The First Line Course: An Introduction

fmu2.jpgSurvival means different things to different people. To some, it’s a series of preparations for some future cataclysmic event; others, a realization of the unsustainability of many of today’s practices or a return to the simpler, more natural ways of life. In that vein, survival includes primitive living skills and bushcrafting. All of these view points are ok and ones that I agree with when it comes to more primitive, sustainable living. A military definition of survival is simpler; boiling our needs down, actual survival means one thing- staying alive to be recovered. For the vast majority out there, meeting any and all of these needs begins and ends with buying a bunch of stuff and putting it in a bag, rarely if ever testing the gear itself or most importantly, themselves. Effective training gives us a different perspective; what we carry on our bodies, our first line gear, should be able to sustain us until rescue.

Combat arms soldiers are taught the process of layering equipment- a first, second and third line– which support our mission both individually and as a team. The third line is our ruck sack with mission-specific equipment, the second, our fighting load. In dire straits these two are expendable. The first line gear is a set of items worn on the body always which keep us alive until we link up with friendly forces. It is a concept that serves anyone into wilderness and outdoors living quite well when the unexpected happens.

CSARIn training we first establish a baseline and then create standards to meet them. If it’s small unit tactics, that begins with individual skills including quiet movement, observation, land navigation and marksmanship graduating to team formations and battle drills. If it’s communications, we first create competent operating skills then move into basic radio theory. With survival, it’s focusing on individual sustainment skills to keep you alive and successfully rescued.  No matter what your fantasy is about ‘bugging out’ , the reality is you’re not going to last long in the wild without a prior skillset, a few basic items, and someone there to eventually recover you. If the world has become upside down and you find yourself in a real-deal survival situation, the first goal is rescue and everything you do between the time of the incident and getting rescued is geared towards keeping you alive.

Survival Rule of Threes

The general survival rule of thumb is the rule of threes:

  • 3 minutes without oxygen
  • 3 hours in a severe environment without shelter
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food.

While its physiologically correct, the rule leaves out the psychological factors which cause the bad decisions ending up in a tragic story. Shelter from exposure has far more to do with hypothermia than simple bush living; we have to insulate our bodies from a change in temperature which leads to hypothermia. This can set in even in relatively warm temperatures. Thirst can make a human do some strange stuff, ranging from a short temper to a complete lack of awareness, and depending on fitness level can set in within a matter of hours. Starvation can play havoc on our brains as well- normally within a few hours our decision making process reverts to finding calories after we find water. But you can make it– as long as you keep the objective of recovery in mind.

First Line Gear: What’s In My Kit?

IMG_1386Students who’ve taken the RTO and Scout Course with me know that I emphasize many follow on skills beyond the scope of the course itself. The planning process, coordinating between multiple elements, and most important for small groups, successful link ups are all touched on throughout the hands on exercises. Personnel recovery is a huge topic which gets no emphasis in civilian side tactical training anywhere that I’ve seen, for a lot of reasons, and it’s a skill that will make a world of difference in a group’s preparedness plan. If you’re not including a plan to recover your people when your original plan goes wrong (and it will), you’re failing your people and living in a delusion. And training effectively for a personnel recovery plan begins with selecting proper tools for the task.

A well rounded first line kit addresses all of the needs of the survival rule of threes listed above. Space blankets are an excellent item that no kit should be without. The issue with exposure is hypothermia; while building shelters is great for comfort, we may need to get warm now, as in right now, to prevent going into shock and losing heat, which can pretty much be a death sentence. Shock is normally associated with physical trauma but can also be a result of mental trauma as well- bewilderment being a definite cause. The space blanket itself makes for a great ground layer to reflect body heat once we build a better bush shelter. The next items need to be both a container and means to purify water- chlorine or iodine tabs are fast and simple requiring no extra effort. A small mylar bag can serve as a temporary water container if you have no other option.

IMG_1389Fire is an important part of survival not just for the prevention of hypothermia but also for making smoke signals. I always carry a magnesium bar with ferro rod for building a fire. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one on the market to buy, and it’s the official issue one made by Doan. All of the others I’ve used from the Harbor Freight checkout special to the imitations on Amazon are all junk compared to the official issue model. The biggest difference is in the magnesium itself; the others are frustratingly bad to light when the chips are down. Doan is far easier and much more effective and its made in the US.

IMG_1392Another item worth it’s tiny weight in gold is the signal mirror. There’s many on the market, and most are pretty much the same. The pilot’s issue model is made of glass and while great, it can chip or get damaged. Polycarbonite models are a little better because they’re shatterproof. Sometimes you’ll see these referenced as starflash mirrors, and teams in the field use them to hail one another in order to establish near and far recognition signals, in addition to signaling aircraft for recovery. One other reason I carry a mirror is when you’re out in the bush getting stuff stuck in our face and eyes happens pretty frequently. Having a mirror on hand just makes good sense.

IMG_1391It goes without saying that you need a compass to navigate- while it’s good to know how to navigate by the sun and stars, nothing beats having a reliable compass on hand. I’ll always run my old Cammenga tritium lensatic compass- they work, plain and simple. I’ve carried a few different ones over the years but each still glows and works within the 2 degree accuracy threshold. That said, when I have the option, I carry two. A small Suunto baseplate compass is an excellent backup and I have no problem using one as an alternative to my combat-proven lensatic. But why Suunto? Because they’re the last baseplate compass I know of that hasn’t sold out to China, still building quality products in Finland. And while I’ve got similar compasses from Silva and Brunton, none of them match the quality of Suunto.

IMG_1390The last two items are for sustainment- a crevat and a 400 grit diamond sharpening plate. The crevat serves many functions past being a wound dressing or sling; it’s also a water filter, a rag to wipe my face and hands, and a head covering for basic camouflaging my head and shoulders or protection from the sun. The diamond stone is a quick and simple sharpener in the field. Your knife will take damage and keeping a good edge is imperative. It’s actually surprising to me how many people I come across who have a hard time sharpening, but the diamond plate makes it fairly simple with any type of steel; from 1075 to 154CM; and with a coarse enough grit to repair edge damage from digging, banging on rocks, battoning, or any of the other tasks your survival knife might be called upon to do. But why the diamond plate instead of a stone? Because the stone will break when you least expect it to- I’ve done it more than once in the field- in addition to a small stone being dangerous to use on a large knife when you’re cold, tired and wet. The metal plate may bend, but it won’t break and the diamond grit won’t get clogged with swarf if used dry. Further, some steels are a lot harder to sharpen than others, but diamond grit does a pretty good job on the widest variety out there.

Together with a long run of cordage, and aside from a good knife, this makes up my first line kit. It’s nothing fancy and there’s no gimmicks, just lessons and skills how to stay alive until a successful recovery, in an environment which will get you outside of your comfort zone with tools to get you there. There’s a class right around the corner with a couple of spots left. Email me at [email protected] for more details.



28 thoughts on “The First Line Course: An Introduction

  1. So simple, yet these are points and items that are so often overlooked. Great point about the sharpener. I feel dense for not thinking about that sooner. I’ve always had a stone and ceramic rod but never thought about it breaking. A diamond plate makes so much more sense…. off to find one. 💪🏻👊🏻

    1. Come on up Brother 😉

      The issue I have with a honing rod is keeping a consistent angle. And that’s my opinion…a close friend of mine has no problems with his and can put an edge on anything. But for me being able to lay the plate flat and keep a constant angle works best.

      1. For your consideration the Smith Pocket Pal Knife Sharpener.
        Small, cutting edge set to 30 degrees, comes with carbide for course work and ceramic for honing, and a diamond pick for serrated edges. And at $10 each I keep a number of them around so as to not wait for the edge to be less than ideal. Lowe’s stocks them in the tool area.

        I sent a fist full of them to a buddy overseas a while back and he said they were quite appreciated.

        NC Scout, after using your 400 grit plate try stropping on a leather belt to finish off the edge. 😉

  2. HB

    I second the notion of the plate…duh….so, off to ‘Zon i go and find this:
    Taytools 107214 8” x 3” 400/1000 Grit Diamond Sharpening Stone/Plate 5/16” Thick Plated Steel Base

    When i am off stalking trout, i always have the above 1st line gear on my person/in my vest..

    If i get stuck or suffer some kind of injury, at least i know that i can manage in place and be able to survive, thrive and signal…

    I am always amazed at my fellow stalkers who DO NOT carry the basics for survival…Darwin Award waiting to happen…

    as always, great article on the basics….

  3. JJ

    Ordered 2 of the Doan firestarters, directly from Doan. None of the “genuine” ones I found on Amazon passed the smell test.
    Can never have too many ways to start a fire….

  4. pablo

    a good tip for the magnesium fire starters are keep some duct tape with or wrapped around the starter striker end. use a square of this to keep your shavings in one spot and when they spark, they’ll light the duct tape on fire quickly without you scrambling to try to get tinder lit, then you can add the tinder on top of the burning duct tape.

  5. RF

    first hand experience with this piece of kit…

    imagine a young, veeeeeerrrrrrrry green troop, zero line experience, who in all honesty, had no business business going thru sfqc back in 84/85…Phase 1 training, survival week, Uwharrie,
    7 days of bliss…HAD to have a fire 24/7 or DQ’d, no questions….Gotta keep that Dakota hole going…damp/wet settings, not quite jungle, but very wet conditions, limited dry shit around.

    They issued us a book of MRE matches to take with other Line 1 kit…

    I decide to smuggle mag block, be creative in your thinking here ok….we were physically searched prior to drop off, but not cavity searched….

    That first night, and every day afterwards, i had FIRE!

    Jus sayin….if you don’t get caught……

  6. William

    Thanks for the salient and sober info. Diamond plate ordered. Honored to have been in one of your recent classes. Awesome. Stay frosty.

    Bill Harrison

  7. Pingback: Brushbeater: An Introduction To The First Line Course | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  8. I love diamond plates, I use them for my woodworking hand tools, I learned about them from the great Paul Sellers. Great article as usual NCScout. One day I will fly out there for one of your courses…

  9. Pingback: Brushbeater: First Line Survival Kit – Lower Valley Assembly

  10. James

    I like the idea of a decent sharpening stone/I like the fire starter in small package,personally have a ferro rod with waxed jute,has worked very well but takes up a lot more room(aspirin bottle),of course,have in any pack a few lighters also.

    I assume a boo-boo/ifak kit is a whole other part/kit?, I never go hiking/fishing more then a few 100 yards from me car without me baby hunting pack,has this and more(am a pack rat/working on it!)but the diamond stone will be a new addition along with trying the mentioned fire starter.

    1. A FAK is another topic- I consider it a separate thing altogether and I teach a separate class on the topic. But you’re right, it should always be handy.

  11. Doc Raydio

    Hey Scout,

    As always, I enjoyed your article. I have about a dozen Doan’s here and there. The diamond plate is an interesting concept. Who make yours and what grit do you recommend? I’m thinking 240 or 320 for a such a field unit. I want to take out any nicks and get a quick edge without wasting a whole lot of time. The 5/16″ thick unit described by HB seems way too thick and heavy to carry. The one in your photo seems to be about 1/16″.

    As always, thanks for all of the efforts to keep this site going.


    1. Mine comes from a knife supply for the kits but you can find them on Amazon (the price is higher). 400 is a happy medium on 1095 when combined with a quick strop, while also being able to hone some of the tougher steels.

      In last weekend’s RTO course we had a custom knife maker in the class. With that diamond plate he brought an ANCIENT Spyderco in 154cm (I think…) with a very dull edge back to shaving sharp very quick.

  12. Praxis

    Having used space blankets in extreme field conditions bivying on climbing trips, if like me you decide they are deficient, you might want to look into making or buying a both bag. For a little more weight you get durable material in a more functional and versatile configuration. You could even make a makeshift stretcher out of one. I have found the Mylar bags useful as a vapor barrier liner inside a sleeping bag for short trips in subzero conditions. But for longer trips your boots destroy the flimsy material after 3 to 4 nights.

  13. anonymous

    Accu Sharp manufactures a dual grit diamond plate sharpener (320 / 800) that sells for about $7.00 plus shipping is ordered online. Purchased two of these last night at a local Academy.

    Local conditions require a pair of tweezers – using them in our locale is almost a daily occurence, when sleeping out. Thorns are a part of it, like it or not. For water container, the HD zip lock
    freezer baggie with duct taped seam reinforcing is used,

    Any recommendations for a 1st line flashlight ? The micro units like Nano work well, but they run out of juice at unexpected times. The old 9Volt PAL light was a good one, but is now discontinued. Battery life was good and often the locator beacon was enough light without having to turn it on. Hi – lo – strobe were the modes

    The kit container is a hard sided eye glass case. Fits in a rear hip pocket and also easily fit into a M65 jacket pocket. I wish it were bigger, but leaving it behind becomes an issue – EDC in the woods is the aim.

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