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What Is Survival Skills Training?

Women learns how to light a fire on a survival skills training course
Firelighting in the deep cold is a crucial skill

A few years ago I read a book called '98.6 Degrees; The art of keeping your ass alive' by Cody Lundin. Owning most books on survival published in English since the 1950's, I'm confident enough to say that it was quite revolutionary. The no bullshit approach appealed to me in a literature filled with rehashed military survival manuals; all with the same regurgitated content and mostly lacking in real experience.

One of the facts from that book that sticks out is the one that states that almost all survival situations last 72 hrs or less. This is because in our modern world with all our means of communication, route planning and ease of travel, most people who find themselves in a survival situation are out of it within three days.

What is the difference between survival and wilderness living skills then?

In simple terms, survival situations typically last 72 hrs or less, and can be defined as something like:

'' a situation which you find yourself in which will have a serious negative effect on your physical or mental wellbeing if you don't do something about it imminently''.

Basically the environment, something or someone is going to hurt you if you don't take corrective action soon. Things like plugging a traumatic wound quickly would count, or falling through the ice when the temperature is 40 below and you are far from help. But running out of food and trying to eat nettles wouldn't, nor would having to spend a night out in the desert when the temperature doesn't fall below 27 degrees C.

Wilderness living skills, or bushcraft, are all the skills that you need to be comfortable and be able to spend much longer amounts of time in an outdoor environment. They are the skills of our ancestors and amount to the knowledge required to actually live in nature. My friend Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft puts it something like this;

If 0 credit is no outdoor skills at all, and 100 credits represents all the skills and knowledge of an an indigenous person, lets say a San Bushmen hunter gatherer, then

1 = the skills required to survive 3 days (a typical 'survival situation')

10= the skills required to live for 3 weeks outdoors

100= the skills and knowledge required to live permanently

Ed Stafford makes a bow drill fire on a survival course in Scotland
Making fire by friction

I like this analogy because it shows a) why a little bit of knowledge and training goes a long way, and b) how vast the experience of a hunter gatherer typically is. By the time one of our clients has done both our Wildwood Wisdom course and our more advanced Forest Dweller course, (both one week courses) they're pretty much at 10. I'd say at this point they are in the top 1% of bushcraft trained people in the UK and are bursting with skills. But its a huge jump to 100 and probably not possible to achieve unless you do it for real, from birth.

As my friend Garrett Conover once told me:

" I'm supposed to be the Northwoods expert but I probably know about as much as an 8 year old Cree boy"

So if living outdoors for longer that three days and up to 3 weeks counts as wilderness living, then what survival skills do you need to get you through when the shit hits the fan for a few days?

If you leave home on a Monday, break down in the middle of the desert on Tuesday and are home tucked up in bed by Friday, what do you really need to know to get by?

#1 Get Some Wilderness First Aid Training

Nothing will help you to 'push up daisies' (as Cody Lundin puts it) quicker than a large hole in your femoral artery that empties you of blood in minutes. Building a shelter is also tricky in the middle of an asthma attack and striking a match is awkward with frostbite. In my experience, a 2 day first aid course will teach you the basics, and its the basics that make the most difference. Also make sure that its a course with an outdoors element as it will give you more realistic scenarios that you are more like to face.

#2 Get Good With Fire

There are few environments where getting a fire going is not top or near top of your list. In cold environments the heat from it can mean life or death, but in hot environments it can make water safe to drink, keep away dangerous animals or help keep bugs from preventing you getting a good night sleep. Fire is so incredibly useful in a survival situation that you should practice making it until you can do it blindfolded in any weather. Sure, learning how to light friction fires with a hand-drill is a great skill, but in a survival situation this is the last thing you want to have to do, so be prepared and always keep multiple firelighting methods on you.

#3 - Practice How To Make Shelters

man making a snow survival shelter
Making a snow shelter - The Quinzhee

Learning how to make a few classic bushcraft shelter types is fun and great training. I'm thinking about the northern lean-to or a quinzhee for example. In my experience though, the materials you learned with are never quite to hand in the real world. I prefer to teach people about the 5 ways the body loses and gains heat (radiation, convection, conduction, evaporation and respiration) and tell folks to simply 'fix them'. Any shelter that uses the materials you have locally to fix all of these 5 things is the best possible shelter you will be able to make.

#4 - Know How To find And Make Water Safe To Drink

Learning about some likely ways that you will be able to find water in any environment is a great idea as water is a top priority. When you get dehydrated you make bad decisions and even if you are only going to be out there for 3 days, that's long enough to make some howlers that could cost you your life. Don't sweat drinking dirty water though if you can't or don't know how to make it safe - dehydration and mental deterioration leading to bad decisions will kill you much quicker than Giardia. Drink enough to keep your pee clear, copious and frequent and you've just increased your chanced significantly.

#5 - Forget About Food

Most people can operate at 60% of their body's physiological capabilities on no food at all providing they are hydrated. This fact always shocks people used to TV survival shows where people eat weeds to 'stay alive'. But in a typical survival situation, food is your least concern. Sure, if you find a frozen Moose, make a steak tartare, but you'd be better served making sure you can thermoregulate and stay hydrated by using shelters, fire and water.

#6 - Be Prepared And Trained In The First Place

Getting some training will enable you to be better prepared going into the outdoors in the first place, meaning that you will be less likely to find yourself in a survival situation - prevention is better than cure. Once in the poo, the chances are your training will have encouraged you to take important items with you so that you can take care of your survival priorities with relative ease. I always teach people that a good survival kit contains items which make the most difference and are hardest to improvise from nature. For example

  • Taking a knife vrs making a stone tool

  • Taking a tarp rather than making a shelter

  • Bringing a lighter instead of relying on rubbing sticks together.

The Good News Is You Can Learn This On A Weekend Survival Course

Remember the credit score above where I said that 1 credit is all you need to know how to survival a typical 72 hour survival situation? At Wilderness Folk School, our Bush Roots survival course in Scotland will teach you that. That's all you need to get prepared enough to be able to deal with most survival situations. Of course if like us you want to live outdoors for longer and enjoy all the wonders that a knowledge of bushcraft can bring, our Wilderness Living Skills Courses will open your eyes to this vast subject.

Thanks for reading and feel free to share this post on the usual channels below.

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Apr 05
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Nice down to earth approach

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Thanks! We're all about keeping it real.


Apr 05

Great pragmatic article.

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Excellent article. Love the pragmatic approach and the scale of experience all the way up to "San".

Kevin Maule

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Thanks Kevin! I'm finding my blog writing feet... more to come

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