How Human Rewilding Works

By: Dave Roos
yurt, canada
Members of the rewilding community often live in traditional dwellings, like this yurt in Canada.
© James Brittain/Corbis

A hundred thousand years ago, our Stone Age ancestors were just as "wild" as the animals they tracked and hunted for food and clothing. They fashioned spearheads from sharpened stone and animal bones, carried food in animal-skin bags and primitive pottery, and slept under the stars or in makeshift lean-tos. The business of life was survival and reproduction. It was intense, often desperate, but undeniably human.

If Paleololithic man was wild, then 21st-century man is fully domesticated. Few of us have ever killed our own dinner or foraged for wild foods. We eat processed and packaged meals, sleep in climate-controlled houses, and the closest most of us come to an authentic wilderness experience is watching a survival reality show on TV.


The human rewilding movement is out to change that. At wilderness survival camps and foraging schools around the world, domesticated humans are removing their "leashes" — nine-to-five office jobs, mortgages and the drive-thru window — to discover their wild selves.

Human rewilding is an offshoot of the larger rewilding conservation movement, which aims to restore human-altered ecosystems to their wild and natural state [source: world's largest predators to extinction (like giant sloths, woolly mammoths and giant short-faced bears). As a result, entire ecosystems were knocked out of balance. One of the chief goals of the rewilding conservation movement is to reintroduce large carnivores and herbivores into protected wilderness spaces where that ancient balance can be restored [source: Rewilding Europe].

Human rewilding aims to restore a similar ancient balance inside you and me. The goal isn't to live in caves and dress in beaver pelts, but to more fully realize our human potential. The genes and traits we carry evolved over millennia to help us survive in a world of "horns and tusks and fangs and claws," not cubicles and cable TV [source: Monbiot]. By getting out and truly engaging with nature — even the dangerous and disgusting — we will find life much more thrilling and fulfilling.

Keep reading to learn how to rewild your life by acquiring some basic wilderness survival skills and viewing the world through "wild" eyes.


The Human Rewilding Movement

Human rewilding isn't a cohesive movement, but a mashup of several existing (and often clashing) philosophies. Survivalists and "doomsday preppers" are drawn to the rewilding movement for its emphasis on wilderness survival skills. Eco-activists love the idea of low-impact living "off the grid" using primitive DIY engineering. Hippies dig anything that frees us from slavery to "the man," especially if limited showering is involved.

The term "rewilding" was first coined by two American biologists in the 1990s who wanted to change the conversation about wildlife conservation [source: Kolbert]. Instead of protecting ecosystems as they exist, why not populate them with either native or nonnative species — particularly predators and large herbivores — that would restore the environment to a more perfect wild state? Rewilding entered the mainstream largely due to a popular TED Conference talk by George Monbiot called "For more wonder, rewild the world."


The origin of the term "human rewilding" is less clear, because people have been promoting versions of the rewilding lifestyle for decades. A survival expert and tracker named Tom Brown Jr. founded the Tracker School back in 1978 to teach the wilderness skills imparted by his Apache mentor Stalking Wolf [source: Tracker School]. Brown didn't call his methods "rewilding," but they serve as a model for schools and wilderness survival programs worldwide that subscribe to the rewilding movement.

If there is an overarching goal of the rewilding movement, it is for humans to integrate with nature, rather than extract from it [source: Rewild Portland]. Monbiot, the TED speaker, describes human rewilding as "trying to re-engage people with the natural world" [source: Monbiot]. Along with that engagement is an increased sense of wonder and curiosity, a desire to understand natural processes and to figure out how we as humans fit into the natural order.

Next, we'll list some of the core "ancient" skills being promoted by the human rewilding movement.


Human Rewilding Skills

building a fire
Skills like fire-building are often taught at wilderness survival programs.
Russell Kaye/Sandra-Lee Phipps/Getty Images

One of the biggest draws of the human rewilding movement is learning how to survive — even thrive — in the wilderness without the help of modern tools or technology. These rewilding skills go by many names — bushcraft, primitive skills, ancestral skills, native skills — but they share some common themes:



Before you can hunt, build a shelter or prepare a meal, you need to know how to make tools out of stone, bone and wood. How do you choose the right type of rock to serve as a hammer, hand ax or an arrowhead? How do you make a needle or fishing hook from animal bones?

Fire Starting

You won't survive long in the wilderness without fire. Learn how to make a bow drill to create friction and how to choose the right stones and tinder to spark and sustain a flame from scratch.


Identifying edible plants and berries is an essential skill for wilderness survival. Wild game isn't always available, so you'll need to know which plants are pleasant tasting, which are poisonous, and which provide vital nutrients.

Identifying Medicinal Plants and Herbs

There's no pharmacy in the forest, but ancient cultures have identified leaves, flowers, herbs and roots that can cure digestive problems, fevers, wounds and aches and pains. You need this information as well.


Wild animals don't advertise their presence. A successful hunter must understand the natural movements of animals and decipher clues — including prints, calls and droppings — to their whereabouts.


Native cultures around the world discovered that a well-designed and camouflaged trap saved precious time and energy. The classic deadfall trap uses the weight of a large rock to crush unsuspecting prey.


Learn how to make your own spears, bows, arrows, slings and other weapons from naturally available materials. And how to use them.

Wilderness Cooking

Find out how to cook over an open fire using roasting sticks, spits and buried pit methods.


With the traditional method called "brain tanning," you use the animal's actual brain tissue to soften the hide, which is then smoked and cured to use as clothing or food storage bags.

Rewilding skills are not easily learned from watching YouTube videos. On the next page, we'll highlight a few of the schools and programs available for rewilding your life.


Human Rewilding Experiences

stone-age man
People in the rewilding movement take inspiration from Stone-Age man but they insist we don’t have to live like him to gain the benefits of living close to nature.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Image

Even if you're not ready to sell your earthly possessions and hunt squirrels with a handax, there are many ways to add some wild into your otherwise tame existence. You could start by taking more hikes in forests, coastal trails and other pristine natural settings. Pay attention to the animal and plant species you encounter and appreciate the diversity and complexity of the natural world.

If you want to take your rewilding experience a step further, consider taking a class in one of the "primitive arts" like foraging, bow and arrow making, toolmaking, or wilderness survival. Search online for classes or programs near you by Googling "wilderness survival classes" or "survival skills" along with the name of the closest city. If you live in the Portland area, look no further than Rewild Portland.


Some programs also stress the philosophical component of rewilding. For instance, ReWild University's website says, "Instead of leaving with only a set of skills, you'll come away having opened a gateway into your ancestral birthright. What is this birthright? A mindset that is stress-free and aware. An every-moment sense of adventure. A body that is characterized by vital health. And most importantly, you'll gain an understanding of how to integrate your rewilded lifestyle into your everyday life."

If you really want to know what it feels like to live like Paleolithic hunter-gatherer — at least for a few days — consider taking a "survivacation" at one of many wilderness retreats around the world. Celebrity survivalist Creek Stewart coined the term "survivacation" for his three-day survival skills retreats at his Will Haven Outdoor school in Indiana, but you can find similar short-term retreats as far away as Australia (it's called "bush survival" down under) and Sweden (in winter!). You can even be stranded on a desert island in Indonesia [source: Lin]. For serious students, Earthwalk Northwest offers a year-long apprenticeship program in "Primitive Living Skills."


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Human Rewilding Works

My first instinct is to dismiss survivalists as fringe conspiracy theorists stocking up on ammo for the zombie apocalypse. But the more I read about primitive survival skills like fire-starting and rabbit trapping, the more I wonder, what the heck would I do if I found myself in a desperate situation? Wouldn't it be nice to know how to locate fresh water, build a lean-to shelter or be able to identify a plant other than poison ivy? I looked it up and there's a wilderness skills school not too far from my home. Hey kids, we're going on a survivacation!

Related Articles

  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Recall of the Wild." The New Yorker. Dec. 24, 2012 (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Lin, Chelsea. "10 survivalist vacations." MSN Weather. (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Moldenhauer, Joseph J., editor. "Introduction." The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau." Princeton University Press, 1983
  • Monbiot, George. "The Great Rewilding." Orion Magazine. January/February 2014 (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Nelson, Bryan. "7 people who gave up on civilization to live in the wild." Mother Nature Network (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Rewilding Europe. "Our Mission." (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Rewild Portland. "About." (Sept. 4, 2014)
  • Tracker School. "About Tom Brown, Jr." (Sept. 4, 2014)