A Short History of the Air Force Survival Knife

June 21, 2018

Many of us have been exposed to the fixed blade knife known popularly as the Air Force Survival Knife. We have seen it in outfitter stores, marketed on the internet, and may even have owned one. Possibly, some may have had one issued to them while serving in the military. This knife has been around for many years. It used to be a standard piece of gear for anyone, including backpackers, who was a serious outdoorsman and wilderness adventurers back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Rambo movies made popular the Rambo-type survival knife. I became curious about the background and history of this knife about a year ago. It was enlightening to discover that there is very little information available on the background and origins of this knife. Most of the information that I have collected about the knife comes from blogs and knife forums on the internet. After vetting the information against the published government standards for this knife and the government procurement process, what emerged was a unique story of an iconic knife that has found its way from the military to the civilian outdoor world and into the hearts of many owners and users.

Origins Of A New Survival Knife for Military Aircrews

Robin Olds Survival Knife2The genesis of the Air Force Survival Knife goes back to the 1950s at the dawn of the jet age. The U.S. Defense Department published to private industry requirements for a standardized fixed blade knife to issue to pilots and aircrews of the various service branches. Before this requirement, knives of several types were procured by the individual branches of the military and dispensed to their members. By contrast, the current DoD procurement process is much more refined and regulated. Thus, the current standards, methods, and procedures were not necessarily applicable to the procurement process that brought this knife into existence. As such, finding a definitive history of the development and procurement of this knife is difficult to reconstruct. It is assumed that such information resides in the archives of the companies that have manufactured the knife as well as the files of the DoD. However, based on the information that I have collected, vetted, and coupled with my own experience with the DoD procurement and testing process, here is the basic history of this knife.

The story of this knife seems to begin in 1953, when the DoD announced to private industry their specifications for a standardized survival knife for pilots to interested vendors in Military Specification MIL-K-8662 (16 October 1953). Companies interested in gaining the government contract received these requirements and submitted proposals for consideration based on those requirements. As the development and testing process began to take shape, updates to the original specification documents were published. The 1954 update calls for the knife to have a sharpened clip point blade and an additional rivet to the sheath. That same year, the Marble-Arms Corporation (now known as Marble’s®) began work on designing their prototype for the survival knife based on the government specifications. In 1957, the Marble-Arms Corporation submitted to the U.S. government a design based on their Ideal Hunting Knife design. This design was accepted, and the military specifications documents were updated to reflect Marble’s concept in MIL-K-8662A (04 November 1957). This military specification document would become the standard for further improvements and changes to the pilot survival knife throughout the years.

Marble produced several thousand knives for field testing and delivered them to the U.S. Air Force between 1957-1959. After the completion of testing and bidding competition between Marble, Camillus Cutlery, and the Ontario Knife Company (OKC), Camillus was awarded the contract to supply the new Jet Pilot Survival Knife (JPSK) to the Department of Defense instead of Marble. Camillus produced the knife with a 6-inch blade from 1959-1961. In 1961, updates to the military specifications called for a 5-inch blade. Camillus produced the Jet Pilot Survival Knife with a 5-inch blade from 1961-2006. It appears that in 2006, Ontario Knife Company became the current vendor to the DoD of the Jet Pilot Survival Knife under the National Stock Number (NSN): 7340-00-098-4327. The Ontario Knife Company identifies this knife as the 499 Air Force Survival Knife on their website. Additionally, OKC is the only company selling this knife commercially.

The Air Force Survival Knife Introduced to the Commercial Market

The Air Force Survival Knife was introduced to the commercial market by Marble after not being awarded the DoD contract to supply the new survival knife to the military. The reason behind Marble selling their knife to the general public was due, in part, to pre-maturely manufacturing several thousand knife blades and parts in advance of learning who would be awarded the government contract to supply the knives to the military. To recuperate some of the money that they had spent producing blades and knife components, Marble offered a civilian version of the knife to the public in 1961. Their commercial version of the survival knife had a polished blade instead of a subdued or blued blade, brass guard, and polished pommel. These knives became popular with outdoorsman. Later, after service members began returning from Vietnam, the military-grade issued knives began to be seen on the market. Currently, the military-grade Air Force Survival Knife is only manufactured and sold by the Ontario Knife Company.

Design Features for the Air Force Survival Knife

The primary document that describes the various features of the Air Force Survival Knife is Military Specification MIL-K-8662 (16 October 1953). Over the decades, this document has been updated. The current edition of this document is Aerospace Standard SAE-AS-8662. However, the essential features of the knife have remained constant throughout the life of the knife. What are the unique features of the Air Force Survival Knife, as outlined in the U.S. Government specifications?

Basic Description:

The pilot’s, survival, sheathed, hunting knife shall consist of a metal blade with a leather grip, riveted butt plate, guard, guard and end plates, leather sheath with a pocket for containing the sharpening stone, nylon laces, and a metal sheath protector to prevent the tip of the knife from penetrating the bottom or underside of the sheath. The intended use of the knife is for pilots as required in survival situations.

The Blade:

  • The blade is to be a “through tang” blade blanked from AISI 1095 steel conforming to MIL-S-8665 Steel Bars, Carbon, AISI 1095, Aircraft Quality.
  • The blade will be tempered to a Rockwell Hardness of C50-C55
  • The cutting blade is to be 5 1/8 inches long and 3/16 inches thick.

The Sheath:

  • The sheath shall be made of leather in compliance with Federal Standard KK-L-271 Leather, Cattlehide, Strap, Vegetable Tanned.
  • The sheath leather shall be 8/64-inch-thick
  • The sheath welt shall be 3/8-inch-thick and 2 ½ inches in length.

The Handle Grip:

  • The grip will be made of leather in compliance with Federal Standard KK-L-165 Leather, Cattlehide, Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Retanned; Impregnated and Soles.
  • The leather for the grip will be cut into washers, 1/8 inch in thickness.
  • The leather will be treated with para-nitrophenol fungicide.
    • Paranitrophenol fungicide:
      Paranitrophenol was first registered in the United States in 1963 as a fungicide incorporated into leather products and hides as a preservative. A second fungicidal product was registered in 1967. Both products contained a second active ingredient, salicylanilide. However, the registrations for all registered products containing salicylanilide as an active ingredient have been canceled. Currently, one pesticide product is registered to contain para-nitrophenol as an active ingredient. This registration, granted in 1980, is for use of paranitrophenol as a fungicide incorporated into leather for military use, at a concentration not to exceed 0.7% on the basis of dry finished leather weight. In 1983, this registration was amended to add the use of the product for incorporation into cork insulation for military use.

The Sharpening Stone:

  • The sharpening stone shall be fabricated from silicon carbide, grain size 280, hardness P, vitrified bond.
  • The sharpening stone size shall be 3 inches long, 7/8-inch-wide, and 1/4 inch thick.

Some Comments on the Design Features of the Air Force Survival Knife

The Air Force Survival Knife was designed to meet a particular requirement for the military. As such, this knife was not intended as a frontiersman or bushcraft knife, per se. The design features for this knife came about through various inputs from servicemembers, survivability researchers, and training developers. Moreover, the requirement for having a standard survival knife for pilots and aircrews across the DoD was due to economic considerations and budgeting constraints at the time which fostered standardization across the military services. Furthermore, standardization of equipment reduces costs upon the logistical system. These influences upon the procurement system tempered the DoD design features of the knife.

Additionally, the jet age in military aviation increased the number of gear pilots and aircrews had to carry on their flights. Thus, finding ways of reducing the bulk of the Aviation Life Support Equipment (ALSE) assisted in the overall weight considerations for flying. Consequently, the knife blade being reduced from six inches to five inches allowed it to retain some of the qualities necessary to carry out survival tasks, but small enough that it could be easily stowed on an aircrewman’s vest without causing interference for aircrews trying to carry out their duties while flying.

In particular, some questions that arise with this knife are those regarding two specific features of the knife: the saw-toothed spine and the two holes in the handguard. The serrated spine on this knife is part of the functional requirements for this knife. One of the tasks that this knife was designed to accomplish was helping pilots and aircrews egress their downed aircraft or to help first responders extract them from their downed aircraft. The serrated spine was designed to cut through the aluminum skin surrounding the airframes of Korean and Vietnam War-era aircraft. The sharpened clip point on the blade allows the pilot to punch a hole in the aluminum then use the knife spine as a hasty saw to cut through the aircraft skin during an aircraft egress situation.

Additionally, synthetic composite materials like Kevlar had not been fully integrated into aircraft construction until the late 1970s and 1980s. Thus, this knife became obsolete for its original intended use when the majority of military aircraft incorporated composite materials. However, it was still adequate for survival situations and therefore remained in the Federal Supply System.

The second question that arises concerning some of the features of this knife is the purpose of the two holes in the blade guard. As best as can be ascertained, the two holes are used as lashing points for cordage for survival tasks in the field, such as creating a hasty spear. However, there is not enough information in the literature to determine with certainty the purpose of the holes. As with many uses of military equipment, service members use considerable ingenuity in the field when employing their equipment and therefore, the use of the holes in the blade guard for cordage lashing points may have been a field expedient use of the knife rather than as an intentionally designed purpose. So, as stated earlier, the archives of Marble or the DoD may reveal conclusively if the reason for the holes in the handguard.

Further Developments of the Air Force Survival Knife

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Army published requirements to private industry for an aviation survival knife to replace the aging Air Force Survival Knife. As a result, the Ontario Knife Company developed a prototype based on the 1957 design that was first submitted by Marble. Ontario’s model became the Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife, System (ASEK) based on the published requirements by the U.S. Army. Ontario’s knife became procured by the U.S. Army and was issued a National Stock Number, NSN: 1095-01-530-0833 within the Federal Supply System. However, this was not the end of the aging Air Force Survival Knife. It is currently still in inventory with the DoD through the GSA. As a further development on the Air Force Survival Knife, the Ontario Knife Company offers a second-generation civilian version of the knife in its Special Purpose SP® series of knives. It is the SP 2, Survival Knife.

Some Concluding Thoughts

The Air Force Survival Knife has had a storied, yet obscure, history. The knife has been in continuous service with the Department of Defense for over sixty years. The iconic design features of the knife, that have characterized its look, have remained unchanged since its inception. This is a testimony to the ingenuity of the design team that developed the knife at the Marble’s company. As well, it must be remembered that this knife was designed to address a specific need for the U.S. military and was not intended to be used outside of that context. However, because of Marble’s premature manufacturing of the knife before it was awarded a government contract, the rest of the world gained the privilege to own this knife.

The Air Force Survival Knife will be around for a very long time. Even if the Ontario Knife Company discontinues their production and the DoD phases them out of their inventories, the knife will be around for commercial purchase. Surplus stores will purchase them in bulk through U.S. Government auctions, collectors will buy them at auctions, military museums will display them, and they will continue to be available for purchase on the internet. It is also suspected that knife makers will begin to find ways to improve the knife and manufacture their versions of the knife similar to what knife companies are doing with other legacy knife designs.

The journey of this iconic knife has been exciting to discover. I own one as a backup knife for my backpacking, outdoor, and emergency needs. The Air Force Survival Knife is an excellent knife. Those who do not currently own one should purchase one. It will not be long before you are won over by the versatility and practicality of the Air Force Survival Knife.

jet_marble_rtn800
The Original Design Proposal Submitted by Marble for a Pilot’s Survival Knife

 

2981648575_b848c8dedf_z
Advertisement for the Camillus Air Force Survival Knife
Marbles-233
The Marbles Commercial Pilot Survival Knife

 

 

QN-ASEK
The OKC Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife (ASEK) System

 

on8305-ontario-sp2-air-force-survival-8305
The OKC SP 2 Air Force Survival Knife

Gear Review: MOLLE 4000 Rucksack

January 30, 2018

Military surplus MOLLE backpacks and pouches and their commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) imitators have become a favorite purchase item for both the outdoor enthusiasts and preppers. As with most equipment designed for the military, it has limited efficiency when employed for civilian use. For example, the current modular sleep system used by the military will not fit in its entirety into the sleeping bag compartments of most commercial backpacks. Therefore, for the ultralight backpackers and adventure racers, military surplus, such as sleeping bags, are avoided. However, MOLLE backpacks and pouches are purchased and used by a wide variety of people and they work quite well when used within their designed purposes.
In recent years, an interest has arisen in the military for a backpack, whose volume falls in between the current issue MOLLE Large and Medium Rucksacks. MOLLE is an acronym for Modular Light Weight Load Carrying Equipment. The MOLLE system was first introduced in the late 1990s to replace the aging Vietnam-era ALICE (All-Purpose Individual Combat Equipment) system. New materials and manufacturing techniques drives the current philosophy of producing lighter and stronger individual equipment that is procured by the military. Once aging or unserviceable MOLLE equipment is coded out of the military inventory system, it becomes available for acquisition by civilian surplus stores for sale to the general public.

A new version of the MOLLE rucksack called, the MOLLE 4000, is being tested by the military for parachute operations. Some of the early test models submitted by vendors are starting to make their way on to the market for the general public. I purchased mine last year at a military surplus store when I lived in Virginia. These are interesting packs and reflect the genre of the military’s current designs for rucksacks. It is not known, as of this writing, if the military has adopted this particular design of the rucksack. However, it is certain that more of these backpacks will eventually find their way to surplus stores, as well as, internet vendors and will be purchased by interested consumers. What are some characteristics and features of this rucksack?

Characteristics

General Description:
This rucksack falls into the category of an external frame backpack. The advertised volume of the rucksack is 4000 cubic inches making it 65 liters. It is constructed of 1000 Denier Cordura fabric. The frame is made of high impact polymer plastic. The PALS webbing give the added value of modularity. All zippers are the standard YKK-type. The buckles are the standard heavy duty plastic, Fastek-type. The pack has the appearance of an over-sized MOLLE 3-day Assault Pack with a top flap closure instead of a zippered one. I have read others describe it as a kind of modern ALICE pack.

Volume:
The main compartment is 4000 cubic inches or 65 liters. However, because of the addition of the storm flap, the volume of the main compartment increases to 85 liters if fully packed. It has one large access pouch on the outside, similar to the ones on the assault pack and medium rucksack. The outside compartment gives an additional 20 liters in the overall volume to the pack. Therefore, the over all volume of the pack is 90-95 liters.

Features:
The main compartment has a draw-string storm flap closure. There is a zippered access point on the main compartment for easy access to the contents while the main cover is closed. It has a large cover flap for the main compartment that functions as a map compartment with a Velcro closure. There is no mesh webbing on the underside of the main compartment flap as there is on the large MOLLE rucksack. The excess strapping from the two main closure straps can be rolled up and secured in two slots on the top of the main compartment flap. It has two compression straps on each side, similar to the MOLLE Medium Rucksack. The pack frame is the equivalent to the USMC DE1606 MC frame. The frame is much more thick than the standard frame thickness of the MOLLE Medium or Large Rucksacks. The shoulder straps are sewn into the pack with the pack sitting over the frame in a similar manner to the legacy ALICE pack and LC-2 frame. There is a compartment on the bottom of the ruck that stores the parachute rigging. What are some observations about this backpack?

Observations

Because of its intended use, the MOLLE 4000 seems to be heavy for its size when empty. This is because the pack has to withstand larger stressors on it during parachute operations than a normal backpack. The padding on the shoulder straps is thicker than those on the other rucksacks in this line giving it exceptional comfort. The pack does look like a cross between the legacy ALICE pack and current MOLLE rucksack. Initial impressions of this pack are that it has great potential to become a favorite for hikers and backpackers with some modifications for non-military users. How does this backpack perform on the trail?

Performance

This pack performed well on the trail. It felt more like my older ALICE pack on my back the longer I carried it. The lumbar waist belt provides excellent comfort over an extended period of time. The PALS webbing on the lumbar belt also gives additional pouch options. The shoulder straps and the shoulder padding also give excellent comfort. However, some thought needs to be put into balancing the weight of the contents if additional outside pouches are attached. For example, I attempted to attach my Condor Nalgene Bottle Pouch on the side with a full water bottle. It caused the weight to become imbalanced, so I just packed it on the top of the main compartment under the flap closure for easy access, since I did not have another Nalgene Bottle for the opposite side. The weight of the pack with my contents started to get close to 40-45 lbs. in total weight. This was before I added the sleeping bag which pushed the pack to over 50 lbs. What is the best employment of this backpack?

Best Use of This Backpack

This pack is best used for no more than a two or three day hike. The weight of the pack combined with necessary contents for longer treks on the trail would cause the pack to become uncomfortable very quickly, especially for thru-hiking. The pack is ruggedly built, so it would be a good pack for hunters. Its dimensions make it too small to be used as a large game hauler. However, it will easily accommodate varmint hunting or trapping. This pack would also be a good consideration for bushcrafters because of the deep barrel main compartment construction. This pack would also be a good consideration as a 72-hour emergency evacuation or bug out bag. How could this pack be improved?

Suggested Improvements

If commercial manufacturers decide to produce a civilian version of this backpack, here are some suggested changes that could make the pack more user-friendly to the general public.

  • The manufacturer should consider putting in a water bladder compatible inner compartment.
  • The manufacturer should consider constructing a thinner thickness frame to reduce the empty weight of the pack for general use considerations.
  • The manufacturer should consider a titanium tubing LC-2 ALICE-type frame to replace the polymer frame for added strength and durability as well as reducing the empty weight of the pack.

Concluding Comments

Overall this backpack is a wonderful pack for no more than three days on the trail. It will easily accommodate the packing needs of most day hikers or weekend backpackers. The construction of the pack eliminates worry about damage under general-use conditions. Its volumous main compartment allows for any combination of contents for most outdoor scenarios and considerations.

 

Personal Emergency or Survival Kits for Children

January 25, 2018
The camping, fishing, hiking, and backpacking season will soon be upon us. Many people will begin to head outdoors during the Spring and Summer. It is a wonderful time for families to take advantage of nature’s beauty. Children will be taken out on the trails, lakes, and campsites across America by their parents. In such cases, some parents may assess that there is a need to put an emergency or survival kit into their children’s backpacks.

When constructing emergency kits for my children’s backpacks, there are concerns that arise when trying to decide what contents should be inside of their kits. Many of the suggested contents for personal emergency kits are made for adult considerations. One of the most common starting points for personal emergency kit construction is the SAS Survival Handbook by Lofty Wiseman. It is obvious that many of the contents suggested by Wiseman are not relevant for children when considered from a parental perspective. For example, Wiseman’s kit contents are as follows:
1. Matches
2. Candle
3. Flint
4. Magnifying Glass
5. Needles/Thread
6. Fish hooks/line
7. Compass
8. Beta Light
9. Snare Wire
10. Wire Saw
11. Medical Kit (suggested contents, tailor to personal needs)
a. Pain Relievers
b. Gastrointestinal Medicine
c. Antibiotic Medicine
d. Allergy Relievers
e. Water Purification Tabs
f. Anti-Malaria Tablets
g. Potassium Permanganate
h. Surgical Blades
i. Butterfly Sutures
j. Band Aids (Plasters)
12. Condom

Furthermore, it must be remembered that Wiseman’s personal emergency kit contents are based on legacy or dated technology from the Cold War or they are unique to the British Army, yet the concepts or principles are still relevant today. For example, beta lights (phosphorescent/tritium lights) are available for purchase but mini-chemlights are a more accessible source to the average consumer. Moreover, the items that he suggests in his kits are based on military operations and military survival training. They address situations in which pilots or ground personnel find themselves in a survival situation on the battlefield due to being separated from friendly forces. Furthermore, as the name implies, survival or emergency kits are an item of last resort only to be employed in the most desperate situations, where survival may not be possible without their use. How can a survival tin or pouch that is based on the concepts of the SAS-type survival tin be made applicable for use by children or teenagers?

First, when constructing a Lofty Wiseman SAS-type survival tin or pouch for your children, some discernment, wisdom, and common sense needs to be applied to the task. For example, a tritium light or mini-chemlight would be a great item in a survival kit for an adult or teenager; however, they could be a choking hazard for younger children. Choking hazards are a concern, as well, with other small items such as button compasses, mini ferro rods, and small magnifying glasses. Therefore, include survival items in the tin that are consistent with your children’s maturity and assessed capabilities for responsible behavior. You do not want to have a preventable emergency with your children while enjoying the outdoors.

Second, a concern when considering items for an emergency survival tin for your children is the fragility or durability of the contents. For example, when considering how to address lighting, it is best to use some type of micro flashlight that is one piece, can be turned on with a simple pressure switch, and are waterproof. Micro flashlights that have to be twisted to turn on or off are prone to being disassembled by curious toddlers or younger children. An example of this type of flashlight would be the Mini-Mag. Once this type of flashlight is taken apart in the field, parts will get lost, broken, or possibly swallowed. The flashlight will then be rendered useless, thus, defeating the purpose for it in the tin. Glass signal mirrors can become cracked or broken. Therefore, a single, stainless steel micro signal mirror or polished military dog tag would be a better item in a survival kit for children.

Third, another concern when considering items for an emergency tin or pouch for your children are cutting injuries. Those of us with children have the experience of our younger children getting a dinner knife or scissors out of a kitchen drawer in a moment when our attention is distracted. Thus, we tend to put such items out of reach for their own safety to prevent unnecessary injury or harm. This safety concern will also influence what kinds of cutting devices are in a survival kit for your children. One item that is universal for any kind of survival kit is a knife. However, putting a knife in your children’s survival kit should only be done with the utmost of care and consideration of their experience and capabilities for safe and responsible behavior regardless of their age. This same principle should also drive decisions about placing fishing or sewing items in their kits.

As we contemplate how to construct one of these personal emergency kits for our children, what are some items to consider? In other words, what kinds of item did I consider when constructing a personal emergency survival kit for my children? The following are some suggested items for a children’s personal emergency survival kit:

1. Container Options:
o Tin, Small
o Tin, Large
o Pouch
o Dry Box
o aLokSak Bag

2. Cutting Device:
o Gerber LST Ultralight Knife, Fine Edge

3. Cordage:
o 15’ Mil Spec Survival Cord, MIL-C-5040 Type 1A

4. Signaling Device:
o S.O.L. Slim Rescue Howler Whistle
o S.O.L. Micro Signaling Mirror

5. Lighting Device:
o Micro Light Keychain Mini Flashlight

6. Navigation:
o Button Compass

7. Fire Making:
o Bic Mini Lighter
o 2 x Tender Quick Tab

8. Food Procurement:
o 25’ Braided Fishing Line wrapped around a Floss Bobbin
o Basic Fishing Kit
o P-51 Military Can Opener
o Note: Snare wire is not included in my children’s kit because setting up snares and traps is an advanced skill of which they are unfamiliar at this point. The snare wire can be added in later or placed in a larger kit.

9. Equipment Repair:
o 1” Duct Tape wrapped around Floss Bobbin
o 3 x Safety Pins, Stainless Steel

10. First Aid:
o 1 x Bandage Strip, Large
o 1 x Bandage Strip, Medium
o 2 x Bandage, Butterfly
o 2 x Alcohol Wipes (Can be used for fire starting also)
o 2 x Antibiotic Ointment, packs

11. Communication:
o Golf Pencil
o 2 x Mini Index Cards

A personal emergency survival kit for one’s children is a challenge to think through and build. They can be a useful tool for teaching your children about the proper use of the contents and on their proper employment. It is an adventure, in and of itself, to sit down and think through what a child or teenager needs if they become separated from their family in some way in the outdoors. There have been many stories over the years in which children became separated and lost from their families while they were enjoying time outdoors. Toddlers may not be adept in outdoor survival skills. However, teaching them early about why we carry a survival kit in our backpacks and giving them some of the simpler items to play with, like a howler whistle, helps them to begin to make the connection in their mind about the purpose of the kit itself. In much the same way one learns a trade skill through apprenticeship, we, parents, can teach our children about operating and surviving in a wilderness environment. This will empower them in adulthood to enjoy nature’s beauty, as well as, making responsible decisions about the stewardship of the environment.

 

15181567_10209644433981584_6299392373435208673_n
My son and I out on the AT in 2017

 

Book Review: Will to Live by Les Stroud

Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival by Les Stroud. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, 230 pp., $17.99.

51Brdg4szNLWilderness survival and the unique and harrowing stories of real life survivors and tragedies gives author Les Stroud much to contemplate within the pages of Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival. What is the primary mitigating factor between life and death in a survival situation? Stroud seeks to discover the answer to this question by examining the survival stories of several well-known cases in which people lived or perished in this follow-up volume to his earlier work: Survive: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere-Alive. These stories find their setting in such diverse places as land and sea, forest and jungle. Equally, the personalities involved in the narratives are just as varied as the settings in which their survival experience takes place. The author admits that years of survival training can never substitute for the actual experiences of those who endured their ordeals. He states, “Therein lies one of the greatest problems I and other survival instructors have always faced. We rarely get the opportunity to really do the one thing we are best at: getting caught and subsequently tested in a true survival situation” (p. 1-2). Stroud offers his thesis when he articulates that discovering how people react when faced with a survival situation and how those reactions influenced the outcome of those circumstances guides the theme of the book (p. 4-5). The result is that the reader is left with a small library of case studies in survival psychology, ingenuity, perseverance, and tragedy. Stroud forensically examines each of the cases through the perspective of an expert survival instructor seeking to answer the bigger questions of cause and effect with analysis on lessons learned. The pages of Will to Live gives both novice and experienced outdoorsman a good foundation on the high cost of survival.

Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud productions. His work includes the award winning Survivorman television program. He is also an accomplished musician who has performed on stage with bands such as Journey and has gained the nickname, “The Hendrix of Harmonica”.[1] He is a member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Stroud is also active in environmental causes and is a board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Organization. He has recently launched Survivorman Television, an online network to continue to promote Survivorman®, his music, and environmental awareness. He publishes a website called, Survivorman-Les Stroud, http://www.lesstroud.ca/.

Will to Live is a study in survival psychology examined through the various real-world survival experiences of others. It seeks to uncover the difference between those who survived their ordeals and those who did not. The book seeks to answer from a psychological perspective on what makes the difference between surviving or perishing when lost or stranded. It reviews seven different stories of people who lived or perished when faced with life-threatening circumstances. They form seven chapters within the book. Stroud analyzes each chronicle through four elements of survival: knowledge, luck, kit, and will to live. The author intersperses his own experiences in five of the chapters in the book. The Epilogue of the book functions as the conclusion in which the author muses the implications of the individual cases and their analysis and concludes, “In going through the ordeals articulated in these pages, a new reality has become clear to me: luck plays a more important role than I originally thought” (p. 222). This gives the reader pause to contemplate the surviving of a life-threatening experience can be attributed to luck by an expert in the field.

After a short introduction, Stroud goes into the first survival story; that of Yossi Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg survived in the jungles of the Amazon for three weeks (p. 9). He details his story in the book Back from Tuichi (1993). Critical to this account is the lack of experience and training shown by the guide, Karl, on this Amazon adventure gone awry (p. 10). However, Stroud observes that Yossi’s survival mentality and unique ingenuity seemed to be key factors in his survival (p. 22). It is no surprise that the survival ordeal of Yossi Ghinsberg finds its place at the beginning of the book. His experience serves as the analytical template that the author uses for the other studies within the pages of the book. Some of the cases analyzed are: Nando Parrado’s survival on the Andes Mountains (p. 43-69); the Robertson Family’s survival at sea (p. 79-109); the tragic tale of Chris McCandless and the Alaskan wilderness (p. 117-133); the Stolpa family stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains (p. 141-159); the tragedy of the Karluk expedition in the Arctic (p. 169-195), and the Mawson expedition at the South Pole (p. 197-219). Stroud deftly moves the reader through each of the narratives to point out both the positive and negative aspects of each.

Beneficial to the reader, beyond the stories themselves, are the author’s side bar comments that gives added information pertinent for each survival scenario. The reader will find suggestions by the author on how to test the edibility of plants (p. 23), the contents for a sea survival kit (p. 85), what to put into a survival kit for a vehicle (p. 148), or the symptoms of rabbit starvation (p. 189). The book does not focus primarily on the techniques of survival such as building a shelter, starting a fire, etc. Rather, the author takes the reader on a survival journey to discover the psychology of survival and how that influences decision-making, ingenuity, and, ultimately, the outcome of the ordeal. For example, in the Karluk account, Stroud highlights the positive influence that staying busy had on the crew and how important that was on the human psyche in the Arctic region (p. 177-79). He then has side bar commentary on how the lack of sunlight and physical activity affects the mind (p. 178).  The importance of this type of information to the reader, especially the outdoor enthusiast, is critical to understanding survival psychology.

The one observed weakness in the text of Will to Live is the lack of discussion on how physiology effects emotions and rational thinking in a survival situation. For example, it does not discuss with any detail how the lack of food or water over an extended period may cause chemical changes in the body that influence mental function. It would be interesting to include some analysis by a medical doctor or psychiatrist with each of the stories regarding the effects of the starvation or dehydration process on emotions, thinking, and decision-making. However, the book is not an academic analysis on the psychology of survival. Rather, its purpose is to target a wide spectrum of people interested in the outdoors who may have only a cursory knowledge of survival psychology at best.  Therefore, the book achieves its intended purpose on that level.

Overall, Les Stroud brilliantly argues his theme on the topic of survival psychology. The Will to Live captures the essence of what it means to persevere in a survival situation. Some of the stories have a positive outcome and some do not. Yet, all these accounts give the reader a glimpse into the mental fortitude necessary to endure the harsh realities of being in a life-threating situation in the outdoors, whether on land or sea.  This book entrusts to the reader a small library of case studies on survival that will help the outdoor adventurer or enthusiast. Survival is more than learning a technique or acquiring a tool. The intangibles of survival are luck and will. This makes the act of survival even more sobering considering the author’s analysis and commentary. Will to Live will motivate the reader to investigate further the psychology of survival.  Equally, it will empower the reader to see contemporary survival-related news reports through a different perspective. One can gain knowledge through training and reading. One can gain tools and become proficient in their employment. However, one cannot quantify luck or will. Everyone has a breaking point physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Stroud causes the reader to examine themselves against the backdrop of those who found themselves suddenly in a survival situation and ask, “Do I have what it takes to survive?” Everyone who is interested in the outdoors or is actively involved in the outdoors will do well to read the pages of this book.

William H. Lavender, II

Lynchburg, Virginia

[1]Survivorman-Les Stroud. “Les Stroud, About”, Survivorman-Les Stroud, online. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://www.lesstroud.ca/about/.