Situational Problem Solving: Increasing Your Odds of Success When Facing Challenge

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome is an unofficial slogan among Marines made popular by Clint Eastwood’s movie, Heartbreak Ridge. No matter what your plans for the uncertain future, the ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome problems will be necessary regardless of how well stocked, tooled, provisioned, or conditioned you currently are. 

Honing this ability will serve you well. These skills can be cultivated easily in any setting and without a lot of money. Moreover, to build your skills quickly, I recommend that you strive to develop skills and mindset WITHOUT money. Get creative. No one can take a skill away from you. It boils down to changing your perspective, engaging your creative mind, learning to learn, and improving your physical, mental, and spiritual capacities. 

I am greatly indebted to my late father, who grew up on a remote farm without any money. If he wanted or needed something, he had to hunt, gather, grow, build, or steal it. (I don’t advise or condone stealing, but in a survival situation, it is an option.) He taught me these skills. In childhood, if there was a toy or something I wanted, he encouraged me to find ways besides going to the store to get it. As a kid, I spent time with hand tools in a 8 ft x 8 ft garden shed (a.k.a., “the shop”), in junkyards, at yard sales and secondhand thrift shops looking for old things that needed TLC or another use. I got through college doing odd jobs and dumpster-diving for food. I have made a 26-year career as an engineering professional using these skills. I am a problem solver. When all the options are depleted by in-the-box thinkers, I am the pariah they send into the muck to get dirty and get things back on track. I have chosen a path in life and career as a generalist, not a specialist. I am always on the lookout for a challenge, both in my career and personal pursuits. 

Specific survival skills are in countless books. Over the years, I have not found a single book which specifically teaches or develops the capacity of improvise, adapt or overcome when faced with a challenging situation. Many ideas, tips, and specific skills are offered, but all the information seems to revolve around specific environments or tools or materials. 

Imagine if you were put in the middle of a completely different environment and needed to survive - say, from a tropical environment to which you are accustomed into an arctic environment, or from a rural environment into an urban one. What would you need to survive? 

You will need to apply three strengths:

  1. Physical: You will need the power, stamina, and flexibility to work with the tools and materials around you.
  2. Mental:  You will need the intellectual capacity to plan, prioritize, and apply yourself to the tasks at hand.
  3. Spiritual: You will need the capacity to deal with the discomfort, pain, and suffering while maintaining attitude that you will overcome whatever you are struggling with.

To Improvise, you need physical and mental strength. After you have exhausted all possible avenues to IMPROVISE a solution, you must ADAPT, which will require mental strength to change your approach to the situation. After you have exhausted all possible avenues to improvise and adapt to the situation, you will need your mental and spiritual strength to finally OVERCOME the obstacles.  

Here I will define and discuss each part of this approach to serve as a guide to developing your capacity:


This approach can be applied to straightforward tasks such as building a temporary shelter, fixing a leak, or building a water system, or complex tasks like building a part for a car. Anything you need to improvise will require:

  • Materials
  • Tools
  • Knowledge of those materials and tools
  • Skills
  • Time

For instance, a temporary shelter can be built out of any material - be it snow, sticks, sod, pallets or cardboard. Tools may or may not be available, in which case you must improvise using your hands, ice, sticks, rocks, or trash. Skills and knowledge are required to work the material into useful function with tools. And, of course, time is a factor in putting everything together and in how long the finished product needs to last. We take for granted the time savings that power tools give us, but bear in mind, EVERY manufactured item we possess represents the evolution of centuries of hand craftsmanship and raw materials. Anything can be built with enough raw materials, knowledge, skill and time.  

Given any challenge, five strategies are suggested:


Think it through! Your brain is your most valuable asset – use it before you engage your muscles! Every hour of work is worth at least 10 minutes or more of planning. Assess and define the problem.

  • What materials and tools are available? My green-oriented friends say: “Reuse, Recycle and Renew.” Materials (for the shelter example): leaves, snow, limbs, tarp, cardboard, pallets, blankets, skins, or abandoned cars. Tools can be improvised: a knife (broken shard of glass or flint, piece of sheet metal), an ax (a piece of iron with an edge, a big hunk of flint) or a hammer (a rock or a hunk of metal). Keep in mind that you can get materials and tools using different ways and everything takes a different level of energy. In order from least to most extensive use of energy, one can:
    • Find: alternative uses for what is already at hand.
    • Steal: (Not recommended, but an option.)
    • Beg or borrow: Altruism is a part of the survival of our species.
    • Hunt and gather or grow.
    • Simplify: Substitute complex parts or tools with simpler versions.
    • Adapt: Do without.
  • What useful function or need(s) are you trying to meet? Back to the shelter example: You need to get out of the wind, which robs your heat. You need insulation to avoid the heat loss. You need to stay dry. You also need sleep, hydration, and nourishment to survive. As you move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you need water, food, heat, security, safety, social connections, comfort, and, finally, self-actualization.
  • What skills and knowledge are available? The more complex the project is; the more skills are required.   Tools and materials can be replaced with skills. But skills cannot be replaced by tools and materials.
    • In Boston’s Gun Bible, the author suggests that you spend $1500 on a skills course rather than $1500 on a firearm because without the skills the firearm is ineffective. A personal example: I have stayed for several days in a snow cave in subzero weather. I had a snow shovel, sleeping bag, a foam pad and food along with some expedition duty winter clothing. That equipment would have been useless without skills. And now, with the skills gained from that experience, I could survive for a several days or so in winter street clothes and a little food in a snow cave.
  • How much time do you have?   How long to build it? Example: If you are cold and wet and getting colder and wetter, you need a shelter fast while you have the energy. If you are comfortable and winter is coming on, you need to assess what you can do with the time you have. How long does it need to last? You don’t need a cabin for a night or to weather out a two hour storm.   A fire and some natural shelter may be all that is required when you are cold and wet. 
Safety First! 

Consider the hazards and how you will mitigate those hazards.    Take that extra time and energy to plan for safety of yourself and others. Hazards come in three flavors; PHYSICAL (e.g., falling, pinching, cutting, suffocating), THERMAL (e.g., burns or freezing), and CHEMICAL (e.g., burns, poisons).


Divide and conquer. Break down the big job into little jobs. Every job has smaller jobs. EVERYTHING complex is built from simple things. Back to our shelter example: Every shelter needs a foundation, walls, a roof and doors. There is finding a location, gathering materials, cutting, tying, assembling and testing. If you have a group, then divvy out the jobs according to skill level, condition, ability and knowledge.


Don’t be daunted by the problems that arise during the process. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes about survivors who stayed alive by doing SOMETHING even if it was crawling that next two inches. Backtrack to Step 1 and think it through. If your snow cave falls in, improvise a roof or dig deeper walls or let the snow harden more before digging it out again.

Keep it real

Worry about useful function not what it looks like. Like my grandfather told me once after I helped him build a chicken coop: “A chicken doesn’t care about whether the coop is off square or the nails are bent. A chicken just wants to eat, drink, stay warm, stay dry, lay eggs and not get eaten by a fox.” Chickens in the greenhouse.

Insulating the coop in sub-zero weather…


At this point, you have improvised to the best of your ability using the time, energy and materials at hand.    The situation maybe isnt secure or comfortable. But, it is what it is. You need to ADAPT.

Adaptation is an approach which requires change. If you are cold and wet and have no shelter, you need to simply adapt or die. We will come back to this example but first lets wax philosophical and explore the nature of suffering. Suffering is more than pain or discomfort it is our resistance to that pain and longing for pleasure that multiplies our suffering. 

Here is a formula I owe my meditation teacher, Shinzen Young: (

Suffering = Pain x Resistance   AND   Suffering = Pleasure x Longing

This is HUGE! For instance, in the hospital, the nurse may ask, “What your level of pain where ten is like the most extreme pain you have ever experienced and one is just barely feel it?” Pain is absolute; suffering is relative. If you have experienced extreme pain coming out of anesthesia after a major operation and you're feeling the pain of a twisted ankle, then you might think: "Well, it isnt as bad as the operation", so you tell her, “Aw, about a three”. If all you have experienced is a paper cut and you are feeling the pain of childbirth, you will yell, “TEN!”. But, what the nurse is really asking is what level of suffering you are at. Drugs don’t take away the pain – the pain is still there. The drugs render you unconscious, block the nerve transmission from the brain, disassociate you from the pain or relax the muscles. So the pain is still there.  Drugs reduce the resistance which causes the suffering. 

In Hapkido, beginners tighten up their entire body and often scream when joint locks are applied. As the student gains experience, he will develop the ability to relax and avoid resisting the lock in order to think through the counter move or simply avoid further injury by resisting. This is the essence of adaption. Breathing and relaxing will allow you to adapt to ANY situation be it social, environmental or physical. The same goes for being cold and wet. The more you relax, the more blood will flow to the extremities (and to your brain) then the least amount of energy will be required to adapt. The more you breathe, the more oxygen will be available for your tissues to maintain heat and biological functions. This is taught in childbirth classes. These classes teach pain management through breathing and relaxation. And, BTW it is also taught in public speaking classes and adrenal conditioning classes. Your mind will follow your breathing. Pay attention to your breath: your emotions follow breath – not the other way around.

If you are cold and wet to the bone, you will long for the pleasure of dry clothes, a warm fire and hot coffee. This is the nature of suffering. But, if that longing has you all tensed up, depressed and distracted from the task of gettting to those comforts. It can be life threatening. Comforts can become desperate necessities very quickly while precious time and energy is spent lamenting.

In order to adapt, you must see what needs to be done and do it through the pain, discomfort or social rules. If you need to give first aid and you are squeamish, it is time to dig deep, hold back the vomit and apply your skill. If you need to crawl neck deep through a sewer tunnel to evade and escape, then you need to fight your resistance to it, empty your stomach if necessary get it done. If you need to eat bugs and roadkill to survive, then you do what you have to do. The body has an amazing ability to adapt to an extremely wide range of circumstances – but if the mind isn’t willing the body won’t have a chance.


Now you have exhausted your ability and your resources to IMPROVISE and ADAPT. And, it aint looking too good for you. Maybe your shelter is barely adequate: you are hypothermic, you have stopped shivering uncontrollably, and a sleepy calm overwhelms you. Maybe you don’t have anything left in your body to go on. Now it is time to reach deep into your mind and soul. I keep a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales"When things get bad, really bad, and it looks like you're not going to make it: you gotta get mean, mad dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is." That is the essence of overcome.   

You have to focus on what you have to do, dig REALLY deep, and do it. This is where the physical and mental strength is drained and the spiritual strength must carry over. Maybe you need to come home to take care of a child; maybe you need to save a friend; or maybe you need to save your group. I am not talking religion here. I am talking about a deep realization that every moment is a gift and there is something greater to struggle for than ourselves.

You must know your physical/mental limits, test them often and push them with a safety net. In my youth, I would head out the door with my street clothes and backpack for the weekend. No food. No water. No gear check. Just what was in the backpack. I fished. I gathered. Sometimes, I starved. But the car was only a 4-hour walk away. It was a controlled situation that taught me volumes. 

There is another aspect of overcoming obstacles. The crew of the Shackleton Endurance expedition got locked in Antarctic pack ice and eventually had to abandon their ship when it was crushed by the floes.  They lived on the ice in tents they could see moonlight thru, slept in primitive sleeping bags while waiting for the ice to recede, then sailed lifeboats hundreds of miles to an island. After 20 months of survival conditions and food, members of the party sailed on to another island without navigation tools and scaled a mountain  to reach a remote whaling port and eventual rescue. The two pictures are only months apart but look at the change in Shackleton’s face…


While this was going on, some of the 28 members wrote in their journals about this period being the most spiritually uplifting time of their lives. Many attribute that to Shackleton’s leadership; however, he was tapping into an aspect of the human species which few understand. Once your ego is stripped down by fatigue and hardship, you see your strengths and truly begin to absorb the beauty of the world. It is truly unfortunate that we develop ego to insulate us from the challenges of the world because it also blinds us to the true beauty of it. There are other words for this in differend cultures: zen, state of grace, rapture, finding God, being centered, nirvana, samadhi...

Continuous Improvement of your Capacity

Notice how the Improvise, Adapt and Overcome mindset requires an ever increasing reserve of physical, mental and spiritual strength? By improving in these areas over time, we can develop these abilities. How does one learn all of the above? 

Even if we are not ultimately tested in a survival situation, one can use these abilities to improve and thrive in our current situations. First: I believe it is necessary to take an honest self-assessment of our skills and our competency with those skills in a survival situation. The self- assessment on the CM site is a great tool.   Moreover, in our assessment, we need to gauge our ability to apply to those skills in the scenarios we foresee. After this analysis, we can understand where we need to focus our time and interests. 

For sake of illustration, here is my personal list of skills: engineering design, photovoltaic/wind/microhydro power system selection/installation, welding, machining, sewing, electrical work, carpentry, surveying, concrete work, gas engine mechanics, diesel engine mechanics, operating a variety of heavy equipment, winter survival, mountaineering, wilderness EMT, taekwondo, judo, hapkido, knowledge of edible plants and a hunter’s level of competency with a bow, rifle or shotgun. Most of these skills are still accessible if the grid goes down or the economy collapses. 

On the other side of the spectrum, an honest assessment of your liabilities in a survival situation is needed. I live in an area that in a time of grid failure could be cut off from its food and medical supply. I can hunt game but the game would eventually run out. Lack of gardening skill is one liability for me. There is no doubt about it. I am an awful gardener. Heck, I don’t know what those poor plants need. How to keep the bugs off. How to keep the weeds down. When to harvest them. When to water them. When is there too much water. When is there not enough water. What to plant. When to plant. I can maintain all the equipment to till, build an elaborate greenhouse and watering system from scrap. But, damn, I can’t grow a respectable tomato.   

In order to prioritize our time and energy, we need to assess what survival situations are realistic. Every individual and every environment has different situations to consider. It may be due to geology, a nearby terrorist threat, a collapse of the economy, hordes of population in chaos or a pandemic. We should strive to be ready for anything; but, with finite time and resources, it is nearly impossible to be ready for every situation. 

I propose that you look at your chosen location and evaluate the pitfalls of that location and assess what you may face then develop a plan to deal with those pitfalls. Later on, you may decide to move to a better place and take your skills with you. I live in a fairly remote part of the Rocky Mountains. In turbulent times, my threats are: uncontrolled wild fires, food shortages, fuel shortages, economic collapse, power blackouts, tornados, blizzards, clean water shortages, petty crime and lack access to medical care. 

After an assessment of your assets and liabilities and likely situations you will experience, it is time to prioritize and develop a plan to fill in the gaps in your armor. Prioritize by time intervals: Situations to be prepared for in the next two years are top priority, followed by 5-year risks and then 10-year ones. Give yourself some measurable goals to work toward. I use the New Year’s resolution tradition to do this every year. I carry that list around with me. I review it weekly. Every resolution has a measurable outcome. Here are some of mine:

  • Modify part of an existing barn for rabbits at least, 15 does and 3 bucks.
  • Snag a paddlefish this May.
  • Get my greenhouse and raised beds in full production. Grow at least 50% of my food.
  • Double my chicken flock.
  • Install 4 Harbor Freight solar panel kits in strategic places on the homestead.

Bringing it All Together

Now, with a plan with priorities and goals., here are some suggestions to develop your physical, mental and spiritual strength:

  • Keep Informed. Check three blogsites daily to stay current. There is a list of Recommended 3E sites on the right side of CM's HOME page. Look for trends. Review your priorities. Review your assessment. When things go south, it will happen quickly so you will have to re-prioritize quickly.
  • Educate yourself. Get interested in something pertaining to your liabilities list and start by using every free learning source available on the net and at the public library. Find community education classes. Get the DVD archives from Homepower or Mother Earth News or Farm Show Magazine. Look at local college classes. Your local county extension agent can help you with reams of information and put you in touch with Master Gardeners who will offer you classes and all the advice you can stomach.   Look for a Backyard Gardener's group. Talk to people at farmer's markets. Go to and to find videos on nearly any subject.   Look for people with the same interests. Go to shops that sell equipment to find others who might have the interests or have some advice.   Google up PBS’ House series and watch how those folks coped with the challenges..   Read 40s thru 60s vintage Popular Mechanics or Popular Science magazines. Go to the educational toy store and find toys that teach basic electronics, physics or chemistry. I learned electronics from a 100-in-1 Projects kit from Radio Shack that I got when I was 13. Now it is 30 years old and I pull it out with my 10 year old daughter to relearn and teach. Here is a modern version of that kit: Go to to find books about how to do things by hand and with limited tools. Get online to find ways to build things from junk. Google “how to build a {blank}” and every person who is proud of the {blank} they built will provide chronological documentation of their {blank}.   A good website is: or   Another good website for some educational humor is Great stuff on that one. 

  • Apply yourself. Find cheap, low-risk ways to apply what you have read about and talked about. (If you want a flavor for what I'm talking about read this: You can grow a garden in a box on your balcony. You can go out with your law enforcement trained brother to the shooting range. You can build a chicken coop with hand tools, scrap wood and chicken wire. (Remember what my grandfather said.) Standing back to see the results will build your confidence, knowledge and skill. Don’t listen to the hypercritical neighbors or voices in your head! Remember it is the DOING that develops the skill not reading about it or assembling that kit or buying the latest tool.
  • Find an elderly mentor. Go to your local senior citizens center or find the local coffee shop where they hang out. Trust me – they will talk your ear off. Our neighbor has lived in our remote little town her entire life of 85 years. Her body is failing but she has a sharp mind and can remember life before powerlines and fast transportation. She remembers the blizzards that stranded folks for weeks. She remembers when there were gardens and chicken coops in every yard. Read the Foxfire Series or any of the books from the Museum of Appalachia. On display at the Museum of Appalachia are over 20,000 tools and implements. This particular display below is of homemade tools to build blackpowder rifles. The apparatus in the foreground to the left is used to cut the rifling in gun barrels. 



  • Create mock scenarios. Camping can be a mock scenario for life on the run and off the grid if you look at it that way. Develop lists of skills and equipment needed and desired. Pay attention to the boredom factor as well as the anxiety factor - both need equal attention in a grid-down scenario. One mock scenario is to spend a weekend at home with the grid off. Another might be to go on a backpack trip with only a fishing pole and no food. Another might be to build a kitchen table with only hand tools. All these situations provide a chance to learn and build confidence. Here is a personal example:
    • One time a friend was snowmobiling with vintage 40-year old machine. He was nearly 16 miles deep into the backcountry with about two miles left to go to the cabin for the weekend. He stopped briefly for a nature call and got started again but the machine limped all the way to the cabin. He barely made it. He spent his time at the cabin diagnosing the problem and figured out that a gear was nearly stripped inside the ancient transmission. Using a small ammo can full of hand tools, he tore down the transmission, salvaging the 'reverse' gear which was a close fit. He cleaned everything up with fuel. He used a small flat file to file down the gear to fit. He used a piece of copper pipe found in the cabin to hold candles to build a temporary bushing for the gear which he “welded” in place with JBweld. There were a few other improvisations with wire and a bolt robbed off another part of the machine.He made it back to the trailhead on a packed trail the next day before a storm came in. No, it wasn’t the perfect fix but he didn’t have to get another snowmobile to bring him back or wait until summer to pack it out. That experience gave him the confidence to handle other situations.
    • Wild food gathering for a weekend is an example of a mock scenario.   Beaver tail, anyone? No, it doesn’t taste anything like chicken.


  • Build kits to prepare for different situations. Develop lists. Research. Start with googling “bug out bag list”. Personalize your list. For each item, list the uses both obvious and not so obvious. For instance, I have an improvised repair kit with the following items: small roll of duct tape, roll of wire, 10 ft of paracord, multitool, JB weld, shoe goop, dental floss, large darning needle and assorted buttons, screws and nuts. It all fits in a quart-sized freezer bag. I have used it dozens of times - from repairing a ski pole to sewing up split pants to repairing the fitting on a carburetor. I have specific lists for backpacking, ice fishing, winter travel, travel with old vehicles, electrical repairs, gadget charging... the lists go on. I keep them all on a thumb drive, and I review and send them when needed.
  • Learn to learn. Check your bucket list. Follow threads of curiosity that intrigue you. Learn a language. Solve a math problem. Take up an art or musical instrument. Hack your kid's computer. Learn a card game with your bored, computerless kid. Don’t simply read about it – get out and do it! Build or write something tangible. Stress your brain. Work your muscles. Every skill will enhance and refine another. 
  • Explore the gifts of your ancestors. I owe this piece of wisdom to my martial arts teacher. We come with a set of gifts by natural selection which allow us to survive and thrive. Physical attributes evolved such as skin color, physical stature, muscle mass, hair color, lack of hair, affinity for cold. Mental attributes evolved such as demeanor, aggressiveness, cleverness or attention to detail and regiment. This is a list of assets that is well worth noting and understanding. Oftentimes, a liability is a disguised asset and the other way around. Small, short stature isn’t an advantage on the basketball court; but, it is a tremendous advantage as a smaller target, or in a cold climate where heat conservation is required or you need to survive periods of starvation. Personally, I am of German/Slavic descent. My ancestors evolved in harsh, cold climates. I melt in hot, humid summer heat. Like my father and grandparents, I am a Type 2 diabetic - which is an asset in people that face periods of starvation. Recent studies indicate that the extra sugar in the blood may give added pr

    This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at