How to start a fire with your smartphone and why relying on advice from a Mickey Mouse comic can put your life at risk.
Ralf Pintzka is a survival coach and bushcraft mentor who teaches people to find their way in the wilderness. For more than 15 years, the cultural sociologist has immersed himself in the techniques and manual skills necessary for lengthy stays in the wilderness and outdoor survival in general. He sees his mission as helping people re-establish a bond with nature, as he did with the British singer-songwriter Tom Gregory as part of the Jack Wolfskin #GOBACKPACK Challenge.
We spoke with Ralf on how to start a fire with a smartphone and why relying on advice from a Mickey Mouse comic can put your life at risk.
What interests you about being out in the wilderness?
I’ve always spent a great deal of time outdoors. My grandmother taught me the basics of how to identify and collect plants. Somehow this has continued to imbue itself in my work over the years. My main motivation is a love of adventure, but also my fascination with prehistory. My original field of study is cultural sociology, and so I am interested in how prehistoric humans used to live.
Survival is a broad concept that evokes all sorts of associations, ranging from Rambo to the Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook, which made me feel secure as a child in our home garden, to the survival expert Rüdiger Nehberg. But, somehow, it always has something to do with struggle.
I look for simplicity in nature, tranquility in the natural world, a connection with the outdoors, and to be part of the planet just as it is. Bushcraft deals with living in nature, but also with nature itself. Nature comes first and foremost and then comes bushcraft. And, of course, the lines are often blurred when it comes to distinguishing survival skills and bushcraft. For me, the essence is really about what could be described as ‘primitive living’ – to recognize what truly constitutes being human. It starts with collecting plants and ends with identifying tree species and the use of wood. For instance: How do I make a boat out of certain types of wood? How can I weave myself a container out of bark and rind? That is my métier, as opposed to survival with firearms.
Is there knowledge that is useful everywhere, regardless of one’s surroundings?
As I explain in the video, there is the ‘rule of three’: You can live up to three minutes without air, up to 3 hours under conditions of hypothermia, up to three days without water, and up to three weeks without food. People usually think about starvation first, but the body can initially fall back on its fat reserves. People often underestimate the importance of first aid skills, but whoever goes out into the bush without them will sooner or later have a rude awakening. Basically, it all revolves around risk minimization and realistic self-assessment. These are the two most important points that one has to master. You have to know your capabilities, approach things slowly, and evaluate a calculated risk.
Who participates in your tours?
A very mixed, but actually quite normal group of people. I’ve welcomed experienced, older people with craft skills, including a leather tanner. Another group also included software engineers, and that was a real eye-opener, as they have very different ways of thinking. For the most part, though, participants tend to be younger people or groups of young people from nature schools with a growing awareness of the beauty of being out in nature.
Have you been surprised by the ways your participants think and behave outdoors?
Basically, I don’t see any separation between teacher and student. It’s always a joint endeavor. For instance, when I was out with the software engineers, we made a fire with a bow and friction. It is always a matter of giving and taking in the courses and activities I offer, and I allow people to try out what seem to be completely crazy ideas. One of them came up with the idea of taking the battery out of a mobile phone and short-circuiting it. That’s what they did with a strip of Wrigley’s chewing gum, which went up in flames. (We used the aluminum wrapper to bridge the two terminals, not the piece of gum itself.) I found this to be a highly ingenious way of thinking. Typically, you would think that a mobile telephone without reception had no use in the wilderness. It is always about giving and taking, and I encourage people to try out crazy ideas. It is the only way to find out if they work.
Everyone has something to contribute, and I find it important that the courses are interactive. If you want to learn something from a book, go ahead and buy one and start reading. I am more interested in the dynamics between people and the learning process.
How do you think the perception of outdoor activities has changed in recent years?
To a certain extent, an entrenched image of outdoor activities has emerged. Either you participate in an extreme adventure sport or strive towards a particular look, like the hipster lumberjack who drinks his whiskey from a wooden cup and makes gigantic bonfires. It is all just pop culture, and this is simply not how things work in real life. In fact, there is no glamour in outdoor activities. What is necessary, above all, is humility, as we are a part of nature, and the outdoors is not a playground. You have to know yourself, which is also part of the attraction – with each new tour you learn something different about yourself. I keep reaching my limits every time. And it’s not as if I know everything, quite the opposite. Your ego has to remain far in the background.
You learned your limits the hard way at a young age, didn’t you?
Yes, the Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook from a Mickey Mouse comic almanac that you mentioned earlier almost cost me my life. The younger version of myself, Ralf at 18, had a big mouth and a lust for adventure. Three friends and I went on a trek in the Alps – without any preparations and thinking that this will be more like a simple camping trip. On the spur of the moment I decided to look for drinking water, and, of course, I knew nothing about topography or navigation techniques. I simply marched off with an ax in my hand, thinking that I would return in about an hour. There was a really stupid “technique” in the Woodchucks’ Guidebook, namely that you should cut notches in the tree trunks with your ax so that you can find your way back – from one tree to the next, as it were. There are two serious problems with this technique. First, it can seriously hurt a healthy tree. Secondly, when I cut the notches in the trees, I didn’t realize that I should have also cut them on the backside of the tree. I was only marking my route in one direction, so on my way back, there were no notches to be seen! I only noticed this after about 30 or 40 minutes, and I had no idea how far I had walked, or where to.
Those without a clue can’t see the forest for the trees. I tried to find my way back, but I just got even more lost. All of a sudden, it sank in. I realized that I was completely disoriented, and that I wouldn’t make it back to the campsite that day. I spent much of the first night in the underbrush beneath a tree. Psychologically, it was an absolute downer. I felt guilt, rage, sadness, and then panic. “Why were you such an idiot?” I asked myself. These are the kind of reactions people have – even those who have survived much harder experiences. At some point, I heard the helicopter. The problem is that when you are in the middle of a forest, no helicopter in the world can see you, no matter how many times it flies overhead. I thought I was doomed. It didn’t even occur to me to use the sun to just walk in one direction until I reached civilization. I simply hadn’t a clue! Then on the second night, it rained. The following day came the search dogs. I wasn’t even lost a full 72 hours, but it was still absolute hell. I realized that my ego and overconfidence were to blame. I wanted to experience adventure and almost killed myself doing so. Partly because I believed the senseless survival myths from a Mickey Mouse almanac! It was clear to me from then on that I had to learn correct facts about surviving in the outdoors and listen to people who knew what they were talking about. Ever since I have been learning new things every day.