17 Tips for Choosing a Credible Survival Instructor: How to find the "real deal" in a trainer in whom you will trust your life.
By Cody Lundin
Most professions that involve threats to human life have a formal private, state, or federal entity that over sees competency and credibility for their practitioners. Such is not the case for outdoor survival trainers. While I am no fan of bureaucracy, this lack of standards has caused legions of unqualified/dangerous people to "teach" what they feel are life saving skills to you and your family.
In a worst case scenario, bad survival advice will kill you. Assuming you live, the crappy training foundation you've built will continue to cause damage in your life. Both are the result of poor training from unqualified people.
Survival training is an investment of your time and money and effective instruction will save you both. Many so-called “survival experts” exist on the internet and elsewhere. While some have good intentions, many simply see an opportunity for extra income due to the increasing popularity of survival skills. This last point has reached critical mass with the current deluge of pseudo survival porn on TV that infects the viewing publics proper learning process regarding survival training and the profession itself.
Poor survival instruction kills. It's important that you choose your instructor(s) wisely. The advice you take dealing with 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 schools longevity, size, media appeal, number of You Tube videos, TV presence, or fancy web site, the number-one variable into the quality of their program is the quality of their 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. Remember, any school is only as good as its instructors.
1) Ask to see the instructor’s resume.
If your would-be instructor claims to have many years of survival experience, yet does not have a resume proving so, this should be your first red flag. Professional people have professional resumes; especially when their profession deals with life and death training. Has your potential instructor been teaching for ten years or ten weeks? If you’re interested in a large school with many instructors the school should post a resume for each of their guides. If not, ask them why they don’t share the experience level of their instructors. You have a right to know who’s taking you into the field and how qualified they are. If a wilderness emergency occurs, do you want to trust your safety to a student intern or someone with only a few years of “dirt time”? Teaching experience is important as self-reliant skills require many years of training and practice before proficiency can be obtained. Last but not least, keep in mind that resumes can and do lie. Vet the resume!
2) Beware the "hobbyist".
Ask your would-be instructor how they make their living. If they don't make their living teaching survival skills they are a hobbyist, not a full time professional survival skills instructor. Also, ask to see if they have been teaching survival skills continuously during their self-proclaimed years of operation. It’s not uncommon for someone’s "30 years" of survival experience to include the 20 years in which they operated a full-time bug extermination company (their real job) - yet they managed to teach a couple free survival courses a year for their cousins Cub Scout pack. Interpreting and promoting years of ones sporadic hobby or wishful thinking as "experience" on a professional resume or web site is fraudulent at best. One way to confirm an instructor’s honesty about the length of their schools operation is to look at the dates of their media portfolio; if they have one. If they claim their school is 20 years old, but all of the newspaper and magazine clippings on their web site are five years old or less, they’re most likely lying about their 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 they teach and what they know about a given subject. Books, due to their lengthy writing timeline, offer the writer an opportunity to "give-it-all-they-got", so to speak, to try to do the best possible job on the subject. If the information seems weak, and/or the book itself is really a "booklet" of fifty or sixty pages in length, reconsider the last few sentences. Self published books by vanity or home grown presses are NOT written by published authors. Anyone with money and time can self-publish. The fact that a writer has been published by a real publishing company will give you another "quality clue" into the potential survival instructors experience level. In order for a publisher to accept a book, many people in the publishing company felt that the writer was good enough (or at least famous enough, see below) at what they did to finance the book for their eventual profit. (Notice how many survival books from TV survival personalities were published after their TV show aired.) This said, there are many great self-published books.
4) Train from someone who teaches survival skills full-time. 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 them; they are either very good, very lucky, both, or someone else is paying the bills.
5) Train from an instructor who lives what they teach.
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 their hands, their feet, and their face. Any calluses or tan lines? Any signs of bodily use other than typing, selling survival gear on-line, 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. The bottom line is this; an instructor who lives what they teach demonstrates their passion about the subject by laying their lifestyle on the line to prove it.
6) If your primary interest is primitive living skills, train from someone who lives in your geographic region.
They 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 experience they’ll be able to pass on to you.
7) Ask around about 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 their school been in operation for as long as their web page says it has? If they claim to have nearly two decades of “desert experience,” have they even lived in the desert for that long? Are they in the trenches teaching, or just a figure head for their organization? Unfortunately, these days the school with the best web-page, TV show, or 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.
8) Beware the “expert” as nature is too full of variables to support this type of personality.
Large egos and cocky attitudes are all too common in the field of wilderness survival. Given time, through natural selection, nature kills off cocky people who frequent the wilderness. One of the unfortunate manifestations of arrogance as an instructor 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) If your interest in learning survival skills runs deeper than experiencing a cool “eco-vacation,” study with someone who knows (and lives) several forms of self-reliant skills.
Most outdoor schools confuse “modern survival skills” with “primitive living skills.” They could not be more different in intention and context. 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 context and order, knowing both sets of skills gives you greater potential for success when dealing with a survival scenario. When the chips are down, a bow-drill is no substitute for matches and the know-how to use them. Instructors familiar with other aspects of self-reliance training beyond outdoor survival skills - from homesteading to passive solar design - use this wisdom to supplement and strengthen their teaching methodology across the board.
10) Before attending a hands-on course, 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 ten or twelve students will cause the course quality to suffer because you’ll spend more time watching than doing. I specify “qualified” instructors as large schools often have a heavy instructor turn over and therefore rely on “interns” (future instructors working for free to gain experience). It should go without saying that interns have not yet achieved the field experience and knowledge base of a lead instructor. 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. A school that packs dozens of students into a course is more interested in their profit margin than your learning experience.
11) Is the field course you’re thinking about taking really taught in the field or just “outside”?
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 their back yard, you are not learning survival skills in the context of how they will be needed and executed in a real survival scenario in the back country. Survival is 90% psychology. Thus a so-called "advanced" course should not have student vehicles parked a hundred yards away as the student knows "escape", physically and mentally, is literally right around the corner.
Training responsibly in a small group allows you to harvest natural materials directly from the wilderness for maximum learning and enjoyment. There is no comparison to being able to create your survival gear directly from a wilderness environment. Most of your knowledge comes from learning to discriminate between “raw materials” in a wild outdoor setting, not a forest service campground. For instance, a course that supplies all of your materials to make a bow-drill set could just as easily be taught in a grocery-store parking lot.
12) Beware the phony TV "survival expert".
Would you get surgery from George Clooney? After all, he did play a physician on TV. Why would you trust your life to an actor playing the part of a survival instructor on TV?
NO ONE gets field credibility by having a survival show on television. The amount of phony, scripted, out of context survival TV shows created, written , produced, and acted by people who have no actual survival training has sky rocketed. Perhaps nothing has been more damaging to the profession or more lethal to the viewing public than this unfortunate trend. Thoroughly research your TV expert using several sources to see if they are the real deal...and more than likely you will be very disappointed. Frankly, some of the worst and most dangerous survival information available is from television and outdoor magazines. Neither TV producers nor magazine editors know how to look for quality when they search out a survival "expert" to brain pick; they look for cheap, free, or famous. And, as virtually all TV producers and magazine editors have no survival experience, they wouldn't recognize a competent instructor anyway. Editors, (it is their job), will hack to death a survival article to "make it fit" in the space designated for the piece, or blatantly alter it because they think it should say something different. Most outdoor magazines find experts by using sinfully young and inexperienced office interns who search online for the person who "looks" the best, but who will do something for nothing.
Even the US Military will compromise their training to save a buck. Years ago, I was approached by the US Military to teach Special Forces soldiers desert survival. The gentleman on the phone simply wanted to know what I charged and emphasized that "we just need an instructor" as they already had the gear and training area. I didn't bother mentioning that gear and training areas are irrelevant if the instructor sucks; that the instructor was the most important variable in survival training on every level for numerous reasons which should have been obvious. As I was apparently too expensive to train soldiers who had already received hundreds of thousands of dollars of training, the gentleman ended up hiring someone who had just recently moved to the southwest from back east for their "desert survival training".
13) The phony on-line expert, You Tube wannabe, and/or optional BS "survival store".
Within the last few years, on-line survivalism - for lack of a better term - has increased radically. The internet is brimming with on-line stores featuring survival goods by people who have no real field experience in what they are trying to sell. Also, self made videos, blog's, you-tube whatever's, e-courses and web sites 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 back yard experience becomes the internet darling survival expert. There are only so many hours in the day. If your potential outdoor survival instructor has the time to sit at a computer and maintain a full time blog, facebook page, or otherwise "electronic wilderness presence" on the internet, they are not in the field practicing and teaching outdoor skills.
14) They market themselves using vague, impossible to vet terms such as “survivalist”, “adventurer” or “wilderness expert”. Such terms are commonly used by television networks and other media to manufacture and market actors as real survival instructors. Can you imagine someone marketing themselves as a “city expert’? (According to the media, “survivalists” also blow up Federal buildings and shoot cops.) Accuracy, such as being a “modern outdoor survival instructor”, gives the student a focus in regards to vetting the instructor’s experience and forte. This instructors resume should focus on short term survival, such as a day hike gone bad. Wilderness medicine classes, Search and Rescue experience, modern fire lighting techniques, signaling for rescue, dressing properly to prevent hypothermia and hyperthermia, understanding dehydration and the physiological and psychological responses to fear, etc. will be a part of this instructors resume. One does not keep a lost hiker alive by teaching them how to make an atlatl with a stone knife to hunt a “wild boar”.
They play the "fear" card...
If a potential school, organization, or individual uses fear as a marketing tactic to pressure you into buying their products or taking their courses, they are not real survival instructors. The hallmark function of a survival instructor is to mitigate fear, not create it.
16) Field experience, field experience, field experience!!
It is impossible to blog, google, facebook, or you tube field experience and competency. The longer an outdoor survival instructor has trained people in the field - remote wilderness back country - not simply their back yard in a suburban area or a camp ground, the better they should be at the learned mind set of what effective, realistic survival training is all about. When going back to town is not an option, when you're miles from the trail head in rugged wilderness terrain with inexperienced students having no food, little modern gear, and the monsoon thunder heads are gathering, this is the type of repeated experience that separates the men from the boys for the survival instructor.
17) You get what you pay 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 few hundred dollars or so that you save up front 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.