Light that fire, fend off bears
Living in the digital world hasn't made you soft, has it? Every winter, you ski the backcountry. You take your mountain bike down serious trails. You're a backpacker, fly-fisherman, avid kayaker and even a darn fine wilderness photographer.
But what about when things go wrong? When that little glitch—the wrong path taken, the poor map reading, sudden bad weather—turns your day hike into a stay-alive situation? Do you know how to handle yourself when you’re standing by a raging unknown river, soaked to the bone, utterly lost, just a decent penknife in your hand and a lighter in your pocket?
Finding a quality survival school depends a great deal on what you want to know, where you want to learn it, and how far you want to push yourself. You can opt for all-primitive teachings that include no modern implements whatsoever like at Boulder Outdoor Survival School. Or receive training with completely modern tech, including GPS devices, the latest fire-starting gear and a survival knife that's much more than a blade, or even a combination of both, like the Northwest School of Survival. Plus, there are a number of specialty courses: risk assessment and small-aircraft crash survival, to name just two. Some courses have guides with Guinness-like records, such as Wyoming's American Avalanche Institute.
Bear Grylls, the English-born host of the Discovery Channel’s popular Man v. Wild, and former Special Air Service survival instructor and medic, says: “Always telephone a survival school [that interests you] and ask to speak with an instructor. A good school with a good staff will always be happy to discuss your requirements and advise as to whether their courses are right for you.”
Rich Johnson is the Survival columnist for Outdoor Life magazine. In the 1970s, this Vietnam-era Green Beret spent a pleasant year in a cave in the Utah desert (wife and two kids in tow) while immersing himself in a study of primitive living techniques. He agrees with Grylls that research is the key to finding the right survival school.
“Check the school’s background and ask the school for a list of former students who you can contact and talk with about their experiences,” he says. “Also, one of the most important things a survival school can teach is leadership—how to work with others to create an atmosphere of cooperation, establish priorities and a good work ethic.”
Two top schools to consider for leadership and survival ethics are the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival Schools. Both are popular for good reason. Conducting wide-ranging skill courses across the U.S. and in a number of other countries, NOLS offers courses in wilderness risk-management training, something that any outdoor expedition leader needs, and which can easily help one’s thinking when managing risk in the wilds of a glass-enclosed office building. Tom Brown Jr.’s school is known for covering students in mud to teach them methods of concealment and observation, but the instructors also promote their operative philosophy of living in the wilderness. Brown’s methods are a distillation of his own instruction from a Lipan Apache mentor.
The skills of indigenous cultures are central to the survival teachings of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) in Colorado, and the two UK-based survival schools in this list, Bushmasters Ltd. and Bushcraft Expeditions. BOSS adapts methodologies of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures to take students across the tough terrain of Utah wilderness. These courses will test your gut, your legs and your head, as the BOSS philosophy is to have its students become part of the wilderness, “rather than an intruder with a backpack.”
Still, students aren't expected to "run naked into the wilderness and freeze and starve," says the BOSS Philosophy Statement. "We do have equipment lists for our courses.” But packs, tents, GPS and any new-fangled camping gear will be left behind.
In the rainforests of Guyana, where the Amazonian jungle digests everything—including you—Bushmasters teaches that “survival is 90 percent positive mindset.” The remaining 10 percent requires jungle-survival skills taught by native guides. If you’re not ready for the hardcore just yet, Bushmasters offers a jungle course in which you’ll have a good deal of modern equipment at your avail to get through the typical 16-day jaunt.
“All our expeditions are designed around the fact that most students have no previous experience, so each expedition has an acclimatization phase followed by a period of learning skills to make yourself comfortable in each environment,” says Bushcraft instructor Ross Bowyer. “We fully immerse ourselves into the [native] culture—living with them, eating the same food, learning the skills they have developed to live in that environment. It doesn’t take long to realize they are true masters.”
Nature is almost always the source of trouble for the wilderness survivor, with its extreme temperatures, rain, snow, tough terrain and few sources of pure water. Says Grylls, “‘Survival’ is dealing with a situation that you have been forced into by circumstances beyond your control… An ability to ‘think outside the box’ and a cheerfulness in adversity are, to my mind, the secrets of survival.”
With a survival school lineage going back to 1968, BOSS puts a total emphasis on living in the wilderness with a minimum amount of modern technology; i.e., making a fire using a sticks and tinder; sleeping on the ground. BOSS instructs students how to adapt methods of older cultures (the Anasazi and Fremont) when living on arid lands for extended periods of time is the only choice. Most students must pass minimal physical requirements. The 28-day survival course in the Utah wilderness will push you beyond your known limits in the desert (you'll probably cry a few times, too), but you'll be a changed person when you make it.
Mountain Shepherd, Archer, Va.
With its training area in the George Washington National Forest, near Lynchburg, Va., Mountain Shepherd has taught wilderness survival to everyone from housewives to corporate managers to FBI agents. The four full-time instructors here have all passed the infamous military Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course, but don't bring that kind of severity to their teaching methods. The escape-and-evasion course makes use of "aggressor force" (the guys you're staying away from) and "partisan network" (local friends).
American Avalanche Institute, Wilson, Wyo.
The 15 instructors have combined resumes that read like a history of backcountry exploration and first-ascents (including numerous American Avalanche Association certifications). If you ski, snowboard, snowshoe or winter-trek in mountainous areas, you might want to spend some time with these guys. Operating with special-use permits in the Bridger-Teton and Wasatch-Cache National Forests, the Institute offers three levels of instruction, including a mountain-guide course for certified jobs as ski- and mountain-guides. The majority of coursework is in the backcountry, enough so that a snow shovel and avalanche beacon are required equipment.
Jack Mountain Bushcraft & Guide Service, Ashland, Maine
Registered Maine Guides are a breed apart who keep alive with their backwoods know-how handed down through generations. The instructors at Jack Mountain Bushcraft can teach you everything from how to live happily in the woods with nothing but a knife, to proper snow-shoeing techniques, to the art of tracking (because tracking leads to eating). There are multiple course offerings, including several 10-week sessions that amount to a year-long immersion course. "Survival trips" into Maine's north country are not instructional but intended to test everything you've already learned in the program.
Northwest School of Survival, Sandy, Ore.
The Northwest School of Survival covers the essentials—from navigation to mountain survival to primitive skills through introductory and advanced courses. The training is a healthy combination of modern technology (rescue beacons, GPS, knot-making and lashings) and methods of living off the land. Extended backcountry and desert survival courses involve multiple days in the sticks. The wilderness survival program includes a helicopter-drop survival course (six days, five nights) along the Oregon Coast that leaves you no choice but to find your way out with your team.
Headed by Ian Craddock, an ex-British army and Special Forces officer, and with a number of native Makushi people serving as guides, Bushmasters offers a thorough immersion in jungle survival in the forests of Guyana. Airplanes and canoes take you deep into the wilderness, where your survival instructors will teach you how to find drinkable water, how to get a fire going with no match or lighter, which bugs are best to eat and how to hunt with a bow and arrow. The trip ends with you and a team partner surviving for 48 hours on your own before the guides locate you. The "Raw Survival" package provides the jungle survival course on a budget, dispensing with the aircraft delivery and post-jungle luxury spots of the standard package.
Bushcraft Expeditions, Hereford, England
Expeditions to Borneo (jungle), Namibia (arid brush land), Norway (Arctic wilderness) and Thailand (sub-tropical bamboo forest) are highly coordinated—with daily itineraries and regular briefings—but they are no walkabouts. While there are moments of luxury on these expeditions—Norwegian saunas and Thai restaurants, for instance—all call for a measure of physical fitness and lots of walking, or, in Norway, the willingness to drive a dog sled. There's an emphasis on immersion in survival skills of long-thriving cultures: the Iban people (Borneo), the San Bushmen (Namibia), the Sami people (Norway) and Sino-Tibetan hill peoples (Thailand).
Boreal Wilderness Institute, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
If big, mountainous forest is your thing, you might want to aim for the wilderness survival certification offered by the Boreal Wilderness Institute. Instructors approach survival techniques with a mix of modern technology (they'll teach you to work a GPS) and more primitive approaches for dire situations; they'll also instruct students in the features of the boreal forest (how to identify plants, trees, and slope conditions) to aid in survival. "The Hundred K Survival Challenge" calls upon the student of survival to cover a serious distance through the Canadian Rockies with nothing more than can fit in a day pack. Completion of the Challenge is the final step to the Wilderness Mastery Certification.
Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature, and Wilderness Survival School, Waretown, N.J.
Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School is well-known from Brown's involvement with Hollywood, and it's still the place for the student of survival not just looking for the skills but a whole philosophy of wilderness living. Brown's course work is intended to steadily build up bushcraft skills, plus both wilderness- and self-awareness, before major survival tests are undertaken. His teaching are based on everything he learned from Stalking Wolf, a shaman and scout from a band of Lipan Apache who was born in 1870 and spent 63 years wandering the West, learning the ways of survival of numerous Indian bands.
National Outdoor Leadership School, Lander, Wyo.
The non-profit National Outdoor Leadership School is more of a college of all-encompassing outdoor skills courses—rock climbing, kayaking, mountaineering, and others—than a school wholly dedicated to survival techniques. But the idea here is that knowing all the right skills from the start teaches students how to manage risks, enjoy the wilderness, and prevent emergencies, although you’ll learn how to make and use a survival kit in a number of situations. Additionally, the NOLS wilderness-medicine courses are top-notch, and the NOLS also offers wilderness EMT courses within its highly regarded Wilderness Medicine Institute. Specific courses in wilderness risk-management training and leadership skills also build on the methodology of surviving without succumbing to hazards. Cool factor: Courses are taught in a number of excellent locations, from Oregon to the Amazon Basin to Norway to Western Australia.
Learn to Return, Anchorage, Alaska
Learn to Return started in 1986 with the intention of training industrial, state and military workers for the considerable physical hazards of outdoors labor and landscapes in Alaska, but a number of current LTR courses, in particular the aviation "land-and-water survival" and "bear awareness and defense" courses, can be the perfect education for the wilderness trekker, hunter or wildlife watcher who wants to spend some time in one of the last great American wildernesses. If you're thinking about living in Alaska, take a course with these guys. You'll learn how to handle yourself in a load of bad situations such as crashed helicopters, building collapses, wilderness navigation and Arctic land survival.