Top 12 Survival Schools in the US.
Would you know what to do if you were dropped in the middle of the woods (or desert, or mountains) with only the clothes on your back and — maybe — a knife?
If you’re an urban-dwelling ape like me, you’ve likely shared this fear-slash-fantasy and wondered how you might make out without society’s lifeline. Could you figure out how to build a shelter, find potable water, forage for food and build a fire in the short time it would take nature to kill you?
Probably not without a little help.
Lucky for you, help is a wilderness survival school away. As so-called primitive skills like flint knapping (making tools out of stone) and making fire by friction are lost to technological advancement, a handful of schools around the country are keeping them alive and passing them on to new generations.
Some, like Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the Maine Primitive Skills School, emphasize this ancient connection with nature, and teach their students not only how to survive in the wild, but how to live there.
Others, like the Pathfinder School in Ohio and the Mountain Shepherd School in Virginia, emphasize the survival angle more heavily, focusing on the crucial first 72 hours after getting lost or stranded, during which you have a high chance of rescue.
For this list, The Active Times picked 12 survival schools that cover a wide range of philosophies and skills. Learn how to survive the scorching desert heat at Arizona-based Aboriginal Living Skills School, follow survival regimens that are used to train the military at the Survival Training School of California and Ancient Pathways in Arizona, and even take urban survival classes in the heart of Manhattan if you’re worried about the next superstorm.
Or, if you really want to go deep, take months-long wilderness immersion courses at Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in the Maine North Woods or Anake Outdoor School in the Pacific Northwest.
Whichever you choose, you’ll probably face the challenge of your life — and one that might save it, too.
When a school is one of the military’s go-tos for desert survival training, you know it means business. Run by survival guru Tony Nester since 1989, Ancient Pathways offers classes in the art of bushcraft — “walking into the wilderness with a minimum of gear and relying on your skills while foraging and depending on nature’s resources,” as Nester puts it — ranging from four to 14 days. The school’s signature course, says Nester, is the “Knife Only Survival Course” ($295), which actor Emile Hirsch used to train for his role in Into the Wild.
Jack Mountain Bushcraft School
If you’ve ever wondered if you can get college credit for spending a semester deep in the North Woods of Maine, look no further than Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. Few wilderness schools are as comprehensive as Jack Mountain. Courses range from single-day workshops in skills like axemanship ($125), to the weeklong “Woodsman” class ($800), to year-long immersion programs that combine bushcraft skills with winter survival and — Jack Mountain’s specialty — a wilderness canoe expedition.
Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School
Who needs tents anyway? In Mountain Shepherd’s “most difficult, yet most popular course,” Humble Thunder ($550), students improvise their own shelters after making their way to their campsites with a topographic map and compass. This four-day, three-night class is taught by graduates of the U.S. Air Force’s prestigious SERE School — which stands for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” — in the rolling mountain country of western Virginia. (It’s opening a second location in Tillamook, Ore.) Don’t be afraid of the weather: classes are held year-round, meaning you could be using flint and steel to build your campfire in snow or the pouring rain. Eating bugs is optional, though.
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Survival Training School of California
Located where the Mojave Desert meets the Tehachapi mountain range north of Los Angeles, the Survival Training School of California is ideally placed for minimalist survival training in a variety of climates, all four seasons: A single seven-day course ($1050; discounts for groups) can take students from lush green valley to high alpine environment, and back down to the scorching desert. You’ll learn to locate and collect water from a man, Chief Instructor Thomas Coyne, who knows something about desert survival: Coyne has hiked across Death Valley in summer without bringing any food or water. Perhaps this is why the US Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Center trusts him to train its instructors.
Mountain Scout Survival School
Garrison, N.Y. and New York City
Having trained under the legendary Tom Brown, Jr. (see the Tracker School below), Mountain Scout’s lead instructor Shane Hobel — who also goes by White Feather — offers a variety of single-day survival classes (from $60) within commuting distance of New York City. These courses teach trapping, tracking, fire by friction and other survival skills that could save your life if you get lost in the woods. But if you’re preparing for an urban disaster — say, catastrophic grid failure — Hobel also offers urban survival classes in New York’s Central Park.
Wilderness Awareness School
This environmental education non-profit emphasizes connection with nature, and has a variety of programs even for children. The Anake Outdoor School — a school within a school — offers its survival programs, including a 9-month wilderness immersion course, in the Pacific Northwest. Your trek will take you across the Cascades, through the sand dunes of Oregon and under the redwoods of California. Just so you don’t get sticker shock, be warned that the course costs $10,350, although there are some scholarships available. It’s not for the faint of heart either: “Due to the intense physical requirements of this expedition and the remote location, we require that all participants undergo a complete physical examination and submit a signed Physicians Medical Examination Form. We will cover large distances over uneven ground, and will go without food and with limited water for extended periods of time.”
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Aboriginal Living Skills School
Founded in 1991 by Cody Lundin, co-star of Discovery’s Dual Survivor TV show (he’s the “primitive skills” expert and naturalist of the pair), ALSS teaches survival in the deserts, pinyon-juniper woodlands and mountain forests of Arizona. Among the school’s many highlights is the two-day “Nothing” course ($595), in which students — with Cody, of course — walk into the wild with “nothing but the clothes on [their] back[s],” create improvised shelter, make fire by friction and forage for their dinner. “The ‘Nothing’ Course is the epitome of the ALSS school mantra, ‘the more you know, the less you need,'” says the website.
The Pathfinder School
Dave Canterbury, who co-starred opposite Cody Lundin (above) for two seasons ofDual Survival, founded this Jackson, Ohio-based school that offers “no-nonsense” training on the outdoors. The Pathfinder School offers three-day basic survival classes ($400) in October, November and December, which places participants in simulated emergency situations where they will have to rely on their navigation and water-disinfecting skills, among other things, while waiting for “rescue.” This is a prerequisite for the signature Pathfinder Class ($600), an “intensive scouting class [in which] there will be no food, or water except what is collect by hunting and gathering of the group.” Not ready to head to the outdoors just yet? There are also virtual classroom where you can watch basic survival videos for a $65 lifetime membership; but before you fork over, check out Canterbury’s YouTube channel for some detailed instructional videos.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School
Boulder, Utah and Boulder, Colo.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School was founded in the late 1960s by Brigham Young University professor Larry Dean Olsen, whose month-long backpacking trips in Utah reportedly helped weaker students students pick up their grades. But the school cautions would-be survivalists not to take this history as evidence that BOSS is some kind of youth therapy program that “whip[s kids] into shape.” The program offers three-day to month-long classes, some of its most adventurous being field courses throughout Southern Utah with “little more than a blanket, poncho, and a knife.”
Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School
New Jersey Pine Barrens
Most people don’t think of New Jersey as a place where you can escape into the wilderness, but the pine barrens in the south of the state are where bestselling author Tom Brown, Jr. teaches tracking at one of the oldest, most highly regarded schools of its kind. Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School has a number of week-long programs (from $800) including the “standard” survival class. This school, which has inspired some of the other survival schools on this list, is more about connecting with the earth and the natural environment than about playing misery poker with your hardy peers. “If you are looking for a survival school that concentrates on hard core survival and self-denial, then this school is not for you,” Brown says on the website. “There are plenty of survival schools in the world that stress ‘the push,’ and I suggest that you attend one of them rather than our school.”
Maine Primitive Skills School
This Tom Brown-inspired school in Maine has similar focus areas to the Tracker School, with its familiar emphasis on “awareness,” tracking and “philosophy.” The Maine Primitive Skills School’s survival program, billed “Earth Living,” includes starting courses that focus on basic hunting, water collection and first-aid skills, and then progress to more rigorous training for those up for a real challenge. A description of the “Earth Living 3: Primitive Challenge” course says it all: “We will drop you off in the back 40 (actually back 23) and start taking things away. The goal is to move you into full survival in three days. The first day your tent will be taken away. The second day your matches will be taken away. By the third day you will have nothing you brought in except the clothes on your back and a knife.”
Bear Grylls Survival Academy
This British TV star has built some mainstream name-recognition through his controversial Discovery Channel hit Man vs. Wild, with survivalists turning a gimlet eye towards the authenticity of some of his wilder antics. Bear Grylls will open The Survival Academy in April 2014 in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains. No word on prices just yet, but 24-hour classes in the Scotland location currently run for about $547 per person. The courses, which range from one to five days, were designed by Grylls himself, and will be led by head instructor Scott Heffield and other members of Grylls’ team. (As with his Scottish academy, Grylls may make appearances as his schedule allows, but no guarantees.) They involve learning a variety of skills for remote land and water survival, including fire lighting, building emergency shelter and foraging for food. And, of course, no Bear Grylls-branded program would be complete without a “gross eat challenge.”
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