The Woods – What we learned from our 5 day challenge

When most of Britain was relaxing over the May bank holiday weekend, 10 ‘ordinary’ women met for the first time and set off on an unique survival challenge for five days in the forests of rural Wales.

Once there they would have to organise themselves as a team to build shelters, forage for food and light a fire from scratch – aided only by basic gear and minimal food rations.

The inspiration for this expedition came from Bex Band, aka the Ordinary Adventurer, a UK adventure blogger and founder of Love Her Wild. Today we hear from team member Elizabeth, aged 67, who had never previously been camping before…

Muddy trousers, scratched legs and insect bites everywhere. Not to mention lethargic from lack of food. But mentally and emotionally on a real high.

We made it through 5 days (4 nights) in a Welsh wood near Chepstow, camping under the stars.

What were the real challenges?

The Fire

Getting the fire going on the first day seemed to take ages, using flint and iron and the finest kindling we could find. We had to work together to produce enough sparks – which may be half as hot as the sun, but last for hardly a moment. And having enough puff to make the embers turn to flame proved the value of having a runner in the group. Not that we didn’t all have a go, but Katie was definitely the most effective. And without fire we would have no water – see below.

Charlene meanwhile had contrived a most effective construction of logs from which to hang our cooking pan, for when the fire was eventually going. The fire then had to be relit each morning. We had talked about trying to maintain it overnight, sharing watches, but in the end decided that the problems of getting around in the dark (no torches or phones and only 2 watches) made this more of a problem that it was worth.

The Food

Next was surviving on such basic rations, with relatively little flavour. We foraged every day for green leaves to give us extra vitamins and, more importantly, flavour. Disappointingly we found only one small patch of wild garlic, which stretched over several meals didn’t make as much difference as we’d hoped.

Lady ’s smock (cardamine pratensis) had a peppery or mustardy flavour, but we would have needed very large quantities to liven up all that rice. The first day or two we were just grateful to be eating, but by day 5 we couldn’t even finish and gave the left overs to the dogs.

We worked out that in fact the food we were cooking only amounted to 541 calories each a day, so it was no wonder that we felt progressively more lethargic. Our conversations became increasingly about food. The star item was the birthday cake Fran from Shropshire had brought with her and left in her car. Would we succumb to temptation? Either to that or the emergency rations some of us had in our rucksacks?

The Water

We had to bring all our water from a tiny stream about 200 yards from our camp fire, where it needed to be boiled to make sure it was germ free. We had a large plastic jerry can to carry it in, but we couldn’t fill it even half full as it would have been simply too heavy to carry, as I discovered when I did a run – or rather a crawl.

It makes me look at the ads for charities like wateraid.org in a whole new way. Especially as it is usually children and women who carry the water, often for far further then we had to.

A few more challenges…

Digging and using holes in the ground as a toilet. Digging holes in woodland is not easy and squatting is really hard on the legs.

Planning – though actually this never felt a problem. Bex had mentioned choosing a leader, maybe a different one for each day, but we never got round to this, and somehow everything got done, and I don’t think anyone felt others were not pulling their weight. Was this because we were an all women team? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Our Experiences

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, not a drop of rain and rising temperatures over the 5 days. In fact, if not for the trees, we would have roasted.

We were very sad to lose our youngest member, Stacey, who suffered from exam pressure as her finals were approaching. But the rest of us stuck it out, becoming very close as we talked about our lives.

As we talked we discovered some of the reasons we had been chosen out of all the other applicants.
Jo had lost her baby, under particularly distressing circumstances just over a year ago, and had had to cope with the inquest in January.
Charlene lost her mother to lung cancer 3 years ago, and as an only child was coping with not only her own grief but that of her father.
Fran cares for her 2 children, one with Turner’s Syndrome, one of those random chromosomal conditions which have a significant effect on the body.
Bec is dealing with the possibility of never having a child.
The youngest daughter of Rupinder (who looked about 12 in her pigtails but has a 19 year-old daughter, so can’t be) had been injured in a car crash in India and has memory problems as a result.
Elizabeth retired 2 years ago to spend time with her husband, and then found herself as an important member of the team caring for her previously well mother, 100 this year.
Emma has early onset Parkinson’s Disease. Life is further complicated for her at present by a slipped disc, which makes it very difficult to raise her head. Finding out all the things she had done since, and because, she was diagnosed was truly inspirational. And her next project to build a website to offer support and information to people with long-term health conditions (https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/threesixfives) will spread her ideas and gifts beyond Parkinson’s.

Although we had very little with us, gear played such a vital role in the success of the Woods Expedition.
Despite our luck with the sunny weather evenings and mornings were surprisingly chilly. The team would huddle round the campfire feeling grateful to Berghaus for their support providing us with jackets and hats to stay warm. My muddy Berghaus jacket now hangs by the door reminding me of good memories and teasing me to take it on the next adventure.

Thank you Berghaus!