Dealing with extreme situations: A lesson from the UK military’s chief survival instructor John Hudson
As far as survival credentials go John Hudson’s aren’t too shabby. Having written the UK’s joint services survival training manual, not to mention revising the RAF’s memoir found in all military aircraft survival packs and advising on the UK SERE (Survive Evade Resist Extract) training film, watched by all service personnel off overseas, you could just say he know’s what he’s talking about! A resident expert on Discovery Channel’s Survive That, he’s put his serious credentials to the test in the most extreme environments the planet has to offer, from the Arctic to the Atacama Desert. The MALESTROM caught up with John to talk about all things survival.
The MALESTROM: How did it all start for you in terms of taking an interest in survival skills?
John Hudson: I’ve always liked the outdoors. Growing up in the Northwest (UK) we’d be out and about building dens and all the usual stuff you do as a kid. I used to do a lot of hill walking on family holidays, in the Yorkshire Dales and similar places, that started me off for the outdoorsy bit. Then I’d always wanted to fly, so once I joined the Air Force you have to do some survival training, like teaching you how to not die of you’re camping without a tent. I really enjoyed it; I’d be the odd bloke that would volunteer. So mainly through the Air Force, getting into it because I loved it.
TM: How key is the fitness side of things when it comes to survival? And how important is the mental element of things?
JH: You have to have both physical and mental fitness. But the thing it all hinges around is the mental aspect, you can be really fit physically, you can have all the right equipment, you can be in a relatively good situation once the dust has settled, but if you haven’t thought what to do about your stuff, if you haven’t prepared your mind that things can go wrong, then you can just sit there and ruminate on negative events without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and that could be the end of you. Fitness is great, it’s always helpful but you can always work within your own fitness. Don’t be put off getting out if you’re not fit yet, get out there, because then you’ve got the benefit of getting fit while you’re doing it. Slow and steady wins the race in survival; it’s not about sprinting, climbing trees or any of that monkey business.
TM: You often hear the phrase adapting to survival, how important is adapting to the environments you find yourself in?
JH: Brilliant question. That is absolutely critical. The key thing when I teach and look at historical examples of those who can and those who can’t survive, what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is that flexibility. To not stick with a thing if it isn’t working and learning and adapting. So yes adapting is absolutely key, the final phase of any military exercise or event whether in the real world or wherever, the critical part is the adapting bit at the end, and we always feed in lessons identified to improve performance.
TM: What’s the most testing environment you’ve been to?
JH: I’ve been quite lucky, I’ve been to all extreme environments. I’ve managed to go to deserts, arctic, jungles… the one place, the hardest place to survive is the sea. Especially around our islands, we are in a nice part of the world, we’ve got a lovely Gulf Stream warming our shores, but the sea temps in the UK are only about 10 degrees in the summer and if you fall into water that’s colder that 15 degrees you are going to die unless you can get rescued. If you can’t float, after about ten minutes in cold water you will not be able to swim, that goes for Olympic athletes, not just me and everyone else. Your muscles will get cold, you’ll fail to swim. Even if its warmer waters, you look at guys that have been shipwrecked in the tropics, unless they’re out of the water, because the water’s still colder than their bodies, it’s the same situation. If you look at the genesis of my training, we didn’t have survival training in the British military until the Battle of Britain. It’s Battle of Britain day in a couple of weeks (15th September), in 1940, eight out of ten pilots that went into the water, British guys, they probably survived being shot down cause they opened their parachutes, they could drift on the silk, but if they didn’t get rescued from the English Channel, eight out of ten died because the cold water killed them. It’s the silent, lethal killer that surrounds. Sadly most people that do drown are within ten feet of safe refuge.
TM: What’s the most life-threatening situation you’ve found yourself in?
JH: Most of what I do is very, very risk managed. I mean I’ve been up with the Canadians at -65c, it was colder than Mars, if you don’t know what you’re doing you would be dead very quickly there, but with most of what we do we have an excellent pre-plan architecture with us, so we mitigate the risks and don’t stretch our luck.
TM: Tell us a little about the book you’ve been writing…
JH: It’s about translating those skills, because a lot of what you see in the media is a little bit misleading, maybe not glorifying it, but making it seem impenetrable, like it’s really difficult and beyond normal people which is totally not true. So what I’m trying to do is not generate another survival manual of which there’s a bazillion of, but rather translate and simplify some basic principles that you can then apply, not only in the outdoors, the first obvious selection, but in everyday life, so the day-to-day application of all these practical skills.
TM: Give us an example of a technique we could implement into our lives, maybe for dealing with stress?
JH: That’s a great one. A really good takeaway is one most British people are probably already doing, they just don’t really know the science behind why it’s so good. One of the key things we all do if confronted by something unusual… so my sort of students would be fighter pilots who eject out of aeroplanes over enemy territory, that’s pretty unusual. They’ve thought about it beforehand, which is great, they’ve possibly done a bit of physical training which is awesome, but on the day something goes wrong they will still have the same reaction as our species have had for Millennia. They’ll go into that fight, flight or freeze type reaction. All the training we do pushes them towards behaving appropriately and doing the right thing in the context, but we’re hardwired to react in certain ways. So if something goes bang in the outdoors world we’ll have the same set of likely responses.
Equally it’s the same process if you go for a job interview, or something that’s going to put you under a little bit of psychological pressure because it’s important to you. So the same stuff happens, it just that the majority of people I teach happen to be in multi-million pound fighter jets that have got ejector seats, but the same brain chemistry applies. The important thing is what actually happens to our bodies and our brains. So our bodies will release loads of hormones and things at that moment, to try and make us more effective, because we’ve been attuned to jumping back from snakes on the African savannah, now that process is what we’re going in for as we’re running really old software. One of the key chemicals released is called cortisol, what cortisol is there for is to allow us to translate latent energy in our system into rapid burning of fuel so we can do that fight, flight more quickly, more efficiently. Unfortunately for us going to a job interview, when you dump cortisol into your system, it clouds the ability to think and do executive functions at the front of your brain. So the bit of the brain that psychologists have zoned into is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, in other words the front of your brain.
Now when you’ve got this fight, flight, freeze response going on, or something stressful or unusual happens like a job interview or an earthquake, the front of your brain is clouded. That means you can’t perform novel or unusual tasks easily or as effectively if you weren’t stressed out, and that is exactly the wrong place to be in if you have to come up with novel answers to questions at a job interview. So, what you need to do is get as much stuff out of your system as you can beforehand, it’s kind of like de-stressing. There’s loads of different ways but one of the techniques I use is to chew gum, because the opposite of fight, flight and freeze is rest and digest. By chewing gum you’re fooling your body into thinking I’m still strolling out on the ancient African savannah, you’ve caught your antelope, and now your sitting in the shade under some pretty Acacia tree, and you’re chewing the food you’ve managed to cook by the fire. So chewing gum has been proven to lower your cortisone levels, it can be effective when driving in traffic, it pumps blood to your brain so can help you think quicker. I don’t recommend you stroll into your next job interview with a massive lump of bubblegum in your mouth, but by doing it beforehand, or by mimicking that chewing action that will help. The other one, which is particularly British, is if you drink a cup of tea, that is hugely beneficial.
TM: The tea technique makes a lot of sense …
JH: The thing that not everyone knows the detail of is, obviously tea and coffee both contain loads of caffeine, that will fire up the front part of your brain and make it perform better, which is good, it’s counteracting the unhappy hormones that are kicking about. The downside to coffee is the way that the caffeine is released is that it comes in a big hit, a bit like when you get a sugar rush and crash later. Your caffeine from your coffee will make you perform well over a short period and then it tails off. A cup of tea on the other hand has something else in there called L-theanine, which kind of drags out that beneficial caffeine thing for longer so you get that buzz and uplifting performance to last for a bigger window.
TM: Of course every environment is different but what one piece of survival kit would you recommend to anyone undertaking a challenging trip?
JH: Ok, so this is going to sound unglamorous, a lot of people will say you need a brilliant crocodile-skinning knife. You can probably use a penknife for most things. One of the most useful things you can take is a big plastic bag, because even if you get piss wet through, if it chucks it down with rain and you haven’t got the right gear on, if you climb into a big plastic bag that will keep you warmer than a lot of expensive stuff. It’ll keep you as warm as GORE-TEX bivvy bags. Not being able to regulate your body heat is the thing that’ll kill you, so if you get too hot you’ll die, if you get too cold you’ll die, and that’ll happen far quicker than running out of food, so there’s no point chasing round trying to catch snakes and all that stuff like you see on TV. You can do all sorts of things with a big plastic bag; you can buy them in camping shops for about a tenner, the orange ones. Also, the best thing you can do is to get some first aid training, because if you don’t know how to address little issues like applying pressure to stop a bleed, you will die before you get around to building dens and lighting fires.
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TM: There’s a lot of tech survival kit available now, do you think we’ve all become too reliant on technology?
JH: Its part of the human condition, we are incredibly inventive as a species and we’re always coming up with novel solutions to exploit the best technology and I think that’s fantastic. I’d much rather live in a world with smartphones and medicine than be bashing stones together to light a fire in a cave. I don’t doubt in the past people would be having the same chat bemoaning the new fangled compass that we’re using for navigating rather than the sun, so I’m not going to get a downer on smartphones. What I would say is to make sure you’ve got backups, so don’t be over reliant on tech, don’t place all your eggs in that basket.
TM: How can we all be a bit more self-reliant?
JH: I’d say the best thing is to put a little bit of outdoor time in each day. Don’t be a slave to the car, the TV, or the Internet. Notice the stuff that’s around you in your environment because that will increase your self-reliance by making you much more situationally aware, which in turn makes you less vulnerable if your out and about in the city or any rural space. If you’re walking about with headphones on, all the time you’re isolating yourself and missing potential cues to save heartache. Just by being outside, doctors and scientists have proven being in green spaces more regularly is the equivalent of boosting your income by about 20k. The kind of health benefits from time in green spaces is huge.
TM: Food is obviously very important, is there a general rule for knowing what might be safe to eat in the wild? Or is it the case that you need to know your stuff?
JH: It’s a bit of that. There’s no sort of silver bullet. The first thing is don’t eat fungi. I teach new instructors, the blokes who are going to train other survival instructors and I do a fungi lesson for our guys where I teach them a few easy to identify edible ones, but we will never ever teach students edible fungi. So don’t start sniffing and licking stuff that’s growing in the wild, because even in the UK there are some plants that grow near the streams, that you don’t have to eat much of and it will kill you. Get it wrong and you will die, no comebacks, it’s that serious, so don’t f**k about with the wrong plants. There are some plants all British adults and schoolchildren can identify. So nettles, easily identifiable, a great plant for eating and much easier than trying to catch creatures that are going to run away. If your not a practiced forager you’ll expend more calories trying to catch things, so we teach a really simple process, go for the easiest first then incrementally only start aiming for the harder to catch things if you have the time and resources and don’t waste energy doing it. So go for plants first. We teach instructors to just pass on five 100% identifiable plants and expect students to know three, and we teach the stuff that grows all round the world. So nettles, as they grow all over the place, another really good survival plant is a bulrush, or what planty people call Typha latifolia, it’s the one that grows by water that has what looks like a big cigar on the top. That’s got loads of carbohydrates in the root, but more importantly finding this plant is a good indication of water and you can get the plant while gathering liquid, you’ll survive for a few weeks without food but only a few days without water. There are pitfalls to all these things; you can miss ID things if you’re not 100%, so there are a few things you have to know. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet.
TM: Have you got a hero or someone that inspired you in this field?
JH: There have been a few really interesting survivors form the past. There was a bloke who worked in Malaysia in the Second World War called Freddie Spencer Chapman, he is awesome. Essentially he evaded the Japanese for three-and-a-half years behind their lines in the jungle, living off the land working with the locals and while he wasn’t doing all that good survival stuff he was blowing up trains and shooting down armed convoys, so he’s a bit of a legend. When you look at how he saw the landscape it was his psychology that won the day, because a lot of people over there were overwhelmed by the closeness of the jungle. I love the jungle, but it’s one of those places when you first go it feels oppressive. It’s close in the atmosphere sense and in proximity. You don’t see the sky, you’re hot, sweaty and bothered, you initially look at it rather than through it. But once you’ve been there for a couple of days you really start to tune in, and it’s not that oppressive at all, it’s just another place to get used to. And here’s this guy knocking around in the jungle for over three years getting involved in crazy capers, a bit of a legend (laughs).
TM: You’ve worked with plenty of celebs in your time, who was the most capable and who wouldn’t be best left wandering off into the Great Outdoors?
JH: There wasn’t really anyone that wasn’t cause what I always try to do is to make everything as simple and as easy to digest as possible. The quickest person I’ve worked with to pick it up who was incredibly sharp was Teri Hatcher. It was the first time she’d been in this region of the UK (The South West), and initially it was just how it would be if we went to a different continent, unfamiliar.
We took a walk across Bodmin Moor, one of the things I teach is natural navigation, so finding your way without map or compass, and within a couple of days of this walk, we did about seven miles, no map or compass, just the open countryside and maintaining a consistent heading and the natural cues you can use to do that. At one point in this small valley, where there was no real distant horizons or landmarks, just the sun the clouds and the way that the grass was growing I said to her can you point towards your house in Los Angeles, and within about three or four minutes working out what the cues meant she pointed to L.A. within about 10 degrees, which is pretty good going. So it all depends on how enthusiastic the individual is and how into it they get.
The most rewarding people to teach are the ones you know that can actually use it. A few years ago I did a lot of work with a charity called Shelterbox. They’ve got small teams who go out all over the world if there’s a disaster, they turn up and start to go round the area looking for the neediest spots, and then after doing those sight surveys deliver aid in these green plastic boxes that’ll keep a family going for a short period of time. Working with them is dead good as you know you’re going to go somewhere where the infrastructure has already collapsed, so there’s a real chance that if their vehicle breaks down in the back of beyond they could be living out of their rucksack for a couple of days, so they’re the most likely to need to use it.
TM: How did you find doing your Discover Channel series Survive That?
JH: It was a really good laugh. I worked with a great team behind and in front of the cameras. The guys and girls behind the scenes were just incredible, total ninjas, they’re the people you don’t really appreciate just how much hard work they’re taking on. Like it’s not just the guy shivering in front of camera, it’s the bloke who’s got to cart all that clobber with them, all that camera kit. It’s easy to make good time across broken ground not carrying anything but if you’ve got to lump a load of stuff with you that’s hard work (laughs).
TM: In the show basically someone is being dropped off in an extreme environment who has survival skills and they have a set amount of time to get to a rendezvous point?
JH: That’s it. There’s a bit of a game element to it, it’s good cause one of the strongest motivations you have is to not make a complete cock of yourself, and here you have your mates watching you via sat links who are scrutinising you. And they all have a different viewpoint on the topic, which I thought made it interesting. You know that anything you do is going to be picked apart and the s**t is going to be ripped out of you. Also I’ve been teaching survival for a long time and I got to the point in the RAF where I was training the UK’s instructors, so you have to be on top of your game, but if there’s a couple of million sceptical people watching it on telly who have instant access to Google fact checking everything that comes out of your mouth you have to know your stuff, so I found it really good for focussing the mind to do all the right things in the right order. Also your taking kit to use in the worst environments, so when I get back to training I can tell students hand on heart this will do well in Alaska or this will do well in the jungle.
TM: Obviously a lot has been said around fakery in survival TV, whether with Bear Grylls’ shows or others. What are your feelings on that?
JH: It’s a funny one. I think there’s a misunderstanding between what is a lesson, so what is life skills being taught and entertainment. It’s when the boundary is blurred too much that people get the wrong takeaway from it. So a lot of the stuff that’s on telly is just purely there to entertain, if people start to think that this hosepipe of stuff that’s coming out of their TV is actual lifesaving factually correct information then they should probably take a minute think and wonder whether it’s actually there to sell advertising space. I don’t want to sound cynical as a lot of it is great, but you can’t beat getting a second or third opinion of it rather than getting it all from the same place.
TM: Finally is there one piece of survival advice you live by?
JH: Performing well in an adverse situation is just about mental preparation. So if you can have a think, even if it’s just for a nano-second about what you would do if, then you’re factually proven to be likely to perform better if something dodgy happens. It may sound boring comparing it to a fire drill, but if you’re on a plane going on holiday and the steward or stewardess is taking their time to explain how the fire exit works on an aircraft then listen to them, that guidance is there for a reason. Similarly if you’re walking through a strange city don’t put your phone or wallet in your back pocket, have it in the front, think ahead, not everyone out there is there to help you. Think about what could go wrong and would might happen if it did. It’s all about the mental preparation.
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