These 15 Pioneer Skills Will Help You Survive

When we think of pioneers today, chances are you think of trailblazers and inventors in fields of science, engineering or even philosophy. We think of people who are going a different way and expanding the borders of a given discipline, or even our very thoughts about politics, society and culture.

The term is a very apt one in that usage, but we, of course, borrowed it from its original context.

Pionners next to house

It used to describe a person who went beyond the borders of civilization, who went into wild and often dangerous places to see what was out there, to expand his civilization’s influence or to look for resources ripe for exploitation.

These people, the real pioneers of old, were oftentimes an entirely different breed. They had to be tough, they had to be dedicated, and also very capable. There was no one to call on for help except the fellows that were with them.

They had to be able to start, quite literally, from scratch using only what tools and equipment they brought with them, and could then put to effect to create more tools and resources from the material around them.

While many of their expeditions came to nothing, at least some of the time they would elevate their settlement from dingy campsites to hardscrabble settlements, and eventually into thriving towns and cities that would support more expansion, commerce and industry.

We certainly have much to say “thank you” to these old pioneers for, but just as importantly, we should strive to learn from their example: we can all be more self-sufficient, more capable and tougher.

The real pioneers were incredibly self-reliant. We should strive to imitate their example, and to help you do just that in today’s article we will be looking at 15 classic pioneer skills that can still serve preppers today.

No Cavalry Coming

Pioneers, the real ones, had it rough. Day-to-day existence was tough, never guaranteed, and even suffering minor setbacks could snowball into life-threatening complications.

These are people that plunged headlong into unknown territories and unknown circumstances to give it a go, and nothing more.

Their shelter, their food, their health and their security was all entirely dependent upon what they knew, what they could produce and what they could sustain. The only other people they could count on were their families if they brought them along and their fellow pioneers.

Everything was limited. Everything was precious, and that no matter how abundant materials might have been at a given location the ability to procure them was never certain. Injury, sickness and desertion could all reduce the work capacity of a band of pioneers, and potentially threaten the undertaking.

What’s more, they were often the first to “figure something out”. When I say that, I mean they were the first to figure out which plants were good to eat, and which ones were harmful.

They were the first to figure out which animals were dangerous, which had good coats, or made for good meat. Sometimes this came at a cost to life or limb! We take all of that for granted today, since the people that came before us figured it all out!

It took real guts to be a pioneer and to pull it off successfully. It would suffer no pretenders, it would not suffer the “sunshine survivor”. What they were doing was not camping as we know it today.

Even if you go out camping in the deep parts of the world, the sheer amount of infrastructure and connectivity that makes up our civilization means you have at least a couple of “life lines” in the form of people looking for you.

The pioneers didn’t have that: they had their wits, their skills and the sheer will to survive and thrive. There is no telling how many died unknown and unfound in the remote and hostile places of the world.

We might not ever have it truly as rough and tough as they did, but we would be wise to learn from their example and furthermore we can honor the legacy they contributed to our society by learning to emulate them when it comes to survival skills.

Below you will find a list of skills that pioneers would not call survival skills; they would just call them life skills!

1. Repair and Reuse

Any pioneer, no matter what their role in the party was and no matter where they were heading, would have to be fairly handy at fixing things, reusing things and repurposing them.

Raw material was precious enough, but finished goods and usable tools were incredibly valuable to any pioneer.

There was no corner store for them to rely on. There sure as heck wasn’t any Amazon Prime! If something wore out, broke or was no longer useful the imperative was on them to find a way to get it working again or to put it to work doing something else.

Wasting valuable material was inexcusable, and if something started to malfunction and they couldn’t repair it it was not simply a matter of “oh well and on to the next chore”; oftentimes it was seen as a serious personal and professional shortcoming.

Considering all the things they would have to take care of day today, and often with limited manpower to boot, a pioneer was probably fairly competent in a number of disciplines, and could reasonably be expected to mend his own clothing, patch a tent, true a wobbly wagon wheel, mend a busted strap or figure out a fastener to hold a load together on his horse or his wagon.

Now it stands to reason that not every pioneer would be equally skilled certain things as one of his fellows. It is tough enough to master one skill in a lifetime, to say nothing of becoming reasonably confident and competent at many skills.

You could say the same thing about preppers today. But one major advantage we have over our pioneer brethren of yesteryear is that we can learn from the massive body of work from all of the preceding generations, and get a lot better a lot quicker than they could!

It is definitely in your best interest to become a reasonably competent carpenter, mechanic, tailor, gadgeteer and cobbler.

Having the know-how and the tools to correctly repair or even improvise a fix on a mission essential piece of equipment could mean the difference between life and death for you when the time comes to bug out.

Learn more on how to re-build and repair here.

settlers and Native Americans

2. Bartering

It might seem unusual to stop and consider that pioneers, people who are thought of as being always as far from civilization as imaginable, might need bartering skills.

After all, who are they going to barter with? Their fellow party members? I thought they were all supposed to be in this thing together!

It might sound a little silly, but that was sometimes true in the case of larger expeditions. Also, believe it or not, pioneers would also have cause to interact with other people they happened to run into during their travels to far-flung places in the world.

These trading partners might have taken the form of indigenous tribes, pioneers from other parts of their own society or from entirely different cultures, trappers, hunters, explorers, military detachments and more.

Plus periodically one or more pioneers might have to backtrack to civilization to get crucially needed supplies or specialized tooling, expertise or material.

When it was time to drop some greenbacks on the barrelhead, knowing how to wheel and deal was just another element of survival. In any interaction, there will be someone who comes out ahead and someone who doesn’t. Making a bad deal was just another form of waste.

Bartering is one of the oldest forms of commerce, and is known to every culture around the world. Considering the type of environment that the pioneers and their fellow explorers were typically living in, cash might not have been the most desirable trading tender.

A pioneer from a group that was making good headway trapping animals with lustrous, warm coats might do well to trade some of them for food with a group that was heading north into the colder regions.

They might be able to sell raw materials, tools or other items to a large expedition that was out hunting in exchange for ammunition or even firearms.

Bartering is one part understanding basic economics and one part understanding people, and knowing how to talk to them in order to get them to both deal with you and give you favorable terms on your trade.

You can easily practice both of these things today, and considering that the only form of commerce post-SHTF might be the barter of necessary goods and items between survivors, it is in your best interest to start practicing. You may well be able to save your dollar bills for tinder!

Check out our list of the best things to barter post-collapse.

3. Well-Digging

Of all the primitive skills the pioneers possessed, probably none is more lost to history today, for our sake, than that of siting and digging a well.

The popular image of pioneers often has them refilling their waterskins and canteens from convenient and nearby rivers and ponds that are crystal clear and completely free of impurities when they need a drink.

The reality is somewhat different, as not every place has ponds, lakes or rivers that are conveniently accessible or anything approaching safe to drink from.

Additionally if a camp or settlement was located far away for any of these water sources, they might gain a long-term increase in efficiency by digging a well.

You probably don’t need me to tell you what a well is, but it might give you some new appreciation for how they did it way back then when you understand that a well might have been anywhere between 20 and 80 ft deep, and this was dug before being lined with stone, timbers, and other materials to stabilize it.

That is a minor engineering marvel when accomplished with only manpower and hand tools, or perhaps a beast of burden or two if they were lucky.

Of course, digging deep enough to access the water is only one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is figuring out where the well should be dug.

Today, thanks to modern power equipment coming up with a dry hole when digging a well is only a matter of a few wasted hours and a chunk of change.

Back then digging a well only to find it dry or impossible to dig further meant wasting a great many man hours of labor and a considerable amount of energy; energy that must always be balanced and paid for against the food supply.

Chances are in a bug-out situation you will indeed be making use of streams, lakes and ponds to refill your water on the move. If you are extremely fortunate you might even be able to site one of your bug-out locations near a known good-quality water source.

But when the time comes to make a more permanent settlement, one hopefully well away from the horrors being perpetrated in a post-SHTF situation, knowing how to dig a well effectively with hand tools and a lot of backbreaking labor will be valuable indeed.

4. Fire-Starting and Tending

The importance of fire to mankind’s survival needs absolutely no introduction. Fire helps us stave off the biting cold and hypothermia, cook food, light our way in the darkness, and fend off predators.

Without mastering the ability to create and maintain fire, we probably never would have achieved what we have so far.

The pioneers were certainly not exempt from this, and even more dependent upon fire-making and tending skills then the average person even back during the days when they were exploring and developing the dark parts of the world.

Almost anybody today can start a fire. Lots of things will burn, and we have no shortage of fire making tools that are compact enough to fit in your pocket and highly reliable. Management of a fire is an entirely different aspect of starting.

Starting it is one thing, but getting fire to behave once ignited is another, as it is famously capricious and hard to manage.

A fire that was roaring too hot would use what fuel was burning too quickly, resulting in efficiency loss. A fire that was too lean would not throw out as much light or heat as was needed.

It took a skilled pioneer with a good eye and an understanding of fire from long hours of observation and practice to efficiently manage it to complete the task at hand consistently, be it warmth, cooking or just keeping a small “maintenance” fire going.

It is not enough to know how to get a fire started, but you should also seek to get a fire to do what you want, to behave as you wish. This takes dedicated practice and a thorough understanding of the various types of fuel that you might have to make use of.

Learning how various woods behave is tricky enough, but don’t forget that you can burn other things including modern materials to sustain a fire in a pinch.

pioneer building a large shelter

5. Shelter Construction

You will hardly find a prepper today who does not understand the importance of shelter creation in the context of survival, but the pioneers of old took this to an entirely new level.

Not only were the pioneers able to create temporary lodging from tents and other found materials, but you could also expect them to be able to build more permanent habitation, fireplaces and all, out of locally-sourced wood and stone using nothing but the tools that they brought with them.

You have to remember that these people were literally raising civilization, or at least an outpost of civilization, from undisturbed natural land!

I don’t think I am reaching when I assert that most preppers probably start to sweat a little bit if they wanted to build anything more complicated than a small shed, to say nothing of a proper cabin, or even a real house.

There is nothing wrong with that, but I think we are all better off if we learn the principles of proper construction even if we are using cruder and more primitive methods.

This will take some serious dedication and an awful lot of practice, but the experience might be your best hedge against a society toppling even.

No matter where you go and no matter what you are running from, you have to consider the idea that you and your group might be staying right where you are for the foreseeable future, and in that case it would be best for everyone if you are all living in something besides tents or emergency improvised shelters.

6. Blacksmithing

In societies past, not too awfully long ago, we did not have foundries and factories burning day and night rolling out a relentless tide of perfectly finished, totally identical metal goods.

We do today, obviously, and everything from shovels to knives, screws to screwdrivers and sheet metal shingles to aluminum foil are available, and all in seemingly endless quantities.

To say that way back then things were not so plentiful is an understatement. The pioneers knew this, because metal tools were expensive and not always easy to come by. High-quality metal implements were generally rare and precious.

Any scrap iron or steel was not something to be discarded. Broken or worn out metal implements would not be retired until they were absolutely beyond all possible use. This is where the blacksmith came in.

Blacksmithing is the ancient art of hot metal working and was crucial for the continued success of any burgeoning settlement and larger expeditions. Everything from horseshoes and their nails to simple metal tools and fasteners could be made with relative ease and speed by a skilled blacksmith.

Just as importantly, metal goods that were not completely destroyed could be repaired, reforged, made again.

In a long-term survival situation taking place after a truly catastrophic SHTF event modern metal refineries and factories producing metal tools and other goods will likely be a thing of the past.

The metal itself will remain, however, and with a little bit of practice and a fair bit of study in order to understand forging and metal theory it is possible to shape and craft metal to serve your purposes using nothing more than some quality hand tools, a glowing forge and a sturdy anvil of some kind.

7. Waste Control

The controlling of human-generated waste is one of the ugly sides of living off the land, but it must be done, as it is essential for long-term success and health. It is no secret that humans generate an awful lot of waste by-products every single day, both liquid and solid.

Both must be responsibly taken care of. Leaving your leavings in a state where animals or other people can happen upon them or insects can get into them is how outbreaks of pestilence start. Beyond this, humans also generate a lot of trash as a byproduct of our activities.

Most pioneers that set out to carve civilization from the untamed wilds knew this, and would at least take some steps to curb the accumulation of waste. Slit trenches, privies, cat holes and sometimes even proper outhouses would be installed to make the disposal of waste safe and certain.

Only the foolish or the desperate would dispose of their waste in any water source that they might later have to draw from or enter. There are enough things out in the world that can contaminate water and you definitely don’t need to be dealing with that!

Failing to deal with waste properly can see dysentery or other nasty bugs burn through an entire group of people in no time flat, sickening everyone and potentially killing several. The very young and the very old are especially vulnerable to these ailments.

Keep in mind when you are facing a survival situation where modern plumbing is offline or unavailable you will need the same skills.

Knowing how to deal with human waste in an austere environment, even if you are just passing through, is crucial in order to remain healthy and stop the spread of disease. Something you can ill-afford in a survival situation!

Read more on SHTF sanitation.

8. Tending Crops

Pioneers had to maintain a supply of food no matter what, and they were always looking to bolster it. One of the best ways to capitalize on your initial effort to implement a stable source of food is by raising crops- fruits, veggies and others.

Whether done in a small garden or done on a larger scale as part of a proper agricultural farm, tending to crops is something that almost every pioneer knew at least a little something about.

Once again, this is a discipline with a surprising amount of depth, and knowing all the little tricks of the trade when it came to getting certain crops to grow in certain climates, certain types of soil and other factors was paramount for ensuring that effort was not wasted, and also to help ensure a bumper crop.

There is an awful lot to know about the raising of fruits and veggies, and most pioneers would probably surprise you with how much they knew.

Tending crops remains one long-term survival skill that almost every prepper can practice no matter where they happen to be. You don’t need a couple of spare acres to turn into proper cropland; you could just start your own backyard garden!

Don’t have room for a garden? Why not try raising some herbs or smaller vegetables in containers or raised beds? Investing in your agricultural skills will allow you to raise crops that can sustain you and yours far beyond what effort you initially invest.

Learn how to start homesteading on as little as one acre.

9. Overland Navigation

The pioneers could not rely on highways, interstates or mass transit to get where they are going. They had to rely on what guides they could that had gone on before them, maps made in haste and shoddily by explorers (if there were any), compasses and their own sense of direction.

Many times they were the ones making the first primitive maps that had any amount of detail for a specific region. In keeping with the name, they were often heading into areas that were virtually or even completely unexplored.

Pioneers had to be savvy and smart when it came to knowing where they are going and how to get there.

Just as importantly, they had to keep track of where they had come from so they could find their way back! Sometimes the only tools they had were compasses, the stars and whatever method for keeping a pace count that they relied on.

Sometimes they had to navigate over extensive distances using only dead reckoning and waypoint recognition. Getting lost or taking a wrong turn could mean hours or even days of travel time wasted or could even spell disaster and end in death.

We sure have it easy by comparison today, and the modern smartphone is nothing if not a technological marvel complete with a GPS and a complete database of maps held inside its tiny form factor.

Not for nothing, the average person almost never strays from well-traveled and paved roads for the entirety of their life, not counting the occasional dirt driveway.

But considering, you might be taking off for the wild unknown when society crumbles, it is definitely in your best interest to learn how to employ a map and compass in order to find your way where there are no roads.

10. Raising Livestock

Raising domestic livestock had many advantages for pioneers, at least once they got settled in an area. Even before that happened though, they could make use of donkeys, mules or horses to transport men and their material more safely and faster than they could otherwise move on foot.

Once permanent or semi-permanent habitation was established, raising livestock was often the best way to ensure a consistent and renewable source of goods and food.

Many species of farm animals both large and small could be raised for a variety of products: milk, eggs, meat, feathers, wool or skins, thus enabling competent pioneers to not only fill their larders but also craft the clothing and other items that they needed.

These items became renewable so long as their herds or flocks were viable and breedable. Raising animals requires specialized skills and know-how, and is an awful lot of work.

They require a considerable amount of upkeep, constant protection or watching, lots of food, and skilled hands capable of doctoring them when they get injured or sick.

Nonetheless, rearing a sizable herd or flock was one of the smartest investments a pioneer could make toward their continued success and survival.

We can do the same thing today and reap all the same benefits, even if all you have is a backyard coop of chickens.

A handful of chickens can lay delicious, high protein eggs that make a great source of calories and provide important vitamins. Chicken is also delicious and easy to prepare as far as meats go.

You might feel like you are unqualified for the task if you did not grow up in the country or on a farm, but once again, our pioneer ancestors’ legacy is accessible to you using nothing more than the internet and your local library.

You might also try volunteering on a farm! Learning the basics of animal husbandry might be a smart investment in the future should disaster happen!

11. Butchering

The pioneers of days and empires gone by knew how to process the animals they hunted, captured or slaughtered in order to maximize the yield from the carcass. This is an essential skill that is often overlooked by some preppers today.

I hear lots of talk about how crack-shot preppers are going to be picking off high-quality wild game left and right, but they never spare a thought for how they are going to prepare the meat for consumption and do so safely.

Skilled butchering is essential not just for the preparation of a quality cut that is the centerpiece of a delicious meal, but also for maximizing the amount of calories that can be had from a given kill.

Once again, this is an efficiency thing, and is about minimizing waste. Doing a crappy job of butchering a freshly killed animal can result in lost meat at best, and potentially ruin the meat at worst if some of the guts and intestines get pierced in the process.

It is oftentimes laborious and nasty work, but is absolutely essential once an animal has been harvested if you want to reap the benefits.

You will need to be skilled in the same techniques if you plan to supplement your stores with any kind of wild-caught animal, or domestically raised livestock. Everything from squirrels and fish to cows and deer will require correct butchering in order to gain that delicious, nutritious meat.

Also, having a plan for what you are going to do with the meat, either immediate preparation or preservation, will direct you when it comes time to turn the meat into various cuts. Don’t let your lack of butchery skill see your catch go to waste!

12. Tanning

I’m not talking about catching rays here, even though the pioneers undoubtedly did plenty of that having to work as they did in the outdoors and all climates and in all seasons!

I am talking about the processing of animal skins and hides into useful, durable leather which for many centuries set the standard for versatile, long-wearing material for equipment and clothing.

Additionally, long before we had North Face and Arc’teryx parkas, the furs of animals that lived in cold climates were the best possible insulation that humans could get, and the correct processing of those animal skins was essential in order to preserve the fur’s qualities for human use.

This was just one more way that the pioneers made use of every single available asset in every regard, and animals that were slaughtered were no different. The meats would most obviously be eaten, but the skins and even the bones could be put to use as other materials.

Tanning skins to make leather is oftentimes disgusting and very smelly work, but it is the only way to obtain leather in an environment that will not have the benefit from factory tanneries.

You’ll have to keep your stomach from turning and really develop some grit if you are going to learn these skills yourself to make use of them in a SHTF situation, but doing so should be considered one of the crown jewels of prepping.

Combining hunting and tanning skills means that you can make total use of any animal you take!

13. Trapping

For a great many pioneers, trapping might well have been the endeavor that sent them off into the wild blue yonder in the first place. The products of trapping produced food, skins and furs but also bones as discussed above.

Perhaps more importantly to a pioneer is that trapping is one of the very few methods of hunting or capturing animals that serves as a sort of force multiplier, and a well-designed and properly set trap will hunt for you without any supervision on your part.

It needs only an occasional check-in and resetting in case it misses the mark or triggers accidentally.

A pioneer who happened to be a seasoned trapper could, in a relatively short period of time, place a wide array of traps throughout an area for a variety of game.

This requires a considerable commitment in trap theory, placement and understanding the behavioral patterns of the animals you are after.

But with a little skill and perhaps a little luck, those traps would be sitting at the ready, waiting for an animal to blunder into them while the pioneer who placed them is off tending to some other task.

Trapping is an excellent skill for preppers to learn because you can make use of primitive traps fashioned from found materials in nature, and also include some simple trap making material in your survival kit.

A few things like triggers, toggles and snare wire along with, perhaps, some small jawed traps to catch a variety of critters that populate different biomes is a good start and easy to pack.

This is an excellent skill to add to your prepping tool box especially if you are going to be surviving in a small group or are already planning on making hunting a big part of your provisioning plan.

Learn how to trap small game here.

14. Food Preservation Techniques

As mentioned several times throughout this article, for pioneers wasting anything useful but especially food was something to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, you cannot get the most useful life out of your food by trying to wolf it all down before it spoils.

Preserving food so that it is safe to eat at a later date, especially when food is not readily available, was a crucial skill for pioneers and remains critically important today, though it is all but assured thanks to our modern technology and food preparation processes.

Pioneers would preserve their meats, vegetables and fruits in a variety of ingenious ways, and sometimes incorporate them into a single dish to make survival rations out of them.

Pioneers utilized many methods that are still around today, both at the commercial and the individual levels; salting, brining, pickling, smoking, drying and jerking can all produce long lasting foodstuffs that are at least nominally palatable.

This was done both to pad the pantry and also to create compact and long-lasting trail food that would last for long journeys on foot or horseback.

You would be wise to learn how to incorporate these techniques into your own prepping tool set, and for bonus points you can learn how to use them without the benefit of modern appliances and electricity.

It is all achievable, but just like everything else on this list it will require practice and dedication in order to reliably and safely pull it off.

But once you can, you will benefit just as the pioneers did, by preserving and ensuring the food you worked so hard to obtain will be there when you need it.

15. Knowledge of Local Plants and Wildlife

Taken for granted more than perhaps any other entry on this list, a thorough knowledge of plants and animals in a given region was essential for safety and success back when the pioneers were out pushing the boundaries, literally.

Today, virtually every human on earth benefits from the accumulated wisdom about both flora and fauna that has been collected, collated and tested (sometimes painfully and sometimes fatally) by the people who came before us.

Pioneers needed to know what they were looking at when investigating the world around them.

The sheer variety and subtle differences between innocent and harmful plants can be maddening: everything from poisonous ivies and their mundane lookalikes to the differences in edible mushrooms versus toxic ones, and don’t even get me started on berries!

Pioneers had to determine which was safe to eat, which had some medicinal value and which would kill them deader than a doornail or just make them gravely ill.

Animals and insects are also often capable of nasty surprises, and even the ones that are harmless might not be good to eat or worth the time to hunt or trap. Others were just pests and countermeasures had to be devised in order to keep them out of food and furs and off their animals.

Very luckily, you will not have to start from scratch on this endeavor but you should work no less hard to gain a comprehensive knowledge on the plants, fungi and animals be they terrestrial or aquatic that exist in your region.

Aside from bringing you closer to nature, this intricate knowledge will help you be more successful when the time comes to make your own way living out in the harsh beauty of the wilderness.


The pioneers of eras and empires gone by have much to teach modern-day preppers when it comes to competency, ingenuity and sheer tenacity in the face of odds where any major failure would likely mean death.

When you have no one else to rely on except your group, everybody had to be capable of stepping up to do what needed to be done. The lessons we can learn from these super-prepared individuals will serve us very well in our own quest to become self-reliant.

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