Real UK Survival Skills?

There is a problem in the UK outdoor skills training world. For most of the last three decades the majority of outdoor skills training came through the mountain or river environment – navigation courses, Mountain Leader courses, instructor courses, kayaking/paddling and so on. During the 1980s and 1990s small companies (some of which are now large companies!) began to develop a new range of courses – ‘survival’ training, often using military skills and techniques. This led to a parallel set of skills providers focusing on native and primitive skills from around the world – mostly positioning themselves as ‘bushcraft’ course providers.

All good then? As time passes and sources of information (internet, social media, online videos etc) grow then a wider range of skills develop. This HAS to be a good thing surely?

No, apparently not.

Although on the face of it a wider range of courses and outdoor skills to learn is a good thing, the important messages are being diluted. Bushcraft is becoming an activity in it’s own right – be it the practice and re-discovery of primitive skills by individuals and groups or just spending time in the woods away from technology and modern life. People are discovering a love of the outdoors through this route (via forums, Facebook, groups and activity providers, often inspired by UK and US TV shows) and we at Original Outdoors are part of that. Thousands of people have learned new outdoor skills through our courses and activities, and continue to do so every week.

The problem is that there is a disconnect between the learning of skills in a training environment (either solo or in groups) and the application in the real world. The UK has a unique environment –  a warm, maritime climate at a high latitude combined with crowded rural areas and small amounts of sparsely populated bare, rolling upland areas. The skills needed to safely traverse, spend time in and enjoy these small pockets of ‘wilderness’ that we have are often not those practiced by ‘bushcraft’ practitioners.

I spent the best part of a decade in UK Mountain Rescue, as a volunteer but by the end of my stint I was dedicating around 10-20 hours per week to it. The callouts UK MRTs receive are varied, from technical rescues on crags and in water to multi-day urban searches for vulnerable missing persons. The ones that occur in the mountains and moorland tend to see the same thing again and again – lack of preparation and underestimating what can happen when things don’t go to plan.

Sea King from SnowdonThe incident that prompted me to write this post happened a few weeks ago on Snowdon. As happens frequently throughout the year I arrived on the summit with a group of clients (in this case a guided walk) where I spotted a familiar face. I couldn’t quite put my finger on who it was, but there was something else about them that grabbed my attention – what they were wearing. Cotton DPM trousers, cotton Tshirts (branded with the name of their ‘survival skills’ company), military surplus boots and some rather large knives hanging from their belts. One had a fleece in his hand, the other a GoPro on the end of a stick. After a few minutes of quietly observing them (whilst doing the usual round of summit photos and celebratory hugging with my clients) I worked out where I knew them from – a YouTube channel that is gaining some interest amongst the ‘bushcraft’ community, and their adverts for their South of England based school. There is nothing wrong with any of that – you see all sorts of things on Snowdon, from high heels and bikinis to animal costumes and slipper-clad feet. Like hundreds of thousands of others this Summer, these two guys had ascended Snowdon in slightly unusual dress.

The problem is that they are teaching ‘survival skills’ and ‘wilderness skills’ to paying clients, who are relying on their instructors for reliable information that may one day save a life. Plenty of criticism is levelled at Bear Grylls because of his TV shows and how that if most people copied the techniques portrayed they would likely end up injured or worse – but there are plenty of instructors and ‘schools’ teaching a reliance on skills that may be well-researched and well taught, but are of little relevance to the likely situations that UK-based outdoor enthusiasts will find themselves in. The two guys on Snowdon lacked any of the normal or emergency items it would be wise to take – waterproofs, warm clothing, a map, a compass, a torch, spare food etc etc Had the weather changed, one of them had an injury or they just took the wrong route down they would have been at best uncomfortable and at worst requiring the services of the local mountain rescue team for either rescue or even recovery. Even spartan-level fell runners who are known for travelling extremely light normally take a 5L bum bag stuffed with a waterproof and a headtorch. Because they are unfamiliar with the UK mountain environment I suspect our two YouTube stars were unprepared for any of the events that normally strand ill-prepared hillwalkers – poor weather, a slip/fall or navigational error leading to an unexpected night on the mountain. The skills they teach and preach to newcomers to the outdoors are very specific – but mostly unsuitable for the places people do actually need outdoor skills in the UK.

Bowdrill sessionTechniques like making and using a bow-drill are very popular because they are unusual, often demonstrated on TV and easy to replicate with materials gathered locally and practiced at home in the garden. When clients come to our courses they are often excited to learn and master this technique, which is great for morale and motivation, but we always have to balance that original enthusiasm with the likely application of it in the UK – the situations where lighting a fire through friction would be the best course of action are virtually nil.

The UK is not a big place – we are rarely more than a few miles away from tarmac and we do not have extensive forests or swampland to get lost in. The places where large scale searches for missing hikers take place are in the remote mountain areas, such as the Carneddau, the Cairngorms, Kinder Scout etc, where terrain is complex and lacking in shelter. The skills required to stay safe here are good navigation skills (both before and during the walk), knowing what equipment to carry and what to leave behind (nobody needs a 4″ fixed blade knife on Snowdon), good personal skills such as using clothing to regulate temperature properly and wise judgement – knowing when to turn back or modify your plans. You would also be wise to supplement those skills with some basic outdoor-relevant first aid training and just time spent in the outdoors. The importance of making plans, executing them, learning from them and using those lessons to improve the next time cannot be overstated.

So what do we do? Our courses, from the Bushcraft Basics through to our Advanced Navigation Coaching are all designed to balance the skills that we believe people need with what they want to pay for. But we think we can do more – dispelling myths and moving the bias away from trying to apply the skills of the Kalahari bushmen to the woodlands of Buckinghamshire and claiming that you are an expert in UK outdoor survival. We are starting a project which we will hopefully be announcing in the next few weeks that will be the start of this – keep an eye on our social media and newsletters for more information.

In summary – keep practicing the bowdrill, carving spoons and perfecting the art of hammocking (I do!) – but be prepared to learn other skills if you want to spend time in the more remote areas of the UK.

Autumn Navigation Courses
Introducing Snowdonia Guided Walks
  1. Spot on. These are all different outdoor games,It reminds me of Games climbers play a few years ago.e.g. Big wall versus long distance walking. people need to wise up to what game they are playing at the moment and how the rules change for each activity.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more on this one, Richard. I’ve been mountaineering and rock climbing for 50 years and have seen many changes in the scene. The combination of over confidence that smartphones now induce combined with clueless “experts” wandering in the hills must pose a nightmare for the rescue services.

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