Many so-called “survival instructors” exist on the internet and elsewhere. While some have good intentions, others simply see an opportunity for extra income due to the increasing popularity of survival training. It’s important that you choose your instructor(s) wisely.
The advice you take that relates to the safety and lives of you and your loved ones should come from a very knowledgeable source. After all, you’re learning skills that could save your life—not buying a toaster oven. Regardless of an outdoor school’s longevity, size, media appeal, number of YouTube videos or fancy website, the number one variable for the quality of its program is the quality of its instructor(s).
The following tips will help you choose a good instructor whether you’re looking for skills in outdoor survival, primitive living or urban preparedness.
1. INSTRUCTOR’S RESUME
If your would-be instructor claims to have many years of survival experience, yet does not have a résumé proving so, this should be your first red flag. Professional people have professional résumés, especially when their profession deals with life-and-death training.
2. BEWARE THE HOBBYIST
Ask if the instructor has been teaching survival skills continuously during his self-proclaimed years of operation. Interpreting and promoting years of one’s sporadic hobby or wishful thinking as “experience” on a professional résumé or website is fraudulent at best.
To confirm an instructor’s honesty about the length of his school’s operation, look at the dates of their media portfolio. If he claims his school is 20 years old, but all of the newspaper and magazine clippings are five years old or less, he’s likely exaggerating his years of operation and experience.
3. SELF-PUBLISHED IS NOT PUBLISHED
If your potential instructor has a book, it will give you an overview of how he teaches and what he knows about a given subject. If the information seems weak, and/or the book itself is really a “booklet” of 50 or 60 pages, reconsider the last few sentences. Self-published books by vanity or homegrown presses are NOT written by published authors.
4. TRAIN WITH A FULL-TIME INSTRUCTOR
Would you feel comfortable seeing a physician who practiced medicine three months out of the year? Large schools with dozens of instructors have the impossible task of attempting to keep them employed full time. Finding year-round work in this business can be challenging, so locating an instructor that fits this category will tell you something about him. He is either very good, very lucky, both or someone else is paying the bills.
5. FIND AN INSTRUCTOR WHO LIVES WHAT HE TEACHES
While this trait is rarer than hen’s teeth, it does exist.
Whether you wish to learn outdoor survival, primitive living, home preparedness or other forms of doing more with less, they all have one thing in common … self-reliance.
Ask your instructor about his or her lifestyle. Would you call it self-reliant? An outdoor survival instructor who lives in a city or town will have less daily outdoor experience than one who lives in a rural setting. If you have the opportunity to see your potential instructor in person, look at his hands, feet and face. Any calluses or tan lines? Any signs of physical exertion other than typing, selling survival gear online, or surfing survival forums?
Self-reliant skills can be very physical and one who practices them on a routine basis will show the signs, just like all native peoples did for thousands of years.
6. IF YOUR INTEREST IS PRIMITIVE LIVING SKILLS, TRAIN WITH SOMEONE WHO LIVES IN YOUR REGION
He will be the most familiar with your local flora and fauna. Learning to harvest cactus fruit from an Inuit is sketchy at best. If quality concerns you, the longer dedicated instructors have lived within the geographic areas they teach, the greater the experience they’ll be able to pass on to you.
7. THE INSTRUCTOR’S BACKGROUND
Is your potential instructor known and respected by his or her peers? Are they known at all by their peers? Has his school been in operation for as long as the web page says it has?
Unfortunately, these days the school with the best web page and brochure is thought to be the best wilderness school as well. Don’t be a fool with your time and money. Ask the hard questions and cross-reference your instructor the best that you can.
8. BEWARE THE EXPERT
Large egos and cocky attitudes are all too common in the field of wilderness survival. One of the more unfortunate manifestations of this mindset is the failure to be open to learning new material. Any instructor who tells you there is only one way to do a skill is destined to be upstaged by a humble student with no preconceived bias as to how that skill is done.
9. STUDY WITH SOMEONE WHO KNOWS SEVERAL FORMS OF SELF-RELIANT SKILLS
Most outdoor schools confuse “modern survival skills” with “primitive living skills.” Although there is overlap between the two, learning to flint-knap a stone knife has limited value for your 59-year-old aunt if she finds herself thrust into a real time wilderness survival situation. Ultimately, and when taught in the proper order, knowing both sets of skills gives you greater potential for success when dealing with a survival scenario.
10. MAKE SURE THE STUDENT-TO-QUALIFIED INSTRUCTOR RATIO IS LOW
Learning and practicing survival skills is a very experiential process. Unless you’re getting a price break, hands-on instruction involving more than 10 or 12 students will cause the course quality to suffer because you’ll spend more time watching than doing.
The U.S. military insists on training their Special Forces soldiers in small groups as they know it’s the most effective way to learn and practice hands-on skills.
11. IS THE FIELD COURSE TAUGHT IN THE FIELD?
Imagine a kayaking instructor who never took his or her students beyond a swimming pool for training. It’s obvious that the swimming pool offers zero training reality and variables compared to an actual ocean or river, and yet the student is learning to kayak … or are they?
When a survival instructor teaches you skills in a campground or in his backyard, you are not learning survival skills in the context of how they will be needed and executed in a real survival scenario in the backcountry. Survival is 90 percent psychology. Thus a so-called “advanced” course should not have student vehicles parked 100 yards away as the student knows “escape,” physically and mentally, is literally right around the corner.
12. I SAW THEM ON TV SO THEY MUST BE GOOD
No one gets field credibility by having a survival show on television. Thoroughly research your TV expert using several sources to see if he is the real deal … and more than likely you will be disappointed.
13. PHONY ONLINE EXPERT, YOUTUBE WANNABE
Within the last few years, online survivalism—for lack of a better term—has increased radically. The Internet is brimming with online stores featuring survival goods by people who have no real field experience in what they are trying to sell.
Also, self-made videos, blogs, YouTube whatevers, e-courses and websites abound, and with the power of the Internet mixed with easily duped people, it doesn’t take long before someone with a couple years of backyard experience becomes the Internet darling wilderness survival expert.
14. FIELD EXPERIENCE, FIELD EXPERIENCE, FIELD EXPERIENCE
It is impossible to Google, Facebook or YouTube field experience and competency. The longer an outdoor survival instructor has trained people in the field—remote wilderness back country— not simply their backyard in a suburban area or a campground, the better they should be at the learned mindset of what effective, realistic survival training is all about.
When going back inside is not an option, when you’re miles from the trailhead in rugged wilderness terrain with inexperienced students having no food, little modern gear and the thunderheads are gathering, this is the type of repeated experience that separates the men from the boys for the survival instructor.
15. GET WHAT YOU PAID FOR
Bargain hunting for survival instruction has been a bad idea since humans first roamed the planet.
Think about it. You’re proposing to purchase knowledge and skills that could literally save your life or that of someone you love. The $100 or so that you save upfront from a cheaper school could cost you dearly in the future.
In essence, the money you put down for survival training reflects how much you think your life is worth. Aren’t you and your loved ones worth the few extra dollars? Remember, if you ever need to use your skills, you’ll find them to be priceless.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2012 print issue of American Survival Guide.