Q and A with Doug Lansky, Travel Writer

After two and a half years of working his way around the planet – picking bananas in Israel, snowmobile guiding in the Alps, selling carpets in Morocco, and hitching on yachts – a car accident in Thailand brought Doug home. Six months later, Doug was back on the road, but this time with a nationally syndicated travel column that grew to reach over 10 million readers in 40 major newspapers.

Doug’s books have won several awards and the most recent, First Time: Around the World, is a Rough Guides bestseller. Doug is working on two books for Rough Guides while he tours on the lecture circuit.

BootsnAll recently met up with Doug Lansky and had a chance to interview him about his new upcoming book The Rough Guide to Travel Survival: An Essential Field Manual.

Why did you decide to write this book?
During the years I worked as a travel columnist and traveled the world full time, I carried this SAS Survival book. I bought it because it was small and easy to throw in my pack and it seemed like a good thing to have a long just in case. Then one day on a long bus ride I finished the novel I was reading and, out of boredom, picked up the survival book. I was fascinated by the information, but found it overwhelming and way over my level. The print was too small and there were about 20 different kinds of knots and all these complicated animal traps. Plus, there was no clear-cut strategy on what to do, and in what order, for various survival situations. I remember thinking “I hope I never need this book.”

Who is it aimed at and what does it cover?
It’s written with aid workers, foreign correspondents, and adventure travelers in mind. This book is designed to function as a field guide for those who have no experience with survival and serve as a helpful checklist for those who’ve already taken some sort of survival course, but want to make sure they remember everything in a panicked situation (which is exactly why pilots and trauma medics carry a checklist). It covers pre-trip preparation (e.g. figuring out if countries are safe and packing a survival kit), dangerous city survival, war zone survival, natural disaster survival, safari animal survival, desert survival, at sea survival, jungle survival, arctic survival, and mountain survival.

Do you write it or did you use other experts?
I read about 20 survival books and came up with the basic outline and format (there are plenty of illustrations and the instructions are in simple, bullet-point format, similar to the worse-case scenario series) but the info was all edited by a team of the world’s top survival experts. For example, Robert Young Pelton (World’s Most Dangerous Places) and Paul Rees (Centurion Risk Assessment Services president – trains BBC and CNN correspondents) consulted on the war-zone chapter. Three of Africa’s top safari guides and trackers were consulted on the safari animal section. Bill McGuire (Benfield Professor of Geohazards and author of A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know) is perhaps the world’s leading authority on natural disasters and he helped with that chapter. My job was to filter the information through the eyes of a traveler and novice survivalist so the book wouldn’t get too bogged down in technical detail.

Your mentioned the Worst-Case Scenario books. How is yours different?
The Worst-Case survival book is a fun living room read, but not the book that you’d want to take with you. You don’t really need to know how to stop a runaway camel or jump into a dumpster. At least, it’s not up there at the top of the list.

Are there survival stories as well or just instructional text?
It’s 98% instructional text, but we decided to include a few short survival anecdotes. One of the most important aspects of survival – perhaps the single most important — is the survivalist’s mind-set. And it didn’t seem quite effective enough to say “stay focused and don’t give up.” The survival tales are incredible and – hopefully — help keep people from giving up hope.

Do you think people will actually need your book?
It’s better if people don’t need it, but statistically, many will. Many people also need band-aids, Imodium and travel insurance – which most people take and are thankful they did when they needed it. Likewise, you’ll be glad you had this book along. In the event that you need it, it may be the best $10 you ever spent. This book is designed to bridge that treacherous gap between when you first need help and when you eventually get reimbursed by your insurance provider.

Do you think this book will scare people about the hazards of travel?
This book is not trying to hype the danger that’s out there. Quite the opposite (besides, the US State Department does a good enough job at making places sound terrifying without any help – just read their traveler advisories). The media, and our own projected phobias, distort danger. For example, since Israel became a state in 1948, more Israelis have died from traffic accidents than wars and suicide bombers combined. In other words, look for statistics and informed advice, not explosions on CNN. A good place to start, in fact, is in Chapter 2 of the book, where you can find tips on figuring out which countries are budget friendly and quite safe (but have made the headlines for one thing or another) and which are actually dangerous. There’s a serious security gap between the safety in Nepal and that in Iraq. Or between Israel and Afghanistan. Yet they’re all on the same security warning list.