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If you’re looking for Donny Dust, you’ll probably find him in the woods.
Or on a mountain.
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Or on an island.
Point is, you’ll probably find him traveling. And if he’s not traveling, he’s either in “Dad mode,” spending time with his teenage sons, or he’s teaching the latest class of students who joined his Paleo Tracks Survival School how to “walk into the woods with nothing and walk out with everything they need,” as he puts it.
Dust has a lot of experience with self-reliant survival. As a kid, he was fascinated by bush living and was already building his repertoire of survival skills, but knew he couldn’t make a living off them (at least, not yet). With no interest in college, he signed up to the Marine Corps, and 12 years of service later, he returned home with a whole new set of skills. He launched his school to share them, and settled into teaching as a career.
Then, when he was 37, he had a heart attack.
Dust says the near-death experience changed his outlook, especially when friends and students told him that if he had died, they’d not only mourn him, but also the wealth of survival knowledge and experience that would be lost with him. They urged him to find a way to preserve it. Maybe on YouTube, they suggested.
He wasn’t so sure. Social media had never been–and still really isn’t–his thing. But they had a point about his skills dying with him, he figured.
So, in April 2017, he launched a YouTube channel.
And that channel changed his life.
Dust’s videos brought him YouTube viewers, yes, but it also brought television producers knocking. He was tapped for TV shows like Alone, Alone: The Beast, and Cardi Tries, and now cohosts his own show, Mud, Sweat, and Beards, on USA.
In the years since starting his channel, Dust has grown his digital following to more than 10 million people across YouTube and TikTok, all of whom are able to learn from his lifetime of skills.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: When and why did you start making videos?
Donny Dust: So in 2017, I had a massive heart attack and almost died. I know, it’s kind of crazy. I was 37. Yeah. It happens. I was 37 at the time and I never did drugs or drank or smoked. I was really, really fit. It was just a genetic thing.
After that happened, a lot of people were like “So what do you do out in the woods?” Because I run a school called Paleo Track Survival, which is a wilderness self-reliance school. I bring people out in the mountains and show them how to live in the woods and all this sort of stuff. But people were like, “You should create a YouTube channel, because if you would’ve died, there would’ve been a lot of missed opportunities.”
I was like, “Ah, that’s not really my thing.” I never really carried cameras with me or anything like that. But I listened to their advice, created it, and then just kind of made some simple videos on really low-quality cameras. The rest just got on from there.
Then really in the past like two years, maybe since 2019, I went on TikTok and made similar stuff, and that’s grown to over 10 million followers there. So now I just—well, I don’t make content full-time. And my one thing is never to be a “creator.” Like I’m not there to create content, I’m just there to be content. What you see on the TikToks and the YouTubes that I make, that’s actually who I am and what I do. I lived in a cave for six months. I live by trapping and hunting and fishing.
That was a big anwer to your simple question, so I do apologize.
Tubefilter: No no, don’t apologize. That’s exactly what I was looking for. Give me a little background on you. What was your career path? How did you end up starting your school?
DD: I never went to college, barely graduated high school, and just kind of wanted to live in the mountains. That, when I was growing up, was not the most feasible. So I joined the Marine Corps when I was a teenager and served 12 years in the Marine Corps. And then, you know, during my time in the Marine Corps, I’d always be under survival and primitive kill and like total self-reliance in the woods. And then once I left the Marines, after 12 years learning a lot there as well, I decided to start my business and really just start teaching folks how to walk into the woods with nothing and walk out with everything they need.
Tubefilter: What makes you so passionate about this particular type of survival?
DD: I think it really boils down to that so many people are disconnected from the natural world. We live in an era of technology and everything comes so quickly, whether it’s food or Amazon or streaming. Everything is so easy to get.
I have the ability to kind of travel back in time and go into the remote areas where I live and genuinely start from square one to make a fire, to make a shelter, to get food and clean water. It’s a good way to kind of rewild for folks. And it’s a good way to connect to who we truly are.
We come from this planet and we’ve been on this planet for like 2.5 million years, and we’ve used stone tools all the way from that time up until the invention of copper and steel and things like that. So we’ve used stone far longer than we’ve used anything metal-based. And I like to create the stone tools and show people how to actually live with those tools out in the bush and survive and thrive and really just enjoy what nature has to provide.
Tubefilter: I don’t know how much attention you pay to your audience, but do you get a lot of feedback from people online about how they’ve learned from your channel?
DD: I try to really connect with a lot of people. Sometimes on my own adventures…Well, I was down in the Amazon not too long ago, and I kind of disconnected from the audience. But I try to make a point to respond to their comments—positive or negative, not too many negative comments–and there’s a lot of people that are really into the outdoors and living a little bit more wild.
When you think about it, it’s a lot of positivity. One reason for that positivity is I’ve been on several different TV shows, and I have my own TV show on USA Network. That’s where YouTube comes in, some of the things I’ve done on TV shows where TV doesn’t really allocate the minutes or even the seconds to that particular skill, I can readdress it on a longer YouTube video. Things can get brushed over because a TV show is an hour, typically 42 minutes of actual real time.
Anyway, lots of good feedback, lots of positivity. And several people have been like, “I’ve used this technique before, but how you did it is easier.” Lots of good stuff. There’s always naysayers in this day and age, but I don’t get, like, with a lot of indigenous cultures that are still around, I don’t get “You are culturally appropriating” or anything because what I’m doing is Stone Age technology and how to keep yourself alive in the woods, simple tricks and things to that extent.
Tubefilter: When did you first get on TV?
DD: After my heart attack in 2017, I went on all forms of social media. I was never on social media before. I just started to take everything that I did in my normal life and put it on social media, and that caught the attention of some television producers. They were like, “Where have you been?” That sort of stuff. And I’m like, “Oh, I just kinda do my thing.”
There was a TV show called Alone. So they asked me if I’d be interested in going on Alone. So I did Alone. I’ve done Alone: The Beast. I’ve done First Man Out with Discovery. I just did a TV show with Cardi B where I brought her and this guy Adrian Jackson out in the woods and showed them how to survive. And I have my own TV show, so it’s now snowballed into I do TV stuff in front of the camera.
Then I also do a lot of consulting for feature films and small films and different things behind the camera as a technical consultant on survival and primitive skills and minimalist backpacking and everything and anything.
Tubefilter: This is probably a very tricky question, but what does the average day look like for you?
DD: Yeah, I don’t believe in an average day. I was once married and I have two sons that are 13 and turning 16. So when I have my boys, I’m in my dad mode. But if they’re not with me, I’m typically out in the woods with my dog, Finn, and we’re living in caves, we’re traveling around. If we’re not doing that, I’m teaching classes, I’ve written a couple books, I’m working on a third book. Maybe consulting. Like today, for example, I’m doing an experiment—which will also be on YouTube in the future—where, long story short, we’re testing trajectory and ballistics of a primitive spear-throwing device with some of the stone points I’ve built. I was just meeting with one of the archaeologists about some of the stone points. But yeah, I mean, wake up and go to sleep.
Tubefilter: Do you go through cycles where you’ve got, say, three-month blocks of you teaching classes and then you spend time traveling? Or is that also kind of randomized?
DD: It’s kind of case by case. It’s randomized. If I know I have a TV production comin gup, there’s good advanced warning on that so I can block that time off. Usually the end of summer into fall are classes as well as hunting season. On my website right now, I don’t have any classes scheduled because this year’s just dedicated to my book. But I’ll be running private solo classes. I have an entrepreneurs group I’m gonna be doing up in Montana with a couple lawyers and some executives and that sort of thing.
I’m not much of a big scheduler. I have like a 10,000 foot kind of concept and just focus on those. But I mean, today I wasn’t planning on talking to you, you sent an email, and this is what’s happening now. So I kind of just roll with it.
Tubefilter: How much traveling do you do these days?
DD: Oh, I travel all the time. This year I was down in the Amazon jungle, racing a guy through the Amazon jungle with just a machete. New Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert, last year I was in Iceland and Alaska. Travel is extremely important to me. I was in Belize at the beginning of the year. I travel all the time because my outlook is I’d rather experience things than purchase things and have things that keep me inside and locked down in a certain way. So, I mean, all throughout the U.S., I travel all the time. If there’s a time when I’m not traveling, I’m thinking of a trip or planning to go somewhere and do something fun.
Tubefilter: Do you film when you travel or are trips just for you?
DD: Sometimes I will do some filming, but I kind of just focus on why am I there, and make sure that I can achieve why I’m going to that place.
I always bring a camera with me, but if I’m having more fun, like when I’m living with one of the indigenous cultures or swimming in a hot spring in the middle of some remote mountain and ice wind, that’s just for me to enjoy. So I don’t feel like everything has to be filmed. I know a lot of people would prefer that, but I just like to kind of do it on my own, you know. Maybe I’ll do like a Short, like a YouTube Short where I climb a tree and open up a coconut with a stick or something like that, maybe go over some wild plants or edibles, but yeah. Usually travel’s for me.
Tubefilter: When did you notice things starting to take off on YouTube?
DD: Let me think. I guess that would be early 2021. A lot of people from TikTok were going to YouTube and then when YouTube created their Shorts I was able to provide short videos there. But more importantly I was able to provide a different kind of content because TikTok is very “you can’t show this, you can’t show that.” YouTube is still very much like, if it’s appropriate and it’s educational and you put the right caveats on it, if you make viewers aware, they’ll allow it.
So I was able to go on YouTube Shorts and once Shorts ramped up, my viewership went up, and a lot of my videos went up. I have a very unique market, but I do have an audience, and I’m drawing in people that like that “wow” factor. Like, wow, I didn’t know this, or wow, look at this.
Tubefilter: I follow a guy who spearfishes and he can’t put the vast majority of his content on TikTok because he’s killing and eating fish. It’s for sustenance and his videos are educational, but TikTok still doesn’t want anything to do with him.
DD: Yeah, I’ve run into that. And here’s the other thing is like, people on TikTok will typically ask, “Can you make something?” So I’m known as the “Yeah Guy” on TikTok because somebody will send in a comment, I’ll reply to the comment. “Can you make a stone knife?” And I just read the question and respond, “Yeah,” and then I make a short and sweet video and that’s it.
But I’ve had problems where something could be too graphic. For example, I removed cordage, which is tendon from a deer, and it was banned from TikTok. I put it on YouTube and they’re like, “Yeah, we love this. This is educational.” So that’s where I’m actually kind of in a conundrum at times, because with TikTok it’s easy to make a short video, but it’s such…I don’t wanna say it’s crap by any means, but it’s like quick and I’m not actually teaching this skill.
And in my background, as an outdoor educator, I’m all about making sure whoever’s watching is understanding what I’m trying to convey. And in TikTok, you really can’t get past the entertainment. So a lot of the TikTok viewers that I have within a certain kind of spectrum have migrated over to YouTube because they wanna see the full video. They wanna see the detail they want. I always say TikTok is the commercial and YouTube is where you actually go to learn the story, follow the character, to be part of that journey that they’re on. The TikTok is just like, let me show you this really quick.
Tubefilter: You’re the second person to use those exact words to me to describe TikTok versus YouTube. Commercial versus show.
DD: It is. I’m not an analytical person, but I’ve looked at a lot of the stuff I have on TikTok, and anything where I make something is like, a couple million views. If I do something that’s survival-related, it’s a little bit less. But I know that survival audience migrates over to YouTube because they’ll say, “Hey, we want to watch you do a catch-and-cook where you hunt something and then eat it.” I can do that on YouTube. There’s no issues.
And I’m still cognizant of who can view it because I’m not one to trophy hunt. I don’t pull up the animal and show it off like, “Yeah!” That’s not me. There’s a kind of poetry to it. There’s a process to it. But that kind of stuff will never exist on TikTok.
I have these runs on YouTube where I’ll make four, five, six, seven videos and then upload them maybe a week apart. And then I won’t make anything because I’m out in the bush for three weeks and my camera’s not with me.
Tubefilter: It is interesting that you’re seeing a strong crossover of people from TikTok to YouTube. Most people I talk to say they struggle to bring audiences over to YouTube.
DD: Yeah, I’ve done the numbers and I’ve done the math. I’ve looked at it very specifically. I’ve tested TikTok posting times and the day of the week. Same thing on YouTube. And then how to transcribe one in the other. And I get making stone tools isn’t the most interesting thing for people for a 10-minute or 15-minute video, but there’s that audience and that audience returns every single time—and they share it.
My thing is, I don’t have a good understanding. Like, I just learned you could put hashtags in them not too long ago. There’s a lot of buttonology and everyone has their spin on “this is what you should do,” “this is how you should go about doing it.” But I don’t even know. I just kind of make the video, throw some survival hashtags on there. I downloaded an app once called TubeBuddy. It took me forever to figure that out. I was like, “You know what? I’m just gonna make videos.”
Tubefilter: I feel like that’s common with people who start on YouTube to share their skills. I just talked to someone who built her whole business and YouTube presence off teaching people how to crochet, so her channel is a big library of instructional videos and she has the same kind of dedicated niche audience you do, where people watch because they want to learn.
DD: Yeah, I think that’s my mindset as well. Those who want to watch will watch, and those who don’t will scroll somewhere else. This is a way that the things I know can be preserved.
YouTube’s not going anywhere. It will never go anywhere. It will just keep growing in different ways, shapes, and forms.
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