Article Review: Keeping it Real with Les Stroud

“Keeping it Real with Les Stroud: Survivorman is Here to Crush the Most Common Survival Myths”, Survivor’s Edge by Michael D’Angona, Winter-Spring 2017, p.7-11.

 

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Les Stroud

The topic of survival provides much to discuss between Michael D’Angona and one of the most recognized personalities in the survival world, Les Stroud. The interview of survival expert Les Stroud gives the reader a glimpse into his mind and heart on a broad spectrum of topics that are of interest to survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts. Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud Productions, which produces the Survivorman television series primarily for the Canadian network, Outdoor Life Network, and has aired in the United States in cooperation with Discovery Communications since 2006. The interview covers some five pages in the current (Winter-Spring 2017) edition of Survivor’s Edge magazine.

 

D’Angona introduces the article with a general overview of the misconceptions that most people have regarding the realities of actual survival in an austere environment. He says, “Often people miss the fine points of survival when they are just reading up on it or watching a show about it.” This statement provides the theme for the discussion with Les Stroud. After the introduction, the author segues into the interview by asking Les, “What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people have about survival?” The interview then moves from the general topic of survival to specific aspects of survival (e.g. tools and equipment, survival psychology, and education and training), the article ends with a question regarding survival television with Stroud’s answers.  Les Stroud’s remarks recorded in the pages of this article are set in the context of naming and clarifying some misconceptions about the realities of survival.  Overall, the article gives those new to the survival interest some helpful tips and important advice. Those who have been fans of Les Stroud and Survivorman for many years will find some repeated thoughts that Les has articulated over the years, especially in regards to survival television.

One of the more insightful questions that Les Stroud answered was about analyzing the survival decisions of others, who are in the field. Les answered, “When they say, ‘I could do that’, I say, ‘Yes, you are absolutely right—you could do that; anyone can learn to survive.’ When they say, ‘He should’ve done this or that,’ I say, ‘Oh yeah, well, you weren’t there and until you’re in the same situation, you shouldn’t judge what someone else might do or not do to survive. Armchair survivalists are no different than armchair athletes.” This is an important perspective for those just starting out in survival and woodsmanship or they are seasoned veterans with accumulated years of field time developing their field craft. It is easy to make decisions when one’s body is hydrated, properly fed, rested, and under no psychological or emotional duress, especially as a passive observer of some else’s experience. Yet, when the realities of being stranded or lost set in, the abilities in decision-making and critical thinking become affected. It seems that changing one’s paradigm from being lost or stranded to being safe and secure at home has more of an influence on survival decisions than methodical, logically thought out progressively intentional decisions (i.e. “I got get out of here!” vs. “Ok, here I am, now how do I get out of here”). Thus, until you are in a stranded or lost situation, there is no legitimate way of knowing what kind of decisions that you would make. Therefore, Les cautions the reader to be careful about second guessing others.

The most important tip that Les offers in this interview is found in his answer to the question that relates to depending on someone else’s abilities and knowledge in a survival situation. He relates that when he is with a couple, he asks them what they are carrying and usually the husband speaks up and delineates what he is carrying for survival in his pack. Les, then, states the following, “I pull the wife aside and I ask her what she has, which usually ends up with her telling her husband, ‘See, I told you I should have my own pack!’ But this doesn’t mean that teamwork and relying on others isn’t also part of survival. It is.” This harkens to a military concept of each person carrying the same items in their rucksacks. Soldiers, Marines, and Special Operations personnel, who carry rucksacks into the field use a basic packing list of items that each member of the group is to carry in their packs. Obviously, clothing sizes vary, but some items can be collected from a fallen service member’s rucksack in the heat of a combat situation (e.g. first aid kits, signal or lighting items, fire making items, land navigation items, ammunition, knives, multi-tools, food, canteens, personal hygiene items, cordage, etc.). This is what Les is implying here in his response. The wife should have the same survival items in her backpack that are in her husband’s pack. Moreover, she should be just as knowledgeable and proficient with them as her husband. Additionally, they should be communicating to each other as to what survival items are in their packs. Then, if the husband should become incapacitated in some way, the wife can continue and not become debilitated in her survival efforts. The concept that Les is articulating applies not only to a husband/wife team but to anyone who is with an outdoors partner or group.

One of the more interesting responses that Les gives in this interview are on the topic of survival reality television. D’Angona asks Les two questions regarding survival reality television. All of which are in the context of dispelling misconceptions about real-world survival. The first question that Les fields from D’Angona is about the mixed messages that the general television audience receives from reality survival television. Les answers by making a correlation between watching the Olympics on television and attempting to intentionally do a particular event without training. The rhetorical response that Les outlines has the obvious answer that you would not do it. The same is true of watching survival television and trying to intentionally do survival outdoors without training. You would not do it. The second question that Les answers regarding reality survival television is also about how easy reality television makes surviving look verses continually working at your field craft. He goes on to give some specific names of television programs that can be misleading about survival; Man v. Wild (Bear Grylls), Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, and Alone.

The last show named by Les, Alone, has generated some backlash against Les by some of the former contestants of the show Alone. Unfortunately, is seems that some of the critics of Les, by these former contestants of Alone, did not keep the context of the interview in mind before they took Stroud’s critique personally and began circulating their disappointments via social media. The truth of the matter is that Les (as well as Cody Lundin) is correct in his assessment of reality survival television verses the realities of actual survival. It is my assessment that Les Stroud’s comments were not a dig at the field craft acumen, survival ability, or survival endurance experiences of individuals in the field while filming a survival television program. Rather, his comments are coming from a broader perspective in articulating the dichotomy between television reality and the real-world realities of being lost at sea, stranded in a snow storm, or lost in the wilderness with so safety structure to fall back on.  Therefore, Les’ comments are a sobering reminder that there is no substitute for what Dave Canterbury calls, “dirt time”.  Les Stroud reminds us in his “Patagonia” episode of Survivorman season 7, “You can’t watch a survival program on T.V. and head out and imitate it. It’s not safe. It’s taken me years to know what I know, to have learned what I’ve learned and I practiced hundreds and hundreds of times with other people before I ever attempted anything alone.”

The interview article by Michael D’Angona with survival expert, television personality, and musician Les Stroud was an excellent read. It offers great insights and advice to survival novices and survival veterans alike. Photos by Laura Bombier give a refreshing touch to this article. Her photographs reinforce the fact that Les Stroud is a credible, experienced survival expert that everyone can learn from in regards to survival in the outdoors. D’Angona did a wonderful job interviewing Les Stroud. This article should be read by everyone interested in Les Stroud, Survivorman, survival, or the outdoors.

William H. Lavender, II

Lynchburg, VA.

 

Hiking Tip # 1: The Survival Knife

January 28, 2017

survival-knife-comparisonIn the beginning of my hiking and backpacking journey, it became clear that there is a definite controversy surrounding “survival” knives. Despite this, everyone seems to agree that a good survival knife is an essential item for backpackers. There are many good resources to access regarding learning about survival knives.  I have experimented with some of the survival-type knives marketed over the years and for me the key word is versatility and practicality when it comes to carrying fixed-blade knives. The defining question on fixed-blade knives is how such a knife will be used in the field. For me, the term “survival” knife is a definition for a purpose or an application of the knife. That means that the intended purpose of the knife is for it to be the one all-purpose knife that you will rely on exclusively in the field to save your life should you get lost or separated from your gear.[1]  Also, you must understand there are many categories of survival: combat/tactical, wilderness, urban, water/sea, jungle, mountain, desert, medical, emergency, etc. There are knives available for each of these survival categories.

Therefore, a person needs to define what kind of use they want to get out of a fixed-blade knife. Is the knife going to be used primarily around the campsite or bivouac to build shelters, process meat, process wood, build snares or traps, cook, etc.? Will the knife be used for hunting, fishing, camping, or self-defense? While serving in the U.S. Army, I found that there is such a thing as having too much knife (i.e. cumbersome and impractical). Lugging a long-blade knife around your waist and the only chance you get to use it is when you open an MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) is my definition of too much knife. Moreover, there is a big difference between using a knife to survive in a combat environment and using one to get you through the wilderness (i.e. bushcrafting, big game hunting, or a through-hike on the hiking trail). For those who practice wilderness survival and bushcrafting as their primary activity, then the type of fixed-blade knife that they will use and recommend is well defined.  For those less inclined to practice woodsmanship or bushcrafting, then there seems to be more variety of fixed-blade knives from which to choose. To determine what one needs for a survival knife, there are some basic characteristics that are universally accepted by outdoor experts that define a good survival knife.

First, the knife must be full tang. Full Tang means the knife blade and handle tang are formed from a singular piece of steel.  The tang is the part of the knife upon which the handle scales are attached.  The knife tang should extend to the bottom of the handle and not taper into the handle as in a “rat-tail” design.  Some knives marketed as survival knives have a hollow handle molded, bolted, or welded to the blade. This makes the knife vulnerable to cracking and breaking at the joint where the blade and handle meet. When I first learned about this difference, I quickly discovered that you get what you pay for. Most hollow-handle survival knives that are inexpensive fall into this category. However, in recent years, there has been some significant improvements on the hollow-handle knives and some people are starting to recommend them as a useful knife.[2]

The second characteristic of a good survival knife involves blade thickness. A good survival knife needs the blade thickness to be between 3/16 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch. This provides a solid and durable blade that will last if you properly take care of it. Other sources will have additional considerations. However, I found that if you find a knife that meets these first two specifications then the other recommended characteristics for a good survival knife will fall into place.

Some other points of argumentation that one will find in the literature or online concerning survival knives are about the type of metal the blade is made from, the grind of the cutting edge, blade coating, and the edge of the blade spine. Again, this is easily worked out if one has a good idea of what they want the knife to do in the field or on the trail. If you are a hiker or backpacker that likes to do bushcrafting while you are outdoors, then your preference in a survival knife is going to be a bushcrafting knife with all the accepted characteristics (90° blade spine, no serrated edges, Scandinavian grind cutting edge, 5 to 6-inch blade made from 1095 High Carbon Steel with no coatings). If you are a camper or a hiker just out for a couple of hours or spending the night in a prepared bivouac and you are carrying your tent, stove, and food, then there are a variety of options available to you for a good fixed-blade knife.

There is one knife that is the exception to these general considerations.  It is the Morakniv® Bushcraft Survival Knife. Most of the experts agree that this is the best knife to possess if you are on a budget or as a secondary knife in your kit. It is not full-tang and its blade is just under 5 inches; however, it meets the other criteria that bushcrafters and outdoorsman are looking for in a knife. If you are a hiker or backpacker and do not want to spend a lot of money on a knife, but want a good, solid, reliable knife, the experts agree that the Morakniv® Bushcraft series are the best knives.

Finally, a short comment on serrated edges. There is much ado regarding a knife blade with a serrated edge and one without. For me, it is a matter of preference and being able to answer the question that I mentioned earlier, “What is the purpose of your knife”? If you want to cut down on weight in your backpack and are interested in carrying only one knife, then a knife with a serrated edge may be a viable option. The serrated edge provides some versatility with the ability to saw small diameter limbs or materials such as plastic. If you are going to carry a good multi-tool (e.g. Leatherman® Sidekick or Gerber® Diesel), then I do not think you really need a knife with a serrated edge. The multi-tool already gives you the capability to saw things. If you expect to process wood with a saw-type tool, then I would recommend carrying a decent folding limb saw to round out your basic tool needs as a backpacker.[3]

It must be remembered that many of the knives being marketed as survival knives are actually tactical knives designed for military use with some cross over applications in law enforcement. The serrated-edge tactical knives provide soldiers and field medical personnel the ability to cut through MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) gear and armor plate carriers when rescuing or rendering medical aid to an injured or wounded service member.  Commercial stainless steel fine-edge knives are not as efficient at cutting though military-grade Cordura® material as the Berry Compliant tactical knives with serrated edges. Tactical knives are very attractive and inspire confidence, but they have little application in a non-tactical environment. Additionally, most of these tactical knives have the serrated edge near the hilt of the knife which is the most important cutting surface of the blade for notching other carving and cutting tasks that require more hand dexterity and precision. The tasks become more difficult if you are trying use one of these serrated tactical knives to cut notches in limbs or carve out a slot in a small piece of wood for a trap or fire-making kit. So, consider carefully what you are going to need a survival knife to accomplish before purchasing a knife that looks awesome but is useless to meet your needs.

So, have fun, do some shopping, and once you are settled on the knife that meets your needs, exhaust its use.  See you on the trail!

[1] Dave Canterbury, “Knives JMHO”, Wilderness Outfitters, YouTube®, accessed December 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpNQS6CX7FA&index=2&list=PLZLagqylZ3j4VEKfSuM-2jZrwsh689YSs.

[2] Jack Richland, “Rambo Survival Knife”, Black Scout Survival, YouTube®, accessed December 15, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8YR-YmGFiw.

[3] The basic tool needs for backpackers: fixed-blade knife, folding blade knife, multi-tool, and folding saw; a small camp axe is optional.