Primitive Skills

Primitive Skills

When you men­tion prim­i­tive skills, peo­ple usu­al­ly think of the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Sur­vivor­man or wilder­ness ther­a­py, which uses the skills to teach life lessons. How­ev­er, prim­i­tive skills are prac­ticed by a grow­ing num­ber of out­doors peo­ple for a num­ber of unique rea­sons. For some, prim­i­tive skills are a way of devel­op­ing self suf­fi­cien­cy and less­en­ing one’s reliance on mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy. For oth­ers, liv­ing off the land fos­ters a stronger con­nec­tion to nature. Final­ly, prim­i­tive skills can be just anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn some­thing new and devel­op proficiency.

Learn­ing prim­i­tive skills can be a hard sell because they are intrin­si­cal­ly less effi­cient. A lighter is faster than a bow drill, a stove is more effi­cient than an open fire, and a tent is eas­i­er to set-up than a prim­i­tive shel­ter. When it comes to prim­i­tive skills, effi­cien­cy is not the point: that’s why they’re called prim­i­tive skills. As a cul­ture, we’ve devel­oped faster, eas­i­er, and more com­fort­able ways to live out­doors. But, if spend­ing time in the wilder­ness is way for you to escape the trap­pings of every­day life, con­sid­er how your expe­ri­ence could be enhanced by leav­ing even more con­ve­niences behind.

Starting Fire

Flint and Steel
If a lighter is the top-rop­ing of back­coun­try liv­ing, than start­ing a fire with a flint (or rock) and steel, is sport climb­ing: it’s not entire­ly nat­ur­al, but it takes some skill to pull off. The basic con­cept is to cre­ate sparks from hit­ting a piece of steel against some­thing hard­er (like a quartz rock or a piece of flint) and to then catch a spark on a flam­ma­ble, like steel wool or a charred cloth. Get­ting sparks with­out devel­op­ing bloody knuck­les can be a bit of a chal­lenge, but catch­ing the spark is even hard­er. This skill requires prac­tice and a touch of luck, but once you catch a spark, it’s easy to get a fire going in a birch­bark cone with addi­tion­al tinder.

Bow Drill
This is the lead climb­ing of fire­light­ing. The bow is the eas­i­est piece to visu­al­ize because it a stick with a piece of string (shoelace, nat­ur­al fibers, etc.) tied to each end. The spin­dle, which is a straight stick of wood, gets twist­ed into the bow­string so that it is per­pen­dic­u­lar to the bow. The spin­dle then gets sand­wiched between a hand­hold (usu­al­ly a piece of rock) and a fire­board, which is a flat piece of wood. Down­ward pres­sure from the hand­hold increas­es fric­tion in on the fire­board as the spin­dle is spun by the bow. As the hole gets deep­er, black dust builds up. To turn this into a use­ful coal, the user cuts a notch in the fire board. When done cor­rect­ly, the fric­tion from using a bow drill pro­duces an ember (or a coal) in the notch, which can then be used to light a fire. Because of the num­ber of pieces and the del­i­ca­cy of main­tain­ing fric­tion, there are a lot of ways to strug­gle with a bow drill.


Any­one who has read Into the Wild knows the poten­tial pit­falls of misiden­ti­fy­ing edi­ble plants and the dif­fi­cul­ty of sub­sist­ing on for­aged food. But being able to iden­ti­fy edi­ble plants like fresh greens or berries means you can eas­i­ly spice up any back­coun­try din­ner. Depend­ing on the region, it’s pos­si­ble to find ramps, morels, edi­ble greens like moun­tain blue­bell. This skill can be dif­fi­cult, but the pay­outs are def­i­nite­ly worth the effort.

Prim­i­tive Skills Schools
If any of these skills sound inter­est­ing, or if you’re look­ing to learn more tech­niques for liv­ing tech-free in the back­coun­try, there are a few schools that teach these skills. One option on the East Coast is the Maine Prim­i­tive Skills Sur­vival School, while Earth­walk North­west is based in Wash­ing­ton State.