The realm of the skills used by our ancestors, and survival in general can, to some, seem like a daunting and overwhelming place, fraught with hardship and discouraging moments which all too often lead to a "this just isn't my thing" mentality. On a regular basis when I mention the skills i practice and teach, I am greeted with the all too familiar retort: "I would die if i got lost in the woods."
This mental barrier of doubt gets in the way of learning new skills, the though that because it implies leaving your TV behind and cooking on a fire, it is somehow a difficult and painful way to get by, or live. The purpose of this, and others that will follow it are to give some guidelines and direction to those who are interested, but have no idea where to start when it comes to learning these skills.
First of all, locate a teacher or mentor if possible. When I began, I managed to get by for a short while by teaching myself to sew leather, knap small arrowheads, and generally spend lots of time in the woods making various odds and ends, but when it came to the desire to learn the hard skills like fire making, shelter building, finding water, or more advanced knapping skills, I realized I would need a teacher (or teachers) if I wanted to progress to a proficient level. My answer was MAPS Group at the time, where I attended many gatherings and learned many of the skills I know today. Other teachers seemed to find me, my friend Bill Ewing happened to have extensive bow drill knowledge, and had a very natural way of teaching me which woods to use and how to adjust the set to make it work.
Look up nearby tracking groups, anthropology departments at some universities teach knapping, or atleast have someone on staff who knows something of knapping. If you are on the east coast in the Mid Atlantic Area, there are several schools you can take classes from such as Ancestral Knowledge and Earth Connection. MAPS Group also has a list of people who can offer advice on certain skills.
Which skills should I learn first?
Good question. Perhaps a good way to decide is to put it into perspective. Eventualy you will hear of the Order of Survival. No, its not some mysterious cult dating back to a group of 15th century survival monks, the Order of Survival is the 4 things you need to live on a day to day basis, and in the long term, which are:
This order is not set in stone however, since your situation will dictate which is more important, but this is more or less the order of importance of these 4 things.
That being said, I personally consider fire making one of the first things you should learn and become proficient with. It can be learned any where you are, there are a number of ways to go about it, and it covers a lot of your physical and mental needs. Being able to make fire can dramaticly increase your chances, so it is always a good thing to have a number of ways to do it on hand (and have some level of mastery of those ways).
I'm a big proponent of controlled chaos, putting yourself into less than desirable situation in order to take your skills (and your edge) to new levels. Its important to always push your limits, do not simply make a fire with a bow drill then put it away and decide you have mastered it, because you haven't (can you ever truly master anything?). Start adding in new factors, new obstacles, new challenges. Try it in the rain, in the snow, in a hail storm, break your arm and fine a way to make it work then. Well.. don't actually break your arm obviously, you can just tie it behind your back or something, but you get my point!
I'd like to share a story I often share with my students when teaching fire making.
Last Febuary on a particularly cold day, I was in the hilly woodlands of central Maryland. I was showing my girlfriend (at the time) around a patch of woods I had been going to for a number of years. THis particular patch of woods was a steep sided valley with a fairly deep, and at times wide creek running through it. It was cold enough that ice covered large patches. So, being the manly survival so-called "expert" that I was thinking I was, I decided it was a very good idea to show her how to cross ice without falling through. We found a patch of ice in a rather deep section of the creek and I laid down on my stomach and army crawled across the ice. No problem. Not so much as a crack. Once reaching the other side I coaxed ehr into doing the same, so she got on her stomach and started to crawl across the ice. About halfway across, she pushed down onto the ice to inch her way forward (instead of inch-worming your way across with arms out-stretched) and cracks immediately shot in every direction. Luckily she stopped moving and I was able to grab her hand and pull her across without the ice stressing any more.
We proceed down stream until we reached a series of rapids with deep pools, and we came upon a bridge crossing the creek from one side to the other, with open holes on either side. Once again my "man vs wild" mentality took over and I proceeded onto the ice bridge to show her how it could hold my weight, which it did, up until I started hitting the side of it with my boot. I remember looking back to her to say "wow it isn't breaking" or something to that effect, and that's when I heard a definite crack. I remember looking down in time to see the ice disappear beneath me and water come up to meet me. First thing I noticed was how fast the current was, it literally grabbed hold of my legs and tried to force me under a nearby sheet of ice. Another thing is that everything they say about trying to get out once you've fallen through ice is true. It's wet, cold, slippery, and tiring. I did manage to pull myself out however, at which point my clothes were completely soaked.
I don't remember feeling especialy cold, but I do remember rapidly decideing whether I was going to walk out of the woods, or stay put and make a fire. I settled on fire making, it was about 30 atleast in a snow filled valley.
The only fire making device I had on me was a bow drill, and a ball of tinder which had both gone into the creek with me when I fell through, so I immediatly handed it all to my girlfriend (who had done bow drill once or twice prior). After about a minute trying it became clear that she had not practiced since the last time she made a fire, and was not going to get a coal in time, so I had to take over and managed to get the fastest coal I think I've ever made (amazing what a little motivation can do). Within about 5 minutes of going into the water I had a fire going and my clothes drying by it. At first I felt slightly embarrassed, I had put myself in a position to get seriously hurt or killed, but I saw a different side of it. Using the skills I had practiced so much up until then, I had used them to better my situation, and perhaps save my life.
From that experience, I have come to appreciate the value of scenarios. Putting yourself in situations that are uncomfortable or perhaps risky to push your edge and test yourself. Making a fire in your backyard on a nice day is vastly different from making it in heavy rain t 40 degrees in a t-shirt and a pair of Carhartts. So I encourage you, challenge yourself, be uncomfortable, learn to adapt.