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Admit it: You get a little envious watching Man vs. Wild's Bear Grylls rappel down a craggy mountain using only his belt or harpooning a river eel and roasting it over a fire that he built only from flint and tinder.
Ok, so maybe Grylls's popular Discovery Channel reality show isn't all reality – there are camera crews and help available for Grylls when things get too dicey, after all. But the show and its survivalist star illustrate an important truth for adventure travelers: In the unforgiving wilderness, your best hope is a resourceful mind – and a few critical skills.
That's the mission behind survival schools: Expert-guided training courses that teach participants the basics to make it out alive from a hiking trip that gets hopelessly off course or when the unexpected snowstorm blows into your fall camping excursion. And these days, as adventure travel has exploded, there's a bigger need than ever for such skills.
Here, a few places where you can hone your inner survivalist. You may not emerge just like Bear, but perhaps as a very resourceful cub.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School, Boulder, Co.: Who can forget Tom Hanks' impressive performance from the hit Castaway, when he made a cave on a desert island look downright cozy and crafted a sail-powered raft from palm trees? This premier survival school, called BOSS, taught Hanks the skills that made his character so believable.
Based in Boulder (where else?), BOSS bills itself as the oldest survival school in the country since its origins in 1968. Its philosophy of "Know More, Carry Less" teaches participants "how to survive with technique, not technology" in the Rocky Mountains. That means there are no tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, or even backpacks: On the signature Field Course trips (which are offered in 7-, 14- and 28-day options) you're equipped with little more than a blanket, poncho, and knife. You'll learn how to make fire without matches, build shelter from forest debris, and navigate from the stars. All of which would catapult your chances of success if you should find yourself, say, stranded on a desert island one day. For more information, visit www.boss-inc.com
Lifesong Wildnerness Adventures, California, Texas, and Oregon: With a consultant for Man vs. Wild, Mark Wienert, Jr., on staff, this excellent school gets instant survival cred. Backed by 16 years of experience, Lifesong offers a variety of survival courses for adults and youth, with its popular six-day EDGE courses designed to mimic Grylls's on-air adventures. After several days of training, you'll head into the wilderness with just a canteen, flint, and the clothes on your back – no instructor with you (though they're closely monitoring the excursions).
What you learn in the woods will most likely impact how you relate to other challenges. "It translates into your everyday life," Wienert says (not that he's getting too New Age-y). "It could be financial, it could be divorce, it could be children, [but] we use nature and those primitive skills to help guide people through all kinds of life experiences."
A bonus: Registering with groups of four or more or 60 days prior to a course gets you 10 percent off. Visit www.lifesongadventures.com
Green Earth Survival School, Hobe Sound, Fla.: Think Florida sounds like a contradictory place for survival training? Think again, says GESS founder Hank Fannin, a Vietnam veteran who has POW survival training and several combat tours with air rescue and special operations under his belt.
"I was born in Kentucky and have done lots of hiking in Colorado, and it's much more difficult here," Fannin says. "There are sections of trail where you go all day and there's not a drop of water to be found. I tell everybody if you can navigate through Florida and keep yourself alive, you can go anywhere – excluding the cold factor, of course!"
GESS's introductory courses are targeted toward individuals and families with limited experience in the outdoors. Courses are held on a 120-acre area of state-park protected land in southeastern Florida about 70 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. For the more adventurous, a five-day "Dirt Time in the Swamp" excursion offers more opportunities to fine-tune survivalist skills. Day-long courses start at $75 per person; www.greenearthsurvivalschool.com
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