By Dana Benner
If someone were to ask me what the most important survival tool I have was, I would have to say “my brain, or more precisely, my ability to think”. After all, we all have brains, but not everyone knows how to use them. About 90% of survival revolves around problem solving. The outcome of every situation that you will find yourself in will depend on your ability to process information and then act. Sometimes you will have time to think, but many times the process happens in a split-second. This article will be about gathering that information so you can keep your mind in the game.
Life is a Learning Experience:
None of us were born with all the information we need to make it in the world, especially in this day and age. We need to gather information to survive from a variety of sources and from these sources lessons need to be learned. That being said, we are all born with the ability to think and somewhere buried deep within the cerebral cortex is the genetic makeup needed for basic survival. The trick is to draw upon both our instincts and our ability to process new information. Doing that is what I consider the “learning experience”.
Books in my office.
There many great books full of information ranging from identifying food sources to setting up shelter and starting a fire. The problem with books that are loaded with information is that unless you actually get out and try the tasks described; get your hands dirty and make mistakes, then they are just words on the page. Life is the best teacher of all and learning things the hard way can be very painful, but I guarantee you’ll remember them. My body is full of scars from doing things the wrong way. I have had broken bones and sprained joints, and I have felt the effects of eating things in the wild that I shouldn’t of. All of these things taught me valuable lessons, lessons that expanded my knowledge base. Another source of information comes from the experiences of others, many of which can be found books about those adventures, written by those who have first hand knowledge. Learn from others who have “been there; done that” so you can avoid some of the same mistakes.
Adapt, Improvise, And Overcome:
No matter how much gear you have or how many survival courses you have taken, there will be times when life throws you a curve ball. There are no rules in the survival game and nothing ever happens as it was supposed to, or how you were trained. After 10 years of military service the one thing I learned was to expect the unexpected and be willing and able to deal with it. When crap does happen, and it will, you must Adapt (to the situation), Improvise (complete the mission with the tools at hand) and Overcome (complete the mission, or reach the objective). Remember your ability to think is your greatest asset. Use it.
Brothers on the Bashkaus by Eugene Buchanan. Great lessons about how to adapt and overcome.
In his book Brothers on the Bashkaus (www.paddlinglife.net), Eugene Buchanan recounts his hair raising story of how he and three other American whitewater experts, faced one of the most dangerous rivers in the former Soviet Union; the Bashkaus. Despite good planning and bringing all state of the art gear with them, things went wrong as soon as they arrived in Russia. Unforeseen circumstances in Russia forced them to leave most of their gear behind leaving them no alternative but to team up with local river runners. Facing a language barrier and using homemade watercraft, the Americans had to rely upon their whitewater skill, a positive attitude and trust in their teammates to make it through. They had to adapt, improvise and overcome. At all times they had to keep their mind in the game; their very survival depended upon it.
Know Your Limitations:
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a popular phrase. In some aspects this is true, but sometimes not realizing your own limitations will teach you the intimate lesson; death. A day doesn’t go by that I am not learning something. Anyone who tells you that they don’t need to learn anything more; that they know it all is a fool and they are someone you should stay away from. You must always remember that there is always someone who knows more than you do. If you keep your mind in the game, you will try to learn as much as you can from those people. This can be applied to any aspect of life.
I hear people say that they want to live off grid, to “live off the land”. They have read all the books and have bought all the gear. It is all great until the SHTF. It is then that they find out the hard way that they didn’t have the proper mindset to survive. Jon Krakauer wrote a book entitled Into the Wild (www.anchorbooks.com), which tells the story of a young man who did just that and ended up paying the ultimate price for not facing up his own limitations.
In April, 1992 Christopher Johnson McCandless ventured out to get away and live on his own. While this is a thought that many of us have had McCandless’s problem was that he didn’t have the mindset to make it work. He had no real plan; he didn’t properly prepare. Worst of all, he refused to acknowledge his own limitations. That proved to be fatal.
Escape and Evade:
Escape and evade is a very important aspect in the world of survival. If you are trying to survive it is usually better to extract yourself from the area than to stand and fight. Like everything else, use your head. The military teaches all personnel courses on this subject and depending on what your job is; they can be ongoing and pretty intense. Front line personnel are often put into real life scenarios and forced to use limited resources and their minds to make it to “safety” without being captured. Civilian escape and evade course, while still intense, for obvious reasons, can’t totally duplicate the military version. What they both teach are the principles of problem solving and keeping your mind in the game while under extreme pressure.
Brian Murphy wrote a book entitled 81 Days Below Zero (www.decapopress.com), which tells the story of a WWII pilot forced to crash in the Alaska wilderness in the winter. The plane carried 5 crewmembers but only one survived. The lone survivor, Leon Crane, managed to stay alive for 12 weeks. Crane, though not trying to evade, was able to apply all of the lessons he was taught and he was able to keep a level head. He had to problem solve under extreme circumstances.
81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy. Survival is all about pushing forward.
Never Let Your Guard Down:
We’ve all been there; that guided hunting or fishing trip, whitewater rafting trip or even a dinner cruise with your wife or husband. When we go out on these excursions we are putting our safety; our very lives, in the hands of others. For me that is not a very comfortable feeling. On that dinner cruise, while everyone else is heading for the bar I’m busy locating the PFDs and escape routes. In restaurants and theatres I always find the exits and then sit near them, usually with my back against the wall. My mind is always in the game.
Sometimes stuff just happens. While some things just can’t be avoided, most of the time it is, in some part, due to human error. When both factors come into play, you are in a world of hurt.
One such experience, where both factors happened, is described in great detail in Into Thin Air (www.amazon.com) by Jon Krakauer. In 1996, Krakauer joined a team of climbers on an adventure of a lifetime; to climb Mt. Everest. Not all of the team made it back.
The team that Krakauer was on was lead by an experienced climber and consisted of people with a variety of climbing experience. The team was not alone on the mountain as other teams were making the ascent as well. When you join such an expedition you are trusting your life to someone else, but even so, you must never let your guard down and always keep you mind in the game.
Mt. Everest is dangerous even in the best of times, but on this climb, near the summit, a huge storm blew in out of nowhere, trapping most of the climbers near the summit. When it was all said and done, five climbers lost their lives and many of the survivors were suffering from severe frostbite. What allowed Krakauer to be one of the survivors? Despite the conditions, the hypoxia and nearly freezing to death, he kept his head in the game. He didn’t let his guard down and he relied as much on his own skill as he did in that of his guide.
“The trick to survival is just not dying”. I’m not the first to say this and I am not sure when or where I first heard it, but it defines what we do. Survival means never giving up, never giving in and staying focused. None of these things is easy to do all of the time.
In his book Between A Rock And A Hard Place (www.amazon.com.), Aron Ralston tells his story of being trapped in a slot canyon for six days with an 800 pound boulder trapping his right hand and wrist. An avid outdoorsperson, Ralston took his mind out of the game for a split second and committed the cardinal sin of not telling someone where he was going and when to expect him back. That one mistake nearly cost him his life. Ralston ended up rescuing himself by cutting his own arm off.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston. A book full of mistakes and lessons we all can learn from.
Get Out of Your Own Head
Learning the skills needed for survival is not something learned overnight. It is a lifelong experience. Mistakes will be made along the way; learn from them. Learn from the mistakes made by others. Trust the advice given by people you respect. Stay positive and don’t dwell on “Should have, could have”; that is all in the past. Worry about those things that you have control of. Rely upon your training and don’t start second guessing. Get out of your own head!
Can you learn everything you need to know from a book? No, you can’t. Books are just another tool available to us as we learn. While experience is the best teacher, if we don’t learn from the experience of others we are bound to repeat their mistakes. Reading these stories will help you keep your mind in the game.
Sidebar: Other Titles:
More titles that offer lessons from real life survival situations
Braving It by James Campbell
A story about a father and daughter’s adventures in Alaska
Braving It by James Campbell is a story about a father and daughter’s adventure into the Alaskan wilderness.
The Last River by Todd Balf
A story about a river run in Tibet
The Last River by Todd Balf. Another book dealing with the need to adapt.
Call of the American Wild by Guy Grieve
The story of a man living on his own in the wilds of Alaska
In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov
Survival in the Siberian Arctic
In the Land of White Death is a survival story that takes place in the Siberian Arctic.