Survival means different things to different people. To some, it’s a series of preparations for some future cataclysmic event; others, a realization of the unsustainability of many of today’s practices or a return to the simpler, more natural ways of life. In that vein, survival includes primitive living skills and bushcrafting. All of these view points are ok and ones that I agree with when it comes to more primitive, sustainable living. A military definition of survival is simpler; boiling our needs down, actual survival means one thing- staying alive to be recovered. For the vast majority out there, meeting any and all of these needs begins and ends with buying a bunch of stuff and putting it in a bag, rarely if ever testing the gear itself or most importantly, themselves. Effective training gives us a different perspective; what we carry on our bodies, our first line gear, should be able to sustain us until rescue.
Combat arms soldiers are taught the process of layering equipment- a first, second and third line– which support our mission both individually and as a team. The third line is our ruck sack with mission-specific equipment, the second, our fighting load. In dire straits these two are expendable. The first line gear is a set of items worn on the body always which keep us alive until we link up with friendly forces. It is a concept that serves anyone into wilderness and outdoors living quite well when the unexpected happens.
In training we first establish a baseline and then create standards to meet them. If it’s small unit tactics, that begins with individual skills including quiet movement, observation, land navigation and marksmanship graduating to team formations and battle drills. If it’s communications, we first create competent operating skills then move into basic radio theory. With survival, it’s focusing on individual sustainment skills to keep you alive and successfully rescued. No matter what your fantasy is about ‘bugging out’ , the reality is you’re not going to last long in the wild without a prior skillset, a few basic items, and someone there to eventually recover you. If the world has become upside down and you find yourself in a real-deal survival situation, the first goal is rescue and everything you do between the time of the incident and getting rescued is geared towards keeping you alive.
Survival Rule of Threes
The general survival rule of thumb is the rule of threes:
- 3 minutes without oxygen
- 3 hours in a severe environment without shelter
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food.
While its physiologically correct, the rule leaves out the psychological factors which cause the bad decisions ending up in a tragic story. Shelter from exposure has far more to do with hypothermia than simple bush living; we have to insulate our bodies from a change in temperature which leads to hypothermia. This can set in even in relatively warm temperatures. Thirst can make a human do some strange stuff, ranging from a short temper to a complete lack of awareness, and depending on fitness level can set in within a matter of hours. Starvation can play havoc on our brains as well- normally within a few hours our decision making process reverts to finding calories after we find water. But you can make it– as long as you keep the objective of recovery in mind.
First Line Gear: What’s In My Kit?
Students who’ve taken the RTO and Scout Course with me know that I emphasize many follow on skills beyond the scope of the course itself. The planning process, coordinating between multiple elements, and most important for small groups, successful link ups are all touched on throughout the hands on exercises. Personnel recovery is a huge topic which gets no emphasis in civilian side tactical training anywhere that I’ve seen, for a lot of reasons, and it’s a skill that will make a world of difference in a group’s preparedness plan. If you’re not including a plan to recover your people when your original plan goes wrong (and it will), you’re failing your people and living in a delusion. And training effectively for a personnel recovery plan begins with selecting proper tools for the task.
A well rounded first line kit addresses all of the needs of the survival rule of threes listed above. Space blankets are an excellent item that no kit should be without. The issue with exposure is hypothermia; while building shelters is great for comfort, we may need to get warm now, as in right now, to prevent going into shock and losing heat, which can pretty much be a death sentence. Shock is normally associated with physical trauma but can also be a result of mental trauma as well- bewilderment being a definite cause. The space blanket itself makes for a great ground layer to reflect body heat once we build a better bush shelter. The next items need to be both a container and means to purify water- chlorine or iodine tabs are fast and simple requiring no extra effort. A small mylar bag can serve as a temporary water container if you have no other option.
Fire is an important part of survival not just for the prevention of hypothermia but also for making smoke signals. I always carry a magnesium bar with ferro rod for building a fire. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one on the market to buy, and it’s the official issue one made by Doan. All of the others I’ve used from the Harbor Freight checkout special to the imitations on Amazon are all junk compared to the official issue model. The biggest difference is in the magnesium itself; the others are frustratingly bad to light when the chips are down. Doan is far easier and much more effective and its made in the US.
Another item worth it’s tiny weight in gold is the signal mirror. There’s many on the market, and most are pretty much the same. The pilot’s issue model is made of glass and while great, it can chip or get damaged. Polycarbonite models are a little better because they’re shatterproof. Sometimes you’ll see these referenced as starflash mirrors, and teams in the field use them to hail one another in order to establish near and far recognition signals, in addition to signaling aircraft for recovery. One other reason I carry a mirror is when you’re out in the bush getting stuff stuck in our face and eyes happens pretty frequently. Having a mirror on hand just makes good sense.
It goes without saying that you need a compass to navigate- while it’s good to know how to navigate by the sun and stars, nothing beats having a reliable compass on hand. I’ll always run my old Cammenga tritium lensatic compass- they work, plain and simple. I’ve carried a few different ones over the years but each still glows and works within the 2 degree accuracy threshold. That said, when I have the option, I carry two. A small Suunto baseplate compass is an excellent backup and I have no problem using one as an alternative to my combat-proven lensatic. But why Suunto? Because they’re the last baseplate compass I know of that hasn’t sold out to China, still building quality products in Finland. And while I’ve got similar compasses from Silva and Brunton, none of them match the quality of Suunto.
The last two items are for sustainment- a crevat and a 400 grit diamond sharpening plate. The crevat serves many functions past being a wound dressing or sling; it’s also a water filter, a rag to wipe my face and hands, and a head covering for basic camouflaging my head and shoulders or protection from the sun. The diamond stone is a quick and simple sharpener in the field. Your knife will take damage and keeping a good edge is imperative. It’s actually surprising to me how many people I come across who have a hard time sharpening, but the diamond plate makes it fairly simple with any type of steel; from 1075 to 154CM; and with a coarse enough grit to repair edge damage from digging, banging on rocks, battoning, or any of the other tasks your survival knife might be called upon to do. But why the diamond plate instead of a stone? Because the stone will break when you least expect it to- I’ve done it more than once in the field- in addition to a small stone being dangerous to use on a large knife when you’re cold, tired and wet. The metal plate may bend, but it won’t break and the diamond grit won’t get clogged with swarf if used dry. Further, some steels are a lot harder to sharpen than others, but diamond grit does a pretty good job on the widest variety out there.
Together with a long run of cordage, and aside from a good knife, this makes up my first line kit. Students coming to the first line class are issued this kit as part of the curriculum, getting familiar with the use of the items in a practical setting. Once the class is done the kit is yours to keep and use. It’s nothing fancy and there’s no gimmicks, just lessons and skills how to stay alive until a successful recovery, in an environment which will get you outside of your comfort zone with tools to get you there. There’s a class right around the corner with a couple of spots left. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.