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Tropical Survival
and Coconut Climbing

7/12/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

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Coconut trees hanging over a beach of fine sand, palms reflecting in the crystal blue water, tropical birds singing in the adjacent rainforest and a myriad of colorful fish dancing around you as soon as you put on a diving mask. Such are some of the wonderful realities of a tropical island. We all dream of a deserted tropical island paradise but living there requires a lot more than the lazy dream vacation we often conjure from the image on a postcard.

Tropical islands are spectacular and most of the time provide what is necessary to survive. Nothing comes easily but with basic knowledge and a minimum of practice, you might be able to turn your next vacation in an unforgettable Robinson Crusoe-style experience.

A few years ago, I read a popular novel called "Castaway". As an experience in subsistence/survival living, a couple marooned themselves on a tropical island for one year. They chose their island well, but they nearly starved because they didn’t possess a few of the most basic yet crucial survival skills. During our sea kayak expedition in Central America, my expedition partner Luke Shullenberger and I have learned all the skills necessary to make a good living on tropical islands.

The ocean provides for fish, crustaceans such as crab and lobster, shellfish, sea urchins and cephalopods (octopuses and squids). All are delicious and nourishing. As well, a variety of plant foods can be found on a tropical beach. Sometimes a green carpet of Sea Purslane will cover rocks and sand. It is delicious eaten raw or cooked. It is juicy and rich in minerals. Fruit trees also abound. In addition to the ones we commonly know like mango, and cashew nuts, others like Sea Grapes, Geiger Tree and Cocoplum flourish in the Caribbean.

Edible fruits, trees and plants vary with each tropical region, but the king of all edible plants, the coconut, is found on almost every island. More than just the universal symbol of tropical paradise, it is the magic tree of life for it provides all the essentials, water, food and shelter. In tropical climates your priority is to find drinking water. A small island without a river or other source might not provide any other water than its coconuts. The juice is rich in potassium and other minerals. The young flesh looks like yogurt-gelatin and is delicious. The old flesh is hard and can be good to eat in reasonable quantities, and when shredded or processed into milk is a great addition to various dishes (for ideas don’t miss Luke’s Latin cuisine and outdoor cooking page ( In addition to its nutritious value, coconuts also have some medicinal properties. The juice of green coconuts (immature fruits) is recommended for heart, liver and kidney disorders, as well as gonorrhea. In case of dehydration, it can be excellent mixed with some lime juice or even lime and baby formula.

The problem is obtaining those immature coconuts. When you find coconuts on the beach, they are already mature and can be used for their hard flesh or to make coconut milk and oil, but they contain very little water. So there is no other alternative but to climb coconut trees for the water-rich young ones.

In our efforts to be self-sufficient, we’ve tried hard to learn the necessary skills to climb coconut trees. The few first times, we barely managed to get a few feet off the ground. In addition to fear, the soft skin on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet made climbing difficult. The first time we made it to any significant height and then descended, we scraped our chests and forearms. This is what happens when you slide down hugging a coconut tree as hard as you can. But if you really want or need to climb, all this shouldn’t stop you. There are two basic techniques and they are easy to learn. After that you just need to practice and to forget about your soft skin. It will probably get cut a bit the first time on the tree, but if you get a dozen coconuts full of water and flesh, it is well worth the effort.

After a week, climbing the trees becomes second nature and the collection of coconuts is one of the easier and more enjoyable survival skills you will learn.

All techniques should be done barefoot and barehanded. A long sleeve T-shirt might save your skin from abrasion against the tree especially when you are learning.

The front-foot technique

I call the first method the front foot technique. (You might have seen rock climbers challenge some crack climbing. They stuff their hands inside cracks, pull on them and push on the legs in opposition and walk up the rock. This front foot technique to climb coconut tree is very similar). You put your hands close to each other on the back of the trunk, and pull one foot in front of the other one in front of you on the tree. By keeping pressure on the trunk with the balls of your feet and toes, you walk up alternating moving your feet and hands. This technique is Luke’s favorite. I only use it to climb wide trees at the base when the trees are leaning slightly. Technically it seems to be the easiest to learn but requires good balance and arm strength.

The Frog Technique

I found the other method, which I call the frog technique, much more efficient to climb vertical trees, unless they are very wide. To do so, your legs should be flexed on each side of the tree with the soles of your feet applied flat against the trunk. This position looks like the legs of a frog, this is why I titled it the frog technique. Unlike the front foot technique, you place one hand up and behind the tree and the other hand at your chest level on the front side of the tree. In that way you apply pressure from both sides pushing your body up while thrusting up with your legs by extending them. You quickly bring up both of your feet at the same time and squeeze the trunk in the frog position. In this position your feet support almost all of your body weight comfortably and you can rest for a few seconds if needed before repeating this move up.

If you can’t seem to make any progress, a method used in Sri Lanka might help you. It is a variation of the frog technique where you put your two feet in a circle of rope or a sarong. This helps you to keep the pressure with your feet against the tree. Also the added surface of the rope (or sarong) applied against the tree helps you by adding more contact area and giving you more leverage to go up.

On Top of the Tree

When you reach the top of the tree, you can grab the coconuts, or make your way to the top of the palm. If you can it is best to make your way through the layers of palm and stand on top them. I was taught that technique by a Garifuna friend He showed me that it makes collecting the coconuts much easier when you don’t have to hug the tree all the time. The trick is to pull yourself up using a palm from the second or preferably third level. Make sure you don’t hold on to the bottom layer where the palms are older and more fragile. You can stand on any palm of the second or third layers and grab the coconuts. A machete isn’t necessary, you just need to twist a coconut until the stem breaks and the nut falls. If you’ve been able to make your way up past the layers of palm, you might even knock off the fruits with one of your feet by putting the ball of your foot on the top of the nut and your toes around the stem and pushing the nut down. Sometimes it isn’t possible to go through the layers of palm because they are too close to each others. You can then grab them from underneath by keeping your legs in the frog technique and one arm around the trunk and twisting the coconuts with your free hand. It’s a bit more physical than from the top, but not difficult.

Going Down

Once you’ve knocked off enough coconuts, making your way down is easy, but it also the time when beginners abrade themselves. The technique is very similar to the frog technique. You keep your legs and feet in the same position. You can try hopping down step by step in the inverse to the way you went up, but most people just lower their hands one by one behind the trunk and just let the soles of their feet drag against the tree. Now you understand why our soft skin suffers. Natives have no problems doing this. It is also while sliding down against the tree that you might scrape your forearm skin and even sometimes your chest.

All this sounds like a lot of effort but young coconuts are worth the trouble. If you ever spend any extended time in the tropics, this could be one of the most important skills to master, even if you aren’t ready for a survival experience, you will love the juice and soft flesh.

If these techniques don't work for me, what can I do?

Anybody reasonably fit should be able to master these techniques, but if they remain beyond your abilities and you still need the coconuts to survive, you could try climbing with pieces of webbing or ropes. One goes around the waist as a belt. Then three are made into loops and used with a prussic slip knot, one for each foot, and one for your hands. The one for your hands is also tied to your belt as a safety measure. To make a prussic knot, make a small loop in one end of the rope, wrap the free end around the trunk and insert through the loop. Pull on it and you have a prussic knot. Those knots grip the tree under tension, and allow you to go up (or hold you if you fall). Once the pressure is released (for example the pressure is on your feet releasing the tension on the rope in your hands), you can raise the knot higher and re-apply pressure to it. It is a very slow process, but less physical and safer than climbing with bare hands and feet.

The coconut palms can also be used to make a shelter to protect yourself from the sun exposure, but especially from tropical rain. Other type of palms are preferred to make thatch roofs, but if you’re a castaway, coconut palms crosshatched and laid on a stick frame will make a handy and effective shelter from the elements. Climbing coconut trees is the most important survival skill to learn in the tropics, but there are many ways to forage for food, build shelters and collect fresh water. The jungle often bordering these islands is a different environment equally rich in useful and edible plants and wildlife. During the next three years, Luke and I are paddling 8000 kilometers to document all these survival techniques and the lifestyles of indigenous people living in Central America.

Happy climbing and enjoy the fruits of your labor !


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Views the photos:

Climbing coconut trees 1 ; Climbing coconut trees 2
Climbing coconut trees 3 ; On top of a coconut tree

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