For generations, survival skills were primarily the domain of outdoorsmen, who often learned them from their fathers and honed them through years of experience. It was, as they say, a specialized skill set – one that was off the radar for many non-hunters.
But nowadays, survival skills have become a focus of mainstream entertainment.
Everyone from celebrity experts to naked neophytes are being plopped into extreme environments, where their trials and tribulations are captured by cameras, and the experiences edited into 60-minute tales of human triumph (or failure) due to their mastery (or lack) of survival skills. Our obsession with man-versus-whatever seems to be at a fever pitch.
Whether it’s spurred by a desire to be entertained or a need to feel prepared, there are plenty of reasons why outdoor skills are enjoying increased attention. While many people have experienced the stress of being lost, or coping without power, heat or water, we also witness almost daily media images of more extreme scenarios, such as war, terrorism, catastrophic weather, natural disasters and pandemic diseases.
Depending upon your outlook, you may add even more concerns, from global markets to political uncertainty to meteors. Even zombies, it seems.
No matter what their motivation, more and more people are signing up for classes to learn the type of skills that can help them survive whatever fill-in-the-blank apocalypse may be ahead.
For some, these skills are simply insurance, designed to prepare them for a temporary difficulty, such as a storm taking out road access and electrical power, or getting lost or injured on a remote hike. Such skills will keep people safe and alive until rescue or help arrives. For others, embracing outdoor skills is more of a lifestyle choice.
These survivalists seem to fall along a continuum. At one end are those who look to live in harmony with the environment, minimizing technology while emphasizing primitive skills (bushcraft), sustainability and low impact on the environment. At the other end of the spectrum are those who want to be prepared to survive in a hostile environment, where training, order and vigilance are keys to the new world order.
There is no shortage of schools offering classes in survival skills, and they cover a broad range of instruction and philosophy. Here are just a few examples of the types of schools across the country, a snapshot of their philosophy, and some courses they offer their students:
Boulder Outdoor Survival School
The Boulder Outdoor Survival School, or BOSS, was founded in 1968 by Brigham Young University (BYU) professor Larry Dean Olsen. A lifelong student of primitive survival skills, Olsen began by offering a survival class to a group of BYU students who were teetering on the brink of failure in school.
He felt that testing them physically and mentally in Utah’s challenging desert environment would give the students the opportunity to reconnect, renew and recommit their life’s path.
Since that successful first class, the BOSS has evolved over the past four decades, expanding to other states and now offering multiple wilderness experiences, primitive skills courses and wilderness training.
The main focus has been on teaching students the traditional living skills of ancestral Puebloans, the Navajo, and the Fremont peoples, forging a connection between the ancient world and the lives of modern-day people.
Students must be at least 18 years old to participate in the physically and mentally challenging courses. Fitness is very important, and the website features training guidelines for those considering enrolling in the field courses.
Students range in age from 18-70, with most in their mid-30s. Everyone from students to blue-collar workers, even CEOs of major corporations, have taken on the BOSS challenges.
“We want our students to develop the right mindset, confidence and attitude to succeed even under the harshest wilderness conditions,” said Steve Dessinger, program director at BOSS. “Making a fire from scratch is cool, but making one when exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally, really hits home at the importance of mastering a skill. Any challenge that happens afterwards seems easy.”
Some of the people who come to the BOSS, Dessinger explained, are looking for a more intense, raw outdoor experience than a typical backpacking or hunting trip. Most have some background in the outdoors and want to upgrade their skill set in fire-building, water treatment, shelter-building and bushcraft.
“We also attract people who are at the proverbial fork in the road in life and are looking for some clarity,” Dessinger explained. “Removed from the distraction of everyday life and modern conveniences, many of our participants realize what is truly important to them and either move forward along their original path with a renewed sense of urgency, or find a new path to a new destination. It can be a transformative experience”
The instructors at the BOSS teach hands-on primitive survival skills courses (7-14 days) such as cordage, friction fire, shelter construction, edible plants and flint knapping (rates range from $795 to $2,750). Students enrolled in BOSS field courses spend from seven days ($1,595) up to four weeks ($4,575) in Southern Utah’s mountains, mesas and canyons with little more than a blanket, poncho and knife.
Those taking skills courses can choose flint knapping, bow construction, hunting, pottery, basketry, hide tanning, and map/compass navigation (rates range from $565 to $795).
Zombie Survival Camp
If your idea of survival includes a post-apocalyptic world filled with hordes of the undead, time- traveling cyborg assassins, roving bands of road warriors with punk haircuts or an alien invasion toppling our government, a themed survival camp may be for you.
Many of these camps are based on popular culture films, TV personalities or best-selling books, and have a wide appeal to urbanites. The camps often combine fun with survival skills, disaster preparedness and self-defense.
In 2008, Mark Scelza was watching a zombie movie with friends and wondered, “Could we survive a major disaster such as a zombie outbreak, natural disaster or EMP attack?” After researching, he was frustrated to find that most survival classes focused on bushcraft and surviving in remote locations. There was nothing about surviving in an urban environment similar to where he lived.
Scelza decided to create a camp that taught urban survival skills in a fun, exciting environment. It took almost a year to assemble the right talent and create the zombie-themed curriculum.
“I wanted people to understand that in an urban setting, you are never far away from useful resources to help you survive,” Scelza explained. “People need to recognize and take advantage of these resources to do well during any disaster situation. Why worry about finding the right two sticks to rub when you can find a lighter and matches?”
In the beginning, the Zombie Survival Camp attracted hard-core George Romero-era zombie movie fans, but as the genre soared in popularity with “The Walking Dead” TV series, the typical student became anything but typical. Scelza noted that his customers came from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. Most of his students were in their 30s to early 40s. Most did not have extensive outdoor backgrounds, but all were very interested in learning new skills. He also saw a surge in interest for his camps after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast.
“One of the trends I’ve noticed is that there are a lot more people interested in firearms instruction,” Scelza said. “People want to know they can use a gun, especially since many of them are considering purchasing one for personal defense.”
The other popular activity is shooting the crossbow. Scelza noted that the learning curve is very short compared to a standard bow, and novice shooters can become proficient relatively quickly. His wife, Suzanne, has taught the crossbow to students for more than seven years.
“My wife was teaching crossbows to students in our Zombie Survival Camp long before Darryl on “The Walking Dead” was sticking zombies with them,” Scelza said with a laugh.
The ZSC sessions are either single-day ($179) or weekend events ($450), with training in advanced first-aid techniques, knife throwing, crossbow shooting, fire and water skills, bug-out bag building, firearms training and a martial arts technique called Zombitsu. Day camp attendees must be 15 and older (youths must be accompanied by parent or guardian) and weekend attendees must be 21 and older.
A Homesteading Life
A slightly different twist on survival is reflected in the increasing number of families identifying themselves as homesteaders. This lifestyle believes in the principles of self-reliance and sustainability, but doesn’t reject all the modern conveniences of technology. Many are fans of the organic/slow food movement, and devotees are drawn from urban hipsters, homeschool families and middle-aged couples.
Tom Laskowski’s Midwest Native Skills Institute (MNSI), founded nearly 20 years ago, serves up a mix of survival and practical homesteading skills. Laskowski has built a reputation as a survival instructor, learning from internationally renowned experts like Tom Brown Jr., Errette Callahan, Daniel Firehawk, Del Hall, Robert Berg and Ray Reitze. He’s even served as a consultant on the TV series “Survivor.”
“A lot of my students are middle-aged people with some camping experience that are looking to connect with the skills they remember their grandparents had,” Laskowski said. “They remember their grandmother making dandelion wine, their grandfather knowing which herb was good for headaches and where to find a good snack in the woods.”
Sometimes, Laskowski explained, these skills were lost when immigrants arrived in America and wound up in different jobs and environments. As they embraced new opportunities, some of the old skills of everyday living faded from use and were no longer a part of daily life. As a result, subsequent generations often relied upon purchased goods instead of providing for themselves. If their children could buy herbs, snacks and medicine from a store, there was no need to derive them from nature.
“The elder generation thought they were doing them a favor,” he stated. “But now their descendants are looking to rediscover the culture of their parents and grandparents. That is why we are seeing a surge in people wanting to learn about medicinal plants, making cheese, candles, wine, soap and canning foods, in addition to mastering bushcraft skills that help them reconnect to the wild.”
The MNSI tends to attract middle-aged participants, many of whom want to recapture lost skills for themselves and pass them along to their children and grandchildren. Laskowski has also seen an uptick in young families wishing to save money or gain more control of their diets through homegrown organic food, small-farm livestock, foraging and hunting.
Most MNSI homesteading courses cost $50 to $100. The survival curriculum ($400 to $800) includes a four-tiered course from beginner to advanced, a survival self-defense class, plus desert and winter survival classes. Laskowski notes that his students never have to eat bugs or worms, as he teaches them about much better eating options in the woods.
“The MNSI wants to offer quality, affordable instruction to students,” Laskowski said, “We’ll prepare you not only to ‘survive’ but ‘thrive’ in the event you face a crisis or emergency.”
Everyone needs food, water and shelter to survive, and knowing how to find or create those essentials can be critical skills when things go south. Whether you light your campfire with a firebow or a custom-made fire-steel kit from your bugout bag, having that ability can make all the difference in an emergency.
And for hunters and anglers, who spend much of their time in the outdoors away from people and infrastructure, knowing how to negotiate the natural world can be both a lifestyle and a life-saver.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School
Zombie Survival Camp
Midwest Native Skills Institute