Tools and Skills

Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

Tools and skills should be interchangeable. If one has a skill, one can make tools and if one has tools, they probably have the skills to use them. In a survival situation, having skills generally increases your ability to stay alive, warm, dry and fed. Self reliant individuals use skills and tools to increase their independence.

If one can make string, one can catch food either by snares, traps, fishnets, fish traps, bird nets utilizing the skill of cordage making. String will tie a lean-to, wigwam or long house together and allow a person to make outer coverings for these types of structures. Cattails and other plant/tree materials can be tied together on a single strand using double half hitch knots, loose weaving techniques and other knot work will allow many uncommon materials including saplings, conifer branches and grasses to help provide wind breaks and weather protection. Additionally, the ability to make string allows individuals to create fire using the fire bow method.

Firebows are difficult to learn how to master. There is a lot to know about the platform, kindling and which rotten/soft wood to use plus the added problem of the primary stick. The speed of rotation and pressure on the primary rod is also something that requires practice. Once you master this skill it is like riding a bike. You will never forget.

Primitive hunting bows were something I used often as a kid. I’d grab the first green branch I saw, twist up some string and head off into the woods. While not perfect from an artistic or modern weapon they worked just fine for me. Feeding a small hoard of people would not have been possible nor would that type of bow take down anything larger than a small bird or rabbit.

Primitive skills can provide an edge that others may not have. It is important to remember that, regardless of what it is you do for yourself, it is an accomplishment.

Once you have fire you are in a position to greatly improve your situation. Fire can be used to hollow out cut logs to create buckets. (Eight ply cord can be fashioned to use as a handle.) This method also makes bowls, spoons and other necessary items. Fire can be used to harden clay which is also a plus, especially if you have an abundance of something you want to keep clean and dry. Fire can also be used to keep warm, purify water, cook and to improve or disprove an area.

Primitive tools can be found anywhere and may be made of anything. Picking up a section of pipe could be considered a primitive tool. With that piece of pipe, I could hammer something into the ground, pry something loose, dig a bit in the dirt and defend myself if necessary. I always laugh at the signs that say “Weapons are not permitted inside this building.” There are many people who can use a regular number 2 pencil as a lethal weapon. Does that sign mean all pencils should be left outside? It is a matter of perspective. When you learn to see things with different eyes regular objects become a variety of other things. An empty bleach bottle with the lid on cut properly becomes a feed scoop, cut a different way without the top it becomes something else, a seed starting pot for example. Intact (no holes with its lid) wired to a chain and hook it becomes a turtle line. The lid of a food can is capable of fleshing a hide, cutting a wide variety of things; plants, string, small saplings fish and meat for example. Many lids could be used to create a fire-back (reflective metal surface used to reflect heat from a fire back towards the open area), external water resistant siding etc.

Water has and can be used as a tool. It can move objects that are extremely heavy, fertilize and irrigate fields, cut through dirt if properly routed, and remove trees from a field for cultivation. It an also be used to polish objects, although that takes quite a while. It can be used to leach plant tannins from nuts and some roots plus, with some engineering, it is used in many industrial applications. (Turning a grist stone, loom, water wheel etc.)

In my opinion, the ability to make string from plant/tree fibers should be the first skill to learn as it provides so many benefits. Finding alternative water sources should be number two. There are many ways to find water other than locating a creek, river, pond or lake. Knowing how to make a shelter that is capable of retaining heat, provides a break from weather which is imperative regardless of the situation. Personal defense is another. It is difficult for me to rank primitive survival skills as they are all connected to each other. String provides shelter, safe water, protection from the elements, and tools, which are all equally important.

String: There are more fibrous plants than I have time to share, and there are many that go unnoticed. Milkweed is not often considered a fiber plant but it is. Cedar bark is not strong but it is available in large quantities and is easily gathered. Grape provides a nice fiber but like Milkweed it’s not strong. Once you’ve mastered string making, knot tying is important. Double half hitch, bowline and fisherman’s knots are some of the more important ones to master for a primitive world.

Fire: There are times and places for magnesium fire starters however one should not depend on them for every fire they need to start. Firebows are hard to learn how to use however mastering this method means if you can make string or wear some type of lace up footwear you will always be capable of making a fire. My personal fire starting favorite is flint and steel. With this type of fire starting material, I can make a fire as fast as a person with a match or lighter. Charcloth will allow a person to use a fuel-less lighter to make a fire just as fast as with flint and steel. Magnifying glasses are great as long as the sun is shining and provide a secondary use in creating art and decorations on wood, gourds and leather. Unfortunately magnifying glasses are limited in use. (Note: Plastic magnifying glasses lack the prisms to effectively start fires.)

Water: If you know your geographic area, locating a creek or river won’t be hard. Knowing what trees and plants indicate a good ground water location can prove very important. Sycamore, Old Men of the Forest as I call them, are excellent indicators of underground water. Marsh type plants including some species of wild grapes and Jewelweed also indicate underground water. If you are walking in a field and notice a darker green patch of foliage the odds of a sink hole where water usually pools, a crevice leading to an underground cave where water pools or a spring is likely. Avoid using black water pools found in deep woods as they are a location where the local wildlife go to get rid of external parasites and they are a haven for snapping turtles. The tannin from the decaying leaves causes the water in the pool to turn dark. The darker the fluid the longer it’s been there increasing the chance of infestation of amoebic life, parasites and exposure to dangerous predators.

Shelter: Shelters can be constructed of almost anything and the length of time they will be used should be a factor in material choice. Making an air tight structure in the middle of the summer is not prudent nor is a shelter that has open ends appropriate for the winter. Saplings can be bent easily and are often used in the making of lean-to shelters, wigwams, and long houses for temporary use. Long houses that will be used for more than one season should have strong supports made from wood like locust, cedar or oak. Cattails, Yucca, Johnson Grass and Willow branches are easily tied together to form mats that can cover a lean-to, wigwam or long house. Thatch, hide, or clay would be preferred in the winter to help insulate and retain heat.

There are lots of things that can be used in a pinch to aid in survival. Some of my favorite take alongs are plastic sheeting, duct tape, staple gun/staples, electrical tape, and garbage bags. With plastic sheeting, I can rain proof the top of a wigwam, using cattail mats for the sides for heat relief; with duct tape I can assemble a wigwam in minutes instead of hours; electrical tape can double for string in a pinch and garbage bags give me something to fill up to add additional insulation when necessary as well as improve the use of passive solar heat for the structure.

Modern tools have their place and many have multiple uses. More on that later.

Water, Water Everywhere!

Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

Water, Water everywhere and nary a drop to drink!

Penned by Samuel T. Coleridge in his work “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” this holds true for us about this time every year. Sometimes there isn’t a drop of water to be found anywhere! Creeks dry up, ponds stagnate and springs disappear. The only source of water to be found is deep inside the local cave system. Going deep into a cave during a heat wave and drought has its own problems. Carbon dioxide in deadly high levels is common. It is safer to avoid death by asphyxiation than to risk it for a few gallons of water.

Water is one of the must have items for both people and livestock. The lack of water will cause animals and birds to migrate to locations where water can be found. Three summers in a row we’ve had cougars move into the neighborhood. The first time it happened people thought we were crazy. The photos of scat, tracks, and recordings of her calls were dubbed bogus. Once she went into heat, however, the jibs stopped as nothing on earth is as unnerving as a cougar in heat.

The next year, when livestock were being pulled over stall gates followed by an absence of the turkeys and rabbits population, they were not so vocal in their name calling. Last year, one of the neighbors snapped a photo of one or two on his cell phone. He brought the picture to us and sent it to the Department of Natural Resources. I told him it was most likely a year old juvenile male, about three feet in body length, around 200-225 pounds that crossed the field 20 feet in front of his truck that morning. After four months, the same DNR who refused to confirm or deny the existence of cougars in our county did agree with my size, gender and weight. We were exonerated from the “Looney Neighbor Club.”

Not having water is tough, having to deal with a large predatory animal who is looking for water and hunting is more difficult. We have springs all around us that luckily are not contaminated. When the rains disappear we can haul water back. It’s a lot of work since it’s almost a ¼ mile round trip to the closest one and the trip back means hauling serious weight. (Remember that a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pound plus the weight of the container.) Of course the walk back is uphill.

A spring house is a structure built over a seep or spring that houses a large round tile. Digging down a few feet the drainage tile is placed vertical into the ground allowing the seeps/spring water to pool inside. Dipping from the pooled water allows a person to gather clear, clean water without the mud and muck that would be included when dipping from a naturally occurring spring or seep. All of the people around us have at some point in their lives drawn water from our spring house. One walked down and back twice a day (over a mile each time) as a child with two quart buckets. Another drew gallons from it to use for cooking, bathing and cleaning. For most of our neighbors, the walk was over a mile one way. The creek was deemed unsafe due to livestock run off as everyone back then had lots of livestock grazing in what are now hay-fields.

We have small ponds and a few creeks that can be used for livestock during a rainless period. Unfortunately if it doesn’t rain for more than two weeks water has to be hauled, pumped, or carried in for them. If creek water has to be used for human consumption it has to be purified. Instead of a table top purifier we use more primitive methods. Creek water is strained through cloth to remove the larger pieces of debris then boiled to kill off any microbial or protozoan life forms. Sometimes due to the algae content I’ll add a ¼ teaspoon of bleach per gallon, allowing it to sit for an hour before I boil it. I also add 10 drops to every gallon of water I plan to store for the livestock for any length of time. Algae is an ever present danger for rain collected water.

Rain barrels are great if it rains. A bit harder to maintain during 90 plus degree weather but 300 plus gallons of water does not go as far as one might think. Calculating your water needs is relatively easy unless you water your garden, livestock and do things like wash your car. During an emergency, city or county water may not be available plus it may not be safe to drink once it does comes back on. Storing a few hundred gallons of water takes a lot of space. Space that not everyone might have.

People need at least one gallon of potable drinking water daily. That gallon of water does not include flushing a toilet, bathing or watering livestock or pets. The best way to determine your daily water needs is to keep track of the gallons of water you use daily. Around here the livestock and pets use a bit over 10 gallons per day. On average, including two gallons for human consumption, two for the toilet plus two more for bathing (washing my hair not included) plus washing the dishes, the space to store 16 gallons of water in a single layer is about four square feet. One rain barrel is a little over three days of limited consumption and that’s not including watering any garden plants.

The lack of water can be and is deadly. There are many plants that can provide small amounts of moisture even in a drought situation. Grape, thistle and prickly pear cactus are three that come to mind. A grape vine the thickness of your finger will slowly drip about ¼ of a cup of drinkable sap once cut. The upper part of the vine that is cut will die but it may be enough to quench your thirst. Thistles have a large quantity of drinkable sap in their stems. It is bitter and hard to get to due to the bristly outer covering but it is safe to drink. Prickly Pear cactus is also bitter but has more water content than either grape or thistle. Prickly Pears are hardy souls growing in more northern locations than people realize. We were shocked when we moved here to find that not only do these cactus grow here but thrive in many locations. It is not uncommon to find dump sites where people dig them up by the truckloads and toss them in pits and ravines around the county. I have to admit making nopales jelly that first summer.

Keeping an alternative water source is important if you want to be self-reliant and doubly important during an emergency situation. In many states, it is illegal to set up rain barrels. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where they are legal start out small. Rain barrels require maintenance just like any other tool. Keeping the mosquito larvae and debris out, reducing dirt and insect contamination are just a few of the nuisances associated with rain water collection. Keeping a straw broom is very beneficial for cleaning out accumulated debris. We have both plastic barrels with limited access and metal ones with total access. I find I prefer the open top metal barrels to the plastic ones. The metal barrels are so much easier to maintain and can be lidded to keep out debris.

More on that later. Until then, start looking at how much water you actually consume over the course of a day. The average toilet uses three gallons per flush, a ten minute shower uses about 40 gallons of water and don’t forget to include the water used by a washing machine, dishwasher, and pets. If the power went out and city water was no longer available, what would be the minimal amount of water you would need to survive?

Common Weeds and Their Uses

Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

The list of common weeds that are tasty may not be lengthy, however the variety of edible weeds that provide more than just food is very long. The common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), for example, provides food, a variety of home remedies including those for minor conditions like constipation, improving urinary flow and wart removal. An assortment of beverages can also be made from Dandelion including wine, breakfast beverages and specialty beers. The dried petals can be used to color other foods plus they make pretty nice beads. Chasing after and trying to catch the airborne seeds is a great way to exercise while improving one’s eye hand coordination. A reddish brown and a green dye for plant fibers can also be made from this plant.

The average untreated yard contains a wide variety of weeds that can be used for more than one thing. Allowing weeds to grow in tandem with your grass gives you a self sustaining source of food, medicine and other items that might prove useful in an emergency situation.

Many of the wild edible plants are bitter in taste. Young leaves are more palatable than older leaves. There is a trick to eating your yard with less bitterness. Snip off all the leaves and pick the newly growing ones for food. On average, a clipped Dandelion or Plantain (Plantago major or minor) will re-grow new leaves in two to three days depending on the season and geographic area. Poke (Phytolacca americana) is another quickly growing weed that is jam packed with nutrients. One cup of unsalted cooked Poke contains 33 calories and over 200% of the USDA daily requirements of Vitamins A, C and K. Poke is high in fiber, low in sugar plus it contains measurable amounts of Folate, Vitamin E and almost four grams of protein.

Regardless of where you live, weather impacts your growing season. Too wet, too dry, too little or too much rain will all impact how a garden produces. A late frost can kill fruit tree blooms, cause developing fruits and berries to drop to the ground and kill frost tender seedlings. Many times, wild plants will rebound from these conditions where domestic ones won’t. Knowing which weeds pack the most nutrition punch is an important aspect of self-sufficiency that becomes more important during an emergency survival situation.

At my house, poke seedlings seem to appear overnight and are fed in abundance to poultry as well as us. Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium various species and common names), and the Plantains are also fed in abundance to all humans and the livestock. These same weeds have many other useful and beneficial properties.

Learning about the properties of the most common weeds in your area is a boon on many levels. In our geographic area, if a warm spell hits in the middle of winter it is common to find these plants sprouting leaves in a few days. Fresh greens is a welcome change from home canned and winter root foods.

One of the more challenging tasks for the self-reliant is diet fatigue. Last fall, we ate sweet potatoes and greens for months on end. There are only so many ways to prepare sweet potatoes and greens, while nutritionally valuable they can only be cooked so many ways. Salt and pepper are kitchen staples but sauce mixes are easily overlooked. A packet of cream based soup starter, dry marinade packets, and dry salad dressing mixes can make or break the “greens for dinner again?” syndrome.

Self reliant people should know their own backyards as well as the back of their hands. Anyone who is interested in emergency survival should also learn about edible, medicinal and utilitarian plants. Studying and learning the properties of one plant per week would give an individual a wealth of dietary choices plus a wide variety of dye colors for twine and an assortment of remedies for minor medical conditions.

Learning Native Plants

Learning about the plants in your area that provide food, medicine and other useful items is a must if you want to be self sufficient or obtain and edge in a survival situation. Almost all plants provide something useful.

The common Day Lily, (Hemerocallis fulva) provides food in early spring, early summer and late fall. It also provides weaving materials and medicine. The common Day Lily is found in almost all US states and the domesticated varieties can be grown in those states which do not have the wild variety.

Where I live the Day Lily is blooming which means we are having great
salads when the petals are added to the greens and lettuces from the
garden. Dehydrating the petals allows them to be used later on in the
summer or over the winter. In a survival or off grid situation air drying is possible and less time consuming than vegetables or fruits since the bugs are not as interested in the petals as they would be a piece of fruit or tomato slice. Drying fruits and vegetables in a primitive setting requires someone to keep a close eye on them, shooing away bugs and in many cases setting them out in the day and bringing them in at night.

If a person can tie their shoes they can weave fibers into rough cloth. Skills such as weaving improve over time. The more time you spend on an activity the better you get. Weaving fibers into cloth is easy for me but weaving baskets has never been one of my top ten skill sets. Making a functional basket is one thing, making a symmetrical, evenly woven, aesthetically pleasing basket is difficult for me.

Easing into self sufficiency is easily accomplished by adding edible
landscape to the yard or importing some of the useful wild plants. In some cases bringing wild plants into the yard may provide an added bonus. Security is something everyone thinks about regardless of whether you live in a rural, urban or metropolitan environment. A few years back a lone raspberry popped up in the front flower garden. We had planted a grape at the edge of the bed to help provide shade. Today there is a bramble thicket intertwined with grape vines all across the bed. If an intruder tried to gain access to those windows they’d be scratched, gouged and tripped up before getting close. The large grape leaves and dense thicket allows those windows to be open during most of the summer thunderstorms since the water is diverted before it makes it to the windows. The Barberry bush, which was here before we arrived, at the corner of the porch is just an added deterrent. Barberry, including it’s domesticated cousins, has food, medicine and utilitarian uses. Most Barberry bushes have needle like thorns that sting if you’re poked by them.

The Raspberries were joined by Blackberries compliments of the local bird population and provide a less bug infested way to gather food and medicine. Both can be dried, canned or frozen although freezing makes for a lot of time consuming work should the power go out.

Providing an alternative method to home can food with is a necessity as far as I am concerned. One hot July day back in the late 80’s our very large chest freezer quit working. In addition to keeping five children cool and content, the youngest was an infant at the time and still breastfeeding. I had to cook, can and dry the entire contents of that freezer. In addition there were multiple hides to scrape and salt or loose them. Needless to say that was the last time months of food and piles of hides were kept in a freezer.

Today we have a small, seven cubic foot freezer that holds no more than a few days of human food and a few gallons of goat colostrum and
first milk. It only takes once to learn a lesson the hard way!

Learning to be self sufficient starts by looking at what you have, what you really need and what the labor costs of trying to salvage things should an emergency arise. The 14 cubic foot freezer might contain a few gallons of water but think about how you would salvage the remaining contents. Would you be capable of canning the vegetables and meats without an electric range? Would you be able to set up a solar dehydrator for fruits and vegetables? Does eating ice cream for 24 hours straight SOUND feasible?

There are many low impact methods that can help you become more self reliant. Start looking around at what you have, where it is and what it can be used for. Do you keep more than 3 days of food in your freezer? If so, do you have an alternative way to preserve that food if the power goes out? During the ice storm of 09, hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat not including dairy, vegetables and fruit were tossed into dumpsters.

Considering that the county had opened a shelter all that food could have been easily prepared into healthy meals on a propane grill instead of being thrown away.

My neighbor canned the contents of her freezer and prepared hot meals for her parents and other seniors within walking distance. Her teenage son walked food to many houses every day to ensure that they got a hot meal.

We helped the neighbor de-ice his non-propane brick barbeque and they
delivered to us half a roasted turkey in exchange.

Alternatives exist in all situations if you know how and where to look.


Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

It is difficult for me to separate the skills required for self sufficiency and those needed for survival. The same skills that allow an individual to be self sufficient are often the same types of skills that can mean life or death in a survival situation.

When a person is living or can live “Off the Grid” they can provide heat, food, shelter, water and medicine for themselves and any types of livestock they might have. In a survival situation, regardless of the cause, a person must be able to make fire, find food, purify or find water and provide medical assistance for themselves and possibly others.

I have lived “Off Grid” many times during my life. Some were intentional others the result of a natural disaster or financial crisis. The skills and knowledge that I learned have helped me to live in these situations.

Learning to be self sufficient and living in a self sufficient way is not easy. Survival in a time of natural disaster or fiscal demise is just as hard. Manual labor increases ten-fold and when coupled with a limited diet can be disheartening for some.

A bucket of beans and a stockpile of water will only last so long before a person must “sink or swim.” There are only a few places in the United States that don’t have an abundance of wild plants that have multiple uses. Before the industrial revolution all medicines were created from wild plants. It is the same for many items we take for granted. Clothes are made from cloth that is woven on machines. Before machines became the method for weaving people wove their own fabrics from plant and animal fibers and colored them using plant and mineral dyes. Foraging for food from the wild to provide a balanced diet was a way of life and in many areas foraging still provides delicacies.

Primitive skills are a dying art form. These types of skills allow anyone at anytime to fashion tools, provide food, water, basic first aid materials, and in an extended emergency even clothing.