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On T.V. plenty of survivalists, commandos, preppers and celebrity survival instructors have proffered all kind of advice for mentally processing the situation you find yourself in. From tried and true classic acronyms to conspicuously “branded” and patented methodology, the info these personalities pump out for the sake of the cameras varies wildly in quality, with only a few exceptions.
One of those exceptions is Les Stroud, famously known for his one-man program Survivorman. In it, Les is the producer, director, cameraman and star, as he attempts to survive in remote locales or in plausible scenarios with no one to help him if things start to go over like a lead balloon. Unlike other “gritty” survival shows with featuring a menagerie of questionable advice and running primarily on star power, there is no one standing by with a cooler of sandwiches, a hot pumpkin spice latte, or a trauma kit. Les is the man out there alone and recording what happens.
Les has more practical survival experience than nearly anyone else on T.V., and it shows. One piece of methodology he has helped codify and popularize is the “3 Zones of Assessment” a combination of checklist and sort of mental mantra to help a survivor calm down after a bad turn, take stock of the situation in its entirety and then, only after answering the most important questions and prioritizing your needs, taking the correct action to help remedy the situation.
The 3 Zones approach is a good one, and in this article we’ll be deep-diving into the specifics so you can put it to work for you.
Fail to Assess, Plan to Fail
No plan is anything more than a mad-libbed course of action without assessment. If you do not take the time to really collect all the data points you can about yourself, your resources, the situation and the environment you can handily apply the wrong “treatment” to the problem at hand.
In a survival situation, everything counts for or against you, including doing nothing. If you immediately set on the wrong course of action you will only be making things worse, and that includes the potential of death.
Do not mistake a hasty plan with decisiveness! As the saying goes, when you notice that you are in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. A frenzied attempt at extricating yourself or rushed labor to improve your situation may do nothing more than waste time and energy. How many survivors, fearing themselves lost in the woods with night approaching hustle to chop and assemble branches for a shelter when, if they stopped to think about it, would remember that nook in the rock wall they passed just a couple hundred yards back?
The energy they squandered on a shelter when one was ready and waiting for them could have been shepherded for building a nice fire and mattress, then planning their next move.
This is part of what makes Les’s 3 Zones of Assessment approach so valuable: the very first thing he has you do is park it, take a breath, calm down and start focusing. Only once that is completed do you start analyzing and assessing the full extent of the problem, your equipment, and other things close at hand.
Mindset is Everything
Even in a comparatively straightforward disaster, one where you only have yourself to worry about, the physical, mental and emotional challenges will be considerable. Though you may be injured, or your life in danger, your single biggest threat often comes from within; you mindset, a combination of your attitude and thoughts, is the most important weathervane pointing to your chances of success.
Physical challenges can be overcome, as even an average individual has far greater reserves of strength and endurance than they know. A lack of information or knowledge can be shored up by experimentation, observation and deductive reasoning. But emotional turmoil and injury can upset your nervous equilibrium, and once the icy fingers of fear and panic have gripped tight, your thoughts will no longer be your own.
A poor attitude is just as bad, as it insidiously saps willpower. The inability or unwillingness to observe a situation calmly and in a detached manner will prevent you from taking in all the information you need. A person who cannot, or simply will not, visualize a positive outcome in a survival situation is often doomed; where our thoughts go, reality usually follows.
It is for all these reasons that the 3 Zones of Assessment both advocates a mindset check at the very outset, and further depends on you being comparatively calm, cool and collected in order to accurately and prudently make your follow-on assessments.
It has been said many times, but I’ll say it again here: stay calm, stay focused, stay alive. There is nothing to be gained from hysterics or panic.
The 3 Zones of Assessment
According to the Survivorman, the 3 Zones of Assessment are simple, intuitive to remember and apply, and are processed in a logical order, starting with yourself and the items on your person and equipage, and progressing out to your immediate surroundings and then the greater area comparatively nearby.
According to Les, before you do absolutely anything else, calm down! Calming down will help you martial your thoughts and then make decisions with a clear mind and using all available information. This is not some New Agey bullcrap; your decisions will be treading the precipice of Life and Death, so you had better get locked-on and sharp before you go off on some half-cooked plan that will only make things worse.
The 3 Zones of Assessment are, in order:
Zone 1 – Your Body, Clothes and Equipage
When assessing Zone 1, we are concerned with the status of our bodies and minds, as well as the things we have on and about our person. Objectively ascertain your condition; now is not the time for bravado and false courage.
As always, get a grip on your thoughts and emotions first. Next, start with your body: Are you tired? Hungry? Hurting? Injured? Take care to give yourself a good once over; even significant injuries may not be detectable under the influence of adrenaline. Are you hot or cold? What are you wearing? Are they appropriate to the environment?
Assess your gear: what in your pockets, pouches, etc.?
If you have others with you, have everyone perform their own self-assessment, and you should likewise assess them yourself. If you notice that someone in your party is in a bad way (fitness, injury, emotional casualty, etc.) you need to honestly plan around that limitation. Some people will have little or no gear on them. Maybe it got lost, maybe they aren’t as smart and prepared for events like this as you are.
Once all this has been ascertained, it is time to move on to Zone 2.
Zone 2 – Your Immediate Surroundings
Les defines your immediate surroundings as the few thousand square feet around you, wherever you are. What resources and gear are in that space? Vehicles like a car, raft, bike, etc.? What is the status of any vehicles, and the terrain they are ridden on? How about natural, improvised or man-made shelters? Any handy supplies or provisions, food, water, tools, etc.?
What can you take or make from the surrounding environment? Is there suitable firewood on the ground or easily procurable? Can you make use of any debris or other man-made materials? Cars and other things can be torn up or processed down for useful components, among them fabric, rubber, wire and others.
The purpose of this step is to get you looking bigger picture, taking in both the environment and what it has to offer you in your efforts to survive.
In the next phase, Zone 3, we will look a goodly ways beyond our immediate surroundings. The things we determine from an assessment of this zone will likely dictate our main survival plan.
Zone 3 – Extended Area
This zone comprises anything up to 1 or 2 miles away from your location. We are concerned with things here that can really help us survive and stay safe. Are there any buildings or settlements? How far away is the nearest? What will be the easiest, safest way to get to it? What are the major challenges in this environment? How do I overcome them safely and efficiently?
Are you able to move there directly? How soon can you get moving, and should you? i.e. are you better off waiting for a time? Can everyone in your group get there in their current condition? This includes terrain, weather and other geological and atmospheric features. In this phase you will likely remember something like a landmark that can help steer you toward safety (since, after all, you are calm, cool, and collected).
Who else besides you and your companions knows where you are? Can you say how long it will be before you are declared overdue and rescue mounted?
Les stresses that you know if your answers to all of these questions are positively true, or not. Sometimes you will not have all the info you need to make a 100% informed decision, but you must also be careful that you are not betting the farm or your hide on a scientific wild-assed guesstimate. If you don’t know or cannot answer in the affirmative, that’s ok, but you must then plan for that uncertainty or unknown.
Putting It All Together
So now you know what the 3 Zones of Assessment are all about. Logical, simple and effective. The 3 Zones methodology works so well because it is easily recalled and within a matter of minutes you will be taking in data that is actionable, meaning useful for formulating your survival plan. You won’t be sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, or thinking the sky is falling. None of that is productive or helpful.
Instead, you will be getting a grip on your emotions and taking incremental steps to get yourself out of whatever mess you should find yourself in. Let’s put it all together to see how it would hash out in a live event. The following scenario is nothing extreme or implausible, but like most life-threatening situations, it is an everyday affair that took on a new and potentially lethal context from plain poor luck or a bad decision.
For our example, let’s say you have set out on a spur-of-the-moment, easy half day hike through some of the foothills and smaller mountains of the Pacific Northwest. You weren’t planning anything hardcore, just well worn, if somewhat lesser traveled trails and switchbacks.
You brought a flyweight pack, a small bottle of water and a granola bar along with your small camera. In your pockets you have your lucky coin and a small Swiss Army knife. It is early Spring, and the daytime temps are mild. It is a beautiful morning; no bad weather is forecast.
Things are going swimmingly and you have covered quite a few miles on your hike. You passed a notification board with directions to the closest park ranger station about 3 miles back as you started your modest ascent up one of the lesser mountains of Cascadia. You take a short break at a particularly pretty overlook and sit down to enjoy half your water and the granola bar. After a time you press on.
Suddenly, you notice the temperature falling and sky darkening. A surprise storm is brewing and it has pushed a layer of dense, soupy fog down into the valley between the mountains. The air has a distinct chill as fat, cold droplets start to fall. You immediately about face and head back the way you came.
Soon visibility is very poor and the rain is torrential. You were not prepared for this kind of freak weather! Hurrying on to get back down to your car, you stumble on the now muddy trail, staggering and falling right off the trail. You tumble down the embankment, hitting your head solidly on a tree trunk on the way down before landing in a heap of bruised limbs.
Your vision is swimming slightly and your heart is hammering. You can feel the promise of a goose-egg rising on your head already. You start to gather your feet under you when a sharp, insistent jolt of pain starting at your ankle races up your leg. Oh no…
Ok, this is for real. You take a few breaths in the cold rain and begin your 3 Zone Assessment.
You have a nasty headache and a swelling bump on the head, but your vision is clear, your neck feels normal and you don’t feel nauseous or otherwise wonky, thank God. More troubling is your ankle. You can move it, only just, but it is swelling fast and the pain is very insistent. Maybe a bad sprain, maybe a fracture, you aren’t sure.
Of most concern is the cold snap and your soaking wet body thanks to this storm. You know that hypothermia will be a real threat before long. The tumble from the trail crushed your water bottle, and only a few swigs are left in the bottom. You are in pretty good shape and are decently hydrated. Your pack and clothes are dirty, and soaked, but undamaged.
You are surrounded by trees, fallen branches, grasses and other plants. The only other piece of man-made material you see is an old, grubby energy bar wrapper. You don’t have anything to make a fire with and with your lack of skills seriously doubt you could MacGyver one out of this now wet wood. You do see several sturdy branches, felled by the storm, no doubt, you could fashion into an improvised crutch or walking stick though.
No one knows you are here; stupidly, you told no one you were setting off on this little pleasure cruise and did not even leave a note. This park has a decent staff of diligent rangers, and you know there is a ranger hut an unknown number of miles away, but the sign board you saw is only a couple of miles back up the trail from here, if you can get up there.
This hill is too steep to surmount, but you remember the trail running right along the edge the whole way. If you follow the nape of the valley, it should come to a gentler slope where you can hobble back up to the trail, and from there perhaps wait for rescue or get to the ranger hut yourself.
The rain is pouring now, and you feel a few shivers coming on. You know that storms like this at this time of year are usually short and sharp, and then the weather gets milder afterward. If you can keep moving, it will help you stay warm, but you will be fighting your busted ankle the whole way.
Biting your lip against the pain, you crawl, slither, wiggle and flop over to a fresh, sturdy limb fallen from a nearby tree. It is just right for a walking stick. Using it you get to your feet you find a couple of suitable y-shaped branches to use as crutches.
Taking your new mobility aids to a rock, you sit down with your knife and, with some creative trimming and cutting, clean up the arm “saddles” on the crutches, and cut up your now useless pack to fold the fabric into pads. Not bad. You gingerly put full weight on the crutches and they barely flex. They will last you.
You stuff the pack straps in to your pockets with the knife. You set off toward the valley’s end and the trail head. The pain from your ankle is pretty rough, but you manage slowly. Another 40 minutes pass and the rain has tapered off to nothing with a promise of parting clouds and sun right behind it. You still have hours to go before sundown, mercifully: the prospect of staying in the wild through a cold spring night is not appealing.
After another 2 hours of painful, laborious peg-legging, you reach the trail head and the sign post. You gasp in relief: Ranger Station – ½ mile. Your ankle is positively throbbing now, sending pulsing ripples of agony up your leg. You sit down to rest and re-assess your condition.
You know the park staff would likely start sweeping the trails when they see your car still in the lot at nightfall, but you decide then and there that you have enough gas and grit left to make it to the ranger’s hut easily, especially on the comparatively level, smooth trail even if it is a little muddy.
You are going to make it. And you do. Before too long you reach the ranger’s hut, and are overjoyed to see the lights on. The pain from your ankle is by now quite severe, but you were careful to not unduly strain or stress the busted joint. A big glass of water and an ice pack are just what the doctor ordered. The ranger calls for EMS as a precaution and you shake your head half in disbelief at how bad things got, so fast, on such an easy hike.
As you rest and wait for the ambulance you make yourself a solemn promise to never let yourself be in situations like this again, starting with proper flight-planning, a small but well-equipped survival kit and extra water and rations for starters. Your 3 Zone Assessment definitely helped you keep your head in the game when you could have panicked.
The 3 Zones of Assessment method is an invaluable, universal system for rationally and simply making sense of your situation, identifying the biggest obstacles and then formulating the correct solution to those problems. Les Stroud knows his craft, and this easy to apply system is one of the best of its kind. Make sure you are familiar with it, and go through a few trial and practice applications so you’ll have it engrained in your memory should you ever need it.
You may not be Survivorman, but you can make use of his procedures and techniques to increase your chances of survival!