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Survive and advance

Thomas Elpel thrives on nothing but nature



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.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

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.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

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.

“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.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

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.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

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.

“Primitive living reminds us that no matter what technologies we have, we are still an integral component of the ecosystem,” he writes in Participating in Nature, the updated version of his original primitive-skills book. “It’s a model way of life that reveals the basic foundations, the very laws of nature, upon which all of our solutions must be built.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

No solutions will be built, however, if people don’t get out and enjoy extended experiences in natural places. It’s only then that they’ll understand where the animals go at night. That is why in 2004, after watching the riverbanks get increasingly developed and fenced off by landowners, Elpel established the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. In an effort to protect the historically wild experience of paddling this 83-mile tributary of the Missouri as it curls around the Tobacco Roots, Elpel created maps for paddlers and a guide for landowners that encourages conservation easements and development setbacks. Now he’s working to create a series of campsites.

“Historically Montana was a very open place,” Elpel explains. “When I grew up running all over around here, including the Madison and Jefferson rivers, there weren’t ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Now people come here from other places and bring their culture; they think the river is theirs when they buy land along it. But when we put up those ‘No Trespassing’ signs we’re losing something that’s important to the next generation.”

Elpel thinks a lot about future generations. He knows that if they don’t have a connection to the world outdoors, our future is grim. Every year he takes kids from local schools out for overnight primitive-skills camps. “I try to teach them skills they can use,” he says, explaining that the kids learn to start fires without matches, build shelters from found materials, and cook foods they harvest. “It’s a powerful experience for the kids.”

The first overnight trip he took with students, however, was almost too powerful. It was spring 2002, he had a dozen seventh-graders with him, and it rained 1.3 inches during the 24 hours they were out. They had no tents or tarps. “I wondered if our first campout would be our last,” Elpel admits. But they spent the afternoon making wickiups, or debris huts, out of branches, logs and cottonwood bark. Not only did the kids stay dry, but he says they couldn’t wait to come back the next year, when they found their wickiups still standing.

In a report on the experience one student wrote afterward, “I want to go outdoors way more than I did before we went to the campout. I love the outdoors. The food was all very good. I hope we get to stay longer next year.”

The student trips have grown progressively longer over the years as kids and teachers have learned to trust Elpel and his methods. This year the school board gave Elpel permission to keep the kids out for three nights. With his newly christened Outdoor Wilderness Living School, or OWLS, he’s working to extend his reach and host public-school students from across the region, as well as put on summer camps and adventure programs for high-schoolers. For adults, he’s developing Green University, a fledgling program focusing on sustainable living and green business development, which he hopes will “provide a new model for higher education.”

“He’s been amazing at helping me make my dreams come true,” says Katie Russell, 29, who is helping with Green University and who recently launched a business selling buckskin bras and “Wilderbabe” calendars featuring women wearing her line of clothing. “One person can’t change the world, but they can help people make their dreams come true—which might be Tom’s greatest strength.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Kris Reed, 25, applied for Elpel’s informal internship program in 2006 and never left. He’s an integral part of OWLS and says he wants to help people follow their passions and “achieve their dreams without getting a job.”

Elpel has no problem promoting a jobless lifestyle, but Reed seems aware it could be misconstrued. “It’s not an anti-money thing,” he clarifies. “It’s just about freedom.”

“A lot of people that come here don’t like the way our culture treats other people and the planet,” he says. “But they need to eat and make a living, so they get a job and feel trapped. I’d like to help them see they don’t have to.”

Meanwhile Elpel, the mountain-man philosopher, has become something of an elder statesman in the sustainability movement. He gives keynote speeches at environmental conferences on “The Coming Age of Self-Sufficiency.” People are using his books to build their homes and reshape their careers. Others are posting videos on YouTube about how “my whole perspective on life changed” after reading his work.

The curve seems to be catching up with Elpel. He says his writing and publishing business brought in over $100,000 last year. Not that he really needed the money, though it did allow him to purchase 21 acres of riverfront land for OWLS and his outdoor-education work.

But his lifestyle hasn’t changed, and no amount of money will change it. As he’s quick to point out, “The only problem with money is that people get caught up in the illusion that it is real wealth.”

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