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Primitive Skills, Bushcraft & Survival: Explained

I get a lot of questions about the differences and similarities between ‘bushcraft’, ‘primitive skills’, and ‘survival’ (often coming from modern camping/backpacking-minded folks) so I thought I’d offer a few personal thoughts on the subjects.  This post is somewhat inspired by an excellent Venn diagram made by Stuart Goring at Woodsmoke 2012 and presented by Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft in this video.  Here are some further-clarifying thoughts.

The fields listed above have a lot in common and, as we nitpick differences, we could also ask ourselves:  does it really matter which word we use to describe what we do outdoors?  I’d say that it mostly comes down to how well-versed you want to be when it comes to speaking the language in the traditional outdoors community.  Do you want to fit within a commodified notion?  There is a lot of overlap (and certainly modern outdoor lifeways) that straddle the lines between these fields or take the best of each and merge them.

I see each of these three ‘fields’ characterized by:

The End Goal

What is the end result of the participant?  Of the Primitive?  Of the Bushcrafter?  Of the Survivalist?  Escaping the wilderness and returning home?  Walking into the wild with nothing – and remaining indefinitely?

Materials Used

Largely dictated by time period and technologies, materials in these pursuits can range from those harvested in raw form from the land to the most modern of plastics and space-age innovations.

Common Tools

If you opened the ‘toolbox’ of a person practicing primitive skills or bushcraft or survival, what would you find?

Time Period/Peoples Associated With

We could roughly equate each of these practices/technologies to a time period that they were/are widely practiced – although all are practiced today.

Common Fire-making Methods

As a Primitive, Bushcrafter, or Survivalist, what are the main methods used to create fire?  They’re widely different.

 

Primitive Skills

The End Goal

I refer to primitive skills as a ‘bare-handed’ approach to the outdoors – not the same as ‘survival’.  The idea being that everything used, from tools to materials to food, must come directly from the natural world.  As if you started with nothing (whether alone or with a ‘tribe’) and you must live from what you could find naturally and go from there.  What John & Geri McPherson call ‘Naked into the Wilderness‘.  But a particular key difference between primitive skills and the modern idea of survival is that there is no end goal to return to the modern world (at least while you’re Practicing Primitive).  Whether it’s for a weekend or a year, the goal is to live sustainably from the resources that can be gathered from the land.  It must be a sustainable lifestyle or your ‘tribe’ will go extinct – or must move on.

Materials Used

By its very nature of gathering materials from the land, ‘primitive skills’ would dictate that you’re using only manually-processed, natural materials.  That’s things like wood, stone, bone, antler, hide/buckskin, plant materials, fire, water, shell, clay, and so on.  While basic looms may be (have been) created in a primitive setting, commercially-woven textiles (even if from organic materials) wouldn’t fall under the primitive skills category.  Clothes are often made from buckskin (brain/bark/leaf-tanned animal hide, by hand), but may also include ‘hand’ woven materials, like the cedar bark clothing made by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest here in North America.  There is some evidence of the primitive use of copper (such as in the Mississippi River Valley) but generally it’s negated as useful in a ‘primitive’ context.

It’s important to note that many of us ‘practicing primitive’ today merge primitive skills with modern tools and materials:  using a steel knife and synthetic string to carve a bow drill kit seems a bit ironic.  (And scoffed at by purists.)  But, not only is it a good middle ground to open people’s minds and hands to the natural world, it offers what I think of as a ‘step-down’ approach:  rather than throwing a 21st-century Urbanite into the Stone Age, it’s a gentler first step to Going Feral.

Time Period/Peoples Associated With

The easiest way to visualize how primitive skills fits in with the other fields discussed here (as well as modern camping and backpacking) is to think of it as the way that indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples lived in the paleolithic, mesolithic, and neolithic eras (literally ‘old’, ‘middle’, and ‘new’ Stone Age).  That goes back more than 2.5 million years and continues up (worldwide) until only about 5000 years ago with the widespread introduction of metal (copper, bronze, iron, then steel) – with, of course, indigenous peoples still living as hunter-gatherers in the Americas as well as parts of Africa, Asia, and Australia within the last few hundred.

The lifeways of hunting-gathering and subsistence hunting are, by far, the oldest and most long-running of any in the history of the world.  The modern practice of primitive skills is about a natural, ‘barehanded’ approach to the outdoors.  As Scott Silsby said, “‘Primitive’ means first, not worst.”

Common Tools

Most modern, simple tools (like hammers, knives, and axes) are represented in the primitive lifestyle, with the biggest differences being materials and use (knowing how to handle those materials).  I like the challenge that Bart & Robin Blankenship set forth in their book Earth Knack to replace all of the tools in your modern toolbox with primitive ones.  Common ‘primitive’ tools include stone knives, axes, and drills, as well as wooden fire kits, buckskin clothing, plant- and animal-based cordage, basketry, and (much later) clay pottery.  Weapons include thrown sticks and stones, the atlatl, bola, spear, and (again, very recently) the bow and arrow.  An important tool to note that’s missing is the saw (as we know it) – there are toothed shell, mandible, and stone saws available for cutting grasses and other soft materials, but the modern saw didn’t come around until very recently.

When it comes to the modern practice of primitive skills, the time period that these various technologies were invented is basically irrelevant – unless that is a specific point of your practice.  For example, if you’re going out for a week in the woods to live ‘primitively’ as described above, you might build a bark-covered wickiup, wear buckskin clothing, create your fires by friction, and use the bow and arrow to hunt small game – without regard to time period, area of the world, or culture.

Common Fire-making Methods

The solely-defining detail around primitive fire-making is that it must be through friction – i.e. rubbing two pieces of wood together to create dust, then a coal, which is blown into flame.  (You could also capture it from a wildfire after a lightning strike, or steal it from others as in Quest for Fire, but that’s not fire-making.)  There is no other truly primitive method to make fire.  Some consider flint & steel (percussion, not friction) primitive, but I’ll happily fight that argument all day long.  Steel (as in flint & steel) is a modern invention and the occasional iron pyrite found naturally isn’t widespread enough to factor into the primitive world.

Friction fire-making methods include:  bow drill, hand drill, pump drill, fire plow, fire saw, fire thong, and others.  All use friction.  Period.

 

If Primitive Skills sounds like your bag, check out our massive 10,000 word article ‘How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill‘:

How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill

 

Bushcraft

Ever seen the movie The Revenant?  It’s a good example of period bushcraft in action.  Jeremiah Johnson is another fun one.  Dick Proenneke’s Alone in the Wilderness, perhaps the best documentary on the real thing.  Contemporary bushcrafters include Les Stroud (Survivorman), Mors Kochanski, and Tim Smith.

The End Goal

Similar to the practice of primitive skills, bushcrafting is about an ongoing way of living in the wilderness.  It’s about remaining away from urbanity and existing there.  Tim Smith calls it “life without infrastructure”.  You could think of the bushcrafter as the quintessential outdoorsman/woman.  Davy Crockett.  Daniel Boone.  Nessmuk.  You could roughly equate bushcraft to the common way of existing in the wilderness for the 500 years predating the mid-20th century.  Going out with limited (‘modern’) gear and living off the land.

Materials Used

One of the biggest differences between bushcrafters and practitioners of primitive skills is that bushcrafters aren’t ‘stuck’ in the Stone Age.  Steel is the most notable difference – and the tools (below) that it then allows.  While fibrous materials are generally still natural (as with primitive skills), we can begin looking at commercially- and factory-produced fabrics and goods, including blankets and backpacks.  Wool, canvas, commercially-tanned leather, metal, and commercially-available naturally-material items like hemp rope and wooden axe handles also characterize this way of life.

Common Tools

Knife.  Axe.  Saw.  Crooked knife.  Draw knife.

With just these few basic tools that are easy to maintain, the experienced bushcrafter can make virtually everything else they need from the land around them.  Dick Proenneke really exemplifies this in Alone in the Wilderness.

Think about it:  What couldn’t you make off the land, given those items?  Shelter?  Fire?  Weapons?  Other tools?  Furniture?  Bowls, plates, and spoons?

Time Period/Peoples Associated With

One could argue that this way of existing in the wild goes back to the dawn of smelted metal.  But we tend to think of bushcraft as just the last few hundred years – post-Civil War era.  Late 19th/early 20th century would be the golden age – great availability of axes, knives, canvas tents, firearms, woven textiles, and more – but before the advent of synthetic materials.

Modern bushcrafters tend to avoid the ‘conveniences’ of ultra modern technology in favor of the in-depth knowledge of the wild that bushcrafting requires.  Bushcraft negates the apart-from-nature lifestyle that ‘backpacking’ provides, in favor of interacting much more directly and deeply with the natural world.  Rather than pitch a nylon tent, you’d use your know-how of knots and woodcraft to put up a basic structure, possibly including a canvas tarp/shelter.

Common Fire-making Methods

Traditional bushcrafters would be making fire using flint & steel, likely char cloth and a tinder box.  Contemporary bushcrafters often use items like matches, lighters, and ferro rods.  It’s about being efficient and practical when living off the land.

Here’s a quick demo comparing bow drill, matches, and the almost-magical ferro rod:

For another article related to Bushcraft – and making your own gear, check out:  ‘How To Make a Hook Knife In 4 Easy Steps’.

How To Make a Hook Knife In 4 Easy Steps

Survival

For the sake of this article, I am discussing survival in the wilderness.  NOT urban/zombie/alien/nuclear/post-apocalyptic survival.  And not military survival, where people are chasing you.  Understood?

The current idea and popularity of ‘survival’ is a modern one.  The vast array of popular (and terrible) TV shows makes the point that it is, however, of interest to the general public.  But were Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, or Davy Crocket or Nessmuk out there ‘on survival’?  No, of course not.  Living off the land was their way of life.  It wasn’t a man vs. wild challenge.  It was life.

I suspect that the more removed we’ve become from the natural world (wilderness), the more infatuated we become by it – and view life in the wilderness as a struggle – i.e. survival.

The End Goal

The sole goal of modern wilderness survival is to get home alive.  Period.  End of story.

If you’re talking about living in the wilderness for as long as possible, moving away from the city…that’s not survival.  You might lump that into bushcraft or create an alternative-living category.  Survival is about surviving.  Using what you have on you – and getting out – as fast as possible.  Blowing your load in order to get home.

The distinction mainly comes down to resources.  Maybe you still need to rely on a bow drill (primitive) to make fire.  But a Primitive needs to sustain their resources indefinitely – firewood, plant & animal life.  Someone ‘surviving’ could literally burn the entire mountainside to create a signal fire large enough to be found.  (Not a sustainable – or safe – practice for the Primitive or Bushcrafter.)

An interesting note about survival is that we can only ever practice survival skills.  Even having a friend drive you 25 miles into the bush and dropping you off with a pack of survival gear isn’t truly ‘survival’.  It’s kinda loaded.  You have the opportunity to build-up your mindset, practice, pack accordingly, and so on.  True survival happens unexpectedly.  Oh, crap!  I’m lost.  And all I have on me is…

Materials Used

Survivalists are not limited by any technology or materials.  They use what’s on hand, plus their know-how and experience, to get help.  That could mean you’re in jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes (always wear shoes with laces; they’re helpful).  But if you’ve packed a survival kit/pack, you’re only limited to what you’ve thought to bring.  Plus, the land around you is available.

Common Tools

The knife gets a lot of attention in the world of survival.  Otherwise, there isn’t as much reliance on ‘tools’ as there is on ‘gear’.  Often, you’ll find a Survivalist packs some sort of sharp, cutting thing (knife) and a modern, reliable fire-starter like a ferro rod.  Emergency shelters, signaling methods, packs, water treatment options, GPS devices, and many other modern options are available in the toolkit of the modern wilderness ‘survivalist’.

Time Period/Peoples Associated With

Survival as we think of it is a completely modern perspective.  Sure, ancient people like Otzi the Iceman occasionally got separated or ostracized from their group and found themselves alone in the wilderness, but even the highly-trained Native American Scouts weren’t ‘surviving’ as a way of life.

Survival is a modern trend.  Knowing the natural world and how to exist in it is ancient.

Common Fire-making Methods

People often come to me wanting to learn bow drill “for survival”.  With practice (and under ideal conditions) you could bust a coal with a bow drill coal in around 20 seconds.  Then (again, ideally) maybe 30 seconds to blow that to flame in a great (previously-prepared) tinder bundle.  So a minute, under absolutely-ideal conditions.  More realistically, it might take 4-5 minutes, if at all.

A ferro rod is far less finicky, takes up less space, and is generally reliable.  I doubt there’s a single person in the entire world who wouldn’t favor a ferro rod over a friction method.  I love making friction fires.  But there’s just no comparison between that and the modern methods we have at our disposal.

Survivalists aren’t limited to any methods – and being comfortable with a wide array is advisable.  But by carrying a modern fancy firestarter, like the Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel, one drastically increases their ability to make fire and decreases the time to do it.

 

Here’s ‘How to Build the Ultimate Campfire in Seconds’:

How to Build the Ultimate Campfire in Seconds

 

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