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The most underrated survival skills

Submitted photo Representatives of Keybridge Communications, from the Washington, D.C. metro area, participated in a Mountaineer Wilderness program with plenty of action, new skills and challenges, all set in an outdoor environment.

When we think about wilderness survival skills most of us conjure up images of starting fire with a spark or bushwhacking using a magnetic compass. And, we trust that each of us possess the will power and determination needed to ensure our individual survival. But, what about having to survive as a group? What skills then become more important when trying to save our family, friends, co-workers or fellow travelers?

I’m talking about interpersonal skills and the way we’ve learned to deal with others. So, what on “God’s green earth” does that have to do with wilderness survival? Only that when a serious survival situation arises that involves any group, our “people skills” become our most important tool for motivating others and getting everyone to work together as a team. Maybe it’s a remote plane crash or a natural disaster that leaves people stranded for days or weeks. In a real survival situation every problem becomes magnified as members of the group deal with injury, hunger, anger, thirst, anxiety, and fear. In those situations survival ultimately requires good team work and effective leadership.

I was recently reminded of the importance of these underrated survival skills while hosting a team-building event for 22 members of Keybridge Communications from the Washington D.C. metro area. They had requested a program with plenty of action, new skills and challenges, all set in an outdoor environment. Their employees were all very active, in good physical shape, and while few of them had any real wilderness experience they brought vital skills worth sharing.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from our city friends but based on my military career and years of instructor experience I was prepared for anything. My wife Bridget, a retired education-professional was also there to help. I’ve watched teams struggle under the pressure of performing difficult or unfamiliar tasks even if it’s only in a training environment. Such teams often give up on themselves.

When the group from D.C. arrived in Canaan Valley they had already chosen their team leaders and been pre-briefed on the tasks their teams would face: navigate using a map and compass to a hidden spring in the backcountry and return with the most water; construct a man-sized wooden “trap” using only natural materials; build an 8′ tall tripod including a center platform correctly lashed together with 550 para-cord; and finally each team selected one willing volunteer to compete in the signal-fire starting challenge. Each task was designed to offer different learning opportunities and unique challenges. To simulate some survival stress we imposed a strict three-hour time limit. Teams were also in competition and each task had a scoring rubric for earning points to win the Best Survival Team award. Adding the element of competition proved to be a real motivator and as these three teams got to work it soon became clear they were all in.

What impressed me at first was the team leaders taking time to get everyone on the same page and delegating jobs without resorting to ordering people around. Though every individual was out of their element there was never an air of confusion. Instead, what we heard were good natured jabs and team members encouraging others who were applying what skills they had to get the job done. Everyone stayed fully engaged throughout the program, all without complaint. When necessary, members shifted their effort to where it was most needed at the time, and finally as the timer approached zero there was no sense of panic, just more encouragement and everyone pitching-in to complete the mission. Like any survival preparation the valuable skills this group relied on had already been learned and practiced often.

What Bridget and I observed was a unique group of high-functioning team members and leaders. Their success that day was made possible because every individual demonstrated the necessary skills to work well together. It’s a good lesson for us all, whether for wilderness survival or just getting along with our fellow man.

To learn more about wilderness skills and outdoor team building programs in Canaan Valley contact mark@mountaineerwilderness.com.