Being Prepared to Survive

by Norman MacLeod
Last Modified 26 Nov 95

The most important part of the survival game is being prepared to survive for an extended period of time whenever you leave the comforts of civilisation and the nearness of traveled roads. This is not something that is limited to Scouting activities and expeditions, either. Many of you either are - or will be - involved in back-country activities of one kind or another, whether as part of your profession or as recreation. Survival preparation is just as - if not more - important when you are flying from one place to another and your flight plan takes you over untracked wilderness.

Most of the suggestions in this section are geared toward land survival, but we will be adding information for water-based survival in the future, as our information system becomes more sophisticated.

There are some key areas you need to be aware of in order to survive over the long haul. Sure, most people who survive are rescued or find their way back to civilisation within three days of becoming lost or being injected into a survival situation through illness or other mishap while in the bush. But - and this is what is most important to you - there are some people who have to survive for weeks or months before they return to the comforts of modern society. If you ever have occasion to become one of those people, a strong background in survival knowledge and technique may just save your skin, as surely as ignorance will likely cost you your life. There are still significant numbers of wilderness fatalities who would still be alive - if only they had learned the skills they needed to survive.

What do you need before you are really prepared for survival? A positive attitude, training and practice, and a few essential pieces of equipment.


You need to want to survive and you need to believe that you can. Otherwise, you become too easily depressed and willing to give up the fight - and it really is a fight - against the worst that circumstances, climate, weather, terrain, natural enemies (like black flies and mosquitos) and remoteness can throw at you.

As we sit here in front of our computer screens - or reading print-outs from these pages - we have things pretty good, although we may be getting further and further out of shape if we spend TOO many hours here! Things can be a whole lot different if you are faced with an airplane that will never fly again, the beginnings of a three-day blizzard, and two hundred kilometres to the nearest road, with injured companions.

Things are also a lot different if you are a twelve-year old Scout finally figuring out that you are not where you are supposed to be - and that you haven't the foggiest idea of just where "here" is!

Think it can't happen? Ahhhh, but it does! Nearly every day...

People who spend a great deal of time in wilderness areas will probably never admit to being well and truly lost - though they may confess to having been "a bit confused for a couple of days a time or two". I guess they had a pretty good idea of where they were within a large area, even if they didn't quite know exactly where they were within a good many kilometres. Thing, is, though, they didn't allow themselves to become too concerned, because they had enough knowledge to be able to get along quite well, even at the risk of a few days of discomfort.

A positive outlook, no matter how bad the situation, is one of the keys to keeping you alert and aware of what's going on around you. If you become depressed and give up, your chances of long-term survival decrease drastically.

Training and Practice

No matter how positive your attitude, you will not do well in a survival situation without the knowledge and skills you need to live off the land with only the barest minimum of equipment and supplies. It takes time to gain these, and you cannot learn everything you need to know from books alone, no matter regardless of how good the text or how reputable its author(s).

Your primary survival tool is your brain, and it can never be fully effective without the experience of actual survival living situations and skills practices. There is absolutely no substitute for starting a fire in the rain without using a lighter or any matches, any more than there is a substitute for preparing food you have obtained by collecting plants or killing animals... Some of the essential tasks of survival are rather less than pleasant, but you need these skills to keep yourself and your companions alive and healthy enough to continue surviving.

Preparing and teaching a survival skills course is a demanding task in and of itself. While some Leaders have the background in survival technique and individual/group psychological response to survival situations, along with the teaching skills to be effective survival instructors, most do not. This means finding instructors who have these qualities.

Survival courses require a combination of classroom-style work and hands-on experience with the techniques and tools. While some of the training can take place during your usual meeting time, you will need at least a full outdoor weekend for the practical side of even an introductory course.

More time will be required for survival training courses that will help you build your skills to a level where you will be able to survive a majority of situations.

Your skills will also improve if you haul them out and use them frequently. Survival skills can be incorporated into many of your weekend activities in the form of contests or skills training for more junior Scouts. You can also challenge yourself from time to time by spending a weekend with a planned survival camp.

Equipping to Survive

There really is not space enough here to tell you how to build yourself survival kits, and doing so in this format would leave you without the training you will need to be able to effectively use the items in the kit. However, there are a few basic principles involved in building a survival kit for yourself that we can pass on to get you thinking.

Before you begin building your survival kit, you need to decide what its purpose is. Will it need to be small enough to put in your pocket, or will you be able to carry it in your backpack or a small daypack? If it's for your pack, what will you have left over if you lose the pack in a stream crossing or through some other misadventure?

Your survival kits (the one in your pocket and the one you add to your pack) should change in content with the season. For instance, you will need more ways of getting fires started really quickly in the winter-time than you will in the summer, when you will want to trade out some fire-starters for insect repellents.

In addition to whatever else you put in the kit, you should consider getting a miniature survival guide - one that has a good plant-identification section. While this may seem to be a trivial recommendation, there are plants that mimic each other in appearance, with one being edible, and the other, well, not...

Your best source of information for building an appropriate set of survival kits for yourself will come from a combination of good texts and quality survival instructors.


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