Years ago I hiked the Inca trail without a tent or a stove, having been assured by my buddy that we’d find huts and firewood along the way. Wrong. It rained for a week, and we spent our nights bickering while spooning for warmth under rock overhangs. I learned my lesson the hard way. Real survival schools go beyond wilderness skills and appreciation (which we had) to preparedness and teamwork (which we lacked). Graduates get the wisdom of real experience and the confidence to face the unforeseeable—anywhere from war zones to the Peruvian Andes. This prep school education could turn out to be the most important lesson of your life.
Next: Read about five top survival schools.
1. Mountain Shepherd, VA
2. Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School, NJ
3. Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), UT
4. Centurion Safety, VA
5. National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), AK
A light plane goes down in wooded mountains. The survivors have 20 minutes to gather critical items from the crash site. Hint: Leave the canned peaches; take the trash bags. Virginia-based Mountain Shepherd’s two-day Plane Decisions program teaches students to anticipate the unpredictable and provides them with a vital mental base layer for dealing effectively with a crisis ($295; mountainshepherd.com). Students get the benefit of realistic plane wreckage (a crumpled Cessna fuselage) and Blue Ridge Mountain wilderness as the setting for critical decision-making and team building. Instructors Reggie Bennett and Rick Arnold know their crash scenarios: Both are former teachers in the Air Force Survival School’s SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape). "We teach priorities—what you need to take care of right away," says Bennett. Prime among them is your psychological state: avoiding extremes of panic and resignation. Then it’s down to a survival checklist: first aid, shelter craft (hence the trash bags), fire craft, signaling. Why forsake the peaches? "Most survival situations last only 24 hours," Bennett says. "Thinking of your belly first is foolish. You need to stay warm and signal for help."
If you think the Native American slant of Tom Brown, Jr.’s pedagogy means New Age drum circles and "First Aid With Crystals" seminars, consider this: As a boy in rural New Jersey, Brown apprenticed with Lipan Apache elder Stalking Wolf (aka Grandfather). He went on to track missing people for law enforcement and gained national prominence with his 1978 book The Tracker (the first of 16 editions). Now 58, Brown has been teaching students of his own for over 30 years and is considered a guru of wilderness skills and spirituality. His Standard Class in the Jersey Pine Barrens is something of an homage to Grandfather ($899; trackerschool.com). Oneness with nature gets equal billing with building a debris shelter; stoking the "fire within" is as important as starting a bow-and-spindle friction fire. Stalking, foraging, tanning, toolmaking, collecting water with a solar still, and an intro to tracking are some of the ground covered on each six-and-a-half-day journey. "Tom can track and tell you if a person is left-handed or right-handed," says former pupil Pamela Averack. "And he’ll show you how to tell if roadkill is still edible." When might that skill be useful? Let’s hope never. But with Brown, learning to read the landscape like the back of your hand—and by the firelight within—is the outdoor equivalent of an Ivy League education.
"Know more, carry less" is the BOSS credo, which means the school’s 14-day Field Course in the rugged canyons and mesas around Boulder, Utah, dispenses with such niceties as sleeping bags, packs, tents, and stoves ($1,865; boss-inc.com). BOSS incorporates the Stone Age arts of the region’s Anasazi, Fremont, and Paiute cultures. Be forewarned: The slaughter and consumption of a locally raised sheep is on the syllabus. But BOSS director Josh Bernstein (former host of the History Channel series Digging for Truth) claims it’s one of the course’s more enlightening moments. "And," he says, "every part of the animal that can be is consumed or utilized by the group." Students work up to a solo, then a multinight small-band excursion, followed by the Final Challenge. What’s that? Let’s just say you’ll emerge with the ability to make it out of tough spots alive.
"Crack and thump" is a key lesson for U.K.-based Centurion Safety, the school of choice for journalists, aid workers, and private sector professionals bound for potentially hostile climes. Instructors are drawn from the ranks of the British Royal Marine Special Forces, where they acquired frontline experience and later drilled other troops in their expertise: emergency field first aid, incendiary device and booby trap recognition, and survival in climatic extremes. Centurion has been running the five-day HEFAT (Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training) Course for seven years at its U.S. base in Woodstock, Virginia ($3,500; centurionsafety.net). "It’s not a boot camp," says Gary Purssey, instructor and operations manager. "We help our clients raise their awareness of risks and give them options to minimize those risks." Crack and thump falls into the awareness category—crack being the sound of a supersonic bullet ripping past you, and thump the delayed sound of the weapon being fired. Simulated cross fire, snipers, and incoming mortar rounds help drive the point home. The course also teaches first aid using materials found at hand, as well as the art of negotiating the unexpected: Is that a roadblock up ahead, or do those nice armed men just need directions?
We help our clients raise their awareness of risks and give them options to minimize those risks."—Gary Purssey, Centurion instructor
"We don’t teach dropped-off-in-the-jungle-with-a-knife survival," says NOLS curriculum and research manager John Gookin (a former Marine Corps Arctic warfare instructor). "We teach people how to avoid those situations." During a 75-day NOLS semester in Alaska, students digest a range of outdoor skills—from esoterica like the dynamics of glacier travel to essentials like route finding, backcountry cooking, stream crossing, and the basics of building a fire in damp weather ($9,975; nols.edu). Backwoods wisdom comes in due course, but NOLS emphasizes leadership, attitude, and judgment—fundamentals that keep everyone functioning as effective team members. "You learn the rules, you know what works," says Gookin. "But eventually you acquire such expertise that you don’t even have to think about them." NOLS also offers two-week leadership courses in Wyoming ($3,005) and snowboard outings in Idaho ($2,010), in case the boss can’t survive three months without you.