A long day hike in the wilderness during the winter conjures up a lot of thinking time for me. My first thoughts are often in the category of preparing for the hike that will take a couple of hours. There have been plenty of stories of survival that start out as “a short day hike.” And how many of those end up as missing persons stories or search and rescue missions? Every outing might become that type of situation, and having the right mindset for survival- the psychology of survival- is the important difference between becoming a victim of the elements of a survivor with a tale to tell.

Just today, went on a 5 mile hike in the wilderness in a State Forest often used in warmer weather but seldom used in colder weather. I was dressed for the occasion and packed in my day pack a few essentials such as water, first aid kit, snacks, flashlight and wet weather gear. Even though I was relatively prepared for an unexpected delay coming out of the forest, I often wonder if I have packed the most important tool, a Positive Mental Attitude. Without a doubt, that is the most important priority of survival.

We have heard of extreme survival events where the person beats the odds. On the other hand, there are stories of survivable events where the person dies surrounded by the tools to succeed. It comes down to what is between our ears in order to survive a survivable event. I once read and re-read a book called, DEEP SURVIVAL: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. The book covers the reasons why people either do or don’t survive incidents in urban, wilderness and wartime. A fascinating read, and made me think of how I handled previous incidents and wondered if I had what it took. I highly suggest this book.

Another book I found to be useful was NEVER SAY DIE: The Canadian Air Force Survival Manual. This book lists some of the big issues in survival physiology such as fear, pain, hunger, boredom, loneliness, etc. and steps to combat those feelings. Sometimes I’m drawn to the survival shows on TV even though there are some staged scenes and editing involved, the skills the subjects are using are important. I will watch these shows to listen to their thoughts then try to determine their breaking points and their decision to give up. I think this is the educational aspect of these shows. One I watch is ALONE which places survivalists in remote areas with a limited amount of supplies. Most everyone starts out strong and stays busy with creating a shelter and scavenging for food & water. It seems that once they get a handle on their supplies, they start thinking about home, their spouses, and children. They move from missing them to listing reasons to quit. That is their breaking point. We will never know what happens to them as those feelings progress.

If you happen to watch these shows, my suggestion is to observe these feelings and at what stages they creep in. This might be a learning lesson for you if you find yourself in a similar situation. Keeping your head on straight means the difference in making it to rescue or becoming another tragic story.

This article is the first in a series where I will discuss the priorities of survival in general terms. Some geographic locations and situations will rearrange the list somewhat but for the most part, we will stick with the basics. But never forget what should be at the top of every list: POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE.


Holy Serf is the nom de plume of a student of the wilderness and an amateur naturalist. He is a formally trained search & rescue tracker and wilderness survival instructor. He is a veteran of the war in Iraq where he served as a Combat Medic. He also served as a Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division as a Combat Engineer with a deployment to the Sinai Peninsula and a graduate of Panama’s Jungle Expert School. He has held certifications as a First Aid Instructor, Wilderness First Responder and Wilderness EMT. After retiring with more than 20 years as a law enforcement officer, he works on pairing his amateur radio skills and wilderness wandering. He holds an FCC General Radio license. This fall he will be instructing a basic human tracking course in NC.

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