MEDEVAC Special Operations Combat Medic in UH-60 Blackhawk
Survival is all about staying alive. Depending on the circumstances, that might mean finding water in the desert, being able to swim, or simply knowing when to hand over the car keys.
In a military situation, though, we’re talking about combat survival. The kind of scenario we have to prepare for is, for example, being cut off miles behind enemy lines in a hostile environment, where lack of food, water or both is as big a threat to your survival as the enemy.
The single biggest factor is your mental condition. The ‘will to survive’ can see you through when by rights you should be dead.
If you study the many examples of people surviving in extreme situations, one thing shines through – they all were determined to make it. For an example, read Chris Ryan’s book on the ill-fated SAS Bravo Two-Zero patrol in the Gulf War, ‘The One That Got Away’.
Some people visualise their wife, family, girlfriend or whoever to help keep them going. Others are just downright pig-headed and won’t give up on principle. Whatever works for you, use it – because once your will to survive is broken, all the equipment and kit in the world won’t save your skin.
Second only to the will to survive is Knowledge. Do you know how to find water, what plants you can eat, how to signal for help or navigate your way back to friendly forces? If not, take heart: unlike the will to survive, this bit you can get from books, or by paying attention in survival lectures. But remember that when it really counts, you won’t have that book in your pocket, or an instructor to tell you the answers – all you have is what you’ve drummed into your own head.
There are plenty of good survival books around, some written specifically for the military, others for a civilian camping/hiking audience. Personally, I prefer the various books by former SAS survival instructor John (‘Lofty’) Wiseman. The Collins Gem ‘SAS Survival Guide’ in particular is truly pocket sized, and at just £3.99 packs an astonishing amount of information in a tiny space.
Knowing something is one thing. Being able to do it is quite another. Take a simple example: If you ask a dozen civilians how you can start a fire in the wilderness, most of them will say “Rub two sticks together”. Well, they’re not wrong – but drop them in the middle of nowhere and tell them to light a fire!
Skills come with training and practice. You build on your knowledge by actually doing the thing for real. Which is why you go on a combat survival course rather than just spend a couple of days reading about it!
The Walter Mittys always place too much emphasis on kit. People who do the job for real know that good kit helps make life easier, but it’s not essential. A true survivor will use his knowledge and skills to improvise, using whatever he can lay his hands on to replace the kit he wishes he had. An example: It’s nice to have a few yards of paracord in your pocket, but all kinds of vegetation can be pressed into service to make ropes and cordage.
Of course the only kit that’s any good is the stuff you’ve got with you when it’s needed. Put together a basic survival kit and keep it in your belt kit. It’s no good left behind in your bergen or back in your locker!
And since you must carry it with you at all times, make sure it’s light and compact. Every item should be as light and small as possible and still capable of doing the job – or better still two or three jobs, as every item in a survival kit should be as versatile as possible.
Most of the time you will have a pretty good idea of what might happen if things go tits-up. If you’re operating in desert terrain, for instance, it’s a pretty fair bet that water will be your biggest survival problem, while there wouldn’t be much point packing a wood-saw! So plan, prepare, and triple-check everything.
Here’s a list of items for a basic survival kit which will fit in a tobacco tin (lid doubles as heliograph, tin doubles as cooking pot/mug) sealed with sticky tape (re-usable, naturally). With the necessary knowledge and skills, it covers the basic requirements of survival: Water, Food, Shelter, Navigation, Medical Care and Signalling.
Non-safety matches, waterproofed with candle wax
Flint and striker
Cotton wool (a tampon is ideal as it’s highly compressed)
Fish hooks and line
Needles and thread
Water purifying tablets
Condom (for carrying water)
Malaria tablets (where needed)
In addition to your survival tin, carry with you at all times: A good knife, adequate clothing for the climate, as much water as practicable, and your personal weapon and ammunition
If possible, also carry: Stove and fuel, signal flares, metal mug or mess tin, torch and batteries, spare matches, survival bag, brew kit, spare food, more ammunition, and extra matches