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Advanced Survival After Action Review (AAR)

Advanced Survival After Action Review (AAR)

"Adversity in the wilderness is not just a challenge to be overcome; it's a conversation with nature, a dance with the elements, where each step teaches us about both the world and ourselves." – Anonymous.

How does a cup of water at Waffle House give a person a good perspective on an Advanced Survival course in sub-zero temps?  Read on to the end to discover how and why this is true. 

I have just returned home after a weekend class in which I led a group of students in our Wilderness Safety and Survival – Level 2 course, which most people would term an advanced survival course.  I was assisted in teaching and leading this course by Davy Black and Clayton Woirol, members of the NRS Instructor Cadre.  This one course, in particular, was challenging because of the weather conditions.  We started the class with a solid 4-5 inches of snow on the ground, with more falling as we arrived for class and set camp for the first night.  We got a local report of -4 degrees at our location Saturday morning.  Temps stayed in the single digits until we left around noon on Sunday.  I am writing this as an After-Action-Review (AAR) for the weekend.  Please note that some of what we do in class needs to be private as the surprise is part of the course.  So expect some generalities rather than specifics as you read on.  That will include not utilizing the names of the students who attended. I would love to tell you more about them as they did exceptionally well, but they come to class to learn themselves, not to be the focus of my written or video content. 

  • Executive Summary

In the arsenal of Nature Reliance School classes, this one is intended to take the person who has taken our Level 1 course and start to introduce stress inoculation to the mix of the class material.  We do this during the testing phase of Level 1 courses, but this course is intended to do this throughout the entire course.  We schedule these when the weather in Kentucky is most likely difficult, and if the weather proves to be comfortable and not challenging, we introduce stress in other ways and methods. 

  • Objectives and Intentions

This course aims to do a three-day survival course with 25 lbs or less in the bag.  We purposely do not tell the participants what to bring in this course.  This aims to ensure that the participants spend ample time thinking and analyzing their gear choices without our help.  With that said, we spend ample time in the Level 1 course teaching participants what gear works and what gear does not work. 

  • Activities and Actions Taken

Before the class occurred, members of the NRS Instructor Cadre Davy Black, Clayton Woirol, and I spent several days doing risk assessment and risk analysis based on who was coming to class and the weather conditions.  Most of our classes are taught in a very remote location with one-lane roads in and out.  We decided on Friday to change the location for the course based on this issue.  The site itself was fine, the roads to and from were of great concern.  We opted to go to another location in Winchester that we use for classes as it offered good roads in and out and a firehouse with medical staff within 5 minutes of our location.  Nearly all NRS instructors have basic or advanced wilderness first aid training, but we wanted backup to be close by with the conditions being as severe as they were. 

When students arrived, their packs were weighed. All the instructors weighed in around 30-35 lbs, but that was with extra cold weather gear and first aid items for students if they needed them.  Before adding extra safety backup items, all instructor kits came in under 25 pounds.  There were four students in total.  Two of their packs were in the 23-lb range, and the others were in the 13-pound range.  The two that came in at 13 were attempting to push the limits of the mindset with minimal gear.  Our students can do this because we have ample backup methods, supplies, and facilities.  If something does not go well, we are on top of it quickly and correct it.  That was needed, and we are glad they tried to make it with a minimal kit. 

On Friday night, we also killed and processed several quail.  It was cold enough that we did not have to eat them that night, as everyone came to class hydrated and fed.  Taking the life of an animal is something we take very seriously at NRS.  I think it is a good thing that people find it challenging to do, while at the same time doing it with intent and focus to get it done quickly and humanely.  The students did not let me down with them overcoming the issues needed to get this done.  In my personal opinion, anyone who is going to eat meat of any kind should be, at some point, present at the taking of the life of an animal.  It offers a person a direct connection to our food sources and the realities of it.  It is hard to take food sources for granted after doing such things. 

Clayton and Davy stayed up most of the night, keeping the fire going as a backup to help the students.  The students had been given a surprise when they got there, and the fire was a backup for that.  It came into use, and we were thankful for Clayton and Davy keeping it going.  Clayton got maybe an hour of sleep, and Davy not much more than that on Friday night.  Servant leadership like that is the hallmark of NRS instructors, and I am very thankful for it because I got to sleep most of the night without interruption.  That kept me fresh and able to think critically and offer the decision-making needed to simultaneously keep things educational and safe.  Another indicator of how the instructor cadre working as a team helps me to “be the man.”  I could not do it without their support. 

We woke in daylight and built the fire up for warmth and warm drinks.  Some students had bouillon cubes or packets; others had coffee or cocoa.  It was nice to get warm fluids to help the warm-up process.  We moved on to making stick bread.  That was an extra “nice” surprise to help the students get positive reinforcement for being out there.  I also brought butter, jam, and honey with the stick bread.  Everyone was pleased with how they turned out, and this little treat is typically a pleasant surprise to help people get their heads back on the right.  We have done this with stick bread, and sometimes we make canteen cup cobblers in the backcountry.  Whatever we do, it is a nice treat.  It's similar to what you hear from military folks when they make the craziest of conglomerations dished out of MRE meals. 

We also took the time to source and build split-stick figure 4 traps.  We set one up as a demonstration on Sunday, but did not intend on utilizing them for this class.  We did this around the fire as manual dexterity was problematic due to the cold.  We would work for a while, warm, and continue in that manner.  I made it very clear at the outset of setting up shelters, gathering wood, and other activities that getting hot and sweaty could be seriously problematic.  They worked steadily to get much work done without getting too hot to cause problems. 

We also ate the very frozen quail on Saturday.  We roasted this on sticks over the fire with added Pink Himalayan salt, Slap Ya Mama, and Red Hog Seasonings.  We had to thaw the quail out in canteen cups to get them on the sticks to cook, which took quite a while but was worth it.  These quail were delicious, tender, without seasoning and cooked right over the fire. 

From there, we discussed the weather and experiences through the previous night to plan for the next one.  Again, this is very vague on purpose, but the first-night surprise makes life very uncomfortable for them.  The second night, we wanted to change that up and offer a better night’s sleep.  So we spent ample time discussing different sites for the next night where we would all be camping together.  We looked at piles of snow on trees and the ground to determine prevailing wind patterns; we paid attention to the sun and its arc to know where it would offer the best warmth for us.  We then went to three different site locations and discussed the pros and cons of each location.  The instructors did their best to stay out of the discussion to help facilitate discussion, teamwork, and critical thinking in the students.  They did this excellently and chose an excellent site for us to set up. 

Everyone there gathered firewood to burn through the night on Saturday night.  We built “super shelters” for everyone there (more on those in the next section) and had a central fire for everyone to feed from.  We set up a “star” fire setup with long pieces extending out from the center so any group member could wake up and push pieces into the fire without leaving their bed, which did not work out well.  We all set up about 5 feet from the fire and should have been around three instead.  When the fire was fresh and big, the shelters worked great, but they did not offer much-added warmth when it died down to regular fire.

On Sunday, we got up, warmed up with drinks and such, and did a “woods walk,” where we took advantage of the snow to track some animals to see behavior as a means of setting up traps. We could see the squirrel “super highways” that I speak of often, which emphasized the proper location to set up traps for them.  We also went to water areas and saw many tracks compared to other areas, which again emphasized the need to find water for our needs and animal locations for hunting, trapping, etc. 

  • Gear and Equipment Used

There was an extensive range of equipment used.  I did not recognize all the brands present, but I will mention those that I did notice.  There were two Hill People Gear Packs, one KUIU  carried by instructors, one student with what looked like military surplus gear, and the others had basic molle enhanced packs of about 30-40 liters.  There was one Tuff Possum Gear Satchel, there were several Tuff Possum Gear Pads and pouches and atleast one TPG scarf used throughout the weekend.  I had a KY Handcrafted Bag to carry class supplies and a KY Handcrafted Seasoning wallet that added great taste to the quail we ate on Saturday.  There was a mix of sleeping bags ranging from the black cold weather bag of military origin (two of those were used), one Outdoor Research, two others I do not know what they were, and two students went sans sleeping bags and pushed the limits with just “woobie” style ponchos.  Sleep pads included Klymit, Thermarest, and one Nemo and others I am usure of the brand.  Everyone who used a sleeping pad did ok; those who did not experience issues.  One student also had a bivy, which is excellent if you don’t have claustrophobia.  If you do, they can prove to be problematic.

Knives were one Shemanese carried by me, a bushcraft blade by LTWK, one G10 handled Lulbegrud, another American Chestnut handled Lulbegrud, two Mora companions, and one custom handmade job with what appeared to be curly maple handles (it was gorgeous by the way).  One student used his leatherman during class to do various tasks, including pulling hot canteen cups out of the fire.  Davy used his Buck pocket knife to do some tasks.  We used a silky saw and one condor saw for building the traps and cutting firewood.  I used a Stihl chainsaw before class to prepare some firewood for them and did some more while we were there.  I felt getting plenty of wood to deal with the drastic temps was necessary. 

Most everyone wore a similar clothing setup.  Some poly or synthetic base layer, with merino wool socks, pants, “puffy” type vests or jackets, under neath more robust insulating coats.  One student had coveralls, which works well other than when bathroom needs arise.  Davy, who is a very accomplished deer hunter and woodsman, had on his hunting-insulated bibs and a matching hunting coat over a puffy layer.  I saw him take off his coat regularly to cool off when doing work then put it back on when we slowed down.  That is a sound system.  (I pay attention to what woodsmen who spend much time outdoors do).  Clayton also had an NRS hoodie with an insulating coat over that. 

Boots: all three instructors wore Muck boots.  Two were uninsulated (our toes sometimes got cold), and one was arctic level. His toes did not get cold.  All of us kept dry feet through the weekend.  One of the students also had muck boots on (I heard her mention cold toes several times), and the others had lace-up leather or mesh mixes, all of which were some form of weather-resistant.  One student who had solid leather on had cold toes quite a bit.  That was rectified by walking and getting near the fire.  When I put my muck boots on Sunday morning, they were frozen solid, and I had a lot of difficulty getting my foot inside them. 

Everyone had either poly or wool-wicking caps.  One student wore an NRS ball cap.  Most everyone had something to cover their faces, from bare face covers to shemaghs or scarves.  All the instructors had beards, and we had lots of ice in our beards and mustaches that stayed the whole weekend other than our time in the super shelters.


On Saturday night, we all built super shelters, as mentioned before.  The late Mors Kochanski made these well-known in the outdoor community, but I am unsure if he is the originator of the idea or not.  They are basically a convection oven for humans to get into and stay warm.  We built lean-to structures with ropes and trees and one tripod that we staked down.  We then used reflective tarps on the inner “ceiling” of the lean-to.  Clear plastic was draped over the front, and some extra on the top.  We used bank line, paracord and duct tape to do this.  The duct tape did not work well in the cold, and it is one to remember for the future. 

  • Analysis of Results

I don’t think I could have been more pleased with the results.  Some challenges were complex to overcome, and some led to using backup redundancies we set in place for safety.  More than one person admitted that quitting was considered more than once during the weekend, but those people found the mental fortitude to set that aside and carry on. 

  • Strengths and Successes

No one in class got close to hypothermia.  The planning of instructors, the planning completed by the students, and their desire to push through the problems with intelligence (not brute strength or will) were inspiring.  We had one teenager who was quite simply inspirational to each of us.  She did not complain but spoke up when things were uncomfortable, so suitable changes were implemented. We all did that at times, but I pointed it out here because it is uncommon for a 13-year-old to engage in training under such extreme conditions.  I genuinely think she helped us be strong in the face of adversity. 

One of the students stepped up and got minimal sleep on Saturday because he kept the fire going along with Davy.  This allowed Clayton, who got no sleep the night before, to get some rest and for me to get ample sleep.  I got up early to take us into the last 3 hours of sleep so they could all get rest. 

  • Challenges and Areas for Improvement

The apparent major challenge was the cold.  I often have ample areas we could improve upon, but honestly, I don’t have many for this class.  That comes from several years of teaching this in similar conditions and being surrounded by a tremendous instructional staff in which we dreamed up all that could go wrong and had answers for those problems ahead of time.  When challenges arrived we immediately went into fixing it that was seamless rather than problematic. 

  • Lessons Learned
    • Duct tape does not work well in cold weather
    • Muck boots freeze in cold weather and are hard to get on. 
    • Take a pea bottle to bed so you can get quality sleep.
    • A schedule for a fire watch is essential when a fire needs to happen.  We did this, and it worked well.
    • As soon as you get snow on the material where it sticks, get it off.  You don’t want snow melting on you and staying when you must stay outside for a few days or several hours.
    • Our training in Level 1 prepared these students well for this training.  Although lessons learned here should be emphasized in those classes.
    • We did not need water filters and purifiers because we were surrounded by clean water in the form of snow.  However, it takes a lot of snow to get usable water.  Several of us did this through the weekend; others brought water for the weekend.  It took about ten scoops of snow into a canteen cup to get the same cup full of water after it melted.
  • Recommendations

I cannot emphasize enough how vital ground insulation for bedding is for this type of training or recreation.  Get one with a good R-value rating.  They are more costly but worth the investment.  Keep them away from a fire because embers will burn a hole in them.  That did not happen in this class but has happened previously. 

Dressing in layers with a good-wicking base layer is an absolute must.  Various types of gloves were used but also thin gloves on hands in pockets are a way to get things done. 

Take your time working in cold weather so you don’t get overheated.  Also, take breaks to relax.  I forced us to do this three times during the class because I felt we were in such a good rhythm that we were about to get hot and mentally exhausted.  I felt the need for no sweat and not getting mentally beat down outweighed the need to complete specific tasks.  This is hard for the “go-getter” types when they are part of your group, but you must make it happen as a leader. 

  • Supporting information

Here is a video with no additional information showing some pieces of the weekend.  This is not intended for further distribution or viewing outside of this blog.  It is unlisted for that purpose. 


  • Cup of Water, Final Lesson

After the class the whole crew went to an area Waffle House to enjoy a hot meal and just some relaxed time before we all left to return to our everyday lives.  As we were leaving, one of the students picked up his cup of water took a drink, and remarked how nice it was to have that cup.  He had just spent the weekend melting several canteen cups of snow to get enough to stay hydrated.  It was not lost on me that this was the ultimate lesson from the weekend.  We do these types of things to prepare ourselves for bad times, be self-reliant, and build our mental conditioning for hard times.  All of that is true.  But we also deal with adversities of this nature so that that comfortable couch, that cup of water, a warm bed, or an All-Star Special at Waffle House is that much sweeter.  Something not taken for granted.  Another student said that that weekend was an exercise in meaningful suffering.  She said it perfectly. 

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