“This is for you?” the sales clerk asked as I discreetly pushed the magazine toward the cash register.
Having to crouch in front of the “guns and ammo” section of the newsstand was bad enough–people pretended not to notice me leafing through magazines like Soldier of Fortune. Now I was being put on the spot about my suspicious behavior.
“I’m just doing research about, about…” I stuttered sheepishly as she put the camo-adorned magazine in a bag and, with furrowed brow, waited for me to complete the sentence. “I just want to…I think I want to go to survival school.”
There, I said it. I want to go to survival school.
Despite years of experience in the backcountry and hauling myself out of more than a few scary situations, survival school has been on my mind of late. All this talk about Y2K and computers going berserk has me thinking about my dependence on technology and how vulnerable that makes me-not in the city, where ATMs crashing and grocery stores running out of toilet paper are the big techno fears, but in the backcountry. Out there, Gore-Tex, factory-sealed seams, and synthetic fills keep me warm, dry, and safe, but what if something goes wrong? What if a bear drags away my pack? Or my tent and everything in it blow into a crevasse? Or an avalanche or rockslide buries my basecamp while I’m dayhiking? High-tech gear doesn’t mean squat when it’s unusable-or worse, suddenly not there-and you’re 15 miles from the trailhead.
“It’s the Y2K phenomenon on a backpacking level,” according to Cody Lundin, a primitive-skills guru who hikes barefoot and carries little more than a wool blanket on extended wilderness treks. “Most backpackers today travel in a gear bubble. And when your livelihood is totally reliant on modern gear technology, the prospect of that technology failing can be pretty scary.”
Lundin’s words ring true for me. I’m always well outfitted on my wilderness trips, and my comfort and well-being are directly related to that expensive, high-tech gear. But what if…? Could I make it without the contents of my backpack?
That’s why I have decided to go in search of a wilderness survival school, and how I have come to share a campfire, started more with primitive skill than with kindling, with Lundin. He runs the Prescott, Arizona-based Aboriginal Living Skills School (ALSS), and plans to teach me the survival basics-skills all backcountry travelers once knew but “have lost over the centuries”-during an intensive weekend-long field session.
I’m skeptical, of course. Aside from the ultraright-wing, militia-sympathizing stigma associated with many survival schools, there’s the Y2K-tainted question of whether such training is just plain bogus and rooted in fear mongering. What could an experienced backpacker not already know?
“A lot,” says Lundin. This modern-day aborigine (his e-mail moniker is “abo dude”) assures me there are Stone-Age techniques and “doing more with less” wisdom that can be lifesaving, even liberating, for today’s backpackers. I found some consolation in the fact that his brochure clearly states, “ALSS adventures are not Rambo-style courses.” Good, because I’m not interested in being GI Jane or a cave woman. I just want to be a better prepared backpacker.
Finding the right survival-skills teacher is more involved than looking for the “Wilderness Survival Schools” listing in the Yellow Pages. The term “wilderness survival,” after all, is highly ambiguous and associated with an array of outdoor pursuits. Searching for “wilderness survival” on the Internet yields Web sites dealing with everything from New-Age meditation to storing five year’s worth of food to military combat manuals on CD-ROM. The search is further complicated by Y2K-related fears that have fueled a survivalist cottage industry catering to people-many keenly interested in arming themselves-preparing to live off the grid.
After wading through all the paramilitary hype, two large wilderness survival schools stood out: Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) based in Boulder, Colorado, and Tom Brown’s Tracker School in Asbury, New Jersey. Both schools harken back to ancient Native American lifestyles and teach primitive skills, such as starting a fire with a bow drill, foraging for food, and making stone tools.
BOSS was the brainchild of Larry Dean Olsen, who decided to teach primitive-living skills (“no kit nor any premanufactured items”) in the ’60s after authoring the book, Outdoor Survival Skills. Similarly, Brown’s biography, The Tracker, which details his apprenticeship in the New Jersey Pine Barrens under an Apache medicine man, gave rise to the Tracker wilderness survival school in 1978. (For more on Brown, see “Secrets To Survival,” October 1992). Today, both schools employ staffs of knowledgeable instructors, offer a variety of courses, and have slick public relations/advertising agencies representing them. According to BOSS President Josh Bernstein, enrollment at his school has increased 400 percent in the past four years. Brown experienced similar exponential growth, and both say Y2K paranoia had little to do with it. In fact, Bernstein says, the rush has been made up of “well-traveled outdoorspeople.”
Despite the success and mass marketing of the two popular schools, neither has ventured from its original focus of teaching primitive techniques for wilderness survival. “Traditional living and survival skills immerse you into nature, forcing you to adapt to the local resources and environmental conditions,” explains Bernstein. “There’s an awakening inside you that says, ‘I’ve made fire like this before. And, I am a part of the natural world.'” I know several BOSS alumni who say they experienced life-altering revelations during the school’s arduous field courses. I’m not looking for spiritual awakening, though. I just want to know what to do if my pack sails off the side of a mountain.
Which is what has brought me to Cody Lundin. Like many founders of small, regional survival schools around the country, he’s a protigi of one of the big two. After completing a 14-day BOSS field course, he joined the school’s instructor staff. In 1991, he struck out on his own and founded the Aboriginal Living Skills School. Among his clients are Arizona’s Prescott College, an international disaster-relief agency, and the central Arizona Yavapai Apache tribe, who hired Lundin to teach the tribe’s youth about their disappearing heritage in primitive skills.
What makes Lundin’s school different from BOSS and the Tracker School, which teach solely primitive skills, is that he also teaches “modern survival skills.” “Primitive skills help get you in tune with and live in the environment. Modern survival has to do with getting out of a bad situation alive,” he told me. “About 75 percent of what I teach is modern survival because that’s what people want. They have practical, valid concerns and want to know how to get out of a pinch.”
Lundin doesn’t abandon primitive skills. During my telephone research, I learned that he teaches what could be called “street smarts” once commonly practiced by prehistoric people-things like finding water by digging an “Indian well” and knowing the vegetation that indicates water is near. On the other hand, if it’s cold and raining and you’re near hypothermic, Lundin says rigging a tarp out of a space blanket (“plastic is awesome”) is better than spending an hour building an anthropologically correct lean-to out of forest debris.
Exactly the kind of survival skills, and attitude, I was seeking.
I also liked Lundin’s proven history and clientele list, but the deciding factor to go with his outfit was that he lives and teaches in the Arizona desert where I do most of my hiking. Getting stranded in the desert is a different ball game from, say, being lost in the dense forests of New England, and I wanted someone who knows how to tackle my waterless, cactus-filled turf.
Despite his credentials and the fact that he’s a successful entrepreneur, Lundin, 32, isn’t your typical CEO. When he jumps out of his Jeep to begin our hike, his long blonde hair frames his face in two braids. A bandanna covers the top of his head, he sports a nose ring and tattoos, and he’s barefoot. Heavy metal meets ancient Native American.
If Lundin were standing at a city crosswalk and my mother was sitting in her car at the stoplight, she would nervously lock her doors. But it takes only a few minutes of hiking with Lundin to realize that the derelictlike appearance of abo dude is a direct result of his all-consuming passion for wilderness survival.
“This is a lifestyle for me, not just a way to make a living,” he says, his thick-padded feet rolling over sharp volcanic rocks and shuffling around prickly pear as we head toward central Arizona’s Verde River. He never wears shoes, not even in the snow (“Don’t want my feet to get soft”), and I can’t help but wince with his every step. “I’m very passionate about doing more with less. That’s what primitive living is all about,” Lundin adds.
During these cushy “modern” excursions, though, he allows himself a few conveniences-Nalgene water bottles, matches, bagels, and, thank goodness, clothes-that aren’t kosher on a “primitive trip.” While I lug my backpack, he carries everything in a fanny pack.
Once we get to the river and set up camp (Lundin merely unfurls his wool blanket), we sit down in the sand. Lundin pulls out a clipboard, draws a bull’s-eye, and says, “Everything we talk about over the next few days is in the center of this bull’s-eye. It’s core knowledge about how to keep your body alive.” He taps with a marker near the perimeter of the bull’s-eye. “Out here is making moccasins and birch bark canoes. Modern backpackers don’t need to know that. But whether I’m Donald Trump or a Tarahumaran bushman, if I’m stuck in a survival situation and I don’t know these skills in the center-finding water, starting a fire, finding shelter, making a survival kit, planning ahead, signaling for help-then I’m not going to be on planet Earth much longer.” He points again to the center. “This is a very small amount of material to know about living in the wilderness.”
Like eating bugs? Digging up grubs for dinner and catching fish with your bare hands are probably what most people think when wilderness survival is mentioned, but Lundin says these things aren’t core. According to the “rule of threes,” you can live 3 hours without warmth in cold conditions, three days without water, but “at least three weeks without food. It’s not a priority in a short-term survival situation,” he explains. That’s why you should be more concerned about hypothermia, “the number one killer in the bush.” Clothing is your basic form of shelter, he notes. “Beyond that, you can improvise with items you have in your survival kit, such as trash bags for rain protection and a space blanket for a tarp (see Building A Shelter,” in sidebar). Keeping a small fire going is also critical.”
Central to Lundin’s approach to modern survival is his homemade survival kit. Weighing just under 4 pounds and small enough to fit easily in a fanny pack, the kit contains multiple-use items that will help any hiker stay warm, hydrated, and able to signal for help (see “Survival Kit” in sidebar). He recommends that fully equipped backpackers carry the fanny pack kit separate and wear it at all times.
After the bull’s-eye lecture, Lundin puts me to work, and the rest of the two days fly by as I practice various skills. Call it a survival fire drill.
“Your body needs to feel what it’s like to build a still,” says Lundin as I try to rig a plastic bag over a clump of tree branches. “If you don’t get hands-on experience with these skills during a survival course, you might as well just read a book on the subject and save your money.”
Under Lundin’s constant watch and advice, I spend nearly an hour gathering fuel for a small tepee-style fire. I’m allowed only half a single paper match (I peeled it apart at the center to make two), so my fire better ignite easily, otherwise I’m going to freeze. “Some of your kindling is too big. You’re going to need smaller twigs,” he instructs, looking at my piles of wood.
After my fuel supply gets Lundin’s seal of approval, I build the tepee. Lundin has me remodel it several times: once so the fuel wood is more closely and evenly spaced, and then to make my fire configuration a little more haphazard. “Fire likes chaos,” he says.
Finally, it’s showtime. I nervously strike the split match and stick the feeble flicker beneath my arched tinder platform. Poof! The tepee ignites as if it were doused with gasoline. I am amazed. Of all the fires I’ve built over the years, I’ve never started one without huffing and puffing to keep it going. And it’s always taken more than one match. I thought I knew how to build a proper fire, but clearly, I didn’t (see “Starting A Fire” in sidebar).
Next, Lundin, a self-described “pyro,” has me create fire starters. I slather a cotton ball in petroleum jelly, then pull it apart and light the dry center. This ingenious brand of “techno-tinder” burns for 5 minutes. But equally impressive is the Stone-Age-era tinder bundle: a palm-size bird’s nest of juniper bark, the center filled with finely ground bark. The bundle burns twice as long as the cotton ball, and, as Lundin points out, it’s portable, “like a fireplace you can hold in your hand.”
Nothing is left to chance. I even practice using the sighting hole on a signal mirror. “You don’t want to be lost the first time you try to signal for help,” says Lundin as I squint and try to line up the sighting hole with a point up toward a mountain-top. It takes me a few attempts, but I finally hit my distant target with a glint of reflected light (see “Signaling,” in sidebar).
Although I already know some of the things Lundin covers-for example, layering clothing and carrying plenty of water-discussing them in the context of survival reenforces their importance. Other random bits of survival wisdom, such as how to craft a whistle out of scrap metal and use a condom as an emergency canteen (I stood in the river and filled one with at least a liter of water), I never would have learned without taking Lundin’s class.
After my days with Lundin, I’m thankful when a backpacking trip goes smoothly and I don’t have to use the skills he taught me. And I may never have to, but knowing I possess the knowledge puts me more at ease in remote wilderness areas, especially when my 2-year-old son comes along.
Considering the hundreds of dollars I spend each year on “just in case” insurance policies, the quality wilderness survival training I got from Lundin was a bargain. Practicing the skills in the field engraved them in my memory. I’ll still pack a stove, but if something goes wrong with it, I know I can start a fire quickly to warm myself. I’ve learned where to look for water in seemingly dry locations. I have the life-sustaining essentials in the survival kit around my waist. The desert will not do me in, even if my technologically advanced gear fails.
You could say I’m Y2K ready, at least on a backpacking level.