Recently, during the last days of my honeymoon, I went on a guided 3-day survival trip. The trip itself was very disappointing, it actually was quite a fraud. However, I did learn one very valuable lesson there, and that is that I had a crucial misconception about survival. I think this realization has been dawning on me for a long time. I have been into survival for over 10 years now and I got glimpses of it on every trip I was on. But on this trip it kind of all came together for me and snapped into place: “What I used to call survival should actually be called bushcraft.” Survival isn’t about being able to permanently live in the wilderness, or about being comfortable. It’s about not dying and getting back to the safety of civilization. In this article, I want to talk about this important distinction in detail. I want to talk about what survival actually is and what it isn’t. I think this is a very important topic, because many authors, YouTube creators, and TV shows live from spreading this misconception. There is a lot of material floating around that can confuse and potentially harm people.
"What I used to call survival should actually be called bushcraft."
What survival is
If you find yourself in an unexpected situation out in the wilderness, in which you could potentially die, then we are talking about survival. The most typical causes for ending up in a survival situation are getting lost or having an accident during some outdoor activity. But, it could also be car accident, a plane crash, a landslide that cuts off a road, or any other force of nature event.
If you are caught in a true survival situation, your main goals are endurance and exit. Endurance means to maintain your capacity to keep going – to stay alive for as long as possible. Exit means to get out of the dangerous situation, and back to the safety of civilization. There are two ways to exit: (1) to be rescued and (2) to get back to civilization by yourself. Because of number one, you should always inform someone about the details of your trip, before you embark on your trip. Also, consider carrying some device with which you can call for help in an emergency.
Endurance consists of a physical and a mental aspect. The mental aspect basically is to keep your head together so that you can take care of the physical aspect without making mistakes. We won’t go into that any further in this article. The physical aspect has to do with your basic body functions. It is often summarized as the rule of 3’s.
The rule of 3's
You can die in:
3 seconds through panic,
3 minutes without oxygen (major blood loss / suffocation / drowning / allergic reaction / poisoning),
3 hours through temperature (overheating or freezing),
30 hours without sleep (micro-sleeping leads to accidents),
3 days without water,
30 days without food.
If you are in a real survival situation, you have to follow this list of priorities religiously and without exception. And you must only ever spend some of your less valuable resources to secure a need that is higher on your list of priorities. If you are hot, for example, your body sweats to cool you. If you are cold, you should spend some energy to build a fire or to just move your muscles to warm up again. And if you are thirsty, it might be a good idea to expend some calories to go looking for water.
But, the rule of 3’s also entails some less intuitive things: You must not eat anything, unless you have a reliable source of water at hand, because digestion costs your body water. Also, don’t go looking for water unless you are confident that you can find more water than you sweat out while searching. This is particularly true in hot, dry climates like a desert. Likewise, don’t try to find food unless you are confident that you can obtain more calories than you spend gathering, preparing, and digesting your food.
"Once you can regulate your temperature, sleep some hours every day, and maybe have some water, the smartest thing to do is often nothing."
When you get down to the bare essentials, survival is really simple. Once you can regulate your temperature, sleep some hours every day, and maybe have some water, the smartest thing to do is often nothing. Conserve your energy, maximize your endurance. Just lie down and wait to be rescued. Also, you should only try to exit on your own if you are confident that you will succeed. Spending energy walking around aimlessly just reduces your endurance.
What survival isn’t
So now that we know what survival actually is, it is time to bust some myths and explain what it isn’t. Survival isn’t:
Building fancy shelters.
If you are in a true survival situation, make a big pile of leaves (or pine needles or grass or so) and lie in it. You should have about 60cm of leaves or pine needles beneath you, because your weight will crush them down to 30cm. Put about 30cm on top of you, to be well insulated in all directions. That’s your most energy efficient shelter. Everything more is a waste of calories.
Making cordage, weaving baskets, making complicated wooden constructions.
I was quite shocked when I realized on this last trip that you don’t actually need cordage in a survival situation. I have heard it so often, I was sure you need cordage. But go back over the survival priorities and see for yourself. You don’t really need it.
Anything that has to do with fishing, hunting, trapping, foraging wild edibles, etc.
You can survive and function without food for 30 days. If you haven’t made it out by that time, you probably died from some other cause already.
Making pots or containers out of clay, wood, or bark, and tediously boiling water in them.
If you are in a true survival situation, search around, find the best water source you can, and then just drink it. You might get sick, so don’t do this on a regular trip! But when it comes to survival, the bacteria need at least 3 Weeks to build up in your body, and by then you will most likely be either rescued or dead.
Felling, sawing, splitting wood.
If you need a fire, walk until you find an area with a lot of blowdown.
Fire steels and friction fires.
If you can carry a fire steel, then you can carry a lighter. And friction fires take a lot of calories and only work in good conditions and with a lot of training. Just carry a lighter!
"Survival isn’t about trapping, fishing, crafting, lighting friction fires, or having a huge John Rambo survival knife."
Having a lot of fancy, expensive equipment.
You can basically follow your list of priorities and figure out for yourself what equipment you need. You should definitely carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Other than that: your most important survival item are clothes. Always carry proper clothes with you to protect yourself from the elements. Also, take a lighter and some all-weather tinder with you. Next on the list is a device to call for help. And, since they are so small, it doesn’t hurt much to carry a water filter or some water purification tablets as well. That’s it. You don’t need any survival bracelets, crappy survival kits with small fidgety contents, foldable axe heads that you can attach to a stick, survival credit cards with arrowheads you can pop out and a tiny useless blade on the side, freeze dried emergency foods, and also no huge oversized John Rambo survival knife.
Bushcraft / Camping / Adventure
Now a part of you might think: “Fuck you! I like all those things. Who are you to just waltz in here and spoil all my fun?” And you are right, these things are a lot of fun, and I certainly don’t want to spoil it for you. What I do want to say however is that they are not survival. They are bushcraft, or camping, or hunting, or however else you want to call it. They are great opportunities to go on an adventure, and of course, if you go on an adventure, you want to purify your water and eat something. But going on an adventure is not survival. On an adventure, you flirt with danger, but you remain in control of the situation. But as long as you are in control of the situation, it is not really survival. It only becomes survival when you are no longer in control of the situation. And then, it instantly stops being fun and becomes dead serious. In a survival situation, you have to stick to your priorities precisely and without exception. Under those circumstances, most bushcraft skills are an unaffordable luxury.
But if most bushcraft skills have nothing to do with survival, then why are they so often sold as if they did? – This is, because the main product that many of these survival guys sell is not safety, or knowledge, or emergency preparedness, but what they actually sell is an illusion. It is the Robinson Crusoe Illusion – the illusion that you can get lost somewhere in paradisal, untouched nature and build yourself a life there that is far more comfortable and fulfilling than your strenuous life at home. And illusions, in some way, are like drugs. You can, for a moment, forget all the problems of your life and drift off into your paradisal dream world, where you are comfortable and content and don’t really have to struggle or suffer.
"What most survival guys sell you is not safety or emergency preparedness. What they actually sell you is an illusion."
The problem with illusions is however, that they are not real. And you can only ever live in reality. Your body has concrete needs, and if those needs are not met, you die. It is therefore crucially important to resist the temptation of illusions and to strive to see reality as clearly as you can. This holds for life in general, but also just from a strict survival point of view.
Another problem with illusions is that they make you unhappy. If you compare your real life to a paradisal illusion, then you will never be satisfied with your actual life. Your life will seem dull and exhausting, and you won’t even be able to appreciate the good things you have in it. So go on your adventures, go hunting and camping and bushcrafting, just beware that this is not survival. Don’t fall into the Robinson Crusoe illusion. You will be a lot safer and happier that way.