Thomas J. Elpel
Author, Builder, Survival Instructor, and Conservationist
Wilderness Way Magazine Staff Report. Volume 15, Issue 2
Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (now Outdoor Wilderness Living School) and Green University in Pony, Montana. He has authored six books and produced five videos on topics ranging from wilderness survival and botany to stone masonry, sustainable construction, and green economics.
As a child he had the rare opportunity to spend hundreds of hours with his grandmother, Josie Jewett. Together they explored the hills and meadows near Virginia City, Montana, collecting herbs, looking for arrowheads and watching wildlife. Grandma Josie helped Tom to learn about native plants and their uses, igniting a passion for nature that has inspired him ever since. She also sparked his interest in survival skills.
"All I ever wanted to do as a kid was to go to Grandma's house," Tom said. "When she moved from Virginia City to Pony, I followed her. My wife and I eventually bought land just a couple blocks from her place."
Tom's first serious exposure to wilderness survival skills began at the age of 16, when he went on a 26-day, 250-mile walkabout in the desert canyons of southern Utah with Boulder Outdoor Survival School. The following year he and Grandma Josie went together to Tom Brown's Tracker School in New Jersey. From there Tom spent thousands of hours practicing, developing, and teaching survival skills in his "backyard" in the Rocky Mountains. These experiences led to writing his book Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills, which is currently in its sixth edition. Tom has also produced four DVDs in his Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Video Series.
"I reviewed numerous other wilderness survival videos for our online bookstore," Tom said, "and I found that most were boring to watch or unrealistic, because they were filmed in laboratory settings. That led to the real-world format of the Art of Nothing series. In each video we go out for three days and two nights with little or nothing and film all the skills we use to survive, including shelter, fire, water, and tools, plus plant and animal foods. We put the skills in a real world context, and either we succeed or we get cold and hungry." Viewers enjoy watching the DVDs again and again because there is a human element to the presentation.
Tom met Renee in high school, where they both spent a lot of time in the art room. He asked her to go on a hike with him, and she said "no." But later Tom asked her again to go for a walk, and she said "okay." To Renee there was a big difference between a hike and a walk. Hiking didn't sound like much fun to her, but walking sounded good. In 1988, two years out of high school, they walked 500 miles together across Montana, starting in Pony, and ending at Fort Union on the North Dakota border. "We figured that if we could do this together," Tom said, "then we could do anything together." They were married in the Pony Park the following summer.
Tom and Renee bought a five-acre parcel in Pony, just two blocks distance from Grandma Josie's house. They moved into a tent and started building their passive solar dream home of stone and log. They both worked with troubled teens in wilderness survival programs, so they commuted to Idaho, Utah, or Arizona for three-week trips, then came home to spend their money on building materials. Tom's book Living Homes: Integrated Design and Construction is based on his experiences building super-efficient homes on a shoestring budget.
Tom founded Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (now Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS)) in 1991 and has been giving classes on everything from Stone-Age living skills to stone masonry ever since. His basic philosophy is that the wilderness survival skills are useful to connect with nature, but you shouldn't run away from the problems of modern society. Instead, we need to apply the lessons of living close to nature to the challenge of solving our worldly problems.
"Experts and lay persons alike bemoan the difficulty of creating a sustainable lifestyle, but it really isn't that hard." Tom said. "We had less money and less skills than a lot of people, but we built an energy-efficient passive solar home, and we now generate our electricity with solar panels. Sustainability isn't that difficult, you just have to stay focused on the goal."
Tom aspired to be a writer since high school, a dream that took shape slowly as he published photocopied versions of his early books with comb bindings. His writing career took off with his book Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, which is now used as a textbook in numerous universities and herbal schools across North America, as well as by thousands of individuals. Botany in a Day inspired his first children's book: Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99, which summarizes key concepts for plant identification into a fun fantasy story. The companion Shanleya's Quest Patterns in Plants Card Game is a fun way for kids and adults to practice their plant identification skills.
Tom's publishing company, HOPS Press, developed as an offshoot of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School. Tom launched his website (www.HOPSPress.com) in 1997 and started selling his books and other related titles online. The bookstore quickly outgrew the house, and in 2003 Tom and Renee bought Granny's Country Store in Silver Star, Montana for their book business. With their four children they moved "temporarily" into an apartment attached to the store and now struggle to find the time to get back home to Pony. They ship wilderness survival and house-building books worldwide on a daily basis, and they run the community post office from within their store.
Outdoor Wilderness Living School is presently dedicated to providing Stone Age living skills classes and camping trips to public school groups. In 2004 Tom launched Green University for his adult level classes. Through the Green University internship program, Tom mentors young adults in wilderness survival skills, sustainable living, and green business principles.
Tom believes it is important to immerse participants in the natural world to experience the issues of survival and sustainability at an intimate level. On survival outings interns focus on the essentials of physical and mental well-being, shelter, warmth, clothing, water, and food on a model scale. This survival living leads to discussions about global survival and sustainability. Conversations started in the wilds are continued as interns return home to work on projects such as high-efficiency construction from mostly recycled materials. The Green University program begins with self-sufficiency and looks outward towards global sustainability.
Tom's most recent book, Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit, identifies patterns in worldviews much as Botany in a Day identified patterns among plants. Tom outlines patterns of thought among hunter-gatherer societies, and shows how they differ from patterns of thought among agricultural, industrial, and informational societies. "Our definition of reality is ultimately dictated by the technology of our culture," said Tom. "We think that reality is something on the outside, and all we have to do is define it, yet that definition changes dramatically according to the cultural wiring of our brains. Roadmap to Reality helps sort out the cultural biases to better understand what reality really is."
Tom's pet project is the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. Tom founded the organization to establish public campsites along the Jefferson River segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The group encourages landowners to place conservation easements on their land to preserve open space and the historic quality of the Jefferson River.
Tom's grandmother died in 2004 at the age of 89. Her love for nature continues to inspire Tom every day. Although he is insanely busy, getting out into nature remains a high priority, and he continues to hone his wilderness survival and awareness skills. For information on all of Tom's books, videos, and classes, go to his web portal at www.hollowtop.com.
Go to Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Go to Books and Videos by Thomas J. Elpel
Return to the Primitive Living Skills Page.