Ad by National Geographic

Live Free or Die: These ‘Re-Wilders’ Thrive Off a Technology-Free Existence

What would you do if you had to start living in a primitive lifestyle? These trailblazers aren’t just surviving off the land—they relish it.

Elias Orelup/ National Geographic

A growing number of Americans have taken up in our forgotten mountains, hidden valleys, and unfriendly swamps to trap, forage, grow, barter, and hunt as part of a movement to live a more primitive, self-sufficient, and they would tell you, authentic life. Outsiders call this “re-wilding”; for the people who actually live these kinds of lives, it’s just doing what makes sense

“Every day in the woods is a constant challenge,” explains Colbert, one of the stars of National Geographic Channel’s Live Free or Die, which begins its second season Tuesday, September 15th at 9/8c. “But I would rather spend an hour lost in the woods than ten minutes stuck in traffic.”

A modern day Daniel Boone, Colbert is a former financial planner who gave up the civilized world more than two decades ago to live as a trapper in the feral swamps of South Georgia. Not only are the alligator-filled waters always on the rise, Colbert has to make due sleeping on an unprotected landing after the cabin he built burned down last season. He lives off the otters and opossums that he traps for food (according to Colbert, otter is a “dense, intense” meat that tastes pretty good in chili) and to barter their pelts.

For the primitive woodsman Thorn, living in a jury-rigged structure in the Blue Ridge Mountains, animals are less a force of sustenance than destruction. A former school teacher and security guard and father of a young daughter who sometimes stays with him, Thorn begins the new season having to figure out how to ward off hungry bears waking from hibernation.

It is not that the tattooed Thorn exactly enjoys being woken up in the middle of the night by grizzlies looking for his food stores (and mind you he has no electricity with which to see them), it’s just that for him, being that close to the chaotic edge of nature is “how you make your life epic.”

In the case of Tobias, who for the last six years has lived in central Arizona in a yurt he built by hand, being on the outskirts of society and living off the land is less about having an epic life than an honest one. And what is more honest than foraging and hunting for the day’s meal?

Tobias, who sometimes teaches the same primitive living skills that allow him to survive life in the unforgiving desert, grew up building forts in the wilderness around his childhood home on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico and realized quickly as an adult his desire to return to “that feeling of connection and that curiosity.”

Identifying with an earlier time also appeals to Derik, a primitive blacksmith who lives in the Rocky Mountains with Lilly, Scout, and Bean, a trio of stubborn mules that he needs to work the land he inherited from his father. Only it’s not his childhood to which he longs to reconnect, but to the world of his ancestors who worked the land and bartered homemade goods for necessities, much the way he does.

No doubt his ancestors felt Derik’s pain as he tried to drag those jittery mules home after stabling them for the winter. “This lifestyle is not for everybody,” says Derik, stating the obvious.

Yet, as depicted on Live Free or Die, there is something oddly appealing about living so far off the grid, especially in the case of Tony and Amelia, a pair of homesteaders who every day are transforming a craggy, weed-infested hillside in North Carolina into a fruit-and-vegetable-filled oasis. Tony can figure out solutions to all sorts of potential construction disasters, while Amelia has a knack with animals, in both raising and butchering them when the time comes.

The couple meet every daily challenge with a mixture of industriousness and a sense of humor, whether it’s keeping their rabbits alive through winter or sugaring their property’s Sycamores to make syrup for barter. It’s a tough row to hoe (by hand, without the help of machines, or in their case even Derik’s ornery mules), but it all makes perfect sense and is worth it to the hardworking couple.

As Tony puts it, “One day at a time, we are creating the world that we want to live in.”

Tune in to see how these new pioneers Live Free or Die Tuesdays at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.