we avoid trouble, avoid disaster, get what we need to get done done, that’s the survival I’m talking about.
And if I knew I was going to be stranded out somewhere like, man, I would really want to have a multi-tool. But I just use a multi-tool in living my life, that’s really a big part of the title. I think that in struggling with it, it would be like The Guide to Survival. I’m like, “Okay.” And my head just goes to fantasy land. Wilderness Skills and Survival, we’d be like wilderness skills is just the doing, how to be out and do things. And yeah, man, I have seen everything from outboard engines, to generators, to cars, to human beings repaired with a multi-tool by someone who kind of understands how to do things.
Tim Ferriss: I always have a multi-tool in the car. Since we invoked the name of the TSA earlier, I will just mention to folks that I have had to sacrifice quite a few multi-tools. And those were sad moments.
Steven Rinella: The multi-tool stealingest sons of bitches on the planet. God bless them, but my God, do they take some multi-tools.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, brutal.
Steven Rinella: I understand that yeah, you can’t go on a plane with a knife. And it’s like, now and then you’re standing there, and you’re in line, and all of a sudden they pull your bag and you’re just like, “No—not another one, not another one.”
Tim Ferriss: It’s so bad. It’s the worst.
Steven Rinella: Standing in line now, we actually, if I’m with buddies of mine, or the guys I work with, it’s a common thing. You’ll be like, “Oh, you got your passport?” You’ll be like, “Dude, knives, knives, knives.” “Right, got it. Thanks.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s a sinking feeling.
Steven Rinella: You could—I haven’t looked into it, but somehow they auction, or sell—
Tim Ferriss: Oh, the confiscated items.
Steven Rinella: I think you buy them by the bucket. I don’t know, I will look into it, but I think they somehow—they all go somewhere. The Ketchikan Airport in Alaska—this is one of my favorite things on the planet, is in Ketchikan as you’re waiting in line for security, they have a display case of things that have been confiscated at the Ketchikan Airport. In this display case is a brass knuckles dagger. So a brass knuckles with an eight inch double bladed dagger coming out of it. Which makes me feel a lot better about the multi-tools I’ve lost, because someone who thought that that would be a thing to pack along on a trip—I just would love to have been able to have a brief interview with, presumably, that gentlemen. Maybe it was a woman, but presumably the gentleman who had the brass knuckles dagger at the Ketchikan airport and lost it. And they’re the kind of brass knuckles that has the pointy knuckles that would perforate your skin for you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.
Steven Rinella: It’s the greatest!
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about water. What are your recommendations for how to think about procuring or purifying water? That could be an extension of kit, and then we back into finding and filtering. But how would you suggest people think about that?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, would love to. So in a lot of the chapters in the book, we lay out the food chapter, the water chapter is laid out this way, navigation is laid out this way. The chapters always start out perfect world, right? So in water, it would be like perfect world, here is how many gallons a person is going to use a day for intake, meaning to make food. If you’re using freeze dried food, whatever, on camping trips, or outings, work outings, whatever, to make food and drinks. So what’s the quantity of water that will actually go into your body? And then there’s the quantity of water per day with some climatic variations depending on where you are in the world, that with, intake, so physical intake, and then basic cleaning, and then water for if you’re doing some amount of bathing and like all these water quantities that you’d bring with you in jugs, right? So you fill a jug off a garden hose, load it into your camper, load it into your truck, and that’s where you are, you just live off of jug water, which is great, do it all the time, car camping water. But then the chapter would go through to like worse, worse, worse worse, worse, and then end kind of on an “Oh, shit.” So starting out with that idea of water, moving into the idea of sourcing water. So, sourcing water, where you have the proper equipment to do so.
And then it moves into sourcing water where you do not have the proper equipment to do so. And then basic down to sourcing water, you don’t have shit with you, you have nothing. You’ve got to figure everything out, including a container. But for real world use, I spend most of my time, when I’m out with equipment, sourcing water onsite, with some basic equipment that enables me to do so. And I feel that like a good universal water kit for any kind of overnighting trips or trips that could turn into overnighting, use a Nalgene bottle, or it doesn’t need to be Nalgene. We use Nalgene now, but it’s like a brand name. They make scientific containers and equipment and beakers and stuff, but they’ve become a real dominant force in like screw top bottles. Bottles are very durable. You can freeze stuff in and it doesn’t crack them.
They’re great. A hundred companies that make them. A Nalgene bottle. And then we use a thing we call a drom, or a dromedary, which is a collapsible water bottle. You can get various things like a liter, two-liter, maybe 1.5 liter. And when they’re empty, it’s nothing. It’s like, imagine an empty duty, somewhat heavy duty, little shopping bag, and you put it in the bottom of your pack, you don’t even know it’s there. But when it’s full it’s, it’s great. It’s a good source of water. So carry a Nalgene, carry a drom. In my kit that I mentioned earlier, I always carry water purification tablets. Okay. In single serving packs. So it’s these little foil packs and each of those foil packs has one or two tablets in it. You put those tablets in water—
Tim Ferriss: Iodine? Or what is that?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, there’s iodine, there’s some different ones that have different active ingredients, but yeah, iodine tablets. There’s other, I get into the other compounds, but there’s, it’s all iodine-like, but there are some different active ingredients in different tablets.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Steven Rinella: And they might argue amongst themselves about which has the worst or better aftertaste. There are also neutralizers you can add, like if you hate that taste that comes from water purification tablets, there are neutralizing tablets that diminish that taste and you can get them in single serving packs. So I keep those in my kit no matter what, no matter where I go, I have those in my kit. So I have those with me and I also lately, well, not even lately, for years now, I have used what’s called a steripen with great results. I love them. It’s a UV light wand. Imagine a lightsaber that’s maybe five inches long.
It runs on a CR-123 battery. You put it in there and it can purify a quart of water in 90 seconds using a UV light wand that you just swirl around in the water. Couple of complications with this is like, if the water’s too turbid. So if it’s like an incredibly muddy water, you would need to double dose it or triple dose it because the light penetration through the water. A problem you might encounter, and this is all stuff we cover. A problem you might encounter is that scooping water up can be hard. Like if you’re just trying to get water out of wet moss, you know, and you can press a hand down and like, get a little bit of water in your palm, it can be an arduous task. I usually carry a small plastic camp cup with me anyways, for drinking coffee and stuff in the morning, you can use, and the camp cup is a little bit flexible, so you can force this thing into little crevices. Like if you have a cliff face with some water, just sort of like running down it and that’s the only water you can find, you kind of mash this cup up against the cliff face and slowly get dripping water into the cup and use that to fill that rigid-mouthed Nalgene and eventually get that thing full and then wand it with a steripen to purify it.
Where you might have a problem is if everything’s frozen, you can’t steripen ice. but when you’re using snow melt, all you need is a small stove and you could run off snow melt. It’s exhaustive on fuel. And that’s something we get into as well. is like the, the yield on snow is surprisingly low. It takes a lot of energy, fire, fuel, whatever. It takes a lot of energy to melt snow into water, but it’s like a thing we cover.
But if you get that basic thing down and again, this is like standard operating procedure, of water bottle, dromedary, and the dromedary bag, I carry a two-liter dromedary bag. I just keep it in the bottom of my pack. You can fill that at a source and then carry it with you and purify it as you use it. You can get two fills and dump it into your bottle, purify it with a steripen, and you’re pretty bulletproof, man, with that setup. As long as you can find some source of surface water, and we explain a lot of tricks of the trade and how to locate surface water when you don’t have the obvious locations of creeks and ponds and stuff. But I’ll point out here, a real, real risk, and this is not a fund risk, but a real, real risk: waterborne pathogens are a problem. I have been sick several times from waterborne pathogens.
It is miserable. You can get so sick that it’s debilitating. It could just be bad, or it can be bad, bad. So you cannot afford to be careless, drinking surface water, and people make a lot of mistakes of seeing some water, they feel as, like, coming out of some little seep, and they think, “Oh, it must be fine, because this is the source,” when in fact, if they walked 10 yards uphill, they’d find like an elk wallow where they’re shitting and pissing and rolling around in the mud. And it’s not adequately filtered from having passed through that mucky ground, and you can get sick. Waterborne pathogens, they’re like part of this whole suite of the little things that kill. And that is the thing with water: more than bears, more than mountain lions, waterborne pathogens are a bitch.
Tim Ferriss: Do you also carry a smaller purification device that is pumped? Something like Katadyn? I don’t know if that’s how it’s pronounced.
Steven Rinella: I do not anymore. I, personally—a lot of people like them. I personally have had a lot of trouble with things with ceramic filters and other filters where it’s wet from use and it freezes. They get plugged up. I’ve just had a lot of hassle. And river trips, on river—like rafting, canoe trips and stuff where you just, you know, you just have water because you’re floating down the river, right? You know you’re going to have plenty of water around. We will use those gravity-fed drip bags that hold a few gallons of water. You just scoop it up in the river and you hang it from a tree limb and there’s a gravity-fed filter on there. We will use those if we know that conditions are going to be good, like summertime conditions where it’s not going to be freezing at night, crippling your filter.
You’re going to have a pretty good source of water that’s not going to be overly muddy. And it just kind of like, when times are good, it’s a good device. But the pumps, no, I’ve not–I don’t like them on glacial rivers with the glacial till, it’s just a lot of headache. I’m sure there are people that know what they’re talking about and they like them. And there might be people who dislike UV light pens for various reasons, because if you’re traveling overseas, like if you’re traveling in Africa, you need to have a purification system and you always need to check to make sure what you’re using and how you’re using it. You’re going to want a purification system that also can handle viruses. If you were in, the US, okay? If you’re hanging out in the US out doing camping-type activities and you’re not around a lot of human contamination, or you’re out in like, you know, in the woods, in the mountains, whatever, like somewhat halfway-pristine environments, you don’t need to worry about viruses. You’re mostly talking about really big things. Giardia, cryptosporidium, large things that are easy to filter out. So if you’re going on a backpacking trip in the developing world somewhere, and you’re going to be dealing with areas that have human, potentially human waste in the water, we explain all this stuff too, in the book, but human waste in the water, you’re going to practice a different purification system. And you might even do something like a dual purification system where you have things like, again, from human contamination. But the primary focus here that I’m talking about is like classic, like backpacking, hiking, wilderness outings.
Tim Ferriss: What are some items that people should have in their cars? I’m wondering if there’s anything that people might not have thought of. And I’d love to hear your opinion—
Steven Rinella: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: —on what some people call space blankets, or Mylar blankets—these emergency blankets. Is their helpfulness overestimated, underestimated? But generally things that people might want to consider in their car, right? Because people get themselves into trouble in all sorts of places, including spots where they might not expect to get into trouble like north of say, San Francisco, going to Tahoe, and underestimating the amount of snowfall and realizing that they don’t have chains—
Steven Rinella: It’s true.
Tim Ferriss: —but perhaps they’ve driven already three hours in traffic and they’re like, “Fuck it! YOLO. I’m going skiing!” And then lo and behold, “Uh, oh.” I mean, that’s mistake number one.
Steven Rinella: People die every year in stranded vehicles in this country. Talking about cars, we’re starting getting into, we’re talking about like, you know, like prepper land. And I’ll point out that I’m a—in my car and at home, I’m a sort of, unintentional or accidental prepper where I do a lot of camping, so I have a lot of freeze dried food. I buy a lot of it. I keep it in bins in my garage so that when I’m going somewhere, I have a lot of it. And also, I like to have it on hand. I’m going to use it anyways. It’s in my garage. So I have enough freeze dried food to—because I bought it for one thing in mind, it also serves the purpose where I have enough freeze dried food to keep my family up and running for quite a long time on freeze dried food.
We have all kinds of, you know, we camp a lot, so we have all kinds of camp stoves, alternate fuel sources, water purification equipment that I own through camping. I’m a firearm owner. I keep, you know, for that purpose, I keep quite a bit of ammunition on hand. The one thing I do like, the one thing that I do that’s like totally prepper-like, and this came from time I spent living in Seattle where you’re in a very seismically active area, and also you have volcanic activity and things. We kept treated water in a closet. So in my crawlspace, I do keep a bunch of jugs of water that I put in long-term treatment. Like a chlorine-type substance that you can put in there for long-term treatment. That’s the one thing I do that doesn’t have camping ramifications. I own those big-ass jugs because we use them for water transport while camping.
I extend the same kind of mentality to my personal vehicle. Because, you know, we do a lot of adventuring. I live in the Northern Rockies. Climate here can be crazy; road conditions are going to be crazy. So I’m going to give you a pretty extreme version of the kinds of things I keep in my car. I keep a patch kit. Also, I drive a truck. I have an F-150. The back seats lift up; you can put all kinds of stuff under there. I have a Decked toolbox in the back of my truck so I can keep various things around, but I keep a battery-powered spotlight. I have a battery-powered air pump. I have a patch kit, keep an extra headlamp, might sound funny, but I keep a toothbrush and toothpaste in there.
I keep glow sticks in the glove box, you know, those break glow sticks that ravers use. You use them if your vehicle is stopped along the side of the road, you can put out glow sticks so that in a snowstorm or dark conditions, people could see it. I keep a military e-tool, like a folding folding shovel, like a military folding shovel. Not all e-tools are created equal; I got mine from a serviceman who was like, “No, dude, you have to have the right e-tool.” And he went and got me the right e-tool, a very heavy-duty e-tool. It’s a folding saw—I’m sorry, folding shovel. When there’s snow on the ground, I put it in a big aluminum scoop shovel with a D handle in the back of my truck. I have two insulated ponchos, so they’re basically like sleeping bags with a hole that you can put over them—because I have young kids, so I keep my insulated ponchos in my truck.
I have a food stash in my Decked system. Like one of the boxes is just full of granola bars and stuff, which I also use for my kids all the time, because if anybody has kids, they know that they’re always like whining about wanting food and I just feed them out of that box. In the summer months, I keep water in there, but it freezes and breaks the containers in the winter, so I pull them out. And then I have a basic toolkit. So things I need to do repairs, I keep some garbage bags and things in there. Candles are great because if you are in a car in the winter and for whatever reason, you’re stranded and you’re running a camp stove, say, in your car, you can kill yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning.
You do not want to burn fossil fuels in a car. It is a very quick way, especially if there’s a risk of you falling asleep, it’s a death sentence, man. If you fall asleep in a car, burning a fossil fuel—isopropyl whatever, gasoline, white gas, you’re in trouble, man. You will kill yourself. So candles, you can bring up the mean temperature in the car by several degrees—beyond several—to a substantial level of warmth by burning candles in your car.
Tim Ferriss: I never realized that.
Steven Rinella: Oh, yeah. And then even like an alcohol stove that people use on sailboats. People use alcohol stoves on small sailboats; they’re the same thing. So you can run it without getting carbon monoxide poisoning. You could have a small, $7 alcohol stove and a little pint bottle full of alcohol and heat a car to t-shirt warmth with an alcohol stove, and you don’t need to worry about killing yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning. There’s still a fire risk, but you can sit in your car and hang out. It doesn’t need to be running. You can be out of gas, you can have a dead engine, and keep warm.
And then finally, I also keep a thick wool blanket that I just roll up and put a strap on. I know a lot of guys will just have a tote. You know, like just you go to Walmart, whatever, and buy like a plastic tote of an appropriate size. Put all this stuff—we have lists in the book of all this, like what’s minimum/maximum like, you know, best recommendations. Make a tote. And if you’re just around town going back and forth to work, don’t worry about it. If you go driving three hours to go visit relatives for the Christmas holiday, throw the tote in the back. And in that tote is all the shit you would ever need to be more than comfortable. People might laugh, you know, “Oh, you look goofy. Oh, you’re a prepper. What is this? Mad Max?” It’s like, I like to just feel at ease and prepared.
The other day we were coming back from a hunting trip and my kid pointed out—he’s 10 years old—and he pointed out, “The thing I like about our truck is that we have all the stuff we need.” And I glowed with pride upon hearing that, that even the sense of ease and comfort that my kid got— you know, he had whatever, a headache, and I gave him something for it. Anyways, a sense of ease and comfort that he got a feeling like we’re on top of it. We’re our own people. We got our shit figured out. Our system’s dialed.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And it’s also a different breed of preparation compared to like putting on a ghillie suit every Saturday and climbing into a spider hole in your backyard.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes!
Tim Ferriss: Right. It’s this is, this is just, I mean, a lot of these things, particularly, I want to underscore the water supplies, the backup water supplies for me is cheap, cheap insurance that is kind of one and done. I mean, perhaps you replace it every once in a while, but I’ll give an example here. I have a garage with a significant amount of potable water because, I want to say a year and a half ago, two years ago in Austin, Texas, this is first world, incredibly developed city, incredible medical support and facilities. This is a top-tier city within the US as far as livability and everything else. And at one point they had flooding. This happens. So there was an incredible torrential downpour for a day or two and it overwhelmed the municipal water treatment plants. And there was a boil warning for the entire city.
Steven Rinella: Oh, it put human fecal matter into the municipal water supply.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Steven Rinella: That’s nice.
Tim Ferriss: So you could not drink water out of your faucet.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. ‘Cause there’s poop in it.
Tim Ferriss: Because there’s poop in it. And within, I don’t know, 12 hours, 24 hours, all bottled water in the city, gone—
Steven Rinella: Uh huh.
Tim Ferriss: —like there’s not nothing available. And that was a huge pain in the ass and a massive hassle. And for a few hundred bucks, if you think of all of the things you waste money on or spend money on, it’s very inexpensive insurance for an event like that, which demonstrably has a non-zero chance of happening. And I remember that with Hurricane Sandy back in the day, also in New York—
Steven Rinella: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: —and I mean, these things do happen. Maybe they happen as infrequently as a kitchen fire or a head-on collision, but you still have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen. You still wear your seatbelt when you drive.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, I like it that you’re pointing that out. It’s an interesting thing. It’s like, no one thinks you’re a whacked-out prepper to have a fire extinguisher, or to have a first aid kit, or to have homeowner’s insurance, you know. “So what are you? Some kind of right wing…” Right? But it’s like, yeah, it’s just, I just view it as a thing. You know, it’s like a peace of mind issue, if nothing else. What I used to have when I was in Seattle, you get so much rain, I bought a—I use this for my garden, but I loved it—where I bought a 250-gallon tank that sat under the, I had a roof deck on top of my house and it came down this downspout, and it rains all the damned time, you know, in the summer—or sorry, in the winter. And I just rigged this 250-gallon tank under my downspout. And you could get, you know, 10 minutes of rain off that rooftop and fill that thing up. And I used to love that thing because I was like, dude, it’s like a, you know, bulletproof, man, as long as it rains.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the freeze dried food. There is sort of the good, the bad, and the ugly of freeze dried food.
Steven Rinella: Uh-hmm.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any particular favorites?
Steven Rinella: Man, it used to be simple. Like in the old days, you had a company, and this company is the pioneer of freeze dried food. I want to tell people real quick, I’m explaining freeze dried food to folks. It’s an interesting process. I wrote a piece for Outside magazine years ago about the freeze dried food industry and freeze dried food. And I revisited that article in working on this book just to get some of it back straight again. But during it, when I was working on this article, I visited Oregon Freeze Dry, and Oregon Freeze Dry does all kinds of military contracting. They do like NASA contracting. It was Oregon Freeze Dry that sent all kinds of products into outer space.
Their consumer brand is Mountain House. And so Mountain House is pretty ubiquitous. Like you walk into any sporting goods store, whatever, you’ll see, I think it even turns up in Costco, you’ll see these square buckets or individual things of Mountain House. And that’s a consumer brand by a major player in the freeze dried food business. What they do is they make, in this process, you produce table-ready food. Okay. So let’s say you’re making spaghetti with meat sauce and you’re going to freeze dry it. They actually make spaghetti and meat sauce. So it looks like you could sit down and eat it. It’s ready to like put in your bowl and serve at the dinner table. They then spread this out, in about an inch layer, on these big, huge sheet trays. They just spread it out about an inch thick on a giant cookie sheet with inch-thick spaghetti and meat sauce on it.
It goes into a freezer, and they freeze it. And like the speed at which it freezes is proprietary. There’s a lot of magic in how quickly you freeze it, because you’re trying to get a certain size ice crystal that’s optimal for freeze drying, but they freeze the sheet. And then it goes into a sublimation chamber. The sublimation chambers bring to mind a—
Tim Ferriss: what an amazing name!
Steven Rinella: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Sublimation chamber.
Steven Rinella: Looking at it, it looks like the end of a submarine sticking out of a wall. Okay. And the sublimation chamber is a vacuum chamber. So you put all these sheets of frozen food—so you could do the—up till now, you could do it at your home, right? They put these sheets of frozen food into the sublimation chamber and then they pull a vacuum on it. Okay. And once they pull a strong vacuum on it, they start to slowly warm up, these heating coils start to warm the food up. Sublimation means that the water goes from a frozen to gaseous state under vacuum with the right pressure, so that it skips the water phase. The ice in melting goes directly to gas and collects on coils. When you pull it out, it doesn’t look any different. If you pulled it out of the sublimation chamber, it would look like just how it went in, except you’d be able to pick it up and break it like a sheet of glass. It’s then mashed up, crumbled up, and put into a bag. That’s freeze dried food.
Shelf life of, with the right packaging, these laminated bags, the right packaging on these products, shelf life of 30 years, 40 years. I think that they don’t quite know the shelf life because no one’s had any sitting around long enough with the right packaging to figure it out.
There’s a love and a hate for freeze dried. The convenience is unbelievable and there are now many more freeze dried companies entering the space and they’re all whittling away at Mountain House. There’s a company, Heather’s Choice, that does some freeze dried stuff. Peak Refuel, we eat a lot of that, does freeze dried food. There are a bunch of them out there.
Now you can buy your own sublimation chambers, I think for like three- or four-thousand bucks, and get a sublimation chamber at your house and make your own freeze dried food if you’re like a super prepper.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Rinella: A few thousand bucks. I was just camping with a guy whose buddy has his own sublimation chamber now, and this dude, whenever he makes dinner, he freeze dries some too. It’s a riot. But a lot of people report— I’ve experienced those. A lot of people report that there’s nothing harder on a person’s gut than three or four days worth of freeze dried. Most anybody can hack a day or two of freeze dry, but you get it to a point where just something different is going on in the old stomach. I don’t know what it is. I’ve had people tell me that it’s not true. It’s just true. It’s just true. I can’t tell you why it’s true, but it’s true. Some people thrive on it. I do quite well on it. Some people, it just tears them up.
The problem though is that you cannot confuse freeze dried food with dehydrated food. Dehydrated food can take a lot longer to rehydrate. It can be that you don’t get it fully rehydrated.
Dehydrated beans, you want to talk about something messing your gut up, dehydrated beans that you haven’t gotten properly rehydrated can tear you to pieces. Freeze dried rehydrates pretty quickly.
I got a friend that does a lot of backcountry travel, and he’s a minimalist. He’s a lightweight fanatic. He doesn’t carry a camp stove with him. He takes freeze dried food and around noon, he’ll pour cold water on the freeze dried food and then just carry it around strapped to his backpack, knowing that about, by six or seven hours, it’ll have fully rehydrated and he’ll just eat cold freeze dried. If you put hot water in, it’s just ready in eight minutes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Rinella: Seven or eight minutes. Like I said, you just can’t argue with the shelf life. The stuff came into widespread use with the LRRPs in Vietnam, long range reconnaissance patrols. That was the pioneering days of freeze dried food. Then it had big ramifications for NASA, military use, and such.
When I was at the Oregon Freeze Dry Company years ago, it was funny because I was with one of the guys, a lab technician, he’s like a cook or a chef, executive chef, whatever, there. And we go into this room. It was like their lab room where they have everything on the planet freeze dried. And he’s like, “Name something to see if I have it in here.” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Capers.” And he’s like, “Got it.” You know, they freeze dry everything, experimenting with it. They make freeze dried shrimp cocktail. I’m not kidding you, man. Cans of freeze dried shrimp in freeze dried cocktail sauce. I don’t know if that’s available to the public, but I have a fascination and a deep love-hate with freeze dried, but it is unparalleled as an emergency food, backpacking food, wilderness preparedness food. It is the best thing going. There’s nothing that even approaches it.
Tim Ferriss: Shelf life, I’m looking online, between 25 to 30 years.
Steven Rinella: There was one freeze dried company, when I was working on my article, one freeze dried company, I said, “What’s the shelf life?” And they said, “We switched to this style of bag.” I can’t remember what it was. They’re like, “We switched to this style of bag 30 years ago. It’s all still fine. We’re not making a recommendation.” I don’t know how they handle the recommendation part of it. But they’re like, “We know that it’s at least this, but that’s all the long we’ve had it laying here.” So who knows? Right? It’s good. It’s great stuff. It’s expensive, but it just, you know, fill up a tote with that and put it in your garage and it’s just like you don’t need to check it. You keep mice out of there, you don’t need to check it. Your kids will have emergency food after you’re dead.
Tim Ferriss: Hand-me-downs! Oh, my God. And a note on freeze drying for folks who just want to play with something, the freezer in your home is, at least for a lot of folks, will be the driest place in your home, which is counterintuitive for a lot of folks. So if you want to get a really good sear on a steak, you can actually put it on a drying tray or rack of some type in your freezer for, say, 30 minutes, or 30 might be too long, like 15, 20 minutes before you cook to dry off the surface of the steaks so that you get that Maillard reaction when searing. So that’s a trick that people can also use.
Steven Rinella: It seems that there’s evidence of the Incans doing something similar to freeze drying with potatoes. I don’t remember the details on it, but they would store potatoes. Or, there are instances where potatoes were stashed or stored, you know, at 10,000 feet and preserved through freeze drying. And they would also do an equivalent of, they would sometimes put human remains up 10, 11,000 feet. And I don’t know if you’ve ever—I went to Salta, Argentina to visit those Incan children that—there’s kind of a famous story of these three Incan children that were put in their little rock shelter at very high elevation, so perfectly preserved that you could still see coca leaves on one of the kid’s lips. It looks like they could just wake up from a nap and walk away. But they think that those children are from the 1490s.
Tim Ferriss: Spooky. Wow.
Steven Rinella: Perfectly preserved.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Steven Rinella: Like, they basically like, naturally freeze dried at high elevation. They display one of these children at a time in Salta, Argentina. One of them was struck by, at some point in time, one of them was struck by lightning and their hair was burned, but they have beautiful feathers, beautiful clothing, all perfectly preserved. It’s incredible.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. I’m looking at images right now. This is creepy. It’s like something out of the horror movie The Ring.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. There was an issue that they don’t—out of an agreement with the indigenous peoples, they will not display all three at once. And so I believe they rotate the display, unless that’s changed. When I went there to see one of these children, you could only see one.
Tim Ferriss: I wonder why. I guess it could be related to some mythology or superstition or belief system of the indigenous, I suppose.
Steven Rinella: When they looked at the—they did some work there. And when they look at the stable, you know, you can tell people about people’s historic diet. It seems as though those children, if I’m remembering correctly, it seems as though those children spent most of their lives eating primarily potatoes, had a very poor diet for most of their lives. But in the year or so leading up to their death, they had a phenomenally diverse diet and they had with them gifts and trinkets from all over the Incan Empire. And perhaps they were on a sort of tour, being honored across the Empire, festivals and being fed and honored across the Empire, before being brought up and killed on that hilltop. The oldest one had been given a blow to the head with a hatchet, but the other ones, they appear to just have been drunk. They were drunk on some kind of fermented drink and maybe just passed out and left, except for one of them, they had to give a knock to the head. It’s a wild story. Anyways, freeze dried. Freeze dried food.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. I’m looking at—freeze dried children. Don’t eat them. Mummies of Llullaillaco, with the double Ls. I’m saying it with the “ja” since it’s Argentine, but the children of Llullaillaco, which I’ll link to in the show notes. That’s incredible.
Steven Rinella: In a perfect world, I’d go back two more times to see the other children.
Tim Ferriss: So I feel like we can’t end on this particular story.
Steven Rinella: Oh, that was a real digression, but go ahead, pick something different.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about what you, or not let us, let you tell me about what you hope and feel the psychological benefits will be from those or for those who read the new book, The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival, and actually take steps to practice some of what’s in the book, to equip themselves in some of the ways described in the book. I’m just thinking to your story about your son with the truck, but what do you hope or expect the benefits would be psychologically for people to do this?
Steven Rinella: I hope and expect and anticipate that people who spend time with the book will come away feeling more comfortable, feeling comfortable and prepared in wild places and better able to go with friends, loved ones, colleagues, children, what have you, into nature, into the wilderness and not have a, you know, maybe a vague sense of foreboding about something happening or feeling that you’re in over your skis. Or, as we like to say, in over your waders. That when approaching a frozen pond, they, instead of looking at it like, this unknown, super dangerous thing that you dasn’t go near, you would look at it as a thing that’s comprehendible, that there are some simple things you can do to determine, “Is this safe for me to be on? If I do make a mistake and go there and something happens, I know what to do. I know how to do proper risk assessment.”
That when you’re out camping, you’re not having baseless fears of getting mauled by a mountain lion. You’re not running around with concepts in your head about how to deter animal attacks that are one, unwarranted, or two, the opposite of what you ought to do if you were in that situation. Because I think that even if none of the bad things, if none of the “Oh, shit” things that can befall a person happen to you outdoors, and even if I can come and tell you statistically they won’t, they still live in your head. There’s still an anxiety that people suffer around nature and around the unexplored, around the unusual. And once you arm yourself with a mental toolkit, and a physical toolkit at times, you wind up feeling better. And once you feel better and you get that cockiness, you get, a friend of mine calls your wilderness swagger, everything goes more smoothly for you. You’re able to do and focus on the things that you came there to do and focus on.
So by being prepared, you do away with the nagging sense in the back of your head of, “What would I do if?” It just frees you up. So I just want people to have that liberated, swaggering feeling outside.
Tim Ferriss: Dig it. Okay. Last, or maybe second to last, question. And this could be a dead end, but if you were a cyborg just executing on commands, you’d have a certain kit, a certain approach, be super methodical, all highly rational. Is there anything peculiar you’d take with you on some of your trips or anything absurd that you’d feel compelled to do that would not be in the textbook instruction manual related to skills and survival? Anything particularly Steve Rinella that your friends or companions in the wilderness make fun of you for?
Steven Rinella: Man, I’m going to approach it a slightly different way, but I’ll say that I’m going to approach it a slightly different way. And this is brand new, fresh information. I have a friend who is a very avid Alpine hunter and he uses and likes crampons. Okay? I had always shied away from—
Tim Ferriss: Can you describe what those are for folks?
Steven Rinella: Crampons are like a thing you lock on your boot, strap on your boot, and it’s cleats. Nothing like a golf cleat, like steel or aluminum spikes that are used for extreme—like, they’re used for ice climbing, extreme mountaineering. Okay? I know he’s always been a fan of crampons and I’d always been under the feeling that I didn’t use crampons in the mountains typically, because I thought that crampons are things people use more to get themselves into trouble than to get themselves out of trouble.
Meaning, you know, some basic repelling skills are good to have. Right? That’s something we cover, but I don’t advise for just normal people, like normal use outside of mountaineering, I don’t advise using that to get somewhere. I would advise using that to like, you got somewhere and now you’re like, “Uh,oh!” and you used it to get out. And I thought crampons were potentially troublemaking, that they would give— you know the wilderness swagger I mentioned? It would give you too much swagger and you’d wind up doing shit that you should not do. And so I was with him and I finally brought a set of crampons and I came away from it like, “Holy shit,” because even just on a steep pitch, where there’s some wet snow, I used to take for granted that you walked alongside hill and along a steep pitch of wet snow.
I used to take for granted that you just ate shit, right? Every other step. That’s just like, how it goes. You know, it’d be like five steps, whoop, five steps, whoop. And putting those on, I became a believer so quickly in like, moving around on wet grass, icy stuff, how that’d allow you to just grease through areas that I used to view as being hard to get through. So I could see now being a guy at the trailhead with a set of crampons strapped to my pack, and other people at the trailhead being like, “What is this idiot doing?” The same way a month ago, if I saw someone with crampons, I’d be like, “Oh, come on. Come on. Really? Really?” And now I’d be like, if I see that dude, I’m going to be like, “Yeah, bro. Right on.”
Tim Ferriss: “I get you. I get you.” What adventure have you up to this point left unrequited? Like, you’ve had so many trips, so many adventures, so much travel, so much outdoor wilderness time. What is still on the bucket list for you?
Steven Rinella: Oh, that’s an easy one. There’s a river in South America that I’ve done two river trips on, and I was able to do these river trips with a group called the Macushi, a tribe called the Macushi. And they have a few villages along this river. And it’s a long, long river, and they talk about the head of this river. There’s a couple of them that have been there. Most of the guys haven’t been there. And they talk about the head of this river as being like, what they regard as like, kind of like the most magical place on the planet. And the lower end of this river, where I’ve been, blows my mind.
And they have this attitude like, “You haven’t seen shit until you’ve been up this river!” But you’ve got to have about three—you know, it’s a three-week trip to get up, because you’ve got to portage around all these waterfalls. I don’t have a concrete plan yet, but at whatever point in life that you sort of like, approach retirement but you still have your physical capabilities, I want to go up that damn river until it’s a trickle. Like, ideally, I’d go with my brothers. I want to go up that river so damn bad, I think about it all the time.
Tim Ferriss: Love it. Well, I can’t—
Steven Rinella: To the end. To the bitter end, like I said, to where it comes out of a rock and like, that’s my thing that I want to do. And these guys live off fish when they’re traveling too, and I like fish.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a win-win. Steve, always fun, always a good time, and you’re making me want to get out into the wilderness ASAP and actually to do a fair amount of prep beforehand so I’m not just yet another idiot wandering out with no plan, no contingencies, no nothing. And I’m excited about the book. I’m really thrilled that you were able to carve out some time today. Is there anything else that you would like to say, complaints, comments, requests for the audience, closing inspirational quotes, anything at all before we bring this to a close?
Steven Rinella: At the top of Mount Everest, it’s marine limestone. That’s it. Thank you very much, Tim. I got nothing. You covered it.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Steven Rinella, folks, themeateater.com, @meateater on Instagram, @stevenrinella, with a V. Steven R-I-N-E-L-L-A. The new book is The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival. I will also link to everything we’ve discussed in show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thanks for tuning in.
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