Survival Handbooks Can Help Your Historical Adventure Character

Successful adventurers know how to tie various knots. (All illustrations in this article are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain).


Are you, an armchair adventurer, writing an historical adventure story?  How can you make your fictional hero/ine perform deeds of derring-do and still be realistic, when your own life’s most daring feat has been limited to a wet-haired, post-shower dash in freezing weather to put the garbage out before the truck gets to your block?

You can consult a modern-day survival handbook, like these listed below.  While some of the books’ tips are only applicable to modern times, like how to jimmy open a locked car, or what kind of headlamp to buy for wilderness trekking, others could be used by historical characters.

NOT the safe way to jump off a bridge into water

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht.  Chronicle Books, 1999.  0811825558

This pocket-sized volume is written with a humorous twist, but the advice in it is based on consultation with a list of experts provided in an appendix.  If your novel’s character needs to escape from quicksand, this tells you how, and the advice would be relevant in a historical context.  If your character needs to jump from a bridge or railroad overpass into water, this tells the best way to lower the risk of getting killed.  Have your character clench their buttocks, for example, so that water is not forced into the nether orifices and cause major damage.  The book also has a section on how to maneuver from the top of a moving train and get inside safely, which could be applicable to a 19th century character.

THE ACTION HERO’S HANDBOOK, by David and Joe Borgenicht.  Quirk Books, 2002.  193168605x

One of the authors of the previous title has come up with a tongue-half-in-cheek guide for would-be action heroes, yet claims that all the advice in the book is from real authorities such as FBI agents, stuntmen, criminologists, etc.  The experts they consulted are identified in an appendix.  Sections which might be applicable in historical situations include: how to survive in prison, how to negotiate a hostage crisis, saving someone hanging from a cliff, how to take a hit from a chair in a fight, how to disarm someone, and how to escape from handcuffs.


Much of the book is more applicable to modern times than historical, but it still contains tips and tricks a character in an adventure story set in past times could use, such as how to win a knife fight, the best way to dispose of a body, how not to drown if you are tied up and thrown into water, and how to position yourself when a captor is about to tie you up to give you a better chance to escape.   Additional tips that could work in previous centuries: improvising body armor from books or ceramic tiles (though you would have to come up with a period-correct substitute for the recommended duct tape), or making a weapon out of metal wrenches concealed in a folded umbrella.

Learn how to get your character across a log bridge safely

OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, by Garth Hattingh.   Stackpole Books, 2003.  0811726932

It was written for modern adventurers, but I spotted some sections that could be used in a historical context.  One page has pictures and directions for making tools out of a glass shard, a stone, or a piece of bamboo.  Another section presents various ways to cross a river safely, with or without a rope, and also how to construct a log bridge or a raft.  Others show how to build a shelter, how to make a snare to catch game, and how to tie useful knots.

THE CAPTAIN’S GUIDE TO LIFERAFT SURVIVAL, by Michael Cargal.  Sheridan House, 1990.  0924486007

It’s a manual written for modern sailors, but still has material applicable to historical situations.  Sections include: why you should always jump from a ship feet first, how to eat plankton or a raw sea bird, poisonous creatures NOT to eat, how to tell if land is near, and how to survive on an island while awaiting rescue.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC COMPLETE SURVIVAL MANUAL, by Michael Sweeney.  National Geographic, 2008.  9781426203893

Contains tips on building a fire, how to make a whistle out of an acorn cap, shelters for various types of weather, an edibility test for food, bad weather warning signs, how to find water in the desert, and how to fight off a shark.  There’s another section where a modern explorer tells how she nearly died from a couple of minor scrapes acquired in a rain forest that turned septic—a story idea for a character lost in the wilderness in the 19th century?

Don’t let your characters eat poison hemlock, unless you want to kill them off

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SURVIVAL TECHNIQUES, new rev. ed., by Alexander Stilwell.  Lyons Press, 9781599213149

As with the other entries, this is aimed at modern adventurers, but there are nuggets of historical content.  The section on desert survival tells how a Bushman of the Kalahari finds water in a dried watercourse, and which plants might be a source of water.  The tropics section shows how to build platform shelters, suggests ways to find drinkable water, and has a lengthy discussion of what plants and animals might be safe to eat.  There’s a whole chapter on fire making, and another on trapping animals and fishing.

FOOD ON FOOT: A HISTORY OF EATING ON TRAILS AND IN THE WILD, by Demet Guzey.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.  9781442255067

The title explains the premise; this volume contains information on eating on the go over the centuries.  Chapters include: trail food while hiking, during polar expeditions, what early mountain climbers ate, desert cuisine, food eaten on medieval pilgrimage routes, and the history of military rations.

Learn how your character could build an igloo for shelter

HOW TO STAY ALIVE, by Bear Grylls.  Morrow, 2018.  9780062857118

The noted adventurer gives advice, some of which would be historically appropriate, on how to make a shelter and which direction to orient it, navigating without a compass, identifying poisonous plants, making snares and fishing equipment, surviving on a life raft in the ocean, making snowshoes out of tree branches, surviving animal attacks, etc.


An earlier book by Grylls, a companion volume to his TV series, this also gives some survival tips which could apply in historical situations.  Examples: a 10-page section on fire, how personal hygiene in the wilderness can keep you healthy (such as improvising a toothbrush from plants), building shelters in various climates, finding safe food in the rain forest, or how rubbing charcoal under one’s eyes can prevent blinding glare in the desert.


THE PRAIRIE TRAVELER: A HAND-BOOK FOR OVERLAND EXPEDITIONS by Randolph B. Marcy.  Harper, 1859.  (also available online at Project Gutenberg)

The author was a noted American explorer in the early-to-mid-19th century, and was asked by the U.S. War Department to create a guidebook for emigrants to the West.  He gives detailed instructions on the safe way to ford a river, dealing with rattlesnake bites (he prefers enough whiskey to make the sufferer drunk), how to make a tent, how to interact with Indians, and provides lists of what to expect to find on various trails, such as which stops have good water or lack wood for fires.  Wikipedia says that the volume was a bestselling book for the remainder of the 19th century, so if your novel is set during the westward movement in America, this would be an extremely valuable resource.

NOTE:  YouTube has a lot of videos that may be relevant—go to and search on, for example, “make a rabbit snare,” “light a fire without matches,” or, “navigate without a compass.”

I have not recommended online resources for this topic, because when I used a search engine to look for “historical survival techniques” and variations on that phrase, I retrieved websites that I didn’t want to have in my browsing history.  Try it at your own risk.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.



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