“All we need is a fish or a rat or two and we’ll be good,” Bryan says.
I’m hoping for a fish because there’s still rat in my teeth. Well, deer mouse actually—the kind that carries hantavirus and bubonic plague in the Southwest, which is where we are, in a remote canyon off the filmy-green Pecos River on the border of Texas and Mexico. The water is chalky from gypsum deposits and tough to drink, especially when it warms up in the intense spring sun. But the river is supposedly lousy with perch, bass, catfish, and alligator gar—and therefore a good place to basecamp if you didn’t bring any food with you. In theory. But we haven’t caught a fish in two days, and this morning the lines we’d strung across a little inlet are still empty.
Next, we check our Paiute snares (think of the balancing stick-and-rock traps Wile E. Coyote uses). We’ve got a dozen baited with fish guts and scattered across half a mile of canyon, ending at the thick barrier of thorny honey mesquite and ankle-slashing prickly pear cactus that guards the exit to the rim beyond. It’s rough going, and the first few are empty. But then, jackpot: We find a mouse, no bigger than a credit card, stretched and flattened into two dimensions by a microwave-size stone.
My stomach mumbles and swims. I’m used to the taste of rodent by now. When charred properly (meaning: totally), it tastes sort of like tough chicken on toothpick drummettes—only with a sweet, gamey tang that can strike you as either exotic or worrying, depending on the smelt of your gastric ore. Five or six mice in, I’m no longer squeamish about cleaning them. My companion and best friend Bryan Pope taught me how, and he assured me all mammals are pretty much the same on the inside.
But the second one I ate was a cautionary tale I won’t soon forget. Its guts had exploded on impact under the Paiute snare, marinating the meat in feces overnight. A ragged streamside cleaning and several rounds of charring to remove any parasites could not change a simple fact: It tasted like shit.
As I peel our latest catch off the rock, I can’t help but curse myself under my mouse breath. After all, we could be feasting on rehydrated lasagna that would beat the Olive Garden. But we chose to leave modern backpacking behind.
Bryan is obsessed with unlocking traditional, primitive outdoor living skills and honing them to perfection. He shot his first deer at age five and has a lifetime of hunting, fishing, and guiding experience. I’m along to test myself. I’ve always been captivated by the allure of living wild, but could I really do it? I’ve dabbled in survival training for years, concentrating on the short-term, butt-saving stuff backpackers need to last a few hours or days while awaiting rescue. But what if rescue never comes? Could I survive in the wilderness? Could I thrive there?
Only one way to find out. I guess I’m eating another damn rat.
For better or worse, the wilderness survival lifestyle is alluring to a certain subset of people. The post-9/11 apocalyptic panic that fueled an explosion in TV shows like Survivor and Man vs. Wild has now fully settled into a cultural mainstay. Preppers, hippies, tech bros: Adherents of all persuasions have found reason to immerse themselves in survivalist lore—or at least the entertainment that allows one to imagine how she or he would fare when it all goes to hell. (Backpackers, one likes to think, will have an advantage.)
Bryan is one of the thousands of Americans who have followed curiosity into actual training at the handful of schools across the country that specialize in the growing field. After an intensive, nine-month course at Earth Native Wilderness School in Bastrop, Texas, he quickly joined as an instructor. This doesn’t surprise me: For years, I’ve been getting texts about his backyard bird traps and his daily habit of practicing friction fires. But it isn’t because he harbors any paranoia about the grid going down.
“When you’re out in nature engaging with it in this primitive, raw way, you’re lifting up the veil of all these layers we’ve imposed on ourselves with civilization,” he says. “All of that disappears when you’re out in the middle of nowhere trying to catch rats because you haven’t eaten in days.”
Bryan will punch me for saying this, but he looks the part of master survivalist. A self-described “tiny person,” he seems made of piano wire. His body is one taut muscle that gives him the disproportional strength of an army ant. He often sports an unruly beard and a crown of wild blonde curls. Chunky, fireproof knuckles hint at his lifelong pursuit of carpentry and his day job teaching high school wood shop. Horn-rimmed glasses betray his two masters degrees. But you’d never suspect the too-vulgar-for-print sense of humor he and I share.
We needed that humor for our first attempt at hunter-gatherer living, about a year before our foray on the Pecos River. We knew that heightened stakes—no food, no shelter, minimal gear—would sharpen the experience, so we packed only cords and a fishing kit, knives, and clothing. (Some hardcore survivalists will say even this setup was cheating, but it’s best to practice before going naked into the woods.)
We selected a spot in Washington’s Cascades, an overgrown trail to nowhere that promised abundant berries and fish. Heck, we’d probably gain weight. And if not? Humans can survive for weeks without food. Though anyone who has skipped a lunch knows that discomfort can feel like desperation pretty quickly—a sensation that amplifies over time, especially when you’re constantly heaving aside logs and wading across icy creeks in search of fish.
“It hardly rains in the Pacific Northwest in the summer,” I said on the way to the trailhead. “That’s what’s so great about living here. We might not even need a shelter. Get ready for some stars.”
Naturally, we hiked up a willow-choked trail in between bursts of rain. Then we toiled for four hours building a simple lean-to out of dead wood and fallen boughs. But we still needed a fire. We split log after log, carving damp feathersticks and whittling for something, anything dry. When we’d air-dried enough meager cedar shavings, the hard work began. In Bryan’s Texas home, working with familiar, sun-baked materials, he could conjure fire with a bow drill in 15 minutes flat. Here, the veins in his forearms bulged, he panted, and got zilch.
There was nothing funny about facing the prospect of a forced retreat on day one because we couldn’t even start a fire. We started working together, with a two-man bow drill: He tugged on the cord that wrapped around the spindle, and I applied pressure from above with a stone. He shouted directions—harder; no, softer; wait, more pressure—until the sweat dripping off our noses threatened to douse any coal. As we got weaker, the spindle would flip out of place and clatter into the dirt. I would’ve drowned a puppy in the nearby stream for a lighter.
Finally, after another hour, a thimble-size pile of wood powder that looked like coffee grounds began to smoke and smell like burnt popcorn. A coal winked orange. We babied it for another hour, feeding it with thin strips and shavings and drying others nearby until our precious coal transformed into a votive candle. By nightfall we’d built a small blaze. We vowed never to let it go out, sleeping in uncomfortable two-hour shifts on our prickly fir sleeping pads.
That was our last success, such as it was. We found huckleberries nearby, but they weren’t enough to fill our empty bellies. The glassy river never yielded any fish. Bryan, who was used to throwing a hot dog into a muddy river and pulling out a lunker catfish, swore at the elusive trout and salmon. Mammals were out of season, so on day four we struggled up a steep mountain in search of frogs. A big leopard frog easily dodged my awkward stick strike. A yearling bear rustled in a berry patch and seemed to look at us with pity before ambling off.
Our predicament was clear: If we stayed out much longer, our practice run would turn into a real survival situation. We had to cut the trip short so we’d have enough juice to hike out. If we had been real hunter-gatherers, archaeologists would someday marvel at our shelter and wonder how such gifted primitive architects could have starved so easily.
I have no illusions about the large gap that exists between me and primitive-skills badassery. After that inauspicious outing in the Cascades, I learned that I’d located our campsite above a 20-foot pour-off past which no fish could swim.
But as my intermittent “survival forays” with Bryan have progressed, I’ve found that these experiences have enriched my life as a backpacker. The feeling seems to intensify the deeper we go, as we trade the surety of food or shelter for painful lessons in procuring them from nature. Every expert on the subject emphasizes the need to reject panic in a true survival situation—but you can’t really know how you’d fare unless you’ve voluntarily pushed through hunger and cold and found yourself on the other side. Mastering these skills both insulates you from fear, and from being in a survival situation at all. Accidents can happen, but if you know how to stay warm, make fire, make shelter, find food, and find water, the anxiety that can come with wilderness mishaps fades. There’s a deep calm that emerges when you tiptoe up to the abyss and peek over the edge without falling in. It’s intoxicating.
Nate Summers knows that better than most. A former educational director at Wilderness Aware School in Washington, he’s advised me on several survival stories for this magazine, and specializes in foraging for wild foods and medicine. He sees his most dedicated students go through a kind of euphoria when they discover the joys of mastering primitive skills. But then they go through acute withdrawal when they realize that the world lacks the abundance or structure to actually support this freer way of being.
“It removes these blinders—you’re awakening people to this whole world that’s around them that’s beautiful and nourishing, but it can be very hard for them to figure out next steps after that,” he says. “You need to be able to walk in two worlds. We aren’t all going to go back to being hunter-gatherers—the Earth can’t support it. So how do we use this knowledge to make better lives and better choices?”
Sheina Lew-Levy is a former student of Summers who walks in two worlds like few others. Unsatisfied with the vague teachings she encountered among Western survival gurus spouting primitive wisdom, she followed her curiosity into an academic career researching contemporary African hunter-gatherer cultures for the University of Cambridge. For much of the last two years, the PhD candidate lived with the BaYaka people, in the rainforests of Northern Congo.
“I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t come here with romantic notions about what I thought it might be like to live with hunter-gatherers, but it turns out they’re just like us,” she says. “The men get jealous when their wives flirt with others. They drink. They get sick.” But that’s not to say they don’t have advantages when it comes to survival. “If you asked me what advice I’d give to any survivalist,” Lew-Levy says, “it’s get strong. Ten-year-olds have eight-packs—they’re ripped from climbing 20-foot vines to cut fruit. The men have the fat content of Olympic athletes; they climb trees and then chill for the rest of the day. The women are working all day digging—they have more fat, but much thicker muscles from repeated movement.”
I’m not quite sure my body is in vine-climbing shape, but after half a dozen expeditions into the woods with a knife, Bryan, and nothing else, I’m curious. I wonder why primitive activities intrigue even casual hikers. Why do some of us find practicing these skills so fulfilling?
A new wave of historians, anthropologists, and political scientists are bent on finding answers. In Yale professor James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, he challenges the assumption that civilization as we know it was ever a good idea in the first place. He writes: “[For] 95 percent of the human experience, we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian hunting-and-gathering bands. It is simply assumed that weary Homo sapiens couldn’t wait to settle down, could not wait to end hundreds of millennia of mobility and seasonal movement. There is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a barbarian—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life, at least for nonelites, inside civilization.”
Scott’s view sounds radical, but he’s not alone in being skeptical about our brick-and-concrete lifestyles. This doubt informs broader movements like nature bathing, wilderness therapy, and Paleo diets. And surely backpackers aren’t heading into the wild and enduring its privations just for the view.
According to Scott, we feel the wild in our guts. He examined historical data to reverse the assumption that agriculture gave rise to complex societies. It turns out that working wild crops predates the first societies in Mesopotamia by 4,000 years. Hunter-gatherers used tools like fire to improve yields of acorn and to bring wild game to the open spaces that burns created. They encouraged and expanded plots of wild tubers like potato or taro. Scott argues that civilization as we know it only arose to move hunter-gatherers into a workforce that could support a class of elites. And these 1 percenters used grain—an easily countable, taxable, above-ground monocrop—to do it. What was once a small portion of our diet soon dominated it.
“Mesopotamia was this incredibly varied wetland paradise in which there were shellfish, fish, and turtles, and since it dried out part of the year, grasses and wild figs. You could graze goats and sheep, there were gazelle migrations,” Scott says. “Why would anyone in their right mind want to plow a field when there was this amount of abundance?”
Early civilization did not go well. The first people pressed into labor in an agricultural society were shorter, malnourished, and riddled with disease as compared to their wilder contemporaries, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari. He writes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “The body of Homo sapiens . . . was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks, and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias.”
Even worse, the supposed abundance of farming made us dumber. Forget the clichés about the thick-browed caveman: There’s strong evidence that starting fires, building shelter, and tracking many varieties of food in shifting environments required more mental juggling than pushing paper around an office and setting the mortgage to autopay. Evolutionarily speaking, drilling down on survival skills when you hike makes you smarter.
Thankfully, we are genetically identical to our forebears. Our minds and senses are trained to seek out the diverse menu found in field, stream, and mountain. Prehistoric abundance no longer exists, but the desire remains. It just takes a small leap of faith to leave the food and shelter behind and go looking for Paleo enlightenment.
After our failed trip in the Cascades, Bryan and I went searching for it in the opposite environment: the desert.
We learned a lot on our first try. Bryan’s big takeaway: increase our chances of success by moving us to his turf. Which is how we ended up in southern Texas. Our packing list was much the same as on the Cascades trip: modern clothes, fishing gear, and cutting implements, plus some very meager emergency backup food (a pack of bouillon cubes and a few cups of rice porridge totaling a few hundred calories to split between us). Bryan also brought a couple pinches of spices in case we had to eat something rotten or extra gamey.
As a Northwest scenery snob, I was worried we’d be stuck in a drab wasteland. Bryan doesn’t care about views—he cares about the carp, catfish, nutria, raccoons, ringtails, and possums we might catch. But after two hours of hard paddling up the Pecos River, we found a secluded inlet to a magnificent side canyon. Gray and white limestone walls 200 feet tall bordered the mouth. Here, the Pecos carved into the sun-blasted flatlands to reveal alcoves of bone-white rock streaked with black. Out of sight on the rim, we could hear wild goats screaming.
Then we discovered built-in shelter: a cave at the base of the western cliffs, where a wide half-moon shelf ran about 60 feet long and 10 feet deep. Bryan took to this friendly terrain immediately, weaving a sleeping mat out of jute and giant reeds. He then found a yucca stalk and carved it into a bow-drill spindle while I cut a new notch into a cottonwood fireboard; he explained that yucca has a very low ignition point, and it was smoking almost before he was done explaining. We used reflecting rocks so the heat from our easy-peasy friction fire bounced off them, over us, to the back wall of the cave and back over us again. We were nearly roasting as I looked up at the yellow limestone roof 7 feet above our heads. I fell asleep counting fossils—crinoids, bivalves, and tunicates from a long-gone Permian sea.
After our first two days, we were well ahead of our Cascade attempt. We foraged cactus pads and turned them into a viscous soup. Their red flowers provided semi-sweet bursts of moisture, refreshing in the afternoon oven of the Texas desert. We needed bait for our fishing lines, so we tried to smack the saggy collared lizards that came out to bask on sun-warmed rocks. I finally brained one, and felt terrible about it. But that lizard became two catfish on our trotlines—a 16-inch flathead and 20-inch channel cat. We filleted them, added salt, pepper, and a precious pinch of Tony Chachere’s, and soon had the fish sizzling on a hot rock. It was crisp and delicious, and we made soup out of the carcass and head.
The next day went by with no fish, but we caught a mess of mice, so I learned how to dress a tiny animal and get over my rodent-induced gag reflex. We saved the guts as bait, sure that they’d pave the way to future catfish feasts.
And we relaxed. One fixture of the successful hunter-gatherer lifestyle that often goes unmentioned: There’s a lot of creative downtime.
Harari has studied hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats—such as the Kalahari Desert in Africa. “They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily,” he writes. “In normal times, this is enough to feed the band.”
This feels right. Why work harder than necessary? When focused bouts of sweaty effort directly result in a full belly, it generates an effervescent high that’s hard to beat. Food—even mouse meat—tastes better. Jokes are funnier. Stories around the fire become myths. The Paleolithic world never went anywhere; society just covered it in thin soil. After getting a peek at it, Bryan and I are a tribe of two, united in success.
We’re also united in failure. After that final fish feast, we pass another four days without much luck, and worse still, we don’t know why. Have we overfished our little inlet? Are the catfish and carp simply tired of mouse guts? The Ancestral Puebloans who lived here year-round would’ve known the cycles of food sources, where to try next. There’s an entire culture of survival they would’ve passed on for generations that’s lost to latter-day pretenders like us. Maybe it’s lost to history.
Even the experts confront this reality. On two separate occasions, Lew-Levy, the Congo researcher, spent a month in the North American wilderness using only stone tools, making clothes, and foraging for food. She hit hard walls both times: The first time friends had to bail her out with an emergency supply of rice, and the second she barely squeaked by with supplemental mice (which makes me feel better).
“I just thought, ‘I’m so bad at this.’ But then I came to the Congo, and in this rainforest it’s so easy to find food,” she says. “There’s crazy abundance. They have so many seasons. They just ended honey season, when they make mead. Pretty soon, we’re going to be eating caterpillars that just fall out of the trees. The Congo Basin is one of the few places in the world where there is more foraging than any other subsistence strategy.”
But here in Texas, Bryan and I are left trying to learn these complexities on our own—or learn the hungry way that they no longer exist. The skills of the hunter-gatherer were built through trial and error, which means there was plenty of failure preceding success. The ones who survived lived to tell the cautionary tale, and right now it feels like they’d tell one about us.
We check the trotlines: empty. We check the snares: empty. We decide to scramble up the limestone ledges to see if hunting is good on the plateau. It isn’t. The terrain is open and covered with agave and cactus spines; we couldn’t sneak up on a blind turtle. (Which sounds delicious.)
Starving slowly doesn’t feel quite the way I thought it might. After gagging my way through that final mouse—our only protein in four days—my hunger subsides. My stomach grumbles and wheezes but can’t connect with my throat or brain. I don’t feel hungry. Just thick-headed. Drunk. All I want to do is sleep. We can’t keep down the alkaline, slimy cactus soup, even when it’s spiked with our last bouillon. It’s not enough calories, anyway. We might last for a few weeks without food, sure, but with a windstorm blowing whitecaps upstream, we might not be strong enough to paddle out.
In his book Sapiens, Harari concludes that what makes humans dominant over the Earth is a cognitive revolution—specifically, a shared delusion that we are more than we actually are. We told stories around the fire that gave rise to gods, money, civilization. Tonight, around glowing coals, Bryan and I tell each other a story as old as the rest: that we’re survivors.
Our strategy the next day is to first rest in the shade. We sleep through the daylight hours and awake to a full moon. In the blue-white light, the walls of our hidden canyon look like row after row of chiseled faces. It’s so bright we can hunt at night, so we push deep into the thick spines and boulders that block the very back of the canyon—the only place we haven’t searched yet.
Whether it’s adrenaline or desperation, we both feel a surge of power. Our saggy muscles and lead legs go spring-like, and I feel like I have the ears of a fox. I hear every scrape of sand underfoot and adjust my gait to limit the noise. I chart a course through the maze of prickles and clamber over boulders while Bryan scans the slopes for movement. At the back of a rocky draw, Bryan catches yellow eyes across the canyon that seem to come toward us. I feel like I can see a huge, cat-like shape bounding down the rocks, but it turns and vanishes.
Finally, while we’re both crouched atop a van-size boulder, we see a patch of grey and white fur wriggling in a juniper. We sneak closer. It’s impossible to tell what it is. It could be a peccary, or a raccoon. Maybe an exceptionally large rat.
It doesn’t matter. We’ve been reduced to a primal state that feels simultaneously foreign and natural. We’ve reached a human condition most humans today won’t recognize. It makes me realize that the hunter-gatherer in us all is not very deep below the surface. And if you really want to survive in the wild, sometimes you’re going to have to eat the rat.
Follow the Rules, Neanderthals
As liberating as it might seem to release your inner Cro-Magnon, be sure to practice survivalism with LNT guidelines in mind. Rules for state and federal lands vary widely, and most national parks and forests are off-limits for anything but fishing and some plant foraging. For this story, we stuck to gathering deadfall and building fires in low-elevation, permitted areas. We harvested in-season or any-season rodents and fished with appropriate licenses. When in doubt, check with local officials.
Northwest Field Editor Ted Alvarez is the same as all mammals on the inside.