Features and Occasionals

A New Kind of Survival School

By Katherine Pioli

A true survivalist needs only five things to live. She needs a cutting tool for splitting firewood or gutting fish; combustion to start a fire; cover, a simple plastic bag or emergency blanket, to keep warm and dry; a container for water, to remain hydrated; and cordage—rope can be an amazing tool. The survivalist C’s, a list created by Dave Canterbury of the Pathfinder School, is deceptively simple, for, without the special knowledge and training required to effectively use these tools for survival in the wilderness, their presence is nearly worthless.

In an ironic twist, at a time when humans are spending increasingly less time outside, the idea of wilderness survival or primitive living is becoming increasingly popular. For the majority who prefer a voyeur’s approach, television’s Discovery Channel offers viewers an easy window into the survivalist world. From the safety of their own living rooms survival junkies can watch shows like Dual Survival – in each of these shows, primitive skills master Cody Lundin (pronounced Lun-deen) extricates himself in Houdini-like survivalist style from remote drop-off locations around the world.

For a more interactive experience, dozens of schools from Alabama to Oregon, Sweden to Croatia, with names like Laughing Coyote Project, Ravens-Way Wild Journeys and Omega Tactical and Survival School, are in the business of outdoor survival. There are schools designed for those trying to come closer to God, those who fear the apocalypse, and those who wish to reclaim the ways of ancient peoples. There are courses specially designed for children, for corporate retreats or for military personnel training. They teach lessons on survival psychology, lost skills like tracking, flint making and primitive fire making, wilderness skills like navigation, map reading, shelter improvisation, and edible plant identification.luc

Here in Utah, we have what is widely regarded as the oldest and largest survival school in the country, Boulder Outdoor Survival School founded in 1968. We also have one of the country’s newest, the Holistic Survival School, created and operated by Michigan-to-Utah transplant Luke McLaughlin.

While not exactly a household name, McLaughlin garnered international exposure as a hunky dude in the Discovery Channel’s premiere epsode of 2014’s Naked and Afraid. One website wrote of McLaughlin, “While you watch the show, you will see that he’s smart, a hard worker and kind — so you can’t stop yourself from rooting for him.” His Michigan hometown paper described him as “perfect for the show: He’s young (27) and fit (6-foot-1, 185 pounds); he’s prepared and tattooed, including a local reference on his right shoulder — the state outline, surrounding the euchre hand that he and his grandfather won with in deer camp.”

Mclaughlin’s arrival in Utah came at a pivotal moment in the young man’s personal quest for self-discovery. A former star high school athlete – his senior year he captained the tennis, basketball and football teams – a college graduate headed toward a life as a biology teacher, McLaughlin was on a steady path to an ordinary life when he switched gears to pursue his passion: the outdoors. His experience teaching helped him land a job with Outback Therapeutic Expe­ditions, a youth crisis program in northern Utah that uses the wilderness experience as a therapeutic tool. Though McLaughlin had attended workshops by Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin, his proficiency with survival skills, he says, came from daily use of survivalist skills while out in the field with his students over the past three years—and in Namibia, Africa early this past summer.

McLaughlin decided he was ready to bring his knowledge and passion to a wider audience. In Michigan this past August, he taught his first class through his new Holistic Survival School, created with input from his older brother Micah, a naturophic physician. This October he will host a similar class in Utah.

“For people wanting to teach survival skills, the experiential component—what we call ‘dirt time’—is so important,” says Laurel Holding, head instructor and director of program development for the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. A survivalist instructor for 14 years, Holding knows what it takes to be a good instructor. “Book learning is a valuable adjunct resource, but books can never substitute for the field time,” she stresses. “That’s where you hone the hard skills like primitive traps and fire, but also where you learn how to be an effective teacher.”

Newcomers often have something new to offer, and Mclaughlin’s conceptual approach to the wilderness experience certainly seems fresh. “My school focuses on both the yin and the yang of outdoor survival,” says McLaughlin. “Survival tools, knowing how to skin an animal and start a fire, are the masculine side. But just as important is the feminine side, to be slow and introspective and aware of your surroundings.” McLaughlin’s approach may be less about learning to survive in the wilderness and more about learning how much we need wilderness in order to survive.

While Holistic Survival School participants will receive some traditional teachings like primitive fire building, they will not be sent out and told to overcome the challenges of a dangerous environment with little more than a knife. They may, however, find themselves blindfolded following a yarn thread through trees and fields, or crawling around on a tarp in search of a small rolling object. This slightly more unorthodox approach, says McLaughlin, is what makes his approach holistic. In a world where, for many people, interaction with the physical and natural world can seem frightening, by asking his students to engage their senses, McLaughlin hopes his survival teachings will help students re-energize bodies and minds and remind people of the joy of wilderness—and, perhaps, the power of presence in your daily life and surroundings, wherever you are.


For an interesting read about Luke McLaughlin’s “Naked and Afraid” experience: http://archive.lansingstatejournal.com/article/20140628/THINGSTODO08/306280030/Mason-man-ready-Naked-Afraid-debut


This article was originally published on September 27, 2014.