What’s the point of practicing primitive skills?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I don’t focus on primitive skills, but I do like to share the bits that I learn as I go along. By “primitive skills” I mean the use of materials found in the natural environment for the purpose of making life in that environment possible and/or enjoyable. Examples might include the making of natural cordage from willow bark, fire by friction, lean-to shelters made of sapling poles thatched with branches, birch bark containers, the knowledge of edible plants, lichens etc. In other words, ancient survival skills (in fact, there are still groups of people living today who use these skills on a day-to-day basis, so they are not strictly “ancient”). The focus of this blog post will be my personal reasons for learning about and practicing primitive skills, some tending to be more romantic and some more practical.

Primitive skills are useful. The more things you know how to make or utilize, the less critical a forgotten item becomes. Of course, only “primitive” items can be created in this way (you’re not going to build a radio out of a coconut), but the necessities can be had.

Primitive skills are valuable. Should a person with primitive skills become stranded or lost in the wilderness, they will have much better chances of surviving the situation because they will know how to use the products of nature to protect against her perils. Granted, your average ordinary person will most likely not end up being stranded in the wilderness within their lifetime, so primitive skills might be less important to them. It’s a different story for those of us who do go there on a regular basis, though.

Primitive skills are meaningful. I can’t explain why, but I feel a certain sense of connection to the earth, my ancient ancestors and primitive peoples of every age when I make something out of bark or wood, eat wild plants, berries and lichens or use some other primitive knowledge or skill. If only temporarily, it helps me to escape the hectic modern world full of digital this and plastic that and to exist out of time.

Primitive skills make me feel more accomplished and independent. Each time I learn a new edible plant, a new aspect of a lichen or a new way to utilize this wood or that stone, I feel like I am boosting my personal self-sufficiency. Each and every time it gives me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, sometimes large and sometimes small. As I learn, I feel less like a child who is dependent on the modern world for my wants and needs.

I’ll admit that primitive skills are not always compatible with modern outdoor pursuits. It can be ridiculously time-consuming (and often unfeasible) to build a natural shelter every day or to boil water with hot rocks in birch bark containers etc. while on a two-week backpacking trip where you are trying to cover a lot of ground. The same kinds of examples can be given for other activities. This is why, like a few other contemporary bloggers, I see primitive skills as “tools in a toolbox”. I collect them as I go along and enjoy using them from time to time when needed or desired. I personally find them to be a fantastic supplement to modern gear, materials and methods, rather than a replacement.


12 comments on “What’s the point of practicing primitive skills?

  1. Ron says:

    I believe you are forgetting one very important aspect of discovering and using primitive skills; they are a way te rediscover oneself!
    By learning these skills and using them and natural materials, you are getting closer not only to Earth and Nature, but to yourself, too, simply because you learn things about yourself too. You can see yourself and who you are, free from the clutter of modern life and society, because you have to take your time to learn and to do.

  2. Ross Gilmore says:

    I think you have a very good way of looking at primitive skills and their place within modern outdoor pursuits.

  3. OZme says:

    the primitive skills are time consuming… once we have talked over the comment on this and then I started to think “what is the point then??”. well,,, I do not know, but I can tell to anyone that learning of it is FUN. also for me it leads to new way of doing and looking at things.
    I think you have nicely put it in wards what many of us feel about primitive skills an bushcraft skills. Some people may go deep in to primitive way and start taking off clothes, some just take what is good/ convenient of it.

    • Yes, often primitive skills are very time-consuming. There are other downsides as well. I do get a lot of enjoyment out of them and I feel that it’s good to know how to use natural resources, but honestly I have to say that a lot of the primitive skills/knowledge that I have tried will probably be a “one time thing” just because it’s not very practical for me to do them most of the time.

  4. Mark Roberts says:

    Thanks for this post. I have to admit, while I share some affinity with bushcrafters, I’ve often wondered what makes people get so into it. Your commets here on independence and accomplishment go some way to explaining it 🙂

    I read elsewhere that you were planning to come up to Lapland soon – is that still on?

    • Thanks for the comments, Mark! Glad my post shed a little light on the subject. 🙂

      Yes, I did mention plans to travel to Lapland this summer. Our house move and subsequent family vacation (which is taking place at the moment) have prevented me from going to Lapland so far this year. The trip will have to take place in late summer or autumn.

      Where are you located in Lapland? I am planning on visiting the Käsivarsi area of Finland, but my plans are flexible.

  5. Steve says:

    I enjoyed reading your post very much! You articulate several ideas that encouraged me to learn traditional wilderness skills.

    I tend to learn/practice skills that complement my modern equipment and practices. For example, I am not going to carve a bow drill set every time I need to light a campfire. But there are many traditional skills that are both time-efficient and calorie-efficient. Practicing these skills helps me experience the outdoors in a way I could not if I remained bundled in a gore-tex cocoon.

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