Central Texans Turn to Survival Skills Training, Not Just To Prep for Doomsday
The world might not have ended today (although the day is still young), but that’s not to say something big won’t happen one day, and some Austinites are getting prepared by learning primitive hunting, herbal medicine, water filtration, and simply self-confidence.
“People are more concerned with survival skills because it is imminent that something will happen. We can’t continue at the rate we are moving without hitting a cliff,” said Sam Coffman, the founder, director and lead instructor of The Human Path. “Whether drought, famine, disease, economic meltdown, war, natural disasters, it is inevitable even if we weren’t treating the planet as though it were disposable, that we will hit a wall as the human population reaches its tipping point.”
A growing number of Central Texans are turning to groups and schools that teach survival, natural medicine, homesteading, and hunting and gathering skills to get back to nature, prepare for “the big one” or just to test themselves.
Roy Wenmohs runs Texas Atlatl, a group that aims to provide a venue for people to exchange ideas about the atlatl, a primitive spear-like hunting tool and its uses, as well as other primitive skills, experimental archaeology and survival skills. The group specializes in primitive weapons, like archery, sling, bolas, knife and tomahawk throwing, blowgun, rabbit-stick, whips, and more, in addition to the atlatl.
“We have been doing this stuff for years and nobody was interested, but now it seems like we are going mainstream,” Wenmohs said. “Now, students from survival schools and martial arts schools are coming to us for specialized weapons training. More women are getting involved nowadays, and our camps for kids fill up before we can officially post them.”
The Human Path has experienced huge growth for a variety of reasons since he founded it about five years ago, Coffman said, citing 100 percent growth each year the school has been open.
“Often, they are folks who are looking for some purpose or sense of community in their life, and we provide lots of that,” Coffman said. “There has been a huge increase, but I attribute it more to the fact that people are starting to know we’re here.”
A desire to connect with the planet is also a major draw for many students, Coffman said.
“The majority of our culture thinks food grows in a Styrofoam McDonald’s box, and 20 percent of our country’s population is on some kind of behavioral medication that creates a severe psychological change when removed,” he said. “These are just a couple of very small examples of the kind of complete disconnect from our natural world we are experienced. It is unprecedented and the results will be unprecedented as a result. I think more people are realizing this.”
Lynn Rose Demartini has been involved in alternative heath practices for 35 years and says she’s quick to question the status quo. That, coupled with seeing an increasing number of people in the world who don’t value self-sufficiency, independent critical thinking skills and an increase in the “gimme” attitude, helped lead her to The Human Path, she said.
“What many people refer to as ‘preppers’ or ‘survivalists’ are simply people trying to get back to that independence, not crazy, paranoid psychopaths,” Demartini said, adding that part of why she began taking classes was to learn skills in homesteading and wilderness self-sufficiency. “I felt that it would be a very beneficial thing to learn all I could to lessen the impact in my life of any interruption in what we have taken for granted.”
Demartini has been taking classes at The Human Path since 2009 and says they’ve changed her for the better.
“These classes challenge me and make me reach beyond my comfort zone to test my limits. Confidence in your ability to manage hardships is gained with every skill acquired and is a precious gift,” she said. “I am not the same person I was four years ago and am glad.”
Coffman, a former Green Beret medic started The Human Path in San Antonio to, as the school’s mission states, bring “people closer to the earth, closer to self-awareness, and teaching them to be the best possible person in the worst possible circumstances.” The school’s main campus, composed of 50 acres, is in north Comal County in Bulverde. Classes, taught by 11 instructors, cover topics like field medicine, self-defense, herbology, primitive hunting and fishing, leadership skills, bow making, blacksmithing, cheese and butter making, spirituality, scouting and much more. Students can also earn Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification and Wilderness First Aid certification, and in the summer, the school offers classes for children.
“The purpose is not just to teach ‘one-off’ survival skills. You can get that at any survival school. There are literally dozens of survival schools that will teach you a bow-drill, hand-drill or how to make a friction fire,” Coffman said, adding that at The Human Path, he strives to make “50 percent or more of what we offer be something you cannot get anywhere else.”
Classes are composed of 30 to 40 percent lecture and 60 to 70 percent hands-on instruction. A dozen times a year, part of the learning experience is scenario; the school hires role players to act out post-disaster or post-apocalyptic scenarios in which students can put their skills to test. The best known is probably the Zombie Apocalypse scenario, held around Halloween every year.
“This is based off of an evolving plot line, with about 50 to 60 zombie role-players, good guys and bad guys, and lots of conflicts as students show up, inevitably get all their gear taken from them by some version of bad guy and have to survive on their wits, skills and endurance alone for a 24 hour scenario,” Coffman said. “There’s usually a lot of drama of one type or another.”
It’s not all adrenaline-charged fun and games. Coffman also operates a non-profit called Herbal Medics, which aims to help people in remote and disaster-torn parts of the world learn self-sufficiency and medicine. Last year, Herbal Medics took 13 The Human Path students to a remote part of Nicaragua, where they built – and taught others how to build – water purification and sanitation systems using only materials they had on hand. The students also taught classes on plant medicine and ran an herbal clinic that saw almost 200 patients in just over two days, Coffman said.
Timothy Helmstetter began taking classes at The Human Path in July out of a desire to help people after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the earthquake in Haiti. Over Thanksgiving, he put the skills he’s been learning to the test when he joined Coffman’s group to Nicaragua. This year, he’ll be working with the school to build earthen houses and a homestead, the techniques for which the group will then take back to Nicaragua and to nearby Native American reservations.
“The goal is to help people who have been forgotten by our modern world and cannot afford modern pharmaceuticals, housing, and food – to teach them how all this is available to them from the earth and in the process develop a deep appreciation and respect for our environment,” he said. “The plus side to all of this is that if some disaster were to occur here, my family and I will be prepared and less a burden on the responders. And if no disaster ever comes, I've created a much less stressful lifestyle, eating much healthier foods and [gaining] the ability to take care of myself with the plants that grow all around me.”
In 2013, Coffman plans to take students to return to Nicaragua and also visit Colonias on the Texas and Mexico border. The experience – learning what you’re capable of and that you can rely on yourself – can be a life-changer for some students, Coffman said.
“We don’t set out to do this, but we change lives,” he said. “People get divorced because of what they experienced in our classes. People get married because of what they experienced in our classes. People commute from Dallas and Houston to take our classes. People move from Dallas, Houston, etc., so they can be closer and take more of our classes. Some of our students practically live at the school they’re there so much. And they all form their own community of people you would want to call if there was a disaster, believe me. They’re the kind of people you hope you can have as your neighbor.”
Through their shared experiences, those involved in survival skill training say their classmates become their community.
“They have quickly become a family to me,” Helmstetter said about his classmates. “They are people that share my same interests and beliefs and understand what being a community is all about. I also gained a deeper respect for nature and our responsibility to protect this earth because you certainly learn how difficult life can be when all these things are gone.”