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Climate change fears spur more Americans to join survivalist schools

"If something breaks down, if the grid drops out, all of this modern technology fails us instantaneously," instructor Shane Hobel said. "These skills will keep you alive — period."
Shane Hobel works on a debris hut shelter at the Mountain Scout Survival School in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., on July 10, 2021.
Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School, builds a debris hut shelter in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., on July 10.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

Manhattanite David D’Alessio spent a recent Saturday cobbling together a shelter out of muddy leaves and twigs in a wooded stretch 75 miles north of New York City.

While the wilderness training on the 90-acre grounds of the Mountain Scout Survival School has traditionally attracted outdoor enthusiasts, the musician was among several of the 18 attendees who weren’t learning to drink water out of a vine or set traps for rabbits just for fun.

Those are skills D’Alessio, 49, the father of a 6-year-old girl, fears will become essential in the coming years — as the impacts of climate change continue to worsen.

“It’s an inevitability that we’ll be facing a crisis within our lifetime, within my lifetime and certainly within my daughter’s lifetime,” he said.

David D'Alessio, from Harlem, New York City, helps to build a debris hut shelter at the Mountain Scout Survival School.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

Survivalist school instructors across the country say there has been an increasing interest in their wilderness and urban-disaster preparedness courses from Americans worried about climate change. As rising temperatures bring more wildfires, droughts and destructive storms, those types of courses are no longer the domain of campers and hunters. One of these schools' fastest-growing demographics is now young families.

“It was never like that before,” said Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School. While the costs of survival school training vary across the country depending on levels and duration, Hobel charges $125 per person, $230 per couple and $460 per family for his Wilderness 1 class.

It's hard to measure the depth of the trend as there's no industry trade association tabulating statistics across the country. But Hobel estimated that increased interest in his courses is fueled by "50 percent climate change and 50 percent the 'political stuff.'" Whichever their particular nightmare scenario, there is a shared concern among some of his clientele that the foundation on which modern society rests is increasingly fragile.

“If something breaks down, if the grid drops out, all of this modern technology fails us instantaneously,” said Hobel, who leans into traditional Native American philosophies. “Very few people in the country are foraging and hunting each day, but there is no other technology that’s going to save you. These skills will keep you alive — period.”

Shane Hobel puts an ember into cambium and blows on it to start a fire at the Mountain Scout Survival School.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

That sort of rhetoric may sound alarmist, but there are some ominous clouds on the horizon.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Some scientists consider even that a conservative estimation.

As temperatures rise, so do the repercussions.

Evacuated residents hug near State Route 89 during the Dixie Fire in Greenville, Calif., on July 24.David Odisho / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“What we’re seeing through these impacts is what climate change is going to do: the drought out West, the forest fires out West, the heat wave that we’re experiencing, the hurricanes that are getting stronger and moving differently, the hurricane seasons that are extending in length,” said Jason Smerdon, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

“All of these things have strong climate change fingerprints. And this is very much the kind of things we can expect more of moving forward,” Smerdon said.

Travis Johnson, founder and senior survival skills instructor at Northwest Survival School in Ione, Washington, doesn’t need to imagine those future scenarios. He can smell it.

Taking a batch of students into the mountains for advanced training last month, Johnson said they would be hit with the stench of the wildfires plaguing other parts of Washington as they descended to base camp.

Johnson said he’s had a 60 percent increase in enrollment this year over previous years, and the 25-year veteran of the craft credited that influx to climate change.

“This year it’s been people that you wouldn’t normally expect who do it because they’ve never been interested in the outdoors,” Johnson said. “We’re getting a lot more family groups, instead of just fathers and sons, because they want everybody in the group to have these preparedness skills whether for urban [environments] or wilderness.”

There is increasing pessimism about what the quality of life will be like for the next generation. Among the students enrolled in Hobel’s Wilderness 1 class on the day NBC News attended were three children under the age of 9.

Kavita Pawria-Sanchez, 44, a lawyer from Brooklyn, New York, watched her 7-year-old daughter, Sahira, become mesmerized as Hobel started a fire with embers from a stick rubbed down on a wooden board, using fibers from cedar bark as tinder and twigs as kindling.

Shane Hobel puts an ember into cambium to start a fire while Sahira Pawria-Sanchez, left, and Ara Bella Pajoohi blow on the ember.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

“[My husband and I] want to be totally sure that she is prepared for world climate calamities,” Pawria-Sanchez said. “Things are going to happen. They’re already happening.

“I don’t even think it’s just specific skills. It’s a mindset, philosophy and values that she will need.”

Smerdon is skeptical that training to survive in the wilderness is the best way to prepare for the looming crisis. A better investment of time and energy to him would be lobbying local, state and national leaders to put forth more resources and policies that could help mitigate the impact of climate change.

"It's counter to what is actually most effective in light of impacts of climate change, which is having prepared and resilient and connected communities," Smerdon said of the impulse to live off the grid.

It is increasingly likely, however, that periodic disasters will force city dwellers to at least temporarily evacuate their homes, which is why urban-preparedness courses at survival school are becoming particularly popular.

"That’s something that comes up in urban classes — especially in wildfire-prone areas out West," said Tony Nester, head instructor at Ancient Pathways, which teaches desert and wilderness survival in Arizona and Colorado Springs, Colorado. "We talk about it. What plans do you have in place? How do I get my family evacuated? Where do we go? What supplies should we have with us? How do we get out of our house in 15 minutes? How do we get across town to get to our kids? We’re discussing those issues more and more."

Shane Hobel demonstrates a technique for finding water in the forests of the northeastern United States.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

Those courses include teachings on a range of subjects, including pre-disaster planning for family rendezvous points, preparing a "bail-out bag," water purification and roadside survival.

Nester knows the concerns firsthand: Before he moved to Colorado two years ago, his family was forced to evacuate their home in Flagstaff, Arizona, eight summers in a row because of wildfires.

In the Northeast, there are different reasons to study similar tactics.

"The biggest wakeup call for New Yorkers was Hurricane Sandy, because of the storm surge," said Hobel, who teaches occasional urban-preparedness courses himself in the city. "The saddest thing about Americans is that they wait until something happens before they take steps to get the skills, to get the gear, so they can be prepared for the next time.

"The secret to this is not to be reactive; the secret is to be proactive."

On the day D'Alessio underwent his wilderness training, he managed to convince his less enthused wife, Jennifer Blodgett, to tag along.

"He’ll say something like, 'We have to get ready. We live in Manhattan. If something were to happen, where would we go? How would we live off the land if we had to, if you can’t go to the grocery store anymore?'" said Blodgett, 35, a hotel worker. "I wouldn’t survive, but I’m kind of OK with that for myself. I'm more worried about my daughter's [generation]."

Shane Hobel talks about the kind of fire he likes: coals, not high flames.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

At the very least, D’Alessio said he gained confidence from his first foray into wilderness survival training.

"Now I feel like, 'Oh, my God, I can set up a mud hut,'" said D’Alessio, who is planning future daddy-daughter excursions to the Mountain Scout Survival School. "I can whack my way through getting some water in the forest. Stuff like that. If I really do get in a pinch, there’s a knowledge base that’s emerging and evolving."

“It’s definitely something I’m going to continue doing.”