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Opinion

The Toxic Masculinity of Tactical Survival Gear

In the wilderness, it isn't cheap, paracord-wrapped hatchets and trenching tools that we need to survive. It's each other.

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If, like me, you’re a man who likes to hike and you have access to the internet, a website has probably tried to sell you some kind of “survival tool” recently. Most likely, it was very sharp, and had a compass and three firestarting tools built into it. There’s a whole solar system of these products, and a whole survivalist mode of masculinity that orbits around them: Increasingly, it seems like late-stage capitalism wants men like us to see ourselves as unable to trust anything but our own strength, pitting ourselves against nature and the remnants of society with nothing but our “EDC” tactical pocket tomahawks to help us survive. 

If you’ve ever, you know, actually been outside, you don’t need me to tell you how off the mark this is. Marketers like this want us to believe we should be the Road Warrior when, by and large, we are people who like to go camping and sometimes click on targeted adverts on Twitter while we wait for our barista to make us a fancy coffee. We do not need more axesaws, or sawaxes, or tactical shovels with included axe and saw. The fact that there seems to be a whole subset of the outdoor industry dedicated to selling me items that are at once a terrible tool, a useless navigation aid, and an unconscious parody of masculinity is something that should really cause us to reflect on the way that our toxic ways of looking at gender can infect the way we relate to the outdoors. 

Now look: I’m a guy who likes doing “guy stuff.” I drink whiskey that comes in plastic bottles, and when I drink too much of it, I talk about my feelings which I otherwise keep similarly bottled. I shave only when I have to go to meet a real adult, and sometimes I go into the desert in my pickup truck to shoot at paper bad guys with my friends. But even I think this man vs. wild shtick is getting ridiculous. 

Modern society breeds alienation, boredom, and despair like at no time in the past, and the unrealistic expectations that popular media heaps on men (well, OK, everybody) only makes that worse. There’s nothing wrong with being a suburban dad who goes camping on the weekend, but when targeted advertising tells you that you ought to be a Navy SEAL with an 8-pack, three different knives on your person, and the ability to start a fire with two rocks and a pile of wet moss, it sure can feel like it.

Survival gear
An example of the “survival gear” available on Amazon. (Photo: Courtesy)

Lots of people want to escape the pressures of everyday life, and the outdoors are a wonderful place to disconnect, re-center, and remember what it’s like to be human. But hiking isn’t about conquering the outdoors, like some kind of C-tier Rambo with a fragile mail-order machete. It’s about learning to exist there with your friends, and the equipment we bring should reflect that. That doesn’t mean you should never carry survival tools, but most useful survival equipment is much less flashy than an axesaw. Bring a bivvy bag and a first aid kit, get a Garmin InReach, and learn to navigate using a paper map and (real) compass. But if you’re out there just looking for a chance to sink your pocket chainsaw into a tree which your grandchildren could appreciate if you just left it alone, you’re doing it wrong.

The thing about survival, and the outdoors, is that both are much better with other people. In crisis after crisis, be it flood or famine or getting stuck in the woods with a broken leg, the people who survive the best are those who cooperate the most, not the people with the biggest collection of mall-ninja axes and gas-station knives. Indigenous people thrived in this continent for millenia not in some kind of Hobbesian state of nature, but as communities. Survival of the fittest might have got us here over millions of years, but once we became us, it was cooperation between the fittest, smartest, and everyone else that allowed us to thrive. 

In the last three centuries, however, we’ve managed to irredeemably destroy a huge chunk of the natural bounty that supported America’s inhabitants for the 24,000 years before that. If we want to keep our public lands intact in the face of climate change and land grabs, a tactical axe that was made in China and shipped halfway around the world just to shatter the first time someone tried to split firewood with it isn’t going to help us. What will help us is each other.

Most of our wildernesses belong to everyone these days. That doesn’t mean that everyone is free to butcher them in whatever way they please without anyone else speaking up. On the contrary, it means we all must work out a way to use them, enjoy them, and perhaps most importantly, preserve them. Saws, machetes, and axe-saw-machetes aren’t great at preserving things, but they are great for mangling and destroying them. That’s the exact combination of capitalism and colonialism that looked at a country already inhabited by Indigenous people, saw only an empty wilderness, and proceeded to pillage it clear to the edge of a climate crisis. 

I’m not saying it’s ridiculous to be prepared for an unforgiving future. Fires in the Pacific Northwest and flooding on the East Coast this autumn have given us a clear example of just how climate change can impact the outdoors. We can learn a lot from backpacking that will help us, from filtering water to splinting limbs—outdoor skills are and always have been survival skills.  But buying poor-quality combo tools and cheap faux-milspec gear isn’t what’s going to help there either. Survival, in the societal and individual sense, depends on cooperation. That means spending time with people, not money on things you can wrap with paracord.