Hey There Mr. Survival Expert, how exactly do I learn to “survive”?

By Caleb Musgrave

Photos by John Brown and Caleb Musgrave

‘Hey There Mr. Survival Expert, how exactly do I learn to “survive”?’

First off Bub, I’m not an expert. The term “expert” is a bit derogatory to those of us that teach wilderness skills, such as survival, self-reliance or -as we here at B.O.B often say- Bushcraft. We are all very experienced in our fields, but there is always more to learn. For instance, I may know how to live comfortably -Heck, lavishly- in the Canadian boreal forest. However, if you threw me into Utah, or the Arizona desert, I probably would be in a lot of pain, and not just because you threw me. That is the point of Brothers of Bushcraft; we all share knowledge from different backgrounds, and have experience in different climates and bio-regions.

See this guy? Not an expert

Now, with that little correction out of the way, let me explain the point of wilderness survival. That is, staying alive until you can get home safe and sound to watch some t.v. and tell your buddies about it. You are not trying to build a birch bark canoe, or track down the biggest moose you can find with a perfectly crafted bow or spear. Those skills are much more advanced and labour intensive (yes, it is spelled labour. Welcome to a Canadian writer). Survival means you stay alive, often in discomfort, and probably on the verge of death. The skills needed are very simple, but mandatory;

-You need to be able to make and maintain a fire,
-construct or find a shelter that will keep you safe from whatever elements are a threat (cold, heat, wind, rain, snow, etc) immediately,
-you need to find and make water safe to drink.
-You need to be able to create signals that will help searchers find you quickly
-You must be able to treat any wounds or injuries that you may have received

Do yo see this awesome shelter? Don't build this awesome shelter.

You do not need to know too much about finding food, as your body can cannibalize your body fat (almost everyone has some to spare), and your muscles. However, it is always a good idea to know some wild plants that are easily identifiable, and can be located in a multitude of ecosystems. Cattail (Typha sp.) comes to mind as a good example. However, over all of these skills, is more important. That is the will to live, and the determination to get through any Hell there is to achieve the goal of staying alive. You will probably be thirsty, hungry, cold/hot, scared, stressed right out and many other things. But you must break through this, and keep yourself alive at all costs. This does not mean being brash, brutish or stupid. You must simply do whatever you can safely do to make sure you stay alive.

Carving a spoon will keep you alive, right? Not so much..

Now, how do you learn all of this? Some people may want you to think a single article, or book can teach it all to you. But written word cannot show you -even with pictures- everything you need to know. More importantly, a book cannot correct you if you are doing something wrong. In my opinion, you need to see things in action. If you can’t be right there when the skill isĀ  being taught, the next best thing is video. If you want to learn just the skills needed to survive, we have a wonderful DVD coming out in late 2012 titled “Brothers of Bushcraft; The Nitty Gritty”. This video will help you understand a lot of these skills. Beyond that, send us an email if you are lost in translation.

Now, do you just want to suffer? I mean, yeah, I am a masochist. I love rough trips in the woods. It reminds me that I am alive. Better adrenaline rush than speeding down a highway, and often only one casualty is made if you screw up on your own in the woods. But sometimes, it is nice to know how to be comfortable out there. If you have the skills to know how to be without discomfort, in the worst of weather and season that your particular climate can hand you, then you won’t have to worry how to survive. It is amazing how low the percentage of lost people actually practise these skills. Welcome to Bushcraft.

Some people may want you to think that you need to do everything primitively. This is controversial, as the argument can be made that knowing how to make fire by friction will help you in case you lose your lighter. But the argument can also be made that fire by friction is not a wise move if you are a 7 year old child lost in the woods alone, or an old grandmother of twenty dozen. My opinion is that primitive skills are really fun, but they take a great deal of time and energy. Do not rely on a bow-drill if you have the ability to carry a ferro-rod in your pocket. If you want to learn primitive skills, we again have a DVD coming soon in the future focusing on skills all ancient people relied upon, titled “Brothers of Bushcraft; Back to the Primitive” (gotta love the shameless promotion, eh?).

Is safe drinking water important? You're damned Skippy is it.

So how far do you want to go down the rabbit hole? If you just want to learn enough to keep you from dying when you get stuck in a freak snowstorm, while ultralight backpacking in the Adirondacks, then basic skills are again, the priorities of Proper Mindset, Fire, Shelter, safe Drinking Water, and Signals. Learn things that focus strictly on those, until you are so confident in them, that you can do them when tired in pitch black without food or water. If you want to learn beyond the basics, then learn the basics and expand from there. Research online, in books, and of course, from our future DVDs (again with these shameless promotions! I’m on fire cha-cha-cha!).

But the best way to learn these skills? Go out and do them -Safely. On your next walk through the park, examine what areas are warm or sheltered from the weather, what standing dead wood you can see and where it is located, what sources of water you can find. Once you have an idea, try it out on your next camping trip, with others around. That way, if your first natural shelter fails you, you have a tent and dry sleeping bag to run back to. If you get injured, there are people there that can help you. And most importantly, when you get something to work, you have witnesses to keep you motivated to do it again.. oh, and laugh at you when you screw up. Which you will. We all do. Those that don’t become weeping messes become proficient woodsmen. Those that do become weeping messes become politicians.

Question; Is this edible or poisonous? Answer; It doesn't matter, you don't need it
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One Response to Hey There Mr. Survival Expert, how exactly do I learn to “survive”?

  1. I too have long detested to be referred to as an Expert. That word denotes that my prowess has wained. Take a look at the word, the very first part of the word is EX. The rest is Pert which has a list of synonyms a yard long all of which denote flashy or formerly flashy so yeah EX-Pert does not sound nice to those of us who have been around the block a time or two with the experiences and scars to show it.

    Good points and information in here however and I especially enjoy the shameless promotions ha ha ha. Thanks for being here and being ready to help the tenderfoot to become a survivor of the best order.