UNLESS John D. McCann, the managing director of Survival Resources, based in Hyde Park, N.Y., is wearing a suit for some sort of business meeting, he always carries in his pants pocket an Altoids tin. There are no mints inside it. Instead, he painstakingly packs the tin — which he explains can double as a mini-frying pan if you’re ever marooned in the wilderness — with a remarkable assortment of worst-case scenario supplies.
The contents include — but are not limited to — matches that Mr. McCann hand-dips in Thompson’s WaterSeal to waterproof them, a tiny magnesium fire starter, a small lens for igniting fires should the matches and magnesium fire starter fail, an L.E.D. flashlight, a button-size compass, a thin square of mirror to signal potential rescuers, 20 water purification tablets, a meticulously folded freezer bag to store potable water, a packet of antibiotic ointment, butterfly bandages, a sewing bobbin with 20 feet of fishing line, a dozen hooks, six weights, laminated instructions on tying knots and snare wire for capturing small animals. All in one Altoids tin.
Survival Resources markets primitive-living provisions, and Mr. McCann, 55, also teaches survival kit design, among other do-or-die subjects, to students attending its Survival Skills Weekends in Verona, N.Y., near Syracuse. Consider it an Eagle Scout crash course for adults.
After signing an ominous insurance waiver, paying tuition of $225 (since increased to $285), and packing a tent, knife, compass and assorted just-add-water meals, I joined three other students around a campfire for orientation on a Friday evening late in June.
Camp consists of a stone fire pit, a field kitchen and a classroom constructed of camouflage tarps lashed to log supports. A grove of cedars surrounds and perfumes the site, which Mr. McCann and his fiancée and fellow instructor, Denise Vogler, built on a friend’s land, using mainly hand tools. Walking through fields speckled with wildflowers and into the circle of tall trees evokes a fairy tale — you expect to be greeted by talking bears. But civilization intrudes: the whoosh of traffic from nearby Interstate 90 punctures the illusion.
Mr. McCann, a wiry man wearing a wide-brimmed olive-green hat wrapped with braided parachute cord (perfect for turning tarps into tents), prefers not to march novices deep into the wild. He cited the case of a 29-year-old New Jersey man who died in 2006 from dehydration while on a desert survival course offered by a competing school in Utah.
“You can’t let people die in your class,” said Mr. McCann, who is a former Marine drill instructor. Aside from his salty language and appropriation of the unofficial Marine Corps motto “Improvise, adapt, overcome,” he apparently left the stereotypical in-your-face, give-me-50 training style on Parris Island. Though upon request he demonstrated how to immobilize the enemy and showed off old scars from a knife fight, he played it close to the Kevlar vest when I asked about post-military exploits. And he showed a soft side, unabashedly cuddling Ms. Vogler and speaking with emotion about his late father: “A big Irish man, my dad. There ain’t nothing he couldn’t do in the woods.”
MR. MCCANN’S school opened in 2005, about the time Hurricane Katrina struck. The indelible images of victims pleading for help from an unresponsive government affected him, as well as some of his students. “Katrina was a wake-up call,” said Colleen Williams, nibbling a s’more. Ms. Williams, a baker with a black belt in karate who lives in a Syracuse suburb, had given the class to her boyfriend, Eric Koll, for his birthday, and they were there together. She chose Mr. McCann’s school to get “dirt time,” which she defines as practicing survival techniques previously experienced only on instructional videos. Mr. Koll hoped this course might lead him to a career in wilderness education.
Peter Tourian, a biology teacher from South Orange, N.J., signed up in part to prepare himself for any threats that might arise — “being a husband, there’s a natural instinct to protect” — and after witnessing frightening disorder in the school where he teaches. “When a kid pulled out a machete in the lunchroom, that really changed my thinking,” he said.
Like many Manhattanites, I packed a “go bag” after Sept. 11, but my inspiration to enroll in survival school had less to do with faltering homeland security than with failings of my own. I am, admittedly, not very handy. My wife affectionately refers to me as “Magoo.” The course seemed like an opportunity for a city boy to get in touch with his inner backwoodsman.
On Saturday morning school started with a rhetorical question and answer from Mr. McCann: “What is your most important survival tool? Your brain. You are not going to have the tendency to leave that at home."
Second only to the brain, he said, is a sharp knife. In a survival scenario — say, your Cessna goes down in the jungle or you just get lost while hiking — you can rely on a knife for many useful tasks, from skinning dinner to splitting firewood. With a word from Mr. McCann, Ms. Vogler, a cheery former home economics teacher, grabbed a big knife from a sheath on her thigh. Brandishing a Crocodile Dundee-style blade, she reduced a log to kindling with a few chops.
Mr. McCann recommends that students carry a fixed blade (rather than an inherently weaker folding one), with a single sharpened edge. “Double-edged blades are meant for one thing,” he said. “Self-defense." He carries a folding knife as a backup but deems the popular Swiss Army knife impractical. “What am I going to use a Phillips screwdriver for in the woods?” he asked. “I’ve never had to unscrew a tree.”
Mr. McCann and Ms. Vogler took turns teaching subjects like navigation and signaling. Even a Joe Cocker CD, I learned, can reflect sunlight and alert rescuers. In general, they avoided fear-mongering. The fine line between promoting preparedness and fostering paranoia blurred just once. “The most aggressive wildlife out there is probably other humans,” Ms. Vogler warned. “Don’t get friendly with people you don’t know. Use a walking stick, something you can keep people at a distance with.”
Much of Saturday afternoon was spent around the fire pit. “Play with fire, please,” Mr. McCann prompted us. “Get good with fire.” In addition to cooking food and generating warmth, fire bolsters the morale of would-be survivors. “In a survival situation you’re scared,” Mr. McCann said. “You’re lost. You get a fire going. You are now warm. Maybe you are cooking a squirrel or just purifying some water to make some pine needle tea, and all of a sudden you’ve got a friend with you.”
Out of a tackle box, he pulled out tinder fashioned from his own recipe: cotton balls moistened with petroleum jelly. A vial holds about 15 compressed, greasy orbs, which can burn for at least two minutes when expanded and lighted. Organic alternatives include cattails and curly birch bark. For his finale, he shaped some extra-fine steel wool into a fibrous horseshoe and touched the ends to the positive and negative contacts of the battery from his cellphone. Sparks flew, and the steel wool erupted in flames. His audience audibly gasped.
For the rest of the weekend we practiced what our instructors preached, carving wood, starting fires and even turning soda cans into signal whistles. But the most rewarding exercises were the group efforts on Sunday.
For our first mission, we assembled a branch lift snare for capturing small animals. “Squirrels are easy to catch and good to eat,” Mr. McCann assured us. Most states prohibit snaring, he said, but the rule in the wilderness is to survive first and worry about legalities later.
Using twigs, my classmates built what looked like the front of a soccer goal with a noose of brass wire hanging from the top bar down to just inches from the ground, about the height of an average squirrel’s head. Parachute cord connected the snare to a bent sapling branch, ready to act as a catapult and launch our catch up and away from other predators. Mr. McCann maneuvered a brown stuffed animal with floppy white ears into the snare. It worked perfectly, strangling the prey. We cheered as the captured toy twisted in the air.
Our final test required the construction of an improvised A-frame shelter. Mr. McCann stressed the importance of a suitable building site, near both water and fuel for a fire but away from “widow makers,” dead tree limbs that can fall on campers. “It’s going to kill you before a bear,” he said.
TO take advantage of body heat, an effective shelter must be snug, Mr. McCann explained. Many rookies mistakenly erect a McMansion when a garden shed will do. We marched to a wooded area, and Mr. Koll spotted a tree with a twinned trunk that would serve as the shelter’s vertical support. We wedged a branch about six feet long into the crook at a roughly 30-degree angle. This became the ridge pole supporting the walls — layers of sticks, ferns and assorted leaves. Three of us took turns slithering into the cramped crypt, an experience Mr. Koll equated to “being buried alive.”
When it was Mr. Tourian’s turn, he hesitated. “Claustrophobic?” I asked him.
“Um, I’m grossaphobic,” he responded. His reluctance didn’t survive peer pressure, and he shimmied into the cavity.
Later, clutching his gold-embossed diploma, Mr. Tourian thanked Mr. McCann and complimented him on successfully keeping the class on schedule, high praise from a professional teacher. Mr. McCann was touched. “I’m glad you liked it,” he said. “Most people call me anal. I’m not anal. I’m organized.”
There is no umbrella group or association of survival schools, and no accrediting body. Several of the more established schools are listed on Equipped to Survive, at www.equipped.org/srvschol.htm.
In Verona, N.Y., at least two more survival skills weekends, $285 a person, will be held this summer by Survival Resources (845-471-2434; www.bepreparedtosurvive.com): Aug. 8 to 10 and Sept. 5 to 7. John McCann, managing director of the company, also offers private lessons for groups.