Primitive Skills and Wilderness Crafts
Get out in the dirt, and get back to the basics!
I have always enjoyed getting down to the basics and understanding how things work, and one way in which I like to do this is to get out in the woods and wilderness and learn primitive methods of making and doing some of the things we take for granted in today's consumer society. Making fire without matches, producing everything from cordage (string, rope) to baskets, pots and bowls for gathering and cooking wild foods to making clothing and footwear from animal hides--these are great ways to re-introduce one's self to the fundamentals of life, and learn the origins and value of the things we use in everyday life without a second thought.
Join me as I give a brief glimpse at some of the various wilderness skills and crafts I enjoy practicing!
All photos taken by the author
A good place to start...
Do you realize how useful rope, string, and other sorts of cordage can be in daily life, and how valuable they become when not readily available?
There are so many raw materials that can be used to make a sturdy cordage, depending on your region of the country, and now would be a good time to practice this valuable skill. Milkweed, nettle, dogbane and yucca are some of the best cordage plants in my area--you want to look for a plant whose stem contains sturdy fibers which don't easily break when the stem is broken--but there are some interesting non-plant options as well. Get out and explore, experiment and discover your favorites!
Yucca fibers, soaked, scraped and dried, and finished yucca cordage:
Cording the inner bark of an aspen tree:
Basket made from aspen bark cordage:
Cordage twined from mountain goat wool that I collected up on a ridge above 12,000' elevation!
Sinew (tendons) from the legs and back of deer, elk and other animals provides another valuable source of cordage material. Primitive peoples around the world, including Native Americans, used deer sinew for bowstrings and to back bows themselves to add strength. Before twisting into cordage, backstrap sinew (the longest, most useful fibers) must be scraped to remove all traces of meat and fat, and dried, and the round, thick leg sinews need to be pounded gently with a rounded rock to separate the fibers so they can be twisted.
Deer backstrap sinew, scraped, dried, separated and ready to turn into sturdy cordage!
There are many ways to produce fire without modern tools such as matches and lighters. Some--such as the bow and drill or hand drill--take more skill than others to master, but it is very rewarding to be able to walk into the woods and know that you can obtain fire with nothing more than the raw materials you find close at hand. One of the simplest ways in which you can do this is to carry a ferro rod, which is made of a special metal that produces sparks when scraped with steel, glass or even rock:
Materials all ready to go--ferro rod, striker and milkweed down for tinder...
Waterproof "tinder pellets" can be made from milkweed down and pine pitch. These can be carried in one's pack or bag to aid in starting fires under the worst of conditions. Here I am pouring liquefied pine pitch (sap) into a pile of milkweed down--the first step in making these pellets.
And, the finished pellet, ready to use. Simply break open the waterproof shell of pitch, and strike sparks for ready tinder!
A basket of willow wood shavings and "feather sticks" to help get fires started...
Bow and drill firestarting - A good demonstration to help get you started
Bow and Drill Fire - Master a primitive method of firestarting that can be done with nothing more than items you find in the woods!
- Make a Basic Bow Drill Fire Set
This article will lead you through the steps of selecting your wood, making the spindle and fireboard and successfully getting your first coal!
- Making Fire with a Hand Drill
Step-by-step, learn another method of primitive firestarting.
- Friction Fire Woods
Learn which types of wood work best for hand drills and bow drills, and which combinations work together most successfully to make an ember!
Wilderness firestarting tools on Amazon
While these products are not as primitive as a fire bow and should not take the place of really mastering the basics of starting a fire with materials you can scrounge in the woods, they do provide the ability to make hundreds or even thousands of fires without having to worry about carrying matches or lighters, which are quite expendable.
Brain Tanning and leather craft
Primitive clothing and footwear...
For thousands of years, animal hides provided humans with clothing and shelter. Brain tanning your own hides--either from animals you take for meat, or hides donated by hunters who don't wish to use them, if you don't hunt, yourself--is a great way to reconnect with this tradition and learn some very valuable skills.
It's hard work to take a hide from its raw state to finished, wearable leather/buckskin, and the task will certainly give you a new appreciation of the readily available clothing that we so take for granted, these days!
Fleshing an elk hide, the first step in brain tanning. All of the meat, fat and membrane must come off...
Brain tanning buckskin--a video introduction
Brain Tanning and Buckskin Resources
Brain tanning, buckskin and leatherwork books and supplies
Primitive lamps and lighting
Primitive lighting can involve anything from cattail seed heads dipped in pine pitch to make a long-burning torch, to seal fat burned in carved out dishes of soapstone with cottongrass wicks such as the Inuits used for lighting and cooking, to beeswax candles.
This is a very simple lamp I carved from sandstone. The wick is corded cattail leaf fibers, with bear fat for the fuel. It provides a good, steady flame.
Qulliq - This traditional Inuit lamp a source of light, and heat, a place to cook food and the center of the home
Watch this incredible video to see how the tradition is being preserved and passed down!
Keeping yourself out of the wind and weather in the wild...
A primitive shelter can be as simple as a good dry pile of leaves or pine needles beneath a tree, or as complex as a large skin or bark covered lodge fit for spending an entire winter, as different as cleft in the rock or a snow cave, but the basics are the same--keep yourself dry, warm and out of the wind and weather.
No matter where you choose to shelter, it's important that you insulate yourself from the ground as well as possible, to help conserve warmth. This may involve sitting on a pack or an item of clothing, or piling dry leaves or even freshly cut evergreen boughs beneath you, for insulation.
Here is a picture from inside a snug little shelter I built from scrub oak trunks, and one showing its outside, which is covered with cottonwood tree bark. The bark helps shed water, and I have spent many dry nights in that shelter, even during the hardest rain. Inside, I have piled a good foot and a half of good dry oak leaves on the floor to provide insulation, and have stuffed cracks between the logs with sagebrush to keep out the wind.
And here's a shelter of cut snow blocks I made one spring when the snow wasn't deep enough to dig a snow cave, but I needed something to shelter me from the wind. Cracks between the blocks were packed with loose snow, and water from a nearby creek spread on them and allowed to freeze to firm everything together. Lily the dog is sitting in the shelter to give you an idea of its size.
Edible wild plants
Enjoy nature's bounty!
No matter where a person may live, desert, mountains, plains, forest or even in the city, there will be numerous food plants available for use and enjoyment. An interesting way to learn about your local food resources is to study (in North America, at least) which wild food crops were relied on by the Native Americans in centuries past.
One must not, of course, ever eat a plant until it has been positively identified, and the best way to learn is in person from someone well versed in local edibles, but this skill can be learned by studying books and comparing what you see there to things found out in the field, also.
Here are some tasty an nutritious plants that I enjoy harvesting and eating, here in my area (Western US.)
Waterleaf, avalanche lily and spring beauty roots...
Prickly pear cactus...
Cattail roots (just like fried potatoes, with eggs!)
Books to help get you started identifying edible plants in your area!
Eat the Weeds! - Great sites for learning to identify and use wild edible plants
- Eat the Weeds
On this site, wild edible plants expert "Green Dean" provides photos, descriptions and detailed information on how to cook with and eat hundreds of different plants from all around the country!
- "Green Dean" on YouTube
Watch well-made tutorial videos on identifying, harvesting and using wild edible plants.
The primitive skills and wilderness crafts featured in this article are just a few of the many to which I've devoted time over the years, and they have become a lifelong pursuit and passion for me.
Get out in the dirt and give a few of these ancient and productive skills a try, and you may find that you enjoy them, too!
Additional primitive skills and wilderness crafts images...Click thumbnail to view full-size
Primitive Skills Poll - There are so many things to learn, practice and master, out in the woods!
Which wilderness skills have you tried?
Primitive skills and wilderness craft books
There is no substitute for getting out there and trying the skills yourself, but these books will give you a good place from which to start...
All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.