Friday, March 11, 2011

Survival Resources 8: Wilderness Survival

Learning the Land (see my last post) as well as Tracking (see my post of 2/9/11), Winter Tree ID (see my post of 1/18/11), and Foraging (see my post of 1/11/11) all become crucial if you get stranded somewhere out in the woods or if for any reason you need to live outside for any extended period of time.

This is life stripped to its bare essentials. It takes me back to my posts on Needs (the series begins with Looking at Needs, 5/4/09, and ends with Our Needs: One Last Look, 9/19/09). Indeed, two of the books that I have been reading on surviving in the woods (Wilderness Survival by Mark Elbroch and Mike Pewtherer and Keller's Outdoor Survival Guide by William Keller) both begin with lists of what you need to survive, and for the most part these lists agree. They both say that the most important thing that you need to survive is a positive mental attitude (I will say more on this), followed by shelter, water, fire, and food. This is the order that Elbroch and Pewtherer prioritize; Keller says that: "Each may take precedence over the others in a given situation, and each requires preparation, practice, and experience to efficiently fulfill." On the other hand he also says: "A person can go a few minutes without air, a few days without water, and a few weeks without food, but if you are in an environment in which you will freeze to death in minutes, then clothing and shelter become top priority." (A fire will help, too.) Elbroch, Pewtherer, and Keller all put food as the lowest priority, but Keller also points out that changes if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.

Laurence Gonzales has written a whole book (Deep Survival) on why some people survive a disaster and others don't. His whole book is on attitude and why it makes such a difference. (Matthew Stein, in When Technology Fails, highly recommends this book claiming, " could save your life someday.") The first half of the book is an analysis of what goes wrong in even what seems like low-risk situations that ends in people being killed or severely injured. A lot of what Gonzales looks at is how we do things that seem irrational and why. There is a good bit of chaos and complexity theory here--why simple systems can develop complex (and unexpected behaviors) and how we are more controlled by our emotions than we want to admit. He focuses on how we behave according to the model of the world that we have built, which is fine as long as these models approximate reality. The problem is when reality shifts and our models don't.

At one point Gonzales mentions a little book he and his six year old daughter were writing that they called The Rules of Life. The first rule was, "Be Here Now". Pay attention to what is rather than what you want to see. Their second rule was "Everything takes eight times as long as it's supposed to". He points out that it is often people's desire to make things happen faster that causes fatal accidents. The real problem, as he points out, is often you can get away with these things, and that can give a false sense of security so when the system suddenly becomes more complex you aren't paying attention--and often pay the price.

Gonzales points out: "We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization. Then we go into nature, where we are least among equals with all other creatures. There we are put to the test. Most of us sleep through the test. We get in and out and never know what might have been demanded." Unfortunately, in any extended wilderness stay we do find out what can be demanded, and our survival depends on being ready.

The second half of the book, details the stories of survivors. Here it becomes apparent how important attitude is for survival. In one chapter of Gonzales' book, he talks about going through two wilderness survival courses, one in Virginia using US Air Force survival training and the other in Vermont based on 'ancient native skills'. Gonzales says, "Although they seem superficially different, I think they share important similarities." Both are about paying attention and both are about having what the Air Force officially calls 'Positive Mental Attitude'. Both teach you skills but more importantly, get you to think differently. One of the skill the Vermont school teaches is using stories to create a mental map. Walk a short way into the woods and pick a spot. Make up a story about it. Move a short distance to the next spot and figure out a story about it. Slowly, story by story, make a mental path through the woods. Even if you get lost, you can find your way back by moving back a story at a time.

The book Wilderness Survival also has two parts, but they are interwoven. Mark Elbroach's journal of an extended survival trip that he did with two other men (Mike Pewtherer is one) is interspersed with Pewtherer's detailed survival tips. These are short little essays on building shelter, making fires, purifying water, making canteens and baskets and acorn flour, and many tips on hunting and fishing (not exactly thrilling to a vegan like me).

William Keller (who wrote Outdoor Survival) is an Emergency Medical Technician and a veteran member of search-and-rescue services and the stories in his book are often about people that he needed to rescue--although he writes of his own survival stories as well. He writes about shelter, fire, and food and water, but he also has a long section on First Aid in the wilderness. He is clear that this is no substitute for taking actual first aid and CPR courses which he strongly recommends. He also includes a useful chapter on what to do if you get lost.

Of course, each of these books is clear: the best way to learn wilderness survival is to practice, practice, practice. All of the skills, but especially having the right attitude. A native of the rainforests, and, for that matter, our ancestors, knows (or knew) skills for survival that we have never been taught. Maybe it's time to learn a few of them.

Next: 'Primitive' skills.

Quote of the Day: "Most of what I discovered through... research and reporting was not new. ... The principles apply to wilderness survival, but they also apply to any stressful, demanding situation...
"It's easy to imagine that wilderness survival would involve equipment, training, and experience. It turns out that, at the moment of truth, those might be good things to have but they aren't decisive. ... The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it's not what's in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It's not even what's in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it's what's in your heart." - Laurence Gonzales