Keep it Simple and Survive!™: 8 Keys to Survival, Part 2

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8 Keys to Survival

Even the best prepared outdoors person can find themselves in difficult straits sometimes, a true survival event. If you backpack, raft, climb, ski, snowboard, mountain bike, sail, fish, hunt, snowmobile or just love to go on day hikes it can happen and does, every season of every year.

Review Part one of this article on survival: Your ability to deal with a survival event is maturing. You have been acquiring  knowledge, practicing specific skills, gaining experience, and adding tools to your survival kit which is tailored to the adventures you and your family enjoy . Is that all to being prepared to take on a survival situation and succeed? Not even close.

Two Tales About Survival

Desert Ordeal

A man became stranded far out in the Arizona desert.  For eight days, he traveled on foot in extremely hot weather though inhospitable terrain. His food and water were depleted by day two, but he persevered for six more days, traveling over 150 miles until he was found. When his rescuers located him, the man had lost over 20% of his body weight do to dehydration (usually a 10% loss of body weight from lack of fluids causes complete incapacitation or death). His blood was so thick, lacerations on his body would not bleed! He should have been dead, but somehow, against extreme odds, he survived.

Death in The Canadian Wilderness

A pilot, flying over the Northern Canadian wilderness in good weather, sent out an emergency signal. His plane had developed engine trouble and was losing altitude fast. Looking out the cockpit window he sighted a frozen lake and decided to make a dead stick landing there. After sliding to a stop, the airplane came to rest on the ice. The pilot, unhurt but shaken, decided to leave the plane, take his survival gear, and head for the relative safety of the tree-lined shore 200 yards away.

He walked half way across the ice, towards the nearest land fall, and then turned around and went back to his plane. He climbed into the cockpit and without explanation or note, the airman took his own life. Rescuers found his body less than 24 hrs after his distress call went out, the emergency kit untouched. Why would a pilot, unhurt and trained to survive this kind of emergency simply give up? What was he thinking?

To understand both these survival events, we need to look at the psychology of survival and learn from it.

The 4 Psychological Components

There are 4 important psychological elements which are intrinsically bound and inseparable from the 8 keys to survival. They, too, must be understood, considered and mastered along with the 4 core elements of knowledge, skills, experience and tools in order to maximize you and your family’s odds of surviving a significant emergency. These 4 psychological components are the mortar which binds together the 4 core elements of survival, the glue which holds YOU together during a survival event. These components of survival are:

  1. The Will to Live
  2. A Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)
  3. The Ingenuity to Improvise
  4. The Ability to Adapt

The will to live

The will to live is paramount to life. Without it, none of the other 7 keys to survival matter, because you won’t survive! The will to live is instinctual, bred into the human race through thousands of years of trial, error, and success. It is not a passive thing. We all have the fight or flight genetic patterning as a result, some stronger than others. John “Lofty” Wiseman, decorated Instructor with the British Special Air Services (SAS – Special Forces) and noted author of The SAS Survival Handbook believes,

“Survival is 85% down to the will to live.”

In my experience, I think it is more like 90% plus. It is the engine driving our instinct to survive, without it you simply won’t live.

What kind of person has the strongest will to live when things get tough and an emergency situation ensues, when their survival is at stake? What characteristics make up someone with a high probability of being a

The 8 Keys to Survival
These 4 psychological components are the mortar which binds together the 4 core elements of survival, the glue which holds YOU together during a survival event.

successful survivor? The study and evaluation of many survival incidences, severe emergencies and rescues gives rise to some common traits.

Attributes of Success and Failure

Successful survivors are not quitters; they are leaders, fighters, scrappers, determined, stubborn, proactive, confident, quick and focused thinkers and team players. When a situation becomes extremely dire, they are fanatical about living, staying alive against incredible odds. When things get tough, they get tougher, rising up to meet the challenge.

Conversely, those who tend to be fearful, apathetic, indecisive, lackadaisical, unfocused and panicky are good candidates for not meeting the challenges of even relatively mild survival events.

Promoting The Will To Live

What can you do to encourage and promote the will to live in you and others during a survival event? Here are some key things to do:

  1. Be a leader, even if it is a leader of one, you!
  2. Create a survival plan which overcomes the survival event. Keep the plan simple, down and dirty. Not a PhD dissertation.
  3. Take action, the steps necessary to implement the plan.
  4. Stay focused  and Conserve your energy and resources.
  5. Be proactive and decisive in your actions. Be deliberate and do not hesitate.
  6. Use ingenuity. Be creative and improvise using the resources at hand.
  7. Adapt, adapt, and adapt to the ever changing circumstances of the survival event. Do not become stuck and rigid in your overall approach, thought process and response as the survival event unfolds, or you likely won’t survive.

The will to live is strongly linked to a positive mental attitude. The two, in my opinion, go hand in hand. Where you find one, you will find the other.

A Positive Mental Attitude

Attitude is everything in survival. Like the will to live, keeping and cultivating a positive mental attitude (PMA)  is central to success. I would wager more emergencies have gone from bad to worse because of a lack of PMA, usually caused by fear and panic followed by apathy and depression.

Fear and panic, triggered by the right set of circumstances, can grip the most seasoned and well trained outdoors’ person. Even rescuers must guard against it when they are working with survivors in an adverse environment. Fear is a very natural and ingrained response to a life threatening situation. It is part of the fight or flight response we humans have which help us to survive. However, panic is fear run a muck, out of control. Randy Gerke, Outdoor Guide and Survival Instructor, in his book Outdoor Survival writes,

“When you perceive yourself as not being in control of a situation, a combination of feelings can temporarily overload you and trigger the panic response.”

What can you and your family members do in a survival event to control fear and ward off panic. Since PMA is integral to survival, what can you do to promote it during a survival event?

Cultivate PMA

Things to do to promote a positive mental attitude, defeat fear and control panic as well as ward off depression and the onset of apathy:

  1. Stop! Sit down and be still once you deal with any immediate and urgent safety or medical issues.
  2. Focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply. This promotes relaxation and helps reduce anxiety.
  3. Slow down your thinking. Focus on positive thoughts and feelings. Fear and panic are at their strongest when your mind is racing and your imagination is running rampant with negative thoughts and ideas.
  4. Create your survival plan. Focus on what you need to do to survive.
  5. Get busy and be proactive. Concentrate on the fundamentals of survival: shelter, water, fire, signaling, navigation and first aid.

Improvise – Adapt – Overcome

The United States Marines have an unofficial saying made popular in the Clint Eastwood movie, Heartbreak Ridge,

“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”

You should take heed and adopt this as your official mantra if you or your loved ones become part of a survival event. It will serve you well. When you are in the midst of an emergency, trying to plan and create the best possible outcome, having the ability to improvise and adapt will be key to overcoming problems. It won’t matter that you bring all the latest gadgets and gear. Having all the tools necessary to cover every possible emergency scenario is impossible.

Thin and Act - Survive!The ingenuity to improvise

To be able to improvise is an essential survival skill. It’s the ability to use the things around you in ways other than what they were originally intended. Improvisation is an “on the spot” or “off the cuff” moment of inventiveness, no preparation or training needed, although there are steps you can take in order to become more skillful at improvisation.

To be successful at improvising, you will need to call on all of your skills, technical expertise and knowledge – and not just about survival – in order to succeed. This is learning to “MacGyver” your way to survival. You know, the ability to be so creative as to jump-start your truck with a cactus. Improvising is a skill that needs to be cultivated and practiced. You ever used a butter knife as an impromptu screwdriver?

Steps to Help You Improvise

  1. Think it though. Think of what you need or need to accomplish.
  2. Inventory your resources: Human, equipment and gear, natural, salvageable and reclaimable.
  3. Make a plan. Keep it simple and realistic.
  4. Make sure you consider the consequences of using the chosen resources in the way you plan.
  5. Think of alternatives.
  6. Be Safe! Especially if you are using things in ways not originally intended.

Ability to Adapt

To adapt is to change. It’s the capacity of a person to alter or adjust to the environment as it is changing. Remember, no survival event or emergency is static. In a true survival situation, the ability of you or your family to adapt to the ever-changing demands of the event could mean the difference between success and failure. What does adapt mean when you are trying to survive?

To Adapt is to…

  1. Be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Constantly assessment of your physical, mental and emotional state.
  3. Understand what the capabilities and limitations are of the resources  at your disposal.
  4. Anticipate rather than react to the many changes taking place as an event unfolds, so you are not caught off guard.
  5. Be willing to change even when the decision is a tough one.
  6. Be able to tolerate discomfort, suffering and pain.
  7. Know your strengths and weaknesses: mental, emotional and physical. Be willing to push your limits and endure.

The ability of you and your family to adapt in any emergency or survival event  is crucial to not only surviving but thriving as the incident runs its course. Ultimately, you will need to improvise and adapt in order to overcome and survive.

In his book Survive!, Les Stroud, The Survivorman, states,

“Survival instructors tend to romanticize survival by teaching the many excellent, sometimes advanced skills that will help you [and your loved ones] live as long as possible in remote areas, but the bottom line in a true survival situation is that you’re scared, hungry, tired, and cold. You just want out of the nightmare.”

My hope is long before you or your family is ever involved in a survival situation or extreme emergency you will adopt the 8 keys to survival, amend, adjust and adapt them to fit your specific needs. If so, you will be ready to take on a survival situation and prevail. Keep it simple and you will survive!Maximize Your Survival

I look forward to your questions, comments and suggestions. If you have a question I can’t answer, I will find an expert who can.

If you know of additional key resources related to this subject: Books, videos, magazines or Internet sites etc., I would appreciate you taking a moment and adding them in with your comments.

Additional Resources


In addition to the books recommended in Part One of this article, here are some further recommendations:

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Will to Live by Les Stroud

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

The Outdoor Survival Guide by Randy Gerke

The United States Air Force Search and Rescue Survival Training, United States Air Force

Survivor Kid: A Practical Guide to Wilderness Survival by Denise Long


Extreme Survival Psychology Part 1, Patriot Armory

Extreme Survival Psychology Part 2, Patriot Armory

Extreme Survival Psychology Part 3, Patriot Armory

A Positive Mental Attitude – Essential in Survival Situations, Chandan Lahiri



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