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Q&A with survival skills expert Leon Pantenburg


Timothy Martinez Jr.

Lost In The Woods recently had a discussion about the importance of survival skills with Leon Pantenburg, who runs the fantastic site Survival Common Sense and teaches survival courses. To learn a number of indispensable survival skills, check out his site.

What made you interested in learning about and teaching survival skills?

I am a working newspaperman and because of covering various emergencies and disasters over the last three decades, I was exposed to a whole lot of people in bad situations because they did not have any survival skills. You have these situations with intelligent people doing stupid things, but they couldn’t help it because they didn’t know any better. I kind of got interested in that because it seemed like such a waste. A little training would have helped a lot of these people.

How did you learn about survival skills?

In 2006, James Kim was headed back to San Francisco after visiting central Oregon, took a wrong turn and died from hypothermia trying to rescue his family. About a month earlier a snowmobiler got lost and died about 10 miles out of town. Both of these situations triggered a new task for me and that was to write a survival guide.

My boss said to write a survival guide for central Oregon and he said what I want you to do is treat this as an investigative assignment. I did and that was published in 2007. Along the way, I did a lot of research and found that much of the information that’s available is wrong. Many times it’s taught by people who don’t have any particular skills and I was just amazed at the amount of misinformation that’s available.

I have also gone hunting and wilderness backpacking and have been studying wilderness survival for many years. I have spent a good deal of time in wilderness areas, and learned many of my skills by observing and doing.

Why is it so important to have survival skills?

If you look at the East Coast right now or look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you can see that people can be in a survival situation in a matter of minutes. It can happen in an instant. Many of the people who didn’t do too well in Hurricane Katrina are in a survival situation and need to learn skills like how to make a shelter.

In your experience covering survival topics, what is the most extreme case where survival skills saved someone’s life?

Typically, that’s not the kind of thing we get in the news business because when we have someone who is saved by survival skills, they’re not a story. They’re just someone who had an uncomfortable night out. We’ve had several situations where someone has died and there’s one man whose body has still never been recovered.

If you could only take three items into a survival situation, what would they be?

If I’m out in the wilderness, one would be a good survival knife. I would want a fire ignition kit and that would be a magnesium stick with cotton balls of Vaseline. Then I would want about an 8 by 10 tarp. The tarp could be used for shelter, improvised rain gear, as a water container and a myriad of other things, which can be found at my website.

Have you ever found yourself in situation that warranted survival skills?

It’s a qualified yes. The situation could have developed into a survival situation if I didn’t have the correct tools. The closest I came to a serious situation was the time I fell into the Mississippi river and had to swim downstream to get out because an ocean liner was going by. When I got out it was very cold and I started to get hypothermic to the point where I was almost out of it.

I had to rely on what I learned years earlier, which is that you don’t lay down. You just keep moving, dry off and get back to your stuff. It was hard to think because of the cold and my core temperature had dropped down. Normally, people who get in survival situations have gotten into them because of some mistake.

What are the key survival skills every camper should know?

Information is the best thing a camper can take with them. Know where you are. Know what the risks are for that particular area. If there are problems with bears, know about that before you go. If there is the potential for a flash flood, be aware of where the exits are and how to get out of it.

Everybody should have a survival kit with them and at the bare minimum, it should include a whistle, some way of signaling, a large garbage bag for shelter, In general, training is more important in this situation than all the gear you take along because if you don’t know how to use the gear, it’s of no value to you.

For more tips on key survival skills every camping family should know, Leon Pantenburg recommends you read his post A Survival Guide for Kids (and parents, too!).