At the end of just about every course I’ve taught as a professional survival instructor since 2007, students have asked if there are any books I recommend for further study.
The short answer is “Yes”; the long answer takes some explanation. You see, there are volumes and volumes of books on primitive skills, bushcraft, military survival skills and evasion, edible plants, marksmanship, canoeing, leathercraft and many other titles all related to outdoor pursuits.
The list of potential “good reads” goes on and on. It could take a lifetime to read all the books out there dedicated to survival in the broad sense of the word, but that isn’t what my students want to hear, nor do they have time to read everything.
I wish I could claim I’ve read all there is, but I haven’t, so my suggestions are based on my own interests, my training and my survival philosophy. Because my students want a continuation of learning with books written in a voice and with language that will sound familiar, I am careful about the books I suggest. My students want the short list of the books I recommend and would pull from my personal library.
I was asked again recently, “What are the top 12 books you would recommend?” These are my current suggestions.
The name, “Mors,” is synonymous with bushcraft, and he is considered one of the driving forces behind the “do more with less” movement. Mors is a boreal forest expert, and his book primarily focuses on the flora and fauna found in that region.
Mors, a college professor, delivers information about proper blade use, working with natural materials and travel through the forest. For example, he describes using willows to create baskets, horse hoof fungus for coal extenders and birch for everything from containers to firestarting.
Bushcraft is written in a polite Canadian voice, but there is an undoubtedly authoritative tone to it. It is a book written after years of outdoor education experience and is meant to help the reader become more comfortable living with the wilderness instead of fighting to survive in it. It is an excellent, no-pressure, informative book about traditional skills.
Publisher: Lone Pine; new edition (February 25, 2016)
2. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why?
This book covers in depth what many survival manuals skirt: survival psychology. Instead of being written like a manual, it provides lessons from actual survival situations that were paid for in blood. The author uses these, sometimes tragic, tales to explain the nuances of survival willpower, positive mental attitude and fight, flight and freeze responses.
You’ll realize how easily the stories and anecdotes are remembered as Gonzales blends scientific research with commentary about SCUBA divers, mountain climbers, fighter pilots and children lost in the woods. Deep Survival will teach you the critical characteristics of the survivor and how they are sometimes found deep in our mind and obvious in our actions.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; first edition (January 10, 2017)
3. Out on The Land
Ray Mears and Lars Falt
Visually, this is one of the finest books you can own on the subject of bushcraft. Written by British bushcraft expert Ray Mears with Swedish Air Force Survival School founder Lars Falt, this book focuses on the boreal forest and how to utilize its resources in each season.
Both Mears and Falt have impressive résumés, but throughout the book, they let the skills they show and the people who taught them be the stars and center of attention. Each time you pick it up, you’ll find something new to read or notice in a photo.
While many of the skills presented in this book relate to different geographic locations around the Northern Hemisphere, the universal survival concepts are well-presented and portrayed in full-color photography.
Publisher: Adlard Coles (October 11, 2016)
4. Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants
Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson
Whenever possible, I try to identify edible, medicinal and useful plants for my students. They always want to know which resources will help them with their own study of these plants. This book is usually the first that comes to mind.
Broken down in an easy color template, the reader can match what he or she finds in the field with the different sections of the book. The book is also broken down by area, such as woodland, swamp, disturbed areas and others. It can also be used to first learn about plants found in a particular area during a given time of year. The reader can then go out and find them in the field.
Not only is plant identification presented but plant use, as well. This Peterson Field Guide is a classic among foragers and it is an excellent place to start learning about correct plant terminology, growth cycles and methods of harvesting. However, although this is an excellent resource, one should always consult multiple books to verify that a plant is identified correctly before eating it.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; (September 1, 1999)
5. Field Manual 21-76
United States Department of Defense publication
FM 21-76 is not the sexiest book you’ll find on the topic of survival. It does not have fancy photos or a larger-than-life celebrity author. It is a down-and-dirty guide to surviving in a wide range of climates.
It features line drawings of dangerous plants and animals, essential knots, various traps to catch fish and game, and shelters to keep a soldier alive. Whether you are active military or a civilian, you will find many great takeaways in this book.
The military doesn’t tolerate the native awareness or spirituality found in some survival books. This book focuses on raw skills and knowledge and leaves out the spirituality for the reader to find on their own later. There are references to some dated technology, and reading various editions of the manual point to different eras in America’s history. While one can purchase this manual at most large bookstores, it is free to download on some websites.
When I worked at the Wilderness Learning Center as lead instructor under U.S. Army Survival Instructor Marty Simon, we cited this book as an instructional supplement during the Basic Survival Course.
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 13, 2012)
6. The Modern Hunter Gatherer
Tony Nester is a desert survival instructor. No one portrays the reality of living off the land better than he does. There is a common fantasy that living off the land means living well, with big-game harvests to fill your belly. Nestor describes the reality of both hunting and gathering with reliance on the eating of smaller mammals such as rodents and the unlikely chances of downing big game.
He discusses how to create effective primitive traps, the gear one should carry to hunt effectively, how to improve the flavor of food with a simple spice kit and how to live off the land. Nestor regularly runs “knife-only” courses in the Arizona desert, and even though he presents some information about this particular climate in this book, there are far more universal concepts applicable to any area of operation.
The Modern Hunter Gatherer is written in a very easy-to-read format, with excellent historical background facts presented, along with skills, in a seamless style.
Publisher: Diamond Creek Press; first edition (September 16, 2009)
7. 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive
The title of this book is also the central focus of it. Cody Lundin, one half of the original Dual Survivor casting, is a primitive skills instructor known for his barefoot tendencies. If you can see past his shoeless preference, you will find 98.6 Degrees to be a book grounded in solid skills and practical kit.
Lundin has an interesting and entertaining presentation in his book that is far from the forced drama of Dual Survival. Lundin is comical in his delivery, but he doesn’t make light of serious consequences.
This book is a great suggested read for someone who should learn about survival skills but is reluctant to. 98.6 Degrees engages the reader in a fun way, and the combination of color photos and comic drawings helps illustrate the points he writes about. Readers familiar with Dual Survivor will be impressed with the depth of knowledge Lundin presents using more gear than he has used on television.
Lundin was featured prominently in the 1990s in American Survival Guide and has been an outdoors educator for decades.
Publisher: Gibbs Smith; reprint edition (June 23, 2003)
8. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
Graydon and Hanson, editors
You don’t have to be a climber to appreciate this book; but if you are a climber, this is the bible for high-country travel.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a book loaded with information about travel through mountainous terrain and climbing techniques. Ascending and descending techniques, self-rescue rope techniques, specialized climbing knots, understanding weather patterns and backcountry medicine are some of the topics highlighted in this book.
Because this book is based on rock climbing, mountaineering and expedition travel over frozen geographic features, it has a heavy climbing tone. However, there are many pearls of wisdom that are written in broken bones and blood. The skills meant for higher altitudes will come in handy anywhere ropes and lines are found–boating, overlanding/4-wheeling and pioneer lashing. The section on backcountry medicine is excellent, providing improvised methods for dealing with situations when there is no doctor.
Publisher: The Mountaineer Books
9. Wildwood Wisdom
There aren’t many books that rival this one. Ellsworth Jaeger was an author who respected both buckskin frontiersmen and Native Americans.
Wildwood Wisdom, published in 1945, presents all the frontier skills either group would need to survive extended stays in the outdoors. These include how to make camp furniture, create moccasins, build shelters from available resources, camp kitchen tools and so much more. This is the book for the person who sits around the fire and needs a carving project or for anyone who wants to learn about classic wilderness living in America from the 1800s.
Jaeger, a faculty member of the Buffalo Museum of Science, didn’t seek to build an army of followers based on “native awareness” or become a spiritual leader of primitive skills practitioners (unlike some instructors of recent years who have been “elevated” to this level). He wrote a book with solid historical skills that will remind you of crafts you probably made at summer camp. If you’re looking for primitive skills without hype, this is your book.
Publisher: Shelter Publications
10. 6 Ways In, 12 Ways Out
George W. Jasper
This book can’t be found in stores; the only way you’ll acquire it is by sending a check through snail mail. When you receive this manual, you’ll likely be taken aback at first by the lack of fine finish and how the pages are bound together with metal fasteners. However, when you read through it, you’ll realize that the skills are unapologetic and unconventional. They are designed to get you home at the end of the day—at any cost.
Written by the cadre of the United States Rescue and Special Operations Group, this manual is an extension of military manual FM 21-76 that pushes the envelope. “Final option” kits that can be discretely hidden, .22-caliber “race dragons” and how to fight off the reaper are some of the topics included in the manual.
6 Ways In, 12 Ways Out teaches gritty skills and knowledge learned in the field in austere conditions. The skills aren’t for everyone, but then again, there is a reason it can’t be found in the average bookstore.
Publisher: US RSOG
ISBN: Not available. To purchase, mail a $15 check to:
4600 North Hardesty
Kansas City, MO 64117
11. The Herb Book
When I attended an advanced edible and medicinal plant course taught by my mentor, Marty Simon, this was one of the books he carried with him in his shoulder bag. This book provides instructions about how to make tinctures, salves, teas and other concoctions with what nature provides.
It’s one skill to identify plants; it is another to know what to do with them. This book is a veritable wild plant encyclopedia. It goes beyond identification and into how to grow your own herbs at home and also includes a great section about plant terminology and how to classify different types.
The Herb Book in my library is an older copy. It has been reprinted since. Nevertheless, regardless of the edition you end up with, rest assured that the knowledge contained inside is sound. Because the book has been around for quite some time, you might be able to find an inexpensive used copy.
Publisher: Dover Cookbooks
Written by the leader of the Australian Jungle Research Detachment to the Far East American Air Force, Bushcraft is an excellent guide to using natural resources for all aspects of survival and camping.
Fish baskets, crossbow traps, insulated wall construction, thatching, vehicle recovery with natural anchors—all of this is included in a book that views bushcraft through a noticeable military lens, rather than from the perspective of civilian authors. Many of its illustrations are drawings, but the reader should have no trouble tracking the concepts they represent.
This book will surprise you with the level of depth it takes in its study of the natural world and how the outdoorsman can survive in it. Graves explains how to navigate with the stars, process plants into cordage, read tracks and much more. If you are an aspiring bushcrafter, make sure to add this one to your collection, and you’ll be able to do more with less.
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing; first edition (March 1, 2013)
Compiling this list wasn’t easy. There are so many incredible books available and, with each book included, I had to cut out a different excellent book. Some not included but that easily could replace any of these are How to Survive on Land and Sea, by Frank and John Craighead; The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker; The SAS Survival Guide, by John “Lofty” Wiseman; and Shelters, Shacks and Shanties, by D.C. Beard.
There are also many fictional books that will complement your survival library: Last of the Breed, by Louis L’Amour; Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen; and One Second After, by William Forstchen. As you have probably already surmised, there are simply too many books to include in such an abbreviated list. But over time, as you read and collect more, you’ll create your own survival library for reference purposes.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.