Wilderness Doesn’t Always Mean Wild: The All-Around Benefits of Survival Education
This holiday season, consider the gift of outdoor preparedness.
When I told friends I’d be attending a wilderness survival class in Brooklyn’s very busy, very urban Prospect Park, laughter was almost a reflex. And sure, okay, I get why—the borough’s bustling version of Central Park, here sunny Sundays are packed with picnickers, pee-wee soccer games, and, on this particular weekend, a breast cancer awareness march. There’s a skating rink, a pond just for four-legged friends, and it’s not unusual to see unicyclists having their way with the bike path. Which is all to say: It’s not somewhere you would typically go to hone your rugged outdoor skills.
And yes, I rolled up with an oat milk latte, and yes, when they said to bring your wilderness essentials, the only Swiss Army Knife I owned came equipped with a corkscrew and a special blade for cutting cheese. But ease and accessibility was kind of the point—this class, produced by REI, was designed for the enthusiastic outdoor beginner, the type of person that itches to delve into nature but lacks the proper groundwork and knowledge to be sufficiently prepared should something go wrong. Which, these days, turns out to be a lot more people than in pre-pandemic times. As more newbies explore the outdoors—great!—backcountry rescues are on the rise, putting pressure on search and rescue teams to the point where some states are fining those that disregard the rules. Not great.
But there’s no shame in not knowing. REI’s basic preparedness classes, each typically four hours long, focus on education and building enough confidence that if things go haywire, even if you don’t know exactly what to do, you know the steps to get there. At the very least, you don’t panic. Because ultimately, these classes are about outdoor accessibility, and being trained in wilderness survival techniques allows you to head into less trodden territories without any need for infrastructure. In this day and age, it’s the ultimate method of travel.
Luckily for everyone involved, a heightened interest in getting outdoors has prompted an increased demand for wilderness preparedness classes. “I've had everyone from experienced backpackers to people new to hiking, from teens to retirees, and from all cultural, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds,” says David Yen, an REI guide in the Bay Area. “I’ve even taught the program custom tailored for a 12-year-old’s birthday party.”
During lockdown, Alderleaf Wilderness College in Monroe, Washington saw enrollment in their online wilderness survival skills course skyrocket. “We had about 1100 students go through our online survival course,” says co-founder and director Jason Knight, a number that amounts to four times the attendance before COVID-19 touched down. With more in-depth offerings, Alderleaf’s clientele also runs the gamut, from beginners to doomsday preppers to those whose careers involve weathering the wild elements. Once in-person classes were allowed again, attendance grew to 50 % more than in pre-pandemic times, which allowed the college to add more specialized classes, like mushroom foraging.
Though hands-on experience is always preferred, intensive survival classes tend to be pricey, and some, like Alderleaf, most likely require setting aside a chunk of time and flying to another state. However, Knight also preaches accessible education. In an effort to get the word out to those who might not be able to join the team in-person, he released the handbook The Essential Skills of Wilderness Survival just this year. And much like REI’s extensive list of free online tutorials, Alderleaf also offers articles, a blog, and a webinar on the house.
From reality show to reality
Coexisting with nature is in the recesses of our DNA, of course, and still the current mode in which some Indigenous populations thrive. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that these first skills were being formally taught in a survival school setting. In the 1990s when Jason Knight started teaching, there were hardly any at all. “All we had were some older field guides on survival,” he recalls. “If you told folks that you were passionate about wilderness survival skills, they’d look at you kinda funny and not really understand what you were talking about.”
But then, in the year 2000, a little reality television show named Survivor hit the airwaves. A social experiment combining strangers, wilderness (or, rather, staged “wilderness”) and good old-fashioned drama, it was a formula for success.
Over two decades later, there are Survivor iterations everywhere from New Zealand to South Africa, and soon a UK reboot, all bringing outdoor skills to the masses while making them feel familiar and doable. In 2020, Survivor’s parent company CBS also mandated that its cast—and the cast of all its reality shows—be 50 % BIPOC, in a small win for representation in the outdoor industry.
Since that first episode of Survivor, there have been countless shows in the same vein, from Man vs Wild to Snowflake Mountain to Survivorman to Naked and Afraid to Alaska: The Last Frontier to Ultimate Survival: Alaska… you get the picture.
"...in a real survival situation, your most pressing issues are hypothermia and dehydration."
And then there’s the History Channel’s hit Alone, one of the top streaming shows on Netflix, which seems to defy the odds of what makes good television. Here, vetted survival experts are dropped into the wild, ahem, alone, with the goal of surviving longer than their fellow outdoorsmen. It feels pure—prior to the first season they didn’t even know there was a cash prize. There is no human interaction, yet it’s perhaps the most human show on television. Anyone can win, from burly ex-military men to wily PhD candidates, as long as they have the skills. Particularly foraging and hunting skills.
“The folks who make it to the end are the folks that not only have the core skills of survival down, but also have additional skills on finding food,” says Knight. “Because in a real survival situation, your most pressing issues are hypothermia and dehydration, and if you can address those, then you can live for many weeks before starvation becomes an issue.”
Those of us watching at home from our couches may not ever have to build a shelter to withstand months of harsh weather, vacate an area because of the threat of a wild animal, or determine which leaves won’t give us a rash when we use them to wipe our asses. But being hungry? That’s something we can all relate to. That, and the crushing weight of loneliness, which goes a long way in explaining Alone’s massive popularity. As episodes progress and contestants drop out, the show becomes a meditation on life itself—many contestants give up just because they realize they miss people. No matter what the cash prize, they’d rather not be alone.
But, that prize can also be a hefty motivator. At one point, it was an incredible $1 million dollars. Off the screen, landing a spot on the show became something of an aspiration, which meant more clients for survival schools. “We get plenty of people where that’s one of their goals, to get on one of these survival shows,” says Knight, who has consulted on shows like Dual Survival and Naked and Afraid, which filmed part of one episode on Alderleaf’s campus.
People training for more intense shows like Alone enlist Alderleaf to brush up on advanced skills, augmenting what they already know to give them a competitive edge. “They want to make sure they’re able to make shelters and fires so they can stay warm and not succumb to hyperthermia,” says Knight. “They want to make sure they can purify their water correctly so they’re not gonna get sick, and oftentimes, they’re trying to build up their foraging skills so they can identify a wider range of wild edible plants and also some wildlife tracking skills.”
He points to a contestant that won Alone because he was able to bag a moose and live off its meat, a feat that seemed like luck to the average viewer. But the experienced outdoorsman knows it takes a lot more than luck. “He actually lived with hunter-gatherer people in Siberia for years,” Knight explains. “Being able to get a moose has to do with your tracking skills, recognizing their footprints and other signs they leave behind, understanding the animal's biology and ecology, its habits and habitats, and putting yourself in the right place and right time. There’s a lot that goes into that.”
Survival of the smartest
These days, there is a direct link between the popularity of survival shows and the proliferation of wilderness survival schools. “When I started, there were just five to 10 survival schools in the entire country; now there’s about five to 10 in every state,” says Knight. And it’s a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to educating the public. On the plus side, the shows bring awareness to the value of wilderness skills and engaging with nature, but on the downside, they give false confidence to those who’ve never actually been out in the wild. As is the nature of television, sensationalism equals good ratings, but not necessarily good etiquette—or even choices that make sense.
“A lot of times what makes these programs captivating TV isn’t necessarily good survival advice,” says Knight. Running through the dark because you think there might be a bear in the area? Not a good idea. “You’re probably gonna injure yourself, poke out your eye, twist an ankle,” says Knight. And while it’s a great visual, it’s never a good idea to jump off a cliff into a raging river. “It’s gonna make you more hypothermic. You don’t know how deep that water is, and if it’s a shallow river, you could kill yourself.”
"A lot of times what makes these programs captivating TV isn’t necessarily good survival advice."
In fact, a lot of survival tactics are actually quite boring, a lot of waiting in place for search and rescue to find you. “So many survival situations, you just went out for a short hour hike or just stepped a little ways off the trail to pick some mushrooms and, next thing you know, you’re turned around,” says Knight. “That’s what defines survival situations, because you didn’t expect to be in it.”
To this end, Alderleaf’s philosophy is less about viewing the wilderness as something to conquer and more about stewardship and preparedness.
“I think that our lack of connection with nature leads to so many difficulties, whether it’s loss of persons or folks having a hard time with natural disasters,” Knight explains. “We want these skills out in the world because not only is it helpful to the individual, it’s helpful as a country. If we’re more connected to nature, we’ll appreciate it more and we’ll want to do a better job of taking care of it for future generations.”
Wilderness survival skills also enriches our experience in the outdoors, no matter where that outdoors happens to be. A hike becomes more than just getting from point A to point B—it’s a chance to interact with your surroundings and realize your place in the ecosystem. “Hiking through a park or along a trail may look like a wall of plants and trees, but once you learn what those plants and trees are and how they can support your needs, either with a friction fire making kit or as something you can eat, you suddenly feel more a part of your environment,” says Knight. “These species of plants and trees become like your friends and allies, and you’re excited to see them.”
And of course, you come away with a few party tricks. Perhaps the most impressive—and sought-after—is how to make a fire. That’s usually the highlight of the course. “I think it’s captured really well in that movie Castaway with Tom Hanks,” says Knight. “When you make your own kit from dead branches and you use friction to create an ember and blow that ember into flame without any lighters or matches or anything, it’s an incredibly empowering feeling.”
Less concrete, more jungle
Perusing the materials, what becomes apparent is that these skills aren’t just limited to the outdoors—and that’s something that a new demographic of survival enthusiasts have recently latched onto. Fueled by their concern that climate change will eventually destroy our creature comforts, it might be easy to dismiss these newcomers as paranoid, but at this point, it’s just practical.
We’ve already seen evidence via wildfires, droughts, and destructive storms. After Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in 2012, lights, heat, phones, and the internet crashed in its wake. Even the subways shut down.
“Most people just want peace of mind to be more prepared for when they are in the backcountry, but many also want to be a step ahead for natural disasters and the like, like if the power goes out, or if grocery stores run out of food,” says Knight. “There is a lot of crossover between urban emergency prep and backcountry wilderness survival,” echoes Yen. “And the mentality-slash-philosophy and skills I teach are applicable to just about any situation you might encounter.”
It’s knowing you should boil water if there’s been an earthquake or hurricane and the water system has been compromised. And if your stove no longer works, it’s knowing how to use a camp stove to cook or how to build a fire from scratch to create heat. It’s knowing how to identify an evacuation plan and—in extreme situations—what wild edible plants you can forage from nearby parks.
It’s also having backups when the things you’ve come to depend on fail. Like cell phones, devices that are fallible both in and out of the wilderness. “It’s like a lot of things with technology—it’s great that we have smartphones now that have built-in GPS and maps and communication ability,” says Knight. “Oftentimes people feel overconfident going into the woods, not realizing they could end up out of cell range, or the battery dies, or the phone breaks, or they forget it. It’s just as important to have an actual map, a compass, and some skills.”
Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn…
After tromping through Prospect Park’s freshly mown grass in absurdly overconfident shoes (we were also also told to wear hiking boots), we sat down while our REI instructor Kate Thompson—a medical anthropologist studying the hunting habits of Indigenous communities in Madagascar—went over what everyone was supposed to pack. It’s called the 10 Essentials, a list that’s been evolving since the 1930s and, spoiler alert, a corkscrew and cheese knife... did not make the cut. What was on the list, all conveniently available on the REI website: a first aid kit, emergency shelter, extra layers, sun protection, something to start a fire, hydration, extra food, illumination, an equipment repair kit, and navigation tools.
Thompson then outlined practical tips for getting out on the trail, like always telling someone where you’re going, and leaving some indication of your destination in the windshield of your car, if you drove. And–and!—signing in on the trail book. It’s apparently not just a glorified yearbook, but leaves a paper trail of your whereabouts.
We discussed how to prioritize needs in a rescue situation and how to find and purify water (tip: don’t use the water from the dog pond). There was a briefing on the updated Leave No Trace principles—to avoid water contamination, they now recommend packing everything out—a briefing on knots, and instructions on how to make a bear hang.
Later, we suspended our disbelief and made our way to a patch of “wilderness” in the park to practice building an emergency shelter. We gathered up all the dry branches and hefty twigs and created a lean-to against a fallen tree. Twigs must be tightly stacked; the point is to keep the wind out when sleeping overnight.
In the middle of all this, another student got a BeReal notification. It was pretty perfect timing: Some of us were criss-crossing twigs up in a square formation to create an effective base for a fire, while others were practicing creating sparks with a ferro rod. We struck the rod, then struck a pose. Good thing in this wilderness, we still had plenty of 5G.