Survival

One of the many things I’ve spent time doing while I’ve been hold up here at Swedish Medical Center is continue to investigate several areas of interest for me. Running and in particular trail running has been high on my list, but also survival. Or perhaps more precisely traditional skills and methods which allowed people living here and across the West to live their lives for thousands of years.

I’m a big fan of Les Stroud in particular for the early part of his Survivor Man TV series. I’ve also just completed watching a number of YouTube videos which detail some of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School‘s courses. And finally some internet reading about the Anasazi which if there’s any useful information there its generally in the form of the different kind of living structures that these people built and left behind.

I’ve been attempting to draw some conclusions about survivalism as a sub-cultural paradigm here in the “First World” primarily because I have habitually felt like the information that is available and the skills that are developed within this sub-culture have consistently fallen short of my expectations. I’d like to know why there is this gap between expectation and realization and then because I’m able to detail the gaps find ways to make up the difference.

Perhaps it would be helpful to better define what my expectations actually are; I’ve been interested in the idea of Survival less as a means to deal with unusual events or hostile conditions than as a set of tools available for every-day, simple living. I see the collection of these sorts of tools and behaviors and an excellent way to exist with some degree of comfort and happiness, rather as a means to make it back to the automated and magical modern lifestyle most of us spend most of your time in. Basically, I’d like to be able to walk out of modernity and into simplicity, using common sense and simple skills to be able to continue living without the aid of technologies and behaviors that would otherwise require much larger amounts of energy than I can produce or carry with me.

Backpacking is an excellent example what what I mean. When you walk into the back country with your house on your back you’re taking advantage of a very small amount of invested energy, the food you’re carrying (unless you gain it along the way) and the equipment you choose to carry, as well as some altered behaviors which will allow you to live comfortably without support from the outside. But even the longest backpacking trip comes to an end, we come out of the wilderness.

There are several types of survivalists within the survival sub-culture. Broadly these different groups of people are pursuing different goals and more often than not there is some level of animosity between these groups. Now that I have better defined my goal and thus needs with regard to the general sub-culture it may prove helpful to better define some of the group means and ends so by contrast I can find where deficit exists between.

The much media hyped and often demonized Preparationist Survivalist seeks to avert or minimize individual loss during periods of modern social, environmental or political breakdown. There is a very large variety of social groups that fall into this category; Mormons to Libertarians all posses a doctrine of “self-sufficiency” which, during some disaster or alteration in the status quo, they believe will allow them to weather a hurricane, earthquake, political upheaval, civil war, pandemic, economic collapse, or religious event to name a few. More often, these doctrines are intent on maintaining modern technologies and behaviors for some limited period of time. For example, these groups can be identified by their hoarding or stock piling practices of basic resources such as preserved foods and water as well as modern means of securing food, fuel, water, and shelter.

Preparationist Survivalist’s goals are very divergent from my own for two reasons. First, the premise of their pursuit is that things as they are today, given their modern and high energy lifestyle, will be compelled to change. The premise of disaster or change is, I believe, often exaggerated in their doctrine and may result in an exceptional waste of time and resources prior to the realization of any anticipated event.

Second, stock piling resources to use, should a disaster occur in your life, extends the time between the onset of disaster and the realization of impact to life and limb. Even given practices of rationing and moderation eventually all that food, fuel and water in your bunker will run out. At this point, the Perparationist will be compelled to change patterns of behavior and necessarily reduce their consumption of energy. A skill improves with use, and because they do not make a practice of low energy methods they will face a steep learning curve at this point in time.

The second major group of survivalists attempt to learn skills necessary to overcome momentary, individual disasters such as being stuck in the wilderness for some reason or lost in the jungle. Their primary survival goal is always to make it back to civilization. Most of the Survivor Man series of episodes are predicated on the notion that something has gone horribly wrong and Stroud uses some basic woodsman skills and a very limited set of resources from civilization to make it back. During the first segment of every show Les is left/stranded somewhere and then spends a brief period of time going over what resources he has at hand. My favorite catch phrase from him is “… and my Multi-Tool which I take everywhere.”

One of the major differences between the Preparationist Survivalists and what I’ll refer to as the Disaster Capable Survivalists is that the latter tend to rely on a small list of simple skills to return to modernity while the former attempt to maintain the lifestyle and behaviors of modernity indefinitely. My goal, as stated above, can gain some insight and information from the DCS philosophy, however, because I’m interested in living in the woods without returning to modernity the skills that are often central to this philosophy have limited value to me.

For example, knowing how to make a fire given only available materials and some knowhow is valuable tool in my set. However, given the limited nature of the common DCS outing (e.g. “I’m stuck here for the next 7 days” at which point either I will make my way out or be rescued.) means that the skills learned from this group will have inherent shortcomings that will become apparent given time.

For instance, in many of these shows snares are commonly employed and almost never successful. Ask any trapper why these things never work and I believe you’ll get the same answer, they don’t work because they are never left undisturbed for the time necessary for them to work (although there is the one episode where Stroud builds a fish were and catches a turtle). Because the emphasis is placed on the idea of returning to a fast, high-energy life-style many of these skills are simply mentioned for their novelty, not their effectiveness.

Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard variations on this theme “Its morning, I’m cold, and I didn’t sleep much last night.” To me this is indicative of shortcuts being taken on the return to comforts anticipated in modern society. I’m certain that if you could travel back in time and give an Anasazi a video camera to document a week of his daily life you’d ever hear those words.

There are of course other sorts of survivalists, but given my stated purpose I think I can move forward. Its the differences in purpose that I believe is most critical to filling that skills gap effectively.

As a Back Country Ranger I learned some very important lessons and was able to develop a skill base which enabled me to spend very extended periods of time in the wilderness without support (at one time a month and a half). Most of this time I lived comfortably and didn’t endure long periods of starvation or discomfort. I was able to range over considerable distances as well.

Right now my survival goal is to be able to comfortably make my way over large distances with limited to no support as I did back in the early 90s. Additionally, I’d like to be able to develop coping skills and mental attitudes which increase the likelihood that I’ll want to remain in the wild rather than seek a return my daily average life-style.

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