This year as part of my Yearly Focus I challenged myself to fast in the wilderness for an extended period of time. On December 10-12, 2019 I did so and thus completed the challenge. Here is the writeup.
This challenge fit into this year’s theme of long-suffering both in that I would be suffering a bit as I sat there hungry and that the time away would be a good time to clear my head and think about the goals I was willing to suffer for over the coming years.
I challenged myself to walk into the backcountry, find a comfortable spot and sit there for an extended period of time, on the order of 2-3 days, without food, any entertainment, company, etc. Just me, my clothing, a tent, some water and a few ‘break glass’ emergency items.
Fasting in the wilderness is a tradition that crosses cultures and goes back a long time. It is used as a right of passage and also as preparation for big undertakings. Putting my evolutionary biologist lens on for a second, I think it creates a situation that taps back into some deeply buried survival instincts that our ancestors required. My theory is that given two early humans, both hungry and wandering the wilderness, the one that was able to kick into a hyper-focused mode is the one more likely to survive and reproduce.
When you put yourself in a situation like that, your mind and body drop a whole lot of peripheral activity in order to help you survive. When you do it in a controlled way, there is something powerful you can tap into.
I ended up going down to Joshua Tree National Park in California and hiking out into the backcountry. I had originally planned to do this last summer up in the mountains of Washington, but logistics didn’t work out. As I got closer to the end of the year, the weather turned cold and wet in the Pacific Northwest and I knew my only shot at doing this safely in 2019 was somewhere warm. Thankfully there is California.
My goal was to increase the silence & long-suffering by bringing as little as possible while also managing risk and being respectful of the national park. In a risk free environment I might have only brought water, but to hedge the risk of the backcountry I also brought a few emergency items like a knife.
Because I was in a U.S. National Park, there are a few rules I had to follow – where to camp, where to go to the bathroom, not to have fires and not to collect water. If I were trying to test my survival skills, I could certainly have brought even less gear and made use of my Tracker School skills, but I don’t think that would have added to the experience and it might have actually taken away from it by distracting me. So I brought my trowel, TP, a sleeping bag and ~7 liters of water.
I also brought a light sleeping pad and tarp, more so to protect my gear. It isn’t that I couldn’t have done without them, I just didn’t feel that skipping them added to the purpose.
Tuesday morning I had breakfast – that would be my last meal until Thursday breakfast. Before lunch I started the three hour drive out to the park. By the time I arrived, I was quite hungry, and I hadn’t even started yet.
The first evening I didn’t do much, I found a good spot to setup and explored the surrounding area to make sure I knew which animals would be around that night. As the sun set around 5pm, the temperature dropped and I got into my bag. I love how easy it is to fall asleep outside in the dark when you have no distractions. Sometime late that night I woke up, having gotten what was a usual amount of sleep for me. A pack of coyotes yipped somewhere not too far away – but not close enough that I was concerned. I’m pretty sure I could take a coyote hand to hand if I had to. Rattlesnakes were the real concern and it was too cold for them to be out.
Wednesday was a full day of solitude outside. In fact, from the time I left my car until the time I got back I didn’t see another human. Various times when I was up on some rocks I saw cars in the distance, but I wasn’t within eyeshot of a human for ~40 hours. If it weren’t from the constant stream of aircraft coming from LAX, I wouldn’t have known if an ‘everyone disappeared and you’re the last human left’ type thing happened.
Surprisingly I didn’t feel hungry on Wednesday. Around late morning I decided to go for a walk. In the desert you can just pick something tall and walk towards it and you’ll eventually get there. There weren’t any trails, but periodically I’d see signs of past humans; a cairn, some climbing hardware, a few rocks lined up in a pattern.
In retrospect I’m not sure if that walk was beneficial. I figured it would deplete my glycogen stores a bit faster, so I’d be in more of a fasted state, but it also gave me something to think about. I don’t do well sitting still and usually do my best thinking while running, so I’m a bit torn as to whether this made things easier for me because they were more comfortable or whether it made it easier to think in a good way.
I watched the sunset from on top of a boulder. Sitting still for an hour as a murder of crows circled overhead trying to decide which one would be the first to check if I were food yet.
I got into my bag early again, it was getting cold, into the 40s by then, and the constant light wind was enough that getting low and insulated was a good idea. I had an hour of so of stars before the full moon rose that cloudless night.
After sleeping for some time, I woke up to the moon high overhead and the eeriest glow all around me. Bright enough to see, but still dark enough, it was quite a trip. I climbed up on a big rock and sat for an hour or so, looking out over the landscape, listening to owls and coyotes.
Eventually I got back in my bag and slept until I eventually caught the first glimpses of light coming up from the east. I again climbed my rock and watched in slow motion as the sky changed colors for an hour. It would have made a nice picture, but you’ll just have to believe me, because I didn’t have a camera or phone on this trip.
Eventually I walked back to my car and found it was still a bit shy of 48 hours from when I last ate, so I waited a bit longer. I’m pretty sure I’ve gone 24 hours without eating before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone 48. Perhaps I did under medical care after having my tonsils or wisdom teeth removed.
My first bites of a stale granola bar made it apparent how heightened my sense of smell and taste were. Perhaps magnified in an attempt to zero in on some food, or perhaps just reset from no recent experiences to create diminishing returns.
I suppose easing back into food would be a good idea, but I only had a few hours left in California, so I scarfed down a big breakfast, followed by some carne asada for lunch before getting a surf session in. There was surprisingly little impact from the whole thing.
This whole trip was surprisingly uneventful when I think about it. I used to think surviving a weekend in the wilderness with nothing but a knife would be a really cool challenge, but now I realize that if it is pretty warm and you have a water source, it is really a non event.
If the duration were longer, eventually you’d need a food source and shelter, but, were it legal, there were a few rabbits I’m pretty sure I could have speared, there was plenty to burn to cook it on and there were lots of caves I could have used as shelter – assuming there weren’t existing inhabitants I had to fend off. I bet I could do a month or so out there with nothing but my clothes, a knife and a lighter. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to test that idea for a while though.
I have a really hard time not doing anything. While having no alone time to think usually results in a lot of stress for me, having too much time without action does too. I’m not sure if in this case 48 hours was just not enough time to get me really unplugged, given the amount I have to process through. I didn’t get anywhere near the point of needing to pain a face on a volleyball for company. In some ways, it felt much more like sitting on a beach at a resort sipping a fancy drink with an umbrella than I had imagined it would.
I suppose when you take on challenges, if they are far enough removed from things you’ve done before, it is more likely that the difficulty of the goal will be uncalibrated from what is possible. I thought in this case 2-3 days would be long enough based on the fact that I usually can’t make it from lunch until dinner without getting lightheaded or having a snack – but in this case I don’t think it was. I don’t think finding more time for something like this is in my immediate future, so I suspect I’ll need to continue to find more intense and short duration challenges.