By Mark Lebetkin
The Active Times
Would you know what to do if you were dropped in the middle of the woods (or desert, or mountains) with only the clothes on your back and -- maybe -- a knife?
If you’re an urban-dwelling ape like me, you've likely shared this fear-cum-fantasy and wondered how you might make out without society’s lifeline. Could you figure out how to build a shelter, find potable water, forage for food and build a fire in the short time it would take nature to kill you?
Probably not without a little help.
Lucky for you, help is a wilderness survival school away. As so-called primitive skills like flint knapping (making tools out of stone) and making fire by friction are lost to technological advancement, a handful of schools around the country are keeping them alive and passing them on to new generations.
Some, like Tom Brown, Jr.'s Tracker School in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the Maine Primitive Skills School, emphasize this ancient connection with nature, and teach their students not only how to survive in the wild, but how to live there.
Others, like the Pathfinder School in Ohio and the Mountain Shepherd School in Virginia, emphasize the survival angle more heavily, focussing on the crucial first 72 hours after getting lost or stranded, during which you have a high chance of rescue.
For our list, we picked 12 survival schools that cover a wide range of philosophies and skills. Learn to how to survive the scorching desert heat at Arizona-based Aboriginal Living Skills School; follow survival regimens that are used to train the military at the Survival Training School of California and Ancient Pathways in Arizona; you can even take urban survival classes in the heart of Manhattan if you're worried about the next superstorm.
Or, if you really want to go deep, take months-long wilderness immersion courses at Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in the Maine North Woods or Anake Outdoor School in the Pacific Northwest.
Whichever you choose, you'll probably face the challenge of your life -- and one that might save it, too.
Founded in 1991 by Cody Lundin, co-star of Discovery’s “Dual Survivor” TV show (he’s the “primitive skills” expert and naturalist of the pair), ALSS teaches survival in the deserts, pinyon-juniper woodlands and mountain forests of Arizona. Among the school’s many highlights is the two-day “Nothing” course ($595), in which students—with Cody, of course—walk into the wild with “nothing but the clothes on [their] back[s],” create improvised shelter, make fire by friction and forage for their dinner. “The “Nothing” Course is the epitome of the ALSS school mantra, ‘the more you know, the less you need,’” says the website.
If you’ve ever wondered if you can get college credit for spending a semester deep in the North Woods of Maine, look no further than Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. Few wilderness schools are as comprehensive as Jack Mountain. Courses range from single-day workshops in skills like axemanship ($125), to the weeklong "Woodsman” class ($800), to year-long immersion programs that combine bushcraft skills with winter survival and—Jack Mountain’s specialty—a wilderness canoe expedition.
When a school is one of the military’s go-tos for desert survival training, you know it means business. Run by survival guru Tony Nester (inset) since 1989, Ancient Pathways offers classes in the art of bushcraft—“walking into the wilderness with a minimum of gear and relying on your skills while foraging and depending on nature‘s resources,” as Nester puts it—ranging from four to 14 days. The school’s signature course, says Nester, is the “Knife Only Survival Course” ($295), which actor Emile Hirsch used to train for his role in Into the Wild.
Who needs tents anyway? In Mountain Shepherd's "most difficult, yet most popular course," Humble Thunder ($550), students improvise their own shelters after making their way to their campsites with a topographic map and compass. This four-day, three-night class is taught by graduates of the U.S. Air Force’s prestigious SERE School -- which stands for "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”—in the rolling mountain country of western Virginia. (It's opening a second location in Tillamook, Ore.) Don't be afraid of the weather: classes are held year round, meaning you could be using flint and steel to build your campfire in snow or the pouring rain. Eating bugs is optional, though.
Having trained under the legendary Tom Brown, Jr., Mountain Scout’s lead instructor Shane Hobel -- who also goes by White Feather -- offers a variety of single-day survival classes (from $60) within commuting distance of New York City. These courses teach trapping, tracking, fire by friction and other survival skills that could save your life if you get lost in the woods. But if you're preparing for an urban disaster -- say, catastrophic grid failure -- Hobel also offers urban survival classes in New York's Central Park.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School was founded in the late 1960s by Brigham Young University professor Larry Dean Olsen, whose month-long backpacking trips in Utah reportedly helped weaker students students pick up their grades. But the school cautions would-be survivalists not to take this history as evidence that BOSS is some kind of youth therapy program that "whip[s kids] into shape." The program offers 3-day to month-long classes, some of its most adventurous being field courses throughout Southern Utah with "little more than a blanket, poncho, and a knife.”
This environmental education non-profit emphasizes connection with nature, and has a variety of programs even for children. The Anake Outdoor School -- a school within a school -- offers its survival programs, including a 9-month wilderness immersion course in the Pacific Northwest. Your trek will take you across the Cascades, through the sand dunes of Oregon and under the redwoods of California. Just so you don't get sticker shock, be warned that the course costs $10,350, although there are some scholarships available. It's not for the faint of heart either:
"Due to the intense physical requirements of this expedition and the remote location, we require that all participants undergo a complete physical examination and submit a signed Physicians Medical Examination Form. We will cover large distances over uneven ground, and will go without food and with limited water for extended periods of time."
Located where the Mojave Desert meets the Tehachapi mountain range north of Los Angeles, the Survival Training School of California is ideally placed for minimalist survival training in a variety of climates, all four seasons: A single 7-day course ($1,050; discounts for groups) can take students from lush green valley to high alpine environment, and back down to the scorching desert. You’ll learn to locate and collect water from a man, Chief Instructor Thomas Coyne, who knows something about desert survival: Coyne has hiked across Death Valley in summer without bringing any food or water. Perhaps this is why the US Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Center trusts him to train its instructors.
For the complete slideshow of the Survival Schools That Could Save Your Life, go to TheActiveTimes.com.