Experience is the best teacher. And of course there is no substitute for working with a mentor. However, there are also some excellent books and other resources out there that I highly recommend (as well as a lot of crap that I don’t). I find myself returning to some books again and again for the wealth of knowledge contained within.
Here are my Favorite Ten.
1. Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills
by Steven M. Watts
I find this book ridiculously inspirational. A compilation of years of Steve’s writings, illustrations, and philosophy, Practicing Primitive is probably my #1. While it wasn’t written all at once as a cohesive book, I pour over the details of Steve’s drawings again and again and find the answers I’m looking for. It includes a breadth of skills, an overview of human technological innovation, and the packet for the primitive living intensive that Steve once offered at the Schiele.
by Tom Elpel
A great title for a great book. Tom encourages us to be a part of nature, not apart from it. He uses his musings during a day hike from sunrise to sunset as the guiding metaphor of the skills he covers: fire, shelter, water, tools & weapons, animal processing and more. He merges the primitive with the modern and blends the lines between wilderness survival and primitive living. This is a great introduction to outdoor skills with a primitive angle.
3. Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival
by Mors Kochanski
Kochanski is a bit of a living legend. He popularized the term ‘bushcraft’ and coined the phrase “The more you know, the less you need”. Bushcraft was his original work and covers specific wilderness skills to a depth that’s unrivaled. If you want to learn axecraft, knifecraft, sawcraft, shelter, rope/cordage, and other hard skills related to long-term life and safety in the wilderness, this is the book for you. It’s targeted at life in the northern boreal forests, but most of the book translates to other places.
Also check out our article ‘Choosing The Right Survival Knife That Will Last‘:
4. Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century
by Bart & Robin Blankenship
I think Bart and Robin are a few of the unsung heroes in the world of primitive skills. They birthed and raised their kids in a tipi, sewed their owed buckskin clothing, made tools – and then wrote this book based on their experience. To this day, I think this book covers some of the basic skills (like making a Stone Age tool kit or twining a willow shoot basket) in an approachable and detailed way that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Better treatment than most of some of the basic truly ‘primitive’ skills.
5. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
by Tom Elpel
THE book that launched me into plant identification in a huge way. Not an ID guide, but more of a fun tome of botanical study, Botanyteaches ID using common patterns in related plants (i.e. a square stem, opposite leaves, aromatic odor = member of the Mint Family, which includes 3,500 species!). In just an hour or two, you can learn Elpel’s 7 introductory plant families – totalling nearly 50,000 individual species of plants worldwide. I mean, damn. This is Gone Feral’s preferred method of teaching plant ID.
6. The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden
by Samuel Thayer
OK, so I’m squeezing two books into one slot. Sam Thayer changed the face of wild food literature with these books, in two significant and notable ways.
First, the typical plant guide covers hundreds or thousands of single species, but with only a few sentences on each. Thayer covers only a few dozen plants in each of his books, but offers an entire chapter on each plant, from ID and harvesting to preparation, consumption, and preservation.
Second, most of the common field guides are simply reprints of older versions – often handing-down mistakes that were made (and printed) decades ago. Thayer bucks the trend by writing based significantly on his own experience – even harvesting and consuming some ‘known’ poisonous plants. He is well-researched, but writes primarily from first-hand experience.
Note: These are two different books, covering entirely different plants, not new editions of the same book.
If you want to get into plant identification, check out our primer ‘How to Identify Edible Plants – An Introduction‘:
7. 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive!
by Cody Lundin
Straight-up survival. You might know Cody as ‘the barefoot guy’ from Dual Survival‘s early seasons. Besides being a character, Cody is smart, witty, and well-researched. 98.6 is uncharacteristically science-based for a skills book. He approaches survival from what actually happens to people (not what Hollywood dreams up) and spends most of the book getting you to understand physiology, heat loss, and the body’s reactions to fear/anxiety – and how & why they effect his strategy for survival. He then presents a ‘kit-based’ approach to surviving. Know that his presentation of the material (specifically the illustrations) may be offensive to some.
8. The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible, Volumes 1-4
by Tim Baker, Jim Hamm, et al.
As the name indicates, this series is The Bible for those interested in walking the path of the traditional bowyer (one who carves bows). If you can’t take a class, this is a fantastic alternative. (Hell, if you can take a class, this series should be on your shelf.) The combined experience of the multiple authors of the first book alone totals over a century. I think of these books as my own mentors: when I have bow issues I haven’t faced before, I crack them open and find my answer.
9. Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species
by Mark Elbroch
The weight of this one is felt not just in the physical poundage, but in the amount of information and experience that Elbroch packed into nearly 800 pages on tracking: gait patterns, foot morphology, nests/dens, scat, and natural history. If you like to geek out about scat, there’s no shortage of pictures here. Of particular personal interest are the unique diagrams Elbroch includes that corroborates the way an animal is moving with the pattern left behind. This one was another game-changer.
10. Primitive Technology: A Book of Earth Skills and Primitive Technology II: Ancestral Skills
by The Society of Primitive Technology, edited by David Wescott
The Bulletin of Primitive Technologywas a bi-annual publication of the Society of Primitive Technology that ran for 25 years, beginning in 1991. Contributors to The Bulletin included Steve Watts, Tom Elpel, David Wescott, Errett Callahan, Mors Kochanski, Scott Silsby, Tamara Wilder, Norm Kidder, Jim Riggs, Dick Baugh, Dino Labiste, Tim Baker, and many, many, many others.
The first 12 issues of The Bulletinwere reprinted in the form of these two books: Primitive Technology I & II.
A wide array of experiential primitive skills and experimental archaeology as well as ethnographic research is presented within these pages: stone, bone, and wood tools, boats, shelters, edible & medicinal plants, basketry, hide tanning, and more.
These books represent a great resource for those interested in primitive, earth, or ancestral skills from a variety of voices.
And lastly, if you’re interested in learning a breadth and depth of primitive skills, bushcraft & survival, try out a free two-week trial of our online, place-based, independent study program THE PACK.
So those are my Top 10 Favorite Outdoor Skills Books!
We always recommend that you borrow or buy used when you can. However, if you plan to buy any of these titles from Amazon, please consider using the links above. Gone Feral will receive a small percentage of each sale, at no additional cost to you.
Thanks for your support – and happy reading (practicing).
Founder & Director