Survival expert: Check!
Primitive skills instructor: Check!
Rock climber and triathlete: Check!
These are all true statements without a doubt, but what truly exemplifies Matt Graham as “exceptional” is his ability to make even the most difficult challenges when deep within the wild appear as a Sunday stroll through a neighborhood park.
While some outdoorsmen perceive their time out in nature as a challenge or a virtual “Mother Nature against me,” Matt’s philosophy is quite different. Since a very young age, he has developed a bond — or even more accurately, a relationship — with the outdoors that few people can emulate, let alone, fully understand.
Matt’s unique approach to surviving in diverse environments originates from his love of primitive skills, ancient weaponmaking and proficiency, and his ability to use little or no modern gear when immersed alone in the heart of nature.
“WE NEVER KNOW WHAT HAND WE’LL BE DEALT AND SHOULD BE PREPARED TO CONFRONT ALL POSSIBILITIES.”
With such specialized skills and outside-the-box mindset, Matt has become one of today’s leading primitive survival experts. Because of this, he is in demand on screen and as a consultant behind the scenes of such notable television shows such as “Dual Survival,” “Living Wild,” “Dude, You’re Screwed,” “Survivorman” and “The Amazing Race.”
In our exclusive interview, Matt opened up to ASG about his survival philosophy, what pushes him to his uppermost limits, and why he always has that never-fail, big smile on his face.
AMERICAN SURVIVAL GUIDE: Who influenced you to explore the wide world of nature in general and survival specifically?
MATT GRAHAM: If I look back, there have probably been many people that have influenced my path with nature. Some in major ways, and some more subtle. The first two people that really gave me some insight and inspiration to native skills were a curator at a museum in Yosemite National Park and a native Miwok woman living there. I had moved to the valley to climb when I was 17. I would often sit for hours watching the Miwok woman — I believe her name was Lucy — making baskets and long beautiful cordage from milkweed fibers.
The curator taught me how to make my first friction fire. He also made beautiful sinew-backed juniper Ishi-style bows, processed acorns, and would make elaborate carrying nets from milkweed or dogbane fiber! I was a climber and mountain runner at the time, but this exposure had me take a deeper look at my interaction with nature. I spent the next few years wandering the Sierras on foot and practicing these skills.
In my early 20s, I was searching for a bigger community of people engaged in connected outdoor living. I saw an ad in a magazine for Boulder Outdoor Survival School, but it was in Utah! I had never been there and didn’t own a car. Nonetheless, I tied a few things to my bicycle and peddled over from California.
Immediately I fell in love with the land and met several mentors—to name a few: Breck Crystal, Dave Wescott, David Holiday. They have all taught me many things along my journey to becoming a teacher myself and have become good friends since.
ASG: What, for you, is ideal while living under survival conditions? To be alone, with a partner, or in a small group?
MG: Physically it’s often easier alone. However, the experience of having a group work cohesively together in a wilderness environment may be one of the best feelings ever!
ASG: Humans are naturally social animals. Was it a challenge for you to spend long amounts of time without interacting with other people?
MG: Truth is, it’s a bit of a conundrum at times for me. I’m very social as well, and I also thrive when pushing myself, and immersing deep into the land. Even though I’ve spent up to six months at a time alone in the wilderness, I had always felt like it was a short amount of time in the grand spectrum of my life. I feel most alive when I’m raw with the land, and I’d love others to see their connection with the earth too. Rewinding humanity in an advancing technological existence is a process that needs gentle massaging.
ASG: On that same subject, how would you recommend to a normal Joe how to prepare for long-term isolation from other people?
MG: It’s different for everyone. For me, I had to feel a deep connection with the land to spend long periods of time alone in it. The logical mind says, “I need lots of gear to survive long term.“ For some this may be the case, however an excess of technology will make you feel like a foreign visitor in the wild, like an alien on another planet. In order to stay for long periods alone in the wild, you must feel a sense of belonging.
ASG: Of all the environments that you have been exposed to, which pushed you to the furthest limits physically and mentally?
MG: That’s a good question. When I surrender to any environment or place myself in a survival challenge, I get pushed in different ways. In expansive desert environments I often get pushed with lack of water and endurance needed to make long stretches without food or water. Jungle environments bring out my inner Tarzan and I feel quite at home, but I get challenged with the number of insects and creatures that like to make a meal out of your skin. Cold environments probably have the most immediate threat of death if you make the wrong decisions or get caught out without a proper plan.
With all this being said, I don’t think humans are necessarily meant to master multiple environments in a lifetime. I think you have to find the one that calls to you and you have to stick with it. It’s really been my exposure with TV that has forced me into so many survival circumstances around the world.
ASG: Too many times people say they are going out to beat Mother Nature, yet failure is a common result. How do you respond to that statement?
MG: We are nature. To think you’re going to beat it is only giving yourself the lashings.
ASG: If you could stock only a fanny pack-size kit on an extended outdoor getaway, what items would you include and why?
MG: I should preface that my interactions with nature are more about connection and long-term sustainability than immediate survival that the average person may face. As a teacher, I share tools with students that allow them to maximize the help of nature rather than focusing on the best go bag.
I make my waist pack by rolling up a 5-by-5-foot piece of thin cloth (sheet thickness). It weighs the same as a waist pack yet serves as a tool to sleep under, gather materials, and keep insects off.
When I’d roam in the canyons for weeks at a time in the summer and fall, I would carry within the waist roll a mini hand-drill fire kit; stone knife; buckskin bag of nuts, pinole or dried berries; a silk sleeping bag liner; and sometimes a small cup-size vessel to cook in. Nowadays, I’ve experimented with more gear, but the cloth roll setup is what I have the most experience with and feel the freest with.
ASG: For most people, being hungry affects them negatively, even after only a day or so. What do you feel is the best method or technique to overcome the first few days of having no food?
MG: Some people get the “hangries” because it’s a foreign feeling to them. They feel out of control and closer to death. In a sense, they are all these things. That is nature. To live with it for the past 100,000 years, we’ve always had to surrender and trust it. Today, the modern diet has so much carbohydrates and sugars that people have harder crashes in the wild.
I’ve experimented a lot with my off-trail diet. In the past, I’d eat more like a vegetarian when off the trail because it seemed more ethical. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep my diet closer to what I’d eat when in the wild, and I’m finding I need less food and adapt better. It’s up to us individually to decide what’s important. Eating is definitely fun and social.
ASG: How does one know when they should take the chance of drinking bad water versus risking the onset of dehydration?
MG: I have seen a lot of misguided information on this subject in the past. I often heard many “professionals” say never drink the water in a survival situation because you’ll get sick and throw it all up. In deep wilderness situations, void of chemical pollutants, the water is generally drinkable for most people that don’t consume medications, antibiotics, or drink a lot of chlorinated water ordinarily. All these things disrupt good flora levels in the stomach and make you more susceptible to simple waterborne bacteria that our bodies have been fine with for thousands of years.
Also, most natural waterborne parasites take multiple days to be harmful if you’re susceptible. If you are in danger of dehydration and there is wild water nearby that doesn’t have a dead animal laying in it or chemical pollutants in it, it’s probably a good idea to take a drink, walk out, then deal with any repercussions later.
If you are out for a short day hike and you forgot your water bottle, then it’s up to your discretion. I stopped filtering my water because I was living as a hunter-gatherer and found boiling and filtering took away from the connection. I have drunk thousands of gallons of wild water over the years. I’ve only been sick twice, and I was able to cure it quickly using sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) followed with Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) root.
ASG: Let’s say a person with no outdoor training or experience wants to get into the world of survival. Where does he or she start?
MG: Seek out the most experienced instruction, then get excited about what you learned. Read a lot and immerse yourself into the wilderness.
ASG: What is most important, trial and error in the field or steady research before you venture out? Or is it a combination of both?
MG: I think it’s about personal drive, balance and what you believe in. Currently, there is very little research that’s going to give the tools necessary to thrive with the land. It takes a lifetime to master an environment. We have become a culture of quantity over quality, wanting to know more and experience less when it comes to wilderness.
I think if someone is serious about learning a specific environment, they would benefit hugely by seeking out someone who has devoted their life to the environment and skills necessary to thrive there. Then they can begin to make their own personal journey with it. If a person is only interested in short-term disaster preparedness, there are also guides for this.
ASG: With the most recent end-of-the-world predictions passed by and many people not thinking about preparedness, do you feel that complacency has set in?
MG: To be a fully present human being is to accept all matters of time. One cannot be fully present in the now if they are denying the past and future at the same time. We can always learn a lot by looking at the past and understanding where the future lies.
I don’t believe that dwelling in the future is healthy either, and we are becoming exceedingly dependent on fragile ways of living. We have hidden behind our technology rather than incorporate it into healthier ways of living. It’s never too late for change, but it does appear things will get quite a bit rougher before that awareness takes place again.
ASG: Looking back over your career, or even your entire life, are there any times that you would jump in an instant to change or alter if you could?
MG: No. I’m where I’m supposed to be.
ASG: How has your outlook evolved concerning survival and preparedness from the beginning of your survival career to the present?
MG: I’ve never really been into those things very much. My time in the wilderness started from an athletic place of running and climbing. Eventually this got me to look at how traditional cultures lived more harmonious lives on the planet.
ASG: Is it difficult to balance a simple back-to-nature lifestyle while still following production schedules, keeping up with your followers on social media and many other everyday commitments?
MG: I have allowed many of my skills and connection with the land to stagnate in order to take the time to share it, create awareness and entertain through television and film. For now, that’s OK because it’s a necessary phase of my life. There will probably be a time when I prefer being in the wilderness over all of it.
ASG: Overall you enjoy using primitive weapons and more specifically the atlatl. Could you share some background as to how you were introduced to these centuries-old weapons?
MG: I never really liked guns growing up, but I romanticized about being able to live with the land as past native cultures had. This led me into passionate experimentation of all these land-based tools.
ASG: I believe you were developing a line of atlatls with modern-day materials for the public? Is that nearing completion and will it soon be available for purchase?
MG: For such a simple tool, figuring out the best way to develop it for the general public to learn from and enjoy this tool has required a bit more massaging than expected. I believe I have some gears lined up for it now though.
ASG: What helps to keep you motivated on your journey to explore all things Mother Nature has to offer?
MG: Nature is mysterious and magical! You never really fully understand or master her, but she always keeps you engaged. I think for me, I like the feeling of being pushed and comforted all in the same moment. I got into the outdoors initially from a strong athletic drive but quickly transitioned into finding more connected ways of living outside. Both get me excited and still encompass my life in one way or another.
”FOR ME, I HAD TO FEEL A DEEP CONNECTION WITH THE LAND TO SPEND LONG PERIODS OF TIME ALONE IN IT.”
ASG: Hypothetically, if you could meet, spend time with, and learn from another person in your field, whom would you choose and why?
MG: I always love spending time with other friends or peers in my field, and we always learn things together. I think if I were to find deeper answers that have not been answered, it would involve spending time with a Stone Age tribe (if they still exist) in Australia, or the Amazon.
Personally speaking though, I still have a lot of personal exploration and drive for continuing my understanding of the Western U.S. I don’t believe humans are meant to be global masters. At some point, you have to choose a place and learn to thrive there.
ASG: What does the future hold for Matt Graham? Any new books, television shows or interesting news for your fans?
MG: Currently my life has many directions it could go. I am working on teaching more and building an educational platform. I also want to do more human-powered adventures and much more hunter-gatherer time. Work on my relationships and friendships.
I have a couple more projects and possible series that I may do with Discovery (Channel). I’m continuing to design more and working more in a producer position. I will also be working a Stone Age film project for a British network in the fall. There may also be more to do with the “First Man Out” series which is airing now.
ASG: Finally, using only three words, how would you describe yourself?
MG: Passionate, interested and interesting.Matt’s Little Bugger Fixed Blade Knife
Designed by Matt, the Little Bugger was created to fill the niche of an all-purpose knife while being lightweight and compact enough to store nearly anywhere. Matt, while out in the wild, usually wears a minimal amount of clothing, so he needed a knife that could fit easily into his shorts and stay put while running, climbing or trekking through dense vegetation. This full-tang knife features a modified scandi grind, it stays razor sharp even after extended use, and is ready to tackle nearly any task in a variety of environments.
- Overall length: 5.75 inches
- Blade length: 2.38 inches
- Blade thickness: 0.09 inch
- Blade steel: 1095 hardened to RC 56-58
- Blade finish: Tumbled
- Handles: Tan canvas Micarta
- Weight: 2.40 ounces
- Sheath: Coyote Tan Kydex
The atlatl is the hunting tool I feel the greatest connection with. There is something magical about the way it sails through the air with precision. I believe for the amount of time required to build and maintain it, it’s still one of the most effective tools, primitive or otherwise. It’s also been used as a hunting tool in the evolution of humanity perhaps longer than any other effective hunting tool, and has been used by every culture, color, or race of people on the planet.
I made my first atlatl 23 years ago. It wasn’t that great, so I presumed it was a tool you had to grow up with to be proficient at, a thing for old history books. However, my curiosity led me to immediately make about 40 atlatls, taking roots from many different cultural designs. Eventually, I found one I liked. It wasn’t long before it was feeding me fish and game on a daily basis.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.