Bear Grylls has created a generation of intrepid survivors willing to drink their own urine. TNT didn’t go that far on a recent wilderness weekend, but we sure can pluck a pheasant

It was a Friday night in winter. Instead of curling up on the sofa with a plate of something calorific and the remote control, I was standing in a forest in Wiltshire looking at a hole in the ground. 

“This is the toilet,” said Joe, our leader for the weekend. Above the hole, there was a seat with a shovel to one side. There was no lock, but then there wasn’t really a door – just a tarpaulin covering with a gap for an entrance. Something told me that, while I was well up for this adventure, my bowels might not be quite so enthusiastic. 

I had ended up here as part of a wilderness weekend organised by Secret Adventures. Over the course of two days, I would be learning survival skills along with a group of fellow adventurers. 

The following morning, after we’d packed away our tents, we gathered around a doll-sized ‘wig wam’ made of twigs. What do you need to survive? Joe asked us. “Water”, “food”, we all chorused. There was a pause then someone piped up, “to stay warm”. 

“And in what order?”… “Erm…”

Our teacher was wilderness survival and bushcraft expert, Joe O’Leary. Calm, jovial and nifty with a knife, he’s the kind of man you’d want to have around if a zombie apocalypse ever happened. 

He explained the rule of threes: we can survive around three minutes without air, three hours without shelter (depending on the weather conditions of course), three days without water and three weeks without food. Our first priority then was getting a roof over our heads. Using the miniature as a demonstration model, Joe showed us how we could build a shelter using branches and leaves gathered from the forest floor. 

We whistled through fire building and knife skills, and I was starting to reach information overload. That is until my brain clicked into gear during health and safety as Joe said matter or factly, “There’s not much we can do if you cut your femoral artery.” Got it. 

After lunch, it was time for us to put everything into practice. We divided into teams of five. There was a group of twentysomethings in skinny jeans and eyeliner, with a rucksack full of booze; a group of capable sorts in Goretex with at least one member who was ex-military; and then us. 

I left the structural work to my teammates and set about gathering and sawing: thick branches for supports; thinner ones for the walls; birch bark and dry logs for the fire. It was better than any meditation class; an hour into the task and my usual internal chatter had gone completely silent. But then it was easy to be relaxed here. Despite being just a mile from one of the main South West thoroughfares, the only thing disturbing the peace was the occasional drilling of a woodpecker or the melancholic hoot of an owl. 

The sun was low in the sky by the time we’d finished. We all took a moment to admire our little Hobbit hut, proud of what we’d managed to achieve. 

A short while later, Joe came to check on us. He looked worried when we said we hadn’t started building our fire yet. But really, how long could it take? Turns out quite a long time. By now it was pitch black outside. We huddled around a pile of birch bark strips at the centre of the hut, taking turns to strike a metal prod – otherwise known as a Swedish fire steel. Sparks flew but the damp bark only smouldered. Finally, tiny flames leapt from the wood and we were off. 

If we really wanted to go all Bear Grylls, we’d be out there foraging and hunting. Only it was February and the only edible bit of greenery was some wild cress poking through the muddy tracks. It was quite tasty and would no doubt make a lovely addition to a sandwich, but it wasn’t going to fill our bellies on a cold winter evening. And as for hunting, well, I’m pretty sure there’s some law against letting a bunch of amateurs loose in the forest with a crossbow. 

Instead, each team was given two pheasants and some vegetables. After a spot of torch-lit butchery, I tossed the skinned and gutted birds into a pot over the fire with the rest of the ingredients. 

Later that night, with our bellies full of pheasant stew, we made house calls on the other groups. ‘Team skinny jean’ had stolen a jar of Nutella from the camp kitchen and was roasting chocolate bananas on the fire. I wished we’d thought of that. The Goretex crowd invited us in for a nightcap. Their shelter was compact and warm. If this had been a competition, they’d definitely be the winners. 

Back at ours, we bedded down for the night. My fir branch mattress was surprisingly comfy, and with the fire blazing, I was toastier than the night before when I’d slept under canvas. Between wisps of smoke, I watched the starry night through our ‘skylight’ as I drifted off to sleep. 

A few hours later, I woke up freezing. Our fire had died down to an ashy pile. I added more logs and fanned it using the lid from the cooking pot. It leapt back to life but I knew that, in a short while, one of us would have to do the same all over again.  

On the Sunday morning, we built a sweat lodge. “Take off as many clothes as you feel comfortable with,” said Joe. The men stripped to their undies, but us ladies stuck to a more modest thermal leggings and T-shirt combo. 

After this wilderness ‘spa treatment’ it was time to go. As I headed back to London with blackened nostrils, smoke-scented hair and pheasant juice under my fingernails, I felt exhilarated, and calmer than I’d felt in ages. 

I still couldn’t wait for a warm bed, a hot bath and a flushable toilet, mind…  

A Spring Wilderness Weekend will be taking place with Secret Adventures on May 29-31, costing £195. For more information and to book upcoming trips go to