Let’s talk about bushcraft. We don’t mean fancy topiary. Bushcraft is simply another name for wilderness survival skills, but thanks to the work of several authors and real world adventurers, the term is becoming more well known. It differs from woodcraft as it is less about identifying plants and animals or going hunting. It’s all about using minimal tools and your surroundings to survive.
Sometimes a second difference is noted. Most wilderness survival is about how to survive long enough to get out of the wilderness until you can get back into civilization. Bushcraft teaches how to comfortably live in the wilderness for as long as necessary. You could consider bushcraft skills to be the next step up after learning wilderness survival, but many of the skills overlap. A step above bushcraft would be primitive living skills (though even here there’s overlap), and then homesteading above that.
The term “bush” is a reference to the Australian Outback, which is nicknamed the bush. Many of the earliest wilderness survival authors came out of Australia. One of the more famous was Richard Graves. He lived through World War I and discovered that wilderness survival skills would be very necessary if another war broke out. He trained the Australian Jungle Rescue Detachment. This group of 60 soldiers conducted over 300 rescues all successfully and with no losses. After World War II, he started a bushcraft school and ran it for 20 years.
Much of his collected knowledge was contained in ten books, appropriately named “10 Bushcraft Books.” This book is now out of print, but you can download an electronic copy at the end of this article.
The ten titles are:
- Ropes & Cords
- Huts & Thatching
- Food & Water
- Knots & Lashings
- Tracks & Lures
- Snares & Traps
- Travel & Gear
- Time & Direction
Why Bushcraft Matters
Imagine for a moment that there really was no help coming from the government after a disaster, or perhaps you are stuck in a survival situation. Do you know what you’d have to do to survive? There are many books written about basic survival, but many of them presume that the crisis situation will only last a month at most. But what if you had to survive for longer? How could you get the food you need and the comforts necessary to stay safe and even have a little bit of relative luxury while you work on long-term survival?
The key theme of bushcraft is self-sufficiency. Armed with only a blade of some sort, bushcraft manuals and teachers will show you how you can get the things you need to build shelter, make fire, cook your food, and find your way. You may be lucky and will never have to use these skills in a real situation. You might get bit by the bug and try to put your skills to the test on your own! It is something that needs to be practiced if it is to be of any use, just like any other outdoor skill.
Not only can you keep yourself alive with bushcraft skills, but you can also keep others alive. If you can show mastery of these useful skills and teach them to others you can hold a valuable position in a community. Knowing how to stay calm in the face of the most primal dangers will inspire others.
While the term bushcraft came from Australia, the term has been used by others who live in far-off areas. Here are some other major names in the field:
Mors Kochanski is a Canadian bushcraft instructor who popularized the phrase “the more you know, the less you carry.” In 1986 he wrote a book called “Northern Bushcraft” based off the book by Graves but focused on the arboreal forests of Canada. The book is still in print under the name “Bushcraft” and can be found at: http://www.amazon.com/Bushcraft-Outdoor-Skills-Wilderness-Survival/dp/1551051222. He has also written several other books on the subject.
Ray Mears is an English bushcraft instructor that has appeared on many shows in Britain. He is also the author of 12 books on survival. He is best known for the series Ray Mears’ World of Survival and his Woodlore school, the premier school for UK Bushcraft. He also sells an array of Woodlore-branded bushcraft tools.
David “Dave” Canterbury is a US bushcraft and survival expert that starred in the show Dual Survival. In 2014 he released the book Bushcraft 101, which can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Bushcraft-101-Field-Wilderness-Survival/dp/1440579776/. He owns the Pathfinder School, a course that teaches bushcraft schools, and also has many pieces of gear for sale on his site selfrelianceoutfitters.com. He recommends ten tools that all bushcraft people should carry, which we’ll go into more detail below. His school operates in Ohio.
Les Stroud is another survivalist who documented his experiences for television. His documentary Snowshoes and Solitude and the popular Survivalman showed him using the skills he learned to survive and showed others how to do them. People have claimed to have their lives saved by using the skills they learned from that show. He also works in the music industry.
Cody Lundin teaches at the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Arizona. He teaches an entire range of survival skills that go beyond basic bushcraft like urban survival, homesteading, and primitive living. He was also part of the show Dual Survival. His main survival books are 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive and When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes.
Necessary Bushcraft Tools
If you follow Graves’ philosophy, all you need is just a large cutting implement of some sort and you can make everything else. He recommends a machete, but a hatchet or a large knife will also work. Some take the opposite approach and ask school participants to take a large amount of gear to their courses, especially the beginner ones.
A good balance is the list that Dave Canterbury provides called the 10 C’s:
- A container to hold water
- A cover that you can shelter under
- A cutting tool
- Some cordage
- A combustion source
- Compass and navigational tools
- Cotton bandana
- Candling device (think headlamp)
- A canvas needle
- Cargo tape
- And the one that’s not a C, a multitool
Just like camping, the more gear you have, the safer you feel. However, the more experienced you are at camping the less you’ll bring along. The bare minimum that everyone seems to agree on is a cutting tool, at minimum a very sturdy knife with a six inch blade.
The Core Bushcraft Skills
Graves 10 topics are a great list, but they all point to a deeper goal. If you are caught in the middle of nowhere there are certain things that must be done to ensure your survival. Bushcraft skills use your ingenuity and the natural environment you’re in to fulfill these basic human needs:
Air is the thing we need the most. The next most important thing is thermoregulation. Our bodies need to stay at a particular temperature to survive. Both hypo and hyperthermia are very dangerous and will kill you faster than a lack of water will. The core skills needed to maintain thermoregulation are building a fire and building a shelter appropriate for the environment. Skilled bushcrafters learn many ways of doing both.
The next most important thing is water. Skills for finding water include tracking water sources, identifying water-loving plants, creating containers for water, safely treating water, digging for water if necessary, and building devices for catching water from the air like a solar still.
After water and thermoregulation, the next is food. These fall under the trifecta of foraging, fishing, and trapping. There are a host of associated skills to do the main three, like building fishing kits and processing animals for meat.
4. Support skills
Finally, there are special support skills. Things like taking care of your cutting tools, creating rope, tying knots, first aid, carving, outdoor hygiene, net making, cooking techniques, making stone tools, and hide-tanning. How do you use all of these skills if you have to be on the move? Some schools teach specialty courses like tracking people through the wilderness.
Five Reasons to Learn Bushcraft
When most people think of going back to land or forming an intentional community, they’re not thinking about going back to a primitive way of living like bushcraft. Building a homestead and living in the wilderness are two different skillsets. But there are reasons to learn it.
First, it gives you a huge boost of self-confidence. It is a way of directly connecting with nature in ways that are very hard to come by even with camping. Think about it. Someone with a mastery of bushcraft skills can theoretically survive anywhere for as long as they wished, barring medical issues. You will be able to maintain calm in a crisis situation.
Second, if you had to leave your community for some reason, you could survive. Exile was a punishment for a reason in times gone by. Many people who were exiled died because they couldn’t take care of themselves. If you have to leave or flee, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Third, you could teach others how to do it. In any community, your value is determined by the skills you can provide to the group. Bushcraft skills can be quite valuable in an extreme survival situation.
Fourth, it will teach you how to improvise. When survival is on the line, the imagination works overtime to find new ways to stay alive. This is very useful in survival situations and in everyday life.
Fifth, you’ll truly get to know nature, what the outdoors can provide, and what it can’t provide. It will teach you an appreciation of the things you have, as well as a realization that you really don’t need these things.
How Do I Start?
If this is something you want to learn, start reading the books and websites of the people you’ve read about in this article. The set of books by Graves are very good and free. Dave Canterbury also has an informative Youtube channel with tons of videos. Start practicing!
Most wilderness survival situations do not last longer than 72 hours. If you can survive longer than that on your own in the wilderness, you’re moving into bushcraft skills. The only way you can get that good is to practice often. Like any skill, bushcraft skills can decay if they aren’t used. The more that you can get comfortable with going out into the forest and living, the easier it will become.
If short-term survival is your goal and you have little interest in long-term survival on the bare essentials, then you may want to seek out wilderness survival courses instead. Wilderness survival is easier to learn, but may rely on certain pieces of gear that you may not have. You could learn both, of course!
Also consider taking a course. A course will give you the instruction and the environment you need to really practice your skills and see if they work. There are courses for all sorts of skill levels and environments. It would be helpful if you had some camping experience before going out though.
There are also many other schools than the ones in this article. Bushcraft courses can be expensive, but they also can be valuable tools for learning the right ways of bushcraft in a safe and controlled setting. Make sure you vet the instructors and the reputation of the school before signing up.
Even if you don’t want to learn all the skills of bushcraft, there are many subskills that are useful for anyone to learn regardless of the type of community they want to build. Learning how to do them the bushcraft way will prepare you in case you can’t use your special tool that does the job easier. In fact, many campers do end up in dangerous situations because they don’t know what to do when their gear fails them. Consider picking up a few bushcraft skills to add to your resiliency kit.