Read This in Case of Emergency

Can a book teach you how to survive?

Like many Americans, I have long been obsessed with the apocalypse. Specifically: surviving it. Generally I exorcise this worry by purchasing wool-wear. But now seems like a critical moment to get my emergency skills in order—some two years into the recession and 22 months from the Earth’s collision with Planet X. To say nothing of snowpocalypse. Also, I lost my job; I was an editor at National Geographic Adventure until the magazine folded last December.

My savings dwindling, I retreated to an old farm in the Catskills to ride out the winter and, with the assistance of five guides, learn how to live in the wild. What follows is a guide to those survival guides.


I embarked on a series of rigorous field tests. Which is to say, I skimmed each book and then walked through the woods looking for ways to make trouble. The right guide should dispense practical information (how to start a fire) as well as more general wisdom (how to identify trees).

Since I am a city boy and a bit soft, I also looked for qualities that would satisfy my friend and former colleague at Adventure, the hardy Paul Rouse. Rouse joined me for two afternoons of testing/troublemaking and provided sage commentary of the sort one would expect from a man who has thought more about survival than most, and whose neighbor owns a semi so he can, in Rouse’s words, “head West when it all goes down.”

Woodcraft and Indian Lore ($14.95)
Ernest Thompson Seton published this manual on outdoor life in 1930, the result of three decades’ research into the ways of the woods and the native. It is not a “how-to” so much as a program for rescuing society itself—Seton thought America had grown weak, and that Woodcraft was the remedy. For “it is Woodcraft that made man out of brutish material, and Woodcraft in its highest form may save him from decay.” Seton continues: “Realizing that manhood, not scholarship, is the aim of education, we have sought out those pursuits which … in a word, make for manhood.”

Despite the fact that womanhood rarely appears in Woodcraft’s 590 pages, Seton’s book is dizzyingly comprehensive. In a section on wounds, he shares a treatment for “mad dog” bite and another for lightening strike (“To revive one stunned by a thunderbolt, dash cold water over him”). Woodcraft and Indian Lore can teach you how to forage for mushrooms, stuff and mount a bird, and say “shame on you” in sign language. Suitably impressed, Rouse and I honed in on an itinerary for hiking through the snow.  

“I remember a hike of the snow-track kind that afforded myself and two boy friends a number of thrills,” Seton writes. (Now is as good a time as any to mention that Seton is credited as one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America.) Seton had his boy friends tracking skunks while he followed a mink. We couldn’t find either, so Rouse and I settled on some deerish looking tracks. We followed them, got lost, and flipped through Woodcraft until we read that “[i]f you should miss your way, the first thing to remember is, like the Indian, ‘You are not lost; it is the teepee that is lost.’ ” We scratched our heads about that one for a few minutes before Rouse spoke up. “This book is crap,” he said. “What we really need is a fire.”

U.S. Army Survival Handbook ($14.95)
Compiled by the Department of Defense, the Army Survival Handbook was our fire starter. It is “standard issue for … Special Operations Forces and pilots,” according to the jacket. Also, it’s completely free online.  

Like Woodcraft, the Army Survival Handbook can, at points, feel dated—tips for building shelter against nuclear radiation seems pretty Cold War to me, but you can never be too prepared, I guess. It is also very intense, especially for your run-of-the-mill noncombatant. The pages on firecraft, for example, warn that one must weigh the “need for fire against the need to avoid enemy detection.” Soon I was reading about how to stalk prey, avoid capture, and survive mustard gas attack. This was all pretty distracting to the task at hand, which was … well by now I had moved past firecraft and was trying to make a bola.

The bola is a primitive-looking throwing weapon that consists of stones tied to rope. The bola montage of my mind’s eye had me twirling it on the run and, with a flick of the wrist, taking down an enemy or at least KO’ing a squirrel. Everything fell apart, though, when the handbook instructed that I use sinew from “the tendons of large game, such as deer,” to make rope. This seemed rather cart before horse: How was I to get a deer without, first, a bola? Rouse, reading over my shoulder, agreed and said, “It’s a good book, this, but a bit much isn’t it?” Like bringing a tank to the drive-in.

National Geographic Complete Survival Manual ($29.95)
National Geographic may have quit us, but we weren’t going to quit it. The Complete Survival Manual contains first-hand accounts of survival situations from real National Geographic“explorers”—like Mireya Mayor, a former NFL cheerleader turned NGTV correspondent. During an expedition into the Guyanan rainforest, Mayor tells us, an infection made her hands swell to “the size of volleyballs,” and she was forced her to leave the country for stateside hospitalization. There’s a lesson there, I thought. My hands were freezing, seeing as I had failed to build a fire—and have you ever tried to take notes while your hands go purple and shake uncontrollably? It was time to steal a page from Mayor’s playbook and pull the plug on this “expedition.” I went indoors and put on some gloves. (Yes, we’d gotten a little lost when following deer tracks, but we managed to follow a stream back home.)

Back outside, gloves on, it was colder still. Time to build a shelter. “Winter shelters should be designed to retain heat,” the National Geographic guide begins. A good start, but by the next page we had moved onto the hazards of carbon monoxide poisoning in my hypothetical shelter without any tips on how to go about actually building it. The guide was big on theory and those firsthand accounts, but when it got down to brass tacks and snow caves, it was not nearly as complete as the title promised. Rouse said he had “grievances with this one” and refrained from passing any sort of judgment on the National Geographic manual.

When All Hell Breaks Loose ($19.99)
Hell is, in equal parts: a screed against materialist society, a how-to for post-apocalypse survival, a short ride through crazytown. But what a ride! Author Cody Ludin resides in a solar home near Prescott, Ariz., and is the founder of the Aboriginal Living Skills School. He lives off the land and with it, and was once said to look like a stoner viking —a description I cannot improve upon. In just the first 30 pages of Hell, Lundin quotes Sophocles, Paul the Venetian, and Ronald Reagan. (Later, he cites a “toilet stall door in a Canadian high school basement.”) His book sets out to free “your family from their self-limiting, slavelike mindset.” Self-reliance is paramount. Lundin suggests, for starters, finding your main power breaker and turning it off. “Try this exercise some evening,” Lundin writes, “and see if you and your family can sense the feeling that someone has you by the groin.”

Eventually, there is some really good advice in Hell—particularly on distillation techniques, food storage (four essentials to keep around: whole wheat, powdered milk, honey, salt), and waste management. Especially waste management. Lundin rarely misses a chance for alliteration, titling this particular section “Savvy yet Simple Significant Substitute Sanitation.” It includes the subsections: “Decisively Dealing with Dangerous Dung” (proximity, depth, and drainage are key here), and “Savvy Squatting Strategies” (good advice for survivalists and tourists in countries featuring pit toilets).

I was still without shelter, though, so I went through Lundin’s section—called “Gimme Shelter!” In it, I learned “the art of regulating my core body temperature” (which is layering), knowing the signs of hypothermia (apathy, confusion, and numbness), and that carbon monoxide detectors are “worth their weight in gold.” But as with the National Geographic guide, there were no specific building instructions. I felt dissatisfied, then apathetic, and confused and numb.

Hell is one of Amazon’s top sellers in the survival category. Is Lundin a lunatic or laughing all the way to the bank? Rouse weighed in: “It’s a crazy book, this. Lots of words. The little illustrations are annoying and terrible but the photo of a rat salad is classic.” Oh yes, there is a full color photo of a roasted-rat salad.

The Survival Handbook ($30)
Worried that readers might curl up and die when faced with a life-and-death situation, The Survival Handbook takes a step-by-step approach. “Up to 75 percent of people are stunned, bewildered, and unable to react rationally” during the “Impact Period” of a survival situation, the editors state early on. What follows is a series of illustrations and tables about how to get into survivor mode. (In brief: Work out, remain calm.) The Survival Handbook then describes how to draw up an emergency plan: “The best way to determine what should be included in your plan is to look at the worst-case scenario you could find yourself in, and ask yourself what information your next of kin would need to know about you and your intentions if they felt they had to raise the alarm.” The book also provides illustrated “walk-throughs” of the many different wilderness environments one might face. Rather than singing the praises of self-sufficiency, or telling you how others have made it through tough-spots, The Survival Handbook gets right down to business. Which, given my shelterless state, was a welcome change of pace.

And there, on Pages 178-181, were snow dwellings, complete with diagrams. Turns out a snow cave is really hard to build. Better to cobble together a quinzhee—a sort of temporary igloo. Better still to find a preexisting, naturally occurring tree pit and dig it out a bit. But quinzhee is fun to say, and the illustration looked pretty cozy, so I went for it. First I piled boughs and leaves in a flat, snowy circle, then covered that with a tarp, covered the tarp with about 10 inches of soft snow, poked sticks throughout the snow dome to check my progress and provide ventilation, and then waited about three hours for the snow to sinter. Finally, I dug out the boughs and leaves and tarp and sat inside. The thing worked: It cut the wind, held some of my heat, and seemed like a halfway decent spot to spend the night, in a pinch. But this wasn’t a pinch, really, so when it got dark I returned home.

Rouse wasn’t there for the quinzhee episode, but he concurred that The Survival Handbook was the best of the lot. He was especially enthusiastic about a section on making a “fire can” out of a shoe-polish tin. Rouse liked the book so much he attempted to make off with it, and I had to let him because, well, I didn’t have a bola on me.

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