USMC Mountain Survival Course- Part 1, by E.T.

Preparations For Mountain Survival

I spent June of 2014 in Bridgeport, California at the USMC’s School of Mountain Warfare undergoing the grand reopening of their Mountain Survival Course. Over the span of 13 days, I lost 31 pounds while in training. Here’s my story and lessons learned.

I left an elevation of 3,300 feet in the mountains of North Carolina for Bridgeport, which is at 6,500 feet. The first morning we ran our PFT with less than 12 hours of acclimation to the new elevation. We were required to score a First Class PFT before continuing the course. We had one Marine fail to achieve first class score twice and was shipped back to his unit. That left 26 students with three instructors. Our class consisted of all NCO’s, with a 1st Lieutenant and a Captain thrown in. We were a handful of Scout/Snipers, a Polish Commando, a Headquarters guy filling an empty slot, a Navy Corpsman, a Navy Doctor, a ROTC officer, and a handful of infantry grunts, like myself, who looking for fun and adventure.

Classroom Preparation

We spent a total of five days in a classroom setting going over wilderness survival basics. In class we learned to read the weather, learn shelter types, and identify edible plants, critters, and insects, as well as develop skills in signaling, fire starting, fishing, trapping, hunting, land navigation, path finding, and traversing mountains and rivers. Essentially we covered everything you can hit fast and hard. The smart ones studied at night and practiced starting fires with a bow and drill. Being a former Boy Scout, a hunter, fisher, and someone who grew up in the woods playing with fire and building forts, I had a good base knowledge to build upon.

U.S. Military Survival Kit

During this classroom time, we created a personal survival kit that did not leave our person at any point during the course. We were given a US Military Survival Kit (Type I Class III) and told to make it better. This kit included:

Making The Kit and Packs Better

I used a small coyote brown admin molle pouch that was normally attached to my Assault Pack that I could wear by running my belt through the snapped molle straps. I added to it:

  • a small pack of Vaseline covered cotton balls for fire starting,
  • zip ties,
  • two trash bags,
  • a small amount of duct tape folded over itself flat,
  • 50 feet of paracord, and
  • Chap stick.

The Compass and matches were removed from the kits and turned in as they were not allowed during the course. Our Magnesium fire starters were taken up to be redistributed later.

We also carried our Assault Packs. In this we had our other issued gear:

We were also given an IFAIK (Individual First Aid Kit).


Our clothing was our standard USMC Desert Marpat Blouse and Trousers, green skivvy shirt, and shorts underneath. I wore my cold weather issued boots with Dickies black work socks. Those who thought ahead put an extra pair of socks on. I didn’t and regretted this later.


For knives we could bring one fixed blade and a multi-tool. The Cold Steel Recon Tanto was my choice and I used the multi-knife included in the Survival Kit. I regretted using that multi-knife instead of the multi-tool. I have two points to make here. Tanto points aren’t as useful in the field as a curved point. And a multi-tool is wonderfully versatile. You should always have one with you. Simply being able to pick a hot cup of boiling purified water from a fire without burning yourself makes it worthwhile. Try that with two sticks and you’ll understand what a PITA it is.

Extra Gear

For extra gear, we were allowed to bring some odds and ends of personal items if approved by the instructors. My extra items were a small Bible with some family photos inside and a shemagh. We were not allowed to bring any tools we had been practicing with during the classroom portion. You were required to start from scratch once we were in field.

No food was allowed to be brought, and our kit and persons were later checked and searched for any contraband. If any was found we would fail the course. On our person we also carried note-taking gear, a pseudo-USMC requirement to have at all times. I chose a Rite in the Rain pocket notepad and pen for me. (Experiment with pens, some smudge off when wet. I stick with Fishers Pen because I knew it would work. Pencils are good, too.) We also had our watches. Mine was a pretty typical military pick– a Casio G-Shock. But mine was in analog. You can’t find North with a digital.

Gaining Body Fat

In the time leading up to our departure, we ate as much as we could every chance we had. We had double rations for everyone! We all managed to pack some extra pounds on. If you can’t take the food with you, you might as well pack it on as body fat.

First Phase – Instructional Survival

Weighed, Staged, and Moved Into Position One

The morning we left, we stripped down to our skivvy’s (green tee shirt and green shorts, which are USMC PT gear) and weighed in. (If you see us physical training, we are literally doing it in our underwear.) Most of us had added several pounds on over the week and left heavier than normal. We staged our gear outside to be inspected by the Instructors and made some last minute adjustments and additions to our kits. They were thoroughly gone through. Packs were stripped down, pockets were emptied, and we were pat down. Afterwards we loaded up into a seven ton and rode several hours into the mountains. We humped to our first phase training ground in a forested area next to a stream around 7,200 feet in elevation.

Team-built First Shelter

There we were instructed to pair up and build a shelter for two. I paired with the Corpsman. We built the smallest lean to we could both comfortably fit in. We used the space under a fallen tree and wove leafy branches together to build a wall for the open sides. Afterwards we piled up as much leaves and dirt on the new walls to add some insulation and block the wind from coming in. We left the smallest entrance we could crawl out of. Then, we attached a garbage bag over the entrance to block out any wind, tossing a few rocks inside the bag to keep it from blowing open.

Since we had two tarps, we spread one over the floor and used the other to cover ourselves. Our packs were our pillows. Afterwards the instructors went to each pair’s shelter and critiqued the job and offered suggestions for improvements.

Chicken Sitting

After our shelter making, we were each issued a live chicken and told that we were responsible for our chickens over the next several days. Using a length of Paracord that we tied to one of the chicken’s legs, we were able to stake them out near us as we moved around camp. At night, we kept them in the shelter with us so no predators would get them.

Making Fire

Then we began to attempt to make fire with bow and drill. This was a requirement to pass the course. If you did not meet this requirement by the time you started Second Phase, you would not receive your Magnesium Fire Striker back. Thus, there would be no easy fire for you during the Individual Phase! The lucky ones managed to make this happen on the first day. The first fire that was made was turned into our community fire pit. We kept that one going the entire time with a fire watch at night. We spent hours on bow and drill. This took up the majority of our days with the occasional time out for an instructional period. With each progressing day, you grew noticeably weaker from the lack of food.

The effort it took to constantly move the bow back and forth to build an ember of dust with the drill became harder and harder to maintain. Many a wisp of smoke went out before being made into an ember because we ran out of energy. It took me three days. The Navy Doctor didn’t get it in time and spent a cold night on his own before getting it the next day.

Further Reading:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one of a five part entry for Round 71 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

  1. A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
  2. A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,195 value),
  3. A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
  4. DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
  5. An infrared sensor/imaging camouflage shelter from Snakebite Tactical in Eureka, Montana (A $350+ value),
  6. Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
  7. A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
  8. Two cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of (a $180 value).

Second Prize:

  1. A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
  2. A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4 Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
  3. A gift certificate for any two or three-day class from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
  4. A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
  5. A Trekker IV™ Four-Person Emergency Kit from Emergency Essentials (a $250 value),
  6. A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published by,
  7. A pre-selected assortment of military surplus gear from CJL Enterprize (a $300 value),
  8. RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site, and
  9. American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses.

Third Prize:

  1. A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
  2. A custom made Sage Grouse model utility/field knife from custom knife-maker Jon Kelly Designs, of Eureka, Montana,
  3. A large handmade clothes drying rack, a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
  4. Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners, donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
  5. Two Super Survival Pack seed collections, a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
  6. Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances,
  7. Montie Gear is donating a Y-Shot Slingshot and a $125 Montie gear Gift certificate.,
  8. Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from (a $240 value), and

Round 71 ends on July 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. Great report on Pickle Meadows Winter Warfare Training Center. I lived not far south for over fourty years and worked on the base in the nineties on the new PX and theater, medical dental and motor pool buildings. What an incredible facility. I met many trainees and instructors while skiing at the nearby ski area. I recently relocated to the Redoubt.

    I actually got to shoot my bow on the Base Commander’s personal archery range with his son. If we ever have operations in winter environments the training at that facility will give our guys great advantage.

  2. Thanks for this article. I appreciated it, and enjoyed your military way of writing. Glad to see someone who did an honest appraisal of the Tanto blade. From Alaska to Montana to Colorado I used knives daily and refuse to carry a Tanto- they are promoted for ninja wannebees IMO, but survival means you need to do lots of carving and cleaning of game.
    Tantos may be great for slicing but not for butchering. Curved tip full-tang blades are the only sure bet, and if you can afford carbon steel instead of stainless, thats the best. Thanks again and thanks for your service. I did 34 years in Army myself.

  3. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in years. Its my pick for first place. nobody else stands a chance. Sounds like an awesome exercise. And thank you for your service to our great country

  4. In your article you stated “We also had our watches. Mine was a pretty typical military pick– a Casio G-Shock. But mine was in analog. You can’t find North with a digital.”

    I’d like to pass on that all you need to do is take the time from the digital watch and draw a face in the dirt with the clock/watch hands in the appropriate place and you can find North that way.

  5. Certainly agree with Wheatley’s and your comments regarding Tanto. What would you recommend instead of the Fisker folder? Which of the multi-tools would you now select after the course? Did you also have to carry an M4 and a pistol? What was the total pack weight? Any special tips on practicing with a bow and drill? Or is that for Part 2?

  6. Thank you all for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the humor I tried to sprinkle through the article. I tend to take things seriously and yet I never manage to sound like I do. 🙂

    In regards to the Fisker Folder, I would suggest anything that does not -fold-. That is where many of ours broke, the cheap plastic handle didn’t do any favors either. I would have preferred a small axe or hatchet. Easy to resharpen and only the handle to worry about.

    For a multi-tool, I think anything with a good reputation would suffice. Leatherman is what I use now.

    We did not carry any weapons. At the time I was a Team Leader so my issued weapon was an M16A4 with a 203 grenade launcher underneath. I would NOT have enjoyed lugging that around. But that would have added an interesting spin on the course, especially if we were given ammo.

    Total pack weight I’m uncertain of, not much. The weight of the water we carried was the heaviest portion of our load and doing the math… two 28 oz Nalgene Bottles, plus the 16 oz collapsible bladder from our survival kit.. That’s slightly over half a gallon. About 5lbs for water.

    I would guess probably 15lbs and certainly not over 20lbs.

    Salt – Absolutely. Both for flavor and more importantly – fluid retention. I really regret not going more in depth on that in this article. Since we didn’t have any, I suppose drinking blood or using it in a broth would have certainly helped. I know towards the end we all struggled with keeping our bodies hydrated, even though we had plenty of water. It simply passed through us.

    For learning how to use a Bow and Drill – I highly recommend carrying Lighters. 🙂

    It was not an easy task to achieve and not one I would wish to attempt to teach. I touch briefly on it at the end of the article, but I would say having someone instruct you in person would be of immense help. YouTube videos won’t be of much help.

    Kolt – Thank you very much for the tip. I had never considered that. 🙂

  7. Great article! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

    E.T., I have to disagree with you on one point. If you want to learn how to make and use the bow and drill, check out the YouTube channel of Arizona Bushman. He has several videos on the subject, including what materials work best. The one where he tries to teach his wife to do it is a classic. It does take strength – I was crying for her!

  8. Bow and drill for fire. Try this. Besides the board, spindle, and bow with string, get a piece of wood that will fit in your mouth when bitten down in. Carve a hole in it so the spindle fits in. Bite down on it and use BOTH HANDS to move the bow back and forth. Much faster than one handed bow methods using a handhold.

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