Tuning the Gray Matter

by Leslie Hill

Tuning the Gray Matter ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

A person might possess the most popular Swedish axe on the planet and tallied up countless hours on the YouTube watching bushcrafting axe videos, but if that person hasn’t gotten out and actually used it, they’d be no better than an armchair quarterback (and that’s putting it nicely). Okay, I know that sounds like a no-brainer of a statement, but I’m not just talking about taking the axe out, splitting some kindling, and calling it good. What I’m talking about building adaptability, muscle memory, and keeping yourself ‘left of bang’. The only way to achieve any of it is through practice.

Equipment and knowledge are rendered useless without practice.

This commentary is not about gear, skills, or credentials. It is about the most important and complex survival tool you have in your inventory. It’s about your brain. It’s about tuning your brain to function in any number of situations, tuning it to function in an emergency, which ultimately will keep you out of trouble.

For those who may not be familiar with the phrase, left of bang, it’s a reference to situational awareness and being proactive versus reactive. The ‘bang’ is a bad event, be it an IED or an ambush. Finding yourself right of bang means you’re reacting to a bad event that has occurred. The right of bang environment is typically wickedly chaotic, which serves an invitation for just more bad stuff to come in and jack up your day.

Full Exposure

As a single dad, one of the primary tools I used to prepare my daughter and son for adulthood was the expansion of their comfort zones. Plans were never cancelled due to weather. If a planned a hike and a picnic were paired with a 90% chance of rain, we executed our plans anyway. Yes, the first couple of times (for them) were complete disasters, but they learned from the experience. It didn’t take long before my two elementary school-aged children were packing their trash better than some of the Marines I knew. They learned the value of zip-lock and heavy duty trash bags. They learned to organize the gear in their packs similarly, so that everyone in the group knew exactly where something was in someone else’s pack. They also learned how footing on various terrain changes when it’s wet… stuff you can only learn by getting out there and doing it. We have camped and hunted in the rain, snow, and in temperatures below freezing. I did this not only to teach them how to operate in harsh conditions, but to also develop the ability to think ahead. The experiences taught them what to expect, which gave them the insight to prepare for the unexpected.

Experience is a prerequisite for adaptability.

One of my most used expressions is, “There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit”. For those who suddenly had a visual of Thumper dangling by his feet, what I mean is that there is always more than one solution to a problem. There are a number of techniques one may use to start a camp fire, all of which share a common concept in the actual ‘building’ of the fire. Knowing the concept is not enough. Based on what I’ve stated up to this point, you’ll probably think that I’m going to suggest that you practice the various techniques in various weather conditions. If you did, then you’re tracking with me. If you didn’t, you may want to go back to the beginning of my commentary and start over. Go ahead. Do it now. We’ll wait.


In the movie, Heartbreak Ridge, Boyd Gaines plays the role of First Lieutenant Ring, an incredibly book-smart officer with no real experience. He understood the concepts of combat and tactics, but had little to no field training or real combat experiences. He was a tactical book worm. On the other end of the spectrum was Gunnery Sergeant Highway (Clint Eastwood) who had more combat experience than he cared to remember. As the platoon sergeant of the Recon platoon, he tries to teach the less than exemplary members of the platoon how to adapt, improvise and overcome an obstacle. He does this in many ways, but one approach was specifically used to engage their brains. He did this by declaring that the platoon will wear the same t-shirt during PT (physical training) as he does, or they will wear no t-shirt at all. They make several attempts to outsmart GySgt Highway, but they missed the mark every time. (Please note that I did NOT use the word ‘fail’. I’ll get to why I did that in a second.) Later in the first half of the movie, Corporal “Stitch” Jones (Mario Van Peebles) discovers the source of GySgt Highway’s PT uniform of the day. That’s about the time 1st Lt. Ring decides to conduct PT with the platoon. He shows up in a white skivvy t-shirt while the rest of the platoon is wearing their black Recon unit t-shirts.

Yah, I know that’s Hollywood, but it illustrates a couple of things. Every attempt the platoon made to figure out what t-shirt to wear was a trial and effort that didn’t pan out. That doesn’t make it a failure. It makes it an experience… a notional token that they could keep in their hip pockets, or in the case of Marines… their cargo pockets. Even that final solution (Cpl Jones’ discovery) should be considered a token. It happened to be the final solution in that scenario, but when added to the other tokens, it becomes part of any number of viable options for future circumstances. These tokens represent experiences. As you build your collection of them, you begin to build options. Options are what made MacGyver look so flippin’ ingenious.

Autopilot Switch

Since I’m on a Hollywood roll, allow me to introduce another 80s classic, The Karate Kid. For those who have had the pleasure of seeing the movie will remember the scene where Daniel (Ralph Macchio) finally realizes that Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) has, in fact, been teaching him an old Okinawan form of self-defense as opposed to coercing him to do all of his chores for him.

As part of the deal to teach Daniel karate, Mr. Miyagi requires Daniel to sand his deck, paint his fence, and wax his car. In doing so, he must also perform each task with very specific and deliberate arm movements. Unbeknownst to Daniel, doing these tasks in this manner is actually building muscle memory for blocking techniques. Unlike the movie, building muscle memory takes a bit longer to achieve. When achieved, it is essentially pre-programmed in your brain housing group (your brain), and will function automatically in emergency situations. For what it’s worth, the same scene in the 2010 remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan has a noteworthy closing.

Practice until it becomes a no-brainer.

As an axe enthusiast, I possess a large amount of vintage and modern axes, but I’m not a collector of display pieces. I actually use mine, even the ones over 100 years old. My favorites are the axes that perform exceptionally well at the tasks I typically use in the outdoors. I know how each and every one of my axes performs, because I field test them with a battery of seven tasks. Your tasks may be different. My field testing serves two purposes; 1) it allows me to gauge and compare the performance of each axe, and 2) it allows me to practice these tasks with different types of axes. This second purpose is a hidden gem. You might want to write this one down. Practicing the same seven tasks with different axes helps maintain my adaptability, and it builds muscle memory, which has a synergistic effect of enabling me to perform the seven tasks with any axe in any environmental condition… automatically. No, no, no. I don’t mean like a robot with my eyes closed. I mean the process becomes automatic. Here are the seven tasks of my field test:

  1. Limb
  2. Buck
  3. Hew
  4. Split block ~ billets
  5. Split billets ~ kindling
  6. Split kindling ~ tinder
  7. Carve stake

These seven tasks are organized in the order that I would process firewood. The seventh task is carving a ground stake (piece of kindling sharpened and notched) to test the maneuverability of the axe and to build personal dexterity. The shavings are added to my tinder pile. Repetition builds muscle memory. Having performed my field test over 400 times, I no longer have to think about the seven different steps. These seven steps are now reduced to a single thought… a single token called, Process Firewood.


The more tokens you collect doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to need larger cargo pockets. It means that you will have more options to draw from when presented with a problem that you haven’t faced before. It also means that you will have more information to draw upon to keep you left of bang.

Military tacticians ‘wargame’ by building scenarios (real or notional) with a list of assumptions, which set the stage for coming battle. Based on the conditions and the forces pitted against one another, the tactician will play the role of ‘commander’ for each side by employing their respective doctrine and tactics to determine a potential outcome of the battle.

A tactician is a combination of 1st Lt. Ring and GySgt Highway… so is a well-prepared outdoorsman. The more knowledge and experiences you gain, the more able you are to predict and prepare for a potential outcome. Understand too that the experiences don’t necessarily have to be directly related.

Anyone who has ever experienced a flash flood knows not to pitch camp next to a stream. Anyone who has ever experienced a forest fire knows to pitch camp in close proximity to a stream. If you haven’t experienced either one of these events, I would wager that you have enough personal experiences (tokens) to figure out that these solutions make perfect sense. I would also wager that most of you have probably never considered what you would do in the event of a flash flood or forest fire.

This is the wargaming part of living outdoors, and it is a variable rabbit hole for ‘what ifs’. Venturing into the outdoors without thinking things through is an almost iron-clad guarantee that things will go south in a big hurry. That right there would be considered right of bang, but you already had that one figured out, huh? The beauty of wargaming is that you can do it just about any time of day. Remember that I said ‘just about’ any time of day. If you get slapped for wargaming while you’re supposed to be engaged in something else… let’s say a bit more intimate with your significant other, I take no responsibility for that. Actually, the perfect place is the porcelain library. It’s relatively quiet and you’re not likely to be disturbed.

Practice builds experience. Experience builds options. Options increase survival.

Fill the Gap

Acquiring tokens of experience isn’t limited to a specific outdoor adventures. You don’t have to plan a trip to the woods to practice. You may acquire these precious tokens by simply pressing the boundaries of your personal comfort zone in your own back yard. Sleep overnight in a tent and prepare a meal… when it’s raining or snowing. Pack, un-pack, and then re-pack your gear in complete darkness. If you’re right-handed, practice tasks with your left hand (and versa visa). As your zone expands (meaning the more comfortable you are operating in that expanded area), your thirst for knowledge and experience will increase. You know yourself better than anyone else. Think about what sends you running for shelter (physically or mentally). Think about what your strengths and weaknesses are (perceived or real). Now think about what you can do to fill the gaps. You may decide to take a wilderness first aid class, learn to read a map, or enroll in a Jiu Jitsu academy. Expanding your comfort zone also builds confidence and empowers you with the courage to face your greatest fears. Fear is not knowing, and not knowing is what will put you in the hurt locker out in the woods. Happy tuning.

About the Author

Mr. Leslie Hill is an experienced outdoorsman who did most of his growing up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. He has lived in various climes and places from tropical islands to the high desert plains of southern Asia. He is a tactician by trade and a community subject matter expert, a capacity for which he has served since 1999. Mr. Hill’s life experiences include service as a United States Marine, a ranch hand, and an emergency medical technician. His hobbies have include motorcycle racing, woodworking, marksmanship competition, and mixed martial arts. Mr. Hill’s current focus includes reconditioning vintage axes and simply spending more time in the woods.


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Categories: 180 Mind Set Training, Doing the Stuff, Self-reliance | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Tuning the Gray Matter

  1. Michel James Sharp

    Great post, very information for all no matter what level their at!

    It is by deeds, not words that a man will be

    measured. And that, should terrify all men!


    Michel J. Sharp

    5th Special Forces Group

    “The Legion”



  2. Robert Dyer

    Interesting article, reread thanks


  3. Pingback: Tuning the Gray Matter | Survival Sherpa - Survival Guides HQ

  4. Alana

    Well said; a topic so often neglected.


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