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If the off-grid way of life is calling to you, you already have an adventurous spirit. However, to succeed as a self-sufficient homesteader, you also need to learn these basic pioneer skills.
Our forefathers and foremothers did not consider this list to be anything other than ordinary, but knowing them will set you apart from the average American today. Here are 20 pioneer skills you need to know in order to be self-sufficient.
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1. Raising Livestock
Even a small homestead can support a few animals to supply milk, eggs, and meat. The amount of space you have will determine whether you just raise chickens and rabbits or also larger animals such as cows, sheep, and goats.
It’s best to start small and work your way up the learning curve when it comes to raising livestock. A few details to consider before taking on the commitment of animals on your homestead are:
- Do you have the required fencing and shelter for the animals?
- Can you secure these areas from predators?
- How will you get water to the animals – especially in the winter months?
Here are two resources to help you get started:
- The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals
- The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre!
2. Hunting and Fishing
You can supplement what you raise with what you hunt. Depending on where you live, you can hunt fowl, deer, elk, or moose. If you are hunting or fishing off your own property, be sure to study the legal requirements for hunting and fishing in your local area.
If you have never hunted before, don’t worry, you can still learn. Some states offer workshops for beginners, such as these classes in Oregon. Here are some other sources to help:
- It’s Never Too Late to Learn to Hunt
- How To Get Started Hunting as an Adult Who Never Learned as a Kid
3. Starting a Fire and Cooking Over Open Fire
Two of the most ancient practical life skills are starting a fire and cooking over an open fire.
Firewood should be as dry as possible and can vary in size from one to five inches in diameter. To create a fire pit, first clear away any vegetation or dead grass for 10 feet around.
Then dig down into the bare soil for several inches, setting the loose dirt off to the side for use in case the fire gets out of hand. Another option is to mound the dirt or place large rocks around the perimeter of the pit to insulate the fire.
Now lay a bed of tinder about a foot in diameter in the center of the fire pit. Tinder is light, quick burning material. In addition to commercial fire sticks and fire starters, there are many forms of tinder available on your homestead, including wood shavings, cardboard pieces, and dryer lint.
For cooking, arrange your kindling in a teepee form over your tinder. Next, build a larger teepee of firewood over the kindling. With this format, flames will rise through the kindling to ignite the larger pieces of wood.
Here are some resources to help you light your outdoor fire and to cook over it:
Growing your own food is an essential part of a self-sufficient lifestyle. Whether you are growing fruit and vegetables in containers on a patio or in the ground in a large area of acreage, homesteaders need to know the basics of gardening.
As you become more experienced, you will discover ways to cut your gardening expenses by recycling your containers and re-germinating seeds. Here are two guides to year-round harvesting:
- Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long
- The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year
5. Food Preservation
A savvy homesteader stores the bounty from a hunting trip or a garden harvest for future use. Preserving food helps ensure you have enough to eat in harsh weather or in other emergency situations. It also saves you money.
The main types of food preservation include:
- Root Cellaring
The method you use depends on the food you are preserving and the space and equipment you have. Many homesteaders discover there is both art and science to food preservation. You will no doubt have some trial and error experiences, but there is nothing like opening that jar of summer peaches in the dead of winter,
Here are three resources for food preservation:
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
- Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques
- Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke, and Store Fruits, Vegetables, Meat, Milk, and More
Along with hunting and raising your own livestock comes the skill of butchering. An animal that is not properly cleaned and butchered can cause food waste and even illness. It is a complicated process that is best learned by working with someone who knows how to do it.
Here is a pictorial guide to butchering smaller animals:
- Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering
Here is a helpful video that gives an overview of butchering a cow:
Tanning hides and making leather is another important skill for the frugal homesteader. Not only will this skill help you better provide for your own family’s needs, but you may be able to sell or trade your leather goods to others.
Here is an interesting video on the traditional tanning process:
And here is a video that shows a simpler tanning process for the homestead:
8. Sewing and Weaving
With simple hand sewing skills, you can mend clothes, replace buttons, and darn socks. When you build upon these skills to make clothes for your family, you will save money and become more self-sufficient. Plus, it is a very satisfying creative outlet.
There are many books and videos that teach basic sewing and weaving skills. Once again, it is best to learn by apprenticing with someone who knows how.
Here are a few books and a video covering the basics:
- Sewing 101: A Beginners Guide to Sewing
- Weaving for Beginners: An Illustrated Guide
- Sewing Machine Basics: A Step-By-Step Course for First-Time Stitchers
9. Well Drilling
An essential part of independence from the grid is having your own water supply. Therefore, learning to find water and to dig a well are skills a homesteader should know.
A well is simply a hole in the ground that reaches deep enough to find underground water. In most locations, you can find water at less than 50 feet below the surface. After locating the water, the main components to a well are its casing – which in the simplest of pumps can be four-inch PVC pipe – and its pump.
Here are two helpful videos:
10. Basic Carpentry
Chicken coops, barns, decks, fencing, shelves, even play structures — there is no end to the things you may need or want to build on your homestead. Basic carpentry skills will come in handy to make repairs as well.
Some carpenters and even home stores offer classes for beginners, and learning is best by doing. You also will need to invest in a set of quality tools for your projects.
Here are a few resources for beginners:
- Step-by-Step Basic Carpentry
- Woodworking Basics – Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship
- Carpentry for Beginners: How to Use Tools, Basic Joints, Workshop Practice, Designs for Things to Make
Many people rely on GPS and other navigation systems without ever learning how to use a compass or a map.
Modern systems are great tools, but they can fail. However, if you learn time-tested techniques for navigation, you’ll be able to send yourself back in the right direction even in the wilderness.
The best navigators are keenly aware of their surroundings. They pay close attention to the weather and to natural landmarks.
Here are two books for beginners:
- Staying Found: The Complete Map & Compass Book
- Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter, & GPS
12. Basic First Aid
With all the work involved in running a homestead, minor injuries can be commonplace. Common sense (proper lighting, footwear, and equipment, for example) and foresight can prevent some of them but not all of them.
Five first aid skills everyone should know include:
- Cleaning and Dressing Wounds
- Making a Makeshift Splint or Sling
- CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)
- Treating Shock
- The Heimlich Maneuver
Foraging for food in the wilderness is an important life skill. Nuts, berries, mushrooms, and other plants can be an important food source in an emergency situation, and they can also be part of your regular meals.
Proper identification of edibles is essential for your health and safety. Familiarize yourself with the herbs, weeds, bushes, and trees in your local area and learn as much as you can about your ecosystem.
Your local university extension service can be a great resource. Here are a couple of books to consider:
- Identifying & Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants
- The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
14. Bartering and Trading
We can’t all be proficient at everything. Therefore, successful homesteaders build a network of like-minded individuals with whom they can trade and barter.
What services, products, and skills do you possess that you can trade with others for what you need? You might consider establishing a local group like this one, the Maryland Homesteader and Barter Network.
15. Making Your Own Entertainment
Homesteading is not just about working, it is an entire way of life. And that lifestyle includes time to relax and enjoy your family.
As you become more self-sufficient, you’ll also want to expand your abilities to create homemade, low-tech fun. Bring out the puzzles and the board games. Learn card games and charades. Play musical instruments and sing together. Tell stories and read aloud as a family.
Blacksmiths could repair anything from irons to wheels to fishing equipment to horseshoes to farm equipment and so on. Every town had and needed a blacksmith.
In today’s world, knowing how to repurpose metal and having the proper equipment to do so will be critical. The wonders that you can do with an anvil, hammer, and a hot forge are truly marvelous. Even though this is a very difficult skill to learn, even basic blacksmithing knowledge and experience will go a long way. Start here:
17. Candle Making
Pioneers had to know how to make candles. After all, electricity, flashlights, and light bulbs were not around back then. That’s why pioneers relied on simple tallow or beeswax candle as a light source (and as a source of warmth) inside indoor structures.
While many pioneers would simply buy candles, others would actually build their own. At the very least, you can treat candle making as a fun hobby that you do on the side once or twice a week. Here’s a good one to start with:
18. Soap Making
Soap will serve many practical purposes in a grid-down scenario. Not only is it absolutely vital for cleaning/hygienic purposes and for keeping bad diseases at bay, it will also be a very valuable bartering tool.
Most pioneers made soap from potash soup, lye, and animal fat. Like candle making, learning how to make soap does not have to be a difficult process. Treat it like a fun hobby where you practice it once or twice a week. Here are a few tutorials to start with:
- How to Make Soap from Fat and Ashes
- Simple Soap Recipe With Olive Oil and Coconut Oil
- Oat & Honey Soap Recipe for Beginners
- How to Make Castile Soap (The Most Gentle Soap!)
Here’s one you may not have thought of. However, the pioneers from years gone past needed bees to pollinate their crops and produce wax (and of course, their honey). That’s why movable comb hives used to be a common presence in America.
Granted, the idea of having stinging insects flying around may not sound appealing to you, but the endless supply of honey and wax for medicinal and rainproofing purposes should hopefully outweigh that.
If you end up owning a cow on your property or homestead, this is something you’ll need to learn to do. Milking a cow is something that most pioneers knew how to do. However, milk was actually used very rarely due to no pasteurization and poor storage conditions, but pioneers could still make other products such as butter or cheeses out of them.
Self-sufficiency is a process, not an event. As you find more ways to become independent from the modern grid, remember to enjoy the new freedom that comes with the journey.
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3 Pioneer Lessons
There are thousands of preppers and homesteaders preparing for an “SHTF event,” but what they’re preparing for is what folks 150 years ago called “daily life.” They didn’t have electricity, air conditioning, microwaves, computers, or any of the modern conveniences we take for granted, and they did just fine.
How exactly did they do it? Watch the video below to learn some pioneer lessons that will change your life: