Night is closing in at the end of our third day on the trail. We haven’t eaten since early this morning, and all we have for dinner is a few handfuls of mushrooms and tubers we’ve gathered along the way. As the wind whistles around our makeshift shelter of branches, one of our camp-mates struggles with a roughly carved wooden stick. He twirls it between his palms, pressing it down into a pile of twigs and leaves. At last, a thin curl of smoke rises upwards and we all cheer. Now, all we have to do is painstakingly feed the fire with shreds of moss and grasses until we’ve built it up enough to cook our meager dinner. Then we’ll sleep for a few hours on a bed of crumbly dirt—without so much as a sleeping bag.
And we’re having the time of our lives.
Tackling even a short day hike without energy bars and GPS systems in tow might seem like a daring endeavor. But three days, a week or even a month without all the bells and whistles most campers usually pack? For a growing number of “primitive skills” enthusiasts, spending time in nature without modern outdoor gear provides a sense of connection to the environment that can’t be matched.
“When you focus on your experience, rather than on handling your gear, you can have a much richer connection to your surroundings,” says primitive skills expert Tony Deis, founder of Portland, Oregon’s TrackersNW. “Instead of having a ‘man versus wild’ feeling, you can blend and flow with your environment.”
So you’re a city slicker, or you never earned your Eagle Scout badge? You can still master these primitive skills, thanks to a number of schools around the country. Each offers a slightly different program format, but all share a commitment to helping their students recapture the sense of oneness with nature that our tribal ancestors enjoyed.
In a beginning primitive skills class, you’ll learn some essential survival techniques. Fire making, shelter building and foraging for food are all likely to appear on the program. But you’ll develop a deeper knowledge of the landscape as well, from which kinds of plants to use for natural first aid to how to track animals for food or just a closer look.
Just as our ancient ancestors did more than build shelters and gather food, primitive skills classes offer instruction beyond these survival basics. At the annual Slickrock Gathering hosted by Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), students spend a week focusing on a single specialized skill. Bowmaking, leather tanning and herb lore are among the options offered, with no previous experience required. TrackersNW offers both short-term courses and full-time immersion programs to those with a real commitment to mastering the low-tech lifestyle.
“People who go through our courses have a profound change in their confidence level,” says Steve Dessinger, Utah program director at BOSS. “For many students, the feeling of self-reliance is the biggest asset they get from the program. And it’s almost universal for our graduates to report that they’ve developed a new perspective on life—it’s always fulfilling to be part of someone’s experiencing such a profound change.”
Ready to leave your forty-pound pack behind and pick up some new old skills? Start with one of these resources to help you along the way.