A Comparison & Contrast of the Different Approaches to Survival Training

Survival training in recent times has been influenced greatly by military models of training and in contrast by studies of indigenous living skills of aboriginal groups from around the world. This has the effect, dependent upon the source or author, to be either a mixture of approaches or an approach biased toward native and more primitive living skills or biased toward a more military and practically minded approach of prioritizing survival needs.

Both biased approaches have merit in terms of developing useful skills and knowledge for the survivor. One author who very successfully, in my opinion, combined both approaches was the late Ron Hood. Ron had extensive military experience, having served in the US military during the Vietnam War, but through his passion for survival and later employment as an educational professional, incorporated aspects of native approaches into his methodology.


The military approach to survival training is a consequence of the huge developments in survival training over the last 60 or 70 years. Which due to investigation, research and experience has taken great strides after each large scale conflict (predominately due to involvement by the US or British military) such as WWII, Korea, Vietnam etc. It is largely due to the requirements of the air forces that survival training became necessary, pilots being shot down over hostile terrain required survival training.


This training developed in quality and depth due to the input of specialist areas of the military like the SAS, Royal Marines and Navy Seals etc. The knowledge and expertise of ex-servicemen like Eddie McGee soon became available to the general public when, upon leaving the military, they set up civilian survival schools. Or like ‘Lofty’ Wiseman ex-servicemen produce literary sources of survival training information.


Authors/personalities who have produced material which is biased toward the more military models of survival include; John ‘lofty’ Wiseman, Barry Davis, Eddie McGee and Dave Canterbury. The approach of these authors is clearly influenced by their military service and training, which concentrates upon surviving a harsh environment or situation and effecting rescue or recovery.


Sources of information on ‘Bushcraft’ or primitive living skills are often the result of detailed anthropological studies by scientists who have spent time in the company of aboriginal groups in various parts of the world. Other sources are literary accounts by authors or diaries of travellers like Samuel Hearn, Capt. Cook etc.


These sources have been studied by interested outdoors persons who have revived and adapted/developed many skills whilst learning practicing dying traditions like basketry or green wood work etc. Obviously many ancient indigenous skills, such as primitive methods of making and using fire, have very direct links to modern survival training. Many Bushcraft skills/practices are less valuable to fundamental survival training.


Authors/personalities that have produced material which is biased towards primitive living skills, or skills based upon the experience of indigenous groups, label themselves as students/teachers of ‘Bushcraft’ (quite often also as students/teachers of ‘Bushcraft and Survival’). Such authors include Mors Kochanski, Ray Mears and Cody Lundin. A great emphasis is placed upon craft skills using natural materials and not just survival skills within the work of the aforementioned authors.


Typically the ‘Military’ approach toward survival training attempts to model or codify the principles of survival training, most probably in an attempt to simplify the subject in order that it be easily recalled under the stress of an actual survival situation. For example the “rule of 3’s”, “PLAN-M”, “5 C’s of survivability”, “universal edibility test” are all survival strategies which attempt to model fundamental areas of importance to the survivor in an easy to understand/remember format. This is typical of the military training mentality of K.I.S.S. or ‘keep it simple stupid’.


The Bushcraft approach to survival training is often given an extremely loose framework (if any) of developing skills within the areas of the four survival priorities; shelter, fire, water and food. Typically, for example, Bushcraft has a more ‘life-long study’ feel than its military contemporary, with continuing studies of many primitive methods of fire making (utilising as few modern tools/implements as possible) being a very common practice. This is in stark contrast to a military survival mentality of having a single bombproof method which is mastered and relied upon in many harsh environments.


A recent television series “Dual Survival” highlighted the contrasting and often conflicting methodologies of the military survival mind-set (Dave Canterbury) with the Bushcraft mind-set (Cody Lundin). Although this television series was undoubtedly created for entertainment and popularisation purposes it does have important educational elements found within it. Several times throughout the series when natural sources of fire ignition were impossible to find, due to the wet climate or other environmental factors, Dave’s military approach of ‘adapt and improvise’ proved invaluable.


Dave Canterbury used mobile phone batteries, car batteries, outboard motor and tiny amounts of fuel etc. to start fires where Cody was apparently unable. Equally Cody’s approach of well-practiced skills combined with a high degree of subject knowledge saved the pair on multiple occasions. Most notably when modern resources were scare and cutting implements, cordage or carrying containers were required.


If nothing else “Dual Survival” gives the viewer the impression that primitive ‘Bushcraft’ skills and modern ‘military’ methods and strategies are of equal merit when considering survival training. I feel that this is a responsible message which is far too infrequently conveyed.


To the serious student of survival, all areas of Bushcraft and Military survival will be of interest and value. For example when resources are limited to natural materials only, a basic knowledge of primitive methods and skills can lead to a functional article being improvised by the modern survivor. If a modern survivor was travelling through a country which was rife with a lawless element among its population and they experienced a survival emergency, they might want to remain hidden from some people, who would take advantage of their vulnerability and do them further harm, but be visible to the authorities to effect rescue or aid.


Personally I have a great interest in all subjects of ‘Bushcraft’ and ‘Military survival’ but I consider the elements contained within the crossover of these areas to comprise the fundamental components of survival.


In the Venn diagram below I have attempted to display the above mentioned ‘crossover’ in as simple a way as possible, showing the fundamental skills which both ‘Bushcraft’ and ‘military survival’ contain. The diagram also shows the more ‘fringe’ skills/techniques/areas which are of less interest to the ‘Survivor’ but of great interest to the serious bush-crafter or military professional. The list is obviously NOT exhaustive, but rather illustrative of the focus necessary when considering ‘relevant’ skills/techniques for survival (Survival Fundamentals).


I believe that an individual who wished to deliver good fundamental land based survival training, for the civilian market, should incorporate aspects of both the military approach and the Bushcraft approach. Good survival training should however remain relevant in the context of modern society/travel/leisure activities and utilise any resources which are available to the participant to ensure their safety.


All of this is just my opinion of course! Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope is was of interest and benefit to you.


©Andy Lewis 2017