Fast in the Wilderness: Complete

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.

Some Thoughts

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.

2019 Focus: Three Quarters Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by being selective about where I direct my energy, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than if I split that energy across many different goals.

I detailed my 2019 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2019 Theme: Long-Suffering

I have recognized two things about long-suffering this quarter.

One thing is that it is much easier to grit through the difficulty if there is a known finish line. Or at least a check in milestone where I know I’ll have a place to rest. Our minds (mine at least) don’t deal with the notion of infinite very well, so the idea of pushing forever is mentally untenable, but the idea of pushing until a specific milestone seems possible. I’ve found that the rest at that milestone can be a tiny fraction of the time and still serve its purpose – a single day off of work for a quarter or 15 minutes sitting by the side of the trail after 6 hours running.

The second learning is that uncertainty exponentially decreased my ability to long-suffer. When there is lots of certainty about what I need to do and why I want to do it, digging deep is easy enough. When my mind is uncertain, it is difficult to dig that deep. This uncertainly can be related to purpose, why I am doing it, or strategy, whether the steps I am taking will get me there. I found this true when getting lost while running around the Wonderland trail.

In my experience, the effort I can put into enduring something can only be as strong as the conviction under it and my certainty that the work will lead towards the results. So if you require grit to accomplish something, it is best to ensure your convictions are aligned and your confidence in the strategy is high.

2019 Challenge: Fasting in the Wilderness

I had plans to head to the backcountry to fast this past August but ended up deciding to postpone the event. Instead, I took my oldest son on a backpacking trip with one of the backcountry permits and cancelled the other. I’d been away a lot in August and decided another two days of me not being home wasn’t the best thing for the family.

We’ve now gotten into the part of the year where the weather has turned cold enough that being alone in the PNW wilderness with no gear or food isn’t a good idea. Instead I am eyeing doing this in the deserts of souther California this fall/winter.

2019 Habit: Minimizing Digital Entertainment

In Q3 I averaged 53 minutes a week of digital entertainment time. This was mostly in the form of movies and a few bits of video gaming w/ friends. I stayed under the one hour goal in 9 of the 13 weeks and even logged six weeks of zero minutes, something I hadn’t done this year prior to this quarter (who knows how long it has been before that). What is really tricky about the target being one hour, is any feature length movie would push me over the target for the week. As a result, the one movie I saw in a theater, was a guaranteed miss for that week.

Most of the progress I made this quarter was from a) being busy with projects (both for my employer and personal projects) b) being outside frequently (camping, hiking, biking, trail running, etc.) c) spending evenings getting ready for said outside activities (assembling gear, loading the car, etc.). I wouldn’t say I did anything too different than previously, I just had higher priorities that kept me busy. Perhaps that is the secret.

Averaging out the year to date I’m at 2.06 hours per week compared to my goal of 2. That means if I stay under 1.82 hours for the final quarter of the year, I will hit my yearly average target. Based on the success I’ve had so far, I’m going to try and keep it even lower though. I’ve set my target for Q4 at 60 minutes per week, the same as Q3. Although I easily achieved that this time, it will be much harder going into the winter, when being outside is less desirable. This should keep some steady pressure on me to develop other patterns in how I spend my time.

2019 Exemplar: Nelson Mandela

I published my exemplar review for Mandela in July. I didn’t make any additional progress in Q3.

2019 Bucket List Item: Run the Wonderland Trail at Mt. Rainier

Bucket list item complete! I ran around Mt. Rainier on August 13-15th. I’ll write a bigger blog post recapping it soon. As predicted, it was eventful.

Nelson Mandela – Exemplar Review

This year I picked Nelson Mandela as my exemplar. Today would be Mandela’s 101st birthday (he passed away in 2013) and is internationally recognized as Nelson Mandela day, so I decided it would be an appropriate day to publish my exemplar review. Each year I follow a review template to help me get the most out of the process of having an exemplar. Below is my entry for Nelson Mandela.

What did Nelson Mandela achieve?

Nelson Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the first black president of South Africa and a leader in the movement to transition that country to a true democracy where all people had a vote, regardless of race. He was a lawyer, a revolutionary, the leader of a terrorist organization and a political prisoner for nearly 30 years. His life was just about singularly devoted to ensuring people of all races had equal freedoms in South Africa.

Why did he care about that?

As a black African, Mandela had first hand experience and was witness to the injustice that non-whites forced upon those of other races in South Africa. He believed this was unjust and wanted a day when he, his family, his neighbors and his people would be treated as equals in their own land.

In his biography he wrote, “There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

How did he think about the world differently than his contemporaries?

I will break this into two categories – his differences from those in power before him and his differences from other freedom fighters of his era.

Mandela saw the world differently than the people in power in most of the world during his life. The world was largely under the control of a white minority of European decent after centuries of colonization, bloodshed & enslavement. While black Africans were not bonded in slavery during Mandela’s life, their standing was nowhere near equal, largely as a result of having no influence in the governing process. Mandela was a proponent of one vote per person and of not treating people differently because of the color of their skin.

That final point is particularly important. While there were many freedom fighters in the 20th century (Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Mugabe, Mengistu Haile Mariam, etc.), for some they eventually become the oppressors they once fought. Mandela had a long history of seeking to work with other races in South Africa and was adamant that the white minority shouldn’t be mistreated if and when the black majority gained power. This is a view that seems somewhat unique on the continent of Africa but Mandela and the ANC defended it .

What are a few of Mandela’s behaviors that helped him?

Three things that stood out to me were his willingness to dive into messy debates and stay in them as long as they took. On one occasion in his autobiography he described disagreeing with a friend and staying up all night debating until they agreed. He seemed to have a knack for recognizing when debate could prevail and would push until the other party was exhausted and conceded. On some occasions though he writes about giving into a group consensus, so it appears he either failed to mention the long debate or he somewhat quickly read that debate would not win. This habit of long debate proved beneficial when he would later negotiate the terms of the first free election with the sitting government, a process that took about seven years.

Another behavior that stands out to me about Mandela is the way he always functioned as part of a group. From his college age he made decisions with others. Perhaps this is a cultural difference between my 21st century American individualism and a 20th century African way of doing things, but I appreciated seeing how it played out. It seemed that every year or two he was forming a committee or chapter or group of some form. Even in prison he organized an election for leaders to speak for the cell block. In his autobiography I was impressed with how many names he mentioned (as a side note, apparently his ‘autobiography’ was written by a ghostwriter with the help of a committee of his colleagues, so perhaps that is why so many names were included) They say if you want to go far you need to go with others and Mandela’s life proves that.

Finally, I was impressed by his dedication to physical and mental health. As a lawyer he attended a boxing gym to get some physical exertion in, in prison he would run in place and do pushups, later he would play tennis and garden. Despite being quite busy, he found time to take care of his body.

What are some of the decisions he made that contributed to his success?

One of the first decisions Mandela made that had a huge impact on his life was to move from his homeland in the country to the city of Johannesburg, where he became a lawyer. It is hard to imagine he would have had the connections and influence he did in a remote village. The time he spent working in law ended up being extremely beneficial as he spent the majority of his life involved in legal action against the country. His autobiography gives little glimpses of how his confidence and knowledge of the law went a long way to set him apart as a leader. He had the courage to stand up to workers at the prison and to protest all the way to the government – while he wasn’t fully effective, it is clear his repeated efforts had more impact than doing nothing would have.

The group of people he chose to associate himself with ended up being an influential and eventually powerful group. It is hard to say whether Mandela sought them out, whether they ended up powerful because they stayed close to him or whether like just attracts like. Folks like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu, Chief Albert Lutuli who were leaders in the fight against Apartheid.

What isn’t apparent to me, from reading Mandela’s biography, is how Mandela went from being a man to a saint. It seems that this was by design and that the pivotal point was when he chose to live underground and start the militia. As a result of that perhaps, and his way with words, he became elevated as a figurehead for the political movement. This gave him a platform to speak on that few others had. Any ways in which he nurtured this image of himself certainly helped. It gave him a chance to share messages with his people & the world, the former it energized, the latter it motivated to put economic pressure on South Africa to resolve the conflict.

What was one thing about the Nelson Mandela’s life journey that is encouraging to me?

The reason I originally picked Nelson Mandela as an exemplar this year is his ~30 years in imprisonment and rise to power after that. At the time I thought of those as 30 wasted years, but I have learned that they were anything but.

During those years two very important things happened. First, he became a living martyr. Second, he became a well connected leader in the revolutionary movement because all of the other leaders were also getting imprisoned. That second point hadn’t occurred to me at first but Mandela talked about it frequently in his book. Even early in his activist days, when a group would get thrown in jail for a single night, he described how that was the best time to spend time with the other revolutionaries because no one had anything else to do.

What I instead found encouraging was the amount of impact he was able to have in his life despite few lucky breaks and plenty of unlucky ones. This isn’t a case of a man buying a lottery ticket and becoming a millionaire by chance. This is a case of a man working hard at one thing for nearly all of his 95 years slowly but surely making progress. Each step seemed to feed into the next and in the end the impact was due to each of them.

What is one thing about Mandela’s life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?

There are plenty of rags to riches stories, especially in America, of someone starting out with little and accomplishing much. Mandela’s story is one of not only having little, but of also not really having the chance to have anything. It is one thing to live in a place that lets you own a business and then to make money off of that business. It seems an entirely different thing to live in a place where your rights are severely limited and the system is setup to prevent your economic mobility. To then accomplish anything in amazing.

This stands in stark contrast to my current lot in life. While Mandela was digging out of a hole, I’m standing on one of the greatest platforms the world has ever known. That is worth consideration of what that means for what I can accomplish.

What did Mandela believe about the world that I have already reflected on?

Mandela’s belief that all people deserve to be treated the same regardless of the color of their skin is one I reflected on as I read his biography.

The thought chain I had was about a trend I’ve noticed in the evolution of racism and civil rights. My thinking on this is immature and the topic deserves volumes but a pattern I’ve noticed is what appears to be progress in dramatic steps.

Slavery was abolished in South Africa and the United States in the 1800’s but into the mid 1900s racism and segregation were rampant. While black people were no longer slaves, they were free people, they really weren’t economically free. They couldn’t vote or have much influence on their position and that left them with worse educations, living situations, etc.

In the United States where black people made up between 10-20% of the population at various points, it seems possible to imagine that some of that inequality stems from that group not being the majority. Perhaps things would be the other way if the numbers were reversed. Learning about South Africa where the black population made up 70-80% of the population and a white minority of ~10% controlled all of the power disproves that thought experiment. It is hard for me to even imagine what that is like to live in a place where recent immigrants of such few numbers are in power in that way.

The next step in the evolution of equality for black people seemed to be the story of the 1900’s for many countries. The civil rights movement in the United States, the liberation of many African nations, and eventually, a bit later, South Africa in the 1990’s.

We now seem to be in a third wave. Black people are not slaves in South Africa or the United States. They can vote. Both countries have had black presidents. But we have not yet reached a place where people are judged without concern for the color of their skin.

The thing I have a hard time with is understanding what the next concrete step towards progress is. Ending slavery was a very clear big step in the right direction – deciding that humans are not property. Giving people the right to vote is another huge step as voting gives people the power to be represented by the power structure. But what is the next step?

Which of his motivations have I reflected most on?

The thing that stands out to me the most is how singular his motivation was throughout his life. With most of the other exemplars I’ve studied, they have had threads that were consistent, but their life presented chapters that were fairly different.

Perhaps part of the reason for Mandela’s singular focus was the scope of it and fact that it took his whole life to accomplish it. In an alternate reality where black people were able to vote in South Africa in the 1960’s, perhaps he would have had a second chapter where another topic became his focus.

What is one of his behaviors that I would like to try out this year?

Mandela’s willingness to debate to, it appears, no end, is really interesting to me. I have the propensity to do that but have more or less been trained not to do it by years of poor results. Perhaps the context of his time and country are different enough from mine that this behavior isn’t transferrable, but perhaps some of it is.

I’ve lately learned that often winning a debate is best accomplished by spending less time debating and more time waiting. I’ve started to see instances where setting up the context and then resurfacing the convo periodically will eventually produce the desired result. My current employer contacted me every six months for over three years offering me a job before I finally took one. Spending those dozen hours trying to debate me on the first day wouldn’t have produced the same results but spreading them out ended up working.

In the same way, Mandela spent years talking to the government before an agreement was finally made. At most points during that, things looked less than hopeful. He describes it as two steps forward, one step back. But eventually enough steps were taken.

This is a practice I would like to try this year. To remain engaged in the debate but to be patient and let time have its effect. I am not naturally very patient but I’ve found the bigger the impact of a decision and the more people involved, the longer it takes. So learning this behavior will prove necessary if I want to continue increasing the scope of my impact.

What decision making heuristics can I adopt from Mandela’s experience?

From what I can tell, Mandela did not operate by a long term roadmap. He had a north star, one person one vote in South Africa. Everything from there seems to be a matter of continually pushing as hard as he could for the next closest goal in that direction.

At one point in his life it would be fair to say that the majority of his energy went into figuring out how to get access to long pants. In prison the black prisoners were only allowed to wear shorts. While this certainly doesn’t seem like the most important next step towards building a democracy, there is a certain beauty to it. Moving towards a democracy really wasn’t achievable right then – getting pants actually was. It was actionable and it was something to fight for. Once he had that he asked for permission to study books, then to write letters, then to have visitors, and then before you know it he was asking to negotiate with the president.

Not all people are fortunate enough to find their north star as early as Mandela was. But the idea of continually fighting and making sure you are fighting for things that are the next hardest achievable goal seems really transferable.

What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?

In his autobiography Mandela writes,  “had I made the right choice in putting the people’s welfare even before that of my own family?” and later “when your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family.”

While it is hard to blame a man imprisoned against his will for being an absent father, it seems fairly obvious that was the norm even before that happened. He willingly chose to go underground and start the work to organize the ANC, coordinate strikes and eventually acts of sabotage. Even before then, as a lawyer and young father, he went from work to political meetings to late night events. It is clear his heart wasn’t at home and that caused a lot of pain for those closest to him.

One other failure it is worth reflecting on is Mandela’s run of violence before he ultimately became known for being a messenger of peace. In some ways the story of that conversion plays out nicely – but there is a lingering question of whether that was a mistake or a necessary action at the time. Was Mandela only able to be peaceful later because others were violent? Would he have had the chance to negotiate if it weren’t for the violence he helped start? It is interesting to contrast Mandela’s story to that of other revolutionaries, some of whom were always peaceful and others who were always violent.

What other cool facts did I learn about Nelson Mandela?

One thing that confused me until I did some research was Mandela’s references to “coloureds”. He often described how the white minority was mistreating black Africans, Indians and Coloureds. In the United States where I grew up, the term colored person is an antiquated term used to describe black people, often associated with the Jim Crow era of segregation in the South. To read Mandela write that confused me greatly until I found out more about the use in South Africa to describe those of mixed races (more info in this Wikipedia article). I get the impression that coloured people were often treated negatively by the black and white communities. A different ANC leader might have steered the country to a place where they were mistreated even after a black president was in power. That is really the heart of the greatness of Mandela’s legacy, he is rightfully loved by those from all races for working to end a cycle of oppression that still continues in many places.