For the vast majority of human history, trappers, pilgrims, soldiers, explorers, and settlers across the world were forced to brave the elements and survive for years at a time away from civilization. The skills and lessons they have to teach us about prepping and survival are innumerable, and we have likely forgotten as many valuable lessons as we have retained.
One group of people, famed for their ability to brave the elements and survive against the worst nature could throw at them, were the American frontiersman. Today’s preppers can learn countless lessons by reading the journals and stories of these men who tamed the West.
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In today’s article, I want to touch on a few things that have stood out to me while reading about my fur trapping ancestors. I also want to mention that there are hundreds of little skills (like concealing a fire) that we could glean off of the frontiersman of old, but those would take many books and years to cover completely.
While those skills will be highlighted in some future articles, today’s article focuses more on some general philosophies of frontiersman survival.
Traveling Light and Efficiently
A lot of modern survival gear is well designed with new-age materials that allow them to be more effective, as well as smaller and lighter. At the same time, many of those going out to brave the wilderness these days take more equipment than a frontiersman would’ve needed in a year.
Now, of course, packing light or efficiently isn’t some sacred science lost to time (in USMC Recruit Training, one of the first things you’re taught is how to cram all your gear inside your bag as effectively as possible), but the efficiency of our modern gear and equipment, as well as the shorter duration of our stays out in the wild, mean that our ability to “do more with less” like the fur trappers of old has been diminished.
For example, in 1807, a pioneer was recorded as saying, “I was alone and on foot carrying a pack of thirty pounds…” This was during a journey without known parameters, out for an indefinite amount of time. Today’s average hiker is carrying a pack of around 30 pounds as well (the “optimal” weight by backpackers today is said to be 15 lbs), and the long hike Appalachian trail competitors will be carrying around 22lbs.
These two are pretty comparable in terms of daily needs, but you must also take into account the frontiersman was staying out indefinitely, did not have modern and lightweight materials, and had to bring along self-defense items (as well as extra gunpowder) not included in today’s kits. Almost everything he had would be more cumbersome and more massive and would need to last longer.
While expert backpackers of today can get the weight of their gear extremely low, this was a skillset common amongst our ancestors who knew it could mean the difference between life and death.
Frontiersmen could match us in weight-ratio with much bulkier gear, but it is worth noting that at the same time, they aimed for that same optimal number of pounds. Roughly 30 lbs (for a 150 lb man) max, unless otherwise absolutely necessary.
Herbs and Natural Medications Can Be Very Useful
It’s true that the efficacy of modern medicine, and the vast array of crackpot science around natural remedies, have given many herbal treatments a lousy name. You only need to do a quick Google search to see how pseudoscientists are trying to make money off gullible people, with what they say are the secret medicines of that past.
That said, just like survival gear, some plants and treatments have been found time and again amongst human societies. Some of these plants are so widespread in ancient European, Native American, and Asian cultural medicine that scientists began to investigate them.
Yarrow as an Example
One plant that has been incredibly popular as a herbal remedy throughout history is Achillea Millefolium. Achillea Millefolium is more commonly known as Yarrow and has been referred to by names such as Soldier’s Woundwort due to its use in ancient medical practices.
In fact, even the ‘Achillea’ in Achillea Millefolium is named after the great Achilles and a tale where he used Yarrow to stop the bleeding of his friends’ wounds. Some even speculate that the stories of his invulnerability may be tied to the discovery of the “healing plant.”
Yarrow was used by medieval knights, ancient Greeks, Native Americans, and countless other cultures to create poultices and pack wounds to stop swelling and bleeding and to withdraw infection. 18th-century frontiersmen have also been recorded utilizing the plant for its healing properties.
Some will take it as a tea for internal issues; others will use the powdered dry herb or a fresh herb poultice to stop bleeding, or as a topical cream for burns.
Scientists decided to test this plant to see if it could do what it was claimed it could do. Numerous studies (here’s one, and another) found that the plant really was effective in stopping bleeding and in fighting inflammation, vindicating centuries of traditional remedies. Other studies are still pending.
While you need to look at every treatment on a case by case method, know that there is much to be learned from the ways our ancestors treated and cared for wounds and disease. It wasn’t all dark age leeches and hacksaws.
Yarrow blooms from June to October and is found throughout North America and temperate Europe, Australia, and Asia. How to care for and grow yarrow.
Some Gear Truly is Essential
Something struck me while I was researching this article. I watched this 18th-century kit video, then an Iron Age Viking woodsmen gear video, then this video about 17th century Scots, and finally a video about the traveling gear of Southeast-Asian Monks.
I realized the things they brought were incredibly similar, even more so than I would have assumed at first. It seems the optimal kit was pretty much agreed on a few thousand years ago, and people have just been tweaking it for their unique circumstances each generation.
This coincides perfectly with more recent theories of the “Five C’s of Survival”, or the even more recent “Ten C’s.” These are concepts where multiple experts have gone through and examined the critical necessities of human survival.
The Five Basic C’s of Survival are: Cutting, Combustion, Cordage, Container, Cover.
If you only have room for five items, it is said that these will be the most important for your well-being. These tools are the most difficult to replicate with natural materials, and they can mean the difference between a relative standard of comfort and possible death from exposure.
Over time, these tools were added onto by survivalists, and today we have the modern 10 C’s. The second 5 basics of survival (to make the full 10 C’s) are a cotton bandana, compass, candles, canvas needle, and cargo tape.
The modern 10 C’s:
- Cotton bandana
- Canvas needle
- Cargo tape
So, to amateurishly test the concept, I got a handful of videos about frontiersmen and other adventures through history and what they carried. Of course, they may have missed some items or may have been mistaken about something, and a single video isn’t exactly hard proof. Regardless, it was a fun experiment.
Here is a quick summary of what I found researching EDC trekking gear throughout history:
As you can see, almost every kit covers the 5 C’s, and almost 9 of the 10 C’s pretty well. There are some key exceptions though, that likely stem from the culture (Buddhist Monks often rely on strangers they pass for food rather than carry it themselves) and are uniquely situational.
There are also some little commissions, like the Green Beret not having a bag to store his food… he just put it in with the general pack I believe, so there are a few nuances that throw the chart off.
While I wouldn’t try to pass this chart off for hard science, it gives us a bit of insight into what is truly necessary.
Here are the things that everybody seemed to carry throughout most of human history:
- Weather appropriate clothing w/layer options
- Fire-starting kit
- Cordage and/or sewing kit
- Containers for holding water and food
- Extra cup or small bowl for cooking and storage
- Efficient carrying system (bags or straps)
- Extra furs and blankets
Each of these was either carried by all or was omitted in only a case or two (but I’m led to believe these were accidental omissions rather than anything else).
- Small Axe / Saw tool
- Oilcloth ground covering and/or tent-type structure
- Sharpening Stone
While the modern 10 C’s are a better way to make sure you are covering all of your bases, it’s interesting to see how closely they match up with kits through history. Really, cargo tape, candles, and specifically a cotton bandana are the only items not well covered by past trekkers.
To bring it all back around, we can see that by looking at the gear of a frontiersman (in this case, an 18th-century longhunter), we find complete coverage of the 10 C’s… minus the duct tape for obvious reasons.
3 Frontier Tips You Shouldn’t Leave Home Without
1. You Only Want to Shoot Once When SHTF
Steven Rinella made this point in the past, and though I’m not sure what historical document he pulled it from (he attributed it to Daniel Boone), it makes sense.
Back in the day, when hostile natives shared your hunting grounds, you didn’t want to take a second shot while hunting. A single shot will be heard, but it can be hard to place the direction it came from. The second shot, once hostels are listening, can give away your position much clearer.
2. Cook Wild Meat Thoroughly
Nobody wants worms. Trichinosis can come from eating wild meat that has not been blasted by fire. In the wild (unless you can measure 160 degrees), this means cooking all of your meat until there is no pink left showing.
3. View the Landscape Through Waterways
Most of us who studied topographical maps in the past did so because we were in the military. When I was looking at those maps, I know that the only time I would take notice of rivers or waterways was when they would impede movement or provide a danger zone. For frontiersmen, everything from rivers to creek beds gives away vital information about the surrounding area.
When you are far from civilization, these waterways will still be one of your best methods for orienting yourself and finding people. Small waterways usually flow into bigger ones, and humans tend to live where water flows. If you are hopelessly lost, follow the water.
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