Interview with a Wandering Survivalist

Lucas Rebrovic is 3 years into a 12 year project where he and a close friend, Sheina Lew-Levy, are spending one month every year living off the land in a semi-primitive fashion. This third year, Lucas found himself traveling nomadically with a lightweight setup that consisted largely of things he made himself.

Interview By Luke Kantola / Featuring Lucas Rebrovic

You’ve been going on primitive living trips for a few years now. Tell me how that started.

It was New Years 2012. A bunch of us who went to survival school together got to talking about how cool it would be to do a primitive living experiment for a year. It was all very exciting.

One person in particular, Sheina, was really excited as well. We named the trip, ‘Penetrating the Bush,’  because that seemed like the most important thing to do. But it became very clear over the course of the next year that people weren’t that serious about it. 

What was stopping people from going?

You know, life happens. It’s hard, or impossible, for people to take a year off from their lives. And the amount of planning and preparation that would go into that is crazy. I didn’t know what that would take.

Lucas on the first trip in 2013  Photo by: Sheina Lew-Levy

Lucas on the first trip in 2013  Photo by: Sheina Lew-Levy

But you know now?

I have a better idea, yeah.

What was the original, year-long survival trip going to look like?

The original idea was more of a Dick Proenneke thing. We’d bring lots of man-made stuff, rice, knives, guns, and whittle that down to a more primitive thing as the months went on.

Tell me how what you are doing now spawned from the original idea.

A year later Sheina and I decided we still wanted to do it. The year seemed a little crazy, because it was. Instead, we decided to pick a different month every year for the next 12 years to fit into our lives better. The first month we picked was July.

Sheina and Luke before setting off this year in August

Sheina and Luke before setting off this year in August

So the project you’re working on now is a 12-year commitment?

Yeah. We are three years in.

Whenever I talk to you, you still seem excited about a yearlong project.

If other people were on-board I would be super excited to do a yearlong primitive living project. Depending on the people I think.

What kind of people would you want to go out with?

Cool people. Nah, I mean skilled people… People with the right attitude is most important.

What keeps you going?

Trust is important. I never really wonder if Sheina is trying hard. Trust matters a lot out there. I trust that she is trying so that makes me try hard, too.

Sheina on the second Penetrating the Bush trip in 2014

Sheina on the second Penetrating the Bush trip in 2014

Tell me more about your experience the past 2 years…

The first two years were stone-age trips. We didn’t have any metal, but we did use metal to make some of the things we brought. We also wanted to harvest all of our own food. We harvested some during the trip and some we dried before hand.

How was this year different than the project you had initially envisioned?

A big part of why this third trip felt so smooth and luxurious was because I kind of let go of the need for it to be primitive. I just kind of did whatever. It felt really natural.

So I think because of that I was able to relax and have more fun. The first two years had moments of fun, but it wasn’t a fun experience. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty that I wasn’t catching enough food, that I wasn’t good enough.

Lucas explaining his most recent trip

Lucas explaining his most recent trip

How was it less primitive?

We had modern fishing stuff. That made a huge difference. We had more modern shit than the past years. That’s for sure. A steel water bottle, a water filter (giardia sucks), a couple knives, modern clothes.

And you were on the move, right?

I stayed a couple weeks longer than Sheina this year. After she left, I rested for about a week then I ditched some gear and took off wandering with this pack.

Luke with his survival gear on his back

Luke with his survival gear on his back

How far did you end up walking?

I’m not sure. It was over about a week and was probably around 40 miles. I got to explore a lot more, and I made these tire sandals along the way that allowed me to walk a lot further each day. I ended up treating it like a scouting trip for hunting locations.

How were the sandals?

These sandals were great. They definitely gave me a lot of blisters before I found this hose, though. I was a little worried about hiking all the way back without them.

I found a mountain bike tire, and I had some parachute cord. So that’s what I made. They’re great slippers. The first two trips I didn’t have shoes. The first year, I tried to bring some buckskin shoes but they fell apart immediately. The second year was another failed experiment. They were dog shit. I must have offended the shoe gods at some point.

Another challenge you have going is to not buy footwear for a year, right?

Well not any clothes, actually…

Oh man! The last time we talked about this it was just footwear. What happened?

No, no, no since December it was clothes, but the clothes are easy. The footwear is the hard part of that challenge so I probably talk about it more.

Where was your food coming from when you left that spot?

That first night I bushwhacked to a gas station and I dumpstered there. I got some really shitty food. It was fun to be in the dumpster, but I got tired of that stuff so I went back to fishing. I ate some burdock and thistle that was growing along the sandbar. I felt like a raccoon, which was what I wanted to feel like.

"I hid a lot. I don't know what it feels like to be a wild animal but I felt as much like that as I can imagine."

Would you have felt as much like a raccoon without the dumpster diving element? Because it seems like a more practical hybrid of a survival experience in today’s world.

Yeah, because I was tired of eating fish and mice and snakes so I went and got food from the dumpster. And when I was tired of eating garbage I went back to eating fish and roots. That felt really sweet that I could do that. I just felt so free that I could do whatever the hell I wanted. I felt like I could go anywhere and just be fine for as long as I wanted to.

Yeah, the fat of the land looks a little different than it ever has before with the abundance of dumpster food…

Do you think the way you were going about this trip that it’s a way you could live perpetually?

Yeah, definitely. I pretty much relaxed for a week after Sheina left. You know, [my friend] Charlie came out and brought some snacks. That was really nice, because I don’t think I would have been able to get into the right headspace to go out and wander without that week.

Lucas is a professional blacksmith and all of the knives he brings with him are his own handmade blades.
Lucas is a professional blacksmith and all of the knives he brings with him are his own handmade blades.

It’s almost like your trip has three really distinct segments. First you had a more primitive trip with Sheina, then Charlie came with food and you recouped a bit, then you set out on this epic nomadic adventure.

Yeah, the trip really did have three segments. It was an evolution. Each one helped me relax more. I didn’t feel like I constantly had to catch food and set all these traps. And because of that I got better at catching food. The less worried I was about catching food the better at it I was.

You said earlier that because you weren’t as strict on the primitive thing you were actually able to learn more.

For sure. It wasn't the trip I planned at all. I was torn up by grief about it not being as primitive as I planned, but it ended up feeling right.

It felt good to use modern things. Things I found, without my prior limitations of sticking to primitive gear. I could find a glass bottle on the road and boil water to make tea. That was great. It felt good. It felt really smooth. It was so much fun and very nourishing.

I found a lighter and a pot, too. Stuff was just out there. That night I wanted to eat fish and burdock. And then I saw that pot and I realized the boiled roots would be a better meal than my original plan to roast them. So I made a little fish stock in the pot and the boiled roots were so good.

Did you bring any food with you?

We brought sheep and goat jerky, rice, olive oil and salt. That was pretty luxurious. The goat I killed myself.

Tell me a little bit about your gear…

This goat hide was part of my sleep system. I put it over my feet. It helps keep me warm and allows me to bring my wool blanket all the way over my head.

Well the goat hide also happens to be your backpack, that's cool! One of the things I’m really interested in is a lightweight gear load, and it looks like that pack doesn’t have much in it… a ten pound wool blanket…

That’s the heaviest thing, yeah. That’s something I’ve always been interested in. I felt like I couldn’t do a lightweight thing and a primitive thing. It’s a little cumbersome but it’s really nice to have.

I wish I had a better system. I just kind of made it up. If I were to do this again I could make a better backpack for sure.

Tell me about the pack

About a year ago I slaughtered a goat. I wanted to use it for a water bag originally so I case skinned the goat, but that didn’t work out. I bark tanned the hide and at some point decided to use it as a pack.

Generally when I was walking I’d wear swim shorts and use my pants as padding for my shoulders.

What did you use in your bark tan solution?

Walnut husk and Western Hemlock bark.

How old is your wool blanket?

I made it 3 years ago. It's been on every trip with me.

Do you cook in your steel water bottle?

I don’t cook in it actually. I only boil water because otherwise it will hold flavors too much.

Tell me about your buckskin pouch…

This brain tanned hide is from the first deer I ever worked. It was road kill. It’s just a big old dumb bag.

This is a cool part of your kit -- the Sawyer Squeeze water filter.

Yeah, well it would have been cool to not bring a filter, but because of the burn ban we didn’t think we could boil enough water. The bags are shitty. We broke two right away.

Sawyer Squeeze with a repurposed plastic water bottle

Sawyer Squeeze with a repurposed plastic water bottle

What’s this?

That’s the emergency kit we took with us. First aid kit, cell phone, battery charger, and extra knife…

Anything else?

Yeah, I mean it felt really easy. Like any asshole could do this. Anybody who has done a little bit of camping, a little backpacking… Anybody could do this. It’s not too terribly challenging.


Yeah, it's just …

So maybe that makes it less interesting, but I like that.

I think that comment is a little out of touch with reality…

[laughing] Maybe so! I don’t know, all of my needs were met. Easy.

Just looking at a bow drill kit. I'm not sure your typical car campers would know how to hold that. Let alone get a coal on it.

Well, on the last 2 nights I used this Marilyn Monroe lighter I found...

What’s the next trip?

Sheina has some time in January. It looks like we’ll go on 4 short winter trips. Not primitive living. Survival. We’ll bring a knife for the first two trips and probably no knife for the last two. They’ll be 3 or 4 days long each. We’ll only have clothes, so we’ll have to get quick at building shelters and making fire kits. It is all about getting quick at meeting our basic needs.

Do you think you’ll do a trip like this one again?

I’d like to do a trip like this every summer if I could. I was a little nervous about being alone, but overall it felt really good.

The interview ended with Lucas climbing up onto the roof. Not a huge surprise.