45 Days of survival training at Sigma 3

How it all began….

I have always been interested in survival and self reliance. From the days of my childhood and on into my teenage years , I pondered the ways of the settlers and the Indians. I was influenced by my father to read Louis L’Amour books of the old west and fancied myself a fair hand in the ways of real men like William Tell Sacket and every John Wayne character I had ever seen.

My youth was filled with games of cowboys and Indians. I remember once when I was about 10 or so, I stripped down naked and tied a towel on myself like a breech cloth and ran around , face painted for war, in and out of the house during a large family gathering. I can still see the look on my mothers face, I’m surprised I am alive to write this story after that day.

During my teenage years, my closest friends and I would go camping or just go down to the ditch banks , make camp fires , spend our time learning to cuss and spit tobacco and were known to fry fish in a shovel from time to time.

Fast forward to modern day adult hood at the age of 45. By this time I had watched Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin go from YouTube to Discovery channel and had witnessed the explosion of interest in bush craft survival that had led to a barrage of survival and self reliance shows.

During this time I had found a school in north west Arkansas on youtube called Sigma 3 survival school and had watched some videos and became very impressed with the skills they were teaching as well as the simplistic manner they were taught. Life being what it was in the “real world”, I was usually too busy trying to make ends meet to spend much time  following my passions so, as usual, they fell to the wayside.

One day a couple of years later, I stumbled upon the Sigma 3 website and noticed they had expanded to include four more school locations and had moved the main headquarters to Mansfield MO. I was impressed to say the least so I looked closer at the curriculum and class schedules. I really wanted to participate in this arena and learn from the best, by this time I had surmised them to be in that category.

Preparations begin….

Taking the forty five day instructor course would mean that I would have to quit my job, go at the very least a month and a half without income and attempt to reestablish myself when I returned. My hopes were that I would be able to teach for Sigma 3 and/or start my own school. However, I had to make it through the course and pass before any of that could happen.

I thought about it for several weeks and began to work on acquiring all the equipment that I would need. I had a large portion of it already such as hatchets, knives, canteens, winter clothes and boots, fire starters and the like. None the less, I spent many hours looking fore the extras and pondering which knife would be best , which pack would hold up and what kind of food to take as I was responsible for bringing a months worth with me. I even custom made a bush knife for the trip out of an old saw blade and I always carry a small knife a friend gave me made of the same.

Knife I made on the right and knife my friend gave me on the left.

Knife I made on the right and knife my friend gave me on the left.

I had made a combination of deer, beef and rabbit jerky for the trip along with my instant coffee, herbal teas, bee pollen, tuna fish in packets and a host of dried vegetables, fruits, nuts and granola for my sustenance.

My Suburban was loaded down. The weather was warm the week  class started so I had lots of warm weather clothes as well as cold weather clothing and rain wear. I took about ten knives, four hatchets and overall, just too much junk!

I practiced bow drill method of fire for a week using different materials, mostly from cedar around my house, before time to leave. I was able to get smoke, lots of it, but failed each time to get a coal and was perplexed as to why. I had watched videos and had found dry materials and could not figure it out. I knew, however, that it had to be something simple, maybe the way I made my notch in the hearth board? Alas, I consigned myself to letting it go until I could learn from the pros. I knew that with the conditioning I had just put myself through, I would surely have it soon.

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I later discovered , among other things, that my spindle had too much heart wood in it and I had been drilling into heart wood, which is a bad combination.

Time to begin the journey…..

I woke up on the morning I was to leave with a strange feeling of excitement mixed with fear and dread. What was I about to get myself into? Was I really ready for this? Was I physically able to accomplish this mission of missions that I had very little experience with? I didn’t know. What I did know was that I had spent the money and it was non refundable I had to go and had to succeed , that was all there was to it.

So, off I went. I said my good byes the day before and set off to Mansfield Missouri without any real idea of what was about to happen.

Arrival at Sigma 3….

I had finally reached Mansfield and was attempting to navigate my way to county road B where it seemed that I was heading out into the middle of nowhere. After what seemed like several miles, I crossed a railroad track and to my great relief was a sign at a turn off onto a dirt road that said “Sigma III Survival School”!

My heart leaped in my chest and the excitement took hold! I had followed Justin’s post ( a former instructor graduate ) of when he had made the journey a year before and recalled how he expressed his excitement in his video upon arrival. I felt akin.

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So I drove along the winding dirt road and again felt like the road would never end. Finally I came to a gate that was partially in the road , just wide enough that I could drive through. It wound around up an incline and there I saw the “cabin”, a pavilion, and …Awesome! (I thought to myself) A Tipi !

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 The place looked empty as I pulled into what I assumed to be the parking area. I exited my truck and decided to look around. I saw two men over in the woods past the tipi so, I went on over and introduced myself. They were both there for the same reason I was, to take the instructor course.  Geoffrey had been there two days.  the other guy had just arrived that morning and there was one guy who had been there a week alone already who was in town at the time. Geoffrey  told me that a bear had been in camp the night before and Steve ( the one in town) had ran it off.

 I had never been anywhere other than a zoo where live bears roaming around was commonplace so, my level of fear mixed with excitement had raised to def con 3. I was more excited than fearful and looked forward to actually getting to see a bear in the wild! However, I never did.

That first night before class was to begin, we were all setting up camp in primitive shelters that were already built on the property. I chose a jungle hooch and put my tarp over it. It was amazingly comfortable and I slept very well.

As people started showing up, I met a barrage of interesting and unique individuals from many parts of the US and the Netherlands. As our instructor course would be running simultaneously with regular courses, I saw many different people come and go with the passing of some of the basic classes such as Survival Standard and Advanced Standard.

We learned about shelter building from emergency survival situations to long term wilderness living and sustainability. We learned how to find and gather materials and resources for fire, shelter and water for immediate and long term use. We learned how to take what nature has to offer and make tools, cordage, medicine, and weapons. Some lessons learned included making pottery, flint knapping, trapping, how to move in the woods for safety and stealth, camouflage techniques, meat and hide procurement and processing, bow making, coal burn containers, basket weaving, navigation methods for night and day, tracking, escape and evasion maneuvers and a host of tidbits along the way too numerous to mention here.

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Once our instructors were confident in our abilities, we had what is called Scout week Knife only. We were taken to a new location and allowed only a knife and what clothes we could wear on our bodies at one time. The temperatures were in the 20’s that week dipping into the teens at night. Our first objectives were to build a primitive shelter, find a water source and gather materials to build a bow drill kit so we could make a fire. Not everyone is able to accomplish fire on the first day due to the various requirements for a proper kit and the physical demands of such an undertaking. We were alone in our endeavors until we achieved our tasks.

I tackled shelter building first and had a really nice one built in just a couple of hours , had found a fresh water spring and some discarded plastic water bottles to use as canteens and then I spent the rest of my afternoon looking for material for my bow drill kit. It can be difficult to find proper wood in the right stage of decay and dryness to achieve a coal. After I had acquired what I thought was the best I was going to find and still have enough daylight to gather firewood for the night  I set out to build my kit and get my fire started.

A bow drill kit is made up of five parts, the hearth board, spindle, bearing block ,bow and the coal catch. I recommend using a small piece of wood instead of a leaf , something like a thin shaving about an inch or so long and wide enough to hold the coal securely. This provides a good ground moisture barrier and protects that hard earned coal better.

By the time I got my kit made , it was getting dark and I could barely see. I was tired and knew that it would take the rest of my energy reserve to use the bow drill to get a coal. I hoped that my kit would be good enough, I had my doubts. I could feel the temperature dropping as the night was taking over. So, I took a few moments to relax and mentally prepare myself for the task at hand.


The first thing you have to do, after your kit is made, is to drill into the hearth board with the spindle to make them match up before you carve the notch. The notch allows air to flow up from the bottom to fuel the coal as it forms from the dust made from spinning the spindle. It has to reach temperatures up to about 800 degrees for it to ignite.

And so, I began. By the time I had burned the spindle in, it was really getting dark, I could barely see as I carved my notch in the board. By the time I was ready to drill for a coal, I had to feel with my fingers to find placement for the spindle. As I  worked the bow to heat up the board, I began to smell smoke. I knew that It was time to add pressure and really go for a coal! I could tell the smoke had increased greatly as scent of it engulfed my lungs. I gave it all I had for a final few seconds and then……exhausted, my heart sank as I considered how cold the night was going to be without a fire. I just sat there, didn’t move, just catching my breath….. out of the darkness…is that….YES! It’s glowing red! I had a coal and it grew and grew until it was glowing  bright and beautiful as it pierced the darkness. I grabbed my tender bundle and gently placed it in the center, folded it gently around and began to lightly blow taking my time until it burst into flame. I quickly began to lay in small sticks and slowly fed it until it was a magnificently warm campfire.

I had done it! I had achieved shelter, water, and fire on day one. I was relieved and quite pleased with myself. That night I slept well.

The rest of that week was spent making primitive weapons, gathering wild edibles, improving shelters, making natural cordage, making a basket and eating insects. The only food we had was what we could harvest from the land with what we could make or find having only a knife. I found out black ants are natures skittles, they are quite tasty. I ate roasted grasshoppers and spiders and later on in the week I was able to catch some small bass from the creek.

By our seventh and final day of scout week, we were all ready for a feast. We had been playing a game about food for several nights to pass the time  by naming food that begins with letters of the alphabet from A to Z. We had food on the brain.

We had started our journey with fifteen instructor candidates and now we were down to only nine of us left. We had all become very close and connected. I had noticed early on that my dreams had become very active and vivid. I had been experiencing deja vu and commented that I knew that I was where I was supposed to be. During conversations I had found that many of us were  having the same experiences of vivid dreams and deja vu.  Through our collective trials and victories as the weeks had progressed, we had become a family. This would serve us well the following week.

Our final week consisted of SERE training, modified from a military version to a civilian counterpart. SERE stands for Survive Escape Resist Evade. This training will test your mind, body and will. You will learn how tuff you really are. I won’t go into a lot of details here, this training is best experienced rather than discussed but, I will say that you will learn to pick handcuffs, escape zip ties, pick locks and you will experience a small taste of what being kidnapped, interrogated , pepper sprayed and tortured could be like.


When I received my certificate and patch that says I am a Sigma 3 level 1 instructor, It meant more to me than any other certificate I had ever had and still does to this day. I had accomplished something that not many people could do and I had gained new family and entered a brotherhood like no other.

This whole experience changed my life forever and the way I see the world around me. I found out that I am stronger than I once believed and I am confident in my abilities to survive in the wilderness. I still have much to learn and much to improve on but, I have the will, determination and a foundation to build upon. Bush craft is now a part of who I am and I will continue down this path from now on.

In closing, I encourage you to follow your dreams. Don’t be afraid to break out of the box that society has put you in. The more I learn about nature and what it has to offer, the more I understand that is where real life is meant to be lived. There is peace and joy in the wonders of the wilderness. Become an earth trekker and experience life as your ancestors did, reconnect with nature.

Pleasant journeys my friends….

Doug Householder

Sigma III Level 1 Instructor

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