Home Practical Survival Skills 101 – Understanding Emergencies

Practical Survival Skills 101 – Understanding Emergencies

user profile picture Aaron M Mar 16, 2011
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Aaron submitted this post prior to the recent disaster in Japan. As we are now being educated in real-time as to the value of developing preparedness in advance of calamity, the guidance below becomes even more relevant. This article complements Aaron's earlier "Practical Survival Skills 101" posts on fire, water, and shelter.

Preface: What is an emergency? 

There is an awful lot of academic banter in which we try to “identify” emergencies before they happen. Pedantic issues are categorized and specifics are assigned to them as potential resolutions. This is not a “flawed” approach, but it’s endemic in the American mindset, which is obsessed with micromanagement.

In order to distance ourselves from the details, which are too stochastic and specific, we can generally state that an emergency is a shortage of resources.

Resources can be defined as:

  1. Air
  2. Shelter
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Security

It’s important to examine the relationship between these emergencies, as they directly relate to how we categorize emergencies. For example, air, while in the greatest supply of the above, gives rise to the most pressing emergency when in short supply. This continues as we descend the list.

This lack of resources can be adapted to define everything from a local snowstorm, to Hurricane Katrina, or the well-orchestrated, disastrous attack launched in Mumbai, India. In each of these events, there was a breakdown of modern civil structure: EMS, police, food and water, energy and transportation were compromised, and emergencies ensued. In other words, an emergency can be said to occur when there is a shortage of anything required to sustain life.

So the question still lingers, “How do we categorize emergencies?”

Duration and Intensity

Over the years, my understanding of emergencies has evolved to reflect not the specifics, but the protraction of the emergency and the urgency the lack of resources presents. In any case of shortage, be it breathable air or the ability to defend yourself, four key elements are always present and can be expressed as a balance between each pair of concepts:

Intensity Duration and Probability Proximity

Even a very survivable situation can be deadly when coupled with a protracted duration, because with duration, we see the emergence of secondary and tertiary emergencies as a result of lack of resources.

What are these? Things like dehydration, infections, starvation, blood loss, thermal injury, and so forth.

These things in and of themselves are negative and become more severe the longer they go untreated.

So to put it in “direct” terms: The longer you take fire, the lower your odds of survival.

Because of this, our immediate emphasis is always on preventing secondary and tertiary emergencies – and the way we can do this is by managing the primary situation to shorten its duration as quickly as possible.

Part 1: Emergency Assessment


Intensity can be a very difficult thing to define. Each and every individual has their own set of skills, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that define how they react to emergencies – but in general, we can still define the following as events that would be commonly regarded as emergencies.

Type 1. High Intensity – Short Duration
A high-intensity situation would be a situation in which you and/or others have minimal time to escape imminent harm. However, as a rule, high-intensity situations are limited by environmental factors and are accompanied by very brief durations. Because of this, things like eating, communication with loved ones, and other similar concerns need not be considered – they can wait. These emergencies represent situations where “immediate action” is required (whether it’s fight or flight) and typically last between one second and twenty four hours.
The equipment necessary to solve these problems is your EDC ("Every Day Carry," discussed later) – first line. For that reason, keep these things on your person whenever you’re dressed – discussed later.

Incidences of “high intensity” are:

  • Drowning event
  • A house fire
  • Being stranded in the wilderness
  • Violent attacks, such as a robbery
  • Violent attacks such as an “active shooter” scenario in which you’re amongst the targeted
  • Violent contact with gangs or gang members
  • Abrupt natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornados
  • Sudden traumatic Injuries, such as auto accidents, equipment accidents, or events that could result in a more protracted emergency, such as a plane crash

Type 2. Moderate Intensity – Short/Moderate Duration

Moderate-intensity situations include scenarios that carry a very real threat of violence or injury, but injury to you either is unintended or would be incidental. In other words, you’re not the target, but you could become one by happenstance. As a corollary, you may have to consider providing services for yourself, to include medical, security, food, water and sanitation. While you’re not actively being targeted, you may be pressed into defending or providing for yourself. In contrast with the ‘Short Duration’ emergency figure (1 second – 24 hours), moderate-intensity events generally affect their victims for “moderate” durations – these could last between two days and one week. It’s important to note that while these situations may “seem” very intense, they differ from immediate, high-intensity emergencies in that you’re not being actively targeted or directly affected by the emergency. In other words, food may become scarce, but it’s not because someone is taking it from you.

The equipment to negotiate these problem sets is a combination of your 1st and 2nd Line Equipment, discussed later.

Incidences of “moderate intensity – short/medium duration” are:

  • Riots
  • Blackouts
  • Large-scale infrastructural damage, such as those that accompany hurricanes/earthquakes
  • Temporary weather emergencies, such as significant winter weather events or flooding
  • Invasion by a military (first week)
  • The ‘event’ of an economic collapse (first week)
  • Breakdown of law/gang violence

Type 3. Low Intensity – Protracted Duration

These events represent the most varied and dangerous situations because they occur along a very long timeline. Low-intensity events also be understood as the vectors for many of the “worst case” scenarios, as they’re typically created by a more traumatic, short-term, moderate-intensity situation; as such, the challenges they present are often the “secondary” or “tertiary” concerns discussed earlier. While these events do not affect you on a ‘person to person’ level, they fundamentally change the dynamics of your interactions for their duration – which is indefinite. These problem will require all the skills, mindset, and equipment of all three lines of gear, plus anything you can scavenge using your skills/equipment. More on this in the “Gear Concepts and Lines” below.

Perhaps most important when considering Low Intensity – Protracted Duration events is that within these events, the probability of Type One and Two events increases drastically. That is to say, in an economic collapse, for instance, you’re far more likely to face a situation in which you’re facing a resource shortage or are being targeted directly. 

Examples of “low-moderate intensity – protracted duration” incidents are:

  • Occupation by military
  • Depression
  • Economic collapse
  • Pandemic outbreak of a deadly disease
  • Nuclear war
  • Revolution
  • Being shipwrecked

With the above grim prospects to consider, we would be awash in fears, it would be almost impossible to nail down any way to provide a sound “solution” to the problems, and perhaps most importantly, we would be wondering how to take the first step.

Enter Probability and Proximity. While no one can foresee the future, most can clearly see that the position we find our global community in is laden with economic, socio-political, and military encumbrances that cannot be reconciled. Each of us individually must scrutinize for ourselves what we believe to be the most likely situations and how our local area will be impacted. The needs of someone in Detroit, Michigan will be significantly different than someone living in the countryside of Belgium. Again, we apply the idea of “consistency across categories” – a concept from martial artist Marc Denny – which means that we take steps to prepare for any emergency by using a combination of skillset, mindset, and tactics that are “generic” rather than specific.

The general approach is to work from the outside in – that is, from the longest, most unlikely situations first. The reasoning behind that is this: Most of the situations that are of shorter duration and intensity are precursory to the larger event, and therefore, you can eliminate the least likely emergencies and focus on the plausible ones.

It’s important to re-evaluate these considerations every so often, especially when you move to a new location or have a change in life such as a marriage, birth of a child, death in the family, etc.

For example, I believe nuclear war to be a very remote possibility at this time, but an economic collapse is very likely within the next few years; from this, we can say that the more immediate concerns would be things like riots, delays in shipments/deliveries, loss of purchasing power, and (even more ‘close to home’) increased petty crime, such as theft, assault, robbery, home invasions, and perhaps more violent crimes as well.

This allows us to “funnel” the possibilities into a simple package that we can then begin to assess.

Part II. Where to Start – Practical Preparation, Identification of Solutions

As we begin the process of identifying the “most likely” scenarios, it is of critical importance to prioritize and make a workable plan. Don’t simply buy thousands of pounds of bulk foods, stockpile ammunition, or build a bunker. These are irrational approaches that do nothing to “solve” the problem.

A common theme amongst preppers is having reserves of necessities. This is a sub-component of our just-in-time delivery system, and the need to go out and buy goods for later consumption is soon to be outdated. What we attempt to mitigate when we behave this way is another concept of shortage, in short, a microscale emergency in which we “project” that we will not have enough.

The only remedy for lack of this skillset is preparation, and has an excellent intellectual workshop here:

As you identify your needs – food, security, shelter and community – make your first step by asking the following: “What do I need to know in order to address this problem?”

The conundrum of this exercise is this: Sometimes the answer is that you can’t possibly know enough because it’s outside your area of expertise or you don‘t know where to start.

The question then becomes: “Who do I need to know in order to address this problem?” or “Where can I learn the skills necessary to work this out?”

Once you switch gears from acquisition of material to acquisition of skills, you can begin orienting yourself to mitigating emergencies.

OODA Introduction

Air Force Colonel John Byrd devised a method of analyzing how we act and react under stress. His model, known as “OODA” was a continually repeating process of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. While this process in and of itself doesn’t “train” us in a measurable way, you will notice that this is precisely how the mind thinks under stress. With that in mind, in any crisis, it’s important to recognize Col. Byrd’s contribution as an extremely valuable tool for any emergency – regardless of its intensity and duration.

With this in mind, each situation is going to require that you either use the OODA loop to assess the situation make good decisions and act upon them, or follow someone else’s lead. For this reason, training, martial arts, rehearsals, and other exercises to ‘flex’ your decision-making ability can greatly reduce the time it takes to make difficult decisions under pressure.

PACE Introduction

The military loves acronyms, and there are dozens of them available that can be easily committed to memory and used to plan in harsh situations. Like OODA, PACE is an acronym that we can use before, during, and after an emergency, and which must be occasionally reassessed.

PACE Stands for:

  • Primary – The “standard” action to be taken for the situation.
  • Alternative – An alternative plan, if some obstruction to your standard plan exists.
  • Contingency – A backup plan in case the standard and alternative plan become untenable.
  • Emergency – A plan to be used in the event that an emergency occurs during the execution of your plan.

Keeping this in mind as you plan. It will be easier to communicate and execute your plan to those in your family, circle, or community. A firm standard can help us cycle more quickly through our OODA in any type of crises. Thus, we can look at OODA like an “Operating System” on our computer and PACE as software used to accomplish our goals.

PACE is one of my favorites because it can be used for almost anything: communications plans for frequencies, routes of travel, avoiding potential trouble areas, and escaping if necessary. The “if/than” mentality that it teaches will help you remain flexible but still have a cogent set of criteria with which you can communicate with other people in a secure fashion.

In addition, it’s self explanatory – each letter corresponds with a plan that will be defined by the user. The modularity, simplicity, and utility of this acronym can be a great asset when planning.

GOTWA Introduction

The third and final acronym for this series is GOTWA. Primarily employed by military combat units, it is an outline for travel away from a known safe area – whether it’s a bivouac, firebase, LP/OP (listening/observation post), or a campsite. It can be modified for your needs to help alleviate the dangerous of traveling without high-tech communications by framing what each party can expect.

It’s important at this point to revisit Survival 101 – “Shelter.” From there, we can recall some vital information for the setup of such a camp (if you’re unfortunate enough to have to hold up while traveling), as well as procedural words, duress words, and challenge words. While I do not intend to make this a “tactical” primer, it should be understood that things like light, litter, and noise discipline will increase your odds of remaining undetected. Like proper defenses, these increase the odds of your survival, which is what this series is all about. Use this information, but be flexible! It doesn’t have to be a primitive wilderness camp – you can use these concepts at a friends home, your own home, or a spot you stop to regroup at while traveling to your destination.

GOTWA will help you address things that may be tough to consider in normal times, such as what to do if you encounter others who are starving or scavenging, hostile groups of bandits, other survivors, or procedures on how to safely rendezvous with your own group in case of splitting up. Keep in mind, for this latter situation, a well-defined PACE plan will go a long way towards securing your trip.

GOTWA stands for:

  • G – Where I’m Going
  • OOthers with me
  • TTime I will be gone
  • WWhat we’re doing
  • A – Actions upon:
    • Contact (non-hostile)
      • Base team
      • Away team
    • Contact (hostile)
      • Base team
      • Away team

While this seems boorish to even consider in the First World, it is a subject best thought about before it is needed. In almost all incidences, breaking contact – meaning disengaging communication or hostilities – is a priority. If you’re trying to return safely, getting caught up in transient affairs is a poor ingredient in the recipe for success.


While proper equipment is important, it’s secondary to your ability in every respect. If we view this as analogous to a house, having the equipment is like having the building materials. Without the skill to assemble them into a structure, you’ll find they do you little or no good. For this reason, it’s absolutely paramount that your equipment selection matches your level of skill, and as you learn and develop an increased capacity, you will want to revisit your equipment.

Over the years, I’ve had scores of people ask me, “What should I get?” and then proceed to buy something I’d found to be ineffective, practically useless or of faulty design because it was cheap, or promised a quick fix. There are absolutely no magic bullets in this world. You must invest the time in yourself – only then will your equipment provide you with the comfort you seek. Many of the tasks we could find ourselves in are as dependant on chance or fortune as they are on our abilities or equipment. For this reason, we must make every attempt to use our OODA loop to assess situations as we enter them.


One of the most underappreciated luxuries of our time is our ability to travel great distances with little or no inconvenience, cost, or risk. While I’m certain others will disagree, traveling in a “post-collapse” society will carry with it some extreme risks that in my opinion will present the most dangerous situations imaginable. In history and more modern failed states, road agents, highwaymen, gangs and hostile members of other societies or communities have used “safe passage” as a method of extracting wealth. From taxes to attacks, traveling presents a number of problems that must be examined.

Before I go further, I want to make a note that this is my belief, and a situation I think many of us think about. That said, it will be heavily opinion based and largely theoretical. Further, study of our current occupations in the Middle East will provide an enormous wealth of information on how travel-based incursions happen, how they are combated, and some of the reasons they’ll be an attractive option for those on the sides of both order and chaos.

Like our other topics, travel can be broken down systematically into subsets that have “common” elements – for example, there will be drastic differences between travel by foot, by animal, or by mechanical means. Similarly, traveling alone provides you with unique advantages and disadvantages when compared to traveling in a group. For this reason, when we plan to meet an emergency, it should be thoroughly considered.

While these situations are important, there is no specific way to predict how they’ll play out. We can loosely define our travel as either on foot or in a car, and alone or with a group.

While there is no “certain” way to judge how any of these situations could go, putting these as row and column headers in a 2×2 matrix (or Punnett Square) to plan can be a useful tool. In each box, use PACE/GOTWA to sketch an idea of what you expect and how you’ll deal with it.

Once you’ve identified the threats, problems, and solutions, you can start thinking about what you’ll need to address these concerns. As always, assess your deficiencies now!

Part III. Gear and Lines and Concepts

Most of the time, this discussion is what you hear when you hear “survivalists” consider their options. It’s the equipment – What rifle for deer? What (this) to accomplish (that)? It’s intentionally placed halfway through this article, because before we decide on any sort of equipment, it’s imperative that we shape our demands, and our demands are not equipment – our demands are skills. A set of lockpicks aren’t going to do you any good if you’re trying to escape a dead city and you can't tell a rake from a torsion wrench.

In short, our priorities are:

  1. A cogent assessment of the situation
  2. A detailed plan on what you have, lack, and need, in terms of skill set, mindset, and know-how
  3. The skills to perform the given task
  4. The tools to perform the given task

With skill comes mindset; with mindset comes tactical thinking. Therefore, when we are skilled, we can “think on our feet.” Any “tool” will do when you understand the objective. This is especially true of firearms, though it applies equally to many other things.

In the spirit of “consistency across categories, I arrange my equipment to correspond with the levels of crisis discussed above in the “Intensity/Duration” section, which is to say, each of the three “lines” of equipment meet the demands of their respective emergencies.

Furthermore, integration of each line should be additive – your line two should commensurate your first and third line. If you’re left with only your first line, you should have the mindset, skillset and tactical knowledge to “procure” any of the other items you may need.

Consider a few other points: 

  1. Try not to look conspicuous. Dress appropriately for what you’re doing. Carry clothes that are inconspicuous for your area – make sure you’re comfortable (not just physically).
  2. Don’t overload yourself. Try and stick to the target weights, or define your own as needed.
  3. Make sure your equipment is secured and doesn’t rattle. Tie it down with Paracord and make sure your pouches are secure. Zippers and velcro make noise. Buttons make less.
  4. Buy quality; cry just once. Don’t buy equipment off the bargain rack to fill a perceived insufficiency – use the skill axiom first! If you can’t over come the deficiency with just skill (such as in an emergency like a house fire), buy reliable, quality tools to augment your knowledge.
  5. Try to find objects that are “multi-purpose,” but be aware that some things will always be “special purpose.”

Often enough, people ask, “What do I need?” This, of course, depends greatly on what skills you possess, your perceived dangers, and what you’ll actually carry. That said, I will do my best to make my recommendations.

First Line
  • Method of Carry: EDC “Every Day Carry" on person
  • Target weight: 1-5 lbs.
  • Purpose: Mitigation of Immediate emergencies and violent encounters; supplementing second and third line in more protracted emergencies.
  • Components
    • Pocket knife (I prefer the CRKT M16-12Z)
    • Lighter/matches
    • Thumb drive (on key ring)
    • P-38 can opener (on key ring)
    • Multi-tool (I prefer Gerber – Leatherman pictured)
    • A notepad with pens
    • A rubber band or two
    • Safety pins
  • Optional
    • Sidearm (I prefer a Glock in 9mm)
    • A reload for your sidearm
    • A fixed blade knife (I prefer a Shivworks Clinch Pick)
    • A Paracord bracelet – deconstructed, these can provide you an amazing amount of material to use as rope, fishing line, snare wires, or thread – the limits are only in your mind.
Second Line – Kit
  • Method of Carry: Lightweight satchel or low signature chest rig
  • Note: NOT a backpack – a backpack is your third line.
  • Target Weight: 5-10 lbs.
  • Purpose: Putting emergency plans into effect; geared towards Moderate Intensity, Medium Duration situations.
  • Components
    • Water container
    • Zip Ties
    • Siphon hose
    • Spare magazines
    • Head lamp
    • Flashlight (I prefer the Surefire C2)
    • Pocket chainsaw – this is an endorsement – it rocks.
    • Snare wire and fish hooks (tied on their leaders)
    • Notepad and pens
    • Magnesium firestarting block
    • Medical kit
    • GPS/compass
    • A few pieces of silver
    • More Paracord
    • Cyalume flares
    • Water bottle
    • Idiosyncratic items (Kestrels, GPS, maps, reading material; whatever makes you comfortable)
  • Optional
    • Rifle (legal and ethical)
    • Spare magazines (pistol/rifle)
Third Line – Backpack
  • Method of Carry: Backpack
  • Target Weight: 25-40 lbs.
  • Purpose: Providing more advanced gear that supplements first and second line, and affords the ability to exist in transit for >1 week, depending on level of skill and need.
  • Components
    • Food (I prefer MRE entrees with the cardboard [for fire starting])
    • Sleeping bag or insulated blanket
    • Mylar sleeping bag and/or space blanket
    • Fixed-blade knife
    • Rope
    • Hydration system (3 Litre)
    • Plastic bags
    • Medical kit
    • Capilene underwear, shirts, and socks (2 pairs each)
    • Stainless steel or aluminum cook-set (with utensil)
    • Fishing line/hooks/power-bait
    • Water purification (tablets, Pur Hiker/Katadyne etc)
    • Canteen with cup
    • Extra items: lighters, pens, trading items (cigarettes, silver, etc)

Keep in mind that a heavier third line might include more food, water, and a better sleeping bag.

Costs and Practicality

This list may seem long and costly – and it is.

The skillsets presented in this series are meant to be the foundation that, if practiced properly, will see that your basic needs are met. It is incumbent upon you to develop those skills. 

Turning these words into practical, useful skills will require an investment in time, energy, and patience. It will cost money, pride, and comfort. But as you invest in yourself and build confidence in the things you can accomplish, you’ll see the investment return all of what it’s taken back to you.

The journey of self-development is very long, lonely, and at times will have you questioning your motives, intent, and possible outcomes. It should be harsh, painful, rewarding, and humbling.

The training you complete is an investment in your most integral asset – yourself. Budget for it as you would any other expense, and continually view it as a way to weather yourself against the unexpected challenges.

Some of the most simple things you can do are:

  1. Take martial arts.
  2. Take good care of yo