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When it comes to survival guides, there are a lot of options on the market — we reviewed a (literal) handful of pocket-sized guides back in Issue 15. Each of these publications takes its own approach to the subject, with some specializing primarily in bushcraft techniques, first aid skills, or response to a manmade or natural disaster. In some cases, this specialization can be beneficial, but there are also times where an extremely broad overview of a large variety of survival techniques is essential to establish baseline competency. Such is the case for the U.S. Army Survival Field Manual, also known as FM 3-05.70.
This Army survival manual was published in 2002 to replace the previous edition, FM 21-76 (published in 1992). FM 3-05.70 is 17 years old now, but don’t write it off as outdated — there’s still much we can learn from this 676-page document.
Keep in mind that it was designed to provide a comprehensive primer on survival skills to soldiers, many of whom would have minimal combat or survival experience by the time they laid hands on this book. It’s therefore written with easy-to-understand language, clear organization, and a structure that escalates from basics to more advanced and specialized scenarios. Some elements of the Army survival manual are primarily relevant to members of the military, but the majority is applicable to any civilian survivalist.
Anyone who has served in the military can tell you that acronyms are plentiful, and this document is no exception. The very first chapter opens with an easy-to-remember survival acronym for the tactics recommended throughout the manual: S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L. The introduction states, “This manual is based entirely on the keyword SURVIVAL. The letters in this word can help guide your actions in any survival situation.” Essentially, all 676 pages of FM 3-05.70 are summarized — at least in a broad sense — by these eight points.
Below, we’ll analyze each point for its applications to a civilian survivalist, and provide a few links to additional articles that can help you learn more about topics related to that point.
This point covers the importance of observing three sub-points: surroundings, physical condition, and equipment. By analyzing these, you can determine the level of threat they pose, which will help you decide the urgency of your situation and the next steps you can take.
In many cases, your situation will be leaning towards the less desirable side of this spectrum — and if it isn’t yet, it very easily could be as the survival situation continues. Weather may change, your health may deteriorate, and your equipment may get lost or broken. Sizing up the situation immediately will at least let you know what you can do next, and how fast.
This letter in the acronym is a two-parter. The first part is essentially re-stating the importance of observation in a more specific sense — use your sight, touch, sound, and even smell to give yourself an advantage. Watch and listen to your environment to detect threats (such as a human enemy, animal predator, or incoming storm) or opportunities (game animals, edible plants, water sources, signaling methods, or escape routes).
The second part is a timeless phrase that reminds us that moving too fast can make your situation worse. In a survival situation, you want to react swiftly and decisively. You don’t want to sit around aimlessly or brashly rush headlong off a cliff. Find the happy medium.
“Remember” might not be the best word here, since you need to do more than think about past events. We’d say that “Re-establish” is a more appropriate R — you need to periodically gather information to orient yourself.
If you have a map, compass, and basic land navigation skills, you can determine your location and your proximity to other important points. This enables you to safely plot a course to safe areas and water sources, as well as avoid dangerous terrain or other risks. You should check your position frequently to ensure you didn’t veer off course.
In situations where you don’t have a map and compass, you can rely on various celestial navigation techniques to determine a rough direction based on the position of the sun, moon, and stars.
One of the biggest threats you’ll face in any survival situation is your own mind. We’ve all seen people freeze, make rash decisions, or lose their composure in stressful situations — these are natural human behaviors that must be overcome through focus and training. If you’re able to accept that fear is natural and use it as a motivator rather than a stumbling block, you’ll be well on your way to staying alive.
The Survival Field Manual puts it simply: “Our easy-come, easy-go, easy-to-replace culture makes it unnecessary for us to improvise. This inexperience in “making do” can be an enemy in a survival situation.”
Improvisation covers a number of tactics. You might use an existing resource for an alternate purpose, such as a length of paracord as a friction saw, a bottle of household bleach as a water purifier, or a ceramic mug as a knife sharpener. You might take a broken item and use its underlying parts for other purposes. Or you might take natural materials and craft new tools from scratch.
Beyond gear, improvisation also refers to your ability to go with the flow and come up with creative solutions to problems. Studying outside-the-box techniques and developing critical thinking skills can help you tremendously in this area.
This point sounds almost laughably obvious — you should value life if you don’t want to die?! We never considered that!
Don’t blow this one off. Maintaining the will to live in a situation that may feel unlivable is far from funny… or easy. An absolute, stubborn, unyielding refusal to give up and die is hugely important in a survival situation. In fact, many would argue it’s the single most important characteristic. There are many cases of individuals who, based on all the facts, should have died many times — but they didn’t because of their powerful will to live:
Even if you’re absolutely miserable, hopeless, and convinced that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, don’t give up. Embrace the suck and live another day.
As we’ve said many times, much can be learned by observing a region’s native population and studying their history. Those hardy people became experts at surviving in their environment because they had to. Also, in most cases, they did so with far fewer resources than you have — no electronics, no synthetic clothing, no store-bought tools, no modern maps or compasses. If they managed to live off the land by hunting, trapping, gathering, and making their own gear, you’d be a fool to ignore what they can teach you (directly or indirectly).
In practical terms, this might mean studying Native American shelters, Siberian fire-sustainment, or even the actions of the homeless or vagrant population in an urban environment. It also applies to animal behaviors, since these can help you learn about nearby food, water, and predators.
Last but not least, we have another two-part survival acronym section. “Live by your wits” may sound like you’re flying by the seat of your pants, but it actually refers to trusting your instincts. Natural instincts aren’t always beneficial, as we previously stated, so they often must be replaced through training and repetition. That brings us to the second half of this point.
“Learn basic skills” — or as the guide puts it, “but for now, learn basic skills” — reinforces the importance of active education. You won’t learn much if you don’t bother to study, and that can take the form of reading (you’re already on top of this one), watching videos, listening to podcasts or audiobooks, or talking face-to-face with experienced peers. But above all, you’ll need to get off your butt, get your hands dirty, and learn by doing. Seek professional instruction and test your skills frequently in realistic conditions — only then will you achieve true confidence in your wits.
Survival is never as simple as memorizing an acronym — if it was, you wouldn’t need to practice or train outside a classroom. Some of these eight points are more relevant and thought-provoking than others, and even if you know all of them by heart, putting them into action is a much greater challenge. However, studying the U.S. Army’s survival acronym can get you thinking about areas you need to improve upon, and help you build a well-rounded mindset and skill set. That way, when the time comes, you won’t be struggling to remember what the first V stood for — you’ll instinctively apply the underlying principles to any real-life survival situation.