How to become a Survival Expert: by James Mandeville



By U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Glenna D. Dixon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many people have written to me over the past few months asking how one becomes a survival expert. First of all, it has to be said that the term "survival expert" is a self-styled title. There is no career or profession giving recognised qualifications that enables one to become a survival expert, nor are there (to my knowledge) any jobs advertised for survival experts! The term was coined long before Discovery Channel TV started promoting its survival programmes and long before the world heard of documentary actors like Bear Grylls, Ray Mears or Les Stroud etc.

So, how does one become a survival expert? In this article I look at various ways a person can become proficient and then expert in survival:
  • Military survival training undoubtedly gives an excellent grounding in the subject, coupled with extensive and realistic practical experience.

  • Various courses have sprung up offering skills training in "Bushcraft".

  • The third route is to personally study everything available on the subject and practice survival skills in a non-threatening environment.

Military survival training

In the Army I qualified as a survival instructor, (at that time, Bear Grylls was around 10 years old, Les Stroud was 24 and Ray Mears was 21). Instructors were classified as experts in jungle warfare and survival, Arctic warfare and survival, etc. Training in different aspects of warfare in different biomes enabled one to clock up a vast amount of survival knowledge. Training Special Forces personnel in survival provided a unique opportunity to combine all these survival skills to train military personnel who may have to operate in extreme conditions anywhere in the world. It was at this time I first heard the term "survival expert" mentioned. Survival instructors who were multi-disciplined in several areas of survival were termed, "Survival Experts" because of their extensive knowledge and experience.

Closely linked to survival training is Escape and Evasion (E&E) training, the type of training given to aircrews and soldiers who may have to operate behind enemy lines (a sniper, for example). E&E training works on the premise that the person not only has to survive, but also to escape, and in the process gather intelligence on the way.

Military training may also cover survival at sea, which is completely different set of survival kills from survival on land.

People who have been through advanced survival training in the military and then gone on to further develop survival skills, put these into practice in the real world and have years of experience in the area can be rightly called survival experts.

Bushcraft survival training

The term Bushcraft was probably first publicised by Ernest Favenc in his book, The History of Australian Exploration from 1788 to 1888; published in 1888. Bushcraft is about surviving in the wild using ancient skills for catching animals as food and for clothing, foraging, making fire, making tools, weapons and implements from natural materials and making shelter. All the life-skills necessary for everyday survival in the wilderness (as used even today by many aboriginal and native peoples around the world) form the basis of what we term "Bushcraft".

Without doubt, mastering all these bushcraft skills enhances anyone's chances of surviving in the wilderness. Many of bushcraft skills are the same as the skills taught to the military as survival skills. The difference being that bushcraft enthusiasts often travel out into wilderness areas to deliberately use their skills to live in the wild, whereas, the survival skills taught to the military are more designed for people suddenly cut off from civilization for a short period of time until they can escape or be rescued. Military survival training often has a covert edge to it. The reasons for needing survival or life-skills are different, but many of the actual survival techniques used are similar.

Anyone who can survive in the wild by hunting, foraging, using natural medicines, making fire and shelter for a protracted time can call themselves a survival expert in my view. A person with bushcraft skills would have an equally good chance of survival as a military trained survival expert if caught up in an unexpected survival situation than meant living off the land in a biome in which they were familiar. Bushcraft implies wilderness survival; bushcraft training does not usually include survival at sea, in jungle, the Polar Regions or deserts, whereas military survival training does include these biomes.

There are many centres of excellence where bushcraft skills can be learned under the guidance of expert instructors. For example, in the UK, Woodsmoke>. If you can recommend other centres based on personal experience, please contact me.

Self-instruction survival training

Is it possible to learn sufficient about survival techniques to become expert in survival through self study? Well it is, but is must be a hard and long route to follow. The danger in learning about survival by reading up on it, watching videos etc., is that the knowledge is purely passive; it is vitally important to practise survival skills. Making fire, for example, is not as easy as it looks and this is the sort of skill you need to try out in a variety of weather situations. Making traps requires a lot of practice, as does knapping flint to make stone tools and weapons. Nothing is as easy in a real disaster situation as it is make to look in a book. "Practice makes perfect," and a survival instructor to help you will save hours of wasted time.

What makes a survival expert? You need the following as a minimum:
  • The ability to think ahead and anticipate how events may impact on one's current situation;

  • the ability to think quickly, and together with this, the ability to act decisively and appropriately;

  • have the will to survive, which means knowing your own psyche and how to deal with it under duress;

  • owning some basic survival equipment, which requires some forward planning and preparation;

  • the ability to improvise, which some people are better at than others but it is possible to train oneself to improvise to a certain degree;

  • the will to live, to start life afresh with all that entails;

  • A wealth of knowledge and experience about how to survive in the wild in different biomes.
© James Mandeville Sept. 2011 (Revised Dec. 2012).

[Home]