When most people set out to plan a summer vacation, they look for comfy resorts, ample diversions and plenty of great food. Gino Borges, however, was looking for something different.
The year was 2011, and Borges, a self-employed consultant and experienced outdoorsman , was looking to find a summer trip that would teach him fire starting, flint knapping, shelter building and other fundamental skills for surviving in the backcountry. He didn’t want to focus on modern techniques — those were too easy, he thought, and relied too heavily on man-made gear. Instead, he wanted a tutorial in doing things the way our ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago.
“The more time you spend in the backcountry, the more you realize you’re just one broken ankle away from being meat,” he says. “I wanted to empower myself with the confidence to connect with nature and knowledge of the most basic skills to survive.”
Borges, isn’t the only person embracing techniques of the distant past. Across the country, it seems, more and more hunters and fishermen are looking to bone up on these age-old, “primitive” skills. Some of these students are newcomers — laypeople with few or no outdoor skills who want to experience something new. Others, like Borges, are hunters, fishermen or seasoned outdoorsmen, all looking to sharpen their skills.
Whatever prompts these people to sign up, they’re doing it in droves. Anecdotal evidence from outfitters indicates that interest in courses that teach this knowledge is at an all-time high. Some say classes are fuller than ever, while others say they’ve been forced to add more classes to rosters that have remained static for decades.
At Ancient Pathways (apathways.com), a school in Flagstaff, Ariz., founder Tony Nester reports that some of his classes now have a waiting list, something he’s never experienced before. “People can’t get enough of them,” Nester says of the time-tested techniques.
In short, it’s the ultimate throwback.
The notion of “primitive” skills is a bit of a misnomer; the skills are old-fashioned, but by no means inferior. Though curricula vary from school to school, the basic tenets of these courses comprise three critical skills: fire building, flint knapping and cordage (a.k.a,, making rope or cord out of plant matter).
Primitive skills geeks consider these to be the “holy trinity.” Technically speaking, these are the skills that have been around the longest. Archaeologists believe the earliest forms of flint knapping occurred about 2.5 million years ago, and that our ancestors mastered the controlled use of fire about 1 million years ago.
This trio also forms the basis from which most other primitive skills stem. Case in point: Some primitive skills courses include lessons on trapping and hunting, but you can’t trap without knowing how to use cord to bind together sticks, and you can’t hunt without knowing how to whittle a stick with stone tools (which you create through flint knapping).
David Wescott, owner of Backtracks (woodsmokeusa.com), an outdoor survival skills outfitter in Teton, Idaho, says other skills taught at many programs include lessons in bow making, trapping, building shelters and making clothes from buckskins, noting that some people call these skills “bushcraft” because of the way they mix creativity and necessity into one.
“One you learn the basics of a lot of these skills, you really can turn the application of them into art,” he says.
Of course some programs are more involved than others. Practical Primitive (practicalprimitive.com), a survival school based in Great Meadows, N.J., offers day- and weekend-long courses that focus on one or two specific primitive skills at a time. Other schools incorporate lessons about edible plants or local cultural history.
At Ancient Pathways, the school that Borges ultimately attended, experiences can run much longer. Nester offers multi-week programs during which students “go back 20,000 years in four weeks” and work their way up to living independently in the backcountry for up to five days at a time.
Pricing for these programs varies, but most experiences cost $50-$75 per student per day.