Former Navy Seal Joel Graves demonstrates fire-building, one of they key components to surviving in the wilderness. 

Disaster can strike at any moment leaving you stranded without the comforts and even necessities of modern-day living. Jacksonville’s American Survival Company wants to make sure you have the tools you need to survive any worst-case scenario.

I call it, flexing your Macgyver muscle.”

Joel Graves, owner of Jacksonville’s American Survival Company, has quite a bit in common with the eponymous ’80s TV character. A former member of Seal Teams 2 and 4, he is among the foremost experts in the world on disarming explosives. He also spent a lot of time oversees and credits time spent in Afghanistan for leading him down his current career path.

“If you were to compare the general status of American culture vs. the rest of the world,” Graves said, “we’re getting further away from taking care of ourselves.”

American Survival Company’s tagline is “where training meets adventure,” but Graves says it’s really about teaching people to take care of themselves in ways we’re collectively forgetting how to do.

Graves points to the last few hurricanes along Florida’s Atlantic coast as a perfect example of what can go wrong when those skills erode across society. With power out for days and even weeks for some, Graves heard plenty talk about all the meat they had to throw away from their well-stocked, but inoperable freezers.

“Our forefathers would laugh,” Graves said. “We’ve been preserving meat for thousands of years!”

Graves isn’t just looking down on the softness of others. He’s been there himself. In Afghanistan, he worked with some of the most capable people on the planet. Yet, there were still plenty of times where his team needed to rely outside of themselves to meet even the most basic of needs.

“If you’re in an area that is prone to natural disasters, think about the last one. What weren’t you ready for?”

Two big examples of that: Graves said he needed to disarm an explosive just to access a cache of already spoiled food in order to survive. Even more stark was the seal team needing to rely on five of six-year-old goat herds who were more capable of providing for themselves in that environment than some of the world’s most finely trained warriors.

“We get all this money and fancy gear, and there’s still stuff we couldn’t do,” Graves said. “There’s danger in not being able to meet your basic needs… but, attention to detail is why I’m still alive today.”

Today, Graves is able to live as comfortably as the rest of us, but he’s hyper-focused on a time where he learned comfort is a luxury not everyone is always afforded. And so, he trains others to prepare themselves to rely less on the creature comforts of the modern age that are so often taken for granted and can so easily be taken away.

Classes at American Survival Company run a wide range from starting a friction fire or setting up a tarp shelter to more complex lessons like providing your own food by crafting a bow or fishing equipment in a survival situation.

“Really, what I teach people to do is to adapt to any situation,” Graves said. “God forbid you’re ever in an actual situation where you’ll need some of this. But, just the mindset that you get in a survival situation transfers over into a day-to-day, never-quit attitude. It’s really rewarding”

Perhaps the most accessible class is their foraging workshop. Graves said it turns any boring walk into something fun and exciting. More importantly, it reconnects people to nature in a profound way.

“A lot of people are really, really uncomfortable in a natural environment,” Graves said. “Because they’re uncomfortable, they don’t care about it. Maybe next time, they won’t throw that piece of trash on the ground.”

Graves is not alone in his mission to better prepare himself and others for survival. There are scores of reality TV shows that take viewers into this world — in fact, Graves and fellow instructor Matt Tate have been on Discovery Channel’s “Bushcraft Build-Off.”

Just as wide are the reasons survivalists like Graves get into this particular lifestyle. Some have a real, almost paralyzing fear of the worst happening. Others have religious reasons they believe they need to be prepared. Still others, like Graves, simply want to be less reliant and have been in real situations where those skills would have been needed.

“I do think it’s important to have skills and be prepared,” Graves said. “The big difference between me and those who look at the darker side is that they miss that the most important tool is the mental aspect. People put too much faith in the gear.”

For those wanting to embark on survival adventures of their own, American Survival Company has locations in Jacksonville, Arkansas and Maine. If you can’t make it to a class or event, Graves reminds people to get out of their comfort zone.

“If you’re in an area that is prone to natural disaster,” Graves said, “think about the last one. What weren’t you ready for? People think they’re prepared, but they have tarps and tents that are still in the package.”

“Don’t just watch this stuff,” Graves said. “You need to try it.”

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