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A Conversation with Primitive Skills Coach, Cliff Hodges by Mark Hatmaker

Cliff Hodges is Owner & Instructor at Adventure Out near Santa Cruz, California. They offer a staggering array of Outdoor Training including quite interesting Primitive Skills & Survival Courses.  I heartily recommend you giving these good folks a go!

Cliff, thank you so much for talking to me. You run an absolutely fascinating outfit Adventure Out that offers instruction and clinics in areas from surfing to rock climbing and all points outdoors in-between. What I’d like to focus on today is the Survival instruction track that you offer. Our focus here is in indigenous methods, so I’d like to gather your thoughts on those matters.

What aspects of your curriculum do you consider most influenced by indigenous methods? 

All of our survival and primitive skills classes are taught from an indigenous perspective in that: 1) we only use materials found on the landscape (no modern tools/materials), and 2) we always try to harvest materials in a respectful and sustainable manner.  We do not pretend to teach from any specific culture or tradition (we are very sensitive to cultural appropriation issues), but we do believe and represent ourselves to be students and teachers of traditional human skills.


You offer a course on Tracking, could I get you to offer a skill or exercise or aspect of tracking that the reader could use in the everyday world? It does not have to be in the survival sense just some aspect of tracking-training that contributes to everyday awareness. 

One of my favorite “take home” exercises that people can do to become better trackers is to build an “aging box”.  You can do this whether you live in the woods or in a condo complex.  Build a miniature sandbox – even as small as just 1’x2’ (a few inches deep) and fill with sand.  Flatten out the top layer of sand and make some marks. Marks can be made with just the bottom of a cup/mug, or if you have some track molds, make actual prints (or use your feet!).  Leave the box outside and each day, come make a drawing and take a journal of how the track aged due to various conditions (sun, rain, temperature, etc).  As you get better change the soil substrate and location of the box.  After a few months your ability to age tracks will increase dramatically.

In your experience what are THE core skills that you feel that everyone would be wise to know regarding wilderness survival?

 Above all, I think knowing how to build an effective shelter in various environments is by far the skill most likely to save your life. People often want to learn skills with more pizazz (fire making, stone tools, etc) but being able to knap a perfect arrowhead is not going to save your life if you get lost/stuck in the wilderness.  And in modern times, I’ve never heard of someone getting lost in the woods building a shelter (staying warm/dry), finding water (staying hydrated), and then dying a month later of starvation.  It just doesn’t happen – people die of exposure in the first 48 hours.  Shelter skills WILL absolutely save your life.

You offer bow-making and arrow-making workshops. Are there particular tribes or indigenous methods that inform your work here?

 Referring back to question 1, I really try to steer clear of claiming specific tribes/cultures or anything like that.  A lot of my study definitely comes from the Ishi (followed by Saxton Pope) tradition of self-bow making.  Over the years my style has refined itself and my bows incorporate methods and details that range from the yew bows in the northwest, to flat plains style bows, and everything in-between.

You also offer stone-tool making, which I don’t commonly encounter. Again, is there a particular tribal or cultural influence that informs your method? 

With stone tools I really attempt learn by re-creation.  So, I’ve taken a stab at just about every style of north American projectile point over the years.  Stylistically I love Clovis points – I wish I was better at fluting, but I still love the look of those points.  Most of the flintknapping is taught by Jack Harrison now, who is my #1 instructor.  I’d like to think that in the early days I taught Jack how to flintknap, but over the years his skills with stone have far surpassed mine.  I’m lucky to have Jack working with me and I definitely recommend everyone to come take a Stone Tools class with Jack here at Adventure  Out.  He is a highly skilled knapper.

Do you find that your time outdoors has provided you with a different sense as to how the world works or how you interact with it? I am not necessarily asking in a spiritual sense, but it can be that.

 Absolutely.  I think more than anything it’s taught me to appreciate tiny details and the interconnectedness of everything.  It’s also taught me to have a whole lot of respect and just move slowly and be careful.  Nature can be beautiful, but she can also kick your ass if you’re not looking out.

In what ways do you feel that your expertise, abilities, and experiences in these natural methods carry over into your everyday life?

 I think just being ingenious and seeing potential in your surroundings.  When I walk outside I don’t see “a bunch of sticks” on the ground. I see trap parts, fire kits, arrow shafts, and so many more things.  Learning to see your environment as “what it could be”, as opposed to just “what it looks like” is probably how human beings began to invent and create right?  It’s the beginning of our ingenuity and thus our civilizations and societies.

Beyond taking your courses, are there particular books or resources that you would point to, to say, “You wanna know about indigenous skills or ability? You’ve got to read this!”? 

Check out “Survival Skills of Native California” by Paul Campbell.   It is an absolutely legendary book.

Do you have any other unusual hobbies that might surprise us? I mean brain-tanning by day but by night you’re a concert pianist, that sort of thing.  

I am a surfer.  I love surfing perhaps more than anything in the world.  There is nothing that makes me feel closer to the creator than to be in the ocean.

One last thing, what could you tell someone to do, right now, this minute, to be better prepared to face or enjoy the great outdoors?

Come take a survival class with us!  Ha.  No but seriously – I say that a little bit “tongue in cheek”, but I think what I really mean is “go take a class”.  If you’re not near to Santa Cruz, CA (where we operate), find someone close to you.  There is no substitute for experiential learning.  Reading books and watching survival tv shows will get you nowhere.  I’ve had so many “experts” over the years that have come to our classes after reading every book out there and as soon as they are in the woods, all that book knowledge is worthless.  Find a professional instructor and get outside with them.  Once you feel confident that you can safely take care of yourself and your family, venture out on your own!

Thank you so much for taking the time!
Again, have a look at Cliff's offerings at Adventure Out.
Adventure Out.


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