Two people are on top of a craggy hill in lakeland scenery in winter. They look small against a big sky

Photo by Stefan Boness/Panos Pictures



How to rewild yourself

You didn’t evolve to live in this techno-industrialised world. Find health and happiness by embracing your wild nature

Photo by Stefan Boness/Panos Pictures





Jessica Carew Kraft

is the author of Why We Need to Be Wild: One Woman’s Quest for Ancient Human Answers to 21st-Century Problems (2023). An independent journalist trained in anthropology, she is now a naturalist and wild food forager in the Sierra Foothills in northern California.

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

Have you ever felt that parts of your life work against your natural instincts? Perhaps you commute to work in heavy traffic when you’d rather be walking. Or you’d love to enjoy more time with your children after school, but your boss won’t let you adjust your office schedule. Maybe you fear that spending more than 90 per cent of your time indoors and nine hours a day looking at screens of various sizes isn’t setting you up to live your best life.

I had these thoughts while working in Silicon Valley, advising startups and venture capitalists on how to communicate about their new tech products. Like many tech workers, I regularly indulged in food delivery apps, called Uber rides, and racked up hundreds of pickups on my iPhone daily. The hectic, stressful pace of life never ceased. Yet I was smitten by the vision of the tech CEOs who told me that digital utopia would deliver solutions for everything from the drudgery of housework and long commutes to political gridlock and the worst effects of the climate crisis.

But I wasn’t seeing these benefits materialise, and I grew more miserable and unhealthy. Constantly fighting my instinct to direct my own actions, socialise with loved ones, and get outside eventually led to burnout.

I wasn’t alone. My peers were also sleep-deprived, anxious, self-medicating, and unable to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Rates of stress-related illnesses and mental health problems were (and still are) increasing among my demographic. I grew sceptical about the supposed benefits of 21st-century technological progress that came at the cost of our physical and mental wellbeing. From my training as an anthropologist, I knew that most cultures throughout history had not lived this way.

As Homo sapiens, we evolved in an environment and social context aligned with our instincts to be outside, procreate, find food, and celebrate with our small clan. For the vast majority of our 300,000 years as nomadic hunter-gatherers, we relied only on simple, hand-made technology. We satisfied all needs directly from nature and face-to-face communities of fewer than 150 people.

This means that most of us today are experiencing a profound discrepancy between how we evolved to live and how we now live. The unchanging material realities undergirding human life are food, clothing, shelter and fire – yet today most of us do not participate in directly providing these for ourselves or our families. In developed economies, less than 10 per cent of the labour force is involved with food production, and in the US and western Europe it is less than 5 per cent. The number of hunters is decreasing every year across industrialised countries, with 5 per cent in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and only 1 per cent of Europeans currently pursuing game. It’s exceedingly rare for anyone to build their own shelter and, in the era of fast fashion, only the privileged few can afford to make their own clothing.

In Western countries, most of us have also lost the benefits of a multigenerational, supportive clan because we live in isolated homes, paying for much of the care we used to get for free from our reciprocal relationships. We can hire others to provide childcare, education, medical treatment, therapy, entertainment, and spiritual ceremony. Those without resources often don’t get these essential human needs met.

We used to achieve community healing through storytelling, dancing and ritual, rather than self-medicating stress with all kinds of addictions, endless shopping and digital entertainment. Unlike the hunter-gatherer, whose daily activities are crucial to survival and to supporting the community, many of us work at what the anthropologist David Graeber termed ‘bullshit jobs’. These positions don’t contribute any measurable human benefit besides increasing GDP. Contrary to the self-sufficiency of a wild forager, many of us have very little autonomy over our life decisions, and navigate a labyrinth of laws, rules and regulations for every choice we make in a centralised, global economy.

Yet the wild way of life is still ingrained in all of us because we share the same genetic blueprint (save for some small immune and diet-related adaptations) of existing hunter-gatherer societies and our ancient ancestors. Our brains and bodies are still built to live a Palaeolithic lifestyle: outside, exposed to the elements, getting plenty of exercise, and finding everything we need in nature.

Perhaps the discrepancy between modern life and our evolutionary past explains why so many people today suffer from a wide range of ailments that hunter-gatherers generally don’t experience, from myopia and metabolic disease to mental illness and auto-immune disorders. ‘Knowing how genetic and cultural evolution over millennia shaped us helps explain today’s human predicament, how hard that predicament is to deal with, and underlines how abnormal human life is in the 21st century,’ wrote the biologists Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich of Stanford University in the journal Bioscience in 2022.

Certainly, life is difficult for the wild forager – resources can be scarce, infections and parasites are commonplace, and enforced social taboos can make life occasionally socially stressful. These communities don’t escape violence, homicides, and high rates of infant mortality. Today, many of us living in developed economies experience a variety of improvements in quality of life, with easy access to food, water, climate-controlled shelter, advanced health care and, perhaps, way too much entertainment. Yet we can still be denied sufficient leisure time, supportive intergenerational social networks, and a life-long sense of purpose and relationship with nature.

So, what can you do to tap into your evolved human nature, short of moving back into a primordial cave? How can you be more wild while participating in modern life? It took me several years of experimentation and research, yet by learning about our hunter-gatherer origins and spending time with folks living close to nature, I found ways to minimise evolutionary mismatch and regain my health and happiness. The following steps provide proven strategies for better aligning your habits with your wild instincts.

What to do

Integrating some ancestral practices into your daily life is called rewilding, and it can be done by anyone, anywhere. It involves recovering skills and benefits that modern industrialisation has taken away and can improve your quality of life, health metrics and personal satisfaction. At the deepest level, it is about becoming humans in direct relationship with nature once again, restoring our heritage as wild people who do not exploit each other or Earth’s resources.

Spend more time outside

In industrialised nations, more than 90 per cent of our time is spent inside buildings and vehicles, many of them constructed with synthetic products. This statistic has entirely flipped during 300,000 years of Homo sapiens’ history – we once spent at least 90 per cent of our time outside. The modern indoor lifestyle has adverse effects on our physiology, mood, circadian rhythms, and even our microbiome, because industrial building materials do not provide exposure to the bacteria we co-evolved with. (A healthy, diverse microbiome is important for maintaining a healthy immune system and metabolism.)

It is easy to address this problem because any routine activity can be deliberately moved outside. Choose to sit on the café patio while getting coffee with a friend. Take phone calls while on a neighbourhood walk. If you work with a laptop, you can bring it anywhere. I’ve been known to work from a low-hanging tree branch! A park bench or picnic table near a local pond can be an attractive place to get your daily dose of vitamin D, fresh air, microbes and bird song, and will give you a live landscape to train your eyes on during breaks (this helps prevent myopia or worsening myopia).

Integrate more movement into your day

Wild foragers engage in low- to moderate-level activity that is integrated into daily tasks. There is no separation between work, exercise, socialisation and recreation – it’s all just daily life. In contrast, the average college-educated employee spends most of their time sitting; the movement necessary for providing their basic needs has been outsourced to other labourers who farm, harvest, manufacture, transport, deliver and stock the goods they order from phones.

Modern humans have invested so much creativity and inventiveness in trying to reduce movement – from the coffee machine that begins the day to the remote control that concludes our nights – that we are deprived of opportunities to leave the couch, bed, car or desk. Exercise becomes an optional activity that one in four people just don’t do enough.

To address this, deliberately add more movement into daily life by choosing to do some of the work of modern machines throughout your day. Unplug the food processor and mix up pancakes by hand. Put the Roomba away and sweep the floor with a broom. Always take the stairs, and park your car far away from your destination so that you have to walk a little bit for every journey. Leave the gym and take your exercising outside. Of course, you can also use your leisure time to get outside: go for a hike, explore a natural area, or learn orienteering.

Spend extended time in wild settings

On a similar note, it is restorative to spend extended time in places that don’t feature human architecture, media and technology. These don’t have to be vast swaths of wilderness – even an undeveloped section of a riverbank, or a small patch of green can provide relief from stress in an environment of sunlight, fresh air, diverse microbes, aromatic compounds, and calming sights and sounds. Participants in a study who spent four days in the wilderness without access to technology demonstrated improved cognitive skills and creativity. Numerous other studies have demonstrated that time in natural settings improves mood, cortisol levels, blood pressure, pulse, immune response and overall happiness. So, spend free time regularly in the most wild natural settings you can find, especially if you live in an urban area, which tends to increase overall stress levels in residents. Research suggests significant benefits can arise from spending just two hours per week in wild settings. I’m fortunate to live in the woods but, when I visit urban areas, I always make a point to go walking in nearby parks, or make stops at open spaces when travelling by car.

Positively stress your body with some discomfort

When you venture outside, it’s important to leave the bubble of comfort and convenience you are accustomed to in indoor environments and activities. Modern humans must accept that nature immersion will make them uncomfortable at some point. Maybe you’ll sit or climb on a rocky surface, deal with bug bites, prickly plants, the seasonal hazards of scorching sun, mud and rain, snow or ice, and exist in a general state of grime and sweat (which, incidentally, actually restores beneficial bacteria to your skin). Many of us have grown accustomed to eliminating all these outdoor discomforts with heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, cushioned floors and furniture, insect repellent, daily showers, sunglasses, thick down coats, and even heated blankets.

By exposing yourself to nature’s discomforts, you strengthen your physiological systems, increase your resilience to persist through difficulty, and will feel more gratitude for the moments when you do experience comfort. Similarly, when you skip a meal, or exercise at high intensity, you provide a positive level of stress that allows your body to eliminate wastes and maintain fitness levels more efficiently. These discomforts and short-lived stresses are similar to what hunter-gatherers experience, and are what shaped our species during our long evolutionary period.

If you are in good health, to reap the benefits of positive stress, also known as hormesis, you can try fasting intermittently, taking 15-18 hours between dinner and lunch the next day. Deliberately pushing your exertion for 20- to 30-second intervals several times during exercise trains your mitochondria – the powerhouses of your cells – to deal with stress efficiently, increase energy production, and reduce cellular ageing.

Other forms of hormesis include increased heat and cold exposure practices such as cold showers, saunas, steam baths, swimming in natural water, and walking outside without a coat in freezing temperatures. Don’t overwhelm your body (certain cardiovascular and other illnesses preclude the safe practice of these activities – check with your physician if you are unsure), but try if you can to embrace the feeling of extreme temperature variation, not as something to be avoided, but as a natural force that strengthens and invigorates you for short periods of time.

Both heat and cold exposure can improve your cardiovascular fitness and metabolism and there can be mood benefits as well. Build your tolerance by gradually increasing the time you spend in intense outdoor conditions, including exposure to sun (taking sensible precautions to avoid skin damage as needed in your part of the world), humidity, rain and snow. One way to introduce an easy hormetic practice is to end your showers with 15-30 seconds of cold water before turning off the tap.

Go barefoot

All human cultures before modernisation walked barefoot or with minimal footwear, and they sat and reclined directly on the ground or on natural materials. Now, we rarely experience direct contact between the earth and our skin. We wear cushioned, structured shoes that deprive us of the sensations of walking and running, weaken our feet, and compress our toes. Always clothed, we deprive our bodies of healthy exposure to the elements, and we’ve dulled the capacity of our largest sensory organ – the skin.

Of course, we need some covering for protection and warmth, but addressing such extreme disconnection from the natural environment will bring benefits. To start, going barefoot on bare ground for a few minutes every day will strengthen the musculature in your legs, feet and toes while reviving some of the sensory capacity of the soles of your feet. Choosing minimal footwear, with ample space for your toes, and without added cushioning or heel height, will also provide similar benefits.

Aim for autonomy in small social groups

Rewilding isn’t just about what you do outside or in nature. It also pertains to how you think and interact in the social world. Remember that our ancient human ancestors interacted in-person in small, egalitarian groups of familiar faces every day, rarely coming across strangers, as do contemporary hunter-gatherers. Resources are not hoarded, and no one holds power over another – any hierarchy beyond the natural process of seniority did not arise until the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Over millions of years of evolution as a social species, these bonded clans were key to human survival. A significant body of research reveals that strong social networks are vital to wellbeing, and we still prefer our original hunter-gatherer group sizes of around 150 people or fewer. People whose daily interactions are filled with fewer meaningful relationships, and who observe strict social hierarchies, are generally unhappier.

As the psychologist Mark Seely wrote in a blog post in 2019:

We once lived in close contact with people who directly supported our physical existence and provided the raw material out of which we constructed life’s meanings. We now live in giant tribes of two-dimensional beings, engaged in a shared superficial monologue, searching for constant distraction, desperately trying to convince ourselves – through sheer quantity of experience – that our isolated consumption-driven lives are meaningful.

When you maintain friendships with a large group of loose contacts, your interactions are less satisfying because you cannot share the wide range of human emotions with so many. With fewer people, you can develop stronger emotional ties, which leads to greater feelings of support and emotional resilience. Culling my outings with friends to the people I truly trust and respect helped me shape my social life towards a more ‘tribal’ organisation of five to seven very close contacts. This strategy works even for online interactions. When I reduced my number of Facebook friends to around 100, this social network suddenly became a much more intimate venue where I felt that I could truly express myself and fully engage with others.

If you have the freedom to do so, then adjusting your working life to be in line with our ancestral heritage could also improve your mental health. Aim for self-employment or jobs that offer a high degree of autonomy that will allow you to tap into your innate desire to direct your activities and make independent decisions, rather than submitting to the will of a boss.

Eat wild foods, learn to forage them yourself

An ancestral human diet is highly variable, because humans are omnivorous and can live in almost every ecosystem. At the same time, all ancestral foods are wild, non-toxic, unprocessed, high in fibre, high in nutrients, high in protein, high in healthy fats and low in sugar. Learning to source some wild foods from your local environment is a fun and beneficial way to spend time in nature. Many of our common ‘weeds’ are in fact highly nutritious, and can be flavourful additions to soups and salads. For instance, the ubiquitous dandelion plant is a good source of iron, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and zinc. The young leaves are the best to eat, and they can be an excellent substitute for arugula (rocket) leaves in salads and on pizza.

Most areas have local foraging guides available that you can study, and many urban places have foraging classes where you can learn from experts (here are a few pointers to get you started: Forage London and San Francisco; foraging in New York; or find fruit tree locations worldwide).

If you aren’t able to forage locally, you can still approximate a wild diet by choosing minimally modified plant foods at the market. These are species that have not been significantly altered from their wild progenitors and still contain many beneficial phytonutrients (chemicals found in plants that are beneficial for human health). Foods that are industrially produced and genetically modified, by contrast, have arguably been stripped of a lot of their original nutrition. However, when you eat vegetables such as beets, parsnip, purple carrots, ginger, garlic and turmeric, and enjoy fleshy fruits such as avocado, blackberry, currants, mulberries and prickly pear, you are taking in nutrient-dense flavour. Nuts and seeds that are minimally processed include amaranth, chia, hazelnut, pecan, quinoa, wild rice, hemp and Brazil nuts. Organic leafy greens such as chicory, spinach and watercress are pretty much exactly how you’d find them in the wild.

Many ancestral human diets would contain plants with bitter flavours. Yet outside of coffee, today most of us mostly avoid bitters, to the detriment of our metabolism. Bitter flavours come from an array of phytochemicals that stimulate the production of gastric enzymes and fluids that facilitate digestion and help us absorb the vitamins in the food we eat. For these benefits, eat more cruciferous vegetables, dark chocolate, dandelion greens and/or grapefruit when you can.

Key points – How to rewild yourself

  1. The cost of evolutionary mismatch. Most of us today are experiencing a profound discrepancy between how we evolved to live and how we now live, with harmful consequences for our physical and mental health. Fortunately, there are several straightforward ways to address this mismatch.
  2. Spend more time outside. Too much time inside has many adverse effects on human physiology, so look for ways to get outside – from coffee on the patio to working by a pond.
  3. Integrate more movement into your day. As well as spending most of their time outside, ancestral humans were also far more active than most people today. Look for opportunities to get moving, from cooking by hand to taking the stairs.
  4. Spend extended time in wild settings. Beyond spending more time outside, look for opportunities to be in nature. It doesn’t have to be a wilderness – even a small patch of green can reduce your stress levels.
  5. Positively stress your body with some discomfort. Positive stress is known as hormesis and it brings many physical and mental benefits. Ways to experience it include fasting and cold-water immersion.
  6. Go barefoot. Opting for minimal footwear when possible will improve the musculature of your legs and feet and reinvigorate your skin.
  7. Aim for autonomy in small social groups. We evolved to interact in small, trusted groups. Prioritise socialising with people whom you truly trust and respect, and deliberately reduce the size of your online social networks.
  8. Eat wild foods, learn to forage them yourself. Learning to source some wild foods from your local environment is a fun and beneficial way to spend time in nature.

Learn more

Learn ancestral skills

Rewilding doesn’t mean we must all try to recreate a purist, Palaeolithic lifestyle. This is impossible and impractical. Instead, think of rewilding as a path of deepening awareness of how we humans can satisfy our needs from nature. It requires new skills and may take generations to carry out. When we learn the survival methods of our ancient ancestors – such as friction-fire making, foraging, hunting, animal processing, hide-tanning, flint-knapping, basket-weaving, shelter building or leather working – we decrease our dependence on industrial goods and gain self-sufficiency that we have been deprived of during the past two centuries of technological development. When we teach these skills to younger generations, we ensure that they are not lost to humanity. If our centralised industrial systems fail to provide basic needs at any point in the future, those people who have mastered ancestral survival skills will fare better. In the parlance of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can become your own ‘essential worker’ in a time of crisis.

Yet practising these skills is also fun and brings immediate benefits. Working with your hands is strengthening; hunting and foraging provide sustenance and a dopamine reward; and providing for your needs from the outdoors boosts self-esteem, resilience and mindfulness.

So, try developing an analogue hobby of the kind our ancestors would have practised. This might look like foraging for berries and greens in the warm seasons, whittling a spoon, shaping a hand tool from local stone, or building a fire in a safe spot outside, perfecting your chosen method of friction fire.

The first time I sparked a fire with a bow-drill, which utilises a bow to twist a wooden spindle against a wooden hearth board until a smoking coal emerges, I felt immensely energised and proud (if you’d like to have a go, there’s a great tutorial on YouTube). It had taken me several hours of practice over a week to gain this skill. Without our ability to ignite the original tinder, we wouldn’t be here today. We Homo sapiens owe our particular, miraculous evolutionary path to the control and use of fire.

Links & books

The ReWild Yourself podcast, while not currently in production, is a comprehensive offering from the wild foods expert Daniel Vitalis who provides interviews and information about every aspect of rewilding, from hunting, fishing and gathering to natural self-care and wilderness navigation.

The documentary Living Wild: Surviving with the Means of the Stone Age (2023) features Lynx Vilden, a Palaeolithic skills expert who has taught hundreds of students to create tools and clothing from wild materials and journey into natural areas for weeks at a time, surviving only with prehistoric technology. Groups experience a total immersion without sleeping bags, tents, matches or metal. This documentary shows her preparing one group for their epic quest.

The directory of primitive skills gatherings, collected by the naturalist educator Thomas Elpel, links to almost 40 events across the US and Canada where participants can learn ancient human skills from experts during a week-long event. He’s also made a directory for wilderness skills schools in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The book Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us (2018) by Vybarr Cregan-Reid is an overview of the ways human physiology has been altered as a result of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, with helpful suggestions about addressing ailments like chronic back pain, dental decay and myopia.

The book A New Path: To Transcend the Great Forgetting Through Incorporating Ancestral Practices into Contemporary Living (2017) by Arthur Haines is the one text you need to start your rewilding journey (it’s out of print but still available on Kindle). Haines is an ethnobotanist and ancestral skills practitioner who delves deeply into the negative impacts of modern ways of life on human health, happiness and relationships, while providing accessible and comprehensive guidance on how to bring nature and evolutionary insight into every aspect of your life.

The book The Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods (2021) by Nicole Apelian is a comprehensive guide for North American foragers, covering how to identify and prepare the well-known and obscure edibles of the continent. For UK readers, the author Mo Wilde has prepared several digital foraging guides, including mushrooms and seaweed.





14 February 2024