Fight to Survive

Tough-minded advice for tough times: how to get by on (a lot) less. The ultimate guide to living off the land, keeping your priorities straight, and not losing hope. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Special Forces. After you’ve read about how to “Fight to Survive” in this issue of the magazine, read “The Ultimate Survivor”, a Web-only companion profile of First Lieutenant James “Nick” Row.

Hear that sound? It’s the thump-thump-thump of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as it picks up a team of soldiers and deposits them 25 miles away in the North Carolina countryside. Those are Special Forces trainees climbing aboard, embarking on a field exercise that’s designed to test their mental and physical stamina. Although they’ll be gone for days, they have scant resources. No tents, despite snow in the forecast. No night-vision goggles, although they’re expected to hike through the night. And no food (their last meal was yesterday).


Their mission: Avoid getting captured by “enemy” troops, and make the best of a bad situation, using little more than a knife, a compass, a sleeping bag, and a canteen. In other words, survive.

It’s a lot like the challenge that companies, executives, and employees — not to mention the ranks of the unemployed — are facing as the economy takes its time to recover. Get by on next to nothing. Make do with what you’ve got. Understand that things might get worse before they get better.

Clearly, the fight for survival is a different and difficult way of working. So we consulted world-class survival experts for lessons on how to fight the good fight. For executives, survival involves keeping their companies afloat and their self-esteem intact. For the U.S. Army’s Special Forces — more commonly known as the Green Berets — survival is a matter of life and death.

At the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, the vast Army base located just outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, soldiers train for two to three years to join the Special Forces. Only 20% of the candidates make it their first time through. The final stage is Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE for short. For three weeks, students live primarily outdoors at Camp Mackall, where the SERE exercises take place.

With the help of several SERE instructors, Fast Company has put together a survival guide for tough times. Because they could still be deployed, some of the instructors asked to be identified by first name only. And we’ve kept the business analogies to a minimum here. If you’re smart enough to survive these perilous times, then you’re smart enough to make the connections between what these instructors teach and the challenges that you face.

Rule 1: Only the Mentally Strong Survive

When a soldier or a unit gets stranded in a hostile environment, survival hinges on mental toughness more than anything else, say the SERE instructors. Says Gordon Smith, an instructor who spent 26 years in the Special Forces: “I tell the students, If you have a guy with all the survival training in the world who has a negative attitude and a guy who doesn’t have a clue but has a positive attitude, I guarantee you that the one with the positive attitude is coming out of the woods alive. Simple as that.”


Often, the biggest obstacles are psychological. Fear of the unknown. Stress over things that are beyond your control. Anger at being in this predicament. Guilt over comrades who didn’t make it. It’s important to recognize that those emotions are normal, says John, a master sergeant and the chief instructor at SERE. But such feelings are potentially overwhelming. If you dwell on the negative, you can become paralyzed, depressed, and indecisive. The stress will crush your confidence.

Throughout SERE, instructors focus on the psychology of survival. Instead of allowing fear and anxiety to become destructive, trainees learn how to use those emotions as a positive force — as motivation to keep going, to avoid being cavalier and leaving yourself vulnerable to the enemy, to rise to the challenge.

Of course, maintaining a positive attitude in the face of countless setbacks and seemingly insurmountable odds is hard, to say the least. When you’re in survival mode, it’s important to keep working to improve your situation, even if it’s only by degrees. “You need to celebrate small victories: ‘I caught a fish today,’ ‘I’ve avoided getting sick,’ ‘I have enough water to last a few more days,’ ” John says. “You’re looking for any reason to hope.”

Rule 2: You Can Condition Yourself to Stress

The goal of SERE training is to get you to master yourself and your emotions, John explains, but you can’t achieve that if the crisis remains theoretical. So field exercises are held to give students a trial run — an opportunity for them to gauge their performance under severe stress. “A big part of what we do here is prepare students by forcing them out of their comfort zone,” says John.

Grouped into teams of six, students are pursued by hostile forces, played by SERE instructors, other soldiers, and local law-enforcement officers with dogs. For the first two days, the teams don’t sleep. They trudge through thick underbrush all night. When the teams finally set up camp, they construct a shelter that blends into the scenery and build handmade weapons and tools. In winter, the trees are bare and animals are hibernating, so food is scarce. They make do with pine-needle tea, roots, bugs burrowed under bark, and if they’re lucky, roadkill. “If it’s a rabbit, we eat it,” says Smith, aka “Smitty.” “But if it’s a possum with maggots all over it, it goes right to them. They love it.”

By this point, the soldiers’ comfort zone is a distant memory. They’re sleep deprived, dehydrated, exhausted, and famished. This is where sound thinking and teamwork break down, and instructors want students to recognize the signs of deterioration. “Some of these guys think, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ ” John says. “Then they find themselves sitting next to a friend during the field exercise, thinking, ‘If I hear him breathe one more time, I’m going to slap his head off.’ That’s what this stress does to you.”


At some point, each team gets captured and sent to a POW-style camp known as “the lab.” Having been taught the Army’s code of conduct, which states that a soldier must resist saying much beyond name, rank, serial number, and date of birth, students are put to the test by interrogators such as Mike, who has the build of a wrestler and whose nickname in the lab is “the Hammer.” “When you’re deprived of all the things you’re accustomed to — your ability to satisfy your hunger, sleep, control over your psychological environment — when all that control is taken away, you learn that what you are on the inside pulls you through,” the Hammer says. “That’s the quantum leap in this course.”

Between the field exercises and the lab, students lose an average of 15 pounds. And the stress that they experience is extra-ordinarily high. According to researchers who have studied SERE, changes in the stress hormone cortisol in some students are among the highest ever recorded. Higher than sky divers on their first jump. Higher than pilots landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time. Higher than patients just prior to heart surgery. The result of that stress, instructors say, is that soldiers become conditioned — or “inoculated,” as they put it — for the real thing.

Rule 3: Keep Your Priorities Straight (and Simple)

In a survival situation, your major needs are food, water, and shelter, unless you’re seriously injured, in which case medical care comes first. While the priorities vary — depending on whether you’re in the jungle, at sea, in the arctic, or in the desert — water often comes first for the simple reason that you can live without food far longer than you can live without water. You have three days, max. As you lose fluids, you must replace them, or your body breaks down. Fast. After depleting just 2% of your body fluids, you experience extreme thirst. By a 5% loss, you become weak and nauseous. By 10%, you’ve got a massive headache and tingling in your limbs. You’re too dizzy to stand. Your blood, starved for water, can’t deliver the oxygen and nutrients that your body requires to function properly. You’re disoriented. By the time you’ve lost 15%, you’re on death’s doorstep. Partially blind. Numb. Deaf.

Ideally, you should drink a small amount of water every hour to replenish your fluids. A minimum of two liters a day should suffice. Finding that water, of course, is another matter. SERE soldiers learn to tap alternative sources: cacti or bamboo plants, rock fissures, a tarp or poncho positioned to catch rain.

“If you don’t stay healthy, surviving becomes that much harder,” says John. “There’s a huge difference between what affects someone in a healthy state and what affects someone in a compromised state. What normally might be a little cut or scrape could turn into a potentially life-threatening situation in a short period of time.”

In a survival situation, decisions are rarely straightforward, because the options are between something bad and something worse. For example, you’re becoming increasingly dehydrated, but your only source of water will make you ill because it isn’t sterile. What do you do? If you don’t drink the water, you’ll die shortly. If you do drink it, you’ll get sick first, then you’ll die. But, as John points out, at least you’ll stay alive a little longer.


Rule 4: Survival Takes Practice

The ability to make fire is an absolute lifesaver, says Don McKay, who retired from Special Forces after 17 years and works as a SERE instructor. “It’s going to cook your food, sterilize your water, and keep you warm,” says McKay. “All the things we need to survive we can get from fire.”

Assuming, that is, you can build one. In the rain. Ringed by enemy troops. Alongside a buddy with hypothermia. McKay, SERE’s fire-making expert, reminds students of the basic materials (tender, kindling, and fuel) and the various types of fires (teepee, lean-to, and pyramid). Many have heard about them before, but he reminds students not to take fire for granted.

Watching McKay start fires is a little like watching a magician at work. Using a knife, he strikes a long piece of flint and throws enough sparks to light a small pile of magnesium shavings on the first try. He touches steel wool to the battery of a broken light, and instantly, the coils ignite and burn bright orange.

The class culminates in a fire test. Students have 15 minutes to build a fire and boil water using three matches. It sounds easy until a match blows out or a fire fizzles because of insufficient ventilation. “It comes down to who rehearses it and who doesn’t,” says John. “All of these techniques bear practicing now instead of waiting until you’re in a situation where you have to build a fire in 10 minutes to stay alive.”

McKay prides himself on using primitive methods to create fire. He takes a handmade bow, loops the wire around a hardwood stick, and proceeds to saw back and forth. The end of the stick swivels rapidly, like a drill, against a board of soft wood. “When you’re at this level, life is bad,” McKay says. “But you have to remember that you can still make things better.”

Making fire the old-fashioned way is quite a workout. After 15 minutes, though, a string of smoke curls up from the board. McKay pounces, adding a dash of tender and — presto! — fire. To McKay, of course, it’s no trick. The ability to make a fire in any given situation represents something larger and empowering: It’s the ultimate demonstration of self-sufficiency. “I have young daughters, and they have been making fires since they were five years old,” he says.


Rule 5: You Can Live off the Land

Part of the SERE course is about as appetizing as an episode of Fear Factor. Students eat whatever their instructors scrounge up: grub worms, crickets, acorns, fresh (and not so fresh) road-kill. How do you know if a rancid, flattened raccoon is okay to eat? Smith has a simple test: “Shake it, and whatever falls to the ground, you leave for the buzzards.” If the carcass is several days old, boil the meat to be safe, then put it on a spit over the fire to improve the taste (a bit). “You can eat some pretty nasty stuff,” he says.

The most common survival entrée is snake, which is why soldiers in other branches of the military refer to the Green Berets as “snake eaters.” In the wild, snakes are as ubiquitous as fast-food joints in a city. “Very few countries don’t have snakes — they’re pretty easy to catch, they’re a good source of protein, and they’re easy to cook up,” says Smith. “I’ve eaten rattlers, cottonmouths, copperheads — they all taste the same.” (And not like chicken.)

In the plant class, Smith and McKay cover about 60 varieties: edible plants such as plantain, wood sorrel, and thistle; poisonous plants such as oleander, water hemlock, and chinaberry; and plants that can be used for medicinal purposes, such as garlic (for indigestion) and cactus (for burns). Since there are far too many plant names and characteristics to memorize, students learn the universal edibility test, a lengthy and methodical procedure. First, you touch a small piece of plant to your inner arm and look for irritation. Each subsequent test increases the exposure as you carefully monitor for adverse reactions. “We teach them plants that are indigenous to this area, not because you’re going to be fighting a war here in North Carolina but because of the survival principle,” says John. “Before you are deployed to an area, you need to study the flora and fauna there.”

Rule 6: Survival Takes Imagination

Survival not only requires mental toughness and sound technique, but also a healthy dose of creativity. Just as there’s more than one way to start a fire, there is more than one way to live off the land. SERE instructors encourage students to customize their survival kit and to pack their supplies as cleverly as possible. Soldiers sew a button compass onto their shirt and hide wire (for snares and fire making) and aluminum foil (for cooking and signaling) in the seams of their clothing. They lace their boots with heavy-duty parachute cord and wrap extra cord around their ankles.

Still, regardless of how thorough your training is and how extensive your supplies are, you cannot be prepared for every situation. This is where real creativity comes in. The more uses you can come up with for a stick or a rock, the better equipped you are. In the end, survival is an improvisational art. “We give them some ideas and say, ‘Now use your imagination,’ ” John says. ” ‘Find out what works for you, then practice, practice, practice.’ “

Rule 7: Survival Is the Norm

Ask McKay how long he could survive if he walked into the woods right now without supplies, and he doesn’t hesitate: “The rest of my life,” he says. McKay and Smith are professional survivors who exude the easy confidence that comes with knowing that they can take care of themselves no matter what. They even put themselves in self-inflicted survival situations, because they find them challenging and fun.


As unusual as survivor behavior can sound, SERE instructors remind students that it’s quite natural. “In some ways, there’s no big mystery about what we teach,” says John. “If you turn the clock back 200 years or so, this was everyday life for our ancestors. They knew how to get water and build dry shelter and trek across the wilderness and bring home food. There’s really nothing new about it.”

Sidebar: How Do You Spell Survival?

Leave it to the acronym-happy military to mine the deeper meaning of the term “survival.” Here’s the Army’s translation, according to Special Forces field manual 3-05.70.

S Size up the situation.
U Use all your senses.
R Remember where you are.
V Vanquish fear and panic.
I Improvise.
V Value living.
A Act like the natives.
L Live by your wits.

Chuck Salter ( is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Until now, everything he knew about survival he learned in Boy Scout Troop 467 in Atlanta.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug