Effective outdoors survival advice is boring, extremely basic, and there’s already plenty of books and other media effectively communicating it. That’s the premise that launched Bear Grylls’ career, and which has since driven the rise of countless survival experts who followed, all competing to take your dollar with more and more exaggerated claims and overly elaborate, ultimately unnecessary skills. Creek Stewart’s new book Survival Hacks is full of fun tricks that will help occupy kids with worthwhile tasks on camping trips, but is ultimately lacking in any practical survival learning.
“Ramen noodles are not only a lightweight pack food,” reads one of Stewart’s nuggets of wisdom. “But they can also serve as a great little cooking stove in a pinch.” He goes on to tell you to soak a dry brick of ramen in denatured alcohol, then light it. An alcohol-saturated brick of ramen can provide heat for up to 20 minutes, giving you time to cook. Neat, right? But surely if you have alcohol, ramen, and some means of lighting a fire, you could just make a fire to cook your ramen on, then eat that, right?
Stewart is the owner of Indiana’s Willow Haven Outdoor Survival Training School, The Weather Channel’s resident survival expert, and the author of the similarly fantastical, but best selling series of Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag books. With Survival Hacks he’s hoping to show you how to, “Transform everyday items into valuable gear that can save your life.” It’s the “save your life” part I question.
“Did you know a 2-liter pop bottle can yield 5 spoons?” Creek writes in the book. “If you look closely, you will see several spoon bowl shapes along the bottom. Cut out one of those extrusions along with an extended piece as a handle to extract a nearly perfect spoon for wild soups and stews or scavenged urban canned goods.”
In a true life-or-death scenario, are you really going to have a pressing need for a crappy spoon? Wilderness survival is actually a very simple concept. Leave a plan of where you going, and when you’ll be back with someone trustworthy. If you run into trouble, they’ll call the authorities, who will come looking for you. In the meantime—and to borrow a popular survival phrase—if SHTF your priorities are shelter (which can be clothing), water, fire, and food. In that order. Stay where you are and wait for rescue. Food is actually way, way down that list, you won’t really need any for two weeks or more. It is a good idea to pack a jacket and to bring water though!
The kind of scenario in which Stewart’s advice, and that offered by most other survival experts, is applicable is some kind of Mad Max-esque, end-of-the-world type deal where hardy folk will flee to the mountains, and live out their lives hammering nickels into arrowheads, then raining terror upon bunnies with bicycle inner tube bows. In short, it’s a fantasy where grown ups get to go live in a land without rules, or bosses, or home owner’s associations. Believe me, I get the appeal, but calling this stuff “survival” is intentionally misleading, and as I’ve described before may actually be doing harm to the people who fall for it.
I’m not arguing that Survival Hacks is without merit, simply that its true value is occluded by the claim that advice on building a chair out of paracord and tree branches is somehow a life saving skill. Rather, the book’s real merit likely lies in giving children fun, useful puzzles to occupy their minds during camping trips. The book’s focus on common, everyday objects makes each “hack” affordable, and the challenge of properly constructing, then using those hacks should provide hours of fun, while teaching kids to be resourceful. The book’s large-print, and simply written text will make it easy for junior to follow.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn how to survive outdoors, just go outdoors more and do more things. It’s experience and confidence that will arm you with the ability to respond effectively and intelligently to emergency situations. If you really want a book to walk you through this stuff, then none does it nearly as well as The Boy Scout Handbook, or its many guides to various merit badges.
Stewart acknowledges this disparity in the book’s forward, writing, “No method of learning takes the place of hands-on, personal experience. Your options in a survival scenario will ultimately depend on your understanding of basic survival principles that surround shelter, water, fire, and food."