In his 24 years in the U.S. Army — including 21 years in Special Forces — Danny Marchant, of Fayetteville, N.C., completed his fair share of survival training, including SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school. You could say he knows a thing or two about the Wilderness Survival merit badge; he has taught survival frequently in his career. Scouting caught up with him to get his perspective.
The Point of Survival
Military and Scout survival training share similarities, but there are some important differences. Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines don’t want to be found; Scouts lost in a national forest most certainly do. “Signaling is a higher priority for civilians and Scouts,” Marchant says. “Rescue is the thing.”
That emphasis on surviving until rescue is one reason the Wilderness Survival merit badge doesn’t teach Scouts how to live off the land. Instead of “enhancing” the badge by covering edible plants or game traps, counselors should focus on the badge requirements.
While the badge teaches a host of techniques, including signaling and building shelters, Marchant says they aren’t the most important parts of the badge. Instead, he emphasizes requirement 2, which addresses the seven priorities for survival. “The priorities are the critical part,” he says. “Your brain is the best survival tool.”
Putting Techniques to the Test
Marchant prefers to teach the badge on outings, which lets Scouts practice the skills in a realistic setting. Take signaling, for example. “If you’re in an area with mountains and have some hiking trails, you could theoretically have the Scouts set up some of the signaling methods and then go for a hike and see them from a higher altitude,” Marchant says. (Just make sure it doesn’t look to others like you’re having a real emergency.)
Fieldwork also forces Scouts to consider context. “If you’re using a signal panel, how big does it have to be to be seen? What color works best? In the fall, orange isn’t necessarily the best color,” he says.
Marchant has also had Scouts conduct experiments to see which whistles work best. Several free smartphone apps can measure sound levels.
Survival Kits on the Cheap
For requirement 5, Scouts must build personal survival kits, which can be an expensive proposition if you shop at outdoor retailers. “The first place I would go to build a survival kit is a pharmacy and a hardware store,” Marchant says. “You’ll find almost everything you need right there.”
For example, dental floss is cheap and surprisingly strong; Marchant has even built a survival shelter using it. And cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly make great inexpensive fire starters.
Requirement 4 asks Scouts to describe how they would survive in a desert, in winter and in other challenging conditions, such as an ocean or a rainy forest. Marchant likes to present real-world scenarios he has read about in books, news reports and online forums. “They take it more seriously when they know it really happened to somebody,” he says.
And if the same things ever happen to them, he knows they’ll be prepared.
I also have had a lot of SERE training as an enlisted aircrew member of the Air Force over my 25 year tenure. I also have found that the best survival kits come from my bathroom and kitchen. Also, no amount of lecture can convey as much information as watching the video of the real world situation, we used them a lot in our refresher courses, with a few practical exercises (outdoors of course).
I would like to hear your take on the notion set out in the requirements and the BSA pamphlet that the priority of survival needs is set in advance without reference to the “facts on the ground.”
I respectfully disagree with the notion that wilderness survival should avoid training outdoors people in food sources. The BSA is about training. Which is why I am glad the BSA has just issued a new book on foraging for edible plants. People all over the world have learned to identify basic foods. Simple edibles like cattails, dandelions, clover, provide sustenance and help maintains positive attitude, hydration (when boiled), and clear thinking needed to survive. Other basic foods such as fish, small animals, water foul are harder to acquire – but the traps taught in the early versions of the merit badge have proved useful to many people. I have used the Piute death-fall trap successfully. I have caught fish successfully. Many cultures utilize boiled & roasted grubs, ants & meal worms. These are located the world over and easily found and prepared – and rich in protein. The article assumes that survival training is for 11 year old boys who will get lost in a national forest and should just stay put and be found eventually. The idea that these kids will remain 11 and only be in a park-like setting sells the program short. Train them well. Train them at varying stages and skill levels. In our country’s history, it was often the children who were trained by their parents and grandparents to collect plants for food. With the production of the new edible plants book, I hope the BSA will take this a step further and offer a Wilderness edibles merit badge.
I like Steve’s idea for a separate Wilderness Edibles merit badge. It would allow the emphasis for Wilderness Survival to remain on “Getting Found” while also allowing the food sources training for the legitimate reasons he describes.