In the online world of survival preparation, there are a number of camps you might fall into.  Some folks stock up on supplies in hopes of remaining self-sufficient for a time after the modern infrastructure collapses.  Others like to buy the latest in survival gear intended to make living off the land a bit more comfortable or convenient.  Some folks just stock up on ammunition, knowing that in the days that follow an apocalypse event, there’ll be plenty of folks intent on taking what you have… and you may find yourself needing what they have.  This short list of niches isn’t conclusive – and no matter what part of surviving the end of the world you might be interested in, there’s a corner of the internet full of websites and forums waiting to commiserate with you.

The truth of the matter is (and I know I’ll get some flak for saying so) a lot of so-called “preppers” or “survivalists” are nothing more than folks with a hobby, and would probably find themselves in real dire straits if ever an emergency were to arise.  The thing is, preparing for a wide-spread emergency requires more discomfort than your average prepper is willing to subject themselves to.  Being prepared isn’t just about having stuff, it’s about being physically and mentally capable of using it under duress.

U.S. Special Operations Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines aren’t the most formidable fighting force on the planet because of the weapons they use, for instance.  The M4 service rifles, Glocks, and Sigs aren’t some kind of advanced alien tech they use to overwhelm enemy contacts (though technology does certainly benefit all special operations missions).  It’s ultimately the training our elite war fighters undergo that makes them so formidable.  Drones, GPS satellites, and advanced optics be damned, I’d still put my money on a Navy SEAL over the best the Iranian Guard has to offer – and with good reason.

In Kris “Tanto” Paronto’s book, “The Ranger Way,” he discusses the arduous training he had to undergo (twice in some cases) in order to earn a coveted Ranger Tab and his place among the world’s elite war fighters.  While Rangers certainly spend plenty of time learning the ins and outs of the latest gadgets at their disposal, becoming a Ranger has much more to do with developing a sense of mental toughness.  Mental toughness, the Rangers know, requires first pushing your body to its physical limits, to the point where your body starts trying to issue orders of its own, like “stop!” or “just throw up and lay down!”  Mental toughness steps in at that point to instill discipline, to get your body back on track, and to keep you moving even when your body is sure it can’t anymore.

Learning how to do the complex things you need to do while exhausted, stressed out, and overwhelmed is what separates those who will accomplish their mission in the face of any odds, and those who might be better suited for the cubicle life. So what does this mean for your average Joe or Jane that just wants to be prepared for an emergency scenario?

It means you need to make yourself uncomfortable.

At the end of Marine Corps Recruit Training, every Marine participates in an exercise called “The Crucible,” which subjects them to 54 hours of sleep and food deprivation while covering more than 40 miles with all of your gear on your back.  Every Marine must work independently and as a team to accomplish exhausting and sometimes complicated mission objectives before ultimately making the long hike back to the real world, where you’re rewarded with a large breakfast your body will almost immediately throw back up.  If you’re lucky like we were, you’ll then spend the rest of the morning doing push ups in the mess – welcome to the Marine Corps.

U.S. Marine Corps

The point of this exercise isn’t simply to see who will quit – it’s to prove to yourself that you don’t have to.  From hour six, my body was begging for me to fall out, hop in the bank of the loser-mobile, and wait for a plane ticket home, but it was my mind that wouldn’t let me.  It takes time to develop that sense of personal limits, and to learn to trust your conscious thoughts over the panicked screams of your burning muscle groups.  Even with practice though, dehydration, hunger, and exhaustion all conspire against you, willing you to give in.  The Crucible isn’t about physical toughness, at that point in boot camp you’ve already proven you have that.  The Crucible is about learning to master yourself.

And that’s where so many hobby preppers fall short in their attempts at being ready for an emergency.  We place so much emphasis on having the right gear, or stockpiling enough water, that few people remember to harp on the one thing that will really make all the difference if the world were to actually descend into madness: mental toughness.

Equipment without discipline does not a survivor make. (Image courtesy of YouTube)

In order to survive when the worst occurs, you need to already know your limits, and you need to have experience pushing yourself beyond them.  You don’t have to spend 54 hours in the woods with little food to do that, you can literally train your brain to tell your body’s discomfort sensors to shut up doing just about anything.  Go for a run, and when you’re too tired to keep going, push yourself to go another half mile.  Force yourself to clean out the basement like you’ve been avoiding for months.  Make that phone call you’ve been avoiding.

When my wife went to bed last night, I headed for the garage to replace her brake pads because I knew she’d need to drive the car again in the morning and it was the only time I could get it done.  No, I certainly didn’t want to work on a car in the middle of the night (or ever at all, really) but I operate under the same set of wiring I first laid in the Corps years ago: sometimes things suck, so you’re better off just working until they improve.

So, to boil this essay on mental toughness down into an easily digestible talking point, here it is: if you want to be a survivor, you’ve got to teach yourself to work through pain, discomfort, and distraction.

Because without that, all the fancy new gear in the world won’t be able to save you.


Image courtesy of NatGeo,