My friend “John Smith” has a little over a year until he can retire from the British Royal Marine Commandos. He has been stationed in conflict areas throughout the world as well as trained in some of the best survival schools of a variety of nations.

He now spends most of his time teaching SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) closer to home. He kindly took the time to answer a few questions for me. They are tremendously valuable in the information and insight that they provide in always being able to know or at least have some ideas on where you are at any given moment.

What is the biggest mistake that people seem to make during SERE training?

Hmm, good question…. I would say they try to do everything at once.

They become rushed and forget the priorities of Survival. We have a saying, jack of all trades master of none!

Selected few individuals come with a mentality that they know it all.

They allow their personal arrogance to get in the way of better judgment and not listen to what’s being said and taught.

That soon changes within the 1st day of lectures though! Especially when they realize there is a whole different world of knowledge and skills that the average joe never even knew existed.

Ok, So hypothetical scenario, you’ve been kidnapped by human traffickers and have managed to escape. What do you do next?

This all depends on a series of things, to be honest.


Are you injured if so how bad? Can you walk/run? If not you might want to consider to go to ground and come up with an escape route or acquire a vehicle. When was the last time you drank or ate?

You might need to make food or water a priority if you’re going to go down!

Since you most likely not know where you are or how far you need to travel this is an important fact but an easily overlooked issue especially when the 1st thing you want to do is run as fast as you can!

Time of day

It’s best to be on the move at night. Since you can use it to hide your presence (though this will depend on what specialist kit your captors might have? Sights NVGs etc.).

On the other side traveling at night might be counterproductive and dangerous. This would be apparent if you were amongst Mountainous terrain or Jungle!

Navigation tips from Royal Marine Commando SERE Instructor

Local population

If you can see civilization do you make a beeline for the nearest house, village town?

Are the locals sympathetic or hostile? If you approached them would they sell you back to your captors or help you in getting home? This can be a valuable lifeline but one to be cautious about.

Captors professionalism

Do you know if your captors are trained? Ex-military or trackers? What vehicles do they have and are they armed? If so what is the range of their weapons?

This will give you a guide to how fast you need to get the hell out of dodge and out of their weapon ranges.

Hopefully, they will be untrained and inexperienced without a selected chain of command; this would make them slow and disorganized.


Do you need to postpone your escape (as in journey) to find and collect resources? Water bottles, food, clothes, tools?

This will be dependent on which environment you’re in! Desert, cold climate, jungle.

The list goes on and on, but probably the most important thing is if you know where you are? Have you been blindfolded or driven around in the boot of a car?

Do you know where safety is and what direction you need to go?

How would you navigate in a foreign country where the people don’t speak your language?

You find yourself in a city, how do you figure out what city you are in and/or get your bearings in general?

I know it might sound strange , I didn’t believe at 1st, but Satellite dishes can give you a steer they have to point to their selected geostationary satellite! Over here in the Sunny United Kingdom, they point southeast.

This will be apparent when you see the never-ending line of dishes all looking in the same direction. That said…. this knowledge is required before you might need it so it can become difficult if you haven’t already established North.

Unless you know in advance? I would advise to check it out it’s a cool little trick.

Religious buildings

Christian churches usually have gravestones aligned west-east. Mosques have the Mihrab in one wall, which indicates the direction for prayer. Its also known as Al Qibla and will tell you the direction of the mighty Mecca,

Navigation tips from Royal Marine Commando SERE Instructor

about Wilderness scenarios, recently a couple of young girls became lost in the woods for a couple of days. It is a not too infrequent occurrance. How can you get your bearings in a wilderness survival situation?


Pastoral animals ex: goats, cattle, Llama, sheep, yaks, etc.) are a great indicator that there might be civilization nearby. They need a wide range to roam but usually will be within walking distance to farms, villages, towns.


Will not give you a direction. Unless there is a bread crumb trail and even then you have a 50-50 chance of guessing where to go.

Keep an eye out for any discarded items as it will aid you in the knowledge that there was once human activity in that area at some point.

If it has labels, examine it and see if there is an expiry date. This will give you a timeline to how old or new it is.
If it has writing check the language, it’s written in.

If it’s in the local tongue the chances are that it used to belong to the local nationals are pretty high, and if it’s foreign, then you can have an educated guess to which country the previous owners were from.

Keep in mind that environmental factors will have a huge part to play in the overall condition of the item you may have found.

Sunlight will fade out the colors and rain will have a substantial effect on the structural integrity of the rubbish. So this is to be used as an aid.


Are an obvious indicator that civilization is present (or at least once a vehicle passes by), but in the case of some countries, it can be hours or days before any vehicles will pass.

I would advise barricading the road, track or path. Doing this the driver will have to slow down and get out of the vehicle to remove the obstruction.

Just don’t do this on a corner/bend due to the dangers this comes with for the drivers.


In the animal kingdom when you come across multiple tracks that merge into one, it indicates that there is a water source nearby. Generally, for us where multiple tracks blend into one this means more traffic or more use in other words.

Ambient light

If you live in or near a built-up area you might not have noticed, but once darkness arrives the night sky changes colour due to the ambient light that gets emitted. This light can be a valuable visual tool to help you get home. Imagine the following.

If you are at ground level, and your eye height is 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m), the horizon is at a distance of 2.9 miles (4.7 km) if your standing on a hill or feature 100 feet (30 m) in height, the horizon is at a distance of 12.2 miles (19.6 km) imagine how easy it will be to see this urban ambient light from a distance.

Especially since on a dark night, you could even see a candle flame flickering up to 30 mi. (48 km) this is a great thing to look out for if you’re in the desert.

Navigation tips from Royal Marine Commando SERE Instructor


If you know which direction the prevailing winds blow during the different times of the year it will make your decision making a lot easier.

I recommend not using this method on its own but in conjunction with other navigational techniques. The prevailing winds become apparent and easier to see when you look at your surroundings.

Vegetation will tend to grow in the direction of the prevailing winds, and the way sand dunes and snow variants are formed will be dependent on the wind too!


I have heard so many people state that this is not a reliable method and to a certain extent I agree, but the following does apply.

Moss will tend to grow on the north side of a tree in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere because it is less exposed to the sun in summer, allowing it to retain more moisture.

I have seen moss grow all around a tree and even seen moss cover most areas in undisturbed forests.
Especially the massively dense ones.

I advise to single out a lone tree and locate where the moss is growing. This will allow less chance of being in an area full of moisture. Moss will also grow on buildings, therefore, take a 360 look around any building you may find. Remember to check the roofs too.


As a guide bees tend to have a foraging area of two miles (3.2 km), although bees can travel twice or three times this distance from the hive.

Since they need to have their colony near a water source follow the bees and if you’re in luck their water source will not be a pond it will be a river! Just follow it down and eventually it should lead you to a built-up area or to the coast.

Bird migration

Ever looked up to see a flock of birds. Well, they most likely are following their regular seasonal movement, often north and south along a flyway!

Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate to the north in the spring to take advantage of the increase of insect, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

When winter comes, and insects and other food become scarcer, the birds move south again. Remember this, and you can determine North and South….

John Smith has a youtube channel that features some helpful information on survival with no fluff. The link takes you to a video where he shows us how to cook using a beer can. Give him a like and subscribe and feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below. 

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