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.
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.
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.