SURVIVAL SKILLS PART 3: Psychology and the priorities of work

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” Self Pitty by D.H. Lawrence

One of the most discussed aspects of survival is psychology. When you find yourself self stuck in a less than ideal situation, attitude is everything! Long before you succumb to climate, injury, dehydration, starvation, or illness, you have to make the choice to do what you must to get out alive. The number one thing in any survival situation is a determined and relatively positive attitude. How one deals with stress can make the difference between life or death. The same is true of combat. The physical hardships of these situations are incredibly taxing, however, it is your individual emotions and psychological make up that give these otherwise physical stimuli the power to make you to quit. As my friend, retired Army Special Forces SFC Don E. Bowen has said, “your mind will quit a thousand times before your body,” so feel the pain and fear then push through it.  As in life, there are no guarantees in a survival situation except for one… If you quit, you will die. Self-pity and self-doubt are the first steps down the short path to ruin.

A general knowledge of the psychological responses to stress and some coping mechanisms are as essential as any item you can put in a survival kit. Keeping some fundamentals in mind, you can establish some set protocols and psychological preparation to add order and structure in an otherwise chaotic situation. I can go on and on about the psychological mechanisms at work in a life and death situation, but there is not enough time in this short article to discuss the dynamics of fear, anxiety, panic, and depression. Besides, I am no expert. Short of my combat experience and a few ill planned and “impromptu” camping trips, I have no great survival epic to share. This is because of the topics of a mindset and some basic preparation I covered in Part 2 of this series.

There are many contributions on the subject of survival psychology and I recommend the following: Chapters 1 and 2 of the U.S. Army Survival Manual (FM 21-76) are clearly written, accessible, and insightful. However, I would caution the civilian reader on a few points. In any military manual, there is the concern for elements that are specific to military operations. In the FM 21-76, a lot of care is given to evasion and concealment from enemy forces. In a non-military survival situation, you do not want to be concealed. You should make your location as apparent as possible. I see a lot of amateur civilian survivalists go out and teach or practice in camouflage or earth tone colors. Instead, I choose colors that are not found in nature, bright reds, whites, or hunter orange are far better choices.


Another essential for reading when beginning a study into survival skills is the book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Pier Paul Read. Read recounts the terrifying ordeal of a Peruvian Rugby team stranded for 72 days after their plane crash-landed in the Andes Mountains. The text goes in depth to the various physical and psychological battles the group endured, most notably the decision to eat the flesh of some of their dead companions. One of the most memorable elements to the episode was the performance of a mock Catholic Mass. The group did this to commemorate the death of their friends and to ease the shock of breaking such a profound taboo. Additionally, Animal Planet’s “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” gives great insight into the inner workings of survival psychology.


Perhaps the biggest generator of fear and anxiety is the “unknown.” While seemingly broad and open ended, if you can focus and assess the situation, you will realize that there are very measurable and avoidable dangers and pre-planned strategies that you can implement to ease the burden of anxiety. I am specifically referring to a concept we use in the military called “priorities of work.” Priorities of work will change depending on climate, terrain, and situation. However, generally the progression that should be considered is shelter, fire, water, and food. Fire and water will alternate based on the particulars of the situation.

Once you find yourself in a bad situation, one of the first things that you should consider is shelter. In general, long before you succumb to thirst, animal attack, or starvation, the elements will have already killed you or at least diminished your ability and desire to survive.  Shelter construction should be of the primary concern in situations where moderate to extreme weather is a factor. A seemingly pleasant 58 degrees evening is actually a dangerous situation if you are wet, ill-clothed, exposed in the wind, and have no way to warm yourself. As I mentioned in the last article, your body looses heat in 3 preventable ways; radiation, convection, and conduction. If you can stay out of the wind, insulate from the ground, and stay dry, you have won half the battle. There are a variety of shelter construction methods. From windbreaks, lean-to’s, wikki ups, debry huts, and igloos, the general goal is the same, that is to minimize convection and conduction of heat away from the body.




With the addition of fire near or in your shelter, when possible, you now have the ability to thermo-regulate and potentially keep wild animals and insects at bay.
NOTE: While fire is not always necessary or possible, an intimate knowledge of fire starting, fire building, and the ability to acquire the correct materials go hand in hand with shelter building. Any survival manual will provide detailed information in these areas. Assuming that you have some core essentials on your person and you know how to use them, half the battle is won.

Next on the list of essential tasks is to ensure that you can acquire potable drinking water. The ability to filter, treat, and store water is essential. I always carry my Katadyn Vario Water Filter (activated charcoal and ceramic filtration), a 1 quart canteen, a canteen cup for boiling, and emergency water purification tablets.  If no activated charcoal filter is available to clear out pollutants and sediments, one could build a solar still. The still utilizes evaporation and condensation to remove heavy metals, toxins, and salt. This however takes a long time. Information on this skill is available in most survival manuals. I have seen in some instances, individuals using campfire charcoal as a component in field improvised filters, but this is chemically different from activated charcoal. I recommend erring on the side of caution in this case and not assuming it can be used to filter out industrial pollutants. If anyone has good source material on this subject, please feel free to share it in the comments section.


As far as food goes, there are a lot of misconceptions out there. Most these misconceptions pertain to the differences between primitive skills and survival skills. While there is a good deal of overlap, they are 2 incredibly different situations. Primitive living skills make use of natural materials and techniques to live indefinitely in the bush. While useful, many of these skills take many months of practice to become proficient at them.

Some people assume that because they have some line and a hook that they will get fish, or because they know how to build a survival bow, that they can hunt. There are also the skills of trap building such as snare, pits, and dead falls. As appealing as these skills seem in theory, the reality is far less ideal. How many hunters do you know who go out to the woods with rifle and scope and come back cold, wet, and hungry? On the topic of fishing, I challenge any novices to attempt it without a conventional rod and reel. While there are some methods of fishing that are possible, both hunting and fishing burn time and calories. In a survival situation, you are attempting to get back to civilization as quickly as possible, so spending hours or days attempting to hunt or fish may actually be counter productive. Instead, you should rely on foraging plants and even insects as a source of food. Even though the majority of these do not provide a lot of calories, you do not burn many calories in the process of keeping your eyes open for them along your path. But to reiterate from a previous article, I prefer to carry a few high calorie sports nutrition bars.

There are a variety of book on the subject of wild edibles. There are also groups in many cities that go out for “weed walks” in which they attempt to locate and harvest wild edible plants. Check for availability in your area. There are some plants and insects that should be avoided due to their toxicity to humans. While you may see animals eating plants and insects, it does not mean that they are safe for human consumptions. There are even some plants that are incredibly poisonous that resemble edible varieties. One technique to test a plant it rub it on inside of your forearm and wait about hour. Then rub it on your lips and wait 15 minutes. Then you hold it under your tongue for 15 minutes. If you do not have a skin reaction to this exposure, then it is likely safe to eat. Be advised that even though many manuals claim that this sound method, there are some toxins that will not cause a skin reaction. Overall, there is no substitute for proper training.

Getting back to the topic of priorities of work, taking these essential needs and tasks and committing them to memory and practice in the correct order will diminish some of the anxiety in a survival situation. There are a variety of acronyms that convey this sentiment. Two of the most popular are S.T.O.P. and the O.O.D.A. Loop. While these are useful tools, they do not contain anything beyond a suggestion to take a moment and formulate a plan.

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A few years ago, the lack of guidance prompted me to think long and hard on what factors are really important and in what order these factors should be addressed. As a result of my study of these topics and a day hike gone wrong prompted me to formulate my own acronym. The acronym is IFWESAFF. It seems long and no apparent, but it is an all inclusive and easy way to remember what to do and when to do it. The easy way to remember it is, IF WE (do what the acronym tells us, we will be “safe”) SAFF. It contains a basic guide for work priorities should you find yourself in a survival situation.

  •  I- Inventory- What do you have to work with? Who is with you? Are there any injured? Does anyone have any useful skills (ie. medical, military, survival, etc.)
  •  F- Forage- What materials are in the general area that you can use?
  •  W- Water- You should locate water or at least have a container to carry it.
  •  E- Exit strategy- Will you wait to be rescued, or will you self rescue? Do you

have the necessary navigational skills and equipment to do so?

  •  S- Shelter- Do you have the ability to make a shelter in the environment that you

find yourself in with the tools available?

  •  A- Acquire- Continue to acquire supplies on your path (ie edibles, tinder, kindling, anything you think you can use.) The old saying “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” is true in survival. You can improvise many things from the types of waste you find in the bush.
  • F- Fire- Do you have the skills to build a fire? Do you have the materials to due so?
  • F- Food- Do you know how to acquire wild edibles? Are you in a place where this is possible?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you should consider studying more or seeking training. To be honest, I am not incredibly confident in my abilities at acquiring food. However, as I mentioned above, having a structure to your thoughts and planning will help you to alleviate some of the psychological stress and anxiety coming from the daunting task of survival.

With regards to the skills I have mentioned, the casual reader of this series of articles thinks that all of these suggestions may feel that all of this is incredibly complicated. If I made you question your abilities and skills, then I have succeeded in my goal. Many of the television shows and manuals make it look easy while we read or view them from our recliners in our perpetual 70 degree temperature controlled living room with a ready supply of water and calories a few feet away. However, the real prospects and hardships of survival are not easily conveyed in writing and are certainly not as entertaining as they are on TV. If this is a field that you wish to try your hand in, study, practice, and seek training; then study and practice some more.

Let us know what you think in the comments and feel free to like and share. If you guys are interested in more detailed information on specific topics, let us know. You can follow Guro Jerome Teague on Facebook (Balintawak Eskrima Bull Chapter USA) and Instagram to stay up to date on training events and instructional content via his Youtube channel.

And don’t forget to checkout, what will hopefully be, the annual FMA Camp and Survival Skills weekend in the Nashville TN area.