Wilderness Survival: A Field Practicum

Mike Trimble
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


This activity is an experiential education exercise. Maximum benefits in long term retention of knowledge, attitudes, and skills can be achieved with this type of learning technique. Emphasis is placed on students being in the active role. Problems are presented for solving, rather than facts given to be memorized.

The survival practicum places students in a position of total immersion within a local wilderness area. A greater knowledge of one's self as well as for the world around them, provide students the opportunity for reflection, appreciation, and respect for nature. Maturation of values and a greater environmental conciousness are primary outcomes of this exercise.

The philosophy of this module is "Homeostasis of the individual, both psychologically and physiologically, is the key to sustaining homeostasis of the planet". - John Michael Trimble


Provide students hands-on field-testing of authentic applications from principles pertaining to:
A. Develop a positive, can-do attitude with a high degree of self-reliance that is transferable to human interactions outside of the wilderness experience.

B. Provide students the opportunity to solve problems effectively through proper planning and preparation, logical reasoning as modeled by the scientific method, improvisation, understanding and control of emotions (e.g. fear, panic) in dealing with stress.

Students will experience adverse environmental conditions which they will strive to mitigate and in turn maintain body homeostasis of thermal regulation, water balance, and metabolism.

Students will be an active participant in the ecological web of a given ecosystem. The habitat will provide adequate space, shelter, food, and water based on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes acquired by the student.

Field Research Techniques-
Students will be confident and competent to conduct scientific investigations regardless of environmental conditions.

Students will develop their own personal code of appropriate practices for use of natural resources from their region and of the planet itself.


The field practicum should be the culminating activity after extensive classroom and laboratory instruction and preparation. It is the application phase of your learning cycle for this far-reaching topic. Students should be well versed in the following areas before attempting an overnight solo exercise:
  • pre-trip planning
  • weather
  • flora and fauna of area
  • shelter construction
  • edible plants and animals
  • where to find and retrieve water
  • problem anticipation and analysis
  • ability to start and maintain fire
  • psychogenic factors
  • first aid
  • hypothermia
  • heat stroke and dehydration
  • improvisation
  • navigation
  • signaling
  • poisonous plants and animals
  • outdoor ethics

Practicum Design:

The orignal field exercise was designed for an overnight solo experience in the central mountains of Arizona. Each student is escorted to a different "assigned area" where they must survive until "rescued" twenty-four hours later. The student must build a shelter, collect firewood, start a fire from flint, construct a solar still for water collection, keep a journal, and perform observation exercises. Students directly apply knowledge and skills acquired earlier to a new and challenging experience. Students are monitored throughout the experience by the instructor and teacher assistants on foot and horseback utilyzing radio communication.

This original format may be modified to meet the needs and capabilities of your local conditions. Even a day trip will effectively evaluate some of the stated objectives. In all cases, thorough planning and communication with parents and school authorities is highly recommended. Remember, this is a survival training exercise and not a true wilderness emergency. Your own preparation and dedication will help to ensure this condition is maintained.

Materials Needed:

In the original model, each student is only allowed a one pound home-made survival kit and the clothes on their back. No additional food, water, sleeping bag, or extra clothing are allowed during the actual exercise. Criteria for survival kit contents should be based on versatility of function, size, and mass. Suggested items in the kit might include:
  • matches
  • mirror
  • plastic drop cloth
  • compass
  • pencil stub
  • balloons
  • water purification tablets
  • boullion cube or hard candy
  • flint
  • dental floss
  • whistle
  • razor blade
  • cigarette paper
  • wire
  • aluminum foil
  • needle
Contents should easily fit into band-aid box with drop cloth wrapped around outside.


Successful completion of practicum should be followed by extensive debriefing and critique.

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