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Primitive Living Skills FAQ's

      We spend a lot of time answering e-mail questions. Some of them we answer again and again, so this page is the start of a FAQ's column to hopefully provide meaningful answers without having to rewrite them all the time. We'll add much more to this page as we go along. If you e-mail a question to us, please let us know if we can use your letter on the website. Also, be prepared to wait a week or two or sometimes much longer (especially in summer) for a reply as we have a lot of distractions already, and sometimes it is really difficult to keep up with all the e-mails.


How can I pursue a career as a wilderness survival instructor?


      My name is Matt, and I'm doing a career project at my high school. I've always had a fascination with nature, and in the past few years I've been able to improve my skills as an outdoorsman. When I got the career project assignment, I thought that a career as a survival skills instructor might be worth looking into. I was hopeful that you would be able to lend me some information about this career. So, if you're willing, here are my questions:

-what are the jobs and duties of an instructor?
-what is the usual staring salary?
-what kind of training/experience is necessary?
-are there opportunities for advancement?

      Thanx for considering my request.



      Don't expect to make a real income from teaching wilderness survival skills as a paid employee. There are a lot of schools you can work for as a survival skills instructor, but most will pay only a stipend to cover your food, if anything at all. It is a great way to polish your skills and to learn how to teach, but not a great way to make money. To be financially successful in this line of work virtually requires that you take the route of the self-employed and start your own business.

Participating in Nature book cover.       I think you will find that if you take a few wilderness survival classes, then you will be able to start asking around for a place where you can help out as an intern. You can live and breathe the skills every day and gradually start teaching. With experience you will know when you are ready to venture out and start your own school.

      As for the jobs and duties of the instructor, the most important duty is to watch out for the safety of your students. You will also need to provide in some way for their needs (shelter, food, etc.) while they are with you. The job of "teaching" varies from "watch closely, this is how you do it" to the more subtle process of mentoring, where you see where the student is at and give helpful hints to steer them towards the answers they are looking for.

      Also keep in mind that there are many ways to pursue a career in wilderness skills besides teaching classes. For example, I make a living by writing and publishing my books, producing videos, and through e-commerce with our on-line store. I am "teaching" all the time, but I rarely have students in the conventional sense.

      Here in Montana most classes would take place in the summer months, but I would rather spend that time with my kids. So I just offer a class or two in the spring and fall for personal enjoyment. When I make an income for my efforts, than that is just icing on the cake.

      I think that the most important thing is to do what you really enjoy, and then figure out how to make a living at it, and I sense that you have figured that much out already. I wish you great luck and great success on the path to your Dreams!


Thomas J. Elpel

How can I start a wilderness survival school for young children?

Hello friend,

      How can I go about starting my own wilderness survival school for young children. My kids are 3 and 5 yrs old. I'd like to supplement my income by teaching nature skills to low income inner city children of similar ages.

In wellness,



      Starting a wilderness survival school for young children sounds like a great idea. For pre-schoolers like yours, it seems like a nature-focused day care program could be extremely attractive to a lot of parents. Many children never experience anything more real than lawn grass, so a program that introduced kids to nature could be in high demand. In fact, I could see it as being highly successful everywhere, so while you are at it, how about starting a chain of nature day care centers in towns all across the US? (Just in case your kids don't keep you busy enough!)

Participating in Nature book cover.       Realistically, you might start out baby sitting neighborhood children along with your own, and start exploring nature-based activities. Find out what works and what doesn't. Your notes, by the way, could be very valuable to other parents in a similar situation. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to search the web for notes on nature activities for pre-schoolers from other people. At some point, when you are babysitting enough kids, you would have to declare yourself a day care and be subject to some permits and inspections.

      Given how fast kids grow, I would imagine that your kids will both be of school age before you could get a formal nature day care center going. In which case, you need to ask yourself what ages you are trying to reach: only preschoolers? Only kids that are the same age as yours, changing your program as your kids grow up? Only elementary kids? Or kids of all ages?

      In any case, an after school program might be in demand for children of working parents. Our local school even has grant funds available for anyone who wants to offer after school programs.

      Hope these thoughts help. I'm in the process of creating a K - 12 Earth Skills Curriculum Guide for use by teachers, parents, or scouts. Any ideas you have would be greatly appreciated.


Thomas J. Elpel

How do I stop the string from slipping on my bowdrill set?


Participating in Nature book cover.       I recently purchased Participating in Nature and have been busy teaching myself some primitive skills. I have successfully made a bow-drill fire starter and it seems to be functional, although I have a problem that is not mentioned in the troubleshooting section of the book. My cord has lost all of it's friction to the spindle and will not spin it any longer. It just slides over the spindle as I put the bow in motion. I tried to tighten the cord, thinking it might have become loose, but it still did not catch the spindle and put it in motion. It seems that that cord has worn a few notches in the circumference of the spindle and the when the bow is put into motion it automatically slips into one of these notches and offers zero friction. The cord type is a snowboard boot shoelace, and the wood type I beleive is root of aspen (soft). It worked great the first 3 times I used it, then it just died. Any ideas for me would greatly be appriciated.

Best regards,


      Here are a few possibilities:

1) You may be pushing down too hard on the socket, so that the spindle cannot move. Start out easy at first, add downward pressure as you go, but ease up if the string starts to slip.

2) Try lubricating the socket with some type of grease (butter, etc.) so that it will turn easier when you are applying downward pressure.

3) Try tightening the string while it is in motion, as illustrated in the book.

4) Try shaving the sides of the spindle smooth again. Some people even like a many flat-sided spindle, instead of a perfectly round spindle.

      There are probably more options, but that's all I can think of at the moment. Good luck!


Thomas J. Elpel

Can you give me some pointers on freeze-tanning hides?

Participating in Nature book cover.


      Several years ago I purchased Participating in Nature. At that point I filed away the concept of freeze thaw tanning that you folks were experimenting with at the point of printing. Recently a friend dropped off a couple of hides and do to our weather in Alberta in winter I have become interested in learning a little more about your experiments.

      If possible would you be able/willing to pass on some ideas and pointers that may guide me in my attempts.

Thanks so much,



      Thanks for writing. I've successfully freeze-tanned some hides, but haven't done enough to make it into a detailed how-to method yet. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the freeze-tanning technique you can apply before and after braining a hide by otherwise conventional means.

      For example, when the hide has been completely dehaired and thoroughly fleshed so it is ready for the brains, then you can freeze-dry it to help open it up for better brain penetration. Freeze-drying expands the hide from the inside out with ice crystals, so it is more porous to suck the brains in.

      You must avoid hanging the hide in a place where the sun will work on it during the day, as the sunshine can cause the fibers to shrink like rawhide until the brains will not penetrate at all.

      After braining the hide, you can partially freeze-dry it again, to remove much the moisture before you begin your stretching work. First, wring as much water out of the hide as you can. Then hang it out to freeze-dry.

      Bring it in the next morning and thaw it, then work it around a cable for a bit, or hang it and stretch it. You might have to put it in a plastic bag for the day to retain enough moisture so that it doesn't completely dry out. Then freeze-dry it overnight again, but roll up any thin areas so they do not dry out completely.

      Optimally, you want a hide that has just a tiny amount of moisture in it when you start your final stretching. It will probably feel completely dry and stiff on the fence, but bring it in and thaw it out. With a tiny amount of moisture it will thaw and fall limp. Then you can do your final stretching for an hour or so until completely dry, instead of the usual three or four hours.

      I hope this helps!


Thomas J. Elpel

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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