From the comfort of a couch while you’re watching TV, even life-or-death survival looks easy. Being in a remote, harsh environment without food, water, and a roof over your head doesn’t seem too difficult or extreme while you’re eating chips and drinking your favorite beverage, right?
Many see survival as something that they could handle if they had to, and some even think of it along the lines of a weekend camping trip. I hope to God these people never find themselves in a situation in which they really do have to survive, because without some honed skills and a lot of mental and physical preparation, they will likely find themselves in a whole lot of very serious trouble.
Often, people miss the fine points of survival when they are just reading up on it or watching a show about it. Although most could likely handle some of the required skills—such as building a fire, treating water or constructing a simple shelter—many simply do not fully grasp the real emotional, physiological and mental challenges associated with the real world of survival. Not even the best survival program can fully convey how eerie it feels to be alone in the woods in almost total darkness, how bone-chilling the winds and pounding rainstorms are in the great outdoors, and how scary and confusing hunger and thirst can become in an uncomfortable environment.
The Real Deal
Survivalist Les Stroud is the real deal: He has dealt with every kind of survival situation that has been thrown at him and come out on top. He graciously sat down with us and answered some questions we feel readers need to know. Use Stroud’s survival tips as a learning tool; it can help you strengthen and reinforce your own skills. Keep in mind that every bit of useful information you acquire can help you avoid the worst-case scenario and increase your odds of staying alive, so never stop learning.
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What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people have about survival?
That it’s a recreational activity.
What everyday object that most people carry would be the most useful in a survival situation?
Their shoelaces; they can use them for “rope.”
Which is the biggest contributor to failure during a survival situation, a physical, mental or emotional breakdown?
Emotional. A person can rise to the challenges of the physical world and endure more than he or she realizes. The same thing goes for the mental challenges. But unchecked emotions can lead to panic—and ultimately death—when that person probably could’ve made it after all.
Do you feel most people underestimate the physical effects of hunger, thirst and lack of sleep?
In my opinion, they tend to overestimate hunger, they kind of know in the back of their minds about thirst and they dramatically under-estimate lack of sleep.
Planning is a must, but what percentage of the time should you change your plan for one reason or the other?
If changing your plan leads to survival and not changing it leads to tragedy or death, then 100 percent of the time. Survival is a proactive thing, not passive. People with the attitude of “come what may” typically don’t fare so well in survival situations.
Do you feel people get mixed messages from watching survival shows on TV?
Watching survival shows on TV is a lot like watching Olympic ski jumping. You wouldn’t watch a ski jumper and go out the next day and strap on skis and hit the hills, right? Survival is the same; you can’t watch a show on TV and then head off into the woods alone and expect to survive. It took me years of practicing and studying with other students and teachers before I ever felt safe venturing out alone.
How do you respond to those people who say, “I could do that,” or, “He should have done this or that?”
When they say “I could do that,” I say, “Yes, you are absolutely right—you could do that; anyone can learn to survive.” When they say, “He should’ve done this or that,” I say, “Oh yeah, well, you weren’t there, and until you’re in the same situation, you shouldn’t judge what someone else might do or not do to survive. Armchair survivalists are no different from armchair athletes.
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Do you agree that book smarts are good but that nothing beats experience out in the field?
For those who aren’t planning on venturing into the wilderness, how important is it for them to learn some urban survival techniques?
Survival is self-preservation and nothing more, really. So it’s essential to know basic survival skills no matter where you plan to spend your life. And we are all too familiar with how things can go wrong in urban centers when the lights go out or the dam breaks.
What do you feel is the most underestimated aspect of survival that people experience during their first outing?
Well, you can’t compare a survival “outing” with a real survival situation. So for real survival, one of the most underestimated aspects is realizing how you just need to calm down. And how much you need to ask a hundred questions to enable you to make the right decisions about moving forward and surviving. But as far as outings go, if you mean someone would be spending a recreational weekend learning about survival, typically that person will underestimate how cold and hungry they’ll be.
What are three must-haves for someone to make it out of a survival situation?
A backup self-rescue or call-in rescue plan. The smarts to remain calm. The intelligence to perform “zones of assessment,” which means to assess your body (zone one), what resources are close at hand (zone two) and what is available further afield (zone 3 ). When you have all those answers, you know what to do next.
How important is it to realize that you can’t depend on others to help during an emergency situation and that preparation for self-
reliance is vitally important?
Preparation is of the utmost importance. Every time I ask a husband and wife what they’re carrying during a hike for survival, they proudly show me a pack full of supplies that’s usually the husband’s responsibility. I pull the wife aside and I ask her what she has, which usually ends up with her telling her husband, “See, I told you I should have my own pack!” But this doesn’t mean that teamwork and relying on others isn’t also a part of survival. It is.
It may look easy on TV and in books, but do you agree that survival skills require dedication and continual practice?
Absolutely. Don’t believe me? Here are two hunks of wood and some rope—go out and try the fire-drill method of rubbing sticks together (surely you’ve seen that in a few books) and show me a fire in 15 minutes. Books are almost useless without in-field practice, and lots of it. TV is dangerously misleading on how simple things look. Add to that the buffet of horrible survival skills paraded across TV screens today and you have a recipe for disaster for those who buy into it. In my opinion, the show Man vs Wild was a series of unrealistic adventure stunts designed to serve the host’s ego rather than teach people about actual survival techniques. Dual Survival, with its scripted plots and bogus scenes of the two men bickering, was no different. Naked and Afraid and Alone are heavily produced shows that make TV reality-star wannabes suffer on screen—the more they suffer, the better the ratings.
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What is the best starting point for beginners who want to gain some experience in the survival world?
Take a course. Then take another and another and another. Allow those who do this all year long as instructors to work with you personally so you can learn the skills in a safe environment and under expert guidance. Oh, and watch Survivorman! Or, if you’re looking to hone your bushcraft skills, check out Ray Mears.
Best known as the Canadian Screen Awards-winning producer, creator and star of the hit TV series Survivorman, Les Stroud writes, hosts and tapes the show completely on his own. A celebrated keynote speaker and musician, he is also an author. His two Harper Collins books, Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere–Alive and Will to Live: Dispatches from the Edge of Survival, have made The New York Times Best Sellers list. In addition, Stroud has received both the Distinguished Alumni Award from Fanshawe College and was nominated for the Canadian Premiere’s Award for his excellent work in his field. Stroud, a strong believer in giving back, also contributes to dozens of charities and benefits.
This article was originally published in ‘Survivor’s Edge’ Spring 2017. To subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com