SURVIVAL TOOLS - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter Seventeen




Hunting tools are essential to the survivalist. They are necessary to gather food to keep you nourished while living in the wilderness. But they also become a part of you and one of the defining aspects of your respect for the land.

The first thing to understand about any survival tool—whether it is a hunting tool, blanket, piece of clothing, or fire to keep you warm—is that you must establish a connection to the earth to have a pure experience with it.

At first, it may seem foolish to trade out your lighter for a friction fire kit or your sleeping bag for a wool blanket, or take your knife out of its sheath and make a leather one—or better yet, leave your knife behind and learn how to use tools made from stone. Maybe you can even create your own clothing.

In the beginning, you may suffer, but you will never experience the layers of survival if you don’t try. The layers have always existed. A hunter-gatherer leaving the village to go on a vision quest could be the equivalent of a backpacker leaving all the last gadgets behind to establish a deeper connection in the woods. This is not to say that people should not go out on the land with their backpacks full of gear, if that is what they love to do. Natural tools may be harder, but they also may be more fulfilling.

There is a complex simplicity involved in the making of all hunting tools. Every region of the globe has had many generations of tool craftsmen to evolve the hunting tools that work best in that landscape. The list of primitive tools is extensive. They include the spear, the blowgun, the bolo, the sling, the throwing club, the rabbit stick, the bow, the boomerang, and most historically, the atlatl.

The atlatl and the bow are similar. Both project a “missile” toward the target. The atlatl is generally smaller and the rope attached to the dart makes it ideal for fishing, while the bow (and arrow) is better suited for shooting game over distance. The boomerang is most effective on open terrain.

The most versatile of all hunting tools is the atlatl. An atlatl is a device for throwing a spear that gives it greater velocity. The atlatl creates an extra joint to the arm. It throws like a cross between a javelin and an elongated arrow.

Much of the information I have learned about tools and hunting has come from trial and error—an atlatl that backfires can maim you if you’re not careful—and from studying what others have done. All teachers should be students, because there are no absolutes.

Having the right balance of tools allows you to draw energy from the land and gather food in extreme circumstances. Developing a sense of the land is crucial to being able to build and ultimately use the tools properly. These hunting tools require a clear sense of mind and an awareness of animals to be effective, and they must become an extension of the hunter. Experiencing that connection is powerful. It can also determine whether you live or die in the wilderness.


The first thing to understand about primitive hunting tools is that you can’t just step into a survival situation and make a primitive bow, atlatl, or boomerang or any other tool and expect to hunt effectively with them if you have never used them before.

It takes a week to dial in to that tool. You can’t speed up the process and be successful. The atlatl is the only tool I have been able to make and use on the fly to catch small game. But making a bow is a process. I’ve never known anybody who has made a bow and caught something in the same week. The bow doesn’t have that quality.

To make an effective bow, you must cure the bow. You can speed up that process by doing it over a fire for a couple days, but it still must be cured. To make the arrows, you essentially have to follow the same process. However, if they are rapid cured, the spines will not be what you are used to. So even in a survival situation, someone who has a great deal of skill and experience will need four days minimum to get something dialed in—to say nothing of learning about the land where you need to use it.

While the boomerang works far better when it is cured, it is possible to make one that is “green” and use it. The boomerang is inherently easier because it can be used to go after a flock of animals, thereby lessening the skill needed to make a kill.

For the average person in a survival situation who has never used any hunting tools, the boomerang, club, and spear are the best options. Those would be followed by traps. In a pure survival situation, the simplest tools are the more effective for the average person.

The fact is that it takes years of dedication to know how to create and use a tool properly. The defining quality to hunting tools created from the land is that they are very specific to that landscape. For instance, a long bow works well in one environment while it doesn’t work great in another. Same with a short bow. Hunting boomerangs are the same, depending on the type of game you are hunting.

As the archaeological records of mankind show, the atlatl has been used longer than any other hunting tool. It is responsible for us being alive. Ancient European cultures used it for ten thousand years before they decided to start using a bow.

The atlatl has gained a reputation for its ability to kill woolly mammoths. But the fact is that the atlatl was not used just to kill woolly mammoths and then put away once the mammoths were extinct. It was used as the primary and sole hunting tool up to a thousand years ago when this continent had the exact same game as it does now.


Many people think that once the bow came into existence, it was the superior tool and people simply stopped using the atlatl. That’s far from the case. Once the bow was employed, there continued to be an overlap. Even in our records of when the bow was first starting to be used and understood, that same tribe often preferred the atlatl. The bow for a long time was considered a tinker toy or a very specialized shooting weapon.

Though the bow and atlatl appear to be similar, there are differences. The advantage to a bow is that there is very little movement involved in its use. The lack of movement from the hunter to flag an animal when he takes a shot allows him to slowly draw back the bow. When he releases the arrow, he is not waving his hand toward the target, as he would be while throwing an atlatl. Actually, in my opinion that’s the only modern advantage to a bow over an atlatl. In primitive times, using a bow also allowed people to carry a quiver of arrows for going to war, as they obviously could not retrieve a dart in battle.

A D bow is about sixty inches long. In Southern Utah, the best materials for making the bow are Gambel oak, Russian olive, and serviceberry. However, I prefer other materials, such as juniper and ash. Those make a better bow with sinew. I have since learned that maple also makes an effective D bow.

The bow’s string is a two-ply twist sinew that is loosened with saliva, finger rolled on a log, and then stretched between two trees. The tip of the arrow varies. A long tip is used for a quick kill, whereas a stone tip is used for a stun.

Though bows are very much in favor, I prefer the atlatl to the bow because it is very Zen. People talk about archery as being Zen, but once you throw an atlatl accurately there is nothing that will create that kind of focus and meditation. Using a bow and arrow has a Zen feeling because you are controlling your muscles to stabilize the shot. Once you reach that point, you aim and let go. But with the atlatl, you put your entire body into it. That teaches harmony and helps you reach it.


Archaeological records and studies show that nothing uses more explosive brainpower than throwing an object, even in our frenetic technologically driven society. For that split second, throwing an object requires the greatest amount of concentration a human can muster, without exception.

The atlatl becomes an extension of your arm, the tool an extra joint in your body. The dart itself becomes spiritually and physically connected to you in some way. As you practice throwing it, you start to “know” the dart. Throwing a rock would be very Zen if you kept the same rock all the time. But people don’t do that. They go down to a creek and start chucking rocks. The first rock is no different from the sixth. However, if you retrieved the first rock every time you threw it, you would become attached to that rock, and it would become an extension of your hand and your arm.

The dart becomes a part of you because after you throw it, you collect it. Eventually, you start developing a relationship with that particular dart. You understand the way it flies, how it reacts to natural obstacles, such as wind and rain. If you stick with that same dart long enough, you will know it so well that you will be hitting dimes out of the air—or at least a pinecone from ten yards.

Darts are also more durable, so they last longer than arrows, which is helpful while practicing and hunting. The dart can be crafted from any type of stiff, thin piece of wood that has enough flex to give it the proper flight. Cane is a great source for that, as are willows and birch.

Depending on the continent, the atlatl itself has many different shapes and designs. The Eskimos used a one-finger design that had a very neutral hand position. They primarily used it for hunting on the ocean shores, meaning that they just needed a straight down flick to hit a fish or a seal. Unlike the bow, which is inevitably bent to a slight imperfection, the atlatl can be made to be ergonomically perfect.

I made my first atlatl shortly after I moved to Boulder. It was based on a drawing I saw in Larry Dean Olsen’s book Outdoor Survival Skills. I worked very hard to perfect the design and spent hours practicing with it, but I could never get that atlatl to fly correctly. Based on my limited trial and error and the impatience of youth, I dismissed the tool altogether. For years, I considered the atlatl to be outdated, impractical, and even silly.

Several years passed before I tried again. I read more books about the use of the atlatl in primitive times, and I studied different models that had evolved over centuries. I came to the conclusion that I had made a crappy model. It wasn’t worthy of flight, and certainly not of leading a hunt. I decided to try again.

Using a picture of an atlatl from the Southern Utah area, where I felt most connected to the land, I constructed a different atlatl. I reasoned that what worked thousands of years ago in my area should work now. Again, I was met with frustration. Though this atlatl worked better, I was not satisfied with its flight, nor did I feel any connection to the tool.

I decided to do some homework. I gathered every book and photo of all models of atlatl from aboriginal times—models from my area to the Great Lakes region to Arizona. I built several replicas of each one. In all, I ended up making about thirty atlatls. All of them were beautifully finished and delicately constructed. I then began throwing those atlatls until I decided which one fit me the best. The winner ended up being a slight hybrid to one that had been used in my area a century earlier, built in what is called the Basketmaker style.

The Basketmaker atlatl uses a six-to-eight-foot dart with a four-pronged tip. The dart has what appears to be a traditional arrow fletching on it, though in fact it is more streamlined. The grip on the Basketmaker is designed for either a baseball grip or a split-finger grip. I feel like I have more control with the split-finger grip, which fits like rings between the first and second knuckles. With the proper split-finger grip on a twenty-one-inch atlatl, I can throw a seven-foot dart farther than a hundred and fifty yards.

The models most commonly used in this area have the exact same type of arm that I use, but they have stiff loops made of sinew lines that make them rigid. The lines are covered in buckskin. Since experimenting with those, I have found a few ancient models that have handles carved from a sheep’s horn. I have also used the sheep’s horn specimen as a model for one I made out of hardwood.

The atlatl tip has an advantage over an arrow tip because you can place a fair bit of weight on it without making it top heavy. Hunters have used all kinds of material from splayed-out tips for fishing to barbed tips for bigger fish and small game to stone tips for big game. There were even a couple archaeological specimens with fist-size bludgeoning balls for stunning larger animals or knocking out smaller animals.

The challenge in hunting with the atlatl is how to conceal your body movement, or how to project where the animal will be by the time the dart reaches it. As an atlatl hunter who wants to put meat on the table, you are always positioning the shot in such a way that you are simultaneously evaluating the present and several seconds in the future.

Here’s an example. If a rabbit ran out in front of me and stopped out in the middle of an open area, I would not take a shot at it because the rabbit would jump the shot. I would pause and follow one of two options. I would first try to figure out a way to position myself so the shot is concealed. If that were not possible, I would slowly push the rabbit into the brush so it felt more protected. Then I would take the shot into the brush.

Every hunt demands a different throw. If you were hunting game that required extra power or distance, you would develop a throw that had more length. If you were only fishing with the atlatl where you needed more control at short range, you would make a shorter throw.

There are other differences, notably in how the darts are retrieved. When fishing with a bow and arrow, I need to tie a string to the arrow or dive into the water to retrieve it after each shot. With the atlatl, I can fish in the winter without getting my feet wet. I can throw the dart from the bank, hit the fish, grab the dart, and if I have a barb on there, pull the dart back out.


Another reason the atlatl is better is because in deep water sometimes I will hit fish that are eight feet down. That is possible because the dart is so long that it travels fairly straight. But when an arrow shoots off a bow, it inevitably has the archer’s paradox, which is flex. To a degree, both the atlatl and the arrow experience the same thing.

The archer’s paradox says that the arrow is streamlined in flight, so in order to travel well, it actually has to flex around the handle of the bow and then straighten out. When an arrow hits the water, it is still bending. Depending on the direction the arrow bends, it will kick in that same direction in the water. But a dart off the atlatl, even though it somewhat does the same thing, is so long that it stabilizes and keeps driving straight through the water.

With both the arrow and the dart, there is also refraction that takes a skilled fisherman a while to learn. When the arrow (or the dart, to a lesser degree) is in the water, it’s also going to appear to bend, so you need to aim below your target. When light passes from the water to the air, it bends, and that causes the fish to look like it is in a slightly different place than it actually is.

There are other distinctions between the bow and the atlatl. With the bow, even when hunting small game, you rarely make the kill shot with one arrow. This means you need at least two arrows to be an ethical hunter and likely three or four unless you have uncanny precision. With the first arrow you are hoping to hit the game in the head, but if you can’t because of timing or distance, you try to hit it in the gut or the leg to disable it. Nevertheless, the animal is going to keep running. You have to grab that other arrow and make another shot. You want a dead animal; you don’t want a wounded animal that gets away. With one arrow, that could easily happen; whereas, if you use an atlatl and put a dart in a small animal, the animal is not going anywhere.

There is also a distance difference between an arrow and a dart. When using a bow, the lighter the arrow, the farther it flies. With an atlatl, what makes the dart fly farther is the thrower. Modern carbon arrows are especially lightweight, as are aluminum ones. But a proper atlatl thrower can rocket a dart past an average user of the bow who flings a lightweight arrow.



Years ago, I was chucking darts way out across the BOSS land. Steve Dessinger, who was a program director at BOSS and eventually became its owner, was excited about how far I could throw. He asked me to try one of his lightweight aluminum darts. So I pulled back and let it go. The dart sailed way farther than either one of us anticipated. We stood there and watched as it just kept going and going. It must have traveled well over two hundred yards before it dropped into a clump of trees. We searched for an hour, but we never did find it. (Sorry, Steve.)


Watching a boomerang soar through the air and return to its thrower brings out the kid on the beach in all of us. But a hunting boomerang is far more than a toy. It is the heaviest of the three primitive tools and can inflict the most harm per throw.

A hunting boomerang is basically what it sounds like: an over-size version of a returning boomerang. The difference is that a hunting boomerang doesn’t return because it is too thick and heavy. Today, specialized boomerangs are generally molded from inexpensive fibers and polycarbonate, which makes them virtually indestructible. On average, they are about twenty-eight inches long and weigh just over two pounds.

The boomerang originated with aboriginal tribes in Australia. It is best used in open terrain with very little brush or trees like the Australian Outback. However, if you throw it overhand, the boomerang can slice through tall, thick grass and brush and be very effective. A sidearm throw through grass will choke it off immediately.

The highest-quality man-made hunting boomerang is a heat-bent boomerang. An explorer named Paul Campbell taught me about these. Campbell learned the perfect construction by observing the indigenous people of California.

The construction of this boomerang is very deliberate. I take a fresh-cut sapling and heat it gently over a fire for a half hour. This allows the wood to be bent into a boomerang shape. I bend it by placing it between two trees and creating a vise. I allow the resulting boomerang to dry for two weeks before using it.

Boomerangs are best for hunting birds, particularly large ground birds. The bigger the flocks, the better. Ideally, you can catch flocks out in the open and then let the boomerang go. You hope to catch them on the ground, but even if they cluster and fly away, you can throw at that cluster. The boomerang has such a wide circumference that you will likely clip one or two of them. That was how the aborigines used boomerangs. The Hopi and Anasazi Indians in Arizona hunted quail in a similar fashion. I’ve also seen hunters make a clean harvest of a wild turkey with a single shot to the neck.


Boomerangs were also used when the rabbit population swelled in Australia—hence the nickname “rabbit stick.” The men would start chasing rabbits until they got a close shot and then whip the boomerang into the pack. It is also possible to chase down a single rabbit until it tires and take it with one shot.

Because of the complexity and mastery required for each tool, I stopped using the boomerang. I was feeling too spread out among the three and needed to maintain my focus on the atlatl. The closeness to the hunting tool is paramount to its success as a protein gatherer.


Whatever hunting tool a survivalist chooses must be durable enough to deliver on a hunt. But more important, it must connect with your spirit and be an extension of you. You must enjoy constructing the tool and practicing with it to develop the necessary accuracy to make you not just a hunter but also a harvester.

For me, the atlatl has also led to meeting like-minded people who want to master its use. While doing research on the atlatl, I discovered that an organization called the World Atlatl Association hosts competitions across the United States and in Europe. There are people so serious about this skill that they drive around the United States from one competition to the next trying to increase their scores. This is a pure labor of love, as there is no prize money. When I became proficient at the atlatl, I decided to test my skills in competition.

Every competition runs by the same rules. A participant throws five darts from a distance of fifteen meters, followed by another five darts from twenty meters, at a standard archery-style bull’s-eye. Scoring is straightforward. The rings are worth one to ten points, a bull’s-eye being ten. If you miss the target’s rings, you get no points. The highest point total wins.

I have competed against and beaten the world champion on several occasions. We will usually throw five bull’s-eyes at fifteen meters. At twenty meters, things are more challenging, especially if there is wind. From there, hitting a few nines is not uncommon. The trouble comes when a dart drops on you and gives you a six.

My highest score in competition was a ninety-three out of a hundred, which put me fifth in the world overall. I had actually scored a ninety-six in practice. The highest-ever score in competition is a ninety-eight. All four people ahead of me compete regularly, giving them a chance to raise their scores. But for me, the competitions were not about recognition but rather about a chance to bring me closer to my primary hunting tool.