Women who choose a typically male-dominated field, sport or activity often have to break down misconceptions about a woman’s ability. We have to often work even harder if we want to be accepted by our male peers.
Prior to Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, which pairs one man and one woman survivalist, the only other female wilderness survivalist on television was Ruth England, the wife of military survivalist Mykel Hawke. Women wilderness survivalists have not had other female television survival role models. After the Hunger Games movies there was a surge in young, female archers. Now, Naked and Afraid makes survival en vogue for female viewers. Hopefully, it results in a surge of budding female survivalists.
Female wilderness survivalists first have to learn their skills. Wilderness survival skills can be learned in many ways, including but not limited to: pairing up with a fellow wilderness survivalist, taking a wilderness survival class, practicing skills in a safe, controlled environment like a backyard, reading wilderness survival manuals and books, watching wilderness survival shows and movies, joining wilderness survival forums, joining wilderness survival groups and subscribing to wilderness survivalist channels on websites like YouTube.
Some wilderness survivalists enjoy the act of learning survival skills in a controlled setting, but they do not have the confidence or interest to test their skills in real-life situations. Others have more confidence than ability and test their skills in the wild. And some go beyond the scope of their skills and venture into wild areas beyond their capabilities. Other wilderness survivalists have learned enough wilderness survival skills to give them the basic skillset to constantly test their skills on personal wilderness quests.
Women are adept at survival from both nature and nurture factors. Natural factors affecting women in survival situations include but are not limited to: higher body fat, hormonal cycles, menstrual cycles, motherly instinct and dehydration. These all play important roles in a woman’s survival and the unique challenges posed by being a woman.
Body Fat Benefits
Women have a higher body fat content than men, often over five percent more because we need more fat to give birth, to have menstrual cycles, to allow for breasts and milk, and to allow our hormones to work properly.
The extra body fat gives us an advantage in times of famine. According to a 2009 study by the University of New South Wales, on average, women have 6 to 11 percent more body fat than men. Studies show estrogen reduces a woman’s ability to burn energy after eating, resulting in more fat being stored around the body. The likely reason is to prime women for childbearing, the review suggests. “Fat storage by women gives an evolutionary benefit,” stated Associate Professor Anthony O’Sullivan in the study. Women can live longer on fat stores while in a survival situation. Women can also survive longer on their fat stores while trapped on the open sea, or in open-water swimming. Women’s extremities often feel excruciatingly cold during cold weather, but we store most of our fat in our torso, where it can insulate our organs and allow us a good shot at survival.
Women who suffer iron-deficient anemia from menstruation will have greater energy loss and difficulty replenishing the lost iron. Wild edible and medicinal plants can help you replenish lost iron and aid in menstruation difficulties if you know the right plants in the area you are in. For example, northern white cedar tea helps sooth aching muscles from stomach cramps. Dandelion leaves, flowers and root all help to eliminate anemia. Check the region you are going to ahead of time, if possible, and learn some basic plants and their edibility and medicinal properties. It could save your life!
Masking Blood Trails
Another important menstrual factor to remember is that you will be luring in predators with your ongoing blood loss. If you are in the sea, you will be attracting sharks in the area and toothed whales such as transient orcas and sea lions. Land predators could be drawn to you as well. Most predators have extremely well-developed olfactory systems. Bears, for example, can trace a scent for well over a mile. I myself experienced two nearly back-to-back menstrual cycles while surviving 21 days in the Serengeti with apex predators like lions, hyenas and leopards. Beware and be aware. Dig latrine holes and cover them between each use with dirt to mask the scent. Also, bathe yourself if possible. Be prepared for predators. Always have a defense plan. It’s important to make weapons and always carry them with you for protection.
Motherly instincts fall into the nature and nurture categories. Girls inherently have a motherly instinct, especially after puberty. And girls are also often taught or nurtured in motherly instinct by their mothers or other female role models. If a mother or a woman is thrust into a true survival situation with a child (or children), they have a lot of adrenaline that aids them in doing things that seem super-human if taken out of context. Take the story of Jennifer Stolpa, who was left to shelter in a cave with her five-month-old baby and husband after being stranded by a snowstorm. Stolpa nursed the child throughout the weeklong ordeal, even while she and her husband, who were without food and water, suffered frostbite and mild hypothermia. The baby was unharmed.
Essential Survival Skills
Young girls often learn how to cook, make pottery, weave and sew, all skills which can be helpful in a survival situation. In some cultures today, and in the past for most modern cultures, women were the gatherers of water, wild edibles, wild medicinals and shelter materials. Women often hunt in many societies as well, and the Archery Trade Association even reports that women archers were the highest-growth group for the last several years.
Women can (and do) perform many of the essential functions for survival. Women may face males in the survival world who don’t believe in their worth. Women may be told all of the reasons why they can’t do something. And women often have to prove themselves to disbelievers. But, don’t fret—listen and learn well from your instructors. Surround yourself with positive role models. Link up with other women survivalists or start your own group. There is no reason why a woman cannot succeed at wilderness survival as well as a man, unless she does not believe she can.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.