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“One of the greatest thrills in wilderness survival,” he says, “is to go camping without a backpack, carrying just what you can fit in your pockets.”
That means sleeping on coal-heated beds, crafting cookware from wood, and making darn sure you can catch fish, small mammals, or lots and lots of bugs (more on that in a bit).
Besides being able to build a debris hut, a quality coal bed is the key to staying warm at night, Elpel says. Making one is as simple as digging a wide, shallow trench, starting a fire (which in Elpel’s case means using a hand drill or the like), and burying the embers after a couple of hours under a layer of sand or soil. You now have a heated bed that will last well into the next day. If we learn to live intimately with the natural world, Elpel says, it will meet all of our needs.
This simple message underlies all of Elpel’s work, and is further expanded upon in his third book, Botany in a Day. Filled with innovative tips for identifying and preparing edible plants, it quickly became his most successful work, and by 1999, he says, book sales were generating around $10,000 per year. When your living expenses are as low as Elpel’s, $10,000 goes a long way. More important, says the no-job advocate, “Now I had an actual writing career.”
Meanwhile, his quest to create a more sustainable world was expanding to the Internet. His homemade website—which he launched in 1997 after spending a day studying HTML code—was growing into a virtual warren of sub-sites and articles. Though he’s an advocate of simple living and primitive skills, Elpel is not anti-technology. “Technologies are neither good nor bad,” he explains pragmatically. “It’s how we use them that makes them that way.”
In that spirit, he began producing an instructional video series titled The Art of Nothing that showcases wilderness skills and shows Elpel and his companions—often one of his three adopted children—heading into the woods for days at a time with nothing but the clothes on their back. The production values aren’t high, and his tendency to over-enunciate takes some getting used to—one YouTube commenter asked why he speaks like English isn’t his native language—but the instructional value and authenticity are undeniable.
Elpel still designs his books and websites. It suits his homegrown DIY style, and why hire someone to do something you can do yourself? But the results, while usually clear and easy to read, are less than polished—hello, Comic Sans—and would give the average graphic designer heart palpitations.
Not that Elpel is worried about how other people do things. By current outdoor standards he does everything wrong when he heads into the backcountry. Wearing non-wicking fabrics, hacking away at nature for food, and scrounging for materials to build hats, packs, cookware and ovens all fly in the face of modern outdoor instruction. And don’t get Elpel started about Leave No Trace.
“What we’ve done is said, ‘you’re not supposed to touch nature,’ like it’s a museum,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “Nature exists as little more than wallpaper in most people’s lives. Kids grow up without ever venturing from the lawn grass. We learn that we negatively impact the world from the moment we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night. But there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us we are part of nature—the bad part! From that perspective, the best we can ever hope to achieve is to be less bad.
“We think we can draw lines on the map and separate ‘wilderness’ from ‘non-wilderness,’ but there is only one wilderness, one ecosystem, and we are part of it,” he continues. “Like the deer eating grass, or the robin bringing materials back to build a nest, we all must use the resources of the earth for survival. But now we have people going to Yellowstone Park and asking, ‘Where do you put the animals at night?’ How can we successfully manage our natural resources if people have no concept of the natural world, or, really, physical reality?”
He suggests the typical modern camping experience is more like being “a tourist in the wilds.” Instead of tiptoeing through nature, Elpel suggests we make our impact a positive one. Consider glacier lilies. Elpel used to carefully replace the soil when harvesting them. But then he watched grizzly bears dig them up and “rototill” the soil in the process, improving the ecosystem for future lilies. Now Elpel does the same. He’s also fond of removing cans and nails from backcountry fire rings and using them as knives and tools for cleaning fish and other camp tasks on his “bring nothing” adventures.
Like many Montanans, he’s a hunter and a fisherman. Unlike most, he eschews guns and tackle, instead creating tools and traps in the field. Primitive techniques require that you learn more about your prey, Elpel says, but there’s a more important point: “Without the aid of modern technology, fishing and hunting is not only an educational experience but often a very humbling one.” Which is, of course, part of his point.
No matter how much he takes with him on his walkabouts, Elpel intentionally never takes enough food. That would take away all the fun. Instead, he gathers cattail roots, rose hips, mushrooms, wild onions, berries, whitebark pine nuts, insects and other edibles. He often hikes with a rock in his hand and, to the dismay of nearby grouse and squirrels, demonstrates deft aim. He’ll cook grouse or squirrel stew with whatever herbs he’s gathered. Grasshoppers, ants and any other insects he can gather in significant quantities make it into his backcountry meals, whether fried or in his flavor-of-the-day stews.
As a general rule, Elpel tries to use resources other people overlook or don’t want. When it comes to fishing, that means focusing on suckers and carp. Both are relatively easy to catch with your hands, which fits perfectly with Elpel’s less-stuff philosophy. Not that he minds eating trout, but when you can reach into a mountain lake or creek and grab a suckerfish, well, that’s what he’s going to do. The same rule of catching what others overlook applies to carp, which Elpel enjoys hunting with bow and arrow. He’s quick to point out that Europeans consider carp a top sport fish, and often serve it for holiday dinners.
“Americans typically disdain carp as unfit for human consumption, much like eating rats or mice,” he writes on his website. “But hey, we eat those, too, so it wasn't difficult to transition into eating carp, and by comparison, I would take a carp over a mouse or a rat any day!”
Whether he’s grabbing fish bare-handed, gathering edible plants or starting a fire without a lighter, Elpel believes the most valuable aspect of primitive skills—getting your hands on nature and working with it to meet your basic needs—is how it connects people with the natural world.