If you are out hunting and home base catches fire, will you be able to get to a location suitable for shelter in a reasonable amount of time? If everything goes wrong and your supply caches are gone, the fuel stores have burned and the damned jeep is toast, is your body in the kind of shape it needs to be in to survive? If you are confronted by an attacker and your ammo is long gone, can you win in hand to hand?
Even the basics, like walking for a full day, are beyond most people in North America. This isn’t a natural condition, and is not true in most of the world. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea a native will still walk a full day with a spear sticking through his leg if conditions require it. In the plains of Africa it is not uncommon for a tribesman to run a hundred kilometers in a day. This level of survival is available to anyone if they simply take the steps and do the work to build it.
A good place to start is with walking. People think that walking requires good shoes or boot… nothing could be further from the truth. Some form of light foot covering such as a moccasin is useful but not necessary and most of the walking footwear out there will actually get in your way over long distances. Your feet are built with natural springs in the form of the muscle in the arch of the foot, most footwear destroys that muscle by giving constant support for the arch. Your feet are also supposed to bend at the toes, most footwear restricts movement through the toes. Then there is ankle support. In rough terrain your ankles are supposed to constantly modify their angle in order to maximize your footing, Strong ankle support actually prevents your ankles from being able to do their job. Finally we come to padding. Padding in shoes is supposed to cushion you from shocks. It actually does the exact opposite, providing no protection for impacts above 5 psi while preventing the bodies natural feedback mechanisms from reporting the true strength of your impact. Put another way, wearing those expensive hiking shoes can really mess up your legs over any kind of real distance. As stated above, simple moccasins are great as they offer a degree of protection to you feet, but they do lack durability. Other options include Nike Free’s (the cross trainers are not as good from the foot health perspective but are much better than a normal shoe and will last a very long time). Alternatively, Parade boots have no padding at all and as such are better than hiking boots and last almost forever, while being very cheap from most surplus stores. Of course, barefoot is ideal and your feet will toughen up over time. Any of the walking options mentioned above will take a lot of getting used to. If you are unused to walking with this kind of footwear, you should start to practice now. The first few days will cause you pain in areas that are unfamiliar. After a few days the pain will mitigate and you will be able to walk faster than you were able to before, but you still won’t have much in the way of arch muscle so anytime you push it you are going to experience muscle fatigue. Push yourself, but keep in mind that if you push too hard you will injure the muscle and be in worse shape than before you started. It can take quite a long time for a muscle that hasn’t really been used since early childhood to develop, so be patient with it.
Running would be the next spot. Again, footwear has all of the same problem associated with it as it does in walking, plus there are some thing you will probably need to unlearn before you can be an effective runner. When you run, you should never touch the heels of your feet to the ground. The pattern is toes to ball or midfoot, use the toes to launch again (this requires very developed foot arch muscles). Running on your heels means that the impact if transferring to your knees, causing minute damage with each step. The cumulation of that damage will increase your odds of a serious knee injury, usually within the first year of running. In a true survival situation your legs are your best friends, treat them with kindness and respect and they will outlast any vehicle, cover terrain that even a horse can’t touch and keep you going when everything else has failed. Breathing is another aspect of running. If you have ever done track, odds are good you were taught how to breathe. Unfortunately you were taught wrong. When you run you should breathe exclusively through your nose. There will be a strong temptation to breathe out through your mouth (after all, that is what we were all taught). The problem with that is twofold. One, it rapidly expels all the Carbon Dioxide in your blood. This seems like a good idea, but in reality we require a small CO2 reserve to allow us to properly absorb oxygen. Without that reserve, you are simply making your body operate with less oxygen than it should have. Two, mucus. This sound fairly unpleasant, but mucus exists in our body for very good reason. In this case it helps to lubricate the nasal passages, but needs strong out breaths to flow properly. If you try running on a cold day, you will notice that for the first few minutes every in breathe through the nasal passages hurts, but once the mucus is being pumped properly the pain goes away. There is one other benefit of nasal breathing: many asthmatics who have tried it have found that they become asymptomatic and remain so. There is no real research on this, so these are purely anecdotal accounts, however the sheer volume of them is fairly persuasive.
So now you can walk somewhere and run if you need to put on a burst of speed. This is where the advanced stuff comes in. Parkour is a discipline that was created in France in the late eighties by a man named David Belle. Parkour is essentially the art of running away really fast in places that your pursuer probably can’t follow. The best info on parkour will come from local communities, but barring that http://www.parkour.net is a great resource parkour.net was the main resource for English language speaking traceurs (parkour practitioners) but it is no longer in operation. What follows is more of a brief summary of the training and methodologies involved.
A huge part of Parkour is the idea of gradual progression. When you begin training you should practice landing as much as you can. Go to a flight of stairs and go up one step. Turn and face the bottom of the stairs and then jump off. When you jump, lift your legs as high as you can in front of you, and then bring them down so that they are almost straight (just a slight bend in the knees) and point your toes. Your feet should be a little more than shoulder width apart. Land on your toes, spreading the impact across all of them. As the impact starts to hit, bend your feet until you hit the balls of your feet, resisting with your foot muscles. Then start to sink down using your thigh muscles, while resisting as much as you can. You should end with your hands on the ground, between your feet. Listen to your landing, it should be almost silent. Once you can do that perfectly a hundred time, move up to the next step and start the process again. There is no point where you are finished training how to land, practitioners of parkour who have been doing it from the start still train how to land every day. That is fairly typical of parkour training, intensive repetition combined with conditioning and incremental improvement. The key skills are: landing, rolling, vaulting, climbing, jumping, and running. Parkour can save your life in literally hundreds of situations, from extracting yourself from a burning building (the creator was a fire fighter in France) to escaping pursuit, but it isn’t a casual discipline and requires a very high degree of commitment.
Swimming is another skill that every survivalist should have. For swimming, it is probably enough to be able to cover a lot of distance although the stronger a swimmer you are, the better.
Finally there is unarmed combat. While parkour can keep you out of most situations involving hand to hand combat, there may come a time where it is needed (either because you are unable to formulate an escape route, or if you are diligent with parkour more likely because you are protecting a loved one who is unable to escape). Obviously there are many, many styles of martial art, and many factors as to which one is going to suit you best.
Karate is the classic martial art, because it was really the first one that western audiences had a large exposure to, but that doesn’t mean it is the right one for you. Karate is highly focused on Kata’s and improvement can be slow, while many believe that Kata’s are actually detrimental to your ability to win a fight (Bruce Lee was among those who believed this). Having said that, many people find the rigid discipline of Karate valuable, and it does leave you far better equipped in a fight than an untrained opponent.
Tae Kwon Do is more focused on mastering very hard, very effective punches and kicks. A Tae Kwon Do master actually kicks harder than someone of the same skill in any other discipline. Improvement tends to be fairly rapid, with the average time to black belt being around 3 years at 100 lessons a year and diligent practice. One down side of this is that physical condition is imperative, on the other hand diligent practice at Tae Kwon Do tends to leave you in great shape. Body mass is also a major advantage, as it is the main source of power.
Tai Chi is not usually thought of as a martial art, but more as an exercise for elderly Chinese people. However, Tai Chi teaches you a huge amount about redirection of force and using spirals to create energy. Some of the most effective fighters in the world are Tai Chi masters.
Kung Fu is actually not one style of martial art, but it is usually taught as a single style in the west and so is being considered that way here. Kung Fu is probably the most stylized of all the martial arts listed here, and takes the most time to master. There is a high focus on Kata again, and a high demand for physical conditioning. Basically, Kung Fu is really, really hard to master. Once you do, it is very difficult to beat. The amount of time you can dedicate to it and your passion for the beauty of the movement should be the determining factor in taking up this martial art.
Ninjitsu is a Japanese martial art that is very different from the rest on this list. Ninjitsu was a peasant martial art, designed to take on opponents who were better armed, armoured and equipped in a situation where if you were caught training with weapons you would be killed summarily. As such, ninjitsu is eminently practical. Kata’s simply don’t exist in ninjitsu and most moves are designed around deception and redirection. Joint locks, low kicks and nasty nerve strikes are the main weapons, as well as a thorough training in stealth.
Akido is an art that focuses on redirecting your opponents force and moving them off balance. Akido is very effective for smaller people, as it doesn’t rely on your body mass or ability to generate force at all. It uses many of the same locks and throws as ninjitsu, but is more focused on them. Judo is basically a sport version of akido and probably shouldn’t be your first choice for unarmed combat.
Ju-jitsu has been receiving a lot of focus lately as it is the most common martial art in modern mixed martial arts competitions. It is focused primarily on grappling. A really good ju-jitsu fighter can beat most other styles if they can get the fight to the ground, but there is inherent risk associated with the process of getting someone to the ground. That is why most Ju-jitsu fighters cross train at least one striking martial art as well.
There are many, many other styles out there (capoeira, savate, kick boxing, muay thai, escrima, krav-maga, jeet kun-do, etc.) each of which has its own specialties. The one to take is a very individual choice but all require dedication and focus. Parkour and tai chi seem to be a common combination, although parkour tends to magnify your abilities in any martial art due to the simple physical awareness and athleticism it imparts.
Of course, strength training is important for any and all physical routines (for parkour a strict bodyweight routine is encouraged quite heavily) and the more cardio you do the better your endurance will be.
In the end, the only tool you can’t lose is your own body so it makes sense to keep that tool in as good a condition as it is possible to do.