Outdoor survival expert Tom McElroy explains how to make the nature your home by constructing sophisticated and ancient technology.
You're lost in the mountains, surrounded by thick forest. Your phone battery is dead. The afternoon sun is sinking, and the temperature is dropping fast. Most people would panic, then freeze, then dehydrate and starve. Good thing you know how to build tools that help spark fire, build shelter, and catch food. Primitive technology will save your life.
This summer, millions of people will venture into nature. The outdoor industry is massive. According to the trade group Outdoor Industry Association, in the US alone the wilderness industry accounts for 6.1 million jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue, and $39.7 billion in state tax income.
Many nature lovers use connected devices outdoors. For technology lovers in particular the wilderness is an amazing place. Mobile phones provide mapping data, help identify wildlife and plants, and take spectacular photos. Wearable devices like fitness trackers present health data in meaningful ways and encourage users to move and explore the outdoors.
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The Internet of Things (IoT) is also a massive industry, and it's getting bigger. Gartner claims approximately 6.1 billion IoT devices will be used in 2016, up 22 percent from 2015. No doubt millions of these devices will be used in the wilderness. But while some wearable devices can remain powered up for several days on a single charge, most modern gadgets won't survive when exposed to the environments.
Sophisticated yet primitive technology, explained survival expert Tom McElroy, is the key to wilderness survival. McElroy is a naturalist, entrepreneur, and teacher with over two decades of experience studying indigenous culture.
"Being in the wilderness should be like going home," he said. "When I was 15 my greatest desire was to be a hobo and to hop boxcar trains. I was the adventurer and explorer wanna-be. Being young and idealistic, I began to see survival as true freedom. The ability to walk in the woods and to comfortably live off the land became my obsession."
In order to make the wilderness his home, McElroy studied ancient survival methods and learned to use his wits and simple tools to construct sophisticated, life-preserving machines. "I couldn't help but to study the technology and learn survival techniques of the various tribes," McElroy said.
McElroy earned his undergraduate degree in Anthropology from Rutgers University, and a masters in UN Law and International Policy from the University of Connecticut. He's studied with Native American elders and spent time in remote indigenous villages in the Amazon, Peru, Mexico, Mentawais, Sumba Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
To test his survival skills, as a young man McElroy spent a year living alone in the wilderness. "During this time I tested everything I had read about or learned in classes about primitive technology," he said. When he emerged Tom was hired as one of the youngest instructors at world-famous Tom Brown Tracker School.
Today, he runs his own school, called Wild Survival, and has taught everyone from children to scouts to Delta Force members how to build primitive technologies like debris survival shelters, water pumps, friction-based fire thongs, and sophisticated animal traps. "I study and teach traditional technology," McElroy said. "My house is still full of sticks that appear random to most people, but each has a use and a meaning. My shelves are filled with primitive pottery, bows from various trees, arrowheads knapped out of stone, fishing nets and spears, wild-medicinal plants, basket shoots for weaving, piles of acorns, drying edible mushrooms, fire-making materials, and even a few traditional Inuit seal-skin Kayaks hanging from the rafters. There is a slight obsession to this."
What skills and technologies do you teach?
I build shelters, baskets, pottery, fish spears, variations of traps, clothing, bows and arrows, spears, fires, atl-atl's, hunting weapons, water purifiers, knives, primitive kayaks, dugout canoes.
I teach kids and adults. My students range from TV and movie actors to military people, [doomsday] preppers, hunters, nature lovers, and adventurers. Survival bridges a big gap of interest. Classes range from basic survival to more specialized classes that focus on the art of primitive technology. We go into the environment with nothing but a knife and live off the land and specialize in one aspect of primitive technology, such as bow-making. I take students from the raw material to a finished bow that will take down any animal.
We really get into the technology. It becomes clear to the students how much science 'primitive' people really had. I describe a process such as softening deer skin to make leather. First you have to soak the deer hide in a wood ash solution until the lye in the ashes makes the hair fall out. During this process there is always a moment where students ask "How did anyone ever figure all of this out?"
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To learn these skills I've had to hop on planes, travel to other countries and environments, read books, and research obscure anthropological articles. I spend hours on YouTube watching videos of the women in Burkina Faso making pottery just to learn what type of temper they add so that their pottery doesn't crack in super dry environments. The amount of time I spend using modern technology to learn primitive technology is somewhat depressing. But to be a modern survivalist you have to [use modern technology].
What I am trying to do is preserve as many skills as possible so that in any environment I can reach deep into a seemingly limitless bag of tricks and use whatever technology I can to solve the problem in front of me.
How do you use modern social media tools like YouTube and Facebook to communicate classic ideas about nature, survival, and science?
One of my biggest passions is communicating how brilliant indigenous cultures are. For example, their ability to analyze an animal track just from the pressure-releases left in soil is just short of mystical. There is an entire science in this. All of this passed down through an oral tradition.
Today, we have Facebook, Instagram, online courses, and YouTube. I use social media to teach and preserve information, to inspire, to get people thinking, and to get them away from their desks and out into the woods. I understand that sitting by a tree weaving natural baskets is not as brain stimulating as Facebook, but an hour spent in the woods is exponentially more empowering.
You're a naturalist, but also an entrepreneur. Can you explain your approach to business?
A huge number of people are looking for inspiration. For those of us that are dreamers and adventurers, the one thing we have to offer to others is not just the product, but a larger picture or shared vision. Having a clear vision of what I am about, and what my business is about, beyond the product, is key. I don't just want to teach survival, I truly want to impart to people the freedom that being in survival situations brings. If my students get glimmers of that while taking classes, they are going to want to come back and be a part of that vision more and more. This creates a community. This is what keeps people coming back.
What technology do you bring with you while traveling in the wilderness?
When traveling, to help in research, I bring [DSLR] cameras, video equipment, audio recorders, solar battery chargers, and data-dumping devices.
I try to find remote indigenous groups in jungles, islands, and mountain ranges. After collecting stories and listening to rumors, I get online. I go through old photos and track down the photographers to find out where they were, how they got there, and what I might expect when entering a village.
The wilderness is different. The idea behind what I teach is that one can walk into the wilderness with nothing and survive. Once you have shelter, water, fire, and food, you are able to live in the wilderness for a long time.
That said, in order to procure those things you need tools. The most important being a cutting tool. While I can and have been in survival with nothing, if I were permitted two things in the woods for the rest of my life, I would choose a heavy-duty machete and antibiotics.
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The latter often surprises people, but I don't think it should. Advances in medicine are really what changed the course of society. I was recently on a trip filming in Papua New Guinea and almost every single cut would get would get infected, no matter how much we tried to keep it clean. Without anti-bacterial wash and antibiotics I would probably have lost a toe or two. Possibly more.
As far as the knife edge, traditional rock flaked, flint-knapped knives work. But nothing works as well as steel. Stone tools are do-able, but it will always take you ten times as long to get the job done. Having a blade changes everything for the better.
What have you learned about technology from indigenous culture?
Indigenous groups are, at times, bombarded with researchers, anthropologists, and biologists trying to glean insight. It gets old for the villagers. Traveling into villages my bare feet catch indigenous peoples attention in a positive way. They know outsiders never go barefoot.
When I pick up their blow-guns and accurately shoot a target, or rub a hand-drill together to make a fire, they begin to accept that I am not alien. I remember one day going hunting with a group and they surprised a small mammal in the tree that looked like an opossum. They were all throwing sticks at it, high up in the trees. Naturally I grabbed a stick and got very close. They all whooped and laughed, looked at each other and stated that I was "Huaorani-bai," loosely meaning 'one of us.' This recognition that I was similar to them helped me conduct research, become trusted, and get them to open up.
What lessons should technologists learn from nature?
I think technologists should learn that despite our brilliance and technological innovation, there is a trade-off to all of this 'achievement.' Aspects of life like community that are so natural in indigenous societies are severely lacking in modern society.
Modern society has social media to fill the gap of community. Our friends are a thousand miles away. Online, we get a feeling of connectedness through 140 characters. Elders are no longer looked to for wisdom because oral tradition has been replaced by the idea that the past has little to offer.
I want people to see that while technology is stimulating, it is not very empowering.
In some of my classes I ask my students to picture a gorilla or lion at a zoo that was born into captivity. While this lion has no idea that there is much of an outside world, it still circles the inside of the cage, lapping it over and over trying to find a way out. Animals get depressed, even though they have no rational awareness of what their natural environment is. Clearly, their instincts are screaming at them that something is wrong, even if they can't identify what it is. In my opinion, humans have the same instincts.
It sounds strange, but when you sit next to a campfire and weave a basket, or spend all day shaping an obsidian spear point, something feels right, natural and grounded. For technologists, I would say that it's important to honor the instincts we have.
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Note: Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.