Most years, my travel includes heading back to the Pacific Northwest to teach for Washington Outdoor Women. It’s a break from the ordinary: sleep outside (this year in a teepee complete with healthy mouse population) and engage women in learning the tangible skills they need to be confident in the outdoors (teach them survival basics). And — this year — instead of asking everyone what they have on them to use if stuck in the backcountry, I ask: “What worries you most about survival? About getting stuck overnight or longer somewhere?” The 14 women are instantly forthcoming:
I worry about what if I get hurt and someone doesn’t start looking for me soon enough.
I don’t know what to do to keep my kids safe if something happens.
I hate that panicky feeling when I get scared that I can’t find my way back.
I pull out a well-worn copy of Bernard Shanks’ Wilderness Survival and we discuss the psychology around what it takes to survive. Self-esteem. Staying calm. Tenacity. The ability to express emotions. Being prepared. Having a Plan B. Making decisions with another person or group.
I never thought about this but basic survival skills do not change much from year to year: if you can’t make it back before dark, your first priority is shelter. If you can’t make it back the next day, your next priority is water. After that, it’s fire. And finally look for food. Get out of the elements and make sure you have a way to signal for help. Carry your 10 Essentials…let someone know where you are going…learn to read a topo map and use a compass…check the weather, strategize your next move and don’t get more lost. Even back to when I took Backpacking & Survival in high school (Thanks Mr. Biddle), the basics of managing in a survival situation haven’t changed.
When I’ve taught this class in the past, the students often digress about apocalyptic events, plane crashes in the Andes and popular shows like Naked & Afraid. This year, however, most of the women want to know what to do with being scared. They are taking more notes on the psychology around survival rather than the skills. They talk about confidence and self-esteem. Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning comes up and the idea that a survival situation could lead us to ask what does this all mean? The physical act of keeping yourself alive, however, is about another question: What is life asking of me?
I read to them an experiment cited by Shanks. Several scientific-types were selected for a study on how well they would do on a strenuous trek through the Alaskan wilderness. They had all different body types. Shanks notes that all participants were initially more concerned about their physical prowess than mental stamina because, in their minds, being strong would allow them to push through anything. Reality, however, played out differently. The study found that those who were able to complain and express insecurities fared by far the best. The students latch on to the idea of being told it’s okay to emote. Those who weren’t in as good of shape showed higher spirits as the days wore on because they saw that they could handle themselves well when the going-got-tough. A few of the students sit up a little straighter. The story buoys the women who aren’t as confident in their skills or their bodies.
Continuing on, we talk about how everyone goes through a range of emotions when our plans change and we have to get ourselves out of a mess. Some emotions that we don’t really enjoy could be red flags that an environmental injury that needs to be addressed. People get crabby and irritable when they’re cold and wet (hypothermia). Depression can be a symptom of dehydration. Apathy is always a red flag that an injury could be moving from moderate to severe. What about denial? I ask. Is it actually a feeling you know you’re feeling? The class jokes because no one says, Hmm, I think I’m in denial about this really hard situation. But denial might actually be felt as it is — as a form of hope and something that could be preservationary to our very existence.
I explain to the students that these situations, skills and emotions are not dissimilar to the ones I work on with families who are in crisis when they suddenly find out they or a loved one needs extra help in managing the changes that come with getting older or having a disability. While families are not in the backcountry, these events can seriously knock us off our feet. Chronological injuries they could maybe be called — the ones that come about due to being farther along in our lifecycle. And outside of, well, sleeping outside, many of the skills it takes to navigate our next move within the context of family dynamics are similar to those required in a survival situation.
For example, there are the things you can do before you’re in a crisis. In survival classes, we talk about letting someone know where you’re going, how long you will be gone and who to call if you don’t come back. In my practice, I often talk with family members who are solo-caring for someone else. No one else in the family has any idea of the stress that they are bearing by managing a second household on their own. Amazingly, there are those of us who don’t tell even our closest friends about significant changes in health or a new diagnosis. It’s a whole different journey than losing the trail but if no one knows you’re on it, how are they going to know to come look for you? To call and find out how you’re doing? To reach out for backup if you need it?
That said, how do we know if we’re in crisis or survival mode? Have you ever had a friend who suddenly becomes entirely frustrating because they interrupt you all the time? or correct every little thing you say? Or maybe you just don’t hear from them and suddenly wonder where they’ve gone.
When we’re not at our best because of stress or fear or physical pain, we go into coping mode, whether we are in the backcountry or not. We snap, we isolate (believing no one wants to be around us when we’re hurting) and we fixate on very stupid details (like how to load the dishwasher). It could happen in any situation: maybe it’s finding out you have to have surgery due to degeneration in a joint. Maybe there’s something your family didn’t tell you and you wish you could’ve known (and helped) sooner. Maybe you suddenly feel corrected every time you open your mouth talking with your best friend and think, “Geez, they’re annoying….how didn’t I notice that before?” In this very place, we are not operating at our best or most compassionate selves. But is it her? Or could we both have thin bandwidth right now? Hmmm.
And maybe, just maybe, you find out down the road that someone’s husband lost his job or their parent was diagnosed with heart failure. Maybe you get a cortisone shot that suddenly takes your own pain away and you wonder why you had those mud-colored glasses on the whole time. Sigh, survival.
Occasionally we’re lucky enough to step back and receive magic wand-tap-bing! of grace for each other. Occasionally we can see that everyone is doing the best they can. And maybe, we realize — when we can step back — everyone is really just trying to survive.
* * *
As our four hours wrap up, the students in my survival skills class fervently search for dry tinder materials in the rain. Some of them huddle in pairs under a tarp we strung — slip knot, slip knot, half-hitch. They shave magnesium flecks onto little bundles of all manner of fire-starter: cotton-balls and petroleum jelly, Fritos and antibacterial ointment, pine needles, bark and chapstick. You hear shhhhhkk! shhhhhhk! shhhhhkk! as they swipe their knives down the flints to create a spark. Adjust the tinder just so, hmm. Then loud cheers go up as each little pile finally catches and we have flames! Yeah baby!
Several students begin talking about what they learned, that it’s harder to start a fire with a flint than they thought….but fun. They comment on how they can spend the night in the backcountry now, and build a shelter. One woman is particularly confident after realizing that she could wrap herself in a space blanket with her back to a large tree for the night because that would make her feel safe! Her shelter-building partner had other ideas for a more elaborate hut but she didn’t care. The class gave her the chutzpah to stand up for herself. Not me! I’d sleep right next to this tree. Students affirm her plan: You have to do what’s best for you.
I didn’t say it at the time but this student’s resistance to following what the group is trying is a sign of confidence. It’s easy to give someone all the information, weigh all the options and expect them exactly what I taught. That’d be holding onto an outcome though…it would attaching my role as teacher to what seems “good” or “right” or “safe”. But what we really want is for people to decide for themselves; be critical thinkers. Whether in a backcountry situation or within a family — we may not agree with what someone decides but it does show confidence, a key piece of what it takes to survive.
I ask the class one final thing: how do we build self-esteem? By doing these kinds of things, they tell me. Exactly. By learning and doing things we view as esteem-able. By gathering the information that is useful to the very essence of who we are.
To close, we circle back to the survival attitudes we covered in the beginning of class: stay calm, face reality; take stock of the situation; believe in yourself; be decisive and take one thing at a time. Be curious and see the beauty in survival situations.
We talk about the sense of play they felt in building shelters; the empowerment they now have with these skills; and how survival brings us all the way back to the richness and beauty of being alive and connection with the life-force inside of us.
It’s quiet with the 15 of us thinking or maybe everyone is just hungry. I wrap up with a quote from Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival. Somehow, it relates to so many situations in life: “A survival experience is an incomparable gift: it will tell you who you really are.”