Survival fitness – what is it and why it’s vital for any survivalist
When it comes to survival, the most important factors are not the ones you carry in your backpack. What’s usually the defining line between survival and death is the skills and abilities in your body and mind. And while we’re trying our best to help you with your know-how, skills, and preparation, your physical capabilities are up to you. This is why you need survival fitness.
We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies about the grizzled war veteran who survives for weeks in the wilderness with nothing but his grit and determination. They are always as inspiring as they are terrifying as they show us the absolute limits of human abilities. The thing that’s usually left unspoken, however, is that to reach those limits you must first train your body for years.
What’s different about “Survival fitness”?
When we say “survival fitness” we’re not talking about some new and innovative way of training. It’s not a unique contemporary technique nor is it some ancient fitness or martial art.
Survival fitness is any type of exercise routine that prepares your body for survival in the wilderness. This may sound like an obsolete thing to worry about at first – as if survival training means you should just make sure you’re in a good shape. It’s much more than that, however.
There are many different types of fitness with different goals and practices for each.
Powerlifting, for example, is a strength-building fitness that focuses on three specific types of lifts: deadlift, bench press, and squat (1).
Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is based on a series of progressive resistance exercises with the goal of controlling and developing your musculature for mostly aesthetic purposes (2).
Crossfit is a high-intensity interval training that focuses on strength and conditioning exercises with their intensity being the focal point of the exercise (3).
Similarly, survival fitness has the goal of preparing your musculature, body, reflexes, and skills for the dangers you may encounter in the wilderness. There are many different things survival fitness focuses on such as:
- Having a strong grip so you can climb or hold on to things.
- Having the endurance to trek for a long time.
- Being able to sprint if in danger.
- Swimming is another key skill you’ll need to train for in your survival fitness routine.
- Having the upper body strength to chop and cut wood, to break stones, to carry an injured friend, or even to defend yourself.
- And others.
A lot of the exercises in a survival fitness routine may overlap with exercises in other fitness disciplines too. That’s normal – many different types of fitness share some similar exercises and practices. But how you do them, how much you do them, and what’s their goal – that’s often different.
Why is survival fitness important?
In a nutshell, if you find yourself in the wilderness, your fitness level will be more important than anyone or multiple items you might have brought with you. Knives, food & water, shelter – those things are crucial, but if you can’t trek for a long enough time, if you can’t climb or swim your way out of a tough spot, or if you can’t run away from danger – you’ll quickly find yourself in a lot of trouble.
Do you need a professional trainer or help?
All the exercises we’ll mention below are things you can do on your own. That being said, having a basic fitness culture and understanding is going to be of a lot of help.
Knowing how exactly to lift heavy objects without risking an injury is one of the first things fitness trainers teach you. Knowing how to run safely, how to swim in open waters, how to hang or climb without damaging your back or falling – these are all things you can read about and learn by yourself but are best taught by a trainer.
With that in mind, our general advice is to work with a trainer at first until you know what you’re doing. Several sessions with a regular fitness trainer can save you a lot of pain and potential injuries down the line, and give you a nice start for your solo survival fitness routine.
Another point, while we’re on the subject of professional help, is to consult with a medical professional before you start doing anything too intense. Just check your lungs, check your heart and cardiovascular system, and check your overall health. The exercises we’ll talk about below may be basic at first glance but as you keep venturing into heavier weights and tougher challenges, you’ll be pushing your body to limits it may not be healthy enough to handle.
What are the best exercises for your survival fitness routine?
There are thousands of different types of exercises you can try, all designed to boost one aspect of your musculature or another. The 12 exercises we’ll mention below are not the only ones you can include in your survival fitness routine but they are some of the best ones we think you should consider.
We’ll divide them into 4 different categories – 1) cardio & general fitness, 2) strength build-up, 3) grip strength, and 4) practical skills. As with most fitness skills, a lot of them will actually belong to more than one group as they are multi-purpose exercises, but those groups are generally what they’re best for.
Best cardio and general fitness exercises
In the wilderness as in Zombieland (4), the first rule is always “Cardio”. You can have all the strength in the world but if you get exhausted after a quick 5-minute jog, you’re not getting far. Cardio and general fitness exercises are not just about endurance either, however. They’re about overall health and a basic fitness level which would allow you to master any other physical skill and exercise.
1. Rope jumping
It may not be the manliest-looking exercise but that’s irrelevant when it comes to survival. Rope jumping is one of the best exercises for pulmonary and cardiovascular conditioning. It also does wonders for ankle strength which is crucial for survival – ankles are very easy to twist and break in the wild and you must prevent that at all cost. What’s more, jump rope is also great for core strength, mobility, and grip & shoulder strength.
Sprinting can be practiced both outsides and on a treadmill. It’s great not only as a practical skill but as a way to condition your heart for adrenaline bursts. A good way to practice sprinting is training for 5 to 9 miles per hour short sprints – they don’t need to be longer than half a minute at first but you should focus on practicing them a lot.
Burpees are one of the best all-around exercises in most fitness routines and for good reason. They exercise almost all muscle groups, improve your cardio, and are a great way to start your daily routine. You can start doing ~10 at a time with the goal of eventually being able to do 100, at least three days a week.
Burpees can be done in many different ways but the basics are that you 1) start in the upright position, 2) squat to the ground with your hands touching the ground in front of your feet, 3) jump your feet back together while tightening your stomach to avoid back injuries. The goal here is to end up in a push-up position. Then, 4) do a push-up, 5) jump your feet back below you, 6) lift your torso back with your stomach tightened again, and 7) jump straight up. Then, just repeat that as many times as you want/can.
Best strength build-up exercises
Strength is a pretty self-explanatory thing – you need it to lift and carry things so you must build it up. A lot of fitness routines only focus on building a moderate amount of strength, however, and are designed to give your muscles size rather than power. This can sound weird at first, but there is a difference between building volume and building strength in your muscles (5).
The simplest explanation here is that doing fewer but more intense exercises builds strength while doing more but less intense exercises build size. Naturally, for your survival training, you should care less about the volume of your muscles and more about their functionality.
The plank is another full-body workout exercise and it’s especially good for core strength build-up. You can practice it on any flat surface which is great, and it should be practiced at least three times a week. Planking is the simple practice of standing in a horizontal position above the floor on nothing but your elbows and toes.
It’s important to make sure your back is straight and your shoulders are above your elbows, not behind or ahead of them. You can start with 30-second planks but the goal is to eventually start doing 5-minute planks at least three times a week.
2. Tire flipping
Moving and flipping a tractor tire is not only an amazing strength-building exercise, but it’s also a lot of fun. 5 sets per day with 10-25 flips per set are great and about a minute rest between sets is the goal you should strive for.
As you get stronger and better you can look for heavier tires but even just for your first tire, you should make sure it weighs at least 100 pounds. Tire flipping is also great practice for moving boulders in the wild.
Speaking of fun exercises, hitting a tractor tire with a sledgehammer is right up there. It’s great for arm and shoulder strength but it’s also a cool way to practice tool use such as breaking or cutting through something in the woods. The fact that it’s a great anger-management exercise is just a bonus. Of course, remember to be careful with the hammer and to take breaks between every set of 10-25 hits.
Best exercises for grip
This section may seem oddly specific at first, but having a strong and secure grip is one of the keys to survival fitness. It’s also one thing most other types of fitness training don’t really pay much attention to.
Your grip strength is crucial for your survival in the wild, however, as it will help you do many different things. With a strong grip you can carry items and resources, you can climb, you can fight better, you can carry a friend, or you can chop wood and work on a shelter. In short – almost everything you’ll do in the wild will require a strong and secure grip.
1. Rope climbing/hanging
Holding yourself off the ground on a rope is a very good way to exercise your grip strength. Rope climbing is also good for that but you can focus on a rope hanging or pulling at first if you want. Doing 10 sets of pulling yourself up a rope for 30 seconds and resting for 15-20 seconds after that is a great way to build grip strength.
2. Pinch grip
Practicing your pinch grip is also crucial as you’ll often need this skill in an actual survival situation. All you need for this are two 15- to 30-pound cinderblocks which you must pinch with straight fingers for at least 30 seconds as you carry them around. With multiple practice sets, you should be able to build up your grip strength to a point where you can pinch grip a 30-pound brick for up to 90 seconds while walking around the yard.
3. Dead hang
The dead hang is another classic grip exercise similar to rope hanging. The difference is that here you’re pulling up on a rod that’s perpendicular to your hands and not parallel. Start with 15-second hangs and work your way up to 60 seconds. After that, you can start practicing moving across the rod while hanging and other exercises.
Best exercises for practicing real-life survival
More skills than just exercises, these three practices are great in many different ways. They help boost your overall fitness and endurance while also teaching you three of the most important skills you’ll need in the wilderness.
1. Swimming (in both pools and open waters)
With most of the planet’s surface being water, swimming is one of the most important exercises for survival fitness. At first, it’s a good idea to start with pool swimming where you can safely practice the several main styles of swimming. Once you’re comfortable enough, however, it’s important to move on to open water swimming so that you’re 100% prepared for any aquatic survival situation.
Climbing is another practical skill you’ll need to master if you want to do actual survival training. First, you must build up your core and grip strength, however, as well as your general fitness level. After that, you can start going to indoor or outdoor climbing walls where climbing trainers can help you with the basics. It’s a perfectly safe exercise as long as you have a professional by your side and even if you stop here, it will still give you a lot of preparedness that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
3. Long-distance jogging (with weights)
This is a great cardio workout but we’re including it here because it’s also one of the main things you’d do if you ever find yourself having to survive in the wild. Remember to not just practice jogging in the local park but to stuff your backpack with something heavy and jog that way. The key here isn’t sped but endurance.