It seems like there's a new survival TV show coming out every month. What is it about this new fascination with wilderness survival, urban survival, or zombie apocalypse survival? These shows can be very informative with lots of detailed information on how to make fire, acquire food, or navigate. However, the information download can also be a trap in that it can have the effect of viewers feeling more prepared than they actually are. Unless you get out and actually put to use what you are "learning" from videos, TV, or books then you're not really learning and it's not that useful. There's a term for the one who watches the shows from the comfort of the living room and comments "I could do that!" It's called "the armchair survivalist".
Do you have Information or Experience?
Maybe you have a bow and an arrow, and you know what a deer is and you've seen their tracks in a field guide. Does this mean you actually know how to get close enough to take a shot without spooking it? Probably not. It takes skills and lots of practice playing "hide and seek" with the deer to get up close to one, but sitting there in the forest within 10 feet of a wild deer who doesn't sense you at all is an incredible feeling. There is no substitute for real experience and no book or video can take you to that place of real knowing.
An Approach to Practicing Survival Skills
My recommendation is to not bite off more than you can chew. I have seen this many times, where someone goes into "full survival" by bringing nothing with them only to be deeply discouraged from ever attempting surviving in the wild again. Instead, take it in steps and practice one thing at a time. For example, leave your matches at home and bring a bowdrill, or make one out there. Next time, build a shelter but use a match for your fire. Start with what can give you success as the more successes you'll have the more proud of yourself you'll be and the more excited you'll be to go back and step up to the next level. Hmmm, is this useful when teaching others these skills? Absolutely. Set your students up for success at first. When there's a failure... pick the situation apart like a detective and learn from it.
What's most Important in Survival?
4 things to consider in a survival situation, whether it's self-imposed or an unintended circumstance, is that you may need Shelter, Water, Fire, and Food. This is not new information to you if you've read up on survival skills. Shelter can be the most important because you can die from exposure in just a few hours, while one can live without food for several weeks. However, it all depends on your situation and the conditions that you're in. Even though food is last in the survival order it can be the trickiest to acquire. Think about it, your shelter may take you from an hour to half a day to build but it won't run away from you and neither will your fire (well hopefully your fire won't get away into the forest!). Food, however, may have legs or wings or slither or crawl and this is what becomes the greatest challenge, in my opinion. You must decide which food resources are worth the caloric effort to go after. Here's a link to an excellent BLOG article on what it takes to keep yourself alive as far as caloric input. It's definitely worth consideration.
Side Note: If you are "practicing" survival and are bringing items with you here's one item to consider putting in your pack. 1 tablespoon of coconut oil has as many calories as a red squirrel and the oil can be eaten raw or used in cooking, and it's cholesterol and trans-fat free.
There is a survival fantasy that often hits the beginner and that is that I can just go out into any wilderness area and surthrive indefinitely. Having attempted this myself numerous times over the years I can share a few things that I've learned from such an adventure. (I should also note that if you feel this desire then by all means go out and do it. You will learn a heck of a lot about nature and yourself.) One thing I've learned is to choose the area where I will go into survival carefully. There are places out there where one would starve to death and there are places out there where one, or many people, could surthrive. Knowing the difference is a skill that the ancient scouts of tribal times were good at deciphering. A tribe of people wouldn't just pick a place at random, it had to have certain resources to make it ideal. So why should you just pick a place at random?
The other part of the fantasy that I've seen is the belief that I won't have to do much work because I'm surrounded by everything that I need. While it may be correct to assume that you are surrounded by the resources you need to survive it still takes a lot of focus, awareness, energy, and hard work to meet your basic needs... especially in the first 3 days. This is because in the first 3 days you are making your shelter and fire and securing a water source among other things. However, once you have shelter, fire, and a water source you are set in those areas so you can spend the rest of your time finding food. I have seen, more than once, a group of people going into a survival trip and essentially "shutting down" within the first 24-48 hours. Most people aren't prepared mentally to do the work it may take in those first days without having much water or any food intake. This is something you can practice. Just start with fasting for a day and building a natural shelter in your backyard during your fast. See how that feels. Then next time try it with only a quart of water intake for the day. (note: if you're feeling extremely tired, weak, or concerned about your health and well-being then by all means end your fast and attempt again another day)
So then what does it take to actually survive? It takes gathering real experiences and tested skills. It takes the eye of the tracker or scout for seeing into the landscape for the resources that are available or not available. It takes knowing the seasonal changes and the opportunities that arise. It takes having a realistic and honest view of yourself and the natural world. And most importantly, it takes having a mental state that will enable you to overcome the stress and fatigue and instead to focus on the adventure, the lessons, and your purpose for living and why you want to be a master survivalist.
(Remember, other people are resources too and having a tribe, village, or community can make survival much easier and more enjoyable)