I Took a Hardcore Wilderness Survival Course. Here’s What I Learned About the Personal Aspect of Survival
by Fabian Ommar
Last month I took part in a wilderness survival course under the guidance of a professional ex-military specialized in forest operations. I promised Daisy that I’d start putting on paper everything worth sharing once I returned. Here’s the first installment for The Organic Prepper community. Next time I’ll talk more about the practical aspects of the course.
I met a team of real-life Rambos
For decades, this group of instructors have been in the Amazon forest and swamps, deserts, and other types of environment, training, and actual combat missions. They are very experienced in wilderness survival, a team of rough and highly skilled guys.
In all this time doing various outdoor activities, I’ve met some very capable buschcrafters and wilderness specialists, from whom I learned a lot.
But, these folks are actually capable of living in the outdoors for an extended period. They can supply their basic needs and avoid dangers that would kill an average person in a short time, depending on the circumstances. All that with just a survival knife. They were also soldiers and thus possess solid combat skills.
We talked about survival, nature, and prepping
As for our group, we were a mixed bag of adventurers (trekkers, backpackers, wild campers), a couple of executives, and a few airsoft and paintball players. Some were into prepping and survivalism, in various degrees and levels of experience.
Each night we gathered around the campfire to chat before bedtime. (Figuratively speaking, as there were no beds to sleep on). I was able to take notes and collect ideas and perspectives. I’m aware of group dynamics from my own urban survival mentoring activities. But it’s always refreshing and inspiring to participate in a different exercise in a contrasting setting. We learn a lot from these experiences.
I started the course with an open mind, absorbing everything, paying attention to the topics discussed and the entire group’s psychology. All the while trying to keep up with the practical classes and exercises in deep forest survival. Which, as expected, were challenging and demanding. (I was still recovering from an accident that broke both of my arms the month prior).
Survival has a starting point
Intuitively, this is on the mind of everyone who’s into prepping. After all, most people prepare to raise their baseline to shorten the distance between shock and reaction. It plays on all levels: the individuals and their communities and society as a whole. And each level influences the other, too – everything is connected).
Residents from different places will deal with disasters and changes in their environment (or context) differently because not everyone is at the same level of preparedness when something hits. But by that, I don’t mean preparation due to a structured discipline or training. But rather from actually living in different economic, political, and social contexts.
Different standards of living entail different levels of preparedness
That’s why variations in inflation, homelessness, joblessness and other social indicators (specifically crime and violence) have one impact in a place like Switzerland, Japan, or New Zealand, and another in Haiti or Venezuela.
On a smaller scale, we’re also constantly reminded that people living in rural or remote areas are more used to the toiling necessary for basic survival. They’re closer to the production of everything consumed (i.e., more connected to the earth). Therefore, less softened by the full spectrum of conveniences and comforts afforded by The Grid, as present in big centers.
Finally, on an even smaller scale (the local community, families, and the individual), this dynamic also occurs. This realization is important because it follows that starting from a higher level is possible (and desirable), regardless of where one lives or what kind of life one leads. That’s why prepping, training, and experiencing situations are essential.
Going beyond the theory and out of the comfort zone. When it comes to surviving a disaster or other SHTF, this could make a difference.
Confidence comes with experience
As expected, the instructors were very confident. That comes from years of training and real-life action, trial and error, thousands of minor and major lessons learned many times the hard (and painful) way. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. At the same time, they were very humble in the face of nature, and above all, very conscious and respectful of their limitations.
This combination is powerful, and I’d say it’s one of the main ingredients of survival. It applies to all scenarios, and in fact, it applies to everything in life: a job, career, relationships, any endeavor. And that’s one advantage in being a prepper: the “always learning” approach is a winner.
Absolute confidence is also calming and inspiring
That’s why people follow good leaders. Someone who had the discipline and resolution to put in the work, the time, the sweat, and the sacrifices necessary to achieve something may not have all the answers but is flexible enough to embrace the unknown, the new, and thrive.
It’s perfectly fine to feel insecure at times. No one is 100% confident all the time or about everything (that would be arrogance). Work on your skills, be aware of your limitations, but above all, keep a fresh and open approach to be able to deal with fluid and shifting situations.
Survival is about expanding, knowing our limits and respecting them
Preparations are important, but it’s one side of the equation. Equally important is knowing and respecting our limits. Our actual limits being intellectual, physical, mental, and psychological. We can (and should) test and expand our limits. But there’s a practical limit, and it’s essential to know and respect it, so we don’t put ourselves in danger inadvertently.
Life doesn’t care and will throw challenges at us regardless of how prepared we are, what we think our limits are – and we have to deal with it.
Bravado has no place during SHTF
The instructors warned us on the dangers of playing hero, acting reckless, stupid, or unaware.
That echoes what Selco constantly mentions and the many stories of average people using smarts to overcome the odds, the improbable. If we look at the history of disaster and survival, heroes can die quickly, and cowards can survive. That is a generalization and an oversimplification of the issue, of course.
Real heroes are not only strong, brave, and fearless. And cowards are not exclusively the spineless, scared, and weak either. It’s a lot more nuanced than that.
Surviving has nothing to do with courage and bravery, and much less with bravado. It is more related to patience, observation, good sense, spirit. There’s still a lot one can do that is not dependent on high strength, agility, or youth, and this is what we have to learn about ourselves and work within our limitations.
Survival is only possible in a community or group
Even the instructors admitted that living alone in the wilderness would be very hard in the long term. And if there’s ever been a bunch capable of actually doing that, it’s these folks. Survival, they certified, is a team endeavor, confirming the Lone Wolf Survivalist lifestyle is more of a glorious fantasy.
But what struck me was their sense of purpose in becoming a prepper. The instructors asked why we prepare, and most replies were along the lines of self-sufficiency and reliance, greater confidence and independence, having some peace of mind, and so on. Of course, being prepared for disasters and difficult situations is a prominent, logical reason.
Selco, Toby and Daisy discuss survival communities and related topics in this on-demand webinar “SELCO: Survival Communities.”
Prepping should be more communal
Later they asked why people go to school and pursue a career (those who do, of course). Again most answers followed the ideals of making a living, supporting themselves and a family, being financially independent, etc. Everyone knew where he was going with this, and the connection became obvious.
Being from the military, their sense of duty for the good and safety of community and the nation is usually more prevalent than for the average folk. We talk about prepping as a way to lessen the burden on the system if SHTF occurs. That’s right, so it is.
But prepping should be viewed as more communal and less individual, a way to contribute to a community.
In practice, it is. But in a more profound sense, preparing and developing survival skills is asking to become productive for extraordinary situations. It’s just a different set of collaborative skills. I always thought like that for my job, my profession: to be a useful citizen. But I took that, and now it has become another philosophy backing up my prepping (the other is Stoicism).
At one point, thriving becomes necessary for survival
Surviving short, mid, and long term is entirely different. That may seem obvious. But what many preppers miss is that after some time (which may vary with the circumstances and the personal context), progressing becomes necessary for survival.
The instructors illustrated this by referring to the pioneers, who could only survive by thriving, which comes naturally. After all, this is a human trait. Or it doesn’t come at all. At which point the drive to survive may cease, and the will to live abandoned. In his own words, if we don’t move forward, we go backward.
Many real-life survival stories back this up, and my experience with the homeless do too. It shows how goal-setting, higher aspirations, and the inherently human desire to improve conditions despite circumstances are essential. The body follows the mind, and the mind must go somewhere higher. Overcoming immediate threats is vital. But reflecting and having a plan in place for mid-and-long term survival is, in fact, critical.
One night someone asked if we believed the s**t would hit the fan soon and what kind of SHTF it would be. I thought to myself, “more serious than a global pandemic and an economic depression?” I can’t recall every answer, of course, but the overall tone of the conversation revealed a high level of apprehension. It reminded me of the article I wrote about prepping anxiety.
I decided to dive in and probe the afflictions of the group, to try and come out with a conclusion.
It’s not that they were waiting for a disaster. But it’s also not uncommon for preppers to fantasize about SHTF. When someone invests time, money, and sweat into something, this person will at some point look forward to putting it all to use. Sure enough, some want to say “I told you so” or “I was right.” But in reality, being right about or calling SHTF is tantamount to defeat, a Pyrrhic victory.
Be careful what you wish for
Sometimes I take someone for mentoring, and early on, it becomes evident that the person longs for something to happen so he/she can put their skills, knowledge, and gear to the test. SHTF looks easy from the comfort of home and the safety of a computer screen. They soon change once they experience real SHTF (in this case, life in the streets and the reality of the homeless, crime, and violence). Because real SHTF is smelly, dirty, unhealthy, sad, and dangerous. (That’s not even the worse of it.)
Visualizing situations is a way to build awareness, tactical sense and to help with preparing. Using visualization to improve is beneficial. Wishing things go down the drain to prove a theory or measure oneself, not so much.
Prepping is serious. SHTF is serious. Sometimes we try to lighten up the debate, but in the end, disasters do happen, and SHTFs are ugly. Anyone who’s ever experienced SHTF can attest to that. Whether a local event (a tornado, earthquake, a coup or invasion, a landslide) or a more widespread catastrophe. In a nuclear accident, a war, or a pandemic like the one we’re living through, people get sick, die or lose everything: their homes, possessions, friends and loved ones. Survival is not a sport or a game.
We must prepare for the worse but always hope for the best – and only for the best.
Have you ever attended an in-person survival course? Did you enjoy it? What did you take away from it? Let’s talk about it in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor