In early March, 2014, I attended the 5-day "basic standard" survival class put on my Sigma 3 Survival School near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sigma 3 seems to be a relatively new player in this industry, yet they have apparently managed to attract a very strong talent base, including former military elites and participants on survival-related reality shows.
I arrived at the facility on a Sunday evening to spend the night at the camp. It was an overcast, gloomy evening and to be honest, when I arrived at the school I was taken with the depressing, almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere. If you go to this school, follow Dorothy Allen Way all the way back, don't be creeped out by some of the dilapidated houses in the vicinity. When you see the concrete lions and "Hidden Valley" sign, you know you are in the right place, just keep going, You won't see the signs for the school until you are right on top of them. You may have to park in the circular stone driveway by the signs unless it's very dry, the road back to the camping area can be flooded and extremely muddy.
For the 5-day survival standard class that I attended, the first day of class was concerned with shelter building. We studied the design and participated in constructing debris shelters, lean-to's, and other shelters consisting of natural materials. In addition, we covered shelters using ponchos, tarps and other man-made accessories. In the evening we conducted a night-time navigation exercise and woods hike.
Day two covered several primitive water collection and filtration techniques, as well as using various native plants to make teas.
Day three was primitive fire-starting, consisting primarily of bow drill techniques with various locally available wood types, as well as building teepee fires.
Day four consisted of construction and placement of various traps and snares, both improvised and modern.
Day five covered making hunting and fishing spears as well as simple land navigation, making cordage and poisonous and edible plant identification.
The real value I found in this class is not "that" one can do such things, but "how" one might do them, and getting hands on experience doing so. I feel like I gained more information in miscellaneous tips and tricks from the instructor and particularly from my fellow students, than I did from the actual lessons themselves.
It was obvious that the instructor was quite knowledgeable about wilderness survival, but some of the techniques demonstrated didn't work very well. The lesson was quite obvious: while one can improvise cordage, fire starters, water filtration, etc... these things don't work anywhere near as effectively as the commercially available article. So... don't leave home without a poncho, plenty of paracord, a ferro rod, a good knife and a way to obtain, filter and carry water.
What you can expect if you train at Sigma 3:
Ticks... prepare your clothing with permethrin before going and check yourself every night. They have dog ticks, black-legged ticks and those tiny lonestar "seed" ticks. Tweezers and a bottle of Campho Phenique to treat the area after the tick is removed would be a good thing.
*A word on ticks: ticks don't fly and they don't drop out of trees. Ticks do climb low vegetation and wait until they feel vibration or smell CO2 from a passing mammal, then they extend their legs to snag on to clothing or whatever brushes by. Once on the host, the tick slowly crawls to someplace warm and protected, which can take several minutes or even longer. Usually you don't feel them crawling on you, but sometimes you do, or at least I generally do... let's say 7 out of 10 times. Once the tick finds a nice spot they begin to bite. Their saliva contains an anti-coagulant to facilitate blood flow through the wound and you don't feel the bite. It takes several hours from the time the tick begins to bite for it to actually reach the blood stream and begin feeding. The saliva of the lonestar tick is known to cause the onset of a meat allergy that is becoming more and more common, but other than that, tick-borne diseases are transmitted to humans when the tick becomes engorged and regurgitates into the blood stream or when people squeeze the body of the tick while trying to remove it, OR when people use folk remedies to remove the tick such as burning them with a cigarette or coating them in oil, alcohol, gasoline, Vaseline, etc... all of which cause the tick to regurgitate. If a tick's been sucking on you, the last thing you want is for that contaminated blood to be puked back into your blood stream. So when you need to remove a tick, grasp the head of the tick, not the body, and pull the tick out slowly to avoid breaking the head off. You need tweezers or fine needle-nose pliers to do this, but I have managed with improvised implements like a pocketknife and sharpened stick. AFTER the tick is removed, I recommend treating the area with Campho Penique, which in my opinion is a wonder-drug. It contains about 4.7% phenol, which readily absorbs into the skin and is strongly antibiotic and anti-parasitic. It also contains camphor which gives the area a cooling sensation and relieves any itching associated with the bite. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
You can also expect being outdoors constantly... for me this wasn't a problem, in fact, it was one of the reasons I went. I've been into wilderness camping since the mid-90's, so being outdoors makes for a good vacation for me. We did have decent weather though. Be prepared with plenty of rain gear, sunscreen, etc... There are various shelters to sleep in that are quite comfortable, you really don't need a tent.
Try staying in one of the wikiups, but DON'T build a fire in them! If you really can't stand sleeping outdoors, lack of showers or running water, there are modern accommodations available a short drive away.
Be prepared for lots and lots of sawing and bow-drilling. You will be cutting down some small trees and cutting a lot of branches. Get a good folding camp saw. I picked one up from Menards for less than $30 that was awesome. I also brought a small camp axe that came in handy for making hearth-boards, trimming cedar boughs and sharpening sticks for the miscellaneous items you will be building.
You need some good knives, a small folding pocket knife and a larger bushcraft or Bowie knife. I used an SOG Tigershark Bowie that I have owned and used for over a decade of camping trips and yard work. It's maybe a trifle big for bushcraft, but it did everything I needed it too. They recommend you avoid the popular knives branded by a famous TV survival personality, apparently those break very frequently. A good bushcraft knife would be full-tang, have a blade somewhere about 5 to 7 inches long with a thick spine, because you will be hammering it to split and sharpen sticks. They recommend European-style bushcraft knives like Moras, and after this class I do intend to look into those a little more closely.
Bring plenty of water - there aren't a lot of places near the campsite to get water naturally, even though some techniques to do so will be demonstrated. You will have the opportunity to make some trips into town or make a walk to your vehicle if necessary, so for this class if you have extras, feel free to leave them in your car if you don't want to carry them back to the campsite. If you don't have a stainless steel water bottle that you can boil water in, I recommend you pick up one of the 16oz stainless camping mugs with foldable handles. One of the first items I ditched from my camping gear when I started backpacking was a big cook-kit, in favor of one of these stainless camping mugs. You can do everything with them, you just don't need a lot of other cook gear for your backpack.
Those are my basic recommendations if you are interested in this class. I can't really compare it with the other wilderness schools out there because I haven't trained at any of them so...there's no way for me to make a fair comparison. We didn't cover any game tracking, camouflage or hunting techniques, so if that's what you're looking for, this probably isn't the class for you. If, however, you have no experience with camping or backpacking and you want to take it up as a hobby or lifestyle, I would recommend this class to you.