Choosing a Wilderness Program: Wilderness Survival, Traditional, or Primitive Skills

Choosing a Wilderness Program: Wilderness Survival, Traditional, or Primitive Skills

There are many types of wilderness experiences and training available to you. Don't worry, I am not about tell you that you have found the 'right' or the 'best' spot--'look no further.' If you find a site making such claims, may I suggest that you consider looking elsewhere. There is no one program that has it all or is the best for everyone. On this page I have included three types of wilderness skills programs (survival, primitive & traditional) and a table of more generic pursuits. It is my hope to point you in a suitable direction for your interests.

Wilderness Survival, Traditional OR Primitive Living Skills?

As an outdoor skills instructor specializing in primitive skills, and to a lesser extent, traditional and survival skills, I believe it is important to understand the differences in the mentioned areas. The confusion between these areas is evident amongst enthusiasts and businesses alike-as terms are regularly used interchangeably and meanings often overlapped. The theoretical variations between these areas stem from the types of skills and knowledge pursued and their relation to the natural world. Hence, the resulting wilderness experience for the student of any one of these areas will differ. In what follows, I will briefly discuss each of these three areas as I often do for people considering an appropriate outdoor skills program.

Survival skills Wilderness survival skills training show one to use any means available to survive in the wilderness. Survival instructors, not uncommonly, have military backgrounds and are interested in the appropriate methods to keep you alive if stranded in the woods. From this approach, one should expect to receive sound advice on all aspects of being prepared for disaster. For example, emphasis is often given to preventatives like appropriate clothing systems. Other skills you may learn include using flares, snaring animals, making various shelter constructions, using hi-tech devices (e.g., communication devices), as well as some primitive or traditional techniques. Little to no emphasis is placed on the skills as an important aspect or part of the nature experience.

Primitive skills In general, the primitive living skills approach joins ancient knowledge and craft to legend (and/or spiritual connections to the land). Conversely, there are primitive skills sects that prefer to keep the skills completely separate from the spiritual (or legendary) aspects. The Instructors of these programs often are identified through well-known skills lineages of contemporary leaders in the field (e.g., Larry Dean Olsen or Tom Brown Jr.). Interestingly, primitive skills enthusiasts would not necessarily label their skills as being 'survival' oriented-that would be an oxymoron. Their practices of hunter-gatherer like skills were simply living skills in the original context. The skills include various nature-based campcrafts such as bow and drill fire staring, stone and bone tools, nature awareness, knowledge of natural history, lost-proofing techniques, travel systems, shelters, and an intimate knowledge of natural processes. To use my example of clothing from the previous paragraph, brain/smoke-tanned hide and wool is often discussed with respect to its benefits like how silent and camouflaging it is. This type of program is of value to those who want to experience nature on a personal level through the skills that are said to "fit" the nature context

Traditional skills The phrase 'traditional skills' is somewhat all encompassing. However, such programs tend to mimic the Voyageur era, and to a lesser degree any outdoor skills that have been around for fifty or more years. Alternatively, some refer traditional knowledge and skills to the First Nations culture-it depends on the meaning one attaches to the word traditional. In general, the traditional skills enthusiasts (& programs) practice days-gone-by methods of camping like using canvas tents (& trail stove) in summer and winter outings. They would advocate using wooden snowshoes as opposed to synthetic ones. To further expend my previous example of clothing, traditional clothing usually includes the use of wool and perhaps leather and cotton in some contexts. A connection to the land is often seen as somewhat separate from the skills, which are commonly viewed as aesthetically pleasing and superior to modern techniques.

Lastly, I hope is becoming evident to you that the differences between these three areas roughly lay along the skill-sets and time periods they were originally used. In light of these differences and in the notable lack of discernment between them, as seen in various outdoor program literatures, I would suggest one read over a prospective program's philosophy and instructor background. Then, go with your 'gut' feeling-if not inspired at that stage, chances are you will not be when you get there either.

More General Types of Wilderness Experiences

If you are uncertain about the type of wilderness experience that is right for you, consider the information in the following table. While viewing the following table, consider the type of wilderness experience and activity that is of interest to you. Unfortunately, this table merely lists a few examples from hundreds of possibilities.

My little disclaimer:
I know that the following table is not ideal or fully accurate--remember it is an over-simplification. Moreover, there are many ways to frame an activity. For instance, some belief that extreme sports and eco-challenges are spiritual and connect you with nature and a greater force. For some I'm sure it does, there is research suggesting that other activities tend to do the same thing, only in different ways. In this, I by no means am placing a value of one type of activity over another--I enjoy many of the activities listed and practice many of them. With that in mind, forgive me if I placed an activity of yours in a wrong category.

Eco-centric   <------------------------------ --------------------------->  Eco-challenge

Nature
as home
(finding connection)
Nature
as re-juvenation
(inspiration)
Nature
as playground
(recreation)
Nature
as challenge
(self vs. nature/self/others)
Activities
(Connection)

  • Meditation
  • Sensory- awareness
  • Observation
  • Nature-lore
  • Plant i.d.
  • Birding
  • Track study
  • Prayer
  • Saunnas
  • Primitve Skills
  • Artwork
Activities
(Nature based)

  • Canoing
  • Hiking
  • Nature-lore
  • Track study
  • Birding
  • X-country skiing
  • Snowshoeing
  • Camping
  • Artwork
Activities
(Moderate sport)

  • Climbing
  • Mountain biking
  • Downhill skiing
  • Easier whitewater paddling
  • Eco-challenges
Activities
(Extreme Sport)

  • Downhill racing
  • Climbing
  • Whitewater paddling
  • Survival camping
  • Eco-challenges
  • X-country racing
Programs

  • Artist retreats
  • Spiritual retreats
  • Nature meditation
  • Primitve skills
  • Nature-lore
  • Nature Awareness
  • Caretaker
  • & related
Programs

  • Artist retreats
  • Primitive skills
  • Nature-lore
  • Canoe tripping
  • Backpacking
  • & related
Programs

  • Nordic instruction
  • Mountaineering
  • Canoe-tripping
  • Rafting
  • Easy whitewater
  • Downhill skiing
  • Semi-remote adventure trips
  • Splunking
  • & related
Programs

  • Rock climbing
  • Whitewater sports
  • Downhill skiing
  • Remote adventure trips
  • Skydiving
  • Survival skills
  • Splunking
  • & related

For your information, I would rate the programs located on this site and at Alba Wilderness School as being in the Green and Yellow sections of the table and a more primitve and traditional type of program. However, some skills covered are in deed a challenge--not against nature, but in learning about it.

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