Survival School

Sara Behuneck|The Big Money

It's a sticky Saturday morning and I'm handcuffed in the back seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked on the side of a Philadelphia street. On one side of me is my boyfriend, Bruce, and on the other his best friend, Nick. Both of them are also cuffed—and like me, sweating like pigs. I reach into my hair and pull out a bobby pin that within seconds I've fashioned into a simple device I use to jimmy open my handcuff locks. Our assignment now is to evade 12 professionally trained trackers in a 25-square-block area for the next eight hours.

It may be hard to believe, but we asked for this. Actually, we paid for it: $550 apiece.

Today is the final day of a three-day "Urban Escape and Evade" course offered by onPoint Tactical LLC, a New Jersey-based company that teaches soldiers, police officers, and, increasingly, civilians urban survival skills.

Among the lessons we've learned are how to break through zip ties and telephone cords (the most common materials used as binding by kidnappers), smash a car window without making a sound, pick tumbler- and padlocks, puncture the tires of a pursuit vehicle with homemade caltrops, call for help using a ham radio, kill an attack dog—and, of course, how to escape from handcuffs (see a video here). To make today's exercise even more difficult, we've been assigned a variety of missions that will test our newfound prowess in urban tactical maneuvering.

OnPoint, started in 2004 by Kevin Reeve, a 52-year-old professional scout and tracker, is the only school in the country that teaches urban tactical skills. In the past nine months, demand for the course has surged. For the first time, Reeve approximates his annual revenue to top $200,000—a fair sum for a business whose overhead consists largely of renting out space in community centers for classes and buying enough Goody bobby pins to prop up the coifs at a beauty pageant. In years past, Reeve said he barely pulled in enough revenue to make a profit.

Driving the growth, in part, is a fear that resonates from the wealthiest consumers to blue-collar workers: that with the global financial crisis dragging on, life as we know it is undergoing a radical change. Looking forward, pundits say that at best we will no longer be able to subsist on the diet of credit we have so ravenously consumed for the last decade. At worst, our future looks like something out of a Mad Max movie.

What this has to do with breaking out of handcuffs or picking padlocks requires a rather Hobbesian leap. It assumes that if the government can no longer provide for or protect its citizens, there will be a complete upending of the societal order. It assumes that humans will act to the worst of their capacity. It assumes that if, in fact, the financial crisis is just a mile marker on the highway to hell, we could soon be facing a very different, very violent world. So, beyond the novelty element of being able to pull a Jack Bauer-like escape, there is a sense that these skills are a necessity as our society becomes ever more precarious.

"I think everybody [who takes the class] wants to feel a little bit more secure. For some people it's just a hobby, but there are a number of people who look at the world, and say, ‘Things are probably not getting better,' " Reeve says.

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Each escape-and-evade class has 15 to 20 slots, and there's one held each month in a different city across the country. Last month it was in Nashville, Tenn., the month before that, in Chicago. When I attended, it was split between the sleepy town of Medford, N.J., and the downtown region of Philadelphia. Soon, Reeve will have a mobile training team that will be able to set up shop in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. He is also restructuring the company to include Kelly Alwood, a lead instructor, as partner, and is now adding to his bench. Currently, Reeve employs about six instructors, most of them ex-military, to teach the courses alongside him on a contract basis. OnPoint offers several courses in urban and wilderness survival, tracking, and scouting, but its escape and evade is by far the most popular—by tenfold, Reeve approximates.

Increased exposure has also helped propel onPoint closer to the mainstream. Neil Strauss, who is best-known for his 2005 book, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, attended Reeve's class in 2007 as part of a larger quest to prepare himself for an impending disaster. In March, the diminutive writer and veritable god among sexually frustrated males published a book about his experience, Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, which spent 12 weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list. More than half of the people in the class I attended were there because they had read it.

Although escape and evade was but a small part of the book, it seems to have awakened the Jason Bourne—or even the Neil Strauss—wannabe in countless readers. One student, a chef, had recently come from a seminar in Los Angeles given by Strauss on how to be a pickup artist, his third such class. Strauss is intelligent, funny, and completely relatable. Not only do his readers want to hear about his experiences, they want to have them.

Are you ready?

When Reeve first started out, his largest client was the U.S. military, which sent soldiers as a supplement to requisite SERE training, standing for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. Now, his main clients are civilians. "I expected a bunch of military guys and me here," a 34-year-old computer programmer from Boston named Chris, told me on the first day of class. "I walked through the door and looked around and was like, Oh, shit, it's just a bunch of mes," he says. Chris had read about the onPoint in Emergency.

My class was largely comprised of middle-class professionals. There was one couple (the only other one besides Bruce and me) that owned a natural-food store in New Hampshire. There was a salesperson for LexisNexis from Florida, a guy from North Carolina who owns a steel servicing business, a former bond-trader for Lehman Bros., a corporate banker from Washington, D.C. And then there was Nick, my cuff-mate, who works for a video game publisher; Bruce, who works in public relations; and me, a journalist.

The exception was Kyle, who hopped from city to city and had spent much of his life living on the streets. He had dreads down to his lower back and dirty fingernails. He said he was taking the class because he was often hassled by cops. (It should be noted that neither Reeve nor Alwood endorsed escaping from police cuffs. In fact, Alwood said with a wry smile, if you get arrested, police officers don't appreciate it when you unlock the handcuffs and give them back.)

Reeve has spent much of his professional career as a teacher. For five years he worked at Apple Computer as a leadership instructor, and he spent seven years working with the famously splenetic Tom Brown Jr. at Brown's eponymous wilderness survival school, also headquartered in New Jersey. When Reeve spotted a vacancy in the market for urban survival training, he left to begin his own business. Alwood came along two years later after reading about onPoint in a tactical journal. He had spent five years as an instructor at the U.S. Air Force CPEC sniper school and before that as a private military contractor and a bounty hunter, work that he still does on the side.

Though it isn't formally tracked, the growth in the survival industry is not limited to onPoint. Firearms sales in the most recent quarter at Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson have grown between 22 percent and 55 percent from a year earlier. The number of background checks for firearm purchases, required before the sale of a gun at a federally licensed dealer, has risen to 6 million through May of this year, a 25.5 percent jump from the same period in 2008.

The media attribute the spike in background checks and firearms sales to fear that President Barack Obama will reverse key provisions of the Second Amendment. They have also claimed it is due to increased interest in ammo and weapons as an investment vehicle. But isn't it also possible that it has to do with the same fear that is propelling sales at some camping supply and military surplus stores, which are up 50 percent?

Online activity has done anything but buck the trend. Doug Ritter, founder of Equipped To Survive, which publishes consumer reports on survival gear, says traffic has grown by the double digits, starting when "things really got depressed economically." Since the site's launch in 1996, it has seen a steady 5 percent growth with 50 percent leaps after major disasters.

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"We first noticed a lot of new people showing up on the forum last fall, when people started to recognize that we really are in a recession. And then the unemployment rate started to skyrocket and people started to worry about whether they were going to lose their home," Ritter says. "They're trying to get prepared for more troubled times." The site now receives about 260,000 unique visitors a month.

Traffic at Post Peak Living, an e-commerce site that sells survival kits, has also swelled, particularly as the price of oil rises, says co-founder Andre Angelantoni. Seizing the business opportunity, he has begun to offer online courses in subjects ranging from how to raise chickens to how to start your own garden to the $199 flagship "Uncrash" course, which helps registrants evaluate how each facet of their lives will be affected by the inevitable fall. Angelantoni and his business partner, Craig Wichner, believe the world has reached its peak in oil production and society will regress to the way it operated in the Colonial era.

People have always anticipated the end of days. And in truth, while having survival skills—whether they are tactical or horticultural—could save your life, in reality they will likely do little more than what stockpiling canned beans and toilet paper did in preparation for Y2K: that is, lend a sense of security.

At the end of the final day, after my cohorts and I had successfully evaded Reeve's trackers, we convened at a Chili's Bar & Grill and swapped stories with the other students. None of them had been "caught," either, but many of them had been spotted by Reeve and his trackers and had run for it. Some went deep into disguise; the most shocking of all was Kyle cutting off at least 24 inches of dreads for the exercise. The mood was light-hearted; we were all drinking beer. Maybe it was because, with our knowledge, we all felt a little safer—or at least better prepared next time we got locked out of our homes.