Your Most Important Tool

20130218-143007.jpgMy friend and I picked our way carefully down the hillside toward a small clearing. The sun was setting, and the air was becoming chilled. As we walked, our eyes and flashlights swept our surroundings – there were plenty of holes and pieces of fallen brush to trip us up if we weren’t paying attention, and we could hear the first plaintive yips of a pack of coyotes further up the hill. We’d also seen the tracks of a wild pig, and though we’d not caught sight of the animal, we knew it was likely close by.

Between us, we carried some 50 pounds of gear and supplies – warm down-filled sleeping bags, tents, a pair of butane-powered stoves and the fuel canisters that go with them. We each had a half gallon or so of water – plenty for the overnight camp out we’d planned. A gallon Ziploc bag in my pack held an assortment of food – noodles, instant potatoes, dried blueberries, coffee, and more.I had a knife in each of my front pants pockets on this trip; my friend carried two more blades and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. (Six hours after I got home from our trip, she’d call me to report that, while out on a short walk, she’d had to shoot a juvenile rattlesnake that had been inches away from striking.)

But despite what the outdoor products industry would have you believe, the most important tool in our survival arsenal wasn’t our gear, our food, or our water. It wasn’t anything we carried, nor was it something you can buy. But whether you’re facing natural hazards or human ones, it’s absolutely essential.

So what is this all-important key to survival? It is, quite simply, the determination to never, ever give up, no matter what. And without it, your odds of survival plummet.

Out in the wilderness, the determination to keep going, to keep fighting, to keep moving – whether toward food, water, or civilization – is absolutely crucial. The mountain doesn’t care whether you live or die, and she’ll accept your death with equanimity if your remains can feed another living thing. And because the mountain doesn’t care, you surely have to if you’re to survive. Even in harsh and inhospitable climates, survival is usually possible, but nature won’t bring you that survival on a silver platter.

A fascinating example of determination in overcoming the elements can be found in the story of Bob Cusick, a crewman on the SS Marine Electric. After the Marine Electric sank in a storm off the coast of Virginia, Cusick found himself floating in near-freezing water. Drawing on his sheer determination to survive, and encouraging himself with the lyrics to a song by Canadian musician Stan Rogers that exhort those facing challenges to “rise again, rise again”, Cusick survived nearly three hours – almost twice as long as Naval cold water survival experts believed possible – before being rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. Without that determination, Cusick would almost certainly have been among the more than 30 fatalities in that shipwreck, rather than being one of just three crewmen to survive.

In a self defense situation, the determination to survive is just as important. Massad Ayoob and others have written about cops and civilians who survived devastating injuries because they kept on fighting, and others who died from wounds that might have been survivable, simply because they gave up. The story of LAPD Officer Stacy Lim is an example of what determination and the will to survive can do for you.

My friend Ben Branam from Modern Self Protection likes to say that your gun and knife are just tools and your mind is the true weapon. That’s true, I think, and the most important part of that weapon is the determination we find within ourselves to “improvise, adapt, overcome” and to never give up. Much of the emotionally and physically demanding training our military troops endure is geared toward inculcating that mindset and determination, but you can practice it in your own life by striving to challenge yourself physically and mentally.

It doesn’t have to be hiking down a hillside with a 25 pound backpack or camping in a tent in near-freezing weather, but take on challenges that stretch your physical limits and creativity and problem solving skills. Developing those skills may be the difference between survival and death in a dire crisis, but building up your stores of determination and resourcefulness pay dividends in terms of greater success in life, too. Those who give up when things get hard rarely achieve their dreams.

Whatever your challenges, like the narrator in the song I linked to above, “rise again, rise again”. Never give up and never stop fighting. You may not always be victorious, but determination to persevere stacks the deck a whole lot more in your favor.

An administrative note: I may be a bit scarce in terms of posting new content for the next couple weeks. Without going into too much detail (to protect the privacy of those involved), a personal crisis developed on Tuesday that’s going to require my presence – as a victim/witness – in court a few times. I’m trying to stay balanced as best I can with all the things I’m doing, but I’d be lying if I said my focus and concentration weren’t suffering as a result. Please bear with me, and hopefully things will be back to normal soon.


  1. Brian C says:

    The most important tool is a tool to communicate “COME HELP!” (aka a Cell phone…or radio, no matter the situation…if you don’t have anyway to get someone to come help…you are in a heap of trouble…what was a incident/accident/occurrence becomes an act of survival…and if noone knows to come help…well lets hope you watch ALOT of dual survival!)As in your example..if he didn’t have that radio to call for help…his 3 hour ordeal could have ended MUCH differently!

    The most important mind set is “NEVER GIVE UP, JUST HOLD ON 5 MORE MINUTES LONGER!” is what got the guy thru his ordeal

    If you are going thru Hell…keep on going…you might get out before the devil knows you’re there!

    Excellent post as always!

    • Very true, Brian, although a cell phone or radio may not always help you right away. Where I was backpacking with my friend, it would have been a two mile hike up the side of a valley to anyplace with cell coverage or a ham radio repeater in range.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Excellent advice, as always. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers. Hope everything comes out well in your current situation.

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