Over twenty years ago I met a young instructor at the world-renowned Tracker School, run by Tom Brown Jr. He was teaching bow and arrow making, among other skills. I was blown away by his attention to detail and craftsmanship. In a subsequent course, the "scout class," all students, myself included, made "scout pits" which were hidden, subterranean sleeping shelters that we slept in during the week-long course. This young instructor was also teaching at that class, however, I learned that he had taken the subterranean sleeping shelter to another level. At the time, he was living in an underground hogan shelter that he built, complete with a fire chimney that exited secretly through an old hollow stump on the surface.
That young instructor was Tom McElroy. Since that time in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Tom has ventured around the globe, from the Amazon to Australia, to New Guinea, to remote tropical islands and beyond. Each of his explorations is fueled by a curiosity to learn from nature and to share this information with others.
Today we interview Tom to get a teaser-sampler of the wisdom behind some of his experiences. Tom has taught everyone, ranging from children to hunters, to outdoor enthusiasts, and even elite military groups such as Seal Team Six. He has consulted for numerous news programs, Hollywood movies, and was featured on the Discovery Channel. He holds a BA degree in Anthropology and Geography from Rutgers University and a Masters in International Policy related to Indigenous Peoples from the University of Connecticut. At the age of 18, he spent an entire year living completely off the land. During that time, he built and lived in a shelter made from the land, made fire by friction, purified water naturally, hunted, fished and gathered all of his own food.
Tom takes wilderness living skills to the level of a true artist. You can see this for yourself in the detail of his handmade tools. His tools are not only functional, but beautiful. This is evident in the pictures of his handicraft included in the interview below. Pathways Dojo has been fortunate to have Tom guest instruct at some of our events.
Here's Sensei to tell you a little about his connection with Tom...
Tom and I actually live in the same town of Santa Cruz, California. I first heard of Tom through local friends. I met him when we did a podcast interview of him at his house several years ago. We discussed how survival skills and ninjutsu go together. Little did I know that I would be going to one of his island survival courses a few years later. More on that adventure in an upcoming post. That first experience with Tom would lead me to some really fun adventures in nature. I'm really excited that we get to work with Tom. He's an amazing survival skills instructor and is very tuned in to the natural world.
Here's our recent interview with Tom...
Pathways: You have traveled all over the world to learn and teach survival skills. Is there one place/experience that stands out that was extremely challenging? What did you do to overcome that challenge?
Tom: I really believe that the only way that someone can easily survive off the land is if they have a deep knowledge of place, meaning they have an intimate knowledge of the terrain, edible and medicinal plants, animal behavior, weather patterns, density of wood, strongest fibers for rope...etc. While indigenous people are the only masters of survival, you still couldn't take an Inuit person and drop them in the Amazon and expect that they would thrive. Some skills might transfer, but it would still be a struggle to adapt and relearn what you need from the foreign landscape. It's always a challenge entering an unfamiliar place to attempt to survive. The second I walk into a survival situation I have to try to soak up a lot about what is useful to me in that area--playing catch up with what I should already know.
I would say, one of the biggest challenges would be in the Amazon jungle where everything is out to get you. There are spikes on half the trees, mosquitoes spreading malaria, poisonous spiders, and snakes lurking under every fallen log. These are things I can’t plan for, and sometimes it's just luck that has kept me safe from total catastrophe
Pathways: What was the biggest hazard you have encountered?
Tom: I have to admit, with all the chances I have taken, I've been pretty lucky. I try to stay very safe in survival and am hyper-vigilant of anything that can hurt me. In my first full-survival situation I remember breaking firewood and cutting my finger fairly deep when I broke a stick in half. I still have a scar from that. Every time I see it, I think about how the smallest mistakes in survival can lead to big consequences. In Papua new Guinea I saw how tiny cuts would get infected and turn black in a day. That is probably the most common issue that people overlook. Infection is not as much a part of our modern world, but in survival, it's one of the biggest threats to your life.
Another experience stands out. While staying with a tribe in the Amazon, a hunter named Nanto and I wandered too far into an "undiscovered" tribe's territory in the jungle. They are a very hostile group. Many intruders into their territory have been found dead with a spear in them. One day, we were out blow-gunning birds and came upon Puma tracks on a tree. Nanto mentioned that the shaman had told him that he needed to be wary of Puma as they were a sign that he was in danger. Soon after that, we came across two spears crossed in an 'X' across the trail. Essentially this was our one warning that this one tribe, the Taegeri, were watching and they were telling us that we had gone too far. If we went any further, that would have been the end. Nanto was pretty shaken up when he saw that, which made me literally shake. Luckily we took the warning, turned around, and quickly headed back to his village.
Pathways: Is there a favorite/memorable shelter experience that you have had?
Tom: One of my favorite shelters I have ever lived in was one that was a completely underground hogan. To get into the shelter you would lift a small oak bush to reveal a door, then climb down a ladder into the shelter. One could walk directly over it and not know it was there. I even had a “chimney” going into a hollow tree stump to dissipate the smoke so you wouldn't notice it.
Pathways: What's one of the tastiest wild meals that you have eaten?
Tom: In my island survival class we get pretty into creating amazing meals while in a full-survival situation. We caught spiny lobster and crab and made coconut cream bisque with Mango dessert. After 4 days in survival, that may be the best thing I have ever tasted.
Pathways: Do you have a memorable/favorite fire-making experience?
Tom: After 25 years since making my first friction fire, I still get a huge kick out of it. When I lived in the woods at age 18 for a year, I wouldn't allow myself to have any fire unless I got it with a hand drill or bow-drill. After consistently getting friction fire for 6 months, one day it just stopped working. I still don’t understand why, but I could not get a friction fire for about 5 days. This was in the middle of December, so you can imagine how difficult it was to not have light or warmth in my shelter, warm food and all the things I was taking for granted. After 5 days, to finally get that back was incredible. I was so grateful then and still feel grateful even today when I get a fire.
Pathways: What about a memorable water gathering or landscape/water experience?
Tom: One time I drank from what I thought was a clean spring when running with the Tarahumara tribe in Copper Canyon in Mexico. It kicked in after my trip, but I felt like my insides were on fire for a few days.
Pathways: Do you have a memorable tracking experience?
Tom: I once was called in to track a tiger that escaped from a pen in New Jersey. It was wandering around the woods and people’s backyards. After tracking cats with prints the size of quarters, it was incredible to track one with prints the size of dinner plates.
Pathways: When you are preparing to go to a new place to enter into a survival living mode, do you have a routine for preparation, such as researching maps, local indigenous practices, hazards, or practicing techniques at home before you go?
Tom: I try to pour myself into every book of that area to learn about plant life. Then I try to see what indigenous people of that area do/did. I think through all the potential problems I could face and try to play it all out in my head beforehand. Of course there are always surprises, and I only find a few of the hundreds of plants I have studied. But, I do plan for how to provide the basics of Shelter, Water, Fire, Food. After that, I just try to get creative based on what I discover in real-time.
Pathways: Shelter, water, fire, food...every landscape/ecosystem is different. Still, are there common themes to your approach to these needs that pertain to most/all landscapes you encounter?
Tom: One thing I try to emphasize with my classes is that it's the principles of survival that are the most important to learn. For example, when trying to stay warm, in a deciduous forest you would use the principle of insulation with light, fluffy material, like piled leaves, to trap dead air space around your body. I then ask my students, using the same principles, how would you create insulation if trapped in your car in a blizzard. By wrapping yourself in the car seat foam, you can also trap dead air space around your body and stay warm. Totally different situation, different “shelter”, but the same principles.
Pathways: You write that you came to the realization that "experiencing survival-living changes the way people approach their entire lives." How have you seen this in others and in yourself?
Tom: I feel really fortunate to have spent a year living off the land when I was 18. That entire year I spent about $300-$400 in total. What this has gifted me is the ability to know that no matter what happens in my life, I can always go back to that forest and do that again. Because of this, I felt free to take chances on pursuing my passions rather than always playing it safe. I always had an answer to the big “what if things fall apart?” question. I think this gives people confidence to live in less fear, even if they never actually use it. Knowing you can survive off the land gives you a confidence that even the wealthiest person does not have.
Pathways: If someone is new to survival skills, or lives in an urban area, what is a good way to begin practicing the skills?
Tom: Nature is everywhere. The amount of interesting wild edible plants found in abandoned lots could keep you busy studying for years. I grew up near a lot of woods, but still spent most of my initial learning stages making friction fires in my basement, or setting box-traps for pets. While it's good to get into the forest so that you're comfortable with it, it’s very possible to practice a lot of these skills at home.
Pathways: Why would learning survival skills benefit someone who studies the art of the ninjutsu?
Tom: In one of my classes, there was a Master Chief from the Navy Seals. He was built like a Greek God and probably one of the scariest people I could ever meet. He had been in the Seals for more than 20 years, and I can't imagine the talents he possessed. During one class on tanning deer hides, my co-instructor had everyone make small leather bags of the buckskin. She taught everyone how to sew various stitches and at some point this Navy Seal called me over asking me how to do a ‘whip-stitch’. I told him that for a guy as tough as he was, I found it funny he was asking me how to sew a tiny little leather pouch to go around his neck. Surely this was beneath him at this point. He then looked at me and commented that being a warrior was about collecting as many skills as possible, and the only way he rose to the top of the Seal program was because he never stopped learning, and finding new things to learn.
To learn more about Tom and to attend one of his upcoming courses, you can checkout his website which also has a treasure trove of tutorial videos. Tom travels the globe teaching and has upcoming courses in the near future that we highly recommend.
As Tom mentioned above, fire by friction is a skill that is a lifelong learning journey. It always has something to teach. Making a bow drill fire kit is a great way to enter this learning journey. Check out the free video tutorial access on our website for making a bow drill fire kit.
But, once you make a bow drill kit, you are only halfway there. There are a lot of small details that are very important to consider when using a bow drill kit. If you know some of these tips, your chances of a successful fire are much greater. This could save your life one day.
In the video below, we go through the next step...some helpful tips for using your bow drill kit that will help you be successful in making fire.