A Matter of Life and Death – Choosing the Right Survival Skill Program

On a camping trip in October 1987, I woke to find a snow-laden bough hanging dangerously over my tent. New York’s Hudson Valley typically does not get a foot of snow during leaf season. I had the supplies I needed to get back home safely, but that adventure motivated me to learn more about survival. What if I had been caught in a winter storm and unable to get out?

Back when I was seeking knowledge on how to make tools from what I could find on the trail, there were few people teaching what wanted to learn. I was lucky to find classes with hands-on instruction and instructors who mastered the skills they taught.

In the years since I took my first wilderness survival class, the number of survival skill programs has grown. But not all programs teach the same skills, nor do they share the same philosophy.

I have blogged on programs I know and respect and am grateful for the input from Les Stroud, Ricardo Sierra, Barry Keegan and others who have not only mastered survival skills, but have mastered the art of teaching.

Do you want to learn about how to survive by making your own tools from stone, bone and wood? Do you want to learn backwoods safety and first aid techniques? Do you want to learn how to survive solo in winter? Are you interested in a specific type of terrain for available native plant and animal sources for survival? What do you want to be able to do as a result of taking this class?

If you have not extensively practiced basic skills under less than optimum conditions, advanced-level classes will do you no good. If you need more field time, consider taking or repeating a basic level class. You will typically get better value from a smaller school offering more contact with instructors, individual guidance and opportunities for repeated practice.

How do the brochures, books, websites and marketing materials of the school you are considering describe their course offerings, staff, facilities and expectations of staff and students? What is the tone of the written material? What is the staff to student ratio? What is the ratio of classroom time to time in the field?

Which classes are taught by the owner of the school? Which are taught by other instructors? Are they able to guide students in learning, as well as demonstrate skills? Is the school located in an area allowing for hands-on experience or is it a lecture and media presentation? What are the qualifications of the staff? Where did instructors learn their skills? How long have they been teaching?

Are they actually applying their skills on a daily basis or were they drafted to fill a large student enrollment? How do they involve the students in the learning process? How do they handle failure – theirs and yours? Is there sufficient time for students to achieve the stated goals of the course?

You need to actually make shelter, use stone tools, make a bow drill or hand drill set – and get a fire – in order to really understand what it takes to do these things when you really have to. How does the course involve students in actually walking through the process? What is the ratio of classroom time to field time for each skill taught?

Are you expected to bring a tent, or does the school provide cabins or shelters? Are you expected to bring your own food, or does program include meals? If the school provides meals, can the kitchen staff accommodate dietary restrictions?

Do instructors have basic first aid and CPR training? How far is the program from medical help in the event of an emergency?

Is there an open house or opportunity to visit a school located near you? If not, does the school have a list of students who have taken the program? Is there an opportunity to ask questions before enrolling? Are you satisfied with the answers to your questions?

If an emergency prevents a student from completing the course – whether it’s family needs or illness – how difficult is it to get back home or to medical care?

Les Stroud, Survivorman, said it best, “… good hands-on instruction and meeting up with like minded people is something you can’t beat. Smaller classes are better. And remember – many things will seem quite easy when you do them out on some weekend trip – fully fed, surrounded by other students – all working together on the same signal fire….try it alone or with one buddy some time – it’s a whole different story. Try it after not eating for three days – another story. “