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It was a cold day in the Scottish highlands on Dec. 31, 2011. Although the region is known for its fierce weather, Network Rail technician Gordon Turner noted the weather was “pretty foul” when he stepped into a crude shelter. Of course, bad weather is nothing new during winter in Scotland. What he didn’t expect to see, though, was a lifeless frozen body, curled up on the bench.
In 2012, DailyMail.com reported the sad story of 29-year-old adventurer David Austin. Austin had apparently set out from Derby, England, only a few weeks prior with the goal of surviving a year alone in the wilderness. For several years leading up to the trip, Austin had enrolled in a sequence of survival and bushcraft classes, trying to put his skills to the test. He was so confident in his skills that he took little more than a knife and a daily journal with him.
His last stop was Rannoch Station, a tiny spot on the map consisting of a train station, three houses and a hostel. With only four permanent residents, Rannoch Station is one of the most secluded areas in Scotland, with the nearest town a full 65 miles away. If Austin was looking for a secluded location to test his skills, he certainly found it. A hostel employee reported Austin stopped by to chat and said he was headed to the loch to camp. That was the last anyone ever heard from him.
It is believed that after visiting the hostel, Austin followed the tracks into the moorland. Whether planned, or coincidental, it is assumed he spent Dec. 3, his 29th birthday, in the woods. Not much is known about the brief period between his chat at the hostel, and when his body was discovered on Dec. 31. Authorities later reported he died of hypothermia and had perished weeks before being discovered.
For folks heading off-grid, or about to place themselves in a similar survival situation, this piteous story can teach us a few lessons.
1. Survival isn’t easy
First off, this sad story reminds us of the harsh reality of true survival situations. Thanks to reality television and YouTube channels, we may tend to view the subject of survival as entertainment. While aspects of it may be entertaining, people in true survival situations are in a struggle for life itself. While watching your favorite Man vs. Wild episode in the comfort of your den may seem exciting, the reality is very different. Experiments in the most extreme conditions are best left to folks with the most experience.
2. Bring a lifeline
Austin apparently didn’t bring any lifeline. No satellite phone. No emergency distress signal. Nothing. Any individual attempting a similar experiment would be wise to bring some form of communication with them. If you put yourself into that situation and find yourself failing, having a communication device could save your life.
3. Take baby steps
Big-name survivors like Cody Lundin, Dave Canterbury, Tom Brown, Matt Graham and Bear Grylls throw themselves into these environments for a living. However, they didn’t start off in these extremes. In fact, if you read Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, he tells many stories of the baby steps he took as a kid to achieve his level of expertise.
If you have dreams of living off-grid, take baby steps. Take a trip to your favorite local camping spot and leave “Gear X” or “Gear Y” behind. This allows you to focus on a single skill rather than practicing everything at once.
4. Expect surprises
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In the real world, things go wrong and conditions are not always ideal. In order to really master a skill, you should be able to practice it at any time and under any condition. Rains might drench your fire-starting equipment, or you might need to set up a shelter in the middle of a blizzard. What do you do when things don’t go according to plan?
Most of the chatter about survival seems to focus on food. Yet food is perhaps your lowest priority in most situations. Lightning strikes kill in an instant. Drowning takes just a few minutes. Exposure can kill you in a few hours. People haved lived for months without eating more than a few creepy critters. The case of David Austin can remind similarly minded people about the very real dangers of weather. Finding a way to stay warm/cool, dry and protected should likely be your top priorities.
6. Study geography
Is it a place where many people today, or in the past, lived in great numbers? If the answer is yes, then you may be heading to a livable location. If you can’t find evidence of large amounts of past people living in an area, odds are the geography makes it too challenging for an extended stay. Starting your experiments in comfortable climates will increase your odds of success.
7. Level with yourself
Push aside your ego and level with yourself about your true skill set. Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in the field of survival. Unless you were raised in a very unique situation, you likely don’t have the skills to survive with just a knife. This is especially true as the conditions get more and more challenging. As you challenge yourself, make sure you don’t overestimate your skill set.
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