Truly learning to live off the land is a big challenge even with some simple modern gear.
The first of this December found me marching beneath a canopy of ponderosa pine and surrounded by the skeletal figures of barren cottonwood and ash trees. A small stream meandered lazily by, ice clinging stubbornly to the edges. Songbirds flitted between naked stems of wild rose above green grass daring to rise from the prairie beneath my boots. Mother Nature seemed unable to make up her mind whether it should be winter was beginning. With my pack strapped to my back, temperatures in the low 40’s seemed about as ideal as you could ask for. With plans for a primitive tarp shelter in my future, I was thankful nighttime temperatures would be staying in the 20’s. My timing on this trip was seemingly just right.
As I pushed deeper into the tract of public land, my mind wandered here and there. It drifted from things that have popped up in my life, to days gone by, to more philosophical thoughts as well. Like many folks, I find my thoughts grow more clear and focused the further I can get from the road. Eventually my thinking returned back to the task at hand.
I had set aside this weekend to try and learn more about what it takes to provide for myself each day. Stories of ancient hunter-gatherers, longhunters, and mountain men have always captured my imagination. The more I’ve learned about them, and experimented with their style of living, the more my appreciation has grown for their accomplishments. Over time though, I’ve realized comparisons between our modern lives, and their past lives, are near impossible. With modern hunting laws, we are unable to operate with the world in the same way they did. On the other hand, when I pitch my camp for the night, I give no thought to choosing locations that could avoid a war party of enemies. Each generation of people heading to the woods faces their own challenges, and can’t be truly replicated thereafter.
That being said, by heading into the woods to live on the nourishment of the land, even for a spell, we can share some common threads of experience with past people. Hunger is hunger, no matter what year you were born or where you live. Cold is cold, and the heat from a campfire warms the bones in the same way. It also takes many of the same skills to try and forge a living from the wild. Knowing where to camp, where to hunt, and knowing how to stay warm and dry still are important skills. Those of us who want to keep this old way of life alive, breath life into it by getting out and living it as best we can.
One thing that really stands out to me about those ancient hunters was their ability to stay alive in the wilds. It takes more effort than most folks imagine to actually provide for yourself completely. It is also important to understand we’re talking about really providing, not just extended starvation. Learning to capture your calories in ways you are expending less than you are consuming is no small task. It is easy to tough out being hungry for a few days in comparison to actually feeding yourself. People interested in this concept may appreciate this popular Youtuber who delves into the topic pretty thoroughly.
Realizing such, I decided to hedge the odds in my favor and pack along modern gear with me on this trip. I also decided to drag along a half dozen body gripping traps to try and improve my odds at landing some food for the belly. Trapping is a great passive activity to secure food, and modern steel traps are superior in almost every regard to any sort of primitive trap. Their one downside is their overall weight, a fact my legs and shoulders fully realized on the hike in. My hope was the effort it took to pack them in, and make my sets, would be offset by the increased chance of landing a decent sized animal each night. In addition to my traps I packed a pump action Remington 870 and a pocketful of shells.
As I tramped further from the pickup, I eventually came across an ideal campsite. With running water close, lots of small firewood handy, and some protection from the wind, I dropped my pack and started to setup camp. Since I was trying to stay as light as possible, and have a camp that could last for an extended period, I had packed a tarp to help make my shelter. In addition to using the modern tarp, I also decided incorporate the concepts of a debris shelter into the shelter. The tarp made the construction go much faster, and the debris made the shelter much warmer. By blending ancient knowledge with modern gear, I was able to construct a pretty comfortable shelter. It would keep me comfortable as the nighttime temperatures dipped just below freezing.
Once I had my shelter built, it was time to get my traps out. Simply showing up to an area you’ve never trapped before, and setting your traps within walking distance, isn’t necessarily the greatest recipe for success. Add to that I’d only be out two nights, and I wasn’t entirely confident I’d catch anything at all. Regardless, the first day I was able to get four leaning tree sets out before the sun sank behind the horizon.
The Successful Hunt
Fortunately while I was returning to camp, my dog Huck winded a cottontail in some brush. As he darted out into the open I was able to draw a bead on him and connect with the shot. Thankful I’d have something to eat for the night, I butchered him on the spot then headed back to camp.
I started my fire with a ferro rod and charred punk wood, and soon had a decent blaze going. First off, I boiled my water, and then turned my attention to cooking the rabbit. The hot meat tasted good on an empty stomach, and the full moon cast a bright light around my camp as I admired my view. If I’ve learned one thing from my primitive camping it is that the experience increases your sense of gratitude for the little things in life. A paltry rabbit seemed like quite a gift. A warm fire made me feel just right. The simple song of the coyote capped the moment and I was content. I was thankful for the cold air in my lungs and the warm wool blanket waiting for me in the shelter. Learning to be thankful is probably the biggest benefit from these sorts of trips. With hopes for a productive night, I tucked myself into the shelter and got cozy.
The next morning found my empty stomach urging me from sleep. Within just a few minutes I stepped into the frosty morning and headed out to check my line. If you’ve trapped long enough, you may realize the odds of success on such a short line, in the middle of wild lands, is slim. That being said, you can’t catch anything if you don’t have them out. Unfortunately for me, the traps turned up empty and I returned to camp having expended a good deal of energy for no reward. Was the trapline going to be a bust?
Unwilling to admit it wasn’t a good idea; I got my final two traps out and hoped for the best. In truth, these two sets appeared to be the most promising. I had some time to scout around and was able to setup on good sign. It had only been a few hours and most of my days work was done, the problem was I hadn’t eaten a thing yet.
After returning to camp, I decided to break out an age-old woodsman cuisine; parched corn. My goal was to spend my time “living off the land”, and I had mixed feelings about the corn. Sure, I had grown it myself, and parched it as well, but I wasn’t gathering it during my stay. In the end, I swallowed a handful and decided that should last me for the day. If Daniel Boone used it as part of his diet, I supposed I wasn’t less of a woodsman for using a handful.
The rest of the day found me tending to camp chores. Beefing up my shelter, sharpening my axes and knives, and boiling water all made the minutes turn to hours. I also took the time to roast some cattail root, but found the rhizomes were not yet full of the starches they will have in several months. Before long, it was time to head out on an afternoon hunt. I again faced the dilemma that my activities needed to have a positive caloric return.
My dog and I hunt for several hours and saw only two cottontail rabbits. Fortunately one of them fell victim to my 870 again, and I would once again have warm meat in my belly to end the day. It was another great day to give thanks.
Snow moved in the second night and the traps were once again empty. Unfortunately I had to pull out early in the morning to meet a family obligation, so my 2-night expedition had run its course. Packing along the traps had proved fruitless, but I still have to imagine over time their benefits would outweigh their cons. Still, on this particular venture they cost me much more energy than they provided.
Overall the modern gear expedition was enjoyable and scratched my ever-present itch to be in the quiet places. Not long ago men and women roamed these exact same lands, completely independent from the trappings that bind us to civilization. Things have certainly changed, but the same basic challenges remain. While Mother Nature provides, she certainly can be a bit stubborn. The energy it takes is not always repaid, and a single hunter on his own is put to the test. Even with modern gear, meeting your daily needs is a worthy challenge.
Living off the Land 2-Day Diet: Modern Gear
2 Cottontail Rabbits
3 Cattail Rhizomes
1 Handful Parched Corn
I’d love to hear any stories you have about living off the land in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy reading this article about the 27 foods eaten by mountain man Zenas Leonard.
Follow the author through his Facebook page.