Deep Survival

This book is less about outdoor survival and more about life. Its lessons go far beyond the wilderness and help you not only survive, but thrive with the challenges that life throws at you. It’s really well-written. Make sure you read it before you go for your next adrenaline-filled adventure.

Deep Survival

The act of walking into the forest, swimming in the surf, or floating on a river does not seem threatening. Putting one foot in front of the other, looking around at the orchids growing and the birds crying, it would never enter our mind that we might never be seen again. It’s…. unthinkable.

Getting Lost

People don’t believe how easily they can get lost or how quickly they can lose their ability to reason.

Because he’d been following others, he had not been checking his map, or builiding his awareness. Now his brain was unconsciously trying to form a mental map of the route from a position he didn’t really know to a destination he’d never seen before. That futile struggle contributed to his ill-defined anxiety.

Scientists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack, even if they can. It’s hard to accept defeat and go back. Admitting that you are lost is difficult because having no mental map, being no place, is like having no self. Without a mental map, the organism can’t go about its business and rapidly deteriorates.

In daily life, people operate on the necessary illusion that they know where they are. Most of the time, they don’t.

When he’d set out, he had been a healthy, competent, well-equipped hiker. His pack contained everything he needed to survive at least a week in the wild. Now, just over two days after taking a wrong turn, he was huddled on an icy mountainside, exhausted, hungry, badly dehydrated, injured, and dangerously hypothermic. What had begun as a small error in navigation (judgement) had progressed, step by innocent step, to a grim struggle for survival.

How do people get lost?

It’s simple. All you have to do is fail to update your mental map and then persist in following it even when the landscape (or your compass) tries to tell you it’s wrong.

When you are drowning, thrashing does not save you, floating quietly does.

Being lost is not a location; it’s transformation. It’s a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods, or it can happen in life.

If lost people don’t totally exhaust or injure themselves during an outright panic, they may eventually get a grip on themselves and decide on some plan of action. What they decide to do may appear irrational to a calm observer, but does not seem nearly so unreasonable to the lost person who is now totally disoriented.

Generally, they would be wiser and safer to stay put and get as comfortable and warm as possible, but many feel compelled to push on, urged by unconscious feelings.

Stages one goes through when lost

  • Denial: you deny that you’re disoriented and press on with growing urgency. Ideally, you should backtrack at this point.

  • Realization: you realize that you are genuinely lost. Clear thought becomes impossible, and action becomes frantic, unproductive, and even dangerous.

  • Formulation of misguided strategy based on your existing, false, wrong mental maps. You are lost.

  • Deterioration: both rational and emotional, as the strategy fails to resolve the conflict.

  • Death / Resignation: As you run out of options and energy, you either die or become resigned to your plight. After this stage, you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must throw away existing models, or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

  • Survival: Not a helpless resignation but a pragmatic acceptance of - and even wonder at - the world in which one finds oneself. This final stage can prove to be either a beginning or an end.

Some give up and die. Others stop denying and begin surviving. You don’t have to be an elite performer. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to get on with it and do the next right thing.

One of the toughest steps a survivor has to take is to discard the hope of rescue, to discard the old world you left behind, and accept the new one. There is no other way for the brain to settle down.

Learn from children

Small children do not create the same sort of mental maps adults do. They don’t understand traveling to a particular place, so they don’t run to get somewhere beyond their fields of vision.

They also follow their instincts. If it gets cold, they seek warmth. If they’re tired, they rest, so they don’t get fatigued. They don’t try to bend the map. They remap the world they’re in.

Like being lost, survival is a transformation; which ensures that, when you reach the final stage of that metamorphosis, it is with an attitude of commitment, not resignation. The transformation of survival is permanent.

To plan, or not?

In nature, adaptation is important, the plan is not.

Plan first, then follow the plan. But don’t fall in love with the plan. Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary so that you can make a new plan.

The human brain is particularly well suited to making complex plans. The difficulty begins when the reality doesn’t match the plan. We go forth and take action. If things don’t go according to the plan, revising such a robust model may be difficult.

The first rule is, Face Reality.

In an unfamiliar world, accept whatever is there. Don’t have preconstructed models with false expectations. Be ready to change your mind as new facts emerge.

In an environment that has high objective hazards, the longer it takes to dislodge the imagined world in favor of the real one, the greater the risk.

As additional stresses or unplanned events make it difficult to think clearly, it’s no wonder that one finds it almost hopeless to change the plan or alter your model to fit reality. You’re carried along on your own story of yourself.

Letting go of the plan

Most accidents on the mountains happen when people are climbing down from the summit.

We must plan. But we must be able to let go of the plan, too. Have backout plans. Know when to turn back and pull out.

Be content and grateful for what you have achieved till now, in cases where you have to let go of your existing plans. Look how far you have come, from where you started.

Don’t celebrate too early. The trap lies in the fact that one can be only halfway to his real goal. One starts celebrating when he has overcome the worst and easy remains.

Many times, that easy part is the worst one.

Adapt and Survive

People normally do all sorts of things for reasons that they are not consciously aware of… and one of the main jobs of consciousness is to keep our life tied together into a coherent story, a self-concept. Everyone is a hero in his own movie.

Experience is nothing more than the engine that drives adaptation, so it’s always important to ask: Adaptation to what? You need to know if your particular experience has produced the sort of adaptation that will contribute to survival in the particular environment you choose. And when the environment changes, you have to be aware that your own experience might be inappropriate.

Basic survival mechanisms can cause an intense emotional reaction, and we can be swept away by an irresistible impulse to act.

A closed attitude, an attitude that says, “I already know,” may cause you to miss important information. Zen teaches humility and openness.

A survivor does not impose pre-existing patterns on new information, but rather allows new information to reshape his mental models.

The brain is a physical organ, and is affected by the body and the environment. It reads the body and environment and makes fine adjustments, then it directs the body in reacting to the environment. This process continually reshapes the brain by making new connections.

All of this has a singular aim: Adapt and Survive.

When the bad outcome connected with a given response comes into mind, however fleetingly, you experience an unpleasant gut feeling. Using this system, you can choose to avoid stupidity.

People don’t come pre-assembled but are glued together by life. Like the immune system, the emotional system evolves continuously, taking experiences and situations and attaching emotional value to them.

To a survivor’s mind, all cues are important. They carry information. So a survivor expects the world to keep changing and keeps his senses always tuned to: What’s up? The survivor is continuously adapting.

Follow Checklists

Sometimes people are ruined by errors that simple inquiry would have avoided.

For important, repeating activities, always use checklists.

We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the contradicting information.

Unexpected or unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.

While the pathways from the amygdala to the neocortex are stronger and faster than the ones going the other way, some ability may remain for the neo-cortex to do the following:

  • First, to recognize that there is an emotional response underway.

  • Second, to read reality and perceive circumstances correctly.

  • Third, to override or modulate the automatic reaction if it is an inappropriate one

  • Fourth, to select a correct course of action.

Illusion of Safety

The act of walking into the forest, swimming in the surf, or floating on a river does not seem threatening. Putting one foot in front of the other, looking around at the orchids growing and the birds crying, it would never enter our mind that we might never be seen again. It’s…. unthinkable.

Get the information. Avoid stupidity, and don’t be ignorant where it matters.

The same accidents happen over and over, year after year. It’s a simple thing to know, but so many people plunge in without inquiring. Park rangers, lifeguards, and local authorities are happy to tell you if you only ask.

Being aware of the traps that can be set by the environment/nature/system can help tremendously.

We miscalculate the scale of the places we choose to explore. Distance means energy, the energy we’ll run out of if we’re not found; the energy it takes to get out.

For most people, it’s unthinkable to imagine what appears to be a solid mountain coming apart. But all mountains are in a state of continuous collapse.

The disconnect between that reality and our perception leads to many accidents. Being hit by rockfall or having a rock come loose in your hand is common because people don’t believe that the mountain is falling.

It’s easy to underestimate the energy and the spaces out there. Ski resorts, for example, create the illusion of safety in the midst of the wilderness. People approach them as if they were amusement parks, with little idea of where they are, and what forces they may encounter.

Chaos Theory

Protect your downside.

The events that we call accidents do not just happen. There is not some entity that just causes them. People have to assemble the systems that make them happen. Even then, nothing may happen for a long time.

Most of the time, nothing serious happens, which makes it more difficult for the operators of the system. They begin to believe that the orderly behavior they see is the only possible state of the system. Then, at the critical boundaries in time and space, the components and forces interact in unexpected ways, with catastrophic results. This can be applied to both positive and negative events.

What appears to be a very complex turbulent system can begin with very simple components, operating under a few simple rules. One of the characteristics of such a system is that a small change in the initial conditions, often too small to measure, can lead to radically different behavior.

Takeoff is optional, but landing is mandatory. A good landing is any landing that you can walk away from.

Be aware that you’re not all there. When you are in survival mode, you are in a profoundly altered state when it comes to perception, cognition, memory, and emotion.

The Rules of Life

Be silent, for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have just learned and not digested yet.

Enter the woods, ocean, forest, mountain, lake, and sky with a deep sense of respect and humility.

It is part of the natural cycle of human emotion to let down your guard once you feel you’ve reached a goal.

People routinely fail to realize that an accident not happening is no guarantee that it won’t happen.

Negative visualization.

Too much early success can work against you, giving you a false sense of emotional certainty for a world that can be hard. Don’t be overconfident.

Meta-knowledge: The ability to assess the quality of our own knowledge. It’s easy to assume that perception and reason faithfully render reality. But our sense of self is an illusion. We live in a sort of dream world, that only imperfectly matches reality.

Most of us sleep through the test. We might get an easy one and never know what might have been demanded. Such an experience can make us even more vulnerable, for we come away with the illusion of growing hardy, salty, and knowledgeable: Been there, done that.

Survival isn’t about bravery and heroics. Heroes can be perfect heroes and wind up dead. By definition, survivors must live.

Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. Now you are a rescuer, not a victim.

The survivor plans by setting small, manageable goals and then systematically achieving them.

What to Avoid?

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance - Charlie Munger

Apathy: a typical reaction to any sort of disaster, which separates one permanently from everything one knows and loves in this world. That apathy can rapidly lead to complete psychological deterioration.

Fatigue: always comes as a surprise. It is as much a psychological condition as a physical one. Once fatigue sets in, it is almost impossible to recover from it under the survival conditions.

Following the explosive burst of activity, you almost always run into fatigue, and all the previous work’s value is destroyed or doesn’t matter.

If you are fatigued, you are depleted of energy to do anything. It may take weeks to recover, and if you are not taking care of yourself, that fatigue can lead to an inability to sleep, which in turn can result in a sudden psychological collapse.

The physical and psychological factors rapidly erode each other, which is why it’s so important to pace yourself and rest frequently.

You cannot change the world; you can only change yourself.

To see and know the world, then, is the key to surviving in it. You have to accept the world in which you find yourself.

Be open to the world in which you find yourself. Experience its magnificence, admit its reality, and adapt to it. Be here now.

Before you came here, the world was as it is now, after you are gone, it will be that way still. The world won’t adapt to you. You must adapt to it.

To experience humility is the true survivor’s correct response to catastrophe.

On Survival

Survival starts before the accident.

As you hike/go on through life, stop frequently and reflect, examine and observe where you are at that point. This helps you avoid getting lost, as you can always backtrack using the last location in memory. Following someone blindly is never a good idea.

Learn to turn around and see where you’ve been, which is a means of paying attention. If you come to a fork in the road, you look back and find a cue, something different, and remember it. Talk about it.

The best way to meet an emergency is

  • To gather information

  • Have a clear mind and analyze the information

  • Handle strong emotions

Without the effort of struggle, a person is done for. You need a course of familiarization with pain. Children without knowledge of predators don’t do as well in survival school, so people who have not had to struggle in their lives are at risk.

Don’t cry, don’t break now. Do whatever you must do. Avoid self-pity.

Our survival kit is inside us. But unless it’s there before the accident, it is not going to appear magically at the moment it’s needed. A survival situation simply drives the natural system you’ve developed over a lifetime and drives it harder.

Survivors find wealth and happiness in the smallest things.

On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use. The secret is to meet adversity head-on.

The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost, or feeling distressed about things going badly. They don’t take themselves too seriously.

By developing a pattern and then fixing on nothing but making the pattern perfect, they were able to get out of seemingly impossible situations.

Let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words. And rarely and when the occasion calls shall you say something.

If you never fall into darkness, you will never realize the sunbeams.

Stay humble and know your limits

If a pilot acted like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, he will not survive.

The same arrogance and reckless disregard for safety will kill you in the wilderness or in any other place of high objective hazard.

The modern craze for high-risk sports and wilderness recreation, which has been embraced by so many naive travelers, is bound to result in accidents, but the images such myths project make it even more likely.

Those who avoid accidents are those who see the world clearly, see it changing, and change their behavior accordingly.

Even elite performers struggle to find emotional balance and control. They, too, have to correct their courses as they go. They make big mistakes, or small ones with big consequences; what separates the living from the dead is an ability to see the error and adapt, a determination to get back on the path.

Even the most unforgiving environments allow a few sins if you adjust your behavior and take corrective action in a timely fashion.

Know your circle of competency and stay within it, and expand it continuously.

Know the system and keep in mind that the forces may be so large (or fast) that they are difficult to imagine.

Be humble. The Rambo types are the first to go/die.

Don’t think that just because you’re good at one thing, it makes you good at other things.

You need to be more cautious and humble after you have learned and mastered the basics.

When in doubt, bail out.

Be content with being outdoors. If you can get to the summit, that’s just the icing.

It’s a matter of self-awareness. Looking at yourself and assessing your own abilities and where you are mentally, and then realizing that it’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all.

Be realistic about your goals and your time frame.

The real heroism of the astronauts is not in the risks they take = any idiot can throw his life away - but in the much more arduous lengths to which they go to protect themselves from harm. They know that adventure becomes folly when you stop looking out for number one.

It’s not selfishness, it’s that fine distinction between going forth boldly and going forth blindly, a balance between dedication to the mission and informed caution.

Know where you have to stop and go back, and know yourself well enough to estimate correctly just how far beyond it you can go and still get back.

Written on July 9, 2023