Bushcrafting: The Basics
In the mid 19th century the eastern Longhunters and western Mountain Men were dying out and a man by the name of George Washington Sears started writing stories as “Nessmuk” for Forest and Stream magazine in the 1880’s. He talked about conservation and the old ways while promoting lightweight canoeing trips in the Adirondacks.
Then around the turn of the 20th century came another man by the name of Horace Kephart. In 1906 he wrote a book called Camping and Woodcraft. In it he detailed hiking the land while enjoying nature.
Right after Kephart came Francis Buzzacott in 1913 with his Complete Sportsman’s Encyclopedia.
There were several books that followed that talked about getting back to the woods, learning skills of our ancestors and generally enjoying nature in all its glory.
Today we have men like Ray Mears and Dave Canterberry who continue to produce material to teach others, but also to encourage us to go out and enjoy nature with the skills we have learned.
I can lead you to the water but you will have to learn to swim on your own.
In bushcrafting everyone has their own journey. I can point you to the water and tell you all I know about swimming but you might have a completely different mindset than I and go about it in a different way.
There is no right or wrong way to bushcraft. That is the beauty, anyone can pick a skill and become competent.
Is it Bushcraft or Survival?
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish bushcraft from survival. The biggest difference I can come up with is that bushcrafters usually try to learn how to do things with the minimum of equipment, while survivalists will have more store bought things in their kits. Please don’t beat me up about this, I know there is a huge crossover but I had to try to draw a line somewhere.
How Primitive do you want to go?
Much of bushcraft is heading out into the woods and practicing/learning new skills. You may have heard the saying, “The more you know, the less you have to carry.” This is a goal for some. To see how little they can carry into the wilderness and not only survive but thrive.
I mentioned the Mountain Men and Longhunters. This breed of men learned many of their skills from the natives who had been living in the wilderness for millenia.
You can take this from the point of learning one skill to enjoy while out hiking, all the way to trying to go naked into the wilderness.
There are hundreds if not thousands of skills that could be considered bushcrafting skills. I am sharing some of the more popular ones, but by no means feel limited to what I have written here.
The skills of a bushcrafter should allow them to live out of their pack for an extended period without resupply and without undue discomfort.
One thing I have noticed about skills is that some will concentrate on one to the exclusion of others and there is nothing wrong with that unless you are trying to be a more complete and well rounded bushcrafter.
Knowing 36 ways to start a fire with bird poop and spit might be interesting, but if it is an emergency even someone skilled at it will resort to the easiest means possible to get that fire going fast.
Speaking of firemaking, this is the number one skill to learn.
A fire can keep you alive in the wilderness like nothing else. It can keep you warm in place of shelter, it can purify water by boiling it, it can cook your food and it can protect you by keeping dangerous animals at bay.
There are so many ways to start a fire, as I kidded above, and the easiest way I know is with a road flare. I have one in my kit in the winter.
But what happens if I lose my kit? Okay, I have a butane lighter in my pocket. Lose that? Have a ferro rod on my knife sheath. Lose that? Ferro rod on shoe laces. Lose those? Okay now I am getting down to friction fire that I am not as good at. But you can see, lots of layers of skills, and I am working on getting better at friction.
Water Collection and Purification
Finding and purifying water is easier in some parts of the planet than others. I grew up in the Rockies and constantly drank straight from streams. Where I live now, I won’t even eat the fish that come from the local waterways due to pollution.
Many bushcrafters will carry a portable water filter to be sure they have clean water to drink and cook with.
A small pot is usually all that is needed in the kit to be able to boil water to make sure all the little nasties are dead.
There are several types of shelters that bushcrafters try to become proficient at building.
It will depend largely on the type of equipment you carry as to which type you will build.
A classic lean-to is what everyone seems to start with. Spending a few nights in one at different times of the year will teach you how much you like that design.
Debris huts can be as simple as a frame stuffed full of leaves with more piled on top where you snuggle down inside like you did as a kid hiding from your dad raking leaves.
Foraging can be for food, materials, and even medicine.
Foraging is learning your local area and finding out what is good for food, and when it is good to eat. It is also for finding materials you might need for other skills like cordage, or medicine for a headache.
Foraging is such a big skillset that there are people out there doing that want nothing to do with bushcrafting.
As you increase your foraging skills you can supplement your normal diet with free foraged goods that only cost your time to pick and prepare them.
Hunting, Fishing,Tracking, and Trapping
These skills will help you feed yourself as you are living in the wilderness. They also will become useful in real life if you use them to feed your family.
I grew up eating deer and elk, just as much as beef and pork. Our whole family hunted every fall in order to fill our freezer, like so many around the country do.
Fur trapping is becoming a dying skill. The laws seem to get more strict every year as certain government agencies allow themselves to be ruled by emotion rather than conservation science.
If you are able to find a fur trapper to teach you the skills it will be invaluable information to have for learning how to set primitive traps you make yourself for bushcrafting.
Primitive fishing is fun to attempt when your life isn’t on the line. Gorge hooks and lines can be made with the simplest of tools. Don’t expect to be catching Moby Dick with this set up, but several small fish will feed you just fine.
Making wild cordage is a fun skill to learn, and you can spend hours around a campfire in the evening making yards and yards of it.
I admit, this is the skill that got me when I started learning more primitive skills for my bushcrafting. It seems I was always on the lookout for some plant I could twist up into a length of cordage.
Once you get good at this you could possibly start making your own rope, bow strings, fishing line, and possibly even weaving blankets or cloth.
Making a primitive bow in the wild isn’t as hard as it may seem. It is an interesting skill to practice, and you may be able to provide some of your food with this skill.
Finding your way using landmarks and the stars, marking trails and just exploring without becoming hopelessly lost is a skill that seems difficult for some to develop.
I had a hunting buddy of several years who could never tell me where the truck was. We would get a couple miles from where it was parked and I would say, “Okay, where is the truck?” and he would give me an exasperated look, point in some random direction and say, “That is why I have you along.”
Map reading and orienteering are good ways to learn the basics of wayfinding.
One skill I am surprised is not more common is using an astrolabe. Look it up and maybe it will resonate with you.
If you are going full primitive in your bushcrafting, flint knapping will be an important skill. You can make all sorts of useful equipment from stone.
We have been talking about bushcraft skills. Some of these skills will be used for making useful things to have around camp.
Some bushcrafters want to make all their own equipment, while others decide to carry minimal store bought equipment.
Like the skills list, this is far from a complete list of bushcraft equipment, merely some of the more popular pieces.
As with skills, fire is a very important part of your wilderness experience, so most bushcrafters will have a fire kit of some sort.
Many will put together a flint and steel kit with a piece of flint, a striker and some char cloth to catch the spark.
Others like me will have several ways of starting a fire with us, and practice skills we aren’t good at if the conditions warrant it.
Bag, Sack, or Pack
Most start with a pack with all their equipment and then downsize until they have something that carries everything they feel they need.
A mountain man possibles bag, a military satchel or messenger bag, or a repurposed laptop bag can work for this.
You can also roll everything into your bedroll and carry it like that.
Clockwise from top. Tops Tracker 4 $170 msrp, my EDC Leatherman, Mora 511 $10 msrp, my EDC Swiss Army Officer. Image by Randy Ausburger
There is a plethora of information and opinion out there on the type of knife that should be used in bushcrafting. There is almost as much arguing about knives as there is between Glock and 1911 guys, or AR and AK guys. Let’s not forget multi-tools, they are knives too right?
Custom made vs Store bought
Cheap vs Expensive
Hollow ground vs Flat ground ...or even convex ground
Big vs Medium vs Small
As I said earlier, I can lead you to the water but you will have to learn to swim on your own.
There are several things to consider when picking a bushcraft knife.One of the most important is to understand the limits of the design of the knife you choose to carry and not end up with a broken blade.
Large knives make quick work of large game (will you be big game hunting while bushcrafting?) They are good for chopping and batoning. They also make a formidable defense knife as a last resort defense against wild animals.
There is a story about Teddy Rosevelt on a mountain lion hunt where they had treed a lion. They shot it and it fell from the tree but was still very much alive and started fighting with the dogs. Unable to shoot for fear of hitting a dog, Teddy pulled his hunting knife, waded into the fray and stabbed the lion through the heart. Men of a different era.
Large knives are not so suited for cleaning small animals or fish. They are also poor for fine utility work around the camp.
A medium knife can be a workhorse if you choose well. Not so good at chopping (why you have an axe or hatchet), may be passable at batoning, and will work pretty good for most camp chores.
A small knife is usually paired with a larger knife so you can cover most of the work you will want to do in camp.
There is an amazing variance in cost when you start looking for the perfect bushcraft knife. On one hand a knife very similar to what a mountain man or longhunter carried is a carbon bladed butcher. I constantly find these in the $1-$5 range at flea markets. I have carried an Old Hickory butcher with me on many occasions and have little to complain about.
If you want a cheap, tough useful camp knife, start your quest with a Mora. They start around $10. They are no frills but get the job done.
On the other end of the scale are the $1000+ custom forged knives that are available from several blacksmiths and knife makers who know their business.
If I had to give advice to someone just getting started (you), I would say to get an inexpensive knife in each size. In fact, get several. Don’t take them where your life depends on them, but use them in the woods, see what you like and when you decide on what you prefer, start shopping for a quality blade with the same size and features you found useful.
Hatchet or Axe
Many bushcrafters start out with a hatchet or small axe. As they progress, they seem to split into a few groups.
Those that move on to a tomahawk, those that prefer Norwegian style bearded hand axes, and those that drop the axe/hatchet completely.
Much of what you prefer will depend on the skills you have learned and how you have learned them. Some will need a hatchet to build shelter, some will use a saw, some will use no cutting tools. Some will like the hawk for throwing, and others will like the bearded axe for carving.
Common camping bow saw and a 12" folding pruning saw. Image by Randy Ausburger
The bow saw was and still is the go-to saw for many bushcrafters. Many styles are available from camping supply stores or online.
You can also get nice handmade kits that break down allowing you to store the saw unassembled in a compact space. While some will just carry a blade or two and craft their own frame on site in camp.
The other popular alternative (the one I switched to a couple years ago) is a folding pruning saw. These saws range in size from about an 8” blade on up to 18” or so. They go through wood at a remarkable speed and being able to fold them, makes them nice and compact and easy to carry.
The biggest drawback of the pruning type saw is that the teeth will be hard to sharpen in the field should they need it.
Cup, Container, or Mess Kit
The more primitive people will find a burl and carve/burn out a noggin for their cup. Others may just clip a stainless mug on their belt and use it for drinking and cooking light meals.
A popular item is a Boy Scout mess kit with a small pot, skillet, bowl and cup. The old ones were aluminum but you can now upgrade to stainless for about twice the price. About the same size is a military mess kit, without the pot or cup.
Some who are not planning on going far may include a cast iron skillet or even a dutch oven for base camp.
Bed Roll or Sleeping Bag
The traditional bushcraft sleeping roll for the last 120 years or so has been a tarp and two 100% wool blankets rolled up. They say it will keep you warm down to freezing or even below. I have had mixed results with mine as I have mixed wool blankets.
The other alternative is the sleeping bag. There are many compact designs on the market and if you are good at shelter building and fire making even a cheap one will keep you warm.
Poly rope, 550 cord and a variety of cordage made from Dogbane, Milkweed, nettle, and basswood. Image by Randy Ausburger
Most bushcrafters rely on the ubiquitous 550 paracord for most of their needs. Some will carry poly rope, and most will carry fishing line of some sort along with a fishing kit.
Even if you get good at making your own cordage it will be worth your time to have some premade already on hand.
Depending on your purpose of bushcrafting you will want to consider various weapons.
A flintlock fowling piece is a popular muzzleloader with bushcrafters. It is a smoothbore and allows a shot load or round ball to be loaded, and is great for taking small game.
Others wanting to follow that tradition of a single shot will often carry a break action shotgun. This is a good piece and will take most game with the right loads.
Some will carry bows, slingshots, atlatls, and even spears. As with much of bushcrafting it is entirely up to you what you do with it.
What are you waiting for?
I hope I have shown you the water and you go ahead and plunge in.
Even if you never consider yourself a bushcrafter, the skills you learn can be useful in your other outdoor pursuits and may even someday save your life.
Bushcrafting holds a little something for everyone...come on in, the water’s fine.
Written by Randy Augsburger
Randy Augsburger lives on a small homestead in the Midwest. He grew up in the Rockies hunting, fishing and trapping. He has been sharing his knowledge of the outdoors by writing and making videos for the last 10 years. You can checkout his blog and youtube channel called The Prepared Christian.