Essential Primitive Skills

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Jan 7, 2003
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I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert in primitive survival. I feel that under ideal conditions I could make a friction fire. I've come close under ideal conditions in the field but under less than ideal conditions I think I'd be cold and lonely. I make decent 2 ply cordage from plant fibers. Under ideal conditions I make a pretty good debris shelter.

My survival skills revolve around preparation and a minimalist, multi-use approach. I know I am dependant upon a minimum of gear. My survival pack is down to about 12 - 15 pounds but it is 12 pounds of essential.

So I ask you. What is your list of essential primitive skills and how do they work together in your survival strategy in the area you are most likely to need to survive? Mac
 
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Good thread Max. I guess I'm willing to show my ignorance. :rolleyes: ;)

I've played a little with a firedrill, but havn't gotten anywhere near good enough with one to say I could select the wood, make one and get a fire going under adverse conditions. I have been reading up on them though, so guess I'll eventually get it down. Until then, I guess I'd have to rely on my always having a knife, ferro rod, lighter and dry tinder on me during waking hours and close to hand if I need to grab and go.

I can make up a few different shelter designs, depending on conditions. That would include the Debris hut, lien 2, climbing into a burned out redwood and making it cushy, a shelter similar to a sweat lodge with frame and covering, made up a firebed from Ron Hoods example and even made a cozy nest in a tree.

I havn't used flora to make up cordage yet. Something I've got on my list of things to learn. I have skinned, tanned and braided cordage from the leather.

If put into a situation where I knew that the gear I had with me wasn't going to last out the time I would be in need of it, that's when the knowledge of our ancestors will come in mighty handy. Of course, the time to put it into use is while you are still geared up and able to respond to the situations at hand. Waiting until you need the gear, isn't the time to try and make it up. That is, unless that choice wasn't left to you.
 
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First aid.
Hunting
Making fire
Making shelter
Knowing local plants, animals and insects

The above are all good things to know about. Even more important is being able to perform those things well without factory/store bought items. Having a kit or mom and pop store around is great, but I think its important to be able to survive when for whatever reason you dont have your preferred gear.
 
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I do a good amount of "survival camping" taking many trips a year and I always consider my options if I didn't have my basic gear with me. I run through this series of “what if “ drills with my daughter. “What if we didn’t have the ponchos?” “How would we make a fire if we didn’t have the lighter”? I have to admit that it radically changes the scenario when you have to provide for all of your needs using primitive skills.

My personal minimum gear list for either PA or central Brazil is pretty much the same:

Poncho
Poncho Liner
Paracord
US Army Canteen and Cup
- Potable Aqua and Mini-Bic lighter in pouch
Knife – Ka-Bar, Air Force Survival Knife, Becker BK-7, or CS Bushman.

This minimum gear list puts you LIGHT YEARS ahead of the game.

In my experience the most critical factor in depending on primitive skills is TIME. There just isn’t enough time to get it all together on the first day. Especially once you consider that your “disaster” will most likely happen well into the day.

I can think up a few scenarios that would force people to depend upon primitive skills for a short duration. Most involve loosing gear to water of some sort. Examples: a boat capsizes and the packs are lost, wet survivors collect on the shore with only their pocket contents. A group lost in the jungle decides to make dangerous river crossing and the group gets swept away in the current, all packs are lost to the rapids in the process. Primitive skills have their place.

OK so it’s noon when disaster strikes and you have to get five people under shelter for the night and dried out before a fire that will also act as a signal for help. It’s an early fall, drizzly overcast day; the forest floor consists of wet leaves and some thin, stunted stands of short needle pine. There are a few squirrels around, some chipmunks, etc. You have no modern means to make a fire. Someone has a small sheath knife and someone else has a SAK in his pocket.

A small group that is well versed in primitive skills is going to be hard pressed to get themselves into a brush shelter, insulated from the ground, and in front of a friction fire before dark. A person working alone stands little chance at all, not because it is impossible but because everything related to primitive skills takes TIME.

By my estimation, using primitive skills alone, this group will be camping, dry, in front of a fire on their second day. That is if they are really good at it and can get that fire going. My money would be on them spending a MISERABLE, cold, and damp first night with little or no sleep.

The same miserable group, each carrying the minimum gear listed above will be camping and dry in about an hour and a half. They pretty much have to collect firewood, light a fire with the mini-bic, treat some water, rig up a poncho shelter and collect some debris for ground insulation. They can all sleep in dry clothes snuggled up under a double layer of poncho liner in front of a reflected fire. The second day they might even get to forage or make figure 4 deadfalls. It actually sounds kind of fun.

That group, each member carrying a space blanket, contractor bag, cordage, and a bic lighter, on their person is still camping, dry, and in front of a fire on their first evening. Not as fun but far less time consuming than making it all with primitive skills.

From my field experience making survival shelters, with no tools, from scratch (literally) in the forest under ideal conditions; thick beds of long needle pine or four inch carpets of fresh fall leaves, you’re talking a good three hours of work. Maybe that’s just me and you know some pop-up way of doing it. If so please share.

The same goes for fire. A friction fire made from what is available in an unfamiliar forest location is an all-afternoon proposition. Yes I know that Ray Mears could probably do it in about 15 minutes. Under ideal field conditions, dry season in central Brazil, I have yet to do it. I’m not Ray Mears or Tom Brown. I do have a great grandmother who was an American Indian but so far that hasn’t paid off.

Mac
 

Robert H

Premium Sheathmaker
Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider
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Have you given thought to a back up firestarter that can get wet, like a fire steel or good flint? I carry bic'c as well, but they tend to go to pieces sometimes.
 
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pict said:
OK so it’s noon when disaster strikes and you have to get five people under shelter for the night and dried out before a fire that will also act as a signal for help. It’s an early fall, drizzly overcast day; the forest floor consists of wet leaves and some thin, stunted stands of short needle pine. There are a few squirrels around, some chipmunks, etc. You have no modern means to make a fire. Someone has a small sheath knife and someone else has a SAK in his pocket.

A small group that is well versed in primitive skills is going to be hard pressed to get themselves into a brush shelter, insulated from the ground, and in front of a friction fire before dark. A person working alone stands little chance at all, not because it is impossible but because everything related to primitive skills takes TIME.

By my estimation, using primitive skills alone, this group will be camping, dry, in front of a fire on their second day. That is if they are really good at it and can get that fire going. My money would be on them spending a MISERABLE, cold, and damp first night with little or no sleep.

The same miserable group, each carrying the minimum gear listed above will be camping and dry in about an hour and a half. They pretty much have to collect firewood, light a fire with the mini-bic, treat some water, rig up a poncho shelter and collect some debris for ground insulation. They can all sleep in dry clothes snuggled up under a double layer of poncho liner in front of a reflected fire. The second day they might even get to forage or make figure 4 deadfalls. It actually sounds kind of fun.

That group, each member carrying a space blanket, contractor bag, cordage, and a bic lighter, on their person is still camping, dry, and in front of a fire on their first evening. Not as fun but far less time consuming than making it all with primitive skills.

From my field experience making survival shelters, with no tools, from scratch (literally) in the forest under ideal conditions; thick beds of long needle pine or four inch carpets of fresh fall leaves, you’re talking a good three hours of work. Maybe that’s just me and you know some pop-up way of doing it. If so please share.

The same goes for fire. A friction fire made from what is available in an unfamiliar forest location is an all-afternoon proposition. Yes I know that Ray Mears could probably do it in about 15 minutes. Under ideal field conditions, dry season in central Brazil, I have yet to do it. I’m not Ray Mears or Tom Brown. I do have a great grandmother who was an American Indian but so far that hasn’t paid off.

Mac

I agree Mac. Making up the primitive tools, gathering the needed materials and putting it all together in order to build a fire, or make a shelter, takes a lot of time. Especially if you aren't familiar with the area you're in, or it's cold, wet and hypothermia is starting to take hold.

The ancients carried the needed tools and materials with them to start a fire and they carried cordage, food, water, medicines, etc to help them get by for another day in their lives. Their clothing kept them alive as much as a shelter would, because they lived in the bush and developed their skills over a million or so years and they still died from the elements. In order for us to survive, we have to have those items with us when we need them, not a couple hours later.
 
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Great question.

If you think you can probably make a fire by friction, you won't be able to.

First, practice this. A lot. It's a lot harder than people think, but a little practice makes it quite doable. There are a dozen or so easy methods out there, from bows, drills, plows, and even a way to start a fire by using ice! Find one that works really well. I like the plow: no strings required.

I'd practice this somewhere where you can safely ignite and properly extinguish a fire. If you have a fireplace at home, an outdoor barbecue pit, or an area out in back of your property, you're golden. If you live in an apartment with no fireplace, or can't legally start small fires in the area around you, find a place. And practice, practice, practice.

But my argument here, for everyone to attack, is Prioritize Your Skills!

Learn how to find water: that's first.

Learn to make a fire: that's important, and I'd even say second. If you're just practicing, you'll need the heat. If you're really trying to survive, you want a signal and smoke.

Learn WHERE to make a shelter. Yes, there are rules about how and where you position your shelter. You can always move a fire, and walk to water, but you could suffer badly by building a shelter "just anywhere."

Learn HOW to make a shelter. You'll need this before you need food.

Learn how to get food. I don't know everyone else's opinions here, but basically learning to hunt small game can be a waste of time with little benefit. Get yourself a ready food source first: find plants and berries you can eat. Once you find a few sources, then you can worry about the luxury of meat.

With me so far? Once you've done all these things, your next priority is to upgrade. Find different food sources. Upgrade your shelter and make it bigger, stronger, taller. Start building tools that can help with a variety of tasks. Experiment with cooking certain foods. Start constructing ways to obtain fresher water from condensation or rain. Or find a way to better purify your existing water source.

Explore your area: I recommend doing what we call "radial exploration." Walk a distance out, then walk back. Choose a new direction, walk out, and walk back. Never wander: it's the easiest way to get lost. Everything is easy about navigating a new environment... until you have to find your way back!
 
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Well said watchful. one thing too add is study a map before you leave so it is inprinted on your brain and take it with you. you would be surprised how much of that map you will remember if you lose it. Hopfully you won't need to do as watchful said but this is spot on. ;)
 
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unclejoe357 said:
First aid.
Hunting
Making fire
Making shelter
Knowing local plants, animals and insects

The above are all good things to know about. Even more important is being able to perform those things well without factory/store bought items. Having a kit or mom and pop store around is great, but I think its important to be able to survive when for whatever reason you dont have your preferred gear.


I agree with unclejoe but my order would be:

First aid.
Making fire
Making shelter
Knowing local plants, animals and insects
Hunting

The reason being that knowing the my first 4 is really all you need, hunting's an extra that really is a luxury.

Firstaid, very important, because if your not healthy, the other three don't matter.

Fire, cause ya need to stay warm.

Shelter cause ya need to stay warm.

And the rest to apply to the above along with providing food.
 
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Robert H,

I tend to use a mini bic carried in my canteen carreir pocket as my go-to firestarter. I always carry a blastmatch and either a trioxene bar or a wetfire tinder as my standby. In my large pack I also have (tied in) a Doan tool and a brass match carrier filled with treated cotton.

In rainy season in Brazil I carry a few votive candles. I once had to burn one for 20 minutes under a large (old) birds nest to get a fire going. Always carry a back up fire lighter, a bic will do 90% of the time. Mac
 
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Longbow,

In my contact with people who depend upon primitive means in rural Brazil I've noticed a few things. First they have about them the preserved remains of many growing seasons. They tend to collect plenty of wild resources when they are available and use them throughout the year. In my area there is this tree that produces huge amounts of fluff that is perfect for making fires from sparks. The locals collect whole coffee cans of the stuff.

They are extremely pragmatic about life and will abandon a primitive method for a modern one in a heartbeat. Life is hard and anything that will make it easier is readily accepted. Likewise people are judgmental and anything that makes you look poor is looked down upon. Modern means and materials get adopted because they are better in a lot of ways. In my area everyone knows how to make a house out of mud and split bamboo. They won’t do it anymore, choosing to go without the added space because then they would be living in a mud house and that would be a social stigma.

The one main exception I’ve seen to this basic rule is cooking over wood fires. Most rural people have a gas stove in the kitchen but will cook most of their meals over a wood fireplace because they insist it tastes better. Having eaten in their homes many times I agree.

They take advantage of every edible wild plant they have nearby. Their diet is full of all kinds of stuff from the bush. What sets them apart from the modern survivor is that they have been harvesting these same trees or plant locations for generations. People who depend upon wild plants have an intense local knowledge of where to find them. I have yet to locate any Portuguese literature at all, in five years of searching, about edible plants in Brazil. People in the city have no place to harvest plants and people in the bush have no need of a book to tell them where! For a resident gringo interested in wilderness survival it’s difficult to get information.

A friend of mine once took off for a month to go live with an Indian tribe up north. She asked me if I wanted anything as a souvenir. I asked her to get me a real bow and some hunting arrows for my office wall. I was very specific that I wanted an actual bow that they would use for hunting not selling to tourists.

She brought me back a bow that she bought from a group of hunters returning from a hunting trip. The bowstring is bright blue nylon cord! She insisted that all their bows are strung with blue nylon cord. The cane arrows were tipped with a single barb hammered out of heavy steel wire. Fletching was tied on with handmade natural fiber 2-ply string.

The “primitive” people I have met tend to take every modern shortcut they can and any real dependence on primitive means is mainly motivated by economics. Even with the vast knowledge they have of the wilderness around them they all recognize that to spend a night in the bush with no gear at all would be a true hardship. Mac
 
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The abandoning of the old ways for new was also done by the N. American indigenous peoples. Seems like humans have always hungered for a more efficient way of doing things and are opportunistic enough to jump on it when we find a better way. But at the same time, there is a hunger in some of us to return to the old ways and I think it's a good idea to have that ancient knowledge with us in case we need it.
 
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longbow50 said:
The abandoning of the old ways for new was also done by the N. American indigenous peoples. Seems like humans have always hungered for a more efficient way of doing things and are opportunistic enough to jump on it when we find a better way. But at the same time, there is a hunger in some of us to return to the old ways and I think it's a good idea to have that ancient knowledge with us in case we need it.

Longbow,

No arguement there. I love digging around and getting the old folks down in Brazil to do things the old ways. The fact is that you have to ask around enough to get them to show you stuff. I had thought that the primitive ways would be in evidence but they're not.

I ask all the time, "Now how did you do that before - insert modern tec - came along?" Mac
 
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