As the climate worsens and the plot thickens on the global political stage, survivalism has morphed from a laughable fringe group of tuna can-hoarding preppers with Y2K-era bunkers to a legitimate mainstream interest. For many, the kind of disaster that requires a sealed-off panic room looms more realistic than ever before—and Shane Hobel, the founder of Mountain Scout Survival School in Upstate New York, is reaping the benefits of this mindset.
At Mountain Scout Survival School, which is located about an hour north of New York City, Hobel teaches urbanites of all stripes how to conquer just about any apocalyptic situation, and how to build true fitness for those scenarios by altering your diet, your exercise routine, and most importantly, your state of mind. Hobel says enrollment has been at an all-time high over the past eight months.
“Nobody trusts the government,” he says. “Nobody trusts the police. In any of these situations, nobody trusts any of these organizations. All the students come to me and say, ‘I don’t trust the systems in place. They seem to fail constantly; it’s full of sh*t. We really have to get back to the basics.’ They want to be self reliant.”
The term “survivalist” dates back to (at least) 1976, though the movement has mixed origins—partially a hippie-motivated back-to-the-land thing, and partially a racist-paramilitary thing. Many credit the term to the works of Kurt Saxon, a former American Nazi Party member who began publishing a monthly newsletter about pioneer skills and technology in 1975; he called the movement “survivalism.” These days, survivalists come in all shapes, sizes, and political affiliations.
A survivalist is a person who actively prepares for emergencies, including natural disasters, as well as large-scale social and political upheavals. That often means building structures to survive in in the case of a catastrophe, having a mastery of self defense, being able to handle medical emergencies, and having a supply of food and water.
Hobel got his start as a survivalist sort at a young age—he attributes his love of nature to his mother and grandfather. The latter was a half-Scottish, half-Algonquin mail carrier and translator for the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people. He died when Hobel was a child, but he says his mother “continued that relationship and told us the importance of earth. One of the first things she ever did with us was get us in the garden, get us dirty, dig in the dirt.”
He became a dojo regular at age three, and spent years on the mat practicing and teaching martial arts. He then worked as a professional stuntman for 15 years, continuing his physical career. As a professional tracker, his motto is “Every movement matters.” He means that being light on your feet and being efficient—only moving exactly what needs to be moved—will reserve your energy for when you really need it. He believes movement is crucial in the survival skills world, and is fond of saying things like, “Wasted action is wasted energy. It’s wasted time, and that little moment of time can add up to moments of life.”
Hobel has been teaching survival skills for over 26 years, and decided to open his own survivalism school in 2000. He wanted to share his fire-making, mountain-scaling, and forest-stalking skills with the next generation—“It’s up to us to carry these traditions on.” So he purchased a piece of property in the Hudson Valley, and Mountain Scout Survival School was born.
“Wasted action is wasted energy. It’s wasted time, and that little moment of time can add up to moments of life.”
Hobel says that while 95% of his clients are from New York City, “even those who are living outside [urban] environments are still tethered to the same “umbilical cord” of technology. Hobel teaches his students how to separate themselves from that “umbilical cord.”
“I teach these skills which are your human, ancestral right,” he said. “You know there’s pretty much nothing that we share you’ll find in any university. You’re not gonna find it in schools, you’re not gonna find it anywhere. It’s passed on through tradition.”
So what does it take to master Hobel’s survival skills? Requirements include good diet (snacking throughout the day on plants and animals, no synthetics or sugar); good sleep habits (curl up for a cat nap whenever you’re sleepy throughout the day, also known as polyphasic sleeping); proper exercise; and marked endurance, no matter the time of year.
Hobel stresses that even if you’re a gym rat or a CrossFit type, unless you’re doing your workouts under extreme conditions, you probably wouldn’t be able to survive in an emergency situation. The question is, “Can you do that circuit training when your feet are frozen?”
In an introductory course offered at Mountain Scout Survival, called Wilderness I, Hobel and a few other teachers guide students through basic survival categories: finding shelter, water, fire and food; and tracking—to find missing persons, your next meal, or to protect yourself. It’s not your granddad’s hiking, running, zip-lining, and such. Rather, Hobel teaches a more intuitive way of moving through space, whether in an urban environment or in the wild, that keeps you constantly moving and assessing danger.
He makes scenarios as real as they can be in a relatively controlled environment—on a recent climbing expedition, he taught students how to climb and boulder sans-gear. You’re not guaranteed a carabiner and rope in a survival situation. Hobel says everyone signs a waiver when they come through Mountain Scout, but it’s not clear if they are legally protected in the case of potential accidents on these gear-free excursions. Hobel did not seem too concerned. “It sounds terrible, like I’m taking these people out for like, a life or death thing,” he said. “It’s not like that at all. It’s a scrambling kind of, bouldering type of approach, and a very safe area. It’s a known hiking trail.”
Despite teaching hard-nosed survival skills and talking about the unforgiving elements, Hobel and the other teachers at Mountain Scout Survival are gentle with the oft-fragile male egos that show up for class. Hobel has a knack for handling the cocky Eagle Scout types who take his classes and think they know everything about the outdoors.
“When I ask how many here can make fire by friction, 90% of the time, primarily mens’ hands go up, and I’m like, ‘OK, cool,’” says Hobel. “I take a log out of my bag, toss them a log and say, ‘Show me.’” At that point, they often insist they could do it “if it came down to it.”
“It’s an excuse,” Hobel says. “I don’t talk down to them. It’s not about that. It’s about confronting truth. You have no choice but to be honest with yourself, because if you say you can do something you can’t, it’s important.”
That said, Hobel insists that anyone can learn survival skills, and develop their danger-ready fitness, so long as they are open, humble, and eager to learn. He says, “Because of that attitude, I have full faith that you’re totally gonna learn because they are ready to face that fear.”
How to Train Like a Survivalist
THE 1-HOUR STALK:
Hobel’s first routine is simple: Sneak around. Very quietly, and very slowly.
“It’s going from one end of the apartment [or wherever you are] to the other,” he says. “You have to move so slow, and we also tell them [students] to try to get as low as they can. Talk about a screaming painful workout.”
Hobel’s training recommendation was for one full hour, but you’ll be forgiven if you cut the time to focus on other exercises if you’re approaching this from a strictly fitness perspective. Instead of watching the clock, focus on your stalking form. “Start standing slightly, almost to the top erect position, but bend the knees slightly. Never lock them out. You’re learning how to walk smoothly, slowly and with total body control,” Hobel advises. “It’s not only working your core muscles, it’s working the outside of your quads, your calves, your glutes. The lower the posture, the lower your position and the slower you go. Talk about the concentration of self, of self control, of awareness, breath control, body control, core control. It does all these other things.”
THE HIKING TRAINING:
For this piece of training, put on a heavy backpack and walk for five miles around the city. Then put on the backpack and walk five miles through the woods—and notice the different sensations in your body as you duck under branches and climb over rocks.
“You’re gonna be using core muscles and other balance situations that you do not use in flat, matrix situations, in urban environments,” Hobel explains. “You’re using muscle groups out there in the woods that we do not get to use in our standard places—even when you go to the gym.”
Because we don’t all have constant access to a forest, there’s still stuff you can do on a day-to-day basis. “Walk the stairs as much as possible, and then skip steps. Take big steps if you can … Interval train that way in the city, because that will help prepare you for hiking out here. Stop using the elevator [and] get on the steps.”
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