While sitting alone and trying to get warm on a bone-chilling night after grueling hours spent searching for a lost trail runner, seasoned search and rescue professional Alexander Bryant had a profound moment of clarity. If the search subject had just a few fundamental wilderness skills, this scary scenario could have been just another interesting story to share around the campfire. The lost hiker could become the hero of his own journey and dozens of SAR (search and rescue) team members would be home with their families.
“I spent ten years in the wilderness search and rescue field, leading dozens of missions to bring lost and missing persons home safely,” Bryant says. “I realized that if most search subjects were empowered with a survivor’s mindset and a basic set of skills, the dire circumstances they found themselves in could instead be a victory story of how they prevailed in their darkest hour. Since then, I’ve made it my mission to bring those skills to as many people as I can, so they can set forth into the wild armed with the knowledge that they’ve got what it takes to prevail, come what may.”
This fundamental mindset spurred Bryant to start SARCRAFT, a wilderness survival training center located on an expansive pristine property in Cherokee County. The former Eagle Scout and current Georgia Army National Guard recon infantryman knows that some skills are not meant to be learned from a book, or from the internet. There is no substitute for getting hands-on experience with a group of like-minded people under the guidance of professional instructors.
As home to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, which spans 867,000 acres and approximately 850 miles of recreational trails across 26 counties, North Georgia is ripe with opportunities for outdoor adventure—and there’s no time like the present to equip yourself for exploration.
Bryant is a pro. For over a decade, he served with Cherokee County Fire & Emergency Services Wilderness Search & Rescue Team, spending five years as a Squad Leader planning and leading field search missions. Additionally, the Certified Wilderness Responder is the youngest person to achieve the National Association for Search & Rescue’s SARTECH 1 certification, a benchmark only attained by just about 100 people in the past 25 years.
“I am hiker trash and proud of it, exploring over 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, as well as logging hundreds of miles on challenging trails from Colorado to Florida,” Bryant declares.
His training center, SARCRAFT in Canton, is a wilderness skills school devoted to spreading the knowledge of wilderness medicine, survival, bushcraft, preparedness, and general outdoor competency. They provide top-tier training seasoned with Southern hospitality, making it a point to meet students where they are. Whether you were born in the woods or have never been camping, SARCRAFT has a program suited for you.
Single mom and satisfied student Casey Brock wanted to learn more about Wilderness First Aid so that she would feel more confident taking her seven-year-old daughter camping. Brock’s enthusiasm for SARCRAFT training was inspired by her experience.
“We were fully immersed and engaged in the beautiful and rugged environment we were learning about. It was amazing,” says Brock, who has continued her SARCRAFT training in additional programs. The Women in the Wild session is taught to women by women with real life experiences. Basic survival skills are explained, and sensitive hygiene subjects are discussed frankly in the private company of women. Rest assured. This is a real training class, not a glamping forum with cool selfie locations.
Brock even signed up for an extensive two-day bushcraft class, where she camped onsite between sessions. “I learned to make fire from nothing. It was so liberating to know that I could find random items in the wilderness and start a fire from scratch. We even practiced using bear spray, so that we were prepared for the kick when the pressure was released from the portable can. I feel confident now about taking my daughter on some exciting outdoor adventures this fall.”
Bushcraft instructor Steve Mullinax turned his obsession into a profession when he accepted the role at SARCRAFT. After experiencing some feelings of burnout after his first professional career, Steve followed his natural instincts and began developing his wilderness skills when the spark returned. Mullinax was determined to learn from the best and traveled to England to hone his advanced life sustaining skills.
Mullinax defines Bushcraft as “the intimate knowledge of nature, using strategic skills for survival and self-reliance in the wilderness.” Bushcraft skills provide for the basic physiological necessities for human life: food (through foraging, tracking, hunting, trapping, fishing), water sourcing and purification, shelter-building, and fire craft.
When asked what the most essential item wilderness explorers should always carry, Mullinax recommends a poncho—preferably a brightly colored one.
“An alarming percentage of deaths in the wilderness result from exposure,” he says. “If lost subjects can avoid getting wet, their chances of survival are exponentially increased. The color simply makes you more visible.” Mullinax also suggested that backpackers carry a whistle. The small item can significantly help to alert rescuers trying to identify your location.
“You are never as close to being found as the moment you realize you are lost,” explains Mullinax. Resist the urge to keep moving. The first 72 hours are the most critical in a rescue operation. Instead, stop and wait, using your skills to find essentials to build a fire and to create a shelter to protect yourself from the elements. “The closer you are to your original trail, the more likely your rescue will be successful.”
All taught by qualified instructors, SARCRAFT classes such as Land Navigation Essentials may not only save time and frustration over trying to figure it out the Great Outdoors on your own. It might just save your life. Find the complete survival schedule online at SARCRAFT.com.
Sidebar: How to Stay Alive
There is never a guarantee that your trip will go flawlessly and without mishap. No matter how great your gear is or how well you planned, nature is unpredictable. Some circumstances, like medical emergencies, are often beyond control. But knowledge is power. Here are a few essential survival tips from SARCRAFT founder Alex Bryant to decrease your chances of getting lost and increase your chances of being found.
Complete a trip plan. A trip plan doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as a few sentences on a piece of scrap paper or as complex as a full-on National Geographic-style expedition plan with chapters, headers, maps and photos. A written trip plan should tell where you are going, how long you will be gone and who you are going with. The plan must be in writing, since spouses, friends and family members are notorious for remembering details incorrectly. Ideally, include a specific route plan with where you park to start your trip, the trails you plan to take, campsite locations, and where you plan to take out. Scheduled check-ins are advisable if you are traveling alone. Leave a copy of the trip plan with each trip member’s point of contact, so everyone is literally on the same page.
Stick to your plan. A trip plan is useless if not followed. If your point of contact back home believes with full certainty that you’re on “X” Mountain and you are actually on “Y” Mountain because your group decided to change plans, SAR teams will focus efforts in an area you did not visit. If your plans might change, include the contingency route.
Designate a point of contact at home. This is who you leave your trip plan with, check in with if you change plans, or call in the event of a problem. This is the person who will call 911 if you’re overdue and turn your trip plan over to SAR or law enforcement. Ideally, the contact is a spouse, parent, adult child, family member, friend or trusted coworker.
Stay on the trail. Tragic accidents can happen very close to the trail, especially in dense forests. The chances of becoming lost or disoriented increase dramatically without that familiar reference point.
Stay situationally aware. Situational awareness is the most underrated of all lifesaving skills. Being mindful of your surroundings as you travel through the wilderness is extremely helpful. Make mental notes of terrain changes, flora and fauna, and the position of the sun in the sky. Turn around occasionally to see what the trail looks like when headed in the opposite direction. Look for distinctive landmarks, like large boulders or unusual trees. At the instant you become unsure of where you are or where you are going, stop and get your bearings.
Bring a map and a compass. Do not bring a cheap souvenir but invest in a reliable baseplate or lensatic compass. Your map should be a topographical map in a standard scale and datum format that you know how to read. By orienting the map to the terrain, you can often determine your location without a compass. Note that Bryant does not recommend a GPS. Heavy tree cover in the summer can block the signal, just like mountains. Learn how to use navigational gear. Accurate land navigation is a skill that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning how to plot a point, shoot a bearing, and count your pace can take time, but the effort is well worth it. Reading a map is a skill that surprisingly few adults have. Be the exception. In addition to learning how to use a map and compass, learn methods of navigation without them as well, such as terrain association, using your watch, or making a sundial.