The Two Most Important Survival Skills
“The survivor’s attitude is the most important element of the will to survive. With the proper attitude, almost anything is possible.” -AF Regulation 64-4 Volume I, p. 53
“Every day is a choice, Heaven or Hell. This is the most important survival skill.”-Tom Brown, Jr.
Cougar Mountain, Just South of the Canadian Border: (from THE SURVIVAL TEMPLATE, Introduction)
The thermometer rose and settled at an unusually warm thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit as twelve nervous trainees fumbled through their rucksacks and whispered wise cracks and complaints to one another. The late afternoon’s whiteout fog and drizzle swirled up the ridge from the valley, begging the question: which is more problematic, 31.9 degrees and snow, or 32.1 degrees and rain? Tiny details make a difference. In either case, an inexperienced survival student usually ended up cold, wet, and wishing he had chosen a different career path. One Instructor called the environment, “Hell painted white.” After a couple of weeks in these conditions, the troops had grown accustomed to the weather and knew that, in the most likely scenario, they would be up all night drying out themselves and their gear by a fire.
On this particular day a greater concern presented itself in the form of their first “solo exercise.” They didn’t know the details but knew that “soloing” involved an undetermined amount of time alone in the forest with objectives to be achieved.
“Listen to me,” one Cadre announced, “you goobers don’t know what you are doing, and you’re forgetful; so take out your notebooks and write down what I tell you…”
The objectives were fairly simple that day: build a shelter, a fire, and a rescue signal; procure water and food; stay up late and improvise a creative piece of equipment that will make life less miserable. Lastly, don’t go to bed cold and wet or you might not wake up. Some of these tasks were easier said than done, but after repeated lessons in shelter-craft, fire-craft, and all of the other fundamentals, most were capable of completing the exercise.
“One last piece of advice for you Gomer Pyles to think about: have you ever noticed that you are much more likely take care of yourselves effectively if you write down what you want to do?”
I was the worst student in the woods that day… a number of other days as well. Academics came easily to me, but hand-eye skills, especially when freezing, did not. The other students seemed to be flourishing in this new environment while I consistently floundered in defeat.
Two lessons approached the periphery of my senses during that cold, miserable time. The first was a tiny spark of hope that perhaps I could come to figure things out. That spark grew to become an attitude of persistence and positivity, and it led to the second lesson: the documentation of intent as a list of objectives.
The objectives on that day were basic in nature: 1) build a shelter; 2) build a fire; 3) purify water; 4) build a rescue signal; 5) get something to eat.
For weeks I had struggled with the most simple of tasks, but during this exercise the instructor’s words set root and became part of me: “you don’t know what you are doing, and you’re forgetful; so take out your notebooks and write down what I tell you…”
I listed my objectives, then meticulously, and with unusual effortlessness, accomplished them. The Cadre of Instructors approached me with shock, stating that I was now hours ahead of my teammates, many of whom were now the ones floundering in the snow.
The technique had worked. The cold, the loneliness, and the invaluable instruction had coalesced to change me as a person. I learned to develop a survivor’s attitude and to use that attitude to create a list of objectives, then enjoy their completion.
That evening I relaxed under a lean-to shelter made of parachute, next to a warm fire, and reflected. Of the skills I had utilized that day (shelter, water, fire, food, and so on…,) two had become supreme.
Attitude is the most important survival skill
The documentation of intent, as a list of objectives, mobilizes attitude.