I’m a big fan of the website ITS Tactical. The founder and owner Bryan Black has done an awesome job of creating interesting content about tactical and survival skills that avoids the “tin foil hat” vibe that many other survival and tactical sites give off. He makes his content approachable and extremely applicable to the Average Joe. We’ve featured ITS Tactical on the site from time to time, and we’ve even had a few posts inspired by them. ITS has played a big part in me getting interested in that kind of stuff.
But here’s the conundrum that I found myself with in regards to my newfound interest in tactical and wilderness survival blogs/books: I just read their how-tos and never actually got out there and tried my hand at them. Or, I had learned some of these skills in my Boy Scout days, but I hadn’t practiced them in years. My interest then remained at the abstract level; if I had to actually start a fire without matches or navigate with a compass I wasn’t sure I’d do all that well because I hadn’t practiced these skills in a hands-on way.
Why didn’t I take action? Oh, I’ve had the usual excuses — that with family, work, church responsibilities, etc. I just didn’t have the time. Even when I had some free time that I could have used to practice my compass or knot-tying skills, I didn’t. Why? Well, it’s easier to decide to surf the net than to go practice fire-making. And I also felt that with some skills, I really needed an expert looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing it right, rather than simply unwittingly compounding my own mistakes.
Luckily, in the past several years, a few hands-on “man skill” camps have cropped up. Bryan started one three years ago called the ITS Tactical Muster. And a brand new one was created this year by Tod Moore from Atomic Athlete called the Vanguard. Both Bryan and Tod invited me out to their events this year, and I saw them as a kick in the rear that would force me to try the things I’ve been reading about for the past few years. So I decided to go to both events and check them out. The Muster was last month. As you read this today, I’m at the Vanguard. I’ll be reviewing both events here on the site. First up: the Muster.
The ITS Tactical Muster is a five-day event in which participants congregate in the woods of Texas to learn and practice wilderness, self-defense, and first aid skills. It’s like Boy Scout camp, but for grown men (women are welcome too, but mostly guys come). Below I offer a report of the experience. While Bryan did waive my entrance fee, he did not ask me to write a review, did not pay me to write a review, and I don’t have any affiliation with ITS other than being a fan. So my thoughts are entirely my own!
The Type of Guy Who Goes to Muster and My Squad Introduction
I drove down to Dallas in a rented Ford Fiesta (economy class baby!). On my drive down there I wondered what type of people would be in attendance. I’ll admit I was worried it was going to be a bunch of Navy SEAL wannabes or crazy prepper-types, and that I might not fit in. But when I arrived at the Scout ranch and started doing the initial meet and greet, I discovered my worries were ill-founded (and overly cynical). Bushy beards abounded, but these were all normal, down-to-earth dudes from a wide variety of backgrounds who just happened to have an interest in developing tactical and survival skills. Amongst our group of 31 men (and one gal), there was a jeweler, a few lawyers, bankers, several first responders, and an ER surgeon. About a quarter of the guys were active duty military and veterans. The participants had come from across the country, and about 90% had attended the Muster in previous years.
What I found striking (and encouraging!) was how all of them seemed to have had the same reason for coming: they wanted to be useful and competent men for their families and communities, no matter the situation. Muster was a way for them to learn and refine those skills that they might one day need to call upon in an emergency. I have to credit Bryan Black for creating a culture on ITS Tactical that draws men like this to an event like Muster.
With my worries allayed that I’d be spending the next five days with potential stars of Doomsday Preppers, I learned that the 32 people in attendance would be divided into four teams (or squads) of eight and that the squads would be competing against each other throughout the week. The winning squad would go home with the coveted paddle trophy. I had the fortune of being assigned to Charlie Squad. All the men in Charlie Squad had been teamed up with each other in previous Musters, as Bryan tries to keep Squads intact from year to year. The guys on my team were all super adept and knowledgeable in a wide variety of skills. What’s more, they were fired-up to win this year’s Muster after a break-down during the previous year’s final competition. Despite being the new guy, the men of Charlie Squad immediately brought me into their circle of camaraderie. Throughout the week, we ate together, slept in the same bunk, and hung out during what little free time we had. Because we had to work together to succeed in our tasks and tests, we became quick friends. They became my honor group for the week, and they pushed me to push myself for the good of the team. I hadn’t experienced that sort of what I would call “male aggressive nurturing” in awhile. It was refreshing. Reminded me of my football days.
Food and Accommodations
This year’s Muster was at Sid Richardson’s Boy Scout Ranch in Bridgeport, TX, about an hour west of Dallas. The ranch is huge and sits on the shoreline of Bridgeport Lake. Each team had an air conditioned bunkhouse and shared clean bathrooms with hot showers with the bunkhouse next to them. So, we weren’t exactly roughing it, but I’m not complaining.
The grub was provided by the Scout ranch and consisted of your typical Boy Scout Camp fare: sloppy joes, breakfast burritos, biscuits and gravy, fajitas, etc. I thought the food was awesome, but I have a garbage gut and a palate as sophisticated as a raccoon. I’ll eat just about anything you put in front of me and you’ll be my friend forever. So I’m probably not the best judge on the quality of the food.
So overall, I thought the food and accommodations were great! I think ITS Tactical has just scratched the surface on the things they could do at Sid Richardson. Hopefully they can use the facility again next year.
The team at ITS Tactical jammed about eight days worth of training into five. As soon as we arrived at the Scout ranch on Thursday afternoon, the instruction began. Throughout all of our training sessions very little time was spent lecturing from a PowerPoint presentation. We learned by doing. Below I highlight the skills we learned during the Muster:
How to Fold a Topographic Map
This was surprisingly useful. Topographic maps can be unwieldy because they can be pretty dang big. Bryan showed us how to fold a map so that it’s easy to manage and gives you quick access to different “quadrants” on your map.
How to Make and Use Ranger Beads
This was completely new to me. You use Ranger beads to keep track of how far you’ve traveled using a pace count. It’s a pretty nifty little tool that came in real handy during our land navigation exercises.
How to Pick Locks, Bypass Consumer Security Devices, and Break Into Cheap-O Handgun Safes
This session was taught by Matt Fiddler of SEREPick and was one of the most useful and eye-opening things I learned during the Muster. It blew my mind how easy it is to pick a lock or bypass certain home security devices. I learned that many of the things we think keep us and our property safe and secure are simply illusions of security. You can’t just rely on a lock or security alarm to keep you and your family safe. You need to add multiple layers and utilize other tools and tactics to really achieve greater security (something we’ll cover in the future).
How to Make a Fire With Flint and Steel
A nice refresher on a skill that I had developed a long time ago, but had let deteriorate. Brian Green of Brian’s Backpacking Blog provided the instruction. After a quick demonstration, we had a friendly little competition amongst the squads to see who could build the biggest fire, the fastest.
How to Navigate With a Compass and Map
This is something I learned in Boy Scouts but had long forgotten, so it was nice to get the refresher. Classroom time was spent learning how to plot points on a topographic map, shooting azimuths, and figuring out bearings. Again, instruction time was kept to a minimum and our instructor, ITS Tactical writer and former Navy SEAL, Nick, got us outside navigating as much as possible. I sort of felt like a wizard being able to pinpoint stakes in the ground with nothing but a map and compass. It was really empowering. If, for whatever reason, GPS stops working during the Zombie Apocalypse I’d feel confident about finding my way to a safe hide-out.
Bryan provided a great session on various ways and tools to signal for help or to identify meet-up locations. I was introduced to the awesome world of infrared signaling devices. I now want night vision goggles. Who wants to buy them for me?
How to Track Humans
John Hurth, retired Army Ranger and owner of Tyr Group, provided a hands-on class on how to track humans in the wild. This was another eye-opening exercise. It’s amazing what you can decipher about a person, what he’s doing, and where he’s going simply by paying close attention to footprints, litter, and damage to the environment. We spent a few hours in the “track” — a dirt pit in which he made footprint examples — where John showed us what to look for in a footprint in order to determine if a guy is running, limping, or walking backwards. If Gus ever wanders off in the greenbelt behind our house, I’ll have some idea of how to track him down.
On Saturday we spent most of the day doing a ropes, or confidence, course. Lots of great team-building and comfort zone-expanding. The best thing was the “Leap of Faith” where you had to jump out from a 20-foot telephone pole about six feet to grab a suspended ring. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks!
Wilderness First Aid
Caleb Causey of Lone Star Medics provided a class on wilderness first-aid. We learned how to evaluate an injured person, create various splints for arms and legs, how to clean out a wound, and how to use a tourniquet.
Brian Green did a short class on foot care. It’s not a “sexy” topic, but when you’re out in the wild, hiking for hours at a time, taking proper care of your dogs is essential. Key takeaway: cotton is rotten and keep your socks dry.
Escape from Illegal Restraint
Bryan Black led a session on how to escape from illegal restraints, specifically how to escape from zip ties. I’d done the “just bust the zip tie open” method before. Using a piece of Kevlar string to saw your way through the plastic was new to me.
There wasn’t a set class dedicated to this skill-set, but we learned how to patrol and communicate quietly during formation. This skill came in handy during our final training exercise.
Putting Our Knowledge to the Test: Scenario Oriented Training Exercises
Throughout the five days of the Muster, we started to pick up on a subtle storyline that we were unknowingly part of. My fellow Muster attendees and I would soon discover that the skills we were learning would be used in two live-action, all-night “missions” or training exercises that involved this storyline.
The first operation was an all-night reconnaissance mission that required us to navigate to and hide ourselves at an observation point. From there we gathered info that we’d need to succeed in completing the final training exercise. We took turns sleeping in watches on the bare ground, and I got about two hours of sleep. That was a long night.
On the final night, we took part in the last training exercise, or FTX. The storyline that had been developing throughout the weekend all came to an action-packed climax during the FTX. We had to use all the skills we learned during the previous four days to successfully complete it. The squad that performed the best during the FTX would walk home with the coveted paddle trophy.
I’m not going to go into detail about the storyline and what all happened during the FTX because 1) it would ruin the fun for future Muster attendees and 2) Bryan asked that we don’t share details about it.
But I will say this: even though I knew this stuff was all pretend, I had a freaking blast!
I felt like a little kid again playing army with my neighborhood friends, except this time I was actually using practical skills while I was “playing.” Being able to test myself in a simulated environment was incredibly useful in reinforcing what I had learned during the previous four days.
The Recap Ceremony
Monday morning was really low key. Ate breakfast, cleaned up our bunks, and then went to the classroom for a recap. Our cadres gave some final words of encouragement and Bryan gave everyone a chance to share what they liked and didn’t like about the event. The vast majority of the feedback was positive and the constructive feedback was noted by the ITS Team to consider for next year. This time was basically a chance for everyone to bond over war stories and share funny moments or moments of growth from the event.
Awards were handed out and then the winner of the FTX was announced. And I’m proud to say that Charlie Squad went home with the Paddles. Mine is hanging in my closet/podcast studio now.
The Muster was a great time. I got to learn (or re-learn) some awesome skills, and I experienced some great male camaraderie. Bryan, his wife Kelly, and the whole ITS Tactical team of instructors did one heck of a job putting on a well-organized, well-thought out event. What’s more, Bryan and the instructors did a bang-up job of keeping the vibe positive and constructive. I left the event feeling more competent and empowered, and I was motivated to keep practicing the things that I had learned. I’ll be writing up posts on some of the skills I learned from time to time (this month: lock picking!).
It might be easy to roll one’s eyes at the idea of a bunch of grown man playing commando at a boy scout camp, but it really didn’t feel weird or silly at all. While such an event could be cheesy and overdone, it was kept very straightforward and down to earth. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever need to use the skills I learned, it feels awesome knowing I could if I had to, and they’re just plain fun to try. ITS Tactical has really created a good thing here.
From what I gathered, the Muster has evolved over time and has gotten better each year. I think there is even more Bryan can do to make the experience even more immersive. One suggestion I made during a feedback session was to provide “homework” to attendees on basic skills they needed to master before they come to the Muster so that time can be spent going more in-depth in a particular area.
One downside, at least to me, is that the Muster is five days long, and doesn’t end until Monday mid-day. If you’re like me with a crazy busy schedule, getting away for that length of time can be difficult. While the length of the Muster increases the amount of skills you can learn and the camaraderie, I would have preferred it to be just a bit shorter, ending on Sunday, so I could get back and be ready to hit the ground running on Monday morning.
The price ain’t cheap either: $900. But considering that you get 5 days of lodgings, 3 meals a day, and personal instruction, it’s pretty reasonable. It’s about what a week of summer camp goes for, which is pretty much what it is. If you’re interested in attending, watch the ITS site for an announcement in the coming months as to how to register for the 2015 Muster. You have to already be a paid member of their site to register, and spots are always limited.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend folks who are interested in learning or refining their man skills to attend a Muster. It’s a fantastic way to learn cool stuff, spend time outside, and experience some great, manly camaraderie.
All photos copyright of ITS Tactical.