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Tips for teaching the Wilderness Survival merit badge

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.

Tabletop Exercises
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.