Crucibles in Survival Practice: Part I – Man in the Creek!

johnaheatherlySurvival, Survival Skills

This three-part series discusses the use of Crucibles, or self-tests, in survival training. The Crucible concept includes the acquisition and practice of a new skill-set (today’s example includes fire-craft) and then the testing of the skill-set in a pre-designed scenario. Crucible scenarios require a training partner or team to monitor the safety of the trainee who is being tested. The following is a description of a Crucible used in military survival training, and is an excerpt of The Survival Template by John A. Heatherly.

Man in the Creek!

Years ago I participated in a training program that required proficiency in building “man-in-the-creek” fires. The exercise started whenever someone uttered the words “man in the creek,” and the objective was to build a knee-high fire as quickly as possible. The intent: to develop efficient fire-making abilities so that if someone fell in the creek during the winter they could be warmed up and dried out before the effects of hypothermia became deadly.

For months we honed our skills and lowered our times from about an hour to less than five minutes. The man-in-the-creek contest evolved into an event that we looked forward to rather than dreaded.

One early spring afternoon our Instructors tasked us with the chore of gathering massive amounts of firewood. As we worked, we wondered why such an effort was necessary, as we had been in the field for a week with no such requirement.

After our firewood stash grew to about the size of a mini-van, we were ordered to practice our “trouser floats,” a water survival technique that involves using a pair of pants as an improvised flotation device. The technique could have been considered fun, but in this case a glacier-fed river served as our training environment. After more repetitions of trouser floats than I can recall, shivering and other signs of hypothermia began to set in. An eternity of cold-soaked misery passed before an Instructor said the words, “man in the creek!” The fight was on!

A few minutes of bedlam ensued as eleven hypothermic trainees tumbled out of the water in search of yet more firewood for their “personal” fires. Fortunately a few of us were able to get knee-high fires going, and then later enlarge them using the previously collected mini-van sized stash. Some were so hypothermic that they just stared at their pocket knives and shivered. The rest of the afternoon was spent warming up and drying out.

The man-in-the-creek exercise took on new meaning that day. We regained respect for cold water and the dangers it presented – and also a confidence boost in our acquired skill-sets.

Warren Bennis, a prominent researcher in the field of leadership, would call our fire-building exercise a “crucible experience.” According to Bennis, this type of transformational experience is “both an opportunity and a test. It is a defining moment that unleashes abilities, forces crucial choices, and sharpens focus. It teaches a person who he or she is.” Bennis argues that effective leaders must survive at least one intense, transformational event to maximize their effectiveness…

Self-designed Crucibles

Again, safety is a concern when developing and using Crucibles, so include training partners in the practice and designate them as observers during the process. Crucibles and self-tests do not need to be extreme or life threatening to be effective. It is better to make the test a game with a set of rules. For example, after practicing the skill of fire-building for some time, use a stop-watch to gauge efficiency and speed in building a knee-high fire. Use different methods as part of the practice (matches, lighters, metal-match strikers, etc…) to determine what works the best.

As always, keep the Crucible experience fun and safe while using them to develop confidence and self-sufficiency.

Coming Soon! Part II: The Three Day Ruck Rule