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by Todd Walker
Growing up as a simple country boy in the 60’s and 70’s, we camped. We made forts (aka ~ survival shelters today) from forest resources. We hunted, fished, and ate things we found in the woods. We learned woods lore from elder family members and friends. There was no internet. There were only books and young boys with a pocket knife and a cheap hatchet sleeping under an open southern sky.
I later discovered that my childhood adventures had a proper name. What we called camping and having fun in the woods is now known as bushcraft. I’ve spent my life avoiding labels. However, for the purpose of this article, we’ll use the term bushcraft but could easily be applied to some other labels below.
Whether you choose to call your outdoor life – bushcraft, woodcraft, camping, survivalism, primitive skills, scouting, wilderness living, etc., etc. – we all share a common desire to be comfortable, connected, confident, and more self-reliant in the wilderness.
I recently received this message on our Facebook page…
“What would you recommend for someone who is interested in learning about bushcrafting… for a beginner?” ~ DW
My suggestion to you, DW, and anyone starting out, is to remain a student and stay away from “experts” promoting bloated bushcraft. The beauty of bushcraft is hidden in simplicity. Start with skills, not elaborate gear.
You may be unfamiliar with the life and writings of Horace Kephart, so allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite authors and a quote from his book, Camping and Woodcraft (1917)…
“In the school of the woods… There is no graduation day.”
Somewhere along our modern journey, going to the woods became complicated. You may be under the impression that you need a specific list of “bushcraft” gear to get started. Beware of the wiles of marketers. You’ll need some gear and we’ll address the non-bloated bushcraft gear required to get started.
Bushcraft knives, bushcraft books, bushcraft gear, bushcraft YouTubers, bushcraft schools, and lots of shiny survival stuff are begging for your attention and money. Internet experts have a way of confusing beginners by using the bushcrafty buzzwords yet some have little field experience. Be careful who you listen to and learn from.
The journey to any aspect of self-reliance begins by Doing the Stuff. This will take time and experience in the field. Your “wilderness” may be your backyard. No shame in that. The bushcraft-purist’s protocol is not important. Practicing skills wherever you are, with the equipment you have, is where experience is gained. Experience carries more weight than head knowledge.
Fundamental Bushcraft Skills
Bushcraft encompasses a deep and wide field of knowledge. For the beginner, information overload has the real possibility of stopping you before you can even start this new hobby. To avoid bloated bushcraft, build a firm foundation by developing these two core skills outlined below.
A.) Fire Craft
Max, my grandson, igniting a pile of fat lighter scrapings
Non-Bloated Fire Recommendations
- Cigarette lighter
Harnessed fire changes everything. It disinfects water and the 21st century soul. For paleo people, life was sustainable because of fire. The same holds true for us moderns – only our fire is fed through convenient copper wire behind walls. Learning to build a fire lay from what the forest provides and then successfully lighting and managing the fire is your first fundamental skill.
I’ve covered many fire craft fundamentals in the article links below which may help you with fire craft…
Practice Makes Permanent
Practice does not make perfect. It will, however, make skills permanent. With that being said, an ugly fire lay that ignites and burns still achieves your goal… Fire!
“Fire don’t care about pretty. It eats ugly. In fact, fire loves chaos.”
Now it’s time to practice.
Look to your local forest (or backyard) to provide you with the necessary fire resources. This is where context and locale come into play. Your fire resources may differ from mine. But rest assured, indigenous people once lived in your neighborhood and created fire in your woodland.
Gather your first fire’s meal: Breakfast (tinder), Lunch (kindling), and Dinner (fuel).
Breakfast – You may not easily find natural tinder material in your backyard. If not, use a commercial fire-starter or make a diy alternative. You can learn to find and process plant-based tinder as you have access to them. You can also use your knife to create tinder material from a single stick.
Lunch – Collect an arm-load of dead, small twigs (kindling material) hanging off the ground. Each twig should give a distinctive snap when broken. If not, the wood is not dry and shouldn’t be used. Look for the smallest twigs available – pencil lead in size to pencil-size.
Dinner – While your out collecting kindling, gather finger-size to wrist-size branches to fuel your fire once the twigs ignite. Organize your wood into kindling and fuel in separate stacks.
All fires need three items to come to life; oxygen, fuel, and heat. Your heat source will be a lighter or matches. Even with an open flame the fire lay must be properly prepared. With your fire lay built, light the tinder and observe. Did it ignite the kindling, and eventually, the fuel? If not, what do you need to do different? Experiment until you have a sustainable fire.
B.) Knife Craft
No other area of bushcraft holds more potential for bloating than knives. However, you don’t need an expensive cutting tool to get started in bushcraft.
Mora makes cheaper (under $20.00 US), durable blades worth your consideration. By the way, I’m not affiliated with or receive compensation from any products/company I mention on our blog. However, when I find a product that I like, I’ll share my thoughts with our readers. Simply put, I highly recommend Mora knives for beginners. I gave my grandson his first fixed blade knife last year – a Mora Companion.
Once you have a knife that feels good in your hands, it should be able to spread peanut butter and slice meat, whittle sticks, carve wood, make notches, butcher animals, clean fish, and many more camp tasks.
“The quality of a survival kit is determined by how much it can help you when you need to sleep. If you can sleep well at night, you have it made.” ~ Mors Kochanski
Yes, knife craft will help you achieve a good nights sleep in the woods. Click here to read how.
Non-Bloated Knife Recommendations
- Mora knives
- Old Hickory butcher knives
- The above knives can be purchased for under 20 bucks
My grandson’s Mora Companion (top left), a smaller Mora with a bark neck sheath, and butcher knife – not Old Hickory.
A sharp knife is a safe knife. Dull knifes take more force for cutting and increase the risk of injury. You want your knife shaving sharp.
Below are a few safety tips for using your knife…
- Cut in a direction away from your body. That’s good advice for beginners and seasoned woodsman.
- Work with your knife outside the triangle of death (an imaginary triangle between your knees and crotch).
- Work within the blood circle when others are nearby (a circle made with your outstretched arms as you turn 360 degrees).
- Grip and body mechanics ~ standard grip, reverse grip, chest lever, knee lever, and thumb assisted grip for push cuts in fine carving tasks. These will be covered in detail in a later post.
Two knife skills I recommend for beginners relate to fire craft. Find a dead soft hardwood or pine limb about arm’s length and thumb to wrist-size in diameter with no knots. Grip your knife in a standard grip like you’d hold a tennis racket. Lay the cutting edge against the wood and cut down along the wood surface. Keep your elbow slightly bent but stiff and use your shoulder to push the knife. After each thin cut down the wood, move the blade slightly to shave the ridge of the previous cut. Keep the knife perpendicular to the wood with each pass.
Use this exercise to get the feel of how your blade profile engages (bites) the wood. Learn to tilt the knife for finer or thicker shavings/curls. The object is to produce surface area that will easily ignite with an open flame. Ugly curls are not a problem. They’ll burn. I rarely carve feather/fuzz sticks since my woodland has other abundant tinder options. This is still a good way to practice your knife skills. We called it whittling as a child.
Another really quick method to produce tinder with lots of surface area is to scrape the wood with the back (spine) of your knife – my preferred method. Try this using the same technique described above. Collect the fine shavings for your fire lay.
Below is a quick video demonstrating this technique with a piece of fat lighter (fatwood).
Once you feel more confident with safely handling your knife, move on to making notches to further enhance your skills. Mr. Kochanski recommends carving basic notches by creating a Try Stick.
A pot hook made with two notches: Pot hook or beak notch (bottom) and hole notch at top.
Learning to carve notches develops knife skills which enables you to craft useful items for camp and outdoor self-reliance.
Continuing Outdoor Education
Good books, blogs, videos, and instructors with field experience who encouraging independent thinking is of more value to beginners than regurgitated information. The more time you spend gaining experience in the field the more confident you’ll become. For continued education, check out one of the best online resources I’ve found by going to the Resources Page at Master Woodsman.
This article is not a comprehensive guide for all you’ll need to get started in your journey to outdoor self-reliance. It is, however, my advice to beginners pursuing the simple art of non-bloated bushcraft. Now… get out there and get some experience!
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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