What's wrong with learning to start a fire with sticks or drinking your urine in an emergency? Stuff like that makes great TV, but piss poor survival advice that's misleading and potentially downright dangerous.
They aren't realistic survival scenarios: On Discovery's popular show "Naked and Afraid," moderately attractive people take their clothes off, then spend 21 days in the jungle trying to suck their stomachs in.
I once watched Bear Grylls walk out onto frozen sea ice, strip down to his skivvies, then jump through a hole into the frigid ocean.
At lunch the other day, a friend described one of the generic ex-military survival show hosts demonstrating how to hunt down an elk. A freakin' elk!
Let's be clear about one thing. It is extremely, extremely unlikely that you will ever find yourself in any of these situations. I don't know about you, but I only wake up to unexpectedly find myself naked in an exotic location with a member of the opposite sex on a fairly infrequent basis. And when I do, my priority is coffee, not killing snakes. The best way to survive jumping through a hole in sea ice is to not jump through that hole in the first place. Real elk hunters spend days at a time hiding in a tree stand, take elaborate steps to mask their scent, then shoot the elk at great distance with a high powered rifle equipped with a precision scope. And, even then, they still come home empty handed more often than not.
Their survival priorities are all wrong: It takes, at an absolute minimum, two weeks or more to starve to death. So why on earth are you going to waste your time trying to hunt an elk or pick the quills out of a porcupine when you could simply walk downhill or downstream, find a road and hitch a ride to somewhere that serves cold beer?
The Bear Grylls episode where he drinks his own urine? That was shot in Moab, Utah, an extremely popular destination for dirt bike and 4x4 enthusiasts. If you crash your bike out there and run out of water, you should be signaling for help, not peeing in a cup. There's likely a bro just over the next hill in urgent need of someone to hold his beer and watch this.
Shelter, water, fire, food. In that order, those are your survival priorities. Often, just putting on a jacket and drinking whatever water you find is going to be a much, much more effective method for continuing to live than running around somewhere dangerous, in the dark, chasing a wild animal.
They make surviving look easy: I was floored by the response to that article where we showed you how to make a fire with a knife. Literally hundreds of you actually thought that you'd be able to simply pick up two sticks, rub them together and be basking in the warm glow of a fire, roasting a haunch of bison just minutes later.
That same friend who saw on TV how he should kill an elk next time he's peckish tried the whole two sticks fire starting method last time he went camping. He's an engineer, so he eventually figured it out, but only after a couple of hours of trying, Googling a How To video on his phone, being called an idiot by his wife and on a perfectly nice summer afternoon. What do you think the result would have been if it'd been raining, snowing or if he'd had a broken arm?
All of you couch potatoes think you can do this because the guys on TV make it look easy. Through the miracle that is editing, it only takes some tough guy what? 30 seconds to start a friction fire?
Let's be clear about this: your results will differ.
But aren't these guys experts? Who am I to be criticizing guys who served in the Special Forces or who've written books and designed cheesy knives? The thing is, these guys are experts, they are total badasses. Each and every one of them could kick my ass and totally could survive in the arctic with nothing but a hairpin and a condom. The thing is, they wouldn't want to.
The SAS doesn't covertly operate behind enemy lines by sipping on pee. You'd get washed out of the Army if you started throwing sticks at bunnies hiding in bushes. Walking around a hot, wet jungle swarming with pathogens while barefoot is not anyone's idea of a fun afternoon.
They're making reality TV, not reality. Do not suspend your disbelief if you actually want to learn potentially life saving skills.
How you're gonna die: The best survival advice I've ever read was written by former Dual-Survival host and barefoot hippie Cody Lundin. As he explains to great effect, the fastest way to die outside is to get too hot or too cold. Put on a damn jacket or go hide in the shade. Drink lots of water.
Worry about car accidents, not wolf attacks. Worry about slipping and falling, not making a spear. Carry water with you when you go somewhere. Take extra.
If your plane crashes in the arctic, it's the crash that's going to kill you, not a pack of wolves that are actually just a weird metaphor for depression or something.
If you are naked in the jungle, you're going to step on something that cuts your foot, it's going to get infected and, unless you get it treated, you're going to die from dehydration caused by a seriously nasty case of diarrhea. Actually, I'd tune in for that episode.
Illegal, immoral and just plain bad advice: Want to spend a night in jail? Next time you're somewhere wild, go pick up the first animal you see and take a bite out of it. Cut down a bunch of trees and build yourself a nice shelter. Start a campfire by rubbing two sticks together anywhere on the west coast right now. Yet, this is the stuff millions of people are being told to and shown how to do on TV every night.
The thing is, there's not a lot of wild places left. That means it's actually really hard to find yourself somewhere that you may actually need to "survive" and also that those wild places need protection. Protection from people killing animals, people cutting down vegetation and people accidentally starting wildfires. Please don't pick up the next snake you see and dash its head against a rock. It didn't do anything to you, just like it didn't do anything to the survival show host who showed you how to do that on TV. Take a picture of it, then go home and tell your friends how it came this close to biting you.
You Don't Need To Survive To Enjoy The Outdoors: In that article we published earlier this week on making your own super cheap camping gear , one of you dropped links in comments to Dave Canterbury's survival advice, claiming it was a necessity if you planned on heading into the woods. Know what? It's not.
Camping is actually a fun, relaxing time. When I'm trying to convince friends to come with me for their first time, I describe it as a really fun dinner party in a really pretty place. You don't need to worry about bears eating you. You don't need to think up the best ways to prepare and serve your friend's leg. You only need to pee in your water bottle if you're too lazy to get out of your tent at night.
While it's great that these shows are fostering an interest in outdoors stuff in people who maybe didn't have that interest before, they're also painting a totally unrealistic scenario about what going outside is like. In reality, nature is really pretty and pretty comfortable. Take a book, then sit back and enjoy yourself.
Want to live? Look, just like you, I get a kick out of watching this stuff. It's fun to imagine myself fighting off polar bears and building igloos or catching a deer in a deadfall trap. But let's not kid ourselves, these shows are not a great place to learn survival skills, which are actually a handy thing to have stored away in the back of your head if you ever need them.
Want to survive? I'll give you the best advice I've ever gotten: be prepared. Don't find yourself in the kind of situation where it's two sticks and fire or freezing to death. You don't want to have to learn what grubs and worms taste like. Take more water than you think you'll need. Study the places you're planning on visiting, create a realistic assessment of the potential risks, then take the necessary tools and supplies to ameliorate them as much as possible. Pack a jacket.
Here's a few good books for further reading:
SAS Survival Guide: A comprehensive manual on first aid and other survival skills broken down across different environments. I carry it with me when I travel.
The Boy Scout Fieldbook: If you weren't one, you'll want to start with the basics. And, if kids can learn this stuff, you can too. Don't laugh, it really is the absolute best guide to learning to enjoy the outdoors.
98.6 Degrees, The Art Of Keeping Your Ass Alive: No bullshit, no frills, just substantial, meaningful, effective survival skills by the master of them.
When All Hell Breaks Loose: Next time there's an earthquake, flood or zombie apocalypse, this is the book you'll wish you had on your shelf.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.