In nearly every recounting of a survival experience there is a single moment that turns everyday outdoor recreation — a casual fishing trip, mountain bike ride, or weekend camping getaway — into a survival situation. But that’s the trick of survival preparedness and training. You never know when that moment will occur. That next step could be a broken ankle; that bend in the trail could make you lose your bearings; that rustle in the bushes could be more than a rambunctious squirrel. The truth is that no matter how well prepared you are, you are never really prepared for a survival situation unless you have the right survival mindset. 

We have talked about how Navy SEALs train their mind to be better snipers or how prisoners of war use a kind of grounded optimism to weather long stints in captivity. But when it comes to straight-up wilderness survival, you need to strap on a different kind of mentality. In his book, Hawke’s Special Forces Survival Handbook, Mykel Hawke, former Army Special Forces Captain and survival expert, lays out how to prepare yourself mentally for a survival situation. 

Start Your Preparation at Home

Anyone who has been in the military knows that preparation for an operation usually starts in the comfort of the command tent. Map reconnaissance, intel gathering, and assessments of force strength and readiness are crucial factors to any successful mission. Survival is no different. Hawke reminds us that ignorance is at the heart of fear and fear is cancer to survival. 

Beat your ignorance with preparation. Acknowledge the risks of your activity. Study up on the flora and fauna of where you’re going. If you don’t have access to a map of the area, get on Google Maps and switch to satellite mode. You’d be surprised how much detail you can glean from a half-hour of intentional map recon. Next, make a plan and share that plan with others. If people don’t know when and where to be expecting you, they won’t come looking. Most of all, familiarize yourself with your gear. You’d be surprised how many people pack a first-aid or survival kit that’s never been opened. 

Survival tips
Having a simple signaling device and doing the correct map reconnaissance can lifesaving in a survival situation.

Building Your Survival Kit

The ideal survival kit provides the highest amount of utility in the smallest package. Zeroing in on the size and intricacy of your kit is something that will come with time and experience. There is no shortage of ready-made kits out there that can help you get a start. But there are two absolutely crucial items you need to always have in your kit: a knife and a comms device. 

Some guys are going to read this and go buy a KABAR or a machete. That’s fine if you’re one of those guys. But the reality is that big blades are really only good for bog jobs. Sure, they make building the shelter easier, but they can actually be really dangerous for small tasks like building snares, cleaning game, and fashioning other tools or weapons. Look for something in the middle. A four- to six-inch folding knife is typically adequate for just about anything you’ll need to do in a survival setting. 

You should also have at least one comms device. The easiest thing these days is a cell phone, but if you’re out in the bush for longer than a day, your cell phone becomes a useless brick. Pack a strobe or beacon, a signaling mirror, or even a flare. If you’re packing something that relies on batteries, always check them (or better yet replace them with fresh ones) before you head out. After all, the easiest way to overcome a survival situation is to get out quickly. 

Laws of Survival

Hawke breaks down what he calls “Hawke’s Laws of Survival.” Understanding these essential tenets of survival will help prepare you mentally before you ever set foot in the wilderness:

  • Never quit
  • Everything you plan and pack will be lost in the event that causes the survival scenario
  • Survival situations happen to those who haven’t studied or have but aren’t ready
  • The best-trained, most-equipped survivalist will be the first one killed in the crash
  • The person least likely to survive will be the one left to face surviving
  • When you lack everything but misery, you are surviving
  • When you think you got it all handled, you’re in the biggest trouble
U.S. Air Force airman during a survival, evasion, resistance, and escape exercise August 21, 2019, in North, South Carolina. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan C. Bevan)

Staying or Going, Which is Right?

Before you can decide to stay to or go from where the survival scenario commenced (crash site, etc.), you need to remove yourself from immediate danger. Most often, that involves using first-aid, but it also simply mean getting yourself out of the raging river or away from the pissed off grizzly. Once you are out of immediate danger you need to decide whether staying put or striking out on foot is the best course of action.

Those of you who consider yourselves hardcore, it’s time to check your ego at the door. Nowadays, it’s much more likely that a survival situation will occur in proximity to some kind of vehicle. And whether it’s your bush plane that’s crashed in the Alaskan wilderness or your F-150 that’s broken down on a deserted road, you are much more likely to be found if you stay near the vehicle. Most vehicles today have emergency transponders or are tied to radio and satellite navigation systems. Furthermore, a vehicle, even a crashed one, will make a larger profile than a single person in the bush and will be easier for rescue personnel to spot. Heroics are just that, and often don’t work. 

When considering whether to stay or go, Hawke says you should think “SWiFFly.” In other words, you need to think about Shelter, Water, Food, and Fire. Each survival situation is different and therefore so is the order of importance of these four crucial things. If you’re in the Arctic, shelter is likely more immediately important than water or food. If you’re wet and at risk for hypothermia, a fire might be the first order of business. Hawke breaks this down further into a helpful acronym, DAPR:

  • Danger: Get out of harm’s way, and get others out of harm’s way if you safely can 
  • Assistance: Provide first aid to yourself and others
  • Prioritize: Assess the situation and prioritize the SWFF constants (shelter, water, food, fire)
  • Reality: Decide to stay or go. 
building a fire to survive
In the second stage of the fire starting process, 167th aircrew members add kindling. This process will lead to the main fuel stage, to keep the fire going. The rock in the background helps to block out the wind from blowing the fire out. These skills are demonstrated and practiced during their survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training refresher course.

Survival Expectations versus Reality

Survival is not pretty. It is not comfortable. It is not easy. If you fool yourself into thinking that, you probably won’t survive when the time comes. Interestingly, the key to make through a survival situation is to not expect anything. Hawke has this to say:

“Expect nothing. Expect no one to do anything for you. Expect no one to find you. Expect not to live. This is your reality. You must accept this and live in this very moment this way. To expect to get out and walk away is to fear the opposite if it happens. To fear is to freeze, and to freeze can be the very thing that causes what you fear to happen…

Expectation is different than hope. Hope for everything. Believe in yourself. Dream of your return to better times, see it and envision a happy ending. Do this in the slow moments, of the quiet, cold, wet, or hot moments when you can do nothing else but think. But then, when that time has passed and it’s time to work or move, put those thoughts away and hold no expectations of their fruition. Keep all these alive and within you, and nurture them every day and rekindle them when doused, so as to never let them fade and pass. But do not expect.”

Readiness for a survival situation begins in your mind. If you can master these simple concepts, they will form a foundation upon which you can build and hone skills. We highly recommend starting with a survival handbook. Keep it on your desk or in the bathroom (seriously). You’d be surprised how much you can glean from just flipping through one from time to time. You can pick up Hawke’s Special Forces Survival Handbook on Amazon for about $30.

And the next time you’re getting ready for a day in the woods, don’t forget to prepare logistically, physically, and mentally.