A challenging 5-day survival course in the Scottish Highlands
Back in 2019 I stumbled across The Bear Grylls Academy and their survival courses. The 5-day survival course in the Scottish Highlands looked like the most challenging and exciting to me. I was planning on doing the course in May 2019 and… you guessed it: Covid 19 struck and all plans were put on hold. What a great opportunity to practice some patience. Fast forward to Sept 2021 and we were back on after more than 18 months.
Why a survival course?
I’ve spent my life living in cities, but over recent years I’ve become interested in spending more time in nature, challenging myself and learning new skills that could help me be more useful, resilient and independent. I’m also interested in group dynamics and how we face and meet uncertain situations both as individuals and as a group.
Modern society is amazing in so many ways but I feel vulnerable and totally dependent on it for water, food, electricity, heating, food and navigation. I’d like to be able to at least make a fire if the lights go out!
Closer to nature
The overwhelming threat of the impending climate crisis is another factor that draws me back into nature. I’d like to become more comfortable in nature with less technology and less dependence on the efficient, yet highly complex and vulnerable, systems that sustain us. I’m also connecting with myself and my surroundings in a simpler and more direct way. Spending time in nature helps me feel more connected to myself and our planet.
About the course
The Bear Grylls Survival Academy (BGSA) has been running survival courses for the last 8 years with the goal of encouraging people to get back into nature. The Survive the Highlands course was a mix of learning practical skills and fun adventure activities, including: fire making, shelter building, orienteering, trapping, how to skin and prepare a rabbit to eat, river crossing, Tyrolean traverse, abseiling and more.
The course kicked off with a theory session on the priorities of survival according to Bear Grylls, based on the sentence: Please Remember What First
The priorities of survival
The first priority is ensuring you’re adequately protected from the elements – wind, cold, rain – and wild animals. This includes building shelter and the ability to make fire.
The next priority is making sure that you can escape from danger and be rescued. Useful skills here include: self-rescue using map and compass for orienteering or natural navigation techniques, building a raft to travel on water and being able to light a signal fire.
Ensuring that you have drinkable water is also important and we learned how to create water filters using moss and charcoal.
Last but not least is food. Foraging, fishing, trapping, killing and preparing wild game are all important skills when it comes to survival.
If you’re wondering about the order of these survival priorities – they’re underpinned by what I call the fatal 3s.
The fatal 3s
As a rough rule of thumb we can survive for:
We can survive longer without food than we can without water, hence water comes before food in the list of survival priorities. But a real survival situation is more dynamic than an abstract list of priorities and the most important thing is to be flexible and make use of what you have around you. For example, if you’re setting traps or fishing lines then you need to allow time to catch something. So, you may set your traps first and then set about water purification.
There were 6 of us on the course which made for an intimate group. 3 members of the group already knew each other and the group was split into 3 in their early 30s and 3 of us between 45 - 53. The older guys all had children. There were 2 Americans and 2 Brits and then 2 cultural nomads. I use the term 'cultural nomad' to define someone who is born in one society but lives in another and most likely has roots from a third. I’m a cultural nomad. Born and raised in South Africa, lived in the UK and now live in Sweden with Scottish and English ancestry.
I have a longstanding fascination with group dynamics and the fact that this was a group survival course was of real interest to me. How would we all get along and bond as a group?
A group divided
My take is that the group was split from the beginning due to 3 of the guys knowing each other prior to the course. But the age gap between the 2 groups also seemed to play a role.
There was a fair amount of bickering as egos jostled for control. I remember on our last night when we finally found our sleeping location, we ended up moving our shelter 3 times. We were all tired and frustrated by this. But there wasn’t enough time or energy to really get into it – we needed to build a shelter, make a fire, collect firewood, get clean water and prepare food. This didn’t leave us a lot of time for drama.
A survival experience is a great leveller, as you just need to get on with the task at hand as efficiently as possible. There were often 6 different opinions and no experts. For example, it took a lot of back and forth for us to create a raft.
Group decision making is messy, time consuming and often uncomfortable. You need to pick your battles and save your energy.
While our raft took several hours to construct, it did in fact get us floating nicely downstream in a rare wind and rain-free moment. We paddled together in the luxurious sunshine listening to Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. A beautiful moment that already feels like a precious memory.
A great opportunity to practice acceptance
At the end of the first day we were all soaking wet and cold. We’d spent the day doing various exercises and having lessons where we were stationary. The last task of the day was to build a shelter, collect kindling and light a fire in the rain and wind. Our boots and socks were soaked through.
We huddled miserably around the fire, desperately trying to dry our boots and socks on sticks. The next morning I realised that I’d put my boots too close to the fire and had melted the side of one of them. I’d also burned a hole through one of my socks. I wasn’t happy about this but we had a day of trekking ahead of us, so on went our wet socks and burnt boots.
It was an impossible task to keep our feet dry and this led me to the gradual realization that it was time to reluctantly practice some acceptance. When I accepted that I was going to have wet and cold feet and that so was everyone else, I was set free from trying desperately to change the situation. It was still uncomfortable, but bearable.
I didn’t feel I was close to my limits on this course, but I do feel I stretched my horizons, learned some new skills and had fun at the same time. There were also plenty of opportunities to practice acceptance. I’m so grateful that I was able to travel to Scotland and for the support of an experienced instructor team on a survival course that’s been refined over many years. Thanks also to the Bear Grylls Academy and the other adventurers who I shared the experience with.