bushcraft skills for survival

The Survivorman Zones of Assessment: The Key To Your Survival When The Situation Seems Hopeless

In Outdoors by M.D. Creekmore

bushcraft skills for survivalBy Les Stroud aka Survivorman

You can imagine almost any survival situation. Dumping a canoe in a set of rapids. Falling off the edge of a cliff. Or simply, you’re lost. So what next? What exactly do you do now? In reality, your next move could be the most important thing you ever do. It will be perhaps the most important decision you ever make. That next step may ensure your survival or doom you to a tragic end. At the very least, this decision may make things much more difficult than they need to be.

First and foremost, when faced with a survival or traumatic situation of any kind, one must calm down. “Take a knee”. Calming down enables the person to start to use their brain power in a useful way for enabling salvation from the circumstances, whatever they may be. However, just calming down is never enough, for it only stops the action of the moment. What comes next is the most important aspect of survival: making a decision and taking action.

However, doing so without considering the options is foolhardy at best and likely to lead to disaster, more problems, or an exacerbation of the problems at hand. So decisions must be made on how to move forward.

So far all of this is not rocket science, yet how does one make decisions without knowledge? This is where the magic of survival skills, of all kinds, kicks in – with knowledge. Without ascertaining all kinds of details (knowledge) about your predicament you are liable to make decisions that are ill thought out and potentially dangerous. But how do you get the information you need? Enter the Survivorman Zones of Assessment ã

Zone 1- Your body and clothes

You start with yourself:

  • Are you hurt?
  • Are you tired or hungry?
  • What are you wearing?
  • What do you have in your pockets?

*I am wearing a backpack with extra clothes, one sandwich and a half a bottle of water inside of it. I have a power bar in my pocket, a small knife and I’m wearing good boots. I do NOT have a flashlight or any signaling devices. I have lots of energy and no one is injured, but my friend Brian is not physically fit and he lost all his gear.

If you are not alone, repeat this process so that everyone checks out their own Zone 1 and determines what the group has collectively. Even to the point of saying “everyone empty out their pockets – let’s take stock”.

Zone 2- Your Immediate Vicinity

This is simply the area immediate to you – the surrounding area of a few thousand square feet.

  • Do you have a tent?
  • A canoe?
  • Do you have any food or water or other items in packs?
  • What else is lying around you – firewood? a swamp full of edible cattail? an all-terrain vehicle with half a tank of gas?
  • What can you glean from your immediate surroundings? Can you rip or break something apart to aid you? For example, can you make protective insulated boots out of your car or boat seats?

*There are three of us. We have one tent and two sleeping bags, NO group food, a small first aid kit and one lighter.

Zone 3- Your Extended Area

This is further beyond – maybe a mile or a couple of miles away.

  • How far are you from safety?
  • Do you know of anything not too far away that can help you, like a cabin?
  • Which direction is safety and how difficult will to be to get there?
  • How difficult would it be to get to safety and is everyone up for the task?
  • If not, what are the challenges to getting to safety and can you overcome them easily?
  • Does anyone know you are in trouble and if so how long before they affect a rescue?
  • How soon can you move, IF you can move?
  • Do you know these answers FOR SURE? (not knowing something is as important to consider as is knowing something)

*I remember that there is a highway only one mile to the east if we walk straight but I don’t know what the terrain is like and no one at home is expecting to hear from us for at least 4 more days. I also remember we passed a cabin only a half a mile back and I know for sure we can get to it for the night. It is only about 12 pm.

Ok – so now you know:

I am wearing a backpack with extra clothes, one sandwich and a half a bottle of water inside of it. I have a power bar in my pocket, a small knife and I’m wearing good boots. I do NOT have a flashlight or any signaling devices and I have lots of energy.

There are three of us, no one is injured, but Brian is not physically fit and lost all his gear. We have one tent and two sleeping bags, NO group food, a small first aid kit and one lighter. I remember that there is a highway only one mile to the east if we walk straight but I don’t know what the terrain is like and no one at home is expecting to hear from us for at least 4 more days.

I also remember we passed a cabin only a half a mile back and I know for sure we can get to it for the night. It is only about 12 pm.

It likely only took 60 to 90 seconds to get all this knowledge! Yet now you have many details and are able to make a series of quality and concise decisions about how to effect proactive survival – the only kind of survival there is.

March is the beginning of the end of winter. February is our blah month. The term “bitterly cold” is tossed around a lot, and most folks just want to get it over with. Then comes March, with its tantalizingly warm days that hint at an early start to spring, but exit with nights that the cold simply refuses to ease its grip on.

So, February, the dead of winter, must be the most dangerous time of the year, right? Wrong. Without a doubt the most dangerous time of year comes after we’ve put away our big down coats, but just before the grass takes on its green hue. During the peak of winter, we’re expecting the bone-chilling cold.

We wear our Michelin-man coats making us all look like miniature Schwarzeneggers, hear the forecast for ‘minus-one-million’ and step outside, already braced for the frigid, clear, Canadian air. But we’re an excitable bunch when the sun begins warming our cheeks again mid-March. Coats are thrown back in the basement closet, and people start trying to get ready for swimsuit season and the summer months to come. But beware. Early spring is the time of year that’ll get ya!

There are more cases of hypothermia during the Spring (and Fall) months than during Winter. We’re not ready for the drop in temperature late in the day when we’ve had a balmy March afternoon. We’re not ready for the damp air that seems to cut through our clothing after two months of dry air that our fleece and down staved off. If being out in the wilderness is your thing, then beware of the lackadaisical approach of Spring.


Hypothermia is a killer. Plain and simple. Though strangely, after you get past the initial shivering it’s considered to be one of the most pleasant ways to die. Your body temperature begins to drop from 98.6˚ F (37° C) and as it drops, you become clumsy, forgetful and tend to walk around in a stupor, kind of like a lot of my friends now that I think of it.

Severely hypothermic people have been known to strip down from their protective clothing, stating that they are quite warm and comfortable, even though they are slowly chilling to death.

Over-exertion that leads to sweating during the warmth of a March day is deadly. By 6 p.m. your inner clothes are soaked with sweat and now the sun is going down. Within minutes the chills up your spine begin. From there, it’s a dangerous downward spiral, yet it’s all easily avoided with some simple preparation.

First, don’t become overconfident with the beautiful, warming sunshine of the day. March nights can dip well below zero quickly. Know that the cold is coming, and keep a day-pack with a down coat packed in it. Dress in layers and, though it’s a bit of a pain, constantly strip down or layer up if you are cold or hot.

Read that last sentence again.

It is one that can save your life. While trekking or heading out into the ides of March remember my favorite saying; ‘If you sweat, you die.’

That is the long and slow story of hypothermia. But there also exists the Coles Notes version. Immersion. Also known as plunging through the weak ice into frigid lake water, or for some people, a naked New Year’s Day tradition, the Polar Bear swim. It is possibly one of the scariest scenarios to occur in the waning winter months. After a few days of thawing, water will begin to wind its way along the path of least resistance, down to the lakes, creating sinkholes and weak ice everywhere. Now ice that thirty days prior was strong enough to drive a truck on has weaknesses and fault lines large enough for your poorly dressed body to break through.

The key to surviving a fall through the ice is, you guessed it, preparation. Simply put; don’t ever venture out onto frozen lakes without a pair of ice grippers around your neck, easily accessible. You don’t get a second chance at this.

I kick myself every-time I see a pair of ice grippers in the outdoor stores. You see, many years ago, my survival cronies and I made our own ice grippers and I always thought they should be mass marketed. Ah well, someone’s making a fortune now and I am confident lives are being saved because of this simple little device.

It’s hard to generalize the ‘look’ of ice and say it means one thing or another so as a general rule I would say watch out for the dark spots; areas on the surface of the lake where the slush and water has gathered and weakened the ice. Anywhere a river or creek flows into a lake will be weak for some distance, in a semi-circle, around the mouth of the tributary.

If you must travel on a frozen body of water and you already know the ice is weak, then it can help to have a long pole, perhaps even an ice chisel. You can test the ice in front of you as you gingerly walk, and also use the pole held horizontally to save you from falling all the way through a hole.

Once you’re in the drink, the only way out is pretty much the same as getting out of a swimming pool, only without having the side wall of the pool to push your feet against or the grip of the pool edge to push down on with your hands. The best method is a good scissor kick up from the water and then rolling yourself out on to the ice surface.

Any friend nearby that wants to rescue you must do so by finding something they can throw to you or reach out to you to give you something to grab hold of. They also need to lie flat if they are trying to get closer to you so that their weight is spread out on the weak ice around your hole. Falling through the ice is not a team sport.

Once you’re out, it’s time for a big fire. Scratch that. I mean a massive fire. Huge. We’re talking the kind of fire you could view from space. That’s the only thing that will knock the chill out of your now naked body. Sorry, but you have to strip down and get all the wet clothes off if you want to dry out.

Kinda gives a whole new meaning to the concept of shrinkage for the men! And it is absolutely vital that you do this out of the wind. Keep moving. Do jumping jacks. Get your blood flowing back through all your extremities. Did I mention to get out of the wind? The wind is a killer; you must be protected from it. You don’t want to add frostbite to your problems.

Now you want to be rescued, so I’d like to share a lesson in signaling I learned from first-hand experience. Ignore what you might have heard about making multiple smoke signals. Make one big signal tower fire. Concentrate your efforts on pooling all the resources for the big rescue moment.

Trying to run between multiple fires while the wind cuts through you is ridiculous and even dangerous. Make use of as much birch bark as possible so your fire flames up very fast. Above it put green spruce bows, which will give you lots of smoke.

And whatever you do, don’t go running out onto the ice to wave down your only chance of rescue…. and fall back into the same hole!

Les StroudLes Stroud aka Survivorman, is credited for single-handedly creating an entirely new genre of TV based on survival; Survival TV. He has recently launched www.survivormantv.com: his new online, subscription-based, web portal for all things survival/adventure and even Bigfoot. He is a multi-award winning TV producer/writer/director and host, a best selling author (his book Survive! Is considered the best new manual on survival today), and an accomplished adventurer and musician. He is a proud member of the Explorers Club, an ambassador for the Young Explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.