Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
The life-or-death element of being a true survivalist is not the daring. It’s not being dropped by a helicopter into a jungle and trying to find your way out, like a TV show. It’s not about the risk of doing something extreme like climbing the face of an icy glacier. It is more about the unknown, like walking through a vast desert without a map or compass and without knowing where your next water source is. Most consider that risk, but I consider it trust.
That separates me from other teachers. There is no trust from many teachers. For them, it’s all about numbers. A lot of teachers must have a calculated formula that they can apply some kind of mathematical equation to. They need to know in terms of what the typical body goes through to get from point A to point B: “Am I going to compromise my health by not eating for a day?” They want it to be a scientific formula. And if the conclusion of science is that it is going to somehow be harmful, they won’t do it.
I regard myself as a scientist, too. Science doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do I. I’m seeking to find out if the facts are true. The point is that when someone thinks he is the final word on something, that’s when you get yourself in trouble. This applies even more so in nature.
For most of human evolution, survival has been a way of life. Hunter-gatherers grew up learning nothing but survival. They had no choice. Nature is constantly changing and adapting. The tides may recede only to rise again, but no two tides rise alike. Survival skills must be applied in a fluid way that dovetails with the part of the earth you are on, and you must learn that area’s rhythm, timing, and changes to be able to live there.
One truism I have learned from teaching survival courses and living in countless survival situations is that survival manuals offer only a vague outline of the necessary skills needed to live in the wilderness. Even worse, they can often give people a false sense of security that they have the means and tools to live off the land when, in fact, they do not. Survival is not a certificate you can pick up at a conference.
The fact of the matter is that if someone is relying solely on a survival manual, I guarantee they will not be able to live off the land for very long. A survival manual will force them to build things they don’t need. Living off the land requires an intellect and understanding to ask questions. Where should a shelter go? What time of day should it be built? What time of day should a root be dug, or should that root even be dug up? Should an animal be collected in this spot because they are plentiful, or is there a reason why it should be collected somewhere else?
In short, the critical question is, where and how should a person invest their energy? In snow and cold, how and where someone invests their energy and the type of relationship they establish with the land will determine their success and maybe even their fate.
The lesson I underscore over and over is that there is no one answer for a survival scenario. I am the last person to give an answer. I want to know every single detail because I know there are a million different ways to answer the question.
One of the differences between what is understood about survival and the reality of survival is that many people believe that they have to use their energy while they have it. Survival books often teach that right from the get-go, the moment you are out the door, you must build tools quickly because you are going to start losing energy. But the land will resist that thinking.
When someone goes out full bore, he or she ends up making the wrong decisions. They haven’t established any connection with the land. Consequently, they build things hastily, and those things don’t work for them. The land wants to see somebody sit for a moment, contemplate, and ask themselves, “What should I do?” That’s the space that many people don’t utilize. A lot of people might think that is the lazy or the passive approach but it’s really not.
Sometimes a student will see me running around at ninja-pace speeds. That is also a part of timing and rhythm. However, I have already built a deeper land connection so even if I am moving at a fast pace, I may actually be seeing more than the student moving slowly. Rhythm on the land is like a river that sometimes flows calmly and other times has rapids.
I teach my students that when they find themselves in a new environment, the best thing they can do is take a slow walk around and just observe everything. I tell them, don’t try to collect anything or be productive. If there is a spot where it feels like they need to spend some time, I tell them to sit down or lie down, whatever their body feels like doing, and be open and receptive. Listen to the wind, the birds, and the animals. Then look around. Perhaps they will notice a nest in the distance, maybe berries over in nearby brush. But what I do know is that they will actually start seeing things that they wouldn’t have seen if they charged out like a bull. This is a beginning level message, but it is critical.
On a more advanced level, there have been times that I have lain down and not fallen asleep. I have gone into a lucid stage and actually seen things about the surrounding area and had visions of them without having physically been to that place yet.
Most people go through life at one pace. In the wild, I have found that it is best to take in nature’s immersions painfully slow and then at warp speed. After moving at the extremes, I then try to fill in the middle once I understand nature’s timing. I think of nature as a song. The most beautiful note never feels old, even if another note does or does not follow it.
I tell students that if they reach that deeper level, if they sit down and start looking around and noticing more on either a physical or subconscious level, they will start absorbing the things around them. This will relax them and allow them to ask, “Based on my knowledge, what can I do with this to make this journey easier, more respectable, and more comfortable?” Not only will that cause them to make clearer decisions, it also will give them strength because they will have received energy from the land.
I emphasize that another important aspect is to take different paths. Instructors regularly fall into the rut of traveling the same path, rather than experimenting with a new one. For example, if the first time someone collects water and follows the main trail because it was easier, then the next time they should take a brushy path back, and start investigating the land to see what they can come to discover. Many, many times I have found food because I deviated from the main trail.
This thinking can tie into anyone’s everyday life. If a person stays on the same path with their head pointed down, they are not going to be exposed to new opportunities. When you walk somewhere, try a different route. If you happen to be moving to a new place, go out, sit down, take a look around, and feel it. Maybe if you do that, you might find the place is not for you. The basic lesson is that you want to receive information. In nature, that is heightened and you can end up in a survival situation if you don’t have that awareness.
Many people I’ve encountered know what works in their everyday lives, but somehow, they think that when they get out in nature, they have to change the rules. But they don’t. If they start taking charge of things in their work life or in any situation when nobody knows who they are, they aren’t going to get any respect. It’s the same thing in nature; it will push you out. Even though those are two different worlds, the principle is very much the same. There is a clear overlap. People can act in nature the same way they do in a community. The difference is that if they try to impose themselves too much in the wilderness, they might annoy an African lion.
I can’t lay down a formula for survival in a day or even a week because that would be called a survival handbook. Even if I did, the manual would be virtually useless. When I spend a couple weeks (or more) with students, they learn the patterns of nature that teach them how to look, where to look, and how to identify the characteristics of survival.
How do you not use excess energy? How do you receive energy without food? How do you make a shelter and a bed? How do you enjoy your experience in your shelter and your bed? How do you identify an edible plant? How does it feel? How does it smell? How does it taste? And most important, how do you knock out the word survival and turn it into a living situation?
By addressing these questions myself, I have become a better teacher. Students come out legitimately feeling comfortable they can survive, that it was a rewarding experience, and that they would do it again. They feel like they can even jump right back into it the next day if they had the time. The biggest lesson I have passed down to students is how to legitimately live off the land if they so desire. I’ve accomplished that by teaching them how to learn the natural flow and how to think for themselves.
Some people who enter my classes are thinking, I have to learn how to survive. But the word survive brings fear to people. That is a kind of fearmongering that comes from the exploitative TV survival shows. But I disabuse my students of that notion. I tell them that what I teach is the land. My ideal candidate is someone who wants to learn the land. I teach people how to live with the land in a fluid way that doesn’t feel like a survival situation.
They watch as I apply the surroundings to our needs. I help them break things down to see what we need and what we don’t. This makes it easier to navigate through complicated situations, such as tough terrain or a difficulty finding food. Interestingly, I’ve found that when people return to their normal lives, they use this to eliminate their baggage, to employ a pop psychology phrase. Baggage comes from holding on to things that made you comfortable when you were younger. However, these security boxes can end up blocking you from growth experiences, even though at one point they provided security.
Everybody has a different reaction to the wild. When city slickers set that first foot on the trail, they feel like they are in an alien environment. They walk for a while, get a few miles in, collect a few plants, and start to sense something magical unfolding. They become more focused and less distracted, as their daily worries fade into the landscape. On day two, they begin learning what it takes to live in the wild. Generally around day three, they wake up and feel like they have been hit upside the head because their diets are so different that detox kicks in. It is at that point that they realize there’s no Chinese takeout available in the wilderness and the cuisine will be exotic plants and whatever we can hunt down together.
Even very healthy people feel like their strength level is cut in half. Everyone deals with this differently. Some feel like they are dying and moving only out of reflex; others wonder what it means. Jesse Perry likened the feeling to “an altered reality reminiscent of past experiences with psilocybin mushrooms,” which, come to think of it, might be an inadvertent sales pitch to some prospects.
The positive people soon start to experience heightened sensations. All the rhythms in their body slow down, and they start seeing a lot more detail. For instance, they will see a bumblebee flying. It’s no longer just a bee. They see every stripe and the fuzz on its abdomen. They see how its wings are moving to the point that they might even count the flaps per minute. They study the tips of its feet. This is the beginning of understanding their relationship with nature.
One thing I consider myself effective at is foreseeing problems that students may have. I pay such close attention to my students that it almost gives me headaches. I look at everyone individually and assess their skill level. I read over their medical histories to determine where the dangers may lie, see what medications they take, and find out specifics, such as if they have ever had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Going into anaphylactic shock when you can rush to the emergency room is trying; going into anaphylactic shock in the wilderness is deadly.
Based on what I learn about each group of students, I am mindful of the footing and pacing. Many instructors push their students to the edge, to the point where they are going to tweak something, break an ankle, or have a bad fall.
The potential to foresee accidents is critical. Because students are off their normal diets and their blood sugar levels are reduced, extra care is required. I believe that everybody in America is partially diabetic, and it shows when they go out on a survival course. I haven’t had anybody reach the point where they pass out for minutes at a time from low blood sugar, though many people have become dizzy and seen stars.
An instructor can’t prevent accidents simply by safe protocol alone. In fact, the rules are less important than being able to properly assess all students’ skill levels and coordinate that based on the environment.
I try to stay one step ahead and keep my students in balance. Once they dip too far, there is nothing in the wild that I can pick off a tree and immediately give them for an energy boost. There is no Snickers bar solution. When we first go out, I have students eat continuously to maintain their blood sugar.
I have had some students who are over seventy, so inevitably there are going to be some issues. The only serious problem I had occurred when I was guiding llama pack trips. A lady sat down on a log to tie her shoe and her artificial hip popped out of place. She was in excruciating pain.
I was a trained WFR, or wilderness first responder, meaning at that time I was certified to put a hip back into place. A WFR is a step up from being an EMT, but it’s not as trained as a Wilderness EMT. As a woofer, I had learned to put shoulders, hips, and joints back into place, dress wounds, and give shots of adrenaline. We had also learned interesting techniques about sucking open chest wounds and how to build valves in the event of a chest puncture.
Hard as I tried, I could not get her hip joint back into place. I gave her Advil for the pain. She was a real trooper, but we needed medical help. Unfortunately, the company I worked for did not believe in guides carrying cell phones. We had no form of communication, and we were eight miles from the nearest trailhead. I took off sprinting and ran the eight miles in forty minutes to find a phone to call for a medevac.
The helicopter arrived twenty minutes later. The paramedics couldn’t get her hip back into place, either, so they gave her relaxants and took her to the hospital. Fortunately, she made a full recovery.
The most practical aspect of survival in the wild is making a fire. I learned the process by reading a Tom Brown manual that contained poetic information about that magical tool. I took that manual, along with fifteen others books, to the Sierras and studied the skills, for myself and so I could teach students.
At first, I struggled mightily, rubbing two sticks together for hours and ending up with nothing but blisters. But over time I became very proficient and learned that there are many natural ways to bring dead wood to life. One thing I learned from Tom Brown’s teachings in his books and from my students who have taken his classes (as I have not met him) is that he often leaves out important information to push students to gain more out of the process. I liken it to the way a Shaolin monk makes his pupil sweep a floor for two years before teaching him a basic karate kick.
Brown favored what is known as coyote teaching. The term comes from Native American lore. Many Native Americans believe that animals contain different aspects of our personalities. Coyotes are considered to be slightly mischievous with traits of a child. The coyote still needs to grow up, but at the same time, it has that childlike ability to draw people in.
Brown had a different way of doing things. I always had an innate ability to figure out things for myself. I looked at books as very rough guidelines. For me, it was still about looking at all the pieces and trying to figure out the solution. But as a teacher, I prefer a more direct approach.
The only coyote teaching I will do is to figure out a way to trick somebody to sit in a particular spot for a long period of time. Or if I realize that someone has citified personality traits, I might use those in a coyote way to spark their interest in the natural world.
As a teacher, I pride myself on giving very clear and fully detailed lessons so the students understand the information without being frustrated. What I have learned is that as a species we are so incompetent in the wild that if I started trying to trick people and make it harder, they would give up. It is critical for me to maintain their passion so that they feel successful. I prefer looking at methods that are rooted in ancient ways because they are just as good in the present day as they were a thousand years ago.
There are many secrets to making fire without any man-made aids. The main thing I teach my students to focus on are the properties of the wood. If you are creating a primitive fire, most are variations on what is called friction fire. This involves figuring out a way to create friction between two pieces of wood. The main issue is that the grains of wood must be short. They cannot be long and splintery; otherwise they will not create a coal that is fine and dark. A fine, dark coal holds together.
All friction woods have an infinite amount of combinations that work for different reasons. If the wood is too hard, then I find that I have to apply too much muscle to create the bond or friction. However, if a root is too soft, then one piece of wood drills through the other. To check for hardness, I push my thumb into the root. If it dents easily, the wood is too soft.
The wood should be bone dry, meaning it’s dead, though in nature there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, sagebrush almost works better when it’s completely alive. There are short pores through the structure that create the right type of char. Sagebrush works well for a bow drill (where you wrap the drill stick in the strands of a bow) but can be very difficult with a hand drill (where you rub your palms on the drill stick). In snow or heavy rain, I look for places where trees have grown over and created pockets where I can dig and find dry material. Sometimes I have to carve into the wood several inches to find out if the wood is dry enough.
The bow drill has a mechanical advantage. But without any technology, it requires more work to build. In North America, the hand drill was used almost exclusively by all Native American tribes. The way the user kneels and places his hands together resembles someone praying. With the proper knowledge, skill, and wood, it is extremely efficient—like a big, primitive lighter.
The environment often dictates what I can do. If I am in a snowy area at a higher elevation, it is unlikely that I will find usable firewood. Knowing this in advance, I will collect wood at a lower elevation before climbing. If I am in a pure survival situation, I will hike down or wait for it to stop snowing. The word for that is patience. I build a shelter, hunker down, and go hungry for a couple days. The advantage of fasting and staying put is that I slow down my metabolism. I don’t fight the land. I let it teach me and then when it opens back up, I find my rhythm.
Safety is paramount. I always clear a large ten-to-fifteen-foot-diameter circle of all the debris, grass, leaves, and everything around that area. I kick it out with my feet so I am left with only soil, dirt, or sand. Then I build a fire pit in the very center of that area. More important than building a solid ring is clearing the area.
The reason most forest fires start is that people don’t remove surrounding grass and debris. They come upon a place where there is dead grass, put some rocks down for a border, and build a small ring for the fire. Problem is, the fire is almost always going to jump the ring and catch the grass.
Another issue I have seen is roots. If someone digs a fire pit and hits a dead root and builds a fire on it, there is a chance that root will smolder back into the tree. If the ground is not damp and there is even the smallest bit of an air pocket allowing oxygen to travel along that burning root, it will reach the tree and the tree will catch fire.
The following morning, I teach students how to deal with the remains of fires. Some people just leave them. I insist my students go overboard to instill a certain order of respect with the fire. I have them take the leftover coals and grind them up into a powder. I then have them mix the ground coals with leftover dung from whatever animal is around and spread that mixture into the brush so it creates a fertile soil and provides nitrogen to the plants. This leaves the areas better off than when we arrived.
Sometimes when I’m trying to avoid any impact at all and I just want to stop and cook up a lunch meal, I will find an island in the river or build a fire right on the edge of the water line, where it is free of all debris. When the fire is done, I will scoop the ashes back into the water, knowing that area will eventually get flooded over. The ashes don’t harm the water because it disperses the coals over miles and miles. The island is also a safe place for inexperienced people to build a fire, because the fire is unlikely to jump the water and start a forest fire.
In my mind, human roots lie deeper in fire than in any other force of nature. If we go way back in time to when man first harnessed fire, most likely they saw lightning strike. They probably kept their fires going by adding sticks for kindling. They sat around those fires in the cold and were warmed. The fire sculpted the people. Instead of using their furs to keep them warm, they hung out around the fire, and it created community time.
Fire also moved us away from being animals, as most animals run from fire. That was a huge shift. Archaeologists always say what separates man from animal is his ability to use tools, but we’re now finding out that animals can use tools, such as a monkey using a stick to plunge into an ant hole and pull out the ants. But likely it was fire that separated man from animal, as undomesticated animals do not sit around a fire.
The common word used in the survival community for converting a survival situation into a living situation is thrival.
Thrival is a state that occurs when the layer of desperation and the feeling of fighting to live (or be rescued, if that’s the case) is replaced by the joys of nature. At that point, a person achieves a feeling of place and belonging. It is a place where nature is no longer their enemy numbering their days on the planet. In thrival, they become a big part of nature and would be able to live there indefinitely, if they so chose, because they have succumbed to nature’s turns and are beginning to thrive, instead of just survive.
There are two primary aspects to thrival: starting the journey being open to possibilities, and being able to stay with the journey knowing you will never completely arrive at a destination or conquer it. The process of thrival begins simply enough, by adopting a positive attitude and by truly enjoying the place you are in. The beautiful thing about being open is that the earth will reveal its secrets, and your passion for the journey will grow with each one. But know that no one will ever find them all.
In a state of thrival in nature, a person achieves a feeling of pure bliss, which is the second primary aspect. At that point, they are no longer an alien on the planet. They are not separated from the earth by technology and modern gadgetry, but are rather in a place where the earth becomes their family and they find an indelible connection to it. We all need this in varying degrees, regardless of where we are.
This entry into thrival can be extended to any place or situation you find yourself in, not just in nature. It could be a new town, new job, or new house. Whatever the journey, being able to stay with it for a long period of time takes training, knowledge, and patience.
As a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds, if not thousands, of students from all walks of modern and submodern life. I have watched them relate to the land, seen what sticks with them, and what they take away from the experience and apply to their everyday lives. From what I have seen, people on social levels and people in nature are very similar, but in a mental capacity, things are much different. We are striving too hard for technology and have become trapped in the dogma of scientific thinking. This has pulled us away from the land. There is also evidence, cited frequently by Paul Shepard and others, that shows that our brain capacity is shrinking now that we have moved away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
There are different types of intelligence and smarts—social, business, mathematical, and hunter-gatherer. Each type of smarts functions well in a specific place. What I have learned is that in society everything is very linear. Society demands a routine where things consistently function the same. But in nature, that is not possible. Everything is constantly growing and changing in infinite shapes. Not one limb is the same in nature, but at a hardware store, every piece of lumber is the same. In our society, we have created a formula for putting everything into its slot. In nature, that cannot be done, and that is threatening to people. It takes a certain intellect to work with something that is not straight. I think we have lost that capacity.
Take a rocket scientist dropped into nature—literally. I actually had one as a student on a survival course. I gave him an intermediate task: setting a trap with natural materials. Nothing in nature grows straight so you must have the mental flexibility to piece together things in a natural way that allows the trap to stay in place and spring at the right moment. Teaching the rocket scientist to set that trap became a great test of my patience. It made me realize that someone who is a genius can be completely inept at understanding the natural world.
Students will often come to a course with the reference point that hunter-gatherers are our “primitive” past. But I teach them that from my experience of living in the wilderness for more than two decades, I can say with near certainty that those habitants of our primitive past had a greater mental capacity than we realize, or can even comprehend. Here’s my point to them: someone cannot dominate the wilds because he or she has a strong modern intellect. In fact, to be a thrivalist they must adopt a completely different set of rules.
The first two virtues I impress upon students are patience and not alienating yourself. Being patient means the ability to stay open to possibilities and look and listen to what the land needs and what the person needs in return. That is often the reason Native Americans practiced vision quest circles. Sitting in a five-to-nine-foot circle of stone for four days and four nights without food and water makes you patient.
Not alienating oneself in nature means that a person often needs to leave technology—in the form of common, purchased survival tools—out of the wilderness experience. This may mean leaving behind a favorite knife and relying on rocks and other natural sharp edges in nature for cutting. By doing this, yes, survival is technically harder. However, what I tell my students they will find is that they will want to stay with the experience longer because they are doing it on their terms.
Everybody is born with different thought processes and patterns. Some people are very good at concentration and laserlike focus, whereas others have more dispersed focus. Today, we label that as ADD and ADHD. Interestingly, people with ADD and ADHD actually excel in the wilderness because you need dispersed focus to be able to talk to somebody while hearing the sounds of nature at the same time. The ability to have your focus bounce around can be very helpful. There are many things happening at once in the wild. Focusing too closely on just one thing can cause you to miss something important.
If you think your job is complex—whether you are an electrical engineer, a tax lawyer, or a television executive—spending time in nature may be a stark and ultimately beautiful awakening to true complexity. It may help you simplify and streamline your everyday life. We often think of nature as simple, but it’s quite the opposite. I have had students who were doctors, lawyers, hippies, jocks, naturalists, comedians, musicians, and belly dancers, and regardless of their professions and backgrounds, they have all benefited from being in nature.
Being an instructor, I have learned that I can take something I love more than myself, my passion for the land, and share it with others, and see how they respond. The best way to learn, I have concluded, is to teach.
People who return from the wilderness are never the same. Though at home they return to comfort foods, most of them eat far less highly processed foods and more natural foods. Their anxieties are softened, and they are easier to be around. Many tell me that they achieve a better balance in their lives. I find that when they do small tasks that help the environment, such as recycling, they feel that they know what they are saving.
Learning to survive in the wild even for short periods can translate to handling fear in the everyday world. Whenever I’m scared—say in a TV audition, which can be scarier than many places in the wild—I step back and ask myself what the bigger picture is. If I can see it, then I can isolate that one spot, and move forward without being consumed by feelings of fear. I believe the same is true in much scarier situations. If you can see that bigger picture—even if it is not the ultimate bigger picture of your life continuing—you can condition yourself to relax and push forward.
What I find from my students who establish a connection with the land is that they realize the potential of what they can be as a human being on a physical and even spiritual level, and it makes them want to return for more. After we are out for a month, they will develop themselves in ways they have never experienced. Sometimes they push themselves so hard that they feel enlightenment, but at the same time, they are craving a cheeseburger and an ice cream sandwich. They return to their city lives and get all those things they were dreaming about on the trail, but when they lose that wilderness boost and that feeling of peace and sanity, they almost always return for more.
There used to be a point where I thought people could find peace and sanity without nature. But from my students, I found that people who find peace and sanity do so because they are usually taking a moment to acknowledge a little bit of nature around them.
EPIC SURVIVAL LESSON:
PUT YOUR FEET IN THE DIRT
What I want most of all is for people to have a burning need to understand the ground we live on, and be willing to set aside their preconceived notions to learn from the smallest and grandest of all things. I want to inspire people to be closer to the earth in its rawest form. I am now convinced that the only way to access the human spirit is through creating your own intimate relationship with the land.
To me, it is about learning the wisdom of the wilderness at a time when far too many view it, at worst, as material to be plowed down if it gets in the way of urban development, or at best, something to gawk at through a car window or in a coffee table book. Most people have in some way felt a special connection to the wilderness at one time or another. This connection goes beyond the recesses of the mind. It’s something that cries out: “Wake up! The landscape is right in front of you. It is real, and it is where your spirit can thrive.”
It boils down to not isolating ourselves too much from nature. The more ways we can find to put our feet in the proverbial dirt, the better we will be in all aspects of our lives.