Bushcraft 101: Introduction to Surviving in the Wilderness

by | Sep 22, 2020 | Bushcraft

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Over the last few decades, bushcraft has been rising in popularity, especially among those living in urban areas. Running a quick search online, you’ll find countless books, websites, and videos of people actively choosing to return back to our primitive roots of living off the land.

Still, there seems to be some confusion around the term itself. Which leads us to the question, what is bushcraft?

We’ll start by saying, if you’re someone who enjoys the city lifestyle, bushcrafting is probably not for you. However, if you’ve been having even the slightest urge of getting outdoors and getting in touch with nature, you’ll definitely want to keep reading.

What is Bushcraft?

Bushcraft refers to the skills and knowledge that allows one to thrive in the wilderness. While there are varying definitions of what bushcraft actually is, it’s safe to say that is not exactly camping, and it’s not exactly surviving either. Instead, it falls somewhere between the two.

To be well versed in bushcraft, is really to become more in touch with the serene natural environments on the outskirts of civilization. It’s the practice of giving up modern technology, and living off the land the way our ancestors did.

A Brief History of Wilderness Survival

Even though the term bushcraft may be somewhat new to many, the term actually has a rich history that dates back to the late nineteenth century. It started showing up in publications like The History of Australian Exploration from 1788 to 1888 by Ernest Favenc, and We of the Never-Never by Jeannie Gunn.

The word itself is likely derived from the popular Dutch word bosch, which means forrest and refers to areas covered by natural wood. Since then, the word has evolved into what we know it as today.

Influential Names

Bushcrafting has been around for as long as people have. However, with the evolution of society and technology, our survival skills and instincts are no longer needed like they once were.

With that in mind, bushcraft is still growing in popularity, and there are a few influential names we can thank for that.

Les Hiddins, also known as The Bush Tucker Man, is widely considered the father of modern bushcrafting. Hiddins served as a soldier in the Australian Army in the 1960s, and was the principal author of the Australian Army’s military survival manual (published in 1987).

On the other side of the globe, there was a Canadian man by the name of Mors Kochanski who made a living as a bushcraft and wilderness survival instructor. Due to his extensive knowledge, Kochanski was asked to write a book about survival skills in the Canadian boreal forests originally titled Northern Bushcraft.

Kochanski quickly became a Canadian bestseller with his publication, and later on, the title was changed to Bushcraft. Today, it remains one of the most influential bushcrafting books. Kochanski went on to publish 7 total books about bushcraft and survival.

Resurgence in Popularity

When the first reality tv show made its debut in the 1970s, it almost immediately exploded in popularity. Since then, primetime television slots have been filled with all kinds of reality shows, which included tons of programming centered around survival skills.

In fact, Survivor is currently the longest running reality show. The entire premise of the show is based around using survival skills in isolated locations.

While the United States has a host of shows centered around bushcraft and survival (Bear Grylls, Alone, and more), it’s a global phenomenon as well. For example, one of the biggest names in bushcraft is Ray Mears, who brought bushcraft and survival to television in the 1990s.

Another reason bushcraft has regained popularity is because of how disconnected we’ve become with nature. 

Today, most people live busy and stressful lives, and bushcraft provides an escape. With no modern technology, it offers us a chance to completely unplug, and reconnect with nature and ourselves. 

Basics of Bushcraft Survival Skills

As mentioned earlier, bushcraft is a collection of survival skills that allow you to thrive in nature. But what skills do you need exactly?

For starters, there are some critical skills that you need to know in order to survive, which we’ll refer to as essential skills. There are other skills that are good to know, but not necessarily crucial to your survival in the wilderness.

Fire Building

Fire is often cited as the single most important invention in the history of mankind. So, it makes sense that it is the most important skill to learn when starting out with bushcraft.

Building a fire is something we often take for granted today. The reason being, in our homes a fire can be instantly created by flipping on a switch, pressing a button, or even lighting a match. However, when you are out in nature, you likely don’t have access to such luxuries.

To build a fire, you’ll need a few things. First, you’ll want to find a suitable site for the fire, because the last thing you need is for the fire to get out of control, or lose its flame. Once you have your location, you’re ready to start.

First, collect your tinder, which is easily combustible material. Tinder is usually dry pieces of bark, pine needles, or grass that will be able to catch the spark you create. 

Next, you’ll want to gather your kindling, which will catch the smaller flame from your tinder. Kindling usually refers to smaller twigs or pieces of wood. 

Lastly, you’ll want to collect larger pieces of wood, such as thicker logs from nearby trees. You’ll use the burning kindling to light the larger pieces of wood, which will in turn burn more steadily and evenly for a longer period of time.

Shelter Building

With bushcraft, your number one priority should be to build a shelter. The reason being, shelter is crucial to protecting you from the elements, especially if there is severe weather on the horizon.

The type of shelter you build will largely depend on your current skill set, your location, and the materials available to you. For example, if you’re in a wooded area, you may be able to find cover, which can provide a perfect starting point for your shelter. All you’ll have to do is add some more branches, and layers of leaves or grass to keep your insulated.

Some of the most popular and efficient bushcraft shelter designs include:

  • Fallen tree shelter
  • A-Frame brush shelter
  • Teepee shelter
  • Lean-To

If you’re a beginner, it may be a good idea to travel with a tarp, as it can provide the essential cover you need. With a tarp and some rope, you can pretty much set up shelter in just about any condition.

Water Sourcing and Purification

Seeing as over 70% of our body is water, it’s no secret that we need access to clean drinking water to survive. Without water, you’ll only survive for about 3 to 4 days, depending on the conditions. 

When you’re in the wild, it’s always a good idea to set up camp near a flowing water source. A stream or river would work best, but a pond, well, or lake will do just fine. 

If you don’t have access to a natural water source, then you can actually learn to source water from certain plants. That being said, some plants that produce water can be harmful for people, so making sure you know how to safely extract water is important.

More than just sourcing water, you’ll need to learn how to purify water as well. 

Water from any natural source can potentially contain harmful bacteria. When ingested, it can cause illness or even death. So, how do you go about purifying water?

The easiest way to purify water you source naturally is to heat it to a boil. By doing so, you’ll kill all the bacteria and pathogens that may be living in it. To be safe, heat the water to 150 degrees fahrenheit for about 20 minutes.

Hunting and Foraging

If you’re going to spend any significant amount of time in the wilderness, then it’s vital that you understand how to provide sustenance for yourself. Mainly, it’s important you learn how to properly hunt and fish, as well as forage for food as well.

Nature is filled with delicious food that you can eat, both prepared and raw. However, it’s also filled with things that look edible on the surface, but can potentially cause sickness or death. If you’re a new to bushcraft, make sure to bring your own food, and even a guide or book that details what’s edible in the area.

Navigating by Natural Means

Avid bushcrafters like to get as far away from civilization as possible. When they do, it means they won’t have access to the same navigational tools that so many of us use today. For example, if you’re deep in the woods, there’s a high chance that your cell phone won’t have service. Which means no maps apps.

There are certainly workarounds, such as using a physical map (remember those?) of the area you’re going to be setting up camp in. Another would be using a compass or trail markers to direct you home.

It’s always a good idea to carry something with you so you can find your way back home, or find the trail you ventured off of.

Rope and Twine Making

Creating your own rope or twine may not be as important as building shelter or fire, but it does come in handy. Especially when you’re trying to reinforce your branches for shelter, or string up your tarp or tools.

Understand, making rope and twine from materials you collect in the wilderness is a tedious task, but definitely one that’s worthwhile.

To start, you want to find plants with natural cordage. Some of the best plants you can work with are:

  • Nettle
  • Dogbane
  • Velvet leaf
  • Milkweed
  • Prairie flx
  • Thistle
  • Fireweed

If none of the above are available to you, there are a variety of other options to choose from. For example, animal fur, inner bark from trees, and even plastic bags if you can find some.

Woodcarving and Container Construction

While most people bring their own containers on their bushcraft adventures, purists often opt to build their own. We combined this section with woodcarving, because the two frequently go hand in hand.

For example, if you need a cup to drink from, or utensils to eat with, the best option would be to carve them out of wood. 

Woodcarving is a powerful skill to learn, and will definitely come in handy when you’re out in nature without many tools. It allows you to create containers for water food and water storage. Better yet, it also serves as a great way to relax, and pass the time.

Tracking

The final skill we’ll mention here is tracking. When most people hear the phrase, they picture movies where villains stay fresh on the trail of protagonists by seeing their footprints.

In truth, the movies aren’t so far off, but tracking is more than just looking for a foot or hoof print in the ground. It’s about gaining a deeper understanding of nature, and learning what each sign you come across means.

For hunters, tracking can help lead you to animals and fish. For explorers, tracking can help lead you to a source of water. There’s a lot to gain from learning the essentials of tracking, and if you’ve already mastered other skills, you should try adding this one to your repertoire as well.

Is Bushcraft the Same as Camping?

The terms bushcraft and camping are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. Sure, in theory the two may seem pretty similar, but in practice, there are just too many differences to put them both in the same category.

When it comes to setting, both take place in the great outdoors and whisk you away from civilization. But in all honesty, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. 

Camping allows you to enjoy the outdoors on your terms, and often with the help of modern technology. For shelter, you use tents or mobile campers, for hygiene, there are facilities at the campsite. There really isn’t the same concept of living off the land like there is with bushcraft.

Getting Started

If you’ve gotten this far, hopefully that means you haven’t been scared off, and you’re ready to start taking a dive into the wonderful world of bushcraft. Don’t worry, the thought of living off the land is understandably daunting.

Thankfully, we’re going to provide you with some of the basics of bushcraft you need to get started on your new adventure. The longer you stick with it, and put what you learn into practice, the more skills you’ll master along the way.

For now, we’re assuming you don’t have all the skills mastered just yet. Which is why we’re going to provide you with some minimal essentials you need to get started.

Bushcraft Essentials

If you’re new to bushcraft, we highly recommend that you pack some essential survival tools to take with you. You’ll still be able to practice doing things the old fashioned way, but it doesn’t hurt to have a back up plan. You know, just in case.

We’re not going to recommend a tent, because that defeats the purpose, and will limit the skills you learn. However, we are going to recommend that you bring a tarp with you on your trip. The reason being, they provide enough shelter on their own to survive, but will likely require some additional learning as well.

Next, we are going to recommend that you bring a canteen for water. Make sure it can carry enough water for your trip, because if you’re having difficulty sourcing and purifying water, you can still stay hydrated.

Then there’s everyone’s two favorite tools, the knife and the axe. Both are pretty essential to any bushcraft trip, and will make building a shelter, collecting firewood, cooking food for yourself, and even starting a fire so much easier. 

Last on our list of bushcraft essentials, we’re going to recommend that you bring a firestarter and some tinder. We get it, building a fire is the most important skill you need to learn because a fire is crucial to survival. But it’s for that reason that we want to make sure you have a backup plan if you can’t get a nice warm flame going.

Bushcraft Gear

Aside from the essentials, you should consider essential bushcraft gear that will make you better equipped to survive the elements. This gear may not be necessary, but as a beginner, you’ll appreciate the list that we put together for you.

To start, you want to make sure you’re properly dressed to weather the elements. That means, warm clothes, and other gear to protect you from harsh weather. Ideally, you’ll want to have the least amount of your body exposed in order to be better protected, which means:

  • Beanie or hat
  • Bandanna or other protective gear
  • Sunglasses
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Pants
  • Comfortable socks and underwear
  • Multiple layers
  • Waterproof hiking boots

Aside from the clothes on your back, you’ll also want to invest in a great knapsack or backpack. Particularly one that is made with quality material, durable, and can hold everything you’ll need on your bushcraft advenutre.

What First Timers Should Know 

Up to this point, we’ve covered most of the basics about bushcrafting. However, if you’re a beginner, there are still some pieces of information that we want to leave you with before you peace out. None of the information below is designed to scare you, we just want to make sure you’re fully prepared for the experience.

Dangers of Bushcrafting

Whenever you venture out into nature, there will be some risks associated with your experience. For example, there could be predatory wildlife that frequents the area that could pose a threat. Such as bears, large cats, snakes, and even spiders.

The area that you are exploring can also be home to dangerous or poisonous plants or bacteria. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not sure what something is while foraging, then it’s best not to put it in your body.

Additionally, the weather, climate, or area could be dangerous within itself. For example, the area could experience frigid temperatures, or be a hotbed for fires during the hotter months. There could also be avalanches, landslides, or bear traps that you need to watch out for.

We take a lot for granted because we live in a civilized area, but once you’re back in nature, you’re going to be more vulnerable and feel exposed. That’s completely normal, just make sure you are properly prepared for whatever may come your way.

Beginners Kit

The idea of thriving in nature is a novel one, and we often underestimate how difficult our ancestors truly had it. On the surface, building and sustaining a fire may seem simple, but what happens if it begins to rain when you’re out in the woods?

For beginners, we strongly urge you to bring a kit that will help you with all the basics in the event something goes wrong. That includes a fire kit, water, shelter, adequate supplies and gear, food, compass, and first aid.

Even the most seasoned wilderness survival guides and bushcraft experts have certain items they bring with them. Don’t underestimate mother nature, and always stay prepared.

Research the Area Beforehand

Ideally, if you’re just getting your feet wet with bushcraft, you’ll start in an area that you are familiar with. Maybe it’s a wooded area nearby your house, or maybe it’s close to your favorite campsite. The reason being, you have a better handle on what it takes to survive in those areas, and have easy access to help if you need it.

If you’re venturing out into nature, or land that you’re unfamiliar with, make sure to do your research first. That means looking into what food is naturally available, what wildlife calls the area home, the weather forecast for the week, what the laws are, and anything else that could be helpful.

Never Go Alone

Unless you’re an expert, and well versed in bushcraft and wilderness survival, always make sure you go out with a buddy or two. It’s an even better idea to go with someone with the experience level you hope to one day reach.

Be the student before you try to venture off on your own, and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way if you need it.

Brian Segal

As an outdoor enthusiast, I was drawn to bushcraft at a young age. I constantly find myself trying to learn and improve on my survival skills, and enjoy writing about everything I discover to help pass along to others.

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