Promoting Outdoor Living Skills

The main purpose of Master Woodsman is to Promote Outdoor Living Skills. Within that broad statement should be a discussion on skill level and the skill level of those that teach or even share knowledge. That is what this article is… a catalyst for thought and discussion, NOT a decree from me or anyone else associated with this site. Please keep that and an open mind when reading.


“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”
― Karl Popper

If you have been around for more than a few years you’re already aware … the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Listed below are the 3 Stages of Knowledge as outlined from the site Thought Clusters. I believe these stages apply to Wilderness Living Skills too. Some self-evaluation will hopefully give you an idea of where you are with your skills or even a philosophy.


  1. Ignorance: The person has superficial or no knowledge in the subject. They may have some or many misconceptions of or prejudices against it. If they have to be involved in some activity in that subject, they are likely to make many beginner mistakes. This situation continues until the person gains adequate knowledge of the topic.
  2. Arrogance: The person is very comfortable with the subject. This manifests into love and admiration for it. It also results in arrogance and hostility towards persons who do not share the same passion or knowledge of the subject. There is a deep suspicion of any competing tool.
  3. Enlightenment: The person recognizes the limitations of their knowledge. They learn to tolerate other viewpoints and interests. They understand the original rationale behind the subject. Principles become more important than rituals. Arrogance is replaced by humility and concern.


From the 3 Stages of Knowledge, we gained context on the understanding of a subject. The levels used in this next section will assist in one particular viewpoint of outdoor living skill level as outlined by Master Woodsman David Wescott. Those categories include the Apprentice Camper, Journeyman Camper, Journeyman Woodsman, and Master Woodsman, all of which can be found in detail in the Master Woodsman Training on this website.

Take note, a woodsman (or plainsman, frontiersman, bushcrafter, etc) advancing his skills is on the path of eliminating reliance on gear by accumulating knowledge through education and experience. In other words, the more you know, the less you need. And yet another way to look at this improved skill proficiency is as Steve Watts says, the more you know, the less you DO, i.e., less knife stokes, axe strokes, etc.

“As for the complex ways of living, I love them not, however much I practice them. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth.”  – Henry David Thoreau

When it comes to Outdoor Living Skills, the Apprentice Camper (beginner) must supplement their needs to maintain an adequate level of comfort in the back-country with what they can carry. Knowledge is basic, thus limiting their time afield as they do not know how to take advantage of surrounding natural resources. Modern survival techniques should be known and understood first. Once skills such as firecraft, sheltercraft, navigation, toolcraft, cooking, trekking and first aid are mastered, then living off the land would be the next step.

The intermediate level Journeyman Camper and Journeyman Woodsman have some knowledge of how to use the natural resources around them. As an example, where once I had to carry a sleeping bag, I now can make a bed and warming fire, and yet be just as comfortable, if not more so. Again, a woodsman’s goal is to eliminate the need of those items the beginner must carry. It doesn’t mean he won’t take advantage of a sleeping bag, matches, or any other convenience when he wants.

A Journeyman Woodsman’s knowledge includes mastery of hundreds of plants for medicine, food, tools, and wildlife use as well as the ability of harvesting fish and small game with deadfalls, snares, and traps for their environment. Firearm use may be needed for both small and large game in northern climates.

For the Journeyman Woodsman, getting lost or forgetting a sleeping bag becomes an inconvenience, not a survival situation. However, the journeyman is also adept enough at prevention that true survival is a rare circumstance. Weeks at a time for recreation or survival are more than feasible.

A Master Woodsman (advanced) is approaching knowledge levels of the aboriginal peoples from that environment where if needed, for the most part, one could be independent of modern technology. To live off the land, knowledge must be at a level where wilderness food collection exceeds the energy required to gather and process one’s needs in all seasons.

The Master Woodsman has mastery of most plants (several hundred depending on the environment) for medicine, food, tools, and wildlife use in his area, as well as competency in harvesting game. Knowledge is exponentially greater than that of the journeyman and acclimation to the environment exists. Mastery is also demonstrated through the ability to teach and write, as well as maintaining spirit, mind and physical body.


The intent of the above chart is to put context around the proportional knowledge from beginner to advanced. The numbers themselves are unscientific, and if anything, the graphic is conservative for most environments. Keep in mind, outdoor experience takes many, many years. As an example, just to get one year of experience in a specific winter environment really takes four years as a season doesn’t last a year. Training with the right person can greatly accelerate this learning curve.


“Simplify, simplify.”  – Henry David Thoreau

“One “simplify” would have sufficed.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson in response

Accumulate knowledge, eliminate gear. Always keep in mind, skill progression in the art of woodcraft points towards simplicity. Seeking that simplicity offers experience. It also leads to enlightenment, which includes the realization we can never know too much or be too skilled.

“The height of cultivation runs to simplicity.
Halfway cultivation runs to ornamentation.”
— Bruce Lee


From Larry Dean Olsen’s Outdoor Survival Skills first published in 1967.

“It is asserted from time to time that true survival is measured by a person’s capacity to stay put and prepared with a super pack of hauled-in safe-gaurds; that learning edible plants and trapping and hunting skills are not necessary since most lost persons are rescued within seventy-two hours anyway. Without negating the wisdom of preparation and safegaurd, I would say that philosophy behind this modern dependency is still a dangerous one. Because of confidence and practice, when one learns to live off the land entirely, being lost is no longer life-threatening. Any manufactured item, such as a good knife or sleeping bag, then becomes a useful and appreciated luxury, but not a dire necessity!”


I shared Larry Olsen’s philosophy as the assertion he refers to “that true survival is measured by a person’s capacity to stay put and prepared with a super pack of hauled-in safe-gaurds” is unfortunately more alive than ever. I also included the Stages of Knowledge and Master Woodsman Training to offer a context around experience and skill level, the purpose being a background for the following comments…

From the majority of educational sources available today, the skills being taught are a regurgitation of what has existed. This is to be expected and not the issue. What is the issue, however, more than ever, it is poorly taught and comes with very little context due to the presenter’s source of information, slack research, and minimal experience (ignorance or arrogance stage of knowledge).

This poor dissemination of information can be seen across all outdoor living skill disciplines. And while I get there is overlap in primitive skills, woodcraft, and even homesteading, to the casual camper the volume of information must be overwhelming, especially with so much of it commercialized. While this loss of context sucks, what should be of extreme concern is how much gets lumped into the word survival. For the purpose of this article, survival means dealing with potentially lethal stresses in a unfamiliar or challenging environment (credit M. Kochanski).

In today’s world, ANYBODY can call him or herself a survival instructor, or expert, and do. If you are good at editing a video and have a little charisma, you are an instant ‘expert’ on YouTube to the uninformed public. Not to mention, self-publishing, blogs (this site included), online forums, and even professional publications provide ample opportunities to expound on information, correct or not.

Please know, I truly believe that 99.9% of what is shared is done with good intentions (TV is not included in that statement). Sadly, in our fast-paced society, everyone is looking for a shortcut, and information that is literally shared in the blink of an eye must be good if it saves you that most precious of commodities, time… Right??? WRONG! Experience will always be the best teacher. You can however accelerate your learning curve through good teachers.

Regrettably, good teachers are harder to find these days with so much noise. What is explained in the next paragraph is a problem with some instructors, but in reality, the problem is everywhere thanks to World Wide Web. Simply insert any modern medium of communication into the example below.

After attending just one survival school, a student starts their own school, and then one of their students starts a school after attending just that school… Or perhaps someone in the arrogance stage of knowledge makes a skills video for YouTube from something they just learned at that school, then someone else tries to make the same video from what they saw online to post on their channel… and then they tell two friends, and so on, and so on… What happens when you make a copy of a copy? In this case, you get an inbreeding of skills, loss of context (everything is survival now) and my earlier complaints on instruction.

Take a moment right now to think about the last YouTube video or TV Show about survival you watched while sitting there in your chair. Did you see a skill and say to yourself, “that’s cool, I will add it my quiver of knowledge.” Did you actually try it after adding your view to the list? Do you think you could duplicate it a year from now? Do you remember the context in which the skill was presented? Did the presenter offer any context as to where the skill came from and when it should applied? Do you even remember what you watched? What about the video you watched two weeks ago, or last month? No? I bet you remember that training, whatever it was, you got years ago from that knowledgable instructor in the environment it was meant to be. The good lessons last a lifetime.


My above statements about poor instruction and misinformation are nothing new and something I have experienced first hand numerous times over many years. In fact, roughly four years ago in a frustrated attempt to rectify, I approached several survival instructors about certification. Coming from a forestry background where certification exists through the Society of American Foresters as well as professional licensure in most states, I have knowledge of the subject. For that matter, many others do as well, they just don’t realize it, CPR/AED/First Aid Certification or Swim Instructor from the Red Cross being an example of a relatively simple certification process.

That being said, based on the feedback I received then and sentiments I have seen from most instructors, it will never happen, at least not anytime soon. Why? Those that teach survival are to say the least, highly independent, and the last thing they want is an entity providing guidelines. Add to that, there are some who teach that literally lack the marketing capability and technical savvy to take advantage of a certification program. Some purists won’t even do business cards as they are too commercial. And then there is the politics…

Shortly after those initial conversations I realized one of my visions, the creation of Master Woodsman, an online repository of reputable Outdoor Living Skills information for the public. I never intended to spend so much time doing this site or being a blogger, but the writing has been educational in itself to say the least. And whenever possible, those things that I have written about, I have tried to encourage the reader to seek professional training or original sources of information.


As we continue this discussion on certification, please note I am speaking specifically about wilderness survival.

Most people only have one point of view on certification, the clinical definition: a designation earned by an individual identifying that they have demonstrated a standard level of skills, experience, and expertise within their field.

Certification should really be considered an incentive to improve, not a procedure of regulation or professional status. Quality of instruction and the safety of students should be in everybody’s best interest. Not to mention, certification is voluntary.

Professional organizations (associations, societies, etc.) normally get ahead of licensure and government regulation through organizing a body to develop their own criteria. Failure to do so eventually results in a concerned public asking government for laws and regulation of a profession (or the government is looking for more revenue and finds your profession).

Registration is normally licensure from a government entity such as a state. For example, under penalty of law, a person cannot represent themselves to the public for compensation as a forester in most states unless they are registered. In Georgia, where I first got registered, I had to meet the educational requirements of a four-year degree, work under a professional forester for two-years who was also registered, have five letters of recommendation (3 from Registered Foresters), and then pass an examination from the state board. And then there are the continuing education credits. Let’s avoid this much government intervention.

You should know, state boards and tough registration criteria came long before the Society of American Foresters started a certification program. As the popularity of Outdoor Living Skills increases it is inevitable there will be government involvement. It is better that instruction criteria and voluntary certification comes first from those that teach survival.

So how high should the bar be set and what should be the criteria? I have my thoughts, but they are irrelevant for this discussion. It would take a body of instructors to get the thing started and agree.

Obviously though, the least common denominators would revolve around a instructor’s judgment, of minimum age, student safety, wilderness medicine, rescue, thermoregulation of the human body, physics in hot and cold environments, and other basics. Think along the lines of a Lifeguard/Swim Instructor certification as offered by the Red Cross.

Survival is a lot like learning to swim. However, in the case of swimming, the instructor has the student in the ‘real world’ as they are taught in the water. The instructor is right there with their student, sink or swim. Failure is obviously not an option and the student learns to swim.

Just one example of the psychological and physiological understanding a survival instructor should posses.

Just one example of the psychological and physiological understanding a survival instructor should posses.

Whereas, in survival training, the student is usually NOT in the back-country, dog-tired, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, wet, suffering, and/or in the cold when needing to make tough decisions and execute on a skill such as lighting a fire; all with the ever-present fear of the unknown, discomfort, failure, being alone, darkness, personal guilt, and death creating a chemical cocktail in their bloodstream impacting their judgment, dexterity and they way their body regulates temperature.

Therefore, the survival instructor can get away with the poor instruction where the swim instructor cannot. Nonetheless, both involve life saving skills. Wouldn’t you rather learn how to swim from someone who is certified? I hope you see now, it should be the same for survival instructors.

“Mother Nature is a terrible instructress. She will give you the exam first and the lesson after, if you are still alive to appreciate it.” – Mors Kochanski

Imagine if an entity (society, association, etc.) of survival instruction existed. The public would be more reassured in the instruction and their safety. Also, more people would likely want instruction. A entity of that nature could also pull resources for liability insurance, marketing assistance, information sharing (including best practices) and more.

The sharing of information alone would be a boon. While some instructors readily share and continuously train with peers, other schools are in essence an island which can obviously lead to an inbreeding of skills as we discussed earlier.

The bottom line here is that if an instructor is truly willing to take responsibility for the well-being of his or her students, they should not have a problem with certification. That well-being is not only for the time of instruction for which they are being compensated, but for the knowledge they are instilling in the student. As it is that knowledge on which the student’s life may depend.


First and foremost, I hope this article will make you consider your source of information more carefully. If you are planning to attend a school, we have some suggested things to look for in the Schools section under Survival Training on this website. When it comes to YouTube and other mediums of information I never meant to imply don’t use. There is some great content out there from reputable sources, Lord knows I have picked up more than a few things online if I spent the time practicing it in the field. Nevertheless, if you didn’t before, I hope you realize now the importance of getting information from a creditable source. And for goodness sake, realize you can’t get experience while you are online.

Yes, I said there is very little that is new in the world when it comes to Outdoor Living Skills. For those things that are revolutionary, there is no reason not to go to the original source, be it the person or their writings. AND, for that regurgitated information, look to sources with experience and perhaps even from your geography. Do they have real back-country experience? In which environment(s)? How many years have they taught? Who did they learn from? What do their peers think of them? Are they a full-time instructor or part-time? Do they have a resume? The number of subscribers and likes should NOT be a major criteria for a source of information. More times than not, you don’t know who liked it, why they liked it, or even if they have knowledge of the subject being liked. And I could go on about the demographic of most likers and more.

While not so much survival and very much recreation, one of the more original sources of information out there comes from the Classic Camping era. Like I said, most of it has done before. Well, it was folks like Seton, Beard, Kephart, White, Sears, Miller, Harding, Jaeger, Mason and others who first started to capture many of these outdoor living skills we see coming back to the forefront. Perhaps, even unknowingly, people are looking to these original sources because they know in their hearts something is missing today.

“This instinct for a free life in the open is as natural and wholesome as the gratification of hunger and thirst and love.  It is Nature’s recall to the simple mode of existence that she intended for us.”  – Horace Kephart

There’s that word simple again, thank you Kep.

As far as certification, I felt someone had to bring it up. I have heard too many sidebar complaints that it doesn’t exist then no one does anything about it. So there, I kicked it out there and we will see what happens. Please know, I have no designs on starting the thing myself, a group of full-time instructors should do that. And to be honest, I don’t think anything will come of it.

All that being said, Master Woodsman will simply continue to go off-trail, being as true a voice as possible in Promoting Outdoor Living Skills. A voice of the past bringing to the forefront those pioneers before us AND a voice of the present inclusionary to ALL outdoor living skills.

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.

31 Responses to Promoting Outdoor Living Skills

  1. Christian Noble January 2, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    Hey! If you made it this far, you obviously have some interest in the subject. Sorry for the length, but I really wanted to put that context of knowledge and skill level up front. Going after ‘simplicity’ can be a fun and empowering goal in many aspects and shouldn’t be intimidating, please take away this aspect too!

    As a follow-up, I wanted to say thank you to Alan Halcon. I first saw the 3 stages of knowledge on his great blog Outdoor Self-Reliance. You should check it out.

    Also, a big thank you to the half-dozen folks whose ear I have bent over this topic over that last couple of months. You know who you are!

    You the reader should also know I started writing this article back in October. Since that time I have had numerous conversations with Mors Kochanski on several topics of which some were included here. Needless to say, he has been a HUGE influence. You can see some of this article in another way in the great series from Karamat Wilderness Ways coming out now via of all things… YouTube. 😉 Here is the link to Part One.

  2. Alan Halcon January 2, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    Now you’ve done it! You inspired me to follow up with an article. Great article!

    I do believe the hybridization of skills has muddied the core of survival. Everyone is trying to out do each other and one up each other they often forget the essence. The tricks and tips become more important than physiology. Point in case.

    I think vaseline impregnated cottonball pieces stuffed in straws is a cool trick, but in the process of coming out with the latest and greatest, the inventor forgot about what happens to your motor skills when really cold. I’e, the drop in fine motor skills. Say isn’t one of the tests for hypothermia trying to do the boyscout sign with the fingers. And if you can’t you’re losing it. So, how then is one expected to use the small pieces of straw with cottonballs?

    Again kudos… Great article

  3. Christian Noble January 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks Alan! Can’t wait to see the follow-up!

    Tom Ray January 2, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

    Thanks Chris! What a fantastic and thought provoking article! I agree that certification is important when it comes to someone teaching skills that could save your life or the lives of those you love. Certification in many occupations is so prevalent in Europe, but comparatively is in its infancy here.

    • Christian Noble January 2, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

      Thank you Tom for the comment! Did not know that about Europe. I am pretty sure they do not have it for survival in most if not all of Europe. Hope we get some feedback from the other side of the pond.

    Steve January 3, 2015 at 1:03 am #

    The idea of certification is an interesting one. I have seen certification in two forms.

    1. Has the student received the training?
    2. Can the student perform the skills to a standard?

    I suggest that the CPR/AED example is (1) above. Although there is a multiple-choice exam, it does not gauge a student’s ability to save a life under realistic conditions. During the practical portion of the course, the instructor evaluates that the students received the instruction properly. At that point he grants the certification. It is certification based upon receiving training.

    If you wish to become an airplane pilot, you must fly with an FAA examiner who makes you perform all of the activities and maneuvers required to safely pilot an aircraft. You are flying the airplane. It is (2) above.

    Both approaches have their advantages. But which method is appropriate for survival instructors? For survival students?

    • Christian Noble January 3, 2015 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Steve – you bring up a very good point. That is a rabbit hole a body of instructors will have to go down (should it ever happen), would be too much for the comment section of a blog. But you also brought to light I did not do a good job articulating I was primarily speaking about instructors when it came to certification. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great survival instructors out there with good curriculums. However, there are those that teach, and other well-intended people (usually online), that simply share information that is out-of-context. That misinformation has already gotten people hurt, if not directly, indirectly.

      While I believe this article may grab the attention of instructors, I hope, and I know several good instructors with whom I have spoken feel the same — that information such as this provides insight for the student searching for survival knowledge, whatever the source.

    Emerson January 5, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Yes my name is Emerson, just like your one child. I enjoyed the post and the information on fear is spot-on. I am a chiropractor and have seen people in fear mode, and it’s amazing to see someone just freeze, unable to move or process information due to the sympathetic nerve system response. When reality kicks in, the flight response is usually the mode of choice. It takes practice in certain scenarios to circumvent the fight/flight response and its accompanying body changes. Articles on our military and the SEAL teams and how they prepare for off-the-wall scenarios is amazing.

    I myself am looking into expanding my inner-outdoorsman. Trying to get in better shape currently, and practicing bushcraft and different tricks learned in the past, but I am definitely an apprentice. Thanks for the great article and keep the info coming.

    • Christian Noble January 6, 2015 at 10:54 am #

      Thank you for the great comment Emerson. Love the ‘inner-outdoorsman” reference!

    porkybeans January 5, 2015 at 9:35 pm #

    Excellent article in some areas of concern, but never will I be up for getting the government involved in anything. If you require the government to certify instructors then in 10 years there will be a law making it illegal to uproot a wild onion unless you have been through a certified course. The government will go from licensing to controlling ever facet and detail of survival if this is ever allowed to happen. Second, let’s talk about the unthinkable and then have the nerve to put it in writing, but I have thick skin so here it comes. VETERANS: Pulling a tour in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever makes them instant survivalists. It seems most of the popular websites are written or endorsed by a veteran that doesn’t have a clue about how to survive in the woods, yet just because they are ‘veterans’ everyone listens and follows their sad, sad, advise. We need ‘self actualized licensing’ eg. stop buying all the bs items sold by these preppers, then get out in the woods and see what works one day at a time, for goodness sakes. Learning is in increments. ‘Two years ago we about a edible Texas plants book and have ahd tremendous success along with one near death experience. We are learning, have advanced dramatically, still have light years to go, but for $24.95 and sweat equity we are doing pretty darn good, without outside oversight. Thanks for your article and Christ bless. PS: For the record, I am a veteran, and no one owes me anything.

    • Christian Noble January 6, 2015 at 11:01 am #

      porkybeans, I am with you on the government involvement and appreciate your insight on veterans as it relates to survival. God Bless our military, as they have a tremendous amount of responsibility which normally requires focus in a particular discipline, typically (and understandably) not wilderness living skills.

    Mark Payton January 5, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

    Good points. Many years ago, when I was dabbling with learning to hang-glide in the early days of the sport, the practitioners wisely self-policed, very similar to what you are suggesting. I never got very far with the sport so I don’t know the current status, but at the time they were quite successful in bringing about responsible instruction and self-regulation and keeping the FAA out of it, which could well have killed the sport.

    Dave Holder January 6, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Nice Article,
    As you suggested there is so more to being a survival instructor than just knowing the “party tricks.” I love your piece on heart rates an area not considered by many.
    A book by Dr Robert Scaer (aptly named man) talks about the emotional values of Flight, Fright or Freeze with of course the valued emotional and physical value of an observed “discharge,” a physical response that an animal goes through after a near death encounter.
    Always on the path of knowledge I became an Emotional Freedom Practitioner level 2 (EFT) as a result of my wife being a level 3 EFT practitioner telling me about the teachings of Dr Scaer, which deals with trauma and immediate response techniques for dealing with off the cuff mind taxing problems. So what I am saying is that the problem is that many potential Survival Instructors are just unaware of all the skills required to teach survival other than “just the party tricks.”

    I teach many outdoor skills and am one of the few with a certificate from Mors Kochanski and like you have debated with him the likelihood of so much of this certification area. Indeed he past on to me an organization who is trying to form an association of survival instructors, This has proved to be an interesting venture and one where I am now definitely dragging my heels. Mors sent me a whole bag of his research and thoughts on certification and how it could be done, all excellent stuff. However whenever I have approached any currently teaching Survival Instructor about joining an association and helping set up a level of recognised instruction they balk at the idea. Some say certification means restrictions and regulations that will restrict the freedom of the craft or others are worried about testing or association dues. I must admit after having spent a lot of time on this I am quite disheartened and possibly will withdraw from the whole idea.

    • Christian Noble January 6, 2015 at 5:54 pm #


      Thank you for the sincere comment and your thoughts. I really struggled as to whether even publish this article. As I believe you and I both feel, nothing will likely come of it when it comes to instructors organizing, certification or not.

      However, and why I published, if folks like you and I share and discuss this topic, it WILL make a difference in how people view their source of information and outdoor education. We may never see the end result, but I know it is there.



        Dave Holder January 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

        Hi Chris,
        Thats why I like this site it offers great food for thought, and in this case none of us should consider fasting!



  10. Alan Halcon January 7, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    I don’t feel “THE” Government should run certification, rather a respected source with no affiliation to “THE” Government. Red Cross, NOLS, Wilderness Medicine Society, etc. are all examples of respected organizations not run by “THE” Government. Perhaps some sort of panel of respected experts such as Mors, Dave Wescott, Cody Lundin and suitable others would be the body under which the certifying entity would work

    A core understanding of physiology and psychology under stress (heat, fear, cold, etc) and how they are affected during stress would be a good foundation for vetting of tools and techniques.

    Actually, the Wilderness Medicine Society would be good for this

    Again this is strictly speaking “Survival”. Bushcraft, camping, wilderness living, primitive skills, does not fall into this category. This is strictly speaking of life threatening situations

    Kevin McGee January 8, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read. Maybe the best.

    I’m all for the survival instructor certification. I’d even help organize it, and I agree that Wescott’s list is a good starting point. Not that I’m a ‘master woodsman’ myself — far from it — but I’d support this and help organize. The certifying group does not have to be part of the government. Totally agreed that is a bad idea. But many fields have an association made up of leaders of the field, voted in or otherwise appointed, who set guidelines and requirements for the field. Our field has far too much chaos and could use this kind of order.

    Also, in many fields, take martial arts for example, journeyman level people teach beginner level classes, master level teach journeymen, and grand masters teach masters. Its a tiered structure. But then, on the flip side, in bushcraft we have this skill-sharing tradition where everyone comes together and shares skills with each other. Group learning: no teacher, no master. I guess this dynamic has its positives and negatives, the positives being that more skills are shared with more people, the negatives being the copy-of-a-copy degradation problem discussed in the article and also the perpetuation of myths and misunderstandings. So it may be this skill-sharing tradition that motivates most youtubers to feel qualified to teach their skills — even as minimal as they might be.

    However, if you are going to call yourself a ‘survival instructor’ and even found a ‘survival school,’ this is not skill-sharing. This is a very important distinction, and a line that is crossed far too frequently. I hear this problem has reached epidemic proportions in the UK, with hundreds of bushcraft schools taught by people who have attended perhaps one course and watched lots of youtube.

    I do run a group — not a school — and I do teach classes. But I teach only my four or five best subjects, which I’ve been studying and practicing for some time, and even then I often attach the word ‘basic’ or ‘introduction.’ This I feel confident and qualified to do.

    But the bushcraft/survival field is one I love and am passionate about, and helping to steer it in productive directions is a huge priority for me.

    Gene Boyd January 10, 2015 at 11:55 am #


    I applaud your position on certification for “survival” training. For many years, I have been on the board (SAPACC) that writes the certification exams for the substance abuse testing profession. So, I am very familiar with the objectives of certification (e.g., minimum qualifications vs exclusionary qualifications) and the process of qualifying, testing and certifying practitioners. You can start a certification program more easily with help from the National Certification Commission.

    Contact info is: Richard C. Jaffeson, Executive Director
    telephone: 301-847-0104

    In our organization, we retain a professional to assist us, as needed. I just looked it up…we pay ~ $2-3,000 per year for professional assistance in evaluating exam questions and putting together exams. Most of the work (writing/evaluating exam questions, interviewing candidates, reviewing qualifications, proctoring exams, etc.) is voluntary work done by the board members. Our biggest expense is an annual workshop. Typically $5-10,000. In recent years, we have been successful in getting significant donations from corporations that serve our industry (e.g., laboratories, Third Party Administrators, Suppliers, etc.).

    We originally had only one certification, C-SAPA (Certified Substance Abuse Program Administrator), that required experience across all of the modalities in our field (mostly fed regs: DOT, FMCSA, FAA, FRA, FTA, PHMSA, USCG, DFWP, SAP, etc.). Since most of the professionals in our industry focus on only 1 or a few of these modalities, the C-SAPA designation was considered “over-kill” and unnecessary by many in our business. Therefore, we have generated modality-specific certifications, which are making greater inroads into our profession.

    That would seem to be the best approach for you to take…and it is easier to create one modality certification at a time. FYI, based on your article, I see myself in the Journeyman Camper level with some training and experience in the Journeyman Woodsman level. I’m mostly retired now (I own my own business, but only go into the office 4-5 days per month). So, if I can be of any help, give me a holler.

    Gene Boyd
    3241 City View Ct
    Hudsonville MI 49426

  13. Christian Noble January 11, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    Gene – thank you for the great information!

    I know there is more interest from instructors than we will hear in any of public forums online. Hopefully a group of experienced instructors will start talking face 2 face at Woodsmoke, Dirttime, Rabbitstick and/or other events. OR someone puts together a survival instructor symposium like Lars Falt did back in the 90’s. That’s probably the next step. Certification doesn’t need to happen right away either – take that pressure off and just get a Society of Survival Instructors started first if enough are interested.

    Tim Smith January 12, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

    Just got back from a cold week out or would have commented on the article. A great article and concept. A few ideas it raised in my mind follow. I’ve been teaching and guiding full time for 15 years. In Maine we have a state license to become a guide, which is defined as someone who receives any form of payment for taking people out. It’s a good system and has worked for over 100 years. If you want to get paid to take people out, you have to get the license. I don’t think that just having the license is good enough to prove competency, but its better than having no license. I’ve also been a licensed guide in NH. A few years ago they changed the rules to where you had to have a current first aid card to recert your license. I asked to see the data that proved that this was a problem, but was never given anything. Guiding is not the same as survival instruction, but it is still all about safety. Obviously, people who have been teaching for a number of years don’t want to have to pass a test or pay an entity to continue what they’re already doing. Also, is there data that shows the current lack of a certification is a problem, or is it anecdotal? Lastly, in many industries it seems that a certification system might start out with good intentions, but becomes a way for established entities to limit competition by making it harder for new people to get into the business. We have our own in-house certifications, but they’re designed to meet the needs of our students, not the general public. Anyway, I’m interested to see where all of this goes.

    • Christian Noble January 12, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks for the reply Tim. Always value your insight my friend. Like most things, it’s a double edge sword and we will see where it goes if it even does.

  15. Christian Noble January 12, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    I guess I am not surprised that the certification piece of this article has dominated the conversation. Even more so where this article has been posted on facebook. I almost wish I would have left certification for a second article as I afraid the other points around knowledge and context are getting lost. Certification or not, remember, know your source!

    David D. January 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

    The issue of certification is a thorny one to say the least. On the other-hand the potential for recognition of excellence is nothing to be mocked. In Australia they have a very developed outdoor education tradition that operates within/serves the school system. A few years ago the government realized there were hundreds of “un-qualified” people working with children and this was a problem. Suddenly following a piece of legislation they were in the situation that the industry was filled with employees that were suddenly no longer qualified, and no immediate process for training. After some serious struggles, program development, assessments, prior training equivalencies, etc, they have created a system of training for 1 and 2 year certifications in outdoor leadership, with specific qualifications for different activities.

    But this example is largely related to, and an outgrowth of, involvement with children. This is contrasted with our survival/bushcraft/wilderness living skills movement as being much more eclectic in focus and clientele. It would be nearly impossible to dictate what knowledge or skill sets must be obtained before becoming an instructor, because what we instruct, who we work with, where we operate, how we define survival, and what our priorities are is so varied. After all, what the heck is survival?

    One of the most interesting, and perhaps valuable, aspects of certification that I would appreciate is the opportunity for liability protection. As nationally certified instructor in various paddlesport disciplines I have demonstrated my proficiency and can benefit from an insurance policy through Paddle Canada for a nominal fee of around $80/year. Comparing this to private policies that some of my peers carry that cost between $1,000 and $5,000 each year for un-certified leadership (though still very competent in my mind) I feel very fortunate. But once I stop incorporating canoeing or kayaking in my courses, my liability protection ceases. Not a comfortable situation.

    For the survival/bushcraft/wilderness living skills courses that I love to teach I am forced to rely on the recognition of my peers and mentors. And while their respect is invaluable and a tremendous confidence booster, my claim on their support does relatively little to provide additional protection to myself, my assets and my program. And for those clients less immersed in the industry, personal recognitions often mean less than an institutional certification.

    Even with my respect for current organizations that have provided certifications to myself, I am still reluctant to fully endorse the creation of a certifying body. That admitted, there are still benefits that may very well outweigh the risks. Until then, I will continue to work carefully, give recognition to my personal mentors and aim to provide quality and evolving instruction.

  17. Alan Halcon January 17, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    David D, survival is very easy to define. A survival situation is a threat to life. In this genre — outdoor survival— it can be defined as overcoming a threat in an outdoor setting, most frequently hinging on an outdoor/wilderness activity. To that end, one can then establish a risk analysis of likely life threatening emergencies and establish a protocol of handling said emergencies.

    Let’s look at it this way. There is such a thing as Wilderness First-Aid. that course could not have been created without identifying the hazards. The core of outdoor survival is getting through environmental hazards until rescued, be it self or assisted

  18. Jeff Burns January 19, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

    Great Artical.. Thank you for the great well written and thought provoking artical.

    Harold February 16, 2015 at 7:55 pm #

    As mentioned above it IS a great piece and with all the talk about these subjects it is important to have some way to ground these discussions in fact, context and truth… to the extent we can. I think it was Cody Lundin that pointed out there is so much overlap going on that muddies the discussion; we definitely need some sort of way to sort it all out. I’m a long way from any kind of voice on the matter of certification; my only concern would be that people not adopt it as a badge and get stuck at the arrogance stage.

    We must ask the questions; are we trying to survive, prepare for calamity, live in the aboriginal way or is it just something we like to do.. whatever that is. In any case I believe the only way we are going to truly make progress is by spending time with those who already possess the skills. Just clipping a bunch of stuff off Pinterest and Youtube is not going to do it.

    I was fortunate enough to live off grid as a small boy and as an older man I am trying to retrieve some of that plus pick up a lot of things I missed. Some people are geared to live off the land and some are not and a big question/challenge in my mind is how do those who are tethered to the modern world utilize and mesh old methods in a modern technological society. Context is important. I plan to keep practicing and learning.

    Thanks for keeping the journey alive!


  1. Leave No Trace killed Woodcraft... almost - - March 2, 2015

    […] being said, it is more than worth noting that the skilled and ethical woodsman can not only have a campfire (in most areas) of which you will see little to no trace, but the […]

  2. An open letter to President Obama from Cody Lundin - - September 1, 2015

    […] resist this open letter to President Obama from Cody Lundin; a message that I have repeatedly been promoting here as it relates to the importance of context in survival. Therefore, I hope you go to […]

  3. Indebtedness: The #1 Soft Skill Missing in the Self-Reliance Community | Survival Sherpa - October 31, 2016

    […] My friend Chris Noble (who has challenged more than one of my past articles – thankfully), outlined the 3 stages of knowledge for us here… […]

Leave a Reply