A new purpose: Finding peace in teaching the art of survival
Will White can prepare you to survive just about any situation.
Out in his slice of woods deep in Haywood County, you may find yourself trying to start a fire, your very ability to eat hanging in the balance. You may find yourself trying to evade capture using makeshift camouflage to hide. You may find yourself trying to escape a tightly locked zip-tie. These situations may seem harsh, but for the last five years, White’s tough approach to survival has appealed to folks around the area as he’s hosted numerous camps and classes for kids and adults alike.
While White initially came to love his time out in nature learning to survive as a means to self-fulfillment, he’s found there’s nothing quite as satisfying as teaching others and seeing them grow more confident as people — a confidence that can carry into their everyday lives.
White, 40, was born in North Carolina but moved around the United States and even lived in the Dominican Republic for six months. Eventually, he joined the Army and became a Patriot Missile operator.
In 2011, he settled in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Initially, he found a job as a CrossFit coach, something he did for eight years and enjoyed. But it was in the woods where he began to find healing for past trauma, where he learned that his true calling couldn’t be answered with a regular day job.
Around the same time White began spending more time out in nature, he also started therapy to get to the root of his PTSD and anxiety.
“I found that the hippy dippy stuff does work,” White said, specifically noting that meditation and cognitive behavioral exercises have worked wonders.
It didn’t take long before he noticed how nature and therapy are complimentary.
“It’s medication for me just to be in the woods, in nature,” he said. “It’s just grounding.”
There’s also the strange sense of peace White described when talking about being within nature and knowing its sheer power, its sheer indifference.
“Mother Nature’s unforgiving and unbiased,” he said. “You don’t get a trophy for this. It doesn’t matter. Mother Nature does what it does.”
With the nature skills comes what is sometimes referred to as “prepper” skills — things one can do to mitigate or even thrive in worst-case scenarios. While for many people that can include seemingly outlandish plans to survive natural disasters on a global scale or bugging out at the onset of some massive armed conflict, White said it’s important to note that techniques employed by preppers can be used in everyday life to be ready for challenges big or small.
Are you prepared for the next flood? Are you prepared to deal with a home intruder? Do you have things lined up such that losing a job or source of income wouldn’t be devastating?
“Those are all things that are more likely to happen,” White said. “It’s not always prepping for the worst-case scenario. And I also just enjoy being outside and learning.”
“I think a lot of it also comes to self-confidence, knowing that you can handle a hard situation,” he added. “You just feel more confident, and you carry yourself through life with a little less anxiety. Once you have the skillset or the materials to get through the challenging situation, you walk through life a little lighter with a little less stress.”
White said the toughest part about survival is maintaining a positive attitude and mental and emotional clarity. Solitude is his biggest struggle. White pointed out the irony of the fact that the more time he spends around people, the more time he wants to be in the woods, and the more time he spends in the woods, the more he misses people.
“Enough time away and you’re like, ‘it’s kind of nice to have company,’” he said.
As much as White benefitted from learning such skills, he said he’s benefitted equally from teaching.
“Probably six years ago I decided my mission in life,” White said. “Just help people, teach people and protect people. That’s what fills me up with joy. I enjoy teaching because I know it boosts your confidence and makes you feel better, makes you more capable.”
In 2017, White took the leap and got into teaching basic survival skills, such as building a fire. The idea came from a couple of friends who set him up to lead a four-hour class for some friends’ children.
“It was exhausting,” he said with a laugh. “It took me three months to get back to normal.”
White initially didn’t intend on continuing to teach, but the spark struck from that experience was slowing building into a fire within him. By the next year, he was hosting more events that gained in popularity as word spread over social media.
White said the aim of working with kids is to help those who may be dealing with emotional and behavioral issues brought on by trauma.
“I want to intervene in a negative mindset of kids while teaching survival skills,” he said. “The woods are the classroom and they’re also the distraction. I want to induce positive thinking, and we just use survival skills to implement those.”
But the volume of requests from eager parents rekindled his interest in teaching kids survival skills. Now White has a 49-acre tract north of Clyde he rents for classes as part of his Piked Antler Project, which offers a variety of camps. And his spot is perfect. It provides a variety of terrain with a variety of challenges and has enough room that people can find some space when they need it. Typical navigation apps don’t identify the spot, so White gives those seeking it GPS coordinates. Some find it, some need a little help.
White talked about what he sees when he hosts kids camps, noting that they are generally a microcosm of what might be seen in any classroom. Aside from kids inclined to be bullies, he said he more or less lets the kids be themselves since that’s how they will be most comfortable and most ready to learn.
“You’re a jock. Be a jock. You’re a nerd. Be a nerd. You’re a goer. Be a goer,” he said. “Just be respectful, do what we say and pay attention.”
White treats a course similar to a mini bootcamp where at the beginning it’s a lot of “tough love” and toward the end there’s more camaraderie and things loosen up a bit. While it could seem that some parents would find the tough love aspect — which can include some yelling and pressure situations — off-putting, White said he’s never had an issue with someone being uncomfortable with the way he runs his camp. He said it all comes down to rapport, given that most of those parents who send their kids his way know and trust him from his time instructing CrossFit.
- White follows closely behind a group of campers on a run. Donated photo
Part of the fun for the kids who experience White’s camp is getting to put survival skills to the test with some games. For example, White will play a sort of “red light, green light” game. When he calls “red light” the kids all have to freeze and try to conceal themselves. Those who remain visible are out. White will also often get some friends, many of whom are veterans, and play a large-scale game of hide and seek. White admitted that as the kids become more comfortable with their new skills, they can become pretty crafty, and it often gets to the point that instructors will walk right by a kid without even noticing them.
While White loves instructing kids, he admitted they can be a bit trickier than some of the adults he has in other classes.
“Kids need more management,” he said. “It just takes so much energy versus adults.”
And while White loves instructing kids, he said it’s nice in its own way to see the benefit he brings to the lives of adults, whose minds are often conditioned to dwell on the future.
“People will get out here and get their hands in the dirt and it’s like they’ll just stop talking,” White said. “It’s like a pacifier, and they don’t even realize it’s a pacifier. They’re grounded.”
As White has grown his camp, he’s also maintained a focus on his own growth. He said he encountered his greatest challenge just last year, when he partook in a five-week program in the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, through Sigma Survival School. He said he used that opportunity to “fill a lot of holes” in his knowledge.
“Weeks one through four were teaching and training, and week five is being in the woods alone,” White said. “They come check on you once a day to make sure you’re alive, but that’s it. You start out with two knives. I was on a small pond, and my objective was to build a shelter, purify water and start getting food. Then I had to make cordage and start making baskets. You pretty much don’t quit because there’s always something to do, and you can never find enough food. By day six, I was straight-up over it.”
Even after day one, as the body and mind gets used to a survival situation, things can still be difficult.
“It’s kind of like the military training kicking in,” White said. “I tell myself I chose to do this for sound reasons. Now the suck is kicking in, but that’s just temporary. My mind is like ‘I don’t wanna’ and I just have to tune it out.”
For anyone who’s seen the History Channel reality TV program “Alone,” some of this may sound familiar. That show puts 10 people in a remote location with very few items to survive. Each contestant documents their efforts to build shelter and find food to sustain themselves amid a harsh climate. While some tap out early due to fears of wildlife, a lack of food or just bad luck, those who make it near the end typically lose when the mental and emotional challenges become too much to bear.
White said he likes watching the show but admitted that he wants no part of that kind of competition.
“Staying alive is one thing,” White said. “Solitude will make you go crazy. Enough time away from people and all you can think is it’d be nice to have company.”
White’s advice to anyone interested in developing survival skills — or even just general outdoors skills — is simply to get out and do it. Take that leap.
“You gotta start somewhere,” White said. “Start learning about wild edibles or whatever interests you.”
Looking forward, when it comes to the camp, White said he hopes to transition into a nonprofit that would allow him to have a more structured program to work with troubled kids.
“I can coach and mentor talk and be a positive male role model,” he said. “The majority, I would say 60% at least of the kids here that I see, either don’t have fathers in their life or if they do, they shouldn’t have those fathers in their life.”
White also mentioned working with veterans to give them the opportunity to experience the growth he’s enjoyed out in the woods.
“I think a huge reason a lot of vets go through depression in their lives is there’s no sense of purpose,” he said. “Vets need that sense of purpose, something bigger than them.”
In the meantime, White will continue to not only work on his own survival skills, but also to try to use the lessons learned outdoors to live the best life he can.
“If I’m out publicly and someone’s getting on my nerves, or something triggers a physiological response, I just have to practice to remind myself that I’m just standing here,” he said. “That’s all that’s really happening. I’m here. I’m fine. My mind and body are both safe. And that being able to do that comes from having so much time here in the woods knowing that feeling.”