Knowledge vs. Common Sense for Wilderness Living Skills and Survival

Mors_Chris_libraryI recently had the privilege of spending a week with one of the Godfathers of Survival, Mors Kochanski. While Mors’ resume includes 40+ years as an outdoor educator, researcher, author, and scholar, which unto itself is impressive, it simply does not do Kochanski justice. When it comes to Wilderness Living Skills and Survival, simply put, the man is an ‘Einstein.’

It has been a few weeks since my return from Canada and I am still trying to wrap my head around everything Mors had imparted. Quite literally, I have years of study, reading, practice and writing in front of me from that special visit.

Mors_Chris_plantsHow much of that information gets translated to Master Woodsman or elsewhere remains to be seen. Nonetheless, one lesson I can share from Mors right now is his view (in my words) on Survival Knowledge vs. Common Sense and the need for training.

A quick look at the Merriam-Webster dictionary states common sense is sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.

Knowledge, defined, is information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education.

Most people, including myself, put a lot of stock in common sense. However, for the wilderness traveler from today’s society, perhaps it is something that is relied upon too much. Before we continue the discussion, here are just a few examples as food for thought on the importance of knowledge… Note, some of these examples are Mors’, some are mine.

Fasting as a means of long-term survival. Common sense says eat when you can in a survival situation. However, if you read my article, Edible Wild Plants for Survival, (Not) So Fast, you gain the knowledge that after ~4 days of fasting, your body becomes more efficient burning fatty acids for energy. If you can NOT get enough food to meet your Basal Metabolic Rate in calories (~1,350}, or if you eat even as little as 150 grams of carbs, you lose that efficiency advantage and may die in a quarter of the time versus if you didn’t eat at all.  A person of normal weight can go without eating for at least six weeks without any irreversible damage.

Stream crossing. You cross a fast moving ice-cold stream that is knee deep on a trip in the back country. On the way back, you find the stream now appears waist deep. Your intuition says it will be twice as difficult to cross as the depth has doubled. In actuality, the force has increased 40 to 60 times making it impossible to cross. And you wonder how people die in waist deep water.

Staying still in cold water vs. exercise. Exercise is one of the three ways we as humans can produce heat. On land, this is a viable solution to stave off cold if fire is not available. Common sense would have you believe this solution should work while in water, but to the contrary, moving rapidly in water will cool you off very rapidly through convection and conduction. Should you fall into this situation awaiting rescue, by simply floating you could make it an hour where in the same cold water, movement could have you expire in as little as 15 minutes.

Canoeing into a strong wind. In front of you is the shore you need to reach, yet the strong head-wind is making it extremely difficult to keep your canoe pointed straight, forcing you to paddle harder to no avail. If only you were taught the simple maneuver of moving towards the front of the canoe to paddle so the stern acts as a weather vane in the wind. Many have perished by not knowing this simple technique.

First Aid. Common sense may be your only guide in some situations, however, the more knowledge you have the better when it comes to Wilderness Medicine. The examples here are many. Having specific knowledge not only for treatment, but the assessment itself could be a life or death decision.

Clothing. Knowing how to dress is the #1 skill. There would be far less deaths from exposure in the wilderness if more folks knew how to do so for the weather and their environment. Check out this video of Mors from Karamat Wilderness Ways as an example of knowledge over what one would normally think…


The Need For Training

Mors_Chris_studyGoing back to our definition of knowledge, it is, information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education.

Some information and understanding you absolutely can get from books and even the internet. However, there is some knowledge you can only gain through experience. As my grandmother said to me frequently, “experience is the best teacher, but it is also the hardest.” There is good reason for that though.

Mors_Chris_snowHow will you appreciate what it is like to light and maintain a fire in a cold rain until you have that experience? How will you know if you can get adequate rest in a make-do situation until you build a shelter and bed and spend the night in it?

Wet, heat, cold, hunger, thirst, difficult travel, insects, hard beds, aching muscles — all these at one time or another will be your portion. If you are of the class that cannot have a good time unless everything is right with it, stay out of the woods. One thing at least will always be wrong. When you have gained the faculty of ignoring the one disagreeable thing and concentrating your powers on the compensations, then you will have become a true woodsman, and to your desires the forest will always be calling.          – Stewart Edward White, THE FOREST, page 116.

So why train and does it matter where?

Now that we have an idea why knowledge is so important and in many cases critical, how do you acquire it? First and foremost, you have to want it to own it. We keep a list of schools under Survival Training in the main toolbar. There are also some great training opportunities in our Events page and Literature both under Resources too. Remember, you are making an investment, not only in yourself, but your family and friends who need you to make it home or may someday rely on you in the field. Choose wisely.

Another consideration is where you train. Learning skills in a backyard or campground is one thing. Doing it in a context (read backcountry) where civilization isn’t 100 yards away makes it experience.

More To Come From Kochanski
As a heads up to the readers here, we will have more on Mors published (somewhere) in the near future and we will let you know.


Special thanks, love, and gratitude to Randy and Lori Breeuwsma of Karamat Wilderness Ways for ALL the support. And especially HUGE thank you to Mors and Diana for everything!


About Christian Noble

Chris Noble is the founder of and Woodsmoke Camping Company. A Master Naturalist, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has worked as a Registered Forester and Certified Burn Manager in several states. Chris is also a Wilderness First Responder and since the late 90’s has been “practicing primitive” skills and taking lessons from numerous Master Woodsmen throughout North America. An advocate for Conservation, teacher of Wilderness Living Skills, and happily married, he enjoys passing what he has learned thus far to others, especially his 2 children, Emerson and Duncan.

18 Responses to Knowledge vs. Common Sense for Wilderness Living Skills and Survival

  1. Brandon September 18, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    Thanks Chris! Fantastic read, again! Jealous about meeting Mors:)

    Chuck September 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Great article and I’m sure Great times spent with a Master. Common sense will only get you so far in life, just as knowledge will only take you so far. Thanks for reminding us that it take BOTH to make it through this thing called life. Just as I carry multiple things in my kit, so must I carry mulitple things in my mind. I always remember the more I Sweat the less I Bleed. Many the more I train the better I fight in life.

    plowbo September 19, 2014 at 1:03 am #

    Finally, an article that graduated from the ho hum, why we prep, and got on to the serious stuff. Truly outstanding!Thx

      Viking October 8, 2014 at 9:37 am #

      Great read I look forward to reading the future articles

  4. Madmax September 19, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    Thumbs up on the info

    Chad September 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Great piece of writing Chris! 🙂

    Tom Ray September 20, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    Fantastic article! You are a lucky man my friend!

    Denny September 22, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Thanks for the article and video. It was fun to see common sense sort of upended in the video, with knowledge backed up by experience. I’m almost looking forward to winter to try it out.
    A man can only hope that common sense pervades his way of thinking, because then he knows he’ll usually make generally sound judgements–sometimes without all the information he needs. In the woods, I’ve found it most helpful to take some of the knowledge that folks like you and Mors disseminate (much of it free, thanks) and try it out like the video says, in controlled situations. Then the hands-on experience becomes the knowledge, which also increases common sense. In other words, what good teachers always say–practice!

    Jim A. September 23, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Chris….great balance in your perspectives, taken from one of the great ones, on common sense vs. knowledge. Everyone should read these as it may save a life someday. I look forward to future articles on your learning’s from Mors with of course your added commentary. That makes for great reading and KNOWLEDGE.

    David Wescott October 8, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    Common sense exists only if you have something in common with whoever it is that’s judging your common sense. For example, when I owned BOSS, it was common knowledge that toilet paper was far inferior to cleaning yourself with handfuls of sand – that’s right, sand. In southern Utah, the sand is like talcum powder and does an amazing job of dingle-berry removal, followed by a sprig of sagebrush for extra freshness. Fast forward to a day at the beach and try the same thing there. Anyone who has spent a few days with sand in their shorts will quickly tell you how foolish it would be to try that trick with sand made from shell and coral fragments – ouch.
    When I was doing research for the first edition of Camping In The Old Style (the completely revised and full color second edition will be out this spring), I was able to spend hours in the library at Western Carolina University going through Horace Kephart’s original notes and journals – circa 1995. In one journal that contained research for Our Southern Highlands, Kephart mentions the distinction between woodsmen, plainsmen, mountainmen, and others. Each group had a skill set based on knowledge and experience gleaned from living on the land, and those skills and knowledge were generally based on universal principles, but many were specific to the region from which they came. So when skilled people from differing environments appear to contradict each other in print or other media, who is right – or are they both right according to what’s common to them?
    Mors teaches the importance of the fuzz stick mostly as a knife handling exercise that many now take to an end in itself as some sort of art form – by the way folks, the object should be to get a fire going. In Mors’ region of the world, the knowledge of making a fuzz stick and the ability to make a good one quickly may mean the difference between life and death. I have spent many days with Randy and Mors on their turf, and I know what it takes to stay alive there even after a week of -50˚ temperatures. The mastery of fuzz stick making is now a well accepted component of the cannon of bushcraftdom worldwide.
    I consider myself a pretty proficient outdoorsman, especially with 40 years of leadership experience in the high deserts of the southwest canyon country. I can honestly say I have a working knowledge of that land in all its moods and seasons – I’d call myself a canyoneer, but that title has been assumed by people who like to wear lycra and wetsuits and travel through canyons like assault teams. I can also honestly say I have made hunnnnddrrreds of fires in that environment without even the slights thought to ever making or needing a fuzz stick. Does that make me a bad outdoorsman in Mors’ eyes? I hope not. I can make one, and I have the knife skills to do it quickly and well, but it’s not at the top of what I would teach a student as a survival priority in the desert.
    To paraphrase Forest, “Common is as common does.” Studying skills that come from your land and then practicing them to gain knowledge and experience will never be matched by Youtube. Aldo Leopold called woodcraft a “working knowledge of the land.” But what land?

      faultroy November 23, 2014 at 2:22 am #

      That is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful comments about the Bush that I have ever read.

      Thanks for saying it. It NEEDED to be said.

      Be looking forward to the release of your book.

      Heaven knows the Outdoor Survival field is getting clogged up with a lot of nonsense that has not been validated with experience in the bush.

  10. Chris October 8, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Great comment Dave. Thank you for the feedback, as you know, it will really help with the other piece I am working on too. And thank you for the official heads up on a totally revised edition of Camping in the Old Style coming this Spring!

    Mark Wienert October 11, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    I feel somewhat vindicated by Dave Wescott’s comments regarding to common sense. I have felt for years as the lone wolf badgering my students with, “There is no such thing as common sense, unless you have a common experience.” My examples of this are drawn from teaching for over twenty years. If you have never slept outdoors in the bush without a sleeping bag and tent, the odds of having a lot in common with that person experience is minimal. My point being, it’s okay not to have common sense which is really learned experience anyway. The good news Its easily remedied by experience.
    Thank you for the great information and article Chris.

    • Christian Noble October 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      Nice comment Mark! And they don’t come any better than Wescott.


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