When you pull up to Thomas Elpel’s hillside home above the tiny mountain burg of Pony, Mont., you can’t help but notice the deer legs scattered in the driveway. Then you see the solar panels, the roaming chickens, and you notice that the house is made of timber and the same stones that are scattered across the nearby foothills. Stepping inside, you duck past a living-room clothesline draped with drying hides and walk across a tile floor inlaid with animal tracks. As he shows you the elevated greenhouse that pumps his home full of passive solar heat, Elpel, who abhors the very notion of waste, tells you that besides a wood cookstove, his home requires zero energy inputs, and that he built it himself using “abundant resources that nobody else wants.”
When Elpel talks about bringing more back from the landfill than he dumps, or feeding his family with the pigeons that roost on his roof and road-killed animals (letting deer rot is “nuts”), he makes no attempt at humor, though many jokes could be made. Elpel is utterly sincere in what he does. In fact, he believes his practices can change the world.
As a primitive-skills expert, author, entrepreneur and eco-philosopher, Elpel marches to the beat of his own buckskin hand-drum. Though his survival skills equal or exceed those of the more famous survivalists on TV, and though the philosophy behind his practice gives him a depth Bear Grylls and his ilk can only dream of, Elpel flies well below the mainstream radar. He’s the Montana outdoorsman’s version of those groundbreaking rock bands that inspire countless others but are too far ahead of the curve to sell many records themselves.
A deeply thoughtful man, Elpel does what he believes is right—no matter what anyone else thinks. From climate destabilization to mass resource depletion to desertification, he believes the world is heading for trouble. Which is why he has a plan: quit our jobs, abandon Wall Street, and start sending kids into the woods without food, water or shelter. Spend a little time with him and you realize he just might be onto something.
Even as a child Elpel was different. Inspired by the books of tracker and outdoorsman Tom Brown, he spent most of his time practicing wilderness survival skills. He also took frequent walks with his grandmother, Josie Jewett, a descendant of Gallatin Valley homesteaders, who taught him about edible plants and the joys of simple living. At 16, Elpel went on a 26-day, 250-mile primitive-skills walkabout with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, starting fires with sticks and sleeping on beds of buried coals.
“I never really was a teenager myself,” he says, admitting that he had no interest in alcohol, smoking, or the other experiments that tempt most adolescents. “My expectations were different. My teacher talked about how we needed to get good grades to get into college so we could get a good job. I wrote him a note asking why he painted such a dismal picture of the future.”
The only experimenting Elpel wanted to do was in the outdoors. After graduating from high school in Bozeman in 1986, he says, he had one marketable skill: “starting a fire with a bow drill.” That was good enough to land him work in wilderness therapy programs—still the only “job” he’s ever had, all 11 intermittent months of it.
“I’ve never been willing to trade my life for a paycheck,” he says.
He married his high-school girlfriend, Renee, in 1989, and with money from his job and the tanned hides he occasionally sold, bought an inexpensive five-acre property with 60-mile views in Pony, a short walk from his beloved grandmother’s house.
After two years of living in a canvas-walled tent and eating rice and lentils, he built his energy-neutral 2,300-square-foot home from rocks gathered up the road, timber from nearby forests, and plenty of recycled materials. It cost him $23,000. At 25, he had a super-efficient residence with no utility bills or mortgage payments. That’s when he started writing books.
In 1991 he produced his first work—A Field Guide to Money Management—on his home printer. Lamenting the destructive power of an economy built on jobs that devour resources without producing anything of lasting value, he explained one of the pillars of his burgeoning life philosophy: “The greatest job security, is not needing a job at all.”
Around the same time, in his perpetual spirit of “doing things,” he started a primitive-skills school and named it Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School after the highest peak in the Tobacco Root Mountains behind his home. He also started writing for The Montana Pioneer, a then-weekly newspaper published in nearby Livingston. These articles formed the foundation for his next book, A Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills (now titled Participating in Nature.)
“There were plenty of people saying we needed to live with the earth,” he says, “but few were saying how.”
A Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills aimed to do just that. The key, according to Elpel, is to give up “outdoor” technologies that put barriers between us and the natural world and to utilize materials from nature to meet our needs. In his book, and in the informal classes he offers in the field, Elpel demonstrates how to build simple backpacks from willow frames and cattail cordage; how to make fishhooks from bones and animal traps from sticks and rocks; and how to create rainproof sleeping shelters from logs, bark and grass.
On his more luxurious trips into the woods, Elpel carries one of his homemade packs with a wool blanket and some flour and oatmeal. Frequently, though, he hikes with no pack at all.