Group Versus Solo Survival

The pros often outweigh the cons when stranded with a group

Once television networks sought to cash in on the interest generated by the series Survivorman, it was inevitable that setting the scenarios up to include groups of people or sets of duos would come about. Unfortunately, every single show and scenario that was/is played out gets one extremely important aspect of survival in a group setting wrong: Survival is not a competition. This, in fact, is why I have refused every request to join the cast of Naked and Afraid, Dual Survival, First Man Out or Alone, beyond many other reasons. Survival will never be about competition. When two or more people find themselves in a harrowing survival ordeal, the name of the game is co-operation. It is about working together. Scouts have always promoted this through numerous adventures and learning activities in the outdoors. Outward Bound promotes it as well. Every outdoor education facility on the planet has promoted working together as part of the learning process. In fact, survival is not going to be possible if groups of people work against each other to make it through an ordeal. That’s called war. I’m not suggesting it isn’t fun, it’s just not true survival.

Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

Everything changes when you are in a survival situation and yet not alone. Some of it is not for the better, although those few occasions are still bettered when someone else is with you. Yes, if you come across food, you now have to share it with others; however, with more people present, you may be able to acquire much more food as a result.

Psychological differences is an easy place to start, as most of us can recognize immediately the advantages of having someone with you to get through an ordeal. Actually, allow me to digress for a moment, because it’s an important word. I use it all the time when discussing survival and I never hear it come up otherwise. The term is ordeal. Let’s remember that there is nothing about survival that is fun. It is painful, it is scary, it is depressing and it is ugly. Just ask anyone who has actually had to deal with being lost and in a survival situation. There is only one thing they want to do and it is not build a nice A-frame shelter. It’s go home. Survival will always be an ordeal one must get through, or perhaps a few must get through. To get through something together with other people is to work together with those people, not fight against them. I wish more people would use the term ordeal when it comes to survival, as it puts the correct connotation on the situation. But again, I digress.

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Psychologically speaking, with one survival partner or with many, you have a shoulder to cry on, you have someone to commiserate with, someone to vindicate that your situation sucks and you wish you were home. They may boost your morale or they may give you purpose in boosting their morale. The bottom line is, you know you’re not alone and this is incredibly important to your mental wellbeing, in an extremely stressful situation.

Let’s walk through the process. You find yourself standing on the side of a rushing river, soaking wet after a canoe mishap. There are four of you and you’re all looking at each other minutes after climbing ashore and you all realize that both your canoes are now either busted up or washed a long way down river. The first thing to do in this situation, as it is in every situation, is to calm down. I stress the words ‘to do’ because I like to think of calming down as an action. Strangely enough, you will find there are slight disadvantages to group survival as well, and panic is one of them. Panic is contagious. If one of you starts flailing about and screaming and crying, it can get under the skin of the others. However, because you are more than one, someone is likely to keep a level head and be able to reassure and calm down whomever is having anxiety.

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Once level heads have been achieved, you can all assess the situation. It’s a real simple equation; with more people, it’s more likely that between the four of you there are still a number of supplies on hand. Better than that, there are now four minds that can work together to assess the situation and begin to make smart decisions. Much second-guessing is eliminated when you have four opinions to consider, rather than just your own. In this scenario, you have four sets of personalities and behavioural patterns to draw from, four sets of intellects to take advantage of, and finally, four sets of muscles to work with. All of these are advantages over just one.

Yes, there are some down sides. There are more likely to be arguments over what to do. However, so long as people keep a level head, the arguments should play out more as intelligent debates over the options, rather than mean spirited arguments. The physical advantage bears repeating. Many hands make toil light, is the old adage. If some kind of shelter must be built, it is now 400 per cent easier to do so and the heat created by the snuggle factor when you attempt to sleep will save lives. Finding a route home becomes much easier when four separate routes may be tested concurrently.

On hundreds of survival days, there is always one aspect that I have never truly been able to get over: Boredom. It’s true I could often keep myself busy working my camera gear to film the next moment or by spending time gathering firewood or other supplies. But boredom is a rarely talked about, yet an incredibly crippling moment in survival. It will burn deep into your mental attitude and reduce you to tears. Once you find yourself in situation with others, boredom can still seep into things if the ordeal is a long one, but its far less likely to do so once you occupy your time with talks of the meals you’re going to have when you get home.

I was asked once during a keynote I was giving on survival if I would ever accept an invitation to go on a certain survival show. I will end this commentary where I started it, with the answer I gave. Survival is not a competition. Group survival is about working together to find the solutions to do only one thing: go home.