Survival Q + A, from Bo Keely

November 28, 2013 |

 I received these questions from a friend the other day and thought I'd share my answers. The friend asked: 

In all your adventures have you ever….

1. been in the wild, where you couldn't walk to civilization before nightfall, and lost all or most of your gear?

2. needed to make fire with primitive methods (like bow drill)?

3. needed to find/hunt/gather food without a gun?


1. A dozen time in the mountains, desert and on the rails. No gear, and lost. There are two options: Walk all night to keep from freezing, and to make headway to civilization. Or, build a simple shelter by throwing some branches on yourself. These situations are almost always v. uncomfortable, nerve wracking, and difficult to follow textbook models. So I usually walk for a few hours until I'm exhausted, and then curl up in the dirt and fall asleep out of the pain, to wake up to the warming sun, which is also a compass, in the morning.

2. A half dozen times. The situation is usually wet, cold and lost. The threat is freezing before the night is done. If you can walk all night - done it often - then it's fine. If there's something blocking that - now I always carry on my person a lighter and compass. However, survival manuals cover comfort zone situations, which isn't often the case. You are fatigued, dizzy, hungry, lost, afraid, and have been circling for hours trying to save yourself. Your hands tremble so that matches, if you had them, can't be lit. If the hands are steady, there is no fuel, and anyway it's often raining or snowing that defines the scenario. I kept from freezing in a cubbyhole over the Rockies by lighting a little fire on the jiggling freight and, slowly, feeding cardboard into it. I learned flint-and-steel in Boy Scouts, and later in wilderness survival class under Peter Carrington, but you can't beat a lighter in a compromised situation.

3. I'm a poor food gatherer compared to the other survival skills. I've studied it extensively - foraging, fishing, trapping - but have used the emergency skill only in the desert a couple of times. In the desert I've gotten liquid from barrel cactus twice, and once cleaned and eaten prickly pear cactus.

The survival guides are good to study for starters, and to carry you out to the wilds. I've logged, what, a thousand trips alone into various wildernesses, with about 30 life threatening survival situations. I've extracted myself by ALWAYS looking ahead, to see the worst case scenarios before they happen. It's not fun to think hard when you're on vacation, but I'd be a dead man many times over without planning.

There's usually ONE grave danger per environment. In the jungle it's snakes; I carry a venom extractor and don't walk when the frogs start croaking at 6pm, the snakes prey. In the mountains it's getting lost; I always have two compasses, and these days a GPS. In the desert it's dehydration; I've walked the talk about barrel cactus. On the seashore it's hunger; except your bug net is a fish trap in estuaries for as far up the coast as you care to go. In the cold region it's freezing; as long as you can walk you'll wake up the next morning.


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