A Short Guide to Six of the Best Survival Books
The Great Outdoors can be a dangerous place when you're not prepared or don't know what you're doing. Wild animals, poisonous plants, swollen rivers, extreme weather and treacherous terrain are just a few of the hazards awaiting you in mother nature. They have the power to turn a happy outing into a desperate scramble for survival.
By acquiring the right skills and approach to planning, you can greatly reduce the risk of disaster. Preparing for an emergency and knowing what to do if it strikes are essential to enjoying the wilder regions of the world outside your home.
Thankfully there is an abundance of information available to us about how to act in a survival situation. A great starting point is to purchase a good manual. It could turn out to be the most crucial purchase you'll ever make. Here we'll take a look at some of the best survival books.
1. SAS Survival Handbook
First published in 1986, John 'Lofty' Wiseman's SAS Survival Handbook is among the best selling and most respected handbooks on the market. Wiseman spent 26 years in the SAS regiment of the British Army and is today considered one of the world's foremost survival experts.
Despite its military inception, SAS Survival Handbook is suited to soldier and civilian alike. Likewise, you don't need to be dueling with death in the extreme wilderness before the wisdom in this book becomes valuable. The handbook covers everything from identifying edible plants - knowledge that you could potentially use the very next time you leave your house! - to managing fear in emergency situations (watch the video below to see Lofty talking about fear and pain). In between, you'll find a cornucopia of wisdom that will prepare you for even the most challenging of scenarios.
Want to know how to make a raft, predict weather or break camp? Are you looking for a survival book by an esteemed expert? SAS Survival Handbook is worth serious consideration.
Pros: Author credentials: Wiseman worked as chief survival instructor for the SAS. He has been there and done it, countless times.
Cons: Might be a little bulky in your rucksack however there is a tiny scaled-down version of the book which can fit in the palm of your hand. The Oxford Gem edition would earn its cover price from a single trip to the nearby woods to look for mushrooms.
Publisher: (Revised Edition) William Morrow Paperbacks; 2009
SAS Survival Author Lofty Wiseman Talking About Fear and Pain
2. US Army Survival Handbook
First and foremost, and as the name suggests, this is a survival book written from a military perspective with the soldier in mind. If you're a newbie to mountain climbing, hiking or camping and are searching for a simple guide to keep you out of trouble in your newfound hobby, US Army Survival Handbook is probably not for you... unless you also want to learn how to stalk prey and camouflage yourself against 'the enemy'.
All the usual components of the survival genre are present - fear psychology, dangerous animals and plants, shelter, water/food procurement, fires - but US Army Survival Handbook tries to cover so much ground that it often fails to delve into the tiny specifics sometimes required by the reader for full comprehension.
This a highly technical book describing how to build and utilise a plethora of ancient bushcraft techniques and objects. To name a few: poncho donut rafts, forked-branch clubs, antitracking techniques, aircraft vectoring procedures. You'll also be partial to some intriguing tidbits of trivia. An example: Did you know that polar bear liver contains a toxic level of vitamin A? Note to those foolhardy individuals who find themselves in the unenviable position of having to slaughter a polar bear for survival: Remember not to eat the liver.
For a military-sanctioned survival book, the section on 'Weapons, Tools and Equipment' is surprisingly short but probably delivers enough wisdom to enable you to protect yourself in a John Rambo situation.
US Army Survival Handbook will make an interesting read for anyone interested in the extreme, military, long-term approach to survival. But for basic competence skills, there are better books out there.
Pros: Contains solid advice from a military perspective.
Cons: It's a little on the heavy side for your average weekend hiker.
Publisher: The Lyons Press; 2002
3. National Geographic Complete Survival Manual
If there was an award for most attractive front cover for a survival book, National Geographic's Complete Survival Guide wins hands down. Unfortunately the illustrations inside the book pale in comparison to the sexy cover. This is slightly surprising considering National Geographic's publishing arm must own some of the world's greatest wilderness photography.
Similar to Survival Handbook by the Royal Marines (see below) this book is well organised and employs many illustrations, diagrams and charts to compliment the written text. But many of the illustrations are small and of poor quality, something which may be down to the size of the book. At 5.3 by 8.2 inches and less than an inch thick, Complete Survival Manual is not strictly a pocket book although it is compact enough to pack into your rucksack. The weather resistant cover also suggests that this is a book designed to be taken outdoors.
The manual covers a wide range of survival basics, terrains and techniques but is often guilty of summarising important points when it should be lingering on them longer. This is a problem that it shares with other books in the genre - Jack of all Trades or Expert of Few?
Still, the engaging layout, weather resistant cover and broad range of survival advice make this one worth a look.
Pros: Weather resistant and small; designed to be used outside.
Cons: Unclear illustrations.
Publisher: National Geographic; 2009
4. Hawke's Green Beret Survival Manual
Act quickly if you want to purchase this cult favourite because the publisher has just announced that it is entering its final print-run of 3000 copies. And you'll need to raid your money jar too because it won't come cheap!
Myke Hawke's 640-page beast, Green Beret Survival Manual, is an authoritative yet entertaining and down-to-earth read. Drawing on his 25 years as a combat soldier in the US army and engaging his reader through chatty prose and humourous stories, Hawke has produced one of the best survival books around.
You might be thinking, 'To hell with this chatty book and its funny anecdotes. When I'm learning about survival, I want something a little more serious'. Well, rest assured. Hawke's book is serious, and deeply informative. But he tackles the subject with the casual reader in mind, decoding his highly esoteric military training for the civilian outdoorsman.
With the aid of 200+ illustrations Green Beret Survival Manual will equip you for almost every possible survival situation in almost every inhospitable wilderness on earth. Hawke is an unorthodox teacher with some remarkably imaginative solutions but the structure of this book is extremely straightforward.
Chapters are titled as thus:
- The Psychology of Survival
- First Aid
So as you can see, for all his unorthodox wisdom, Hawke remains focused on the very fundamentals of survival skill.
Pros: Absorbing and easy to read. Written by a former Green Beret!
Cons: Pricey due to limited print-run. See below for details on the cheaper version.
Publisher: Running Press; 2009
If Green Beret Survival Manual is beyond your price range, check out Hawke's pocket book, Special Forces Survival Handbook: The Portable Guide to Getting Out Alive (Running Press; 2011). You can pick up a copy for around $10.
For anyone wishing to watch Mykel Hawke in action, search for him on YouTube (see the video below) or rent the 2006 film Dirty Sanchez: The Movie, in which Hawke makes an appearance training several Welsh lunatics in the art of endurance.
5. Survival Handbook in Association With the Royal Marines Commandos
Crammed from start to finish with tips and illustrations, this handy book really breaks down the fundamentals of wilderness survival into an easily digestible read. Almost every nugget of advice has a corresponding colour diagram or chart, showing you exactly how to create the right conditions to endure even the deadliest of situations.
The design and layout of the book make for a great quick-reference guide. You can easily jump in on any page, moving back and forth as you wish. Rather than attempting to relay information through paragraph after paragraph of continuous prose, Survival Handbook breaks up topic and sub-topic into a series of boxes and tables. As a thoroughly modern educational manual, it is structured for optimal learning, allowing you time to grasp each point before moving to the next.
Among the greatest strengths of Survival Handbook are the colour illustrations which help to give clarity to the words. Take, for example, the section entitled 'Know Your Environment'. Each page comes with a cross section picture of the terrain it is describing, with arrows connecting the words to the diagram.
Unlike other books in the genre, this one will rarely leave you scratching your head. For novice and expert alike, this really is a gem of a survival book.
Pros: Illustrations and layout. This is a survival book that knows its purpose.
Cons: Size. It's certainly not a pocket book and it would take up a lot of valuable room in your rucksack.
6. Urban Survival Guide by David Morris
And now for something completely different - how to survive disaster in an urban environment.
Not strictly a survival book in the traditional sense, David Morris's Urban Survival Guide wrestles the genre from its older sibling in the wilderness and applies it to the modern city, under siege from pandemics, biological attacks, natural disasters and war.
The Cold War-era nuclear threat may have subsided but David Morris and a growing band of DIY militants still remain apprehensive about the threat of civil breakdown. From the relative comfort of our civilized and orderly lives, the nightmarish image of a city on the brink of total collapse is something that few of us can truly comprehend. Urban Survival Guide will shatter all your illusions and get you thinking seriously about preparing for the eventuality of disaster.
Structured as a 12 week course with regular exercises to carry out, this book will teach you how to:
- Assess your strengths and weaknesses.
- Secure your home.
- Create a stash of basic supplies.
- Reduce your exposure to flu and pandemics.
- Build a safe room to protect you from biological attacks.
- Assemble a team of like-minded individuals.
- Travel and communicate during a disaster.
It is debatable whether a book like Urban Survival Guide is a real necessity or simply the musings of a military-worshipping fantasist. But if you've ever been kept awake worrying about how you'll keep your family safe and healthy during an inner-city apocalypse, this book is certainly worth a look.
- Pros: A good introductory guide for newbies.
- Cons: Flagrant promotion of author's website occurs throughout the book. Lacks depth in areas.
- Publisher: CreateSpace; 2010
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- The Ten Outdoor Essentials
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What Do You Think Is the Best Survival Book? Have I Missed Your Favourite?
There are hundreds of different survival books available to buy and separating the wheat from the chaff Involves discarding another man's outdoor bible. Is your favourite one missing from this article?
Perhaps you were lucky enough to choose a book that later saved your life when you surprised a bear while hiking in the woods or lost the trail in bad weather when descending a mountain.
Comments, reviews and inspiring tales are welcome in the comments section below.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on March 29, 2012:
Thanks for your comment jimmar.
jimmar from Michigan on March 28, 2012:
I have 2 versions of the SAS Survival Handbook along with about half a dozen other books about survival. I always go back to the SAS handbood for reference.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on March 21, 2012:
Thanks for the comment Dan. I wanted to link to a couple of really good hubs for any reader who might want some basic free advice before buying a book. I read several 'survival' hubs and yours was among the best.
Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on March 19, 2012:
Great review of some of the top survival manuals; I've thumbed through a few of those over the years. I've been a fan of the US Air Force Survival Manual - it has great illustrations and it is pretty portable. Many of the reenacting books like "The Book Of Buckskinning" series also have a great set of skills that we have mostly forgotten.
Thanks for linking to my 10 Essentials hub - I appreciate it.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on March 17, 2012:
Thanks for your comment Budman.
Budman610 from Ohio on March 15, 2012:
Good Hub! I have owned a copy of the SAS guide for a couple decades!