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Survival of the fittest

Good food, creature comforts. Just two things you’re unlikely to find on a survival course. So why are an increasing number of us paying to spend days sleeping rough in the great outdoors?

Survival of the fittest
Participants get stuck in at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. Image: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

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Survival isn’t something I necessarily associate with epic expeditions. Being married to an ex-marine, even a gentle hike in the Scottish highlands is undertaken with assiduous military precision — and a backpack bursting at its seams. Spare clothing, Swiss Army knife and hot chocolate are just some of the essentials I’ve been laboriously drilled to pack alongside a map and compass.

But what would you do if you were forced to spend a night in the great outdoors without any of these items? Cry, die… or would you survive? It’s a question an increasing number of civilians, corporate groups and even stag parties are keen to put to the test, paying big bucks to see if they’ve got what it takes to survive in the wild wearing only the clothes on their backs.

Welcome to the rapidly expanding business of ‘survival’ courses, where you can sign up to a masterclass in bushcraft or choose more rigorous expeditions where your kit is confiscated to see just how you’d fare in the face of adversity. While some participants are on a quest to acquire wilderness skills, others are SAS wannabes hungry for adventure and, with many of the courses run by ex-special forces, you know it’s going to be tough.

Not surprisingly a lot of people want to follow in the footsteps of Bear Grylls, the man whose CV reads like an Action Man figure. After serving in the British Reserve Special Forces, he conquered Mount Everest at the age of 23, before glamourising survival craft in the TV programme Man vs. Wild (also called Born Survivor) by performing a variety of daredevil stunts jumping from cliffs and helicopters.

“Our academy [the Bear Grylls Survival Academy] teaches the skills needed to survive in some of the world’s most challenging situations,” says Grylls. “These courses are for anyone who wants to learn skills that one day might save their life, as well as accomplish one of the most challenging survival adventure courses out there.”

Although chances are you won’t get to meet Grylls in person if you sign up to one of his courses — he’s bound to be busy wrestling a grizzly bear or alligator somewhere in the world — demand worldwide has rocketed. He now offers courses in the UK, USA, Africa and Dubai, and locations in China, South Africa and Australia are set to be established by the end of the year. Plus, he says, he’d love to run expeditions in the Amazon, the Sahara or even Antarctica.

Grylls handpicks his instructors, not just for their survival skills but for their charisma and motivational flair. Many of them are ex-military who have toured some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, so anyone that sign ups can, unsurprisingly, expect a bit of hardship. In Grylls’ words, “It may hurt a little”. He’s not kidding, either.

While all of Grylls’ courses, such as those held in the Brecon Beacons and Dartmoor, offer core survival skill lessons involving foraging for food, such as grubs and rodents, building shelters and navigating by the sun and stars, they also involve sleeping out in the open (even during winter) with 6.30am wake up calls the norm. Physical challenges include an obstacle course that’s built around the natural surroundings of the location, with the occasional immersion into freezing cold, icy rivers. This, as the website warns, ‘isn’t everyone’s idea of fun’.

Ian Hatch, 46, is just one of the many participants that says nothing could have prepared him for the five-day survival course
in the Scottish Highlands. “Base camp was basically in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and streams. It was pretty cold and windy, but they still had us doing push-ups and sit-ups in the icy rivers at 7am.”

Part of a group of six, aged from around 22 to 50, his group were a mixed bunch of different nationalities. “We were all fairly normal people with really diverse backgrounds, but we all came together as a team, learning new skills and facing new challenges, such as abseiling and climbing up rock faces and across gullies, which, as I hate heights, was a big ask for me.

“At the end of the course we were taken by fishing boat to a remote island to survive for 24 hours in just what we were wearing. It was freezing but we had to swim or wade 50m to shore and hike across to a part of the island where we’d been told to build a shelter and sleep the night. We foraged for crabs and limpets on the beach and were given a couple of hares to skin and managed to strike flint and steel together to light a fire and cook it. We got by, but it wasn’t the best meal I’ve ever had!”

Despite the discomfort — everyone apparently experienced the odd low moment — Ian is keen to attend another course and says it was, without wishing to “sound cheesy”, life changing. “It’s made me more positive. Since I completed the course, I’ve become a Duke of Edinburgh leader and have had the confidence to take kids out on expeditions; I probably wouldn’t have done that. I’ve kept my fitness up, too.”

Similarly, Rajarshi Pal, a 42-year old doctor from London, is another BG survivor who found the Highlands’ course physically and mentally intense, but ultimately feels better equipped now to conquer any challenges. He immediately went on to sign up for Bear Grylls’ Extreme Survival in the African Wilderness in Zimbabwe.

Although protected by armed rangers, Rajarshi said the unknown landscape with its wildlife added to the thrill and excitement. “Camp was next to the Masui River, a crocodile-infested waterway, and although we were on high ground, out of reach of them, our sleep was disturbed by the howling of baboons, roaring lions and other wildlife nearby.”

When they weren’t learning how to track animals and protect themselves from wild creatures in their open-air classroom, Rajarshi says days were filled with fun, playing camouflage hide-and-seek games or rafting on the rapids of the Zambezi river. The trip culminated with a 36-hour survival test after which they were eventually ‘rescued’ by helicopter.

Ray Mears takes shelter in Wabakimi Provincial Park, Ontario. Image: Ray Mears

Ray Mears takes shelter in Wabakimi Provincial Park, Ontario. Image: Ray Mears

Bushcraft vs survival

While a BG course may involve high-adrenalin activities and teach you some survival skills, while helping you to toughen up, it’s Ray Mears that the Special Forces turn to when they want to teach their guys how to live on the run.

Oddly though, Mears doesn’t see himself as a survival expert and prefers to use the word ‘bushcraft’ to emphasise the intrinsic possibilities of nature — as opposed to teaching people that the great outdoors is threatening and dangerous.

His bushcraft survival courses may not be as action packed as a BG weekend (there’s no jumping in rivers or abseiling down rock faces), but they will teach you how to live off the land, find plants for food and medicine, hunt, trap and camp out without leaving a trace.

Many of Mears’ courses are in the UK and, as one senior Special Forces guy (who cannot be named) says, living rough in the British countryside during winter isn’t easy. “I’ve survived jungle training and by comparison it’s relatively easy — cold isn’t an issue and food and animals are relatively plentiful. But in the UK, everything looks pretty much the same; you look around and don’t think there’s much to eat but Ray would quickly find vegetation and fungus that’s edible. He would chop off parts of a tree, grind it down, roll it into balls and then heat it up in sap from the tree. It looked and tasted like something from your local Chinese takeaway!”

And while he’ll teach you how to camp, navigate by the stars, bait and fish, the most important survival skill he teaches is your
state of mind, rather than any physical aspect that will help you to survive. If you’re cold, tired and wet, without warmth, food and shelter, your will to push on can diminish pretty quickly. He’ll show you that something as simple as garlic tea can be tasty, healthy and raise flagging morale.

He added: “In short, he opens a window into a world that’s massive. It’s not that his weekend will teach you 101 skills that will help you to survive, it’s more that in nature, there’s always an opportunity to survive. You want a golden solution in order to avoid discomfort, but what he gives is a glimmer of hope.”

Like Bear Grylls, demand for Ray Mears Bushcraft courses is immense, with his newest sold out far in advance. Set in the isolated wilderness of Northern Ontario where, in winter, the mercury can plummet to -40C causing the cold to cut through you like a serrated knife, it will present many challenges, as well as stunning scenery to boot. For those who prefer warmer climes, Mears offers a tracking course in Namibia. You could find yourself following a leopard, black rhino, troop of baboons or the secretive aard wolf and — the most attractive thing in my book — you’ll get to stay in luxury accommodation.

Commando Gorge at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. Image: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Commando Gorge at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. Image: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Finding the right course

So, other than the climate or country, how do you choose which course is for you? According to Conrad Allen, chief instructor at UK survival company Trueways, there’s a huge demarcation between survival and bushcraft.

“While there’s a massive overlap with bushcraft in terms of skills, our survival courses, for example, are about using any means to stay alive and get rescued and that means using any equipment, such as matches, that you have.”

Trueways has doubled the number of courses they ran seven years ago when they launched, and has taught people of all ages from 18 to 60, and while some have never camped, others are planning on travelling abroad backpacking on a gap year. Courses are camp based and as there’s a focus on survival skills, with no hiking or climbing involved, anyone can attend — they offer four levels of courses so no one finds themselves thrown in at the deep end.

“We don’t make people get wet or muddy. And we don’t teach them how to hunt and trap, as you can go hungry for three weeks before you’re at death’s door. We teach them the 72-hour rule, that as long as you’ve told someone where you’re going, you should be found in 72 hours.”

His words are a stark reminder of what happened to Aron Ralston, the mountaineer who, having told no one of his plans to go canyoning in Utah in 2003, had to saw off his own arm in order to escape after he became trapped beneath a boulder. But can the will to survive be taught?

“We simply instruct individuals on how to use their equipment and mentally prepare them to survive. As the saying goes: ‘Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement.’”

Having hiked with and without my husband in the Highlands, I agree with that. For a few minutes on top of a craggy peak last year, I wandered off chatting nonchalantly on my mobile phone. In a matter of a few minutes, the clag [sticky mud] enveloped me and, as though following whispering ghosts, I was lured off track and close to a cliff face where I could neither see nor hear him for half an hour. What would I have done on my own for a night without food or shelter?

“Survival is not just about knowledge and skills, it’s just as much about positivity, resourcefulness, courage and above all, determination,” says Grylls.

Like most people, I’m not sure I can put a tick in any, let alone all of those boxes and could probably benefit from a survival course. The question is which one?

More info

Bear Grylls
Includes five-day survival courses in the UK, America and Africa, with new locations to be confirmed. Prices range from £429 for a 24-hour Family Course (one adult and one child) in the UK and Dubai, £999 for a Commando course on Dartmoor and £1,299 for a five-day Survival in Africa course in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. beargrylls.com

Ray Mears
Bushcraft courses range from two days in the UK to 10-day expeditions in Ontario, Canada from £4,995 per person. The one-week UK-based Journeyman course, £700 per person, is designed to prepare participants for serious wilderness travel. raymears.com

The SAS Survival Guide: How To Survive In The Wild, On Land Or Sea by Lofty Wiseman. RRP: £5.99 (Collins Gem)
Outdoor Survival Handbook: A Guide To The Resources And Materials Available In The Wild by Ray Mears. RRP: £12.99 (Ebury)
Extreme Food: What To Eat When Your Life Depends On It by Bear Grylls. RRP: £20 (Bantam Press)

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)