Author, adventurer, photographer, and all around wilderness expert. Scott B. Williams has truly been there and done that. He has traveled the world, living in some of the harshest climates known to man. All the while, practicing wilderness survival skills, learning what works and what doesn’t. His new book, BUG OUT, which I reviewed here, is part discussion on assembling a comprehensive bug out bag, and part travelogue of the best areas for bugging out in the United States. Scott was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions.
You have spent a considerable portion of your life in the outdoors, living off the land in a wide range of locations and climates. From your personal perspective, where did you have the toughest time? By that, I mean where did you find it the most difficult to obtain what you needed to survive?
It’s hard to rate one type of environment over another in terms of difficulty of living off the land, as they all present their own unique challenges. Of course, growing up in the Deep South and being accustomed to hot weather and sub-tropical conditions, I’ve found it easier to adjust to places like jungles, tropical seashores and islands and the deserts of the Southwest. For me personally, some of my trips in the high country of the Rockies, for instance, demonstrated that it would be difficult to survive there unless you really have your skills honed, especially in the cold months when you have the constant threat of hypothermia and food is harder to find. On the other hand, many of those cold locations are plentiful with big game, so if you have the means and the skill to take a larger animal and can preserve the meat before it spoils, you could be set for awhile. But these environments are not as easy to just walk into and start foraging and hunting small game as some of the other regions of the country.
I think we can all agree that knowledge/experience will usually trump gear/gadgets. The latest whiz bang gizmo may be all but worthless without the knowledge to operate it and an understanding of the principles behind it. With that said, there are certainly many pieces of equipment out there to help make a bug out situation a little easier. Any recent innovations you’ve come across worth mentioning?
I’m generally against gizmos and gadgets, mainly because they will likely fail when you become dependent upon them. But as long as it’s working, I particularly like things like the compact hand-held GPS units that are now available pre-loaded with detailed topo maps. Such a device can give you a lot of confidence and more freedom to travel in really trackless wilderness with the assurance that you can get where you’re going, even at night. I like the fact that I can locate an interesting point in some swamp or mountain area I’ve never been to at home in advance on the computer, then plug in the coordinates and use the GPS to go right to it.
Another useful gadget I like a lot is my Casio Pathfinder 1500 multi-function atomic watch that has a built-in electronic compass that has proven extremely accurate. The watch is solar-powered, so it never needs batteries, and it includes a barometer and altimeter function.
Another fantastic piece of technology that is incredibly useful for those of us who go to sea in small boats or kayak remote coastlines is the hand-held, reverse-osmosis desalinator, which enables one to drink seawater and has saved many lives of those stranded on life rafts or in similar situations.
You’ve mentioned your preference for a machete over a large sheath knife both in BUG OUT and on your Bug Out Survival blog. I find this interesting as it is a unique perspective in my own studies of survival texts and I tend to agree with you. Could you explain to our readers why you have such a high regard for having a machete in a bug out bag?
Again, having grown up the jungle-like hardwood bottomlands and swamps of the Deep South, I have been around machetes all my life, and have long recognized the need for a blade that is big and heavy enough to quickly cut a path through briars, cane brakes and other thickets that would otherwise be difficult to penetrate. I also spent some time in my younger years working on a land-surveying crew, where we frequently had to cut thousands of feet of sight lines every day through these kinds of obstructions. Then, after that I saw the endless and creative ways the natives of Central America and the Caribbean use the machete and then tried some of these myself. I have found no tool that can substitute for a good machete. It’s lightweight, easy to carry, mostly maintenance free and can double as a formidable weapon.
One of the topics you address in BUG OUT is the fantasy versus reality of living off the land. I feel this chapter should be required reading for anyone entertaining thoughts of heading for the hills in a bug out situation. In your experience, what are some of the most common fallacies people have when it comes to roughing it in the wilderness?
People seem to fall into one or the other extremes: those who think they can head out in the wild like Tarzan with nothing but a knife, or a mountain man with a rifle and a bag of salt; and those who have formed the opinion that it’s absolutely impossible for any modern human to live off the land and without supplies to last months or years survival is hopeless.
I wrote Chapter One to address these ways of thinking and present my opinions. I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that a bug-out bag is a guarantee of success and that by having it they will be able to just head for the hills and find the living easy. That’s why throughout the first part of the book I stress skills over stuff, and suggest extensive planning, location scouting, and even trial runs and test trips to sort out the gear in the bag and practice the skills.
But one big reason I wrote the book is to open people’s eyes to just how much uninhabited land there is all around them, even in a heavily-industrialized nation like the U.S. I wanted to present bugging out to the wild as an option and show that it can be done with the right skills and gear, and that there is hope, and you don’t have to just give up if you don’t have or can’t afford a well-stocked retreat somewhere in the countryside. No survival plan can be guaranteed to succeed. But those who are open to all the options will have a better chance than most.
What would you say are the three most essential things to include in a bug out bag?
This can vary with the region you live in, of course, but it’s always helpful to remember the “Rule of Threes”: 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food, and plan accordingly.
1. Shelter from the elements – at minimum a parka or poncho – preferably a good tarp and sleeping bag as well.
2. A reliable means of making fire.
3. Enough water and high-energy food to get you through the first part of the crisis and sustain you until you can begin trying to find more of both in the wild.
At the back of BUG OUT, you have a fairly extensive recommended reading list. If you could only pick two or three books to suggest concerning wilderness survival, what would they be?
The one that went with me on all my long kayak trips and many other excursions was How To Survive on Land and Sea, by Frank C. Craighead, Jr. and John J. Craighead, Naval Institute Press.
There are many newer ones that look good too, especially John “lofty” Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook.
It will be different depending on your region, but I always suggest a guidebook to the edible and useful plants of the area you will be traveling through or bugging out to.
You have an extensive background in kayaking, canoeing, and boating in general. From a practical standpoint, would you recommend that mode of travel for a bug out situation?
Absolutely, assuming your are already in a region with navigable waterways such as streams and rivers or estuaries and the seacoast. A boat can immediately take you out of reach of the much larger percentage of the population that does not have a means to take to the water, and get you to places where you will be inaccessible to many that might want to cause you harm. The places it can take you will also offer better resources for living off of the land by virtue of their inaccessibility without a boat. The other advantages of course, are that you can carry more stuff, depending on the vessel, and you can use it for hunting, fishing and foraging once you get to your bug-out location.
I’m partial to boats of many types because of my extensive experiences with them and the many miles I’ve traveled unnoticed, even through populated areas. Bugging out by boat is not for everyone, but if you’re willing to put the time in to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, it could be one of your best options.
Any new books on the horizon? What’s next for you?
I’m working day and night on my next survival-related book right now. It will be published by Ulysses Press as well, and is scheduled to be released in February, 2011. The title as of now is: Would You Survive?: The 13 Deadliest Scenarios and How Others Got Out Alive. The book will be a mix of fictional scenarios that puts the reader in each situation, and real-life accounts of some of the most harrowing survivor’s tales in recent times. The goal is for it to be both entertaining reading and informative at the same time.
I’d like to thank Scott for taking the time for this interview. If you’d like to learn more about him, you can find him online at the following links.
BugOutSurvival.com – his survival blog
Scott’s Boat Pages – his blog devoted to boat building, sailing, kayaking, and other on the water pursuits.