Robert Young Pelton makes no bones about it. Statistically, we are much more at risk of death and injury from the mundane than from the exotic. You are more likely to die in an accidental fall in the bathroom, or a freeway collision than by mishap in the wilderness. Pelton is notorious among journalists. Not one to sit by and wait for the Pentagon to give him access, Pelton embedded himself with Northern Alliance Warlords and U.S. Special Forces during the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan. For his book “Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror” he spent time with both Blackwater Operators and Iraqi insurgents. He’s even survived an assassination attempt in Uganda.
His most well-known book is “The Worlds Most Dangerous Places” and it’s a bestseller, regularly updated, and at one time the basis of a popular show on the Travel Channel. It’s his practical guide to survival in high risk zones. But of greater interest to the slightly less adventurous is “Come Back Alive: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disaster, Kidnapping, Animal Attacks, and Other Nasty Perils of Modern Travel.” Unlike some well-known televised experts, Pelton doesn’t emphasize the dangers of the wild unknown, instead he points out the obvious.
The book makes a logical and practical progression from psychological self-evaluation (what sort of adventurer are you?), to details on exposure, with chapters on both hypothermia and heat. The book finishes on the most mundane of travel dos and don’ts — the packing list. In-between you’ll find advice on self-defense, disasters, travel in war zones, even a chart listing bug protein by percentage of weight. The chapter on the myth of survival points out the vast majority of the great survival stories involve someone doing something incredibly stupid, thus being forced to heroically survive and be rescued by the expenditure of vast sums of tax dollars and the tireless efforts of dozens of volunteers. If the participants of the TV show “Survivor” read this book they would likely be less miserable, more cooperative, and far less dramatic.
Pelton is practical. On self-defense his advice can be boiled down to run or carry a weapon. On the subject of weapons, rather than dwelling on personal defense, Pelton describes what to expect during your travels in the less desirable tourist destinations. You know, like Yemen, or Syria. Places where people use AK-47s as directional pointers or celebratory noisemakers.
Reading Pelton is like sitting at the knee of the proverbial old-timer as he shares his wisdom; he’s a little grumpy, and likely to give you the stink eye for asking a stupid question, but you can take his advice to the bank, or in this case to a stinking third world hellhole with a reasonable chance of coming back in one piece.
“Come Back Alive” is a travel guide, but this does not, however, make the advice and instruction any less helpful to those who never leave their hometown.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.