Remembering Survival School

Remembering Survival School

survival_schoolAfter moving out to California, I started a tradition of choosing a new challenge every year. I do not have many rules around this, except that it had to be a something new that gets me out of my comfort zone. In 2010 that challenge was attending Survival School, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Although I wrote a long journal during my 2 week field course (J-81), I never published any of it. Now, reflecting on how important this experience has been, I thought I would share how BOSS helped fuel my spirit of adventure.

Boulder is a small rural town in Southeast Utah, not to be confused with the city in Colorado. Sitting on the edge of the Escalante region, this land was one of the last mapped areas in the contiguous United States, demonstrated by its remoteness and dramatic landscape. Its here that the Boulder Outdoor Survival School was established in 1968 – BOSS for short. A quick internet search for “Survival School” led me to BOSS and that same day I signed up for a 2-week field course in July.


My parents were not hunters or big fishers, and I never did Boy Scouts growing up, so I always had an interest in learning more wilderness skills. Reading about BOSS and their approach to minimalist survival resonated with me. This is not a “Bear Grylls look-at-what-I-can-do” circus – in fact quite the opposite. BOSS focuses on the native and traditional skills required to survive, and thrive, in the wilderness. “Know more carry less” is a BOSS mantra.



I am not going to give a day-by-day account of my 2 weeks, as that would tarnish the experience of any prospective students reading this. But I thought I would share a few special moments and reflections from my time that still resonate in my spirit today. In early July, after an amazing motorcycle ride from Manhattan Beach to Utah, I set out with 7 other students and 4 teachers with not much more than a knife, blanket, and tin cup.

Igniting the Fire

BOSS is not a vacation. You are uncomfortable, you get frustrated, you are pushed to mental and physical exhaustion. But its also rewarding, enriching, and transformative. My hardest moment occurred on Day 5. After a long day of hiking and bushwhacking we finally get to camp and I start working on fire for the group. I tried for a good hour as everyone else set up camp and the sun went down, but I could not work my bow drill smooth enough. My frustration grew and I began to project it on the group. I finally gave up in a flurry of anger. Exhaustion from the last four days combined with failure overwhelmed me. I did not let anyone console me and brewed in my own disappointment. I slept alone.

The next morning I climbed to the top of a sandstone cliff and watched the sun rise across the desert. I came down to find the rest of the group practicing their fire skills so I sat and joined them. One by one people ignited their little tinder bundles to the joys and hoots of the group. Finally it was my turn. First a small amount of smoke begins to rise from your drill. The smell of burnt sage hits your nose and fuels a burst of energy. Be patient. Wait until the smoke becomes constant. Keep going. When you see the coals start to pile up carefully gather them into your tinder bundle. Stay Calm. Cradle your bundle like its life and provide a steady stream of air. More smoke. Keep blowing until you are just about to choke. Poof! Flames shoot up suddenly from your bundle. Place the lit bundle into your tinder pile and slowly watch the flames catch. You have made fire!

After being cold, hungry, and thirsty for 4+ days the feeling of fire is, quite literally, a life saver. I broke down and cried out of joy and exhaustion. Everyone lit their fire that day, and for me it marked the true start of my BOSS transformation.


Simple Happiness

My favorite moment during the 2 weeks came during my solo time. I chose one day during my solo time to do nothing. To sit on a rock and meditate. I took in every sight, sound, and feeling so I can go back to that place whenever I want. That evening was clear and I sat by my fire baking ash cakes out of a small amount of flour and sugar I had left over. I gathered some pine needles and brewed some tea. Sitting there, staring at the beautiful night sky and enjoying my “tea and crumpets,” I found myself absolutely content. My life is often busier than I’d like, and that instant of perfect happiness demonstrated how rewarding living simply can be.

For as much as I have thought about this moment over the years, I have never actually pin-pointed the location where I spent my solo time. As I sat down to write this post, I got out some topographic maps of the area and fired up Google Maps. Based on the photos I took with my camera and remembering our trek during that time, I was able to find the general location. I built camp in a small clearing with a downed tree, likely the result of a lightning strike. It took another few minutes, but I was able to identify this exact tree by searching satellite views of the area! It feels fulfilling to finally know where this location is, and I hope to one day return on my next pass through Utah.

Finding Balance

After reading through my journal from my time in the field, I noticed a strong theme of balance throughout my writing. I had a lot of time to think during my two weeks. Survival situations are not spent jumping from cliffs or chasing down rabbits for dinner. Far from it, one should actually conserve as much energy as possible in such a scenario. Given BOSS’s focus on the mental, you find yourself with a lot of time to think and reflect. This was a welcomed reprieve from the distractions of the all-too-normal over-stimulated always-connected life. My solo time was really a turning point during my two-week field course. I went from surviving to thriving. Even though we were hiking 10-20 miles each day and our feet were degrading like a pumpkin after halloween – I was in great spirits those last few days.

One of my last journal entries reads: “This adventure has not been life-changing insomuch as it has been life-enlightening.” It is an extreme experience, to be sure, but not just in the physical exertion. You are exhausted and uncomfortable physically while at the same time acutely aware and introspective mentally. It is a very unique and satisfying feeling to achieve balance among these extremes.


Gaining Confidence

You learn a lot of skills in your time in the field, but the most important take-aways are not qualifiable. I have not made sausage from scratch since BOSS nor have I used my bow drill to make fire, but the confidence I have gained has become a constant. In my post-BOSS life I have continued to adventure, with many solo trips I would have never thought of doing before this experience. The two-week field course is not cheap, but the mentorship and safety provided by your instructors is more than worth it. I never could have gained this confidence on my own, and for that I am eternally grateful to the staff of BOSS and their mission.

I have enough stories from these 2 weeks to fill 5 more posts, but instead of reading all of that you should go to and sign up for your own course.