Scot’s Product Review: Survival Skills DVD Set Sigma 3 Survival School

I was very impressed with this $49.95 two DVD set. It was well produced and the material clearly presented. There were perhaps three times I wished for captions to identify some of the gear and once a drawing would have helped me understand a point about knife blade grinds, but those are small nits to pick out of an excellent video. It even explained and showed knots so well that I could make them, which is no small task as I am knot deprived.

I am going to jump to almost the end of the two DVD’s to get a quote about the purpose of the videos from instructor Robert Allen, who talks about a “comprehensive survival ideology”. I think the DVDs effectively address that concept with a focus on what Allen calls the critical needs for survival, shelter, water, fire, and food. He notes that most people who don’t survive in the outdoors die of exposure, and being able to cope with that alone would save many lives. Unlike videos that worry about scenarios and bugging out, this presentation assumes you have found yourself in the wild and need the know how to survive. You could be lost, stranded in bad weather, or have some other problem, but what matters is staying alive and knowing techniques that will cover any event. Allen prefers to teach a few techniques that one masters rather than a potpourri of skills that are then not well learned.

While most of the content is aimed at the first three problems (shelter, water, and fire), the DVDs do cover acquiring meat, which is a key to longer-term survival. One can forage for plants, but meat offers more calories and protein than plants.

I was pleased to see the disclaimers that watching a video does not replace training. Training not only means getting instruction from a skilled teacher, it includes practicing the skills as the teacher offers guidance and corrections. While a good video can impart priceless knowledge, it isn’t the same as having a teacher work with you, which brings me to one of the more impressive points during the video. Allen takes a student (Chad Cooper, the owner of Infidel Armor and a SurvivalBlog supporter) through the process of making a bow drill fire starter kit from scratch. Allen had already shown us how to do it in the prior chapter of the video, but watching him then teach Cooper was very valuable to me, both as to picking up additional points as well as reinforcing the benefit of a corrective teacher.

Before we go further, we ought to check out the two instructors in the videos. The primary presenter is Robert Allen– the president and founder of Sigma 3 Survival School, which offers a wide array of classes, primarily in Arkansas and Virginia but also some in Costa Rica and Sweden. They mention looking for a Florida location on their website. Allen is an Army vet with Middle-East deployments and has a long resume of training, both during and after the Army. He has a direct, clear teaching style in the video that worked well for me.

The second presenter is Josh Hamlin, who has an interesting background of actually living in a primitive manner for two years without modern equipment. He speaks of things like how tasty rats are and shows how to make primitive deadfalls as well as water filters one can create from castoff plastic bottles, charcoal, and pine materials. He presents just as clearly and effectively as Allen, though he has far less camera time. He is the lead primitive skills instructor at Sigma 3.

The 3 hours and 27 minutes of video are well organized. Although they present a lot of information based on having nothing with you, they start with a chapter on suggested everyday carry (EDC) gear if one is spending time outdoors. While one can get caught empty handed, it is a wise person who has at least some gear. Allen calls it “life insurance” and discusses what he thinks you should have at all times.

The first item in his EDC is the knife. He likes Mora knives from Sweden for their cost effectiveness, but he also points out some other more expensive knives. This was one area I would have liked even more information than he gave. For example, he discusses the utility of having two knives with different grinds for better versatility, and having a little more detail and perhaps an image of the two grinds would have helped my understanding. Later, when he demonstrated the use of the knives, it became clearer, but I am not as much of a knife guy as I would like to be and Allen struck me as someone who could teach me quite a bit, so I was left wanting more. They could take this as a hint to do a knife video.

His next EDC item might surprise some; it was a folding saw with a 10-inch blade. He makes a compelling argument that it is more useful than an axe, largely because you burn fewer calories using it. It also helps you make some of the cuts used when fabricating things in the wild. Again, he recommends brands over a broad price range.

Additionally, he suggests having a good multi-tool; an oversized poncho is also high on his list of EDC gear, both to wear for protection from weather and for use making a shelter. A stainless steel water container is another must, since it can be used to boil water to make it safe for drinking or for cooking as well as carrying water.

Allen promotes the time honored concept that two is one and one is none. For key needs, you want to have two ways to do things. For fire starting, he likes ferro rods and the ubiquitous Bic lighter along with some Wetfire tinder, which is a commercial product. The lighter and Wetfire can save time and energy when you are in trouble and have no reserves. For insurance, he then teaches how to make a bow drill for fire starting.

Cordage such as paracord in another must, but he adds that Bank line is good to have too along with some picture wire that can be used for making snares.

Also, don’t forget a flashlight, particularly one with multiple light levels that can save battery life and since two is one, a headlamp is a nice addition since it allows hands-free use as well as a back up to the primary.

Some fishing gear with hooks and line is also smart to carry. He goes into pack rods and reels if you have space in your backpack and discusses Yo Yo reels that can be left unattended and will set the hook on their own. I was unfamiliar with these, and they look like a good thing to have. A minimum though would be some hooks and line.

While feeling the saw is more useful, he does discuss axes, and he notes that he likes to carry one when in the woods.

Navigation and first aid are discussed in terms of the suggested equipment, though he doesn’t really get into how to use it.

A huge point both Allen and Hamlin make is that if you have a piece of gear, then you will save the time and energy required to create it when needed. Time and energy are important in any survival scenario; if you consume energy faster than you acquire it, you are losing the battle.

After covering gear, the video moves into how to get things done. This part of the video is the real meat of the discussion. The first topic is caring for our most important tool– the knife. Allen goes over sharpening them and likes the Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener– a tool I have been using recently and will offer my own review at the end of this article. He also mentions using diamond honing rods and strongly suggests that we wear leather belts as they are so useful for stropping knives.

From tool care, the videos move to shelter. Both cold and warm weather ones are covered using the materials one could find in the woods as well as making them with the cordage and tarp or poncho one might have brought with them. As a resident of the bug laden South, I was impressed with his inclusion of an elevated shelter and a discussion of using smoke to deter insects.

The next subject was water, and I was very intrigued by the sip well Allen and Hamlin used to purify water as well as the discussion of things to avoid, if possible. They made the important point that if you are expecting rescue, don’t worry about getting sick from bad water. Dehydration is the greater danger. You don’t want to get sick, but if the choice is dying or getting sick later, it’s better to get sick later than die now. That equation obviously changes if one expects to be in the wild for a long time. Hamlin had a trick I haven’t seen before that I found impressive; it involved using charcoal from fires and pine needles to filter water.

Fire was the next topic, and Allen showed how to build a tipi fire, which he feels is the most “bombproof method” of fire starting. One could start a fire with the Bic lighter Allen suggests we carry or even the ferro rod he also advocates, but he goes one further. He shows how to build a bow drill kit for fire starting from what you find in the woods, and then he uses it to get the fire going.

One of the big lessons I got from the video is the importance of knowing something about wood and trees when starting fires. You need to know which ones to use for what, particularly when trying to fabricate a bow drill kit from scratch. If you use the wrong materials, you get no fire. Trees vary from region to region, and one would be wise to spend some time to study what you would find in your area and what they can be used for. You get further variances as you shift from wetlands to drylands or change altitude, even within a small geographic area.

Beside the bow drill, the ferro rod was covered. The ferro rod, as most readers probably know, is a metal rod that when struck with a piece of high carbon steel makes hot sparks that can make tinder catch on fire. It is another of the “bombproof” methods Allen advocates we keep available.

Another cool trick I learned was how to build a fire to last by layering wood and dirt. Allen has built ones that lasted as long as 60 hours. As he pointed out, if you can sleep through the night rather than getting up to add wood to a fire, you will be in far better shape. Rest is critical to well-being, and you won’t get it if you get cold and wake repeatedly through the night.

After fire, Allen and Hamlin move into food and how to acquire meat using entirely primitive traps, like the Paiute deadfall trap or with snares made with the picture wire you have in your EDC kit. Allen also tells us about traps we might have been cunning enough to have brought with us. I hadn’t thought of having traps in my bugout kit, but I am now planning to add some. Hamlin, as mentioned above, enjoys rats, and Allen likes beaver, neither of which I have tried. I am a bit more reluctant to go for rat, but rats in the wild probably are a lot cleaner than the ones I used to shoot on the farm we had when I was young.

Once you have your meat, you have to process and then prepare it, both for an immediate meal as well as preserving some for future use. Allen gives us a lot of information on beaver, which is an uncommon animal in my parts. Nonetheless, he does talk about other animals, and much of what he tells us about beaver could apply to most any critter we might care to eat.

I am looking forward to showing these videos to the Scouts I work with. I was very pleased that the language was clean, so that I can use them for that purpose.

Work Sharp WSGFS221 Guided Field Sharpener

The $26.00 WSGFS221 Guided Field Sharpener is, unlike its siblings from Work Sharp, a manual tool that requires no electricity. Besides knives, it can sharpen fishhooks. It weighs slightly less than 5 ounces and measures 6.75 inches long, 1.5 inches wide, and 1 inch thick; its light weight and small size makes it easy to carry in the woods, though the one I’m testing has mainly been living in the kitchen drawer.

It has coarse and fine diamond surfaces as well as a ceramic rod with fine and coarse surfaces and one for fish hooks along with a second small ceramic rod for serrated edges and a leather strop for the final finish on a blade.

A key feature are the guides to help you start the blade at the right angle. The guides are at 20 degrees on the diamonds and 25 degrees for the ceramic. While this doesn’t cover every knife on the planet, it is possible to remove the diamond surfaces (magnets hold them one quite securely) and use them by hand if your knife doesn’t work well with the guides. While you have them off, you can clean them. Work Sharp recommends cleaning with soap and water for the tool, including the ceramic rods.

My biggest problem with the tool was finding the instructions, and it was my fault. They are inside it under one of the diamond plates. Work Sharp cunningly advised where they were in large letters on the packaging I had torn up to get it out and admire it.

The coarse diamond can rapidly shape a blade, so you don’t need to use it very much. Work Sharp advises that you shouldn’t use it unless the blade is damaged or needs to be reshaped.

The one thing I wish is that Work Sharp included a pouch for it. Replacement parts for the sharpening surfaces are available from Work Sharp, which is a very nice touch. I am enjoying using it and find it quick and easy to grab when a knife starts to lose its edge, which is a much better time to sharpen than when it has gotten dull.

– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Eire