I did not have a good influence for adventure growing up, but my dad did take us fishing consistently. It was watching Jacques Cousteau and Wild Kingdom and Tarzan on TV in the ‘70s that gave me my love for adventure and survival. But it was my free time in the bush behind my cottage while building pretend shelters, combined with learning how to take my own fish off my own hook, that gave me my childhood sense of familiarity with the wild world. It’s not ironic that I became Survivorman, it was destined, for what is Survivorman if not my childhood fantasy of combining Cousteau and Tarzan?
After teaching them how to hold a spoon and cross the road, we teach our children how to interact socially. We teach them how to learn, we teach them how to build a life, we teach them how to find a mate.
But isn’t wilderness survival an adult’s game? Isn’t it based on life and death situations that children won’t or shouldn’t find themselves in? Survival shelters are a fun game, but shouldn’t the making of a fire be left to the strong hands of an adult?
Let me back up a bit. The first time I ever got a fire going from “nothing” out in the wilderness, I was in my mid-20s. It gave me such a rush of confidence; I was taken aback by how amazing I felt. All of a sudden I felt like, “Well, whatever else happens in life, at least I know how to get a good fire going!” It changed my existence and experience in the wilderness, but it also changed my confidence in life. And this is most certainly a skill set and state of being I wish I had when I was young.
As the adults, we think we are the heroes out in the bush around our kids. Yet with the exception of perhaps fearing the dark of night, most kids don’t show up, at least not the very young, with any particular set of fears. We have yet to give those to them. Most kids will happily pick up a leech or a spider or snake, that is until the day their parent shows them fear. So they are by nature ready and willing and fearless students in the world of wilderness survival. Taught properly, the concepts of venomous creatures, finger-freezing cold or how to handle the scorching embers of a fire become something to learn how to respect, not fear.
This is all tied into a much larger subject, which is the importance for all people, young and old, to get free time in nature. It makes us all stronger, smarter, healthier and more psychologically adjusted, and that is a proven and peer-reviewed scientific fact. However, for now I’ll stick with survival skills. From the very beginning, I have shown both my son and daughter the joy and fearlessness of playing with harmless leeches or observing non-venomous snakes or even just getting their hands wet and dirty. And I should point out here that consistency between parents is vital. “Dad may say something is fine, but why is mom so afraid?” If from a young age, if we become familiar with what a frog feels like, or an insect, or being cold, or getting a scratch on our arm from a branch, then we do not fear it later in life. It becomes a simple part of our life experience.
We all know that practice makes perfect. I have lost count of how many adults have told me they have tried to get a fire going by rubbing two sticks together, the fire bow method, and have not been successful. So learning how to build a shelter or start a fire from a young age will build simple muscle memory for later in life. When my kids were very young, two years of age, we taught them how to use a knife by giving them a butter knife and mushrooms to chop for dinner. By the age of 10, they were completely adept at and mature about the use of knives. Their friends were downright dangerous with a knife in their hands, having had zero guidance or instruction. My kids saw a knife as only a tool for living.
What we are doing when we are teaching our children life and survival skills is teaching them how to live without the teacher. Whether camping, fishing, boating, hunting, hiking or practicing survival, kids get bored if the adults do all the work, subsequently giving the kids no way to contribute. They may moan, especially the teenagers, but just watch them puff up with pride when they, instead of dad, get the dinner fire going. Alternatively, they must learn how to fail and ask for help. Survival can be for real. It pained me greatly to leave Logan alone near Tofino, during the filming of Survivorman and Son, to get the fire going on his own. I knew for him it would be tough because in spite of being “Surviorman’s son,” he hadn’t really worked very hard at survival skills. Now it was do or die. And he had the added weight of it all being on film for TV! He failed to get it going and I had to help him in the end. He hasn’t failed at getting a fire going since.
The thing about survival skills is that they touch on the more primitive version of us all. They represent that feeling of, “If I really had to, could I?” Kids don’t necessarily have that question in their minds; however, if they have been taught from a young age how to survive in the woods in a primitive manner, then they don’t even need to ask the question later. I have been approached by a lot of people who have said straight up, “I can do what you do,” to which I reply, “Yes, of course you can! That is my whole point!” I’m certain these are adults who grew up with at least a smattering of wilderness survival lessons from their parents in some form or another.
It doesn’t matter if your child is going to grow up to be a mathematician, an athlete, a real estate agent, a truck driver or a doctor. These survival skills associated with free time in nature serve to enhance their entire lives. And the truth of the matter, my real hidden agenda here, is that once learned and most importantly once experienced, they will always come back to nature. Your kids need familiarity with branches and bushes, with snakes and frogs, with insects (including the ones who bite and sting), with big furry animals and birds in the air. With that familiarity, they will remember their roots as a species. If indeed they have built fires and shelters in their youth, if they have taken off their shoes and walked across streams and happily and gently pulled little leeches off their feet, if they have coughed when smoke from a fire wafted into their faces and breathed in deep when a breeze has wafted across a lake, they will consider all of these and a thousand more experiences and sensations familiar, and they will either stick with them throughout life, which will make them healthy and strong, or they will desire to come back to them knowing that the wilderness is a place to feel young again, to feel at home.
Here’s some tips:
- Teach them knife use young by using a butter knife and mushrooms to chop.
- Never forbid them from chopping wood – teach them how.
- Brush up on your own skills so that you can be an effective teacher.
- Show them stoicism in the face of trying circumstances, like hordes of mosquitoes.
- Work together with them on their first fires and shelters to show them success.
- Let them fail at all these skills, assuming nothing is dangerous or life threatening.
- Work on these skills in the backyard or local bush area – you don’t have to go to the Amazon to learn outdoor skills.
- Get as many of their friends out there with you – they will soon ask you to leave them alone to handle it themselves.
- As they get older, and if you’re not an experienced teacher yourself, enroll them in a good and reputable survival school or course.
- Remind them that survival is for real – it’s not a game, it’s not a recreational activity, these are real life lessons worth learning.
- Sleep out there with them at first until you are comfortable they can spend the night on their own, even if it is in the backyard.
Use the book Survive! Skills and Tactics To Get You Out Of Anywhere Alive, like a textbook of sorts to walk through the lessons.