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.
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Uncle Dean’s famous smoke rub may easily become a family favorite.
Few things bespeak traditions like a family recipe passed down. Although I can’t claim this recipe comes from the “Old World”, it is one that my uncle gave to me. We use this rub on almost all of our smoked wild game recipes with only minor alterations. It would work well on the grill as well, but the rub combined with the smoked flavor is about as good as it gets for smoked venison.
Here are the ingredients you will need for Uncle Dean’s Famous Smoke Rub:
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup White Sugar
2-3 Tbs Salt
1 1/2 Tbs Cumin
2 Tbs Chipotle (or substitute any rub of choice)
1/2 tsp Black Pepper, Garlic Powder and Onion Powder
We first like to tenderize the meat.
Next we soak it in milk over night or for at least a couple of hours.
When it is done soaking in the milk we rinse off the meat and pat it dry so the rub mix will stick.
Now it is time to add the rub. We usually place the meat in a large zip lock bag and shake, or combine the rub with meat in a bowl. The meat does not necessarily have to marinate in the rub, but we like to let it set for at least a couple of hours.
The meat is then ready to head to the smoker.
It’s best to have your smoker preheated before you put your meat on to cook. When it comes to smoking the adage is “low and slow.” Keeping the heat low and cooking it slowly will lead to great tasting stuff.
Our smoker doesn’t get much lower than 225 degrees, so that is where we set it and let it preheat.
Once it is up to temperature we go ahead and lay the meat on the racks. We typically allow for around three and a half to four hours of cook time for smoked venison and add our wood chips the last hour.
Once the temperature of your meat is up to par, 180 degrees for venison, it’s ready to enjoy!
So next time you get together for a family gathering, have some friends over, or just want to dine on delicious smoked venison, use Uncle Dean’s Famous Rub to give your wild game a delicious taste that will have your mouth watering.
I’d love to hear any other smoking recipes you like to use in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy using this traditional recipe for dandelion greens.
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If you are looking for an interesting read about Leave No Trace camping, this article from masterwoodsman.com is a good choice.
Recently while stumbling around the web I came across a great article from masterwoodsman.com about Leave No Trace camping. The article is titled “Leave No Trace Killed Woodcraft…Almost” and can be accessed through the link. It is certainly worth the time to read if you have a few minutes.
Basically the author, Christian Noble, gives a solid dissertation on the harmful effects of the Leave No Trace (LNT) camping protocol that is so popular today. Generally is seems his beef with LNT is not the environmental impact, but the negative human and cultural impact it has. He states LNT has created a society of visitors to nature, not participants. One good section reads:
“Inevitably, groups wanting support (and protection) for wilderness meant supporting some sort of recreational access. Minimal impact camping was born. A new “modern” wilderness ethic based purely on aesthetics. There was no working knowledge (read understanding) of nature needed. All one had to know is that if nature was altered, it was wrong.”
Another good excerpt:
“Instead, we should learn about nature as a participant. By doing to so in a respectful manner with the proper guidance, you will find a conservation ethic allowing you to tread lightly across the landscape the way it was intended by our Creator.”
In my personal opinion, I think the author is touching on something big here. While LNT does do a good job protecting our environment, it has degraded the body of knowledge we had. Most folks no longer look to nature as a place as a place they were created to live, but rather a place where they can go visit from time to time. Also, when most people do head into our wild places, they do so with a pickup load of gear from their favorite sporting goods store, or with a giant camper with electrical hookups. While I can’t/won’t demean people wanting to get out and experience nature in those ways, personally I’ve found much more satisfaction heading out with less.
The best part of this article is the balance it provides. Many times in life the sweet spot is where balance can be found. Noble rightly argues for the use of LNT practices in certain areas. Here is an excerpt:
“Don’t get me wrong, in high traffic and sensitive areas I am a huge fan of treading lightly, even using a stove. Personally, I use a supercat stove I make from used diced chili cans with denatured alcohol for fuel, when and where it makes sense.”
The reality is that in a world of 7 billion people, and 323 million in America, we can’t all go building lean-tos at our favorite destination. If that were the case, we would soon not have much nature left in those areas. On the other hand, if people do not practice living hands-on in the world, the working knowledge our cultures have gained about “survival” is threatened to be lost as well. Everything in moderation.
Finally, it seems worth excerpting one more quote from the article:
“We are NOT visitors here on Earth. This is our home and the home of our ancestors.”
How true. It seems this fact is being lost and more people are seeing themselves apart from nature, rather than our home. If you take the time to read the Softtracks About section, you should be able to grasp our thoughts on the subject. Practicing skills of self-reliance may not be the norm these days, but can truly reveal some great insights if you are willing to put the work in.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this great article concerning its harmful side effects in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article about building a primitive shelter.
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People interested in primitive skills and history might appreciate Zenas Leonard’s account of primitive tanning used by the Crow.
One of the primitive skills I find most useful in daily life is tanning. Tanning not only allows you to use more of each animal you harvest, but can help you to create useful products. Over the past few years I’ve made moccasins, quivers, pouches, and plenty of hunting equipment. Few things are softer and have a more comfortable feel that good brain tanned buckskin. It is a process that I enjoy and it also has real world application.
Usually while brain tanning, I often wonder about how people of the past did primitive tanning. With the luxury of steel fleshing knives, plastic buckets, and other specially made tools for the job, I think about how Paleo people would have done it. I imagine the process certainly would be more difficult. As luck would have it, while reading the journal of mountain man Zenas Leonard I came across an entry that described in detail the process used to brain tan buffalo hides.
The entry comes on page 57 of his 59 page journal. Near the end of his time in the mountains, Leonard takes the opportunity to live with a band of Crows. One interesting dimension of Leonard was his fairly good eye for, and interest in, anthropology. He not only enjoyed living with the Crow, but he was eager to learn about their lives, and record it as well. His journal begins by describing the buffalo hunting process and all the rituals that surrounded it. One who wonders about bygone days can get a clear picture of what a buffalo hunt may have looked like from reading the journal.
Leonard next records how buffalo hides were cared for after several had been killed. He records;
“The Indians would go out in large companies and kill a great number of these animals (buffalo), when it would be the duty of the women to follow after and gather up the hides, which they would convey to the camp, and dress them ready for market. It is the duty of the squaws to dress the buffalo robes alone, which is done by stretching the hide tight on the ground and there let it dry, when they have a piece of iron or sharp stone, fixed in a stick, making a tool similar to a foot-adze, with which the cut and scrape the fleshy side until it becomes thin and smooth—after this they have a mixture composed of the brains and liver of the animal mixed together, in which they soak the hide a couple of days, when it is taken out and again stretched on the ground, where it is beat and rubbed with a paddle until in becomes perfectly soft and dry.”
If you are interested in primitive tanning you no doubt find the passage interesting at least. Still though, this passage raises a few questions in my mind.
First off, he says they “soak the hide a couple of days” in the brain and liver mixture. I have to wonder what is it soaking in? They didn’t have plastic buckets? I wonder if the hide was saturated and then folded upon itself to retain the moisture. That would make sense, and would be similar to the way I tan fur-on garments, except only one side is being covered in the tanning agent. Secondly I wonder if the paddle method is better, or worse, than the regular breaking method I normally use? Breaking is no doubt the most difficult step in the process and this method could be useful.This may be one of those questions I’ll have to answer by experimenting on a small hide.
Again, tanning is a great primitive skill to understand. It has utility and extends the bounty of the hunt. People have tanned differently all across the world to meet the same goal; material for clothing and gear. This particular primitive tanning method is laid out in plain fashion by mountain man who witnessed the process firsthand. For those folks interested in such things, we are fortunate he took the time to record it.
If you have experience with this primitive tanning method, I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article about the Mountain Man Possibles Bag.
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Whether you appreciate wild food or history, you might find this list of foods eaten by mountain man Zenas Leonard interesting.
For one reason or another, the foods eaten by mountain men are something I find intriguing. Perhaps it is because of the self-reliance it highlights. It could be because of what we can learn about our food from learning about theirs. It also could be because every so often you come across something so disgusting you just can’t seem to forget it. In reality, all three of these factors likely add to my fixation on learning about the foods of the mountain men and others who were/are self-reliant. Recently one primary source I read and learned from was the diary of mountain man Zenas Leonard.
Zenas Leonard left Missouri in 1831 during the height of the Rocky Mountain Fur trade era. His journals describe not only his experience with other mountain men, but the great adventure he joined with Capt. Joe Walker to California. If you read the journal (at this link) you will notice that Leonard was not only an expert outdoorsman, but he also had an eye for culture as well. On several occasions he takes the time to learn about different people of an area. Near the end of the journal (starting on pg. 51) he describes his desire to live with the Crow and learn about “their internal mode of living.” After reading the journal you get the impression that he was looking to make some money, but was just as much concerned with learning, experiencing, and adventure. It is a good read if you enjoy the subject.
As with several other journals, the Zenas Leonard journal devotes some attention to the foods he ate. This seems to be the case for several reasons. One, many of the foods were unique to him, and two, many times food was a huge issue in his life. While we sit down and eat 3 squares everyday, he and the other mountain men were never truly certain when their next meal would be. You can imagine how this would heighten your appreciation for a good meal.
If you are interested, here are the 27 foods that mountain man Zenas Leonard enjoyed, or otherwise ate, while living as a mountain man.
Corn (PG 1) – In trade from both the Kanza and Oto tribes.
Wild Turnips (PG 1) – From a band of Oto’s.
Muscles and Small Fish (PG 1) – Leonard mentions fishing on several occasions, more than the other journals I have read.
Horse (PG 1) – Leonard wasn’t in the West long before he had his first taste of horseflesh. Later during his time in the mountains (PG +26) he describes this practice on many occasions when the men were close to starvation. He also describes the painful feeling of killing a horse this way (PG 29); “It seemed to be the greatest cruelty to take your rifle, when your horse sinks to the ground from starvation, but still manifests a desire and a willingness to follow you, to shoot him in the head and then cut him up & take such parts of their flesh as extreme hunger along will render it possible for a human being to eat.” Certainly a somber tone to that entry. It also shows a side not often recognized in the mountaineers.
Wolves (PG 2) – In order to keep from starving.
Wild Cats (PG 2) – Leonard is unclear as to what kind of cat, but you would likely assume a bobcat.
Antelope (PG 2) – A staple food of the plains.
Elk (PG 2) – His first mentioned elk was enjoyed after an extended period of near starvation. In the next sentence he mentions the party was “refreshed” and “set out with unusual fine spirits.” One can only imagine how good that elk must have tasted.
Buffalo (PG 2) – First mention of killing a buffalo, the favorite meat of the mountaineers. He set out in late April from St. Louis and recalls this meal was ate in late July after arriving in buffalo country. He recorded “the flesh of the Buffaloe is the wholesomest and most palatable of meat kind.” Later in the journal he describes killing great numbers of bison especially before his first winter in the mountains set in.
Deer (PG 2) – Killed nearly every day for a portion of the trip.
Bighorn Sheep (PG 4) – Noted killing bighorn sheep while putting up meat for the winter, and to use the hides in order to make moccasins.
Beaver Skins (PG 6) – During his first winter Zenas Leonard and a few comrades made a desperate attempt to reach Santa Fe in mid-winter. They set out from camp with few provisions and just a few beaver skins for trade. After a short time flogging about the mountains in incredible amounts of snow, the men were starving. He recorded they roasted and ate the beaver skins at this point in order to keep from starving to death. After killing a buffalo later, he notes in the journal the bull was killed after eating nothing but beaver skin for 9 days.
Bear (PG 9) – There are a few mentions of eating bear, but page 9 is the first reference. Later, once he got to California (PG 29), the party regularly killed and ate bear.
Beaver (PG 17) – During a strenuous trip across the Great Basin, Leonard mentions eating beaver. You would imagine this was common practice for mountain men.
Fish (PG 18) – Here Leonard mentions several specific fish species of trout and catfish. He also noted “others suitable for hook and line.” Again, Leonard mentions fishing on multiple occasions.
Rabbits (PG 23) – Also noted during his trek through the Great Basin.
Acorns (PG 28) – A welcomed meal after starving on the mountains. Later in the journal he would explain this is the principle food of the native people of the area. Folks who have read the story of Ishi no doubt remember this fact well.
Bread, Butter, and Cheese (PG 33) – When the party of mountain men reached the shores of the Pacific, in a stroke of good luck they met an American ship. After exchanging greetings the men were invited aboard the ship for a feast. In exchange for fresh meat, which the sailors were delighted to indulge in, the mountaineers enjoyed these three foods. Leonard notes it had been more than 2 years since he had eaten this sort of civilized food.
Flour, Corn, Beans, &c (PG 41) – Before embarking eastward back across the mountains and the desert, Capt. Joe Walker outfitted his men with these provisions to eat on the journey.
Beef (PG 43) – For the same reason as the above mentioned staples were purchased, a herd of cattle were brought along as portable provisions. Within a short time nearly all of these animals would be killed or die from the extremes of the desert.
Dog (PG 43) – Dogs were brought along for the same purpose as cattle. While moving across the desert it is recorded (PG 46); “The pitiful lamentations of our dogs were sufficient to melt the hardest heart.” Once again you can see that although dogs were used for food, it certainly wasn’t something the men enjoyed. It was simply about survival.
Blood (PG 47) – While in the desert Leonard noted that thirst was the major want of the men and that; “… it became so intense, that whenever one of our cattle or horses would die the men would immediately catch the blood and greedily swallow it down.” This particular desert crossing (from California back to the trapping grounds) also put Jed Smith and his men into similarly trying times.
Good Old Brandy (PG 48) – Sort of a humorous entry at this point. He notes the men enjoy a small portion of brandy, which they drank in a few minutes, “deeply regretting that we had not a small portion of what was that day destroyed by the millions of freemen in the states.”
As you can see, it wasn’t always pretty, but the men did what they needed to do in order to stay alive. The diet not only included an ample amount of wild food, but on occasion he enjoyed some staples of civilization as well. All in all these 27 foods can teach us a good deal about what life was like as a mountain man, and perhaps a good deal about what our diets should look like as well.
I’d love to hear what you think about these mountain man foods, and Zenas Leonard in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article 28 Wild Foods Eaten by Mountain Man Rufus Sage.
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This article is full of great insights about eating in the past.
“You can eat them?” Was the question I got from a curious high school student after learning that I have tried raccoon. At his age, I probably would have had the same reaction. Now that I am sporting a few gray hairs, I find the question pretty silly. “Sure,” I replied. “In fact you can eat about any mammal you’ll find on North America.” He looked unsure about my answer, but later replied with a smile that it “made sense.” The truth is, if he found that a bit unsettling, he would get pretty queasy after reading this article on recipes for 17th century ocean voyages.
The article is a great read for people interested in history, especially living history. A few grad students at Texas A&M have used historical records at their disposal to create some hard tack, salted meat, and beer. Not only that, but they are staying historically accurate enough to get their water untreated from rivers. I’d have to say that although this is accurate, our modern rivers have to be completely different from historic rivers. Still, it is a tip of the hat to those hard core historians doing their best to recreate the past.
The test will take course over several months and give the researchers a chance to test the food’s nutritional value. Not only that, but the team is looking forward to studying the probiotics found in the wood as well.
All in all the article is well worth the read. Hope you enjoy!
I’d love to hear whether you’d try the food in the article or not. Personally, I’d like to give the beer a try!
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article foraging for lambs-quarters may change more than your diet.
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