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Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH about Wilderness Survival: The "seven deadly sins" of survival

Most everyone has heard of “The Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath), this is wilderness survival’s take on the seven states of mind you must avoid, particularly if you find yourself in a wilderness survival ordeal: 1- Panic, 2- Ignorance, 3- Indolence, 4- Unproductive, 5- Unconstructive, 6- Hapless, 7- Hopeless.


A sudden and uncontrollable fear or anxiety causing wildly unthinking behavior. This is an understandable initial reaction during the first moments of an emergency, but it’s critical to get this under control. Keep calm, keep thinking! Whether panicking is what creates a problem, or makes a problem worse, any useful instincts or information go “right out the window” while you’re panicked, or more accurately, may be completely blocked from conscious thought. Moreover, you need to not only act, you need to act CORRECTLY! Unlikely in a panicked state of mind.

There is a “bell curve” of behavior on this point. About 10-15 percent are natural leaders, they are typically calm and can think clearly in an emergency. About 80-90 percent are essentially “sheep”, their initial reaction is to freeze and may get stuck in a kind of denial. These people need to be told what to do in an emergency. Then there is about another 10-15 percent who panic in an emergency. These people likely to make things worse. About one-third of all people have a natural “intrinsic” calm, (which tends to make them more introspective than most). This is not to say they can’t benefit from training that adds an extrinsic layer of calm, but training is only as effective as the conditions in which it’s conducted.

The good news is there is a way to PREDICT who would likely be a superior survivor. It turns out the best survivors have a very steady heartbeat (called “the metronomic heart), regardless of the situation, AND their brains produce a chemical called neuropeptide-Y (NPY), an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure, appetite, learning and memory, and works like a natural tranquilizer, controlling anxiety and buffering the effects of stress hormones like norepinephrine, aka “adrenaline.” The bad news is the metronomic effect is associated with early heart disease (not good for those 50+).


A lack of knowledge or information. This is not so much about intelligence… more or less… as it is about being informed. Planning is a research-intensive activity, but there’s a good reason why “Planning” is the FIRST of “The Five Essential Steps”, incomplete or lack of information is one of the major reasons why people get into trouble and have to be rescued! You need the best and latest information to know what you’re getting yourself into so you can prepare accordingly, so you can create alternative plans, etc. including weather and sunset time. And in this day-and-age of instant information (the Internet), there’s no excuse not to cover this!

If a survival ordeal has already started, it’s almost always too late. In that case, you have to rely on what you already know or adapt it to make it work for you. - Louis Zamperini, shot down over the Pacific during WWII, recalled his mother’s recipes to quash the hunger of he and his fellow survivors. Edith Bone, who spoke six languages and was jailed in Hungary after WWII, survived by making an abacus from stale bread and inventoried her huge vocabulary. Hussain Al-Shahristani, Saddam Hussein’s chief scientific adviser, was jailed in solitary confinement for 10 years, he survived by making up math problems then trying to solve them.

Knowledge and information in readily available, weighs nothing, often costs nothing, and keeps you out of lots of different types of trouble, so why WOULDN’T you inform yourself?


An avoidance of activity or exertion (or just plain being lazy). At this point in the timeline, motivation is beginning to wane. People may be thinking, “What’s the point?” (a potentially dangerous sign!) It’s one thing if an emergency requires you to not move or stay put, it’s quite another to be complacent, lazy, or depressed in a survival ordeal. Victims often need to do things if not to better their situation for reasons of comfort and/or safety until help arrives. On the other hand, sometimes nervousness and stress hormones urge the victim to do… “something.” But if the reason for the action/risk is not necessary, may put them at risk or make them harder to rescue, the action needs some rethinking.

This is one of the many reasons for la proper wilderness survival education, managing stress is one of the things you learn to do. When it comes to gaining the knowledge, skills and experience you need to be safe in the wilderness in the first place, This is the other major reason why people get into trouble and have to be rescued! Specifically, when it comes to “Proficiency” (the third of “The Five Essential Steps”). The way to get busy is to find the motivation, (a reason to live or rejoin your life) and start setting goals!

Motivation is the start of all decisions, the fuel for all actions, the reason behind all goals. Motivation effects the direction, persistence and intensity of goal-oriented behavior and nearly every facet of human behavior. The strongest motivators are emotional, the most powerful of which is fear. Fear is not bad in itself; fear, anxiety, pessimism, etc. prompt us to plan, prepare, etc., but fear is still a negative motivator. The strongest positive motivator is romantic love, which is associated with the brain’s reward and goal-seeking areas. In fact, romantic love is better described as a motivation or goal-oriented state leading to specific emotions.


A state of not achieving much. Seek safety, be ready for rescue. Survival is a RESULTS-oriented activity! It has nothing to do with whether you have any wilderness survival knowledge, skills or experience. If you can’t produce positive results that deal with problems or improve your situation, you might not be long for this world. If you have the survival knowledge, skills and experience, then you are ahead of the curve. If not, you need to find it within yourself to adapt and adjust what you’ve learned in life. Goal theory is an approach to motivation emphasizing the need to establish goals as intrinsic motivation, a social-cognitive theory of achievement motivation and is concerned with, or focused on, achieving a particular aim or result.

An important step is to set attainable, effective goals. Written goals are significantly more likely to succeed than unwritten. Clear goals increase persistence and self-efficacy, making people less susceptible to the effects of anxiety, disappointment and frustration. The best path to success is to couple a process goal (i.e. GOAL= hike 100 miles in 5 days, PROCESS= travel 20 miles a day) with progress feedback. The importance of feedback on goal attainment is enormous, people need to know their progress toward their goals.

What this really comes down to is your “desire” as in, “How much do you REALLY want it?” Your goal in wilderness survival is to live, of course, but I’m talking about MORE than simply the will to go on living, MORE than just the first item on your survival to-do list, I mean before that, beneath that, above and beyond that, I’m talking about what makes your life WORTH living! What gives it MEANING to you!! What gives it VALUE to others!!! THIS is why you’re trying to survive. That’s your motivation.


A state of not promoting improvement or advancement, likely caused by negativity. Be pragmatically positive, but efficiently active! The real goal of a “positive mental attitude” is to simply keep you from being negative! Your brain works about 31% better in a positive state. think about how much smarter, faster, and more creative you would be in your day-to-day if your brain worked 31% better! Being positive makes you more resistant to stress, health issues, depression and improves motivation, decision-making, and perception. Now imagine how valuable that could be in a wilderness survival ordeal!!

Unfortunately, our brain has a “negative [attention] bias” (a result of the of the fight-or-flight response, activated during negative experiences). Your brain has a greater sensitivity to negative feelings, thoughts, emotions, images, news, etc. This negative bias is so strong, it is harder to change a negative thought into a positive one, than a positive thought into a negative one. A single negative thought may essentially need FIVE positive thoughts to offset it. This is because negative stimuli trigger more neural activity in the brain, and is detected more quickly and easily by the amygdala (the region regulating emotion and motivation) which uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news. People also tend to weigh negative outcomes more heavily than favorable ones, which essentially results in an underlying sense of fear. There is even a strong correlation between one’s negativity bias and the likelihood of anxiety and depression.

So, positivity not only to maximizes our productivity and potential, but it keeps us from spiraling into fear, negativity, depression, and inaction. “positive thinking” is the practice or result of concentrating one's mind on the good and constructive aspects of a matter to ELIMINATE negative or destructive attitudes and emotions. Better yet, “optimism” is an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome, a hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something. But “realism” is the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is AND being prepared to deal with it accordingly, a concern for fact or reality and a rejection of the impractical and visionary. So “realistic optimism” is the best of both, a tendency to maintain a positive outlook WITHIN the constraints of the available information. THIS is where you need to be!


A feeling of being unlucky, unfortunate, likely caused by depression. The more you try, the better your odds! People don’t get into wilderness trouble (or fail at survival) because they’re unlucky, or because “s**t happens”, or because “mother nature is a b***h!” They get into trouble because they screwed up! They missed a step or two, they forget to do or not do something, or they just plain got something wrong, etc. There are only two ways people find themselves in a wilderness survival ordeal: 1) They had nothing to do with it (i.e. they were a passenger in a plane crash, shipwreck, etc.), or 2) They had EVERYTHING to do with it! (i.e. it was their decision to PUT themselves in the wilderness).

NOBODY “expects" to be in a wilderness survival ordeal, but the time to blame your stars is past, accept responsibility and get on with it! Yes, you can do everything right and STILL find yourself in an ordeal (i.e. wild animal attack, act of god, etc.) Unfortunately, you DON’T have a choice in the matter now. Your options are do or die! More importantly, if you are at this point, you may be fast slipping toward hopelessness!! If you don’t turn things around soon….

At this point in the timeline, things may not be going well, and after several failures, or not trying at all, it can be tough to be positive or optimistic, but you can’t afford the luxury of complaining or feeling sorry for yourself. If you have a proper wilderness survival education, your course of action is probably easy to see and the end of the ordeal is likely easy to predict. Fortunately, most victims essentially, “turn a corner.” They realize there are things they can do, even little things, and they get on with it. That change in attitude is VERY important! When you start doing things, you not only keep your mind occupied (which gives you little time to focus on the negative aspects), you change your attitude from that of a “victim” to that of a “rescuer” (even if the person you’re rescuing is yourself).


A feeling or state of despair, a lack of hope. Lose your hope, lose your life! This is very near “the end of the line”, a VERY dangerous state of mind! At this point, a victim is very close to giving up. If that happens, they are risking psychogenic death! The five stages of psychogenic death are: 1) Social withdrawal; indifference, self-absorption, lack of emotion. 2) Apathy; serious melancholy, lack of energy or effort, even not bathing. 3) Aboulia; withdrawal with no emotional response or motivation, no desire or ability to help self or others, 4) Akinesia; profound apathy, no response even in extreme pain, will not bathe often laying in their own waste. And, 5) Psychogenic death; no will to live (death often follows within just three days).

Hope is overlooked in survival because hope is not well understood. Hope is defined as 1) A desire for a particular thing to happen, a feeling of expectation, and 2) Grounds for believing something good may happen. GROUNDS! A reasonable or factual factor to depend on, adding an important facet to hope! Hopeful survivors are active, look to the future and ask, "How can I help myself?" People with “high” hope can articulate multiple viable pathways to their goals, develop alternative strategies, and are confident in their ability. If they fail, they try again or find a different way. They believe: 1) My future will be better, 2) I can make it happen, 3) There are many paths to my goal, and 4) No path is free of obstacles. Hopeless people act helpless, feel out of control and don’t believe they can succeed, when they fail, they quit. If there is a single “key” to survival, it’s hope.

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