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Wilderness survival is one of my first loves. As a kid, my brother and I would spend countless hours in the woods. Kicked out of the house shortly after the sun was up, our mom forbade us from coming home until the dinner bell rang. Our boredom and creativity were our only guides. I can only imagine the trouble we could have gotten into with a proper bushcraft skills guide.
Bushcraft, in my mind, is very close to prepping and survival skills. Both require knowledge of your resources and your end goal to determine the best possible chance for thriving. At its core, bushcraft skills use natural resources and few tools to meet your basic needs of survival.
Whether they be fire making, shelter building, or foraging for your next meal, these skills have both educational and practical applications for any survival situation. Plus, you get some dirt time. Let’s look at the most important with this bushcraft skills guide.
What is Bushcraft?
Like the frontiersmen of old, bushcraft practitioners use natural resources to their fullest to meet their daily needs. This includes covering the rules of three. How can you use natural materials to maintain your body temperature, conquer thirst, or keep your belly full?
When your bushcraft skills are in their infancy, you rely more on tools than skills. The more you increase your skillset, the less you need to carry. As they say, the more you carry in your head, the less you carry on your back.
The ultimate test for a bushcraft expert is a multi-day wilderness adventure with little more than a knife.
How Do You Learn Bushcraft Skills?
What is the best path to the mountain-man lifestyle? That depends on how you learn.
Learning bushcraft skills in the modern world is quite easy. If you have YouTube, then you have a lifetime of videos. Watch and learn.
If you are more of a book learner, then go to the source. Mors Kochanski’s “Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival” contains a lifetime of information from one of the world’s experts.
Don’t stop there. It’s easy to fill your library with books on each bushcraft topic.
Finally, there is personal and group instruction. Some skills are best seen live and practiced with the help of an instructor. You may need to be diligent in your searches to find an appropriate class.
Check your local cooperative extension, nature center, and Craigslist. In my experience, plant and foraging walks will be the easiest to find. They are also skills that require expert tutelage. You can’t afford to eat the wrong thing in the woods!
The next easiest to find are orienteering and land navigation. Again, another critical wilderness skill.
The best teacher is still mother nature. You must practice survival skills to master them. It’s as simple as that. Get outside. Build a shelter. Build a fire. You’ll never learn the minor tweaks that mean the difference between success and failure until you try.
Essential Bushcraft Skills
The world of bushcraft is broad, from shelter building to hunting and a million other skills in between. I organize my survival life by the rule of threes. It doesn’t fit every situation, but it gives me a start.
From this foundation, I expand to fit my current needs. Let’s look at those foundational skills now.
Handling Bushcraft Tools
First a note about tools. You don’t come into the world with a complete set of wilderness skills that allow you to thrive without tools. There are a few tools that get you started and make skills advancement easier.
Basic bushcraft tools include knives, axes, sharpeners, fire starters, cooking tools, cordage, and a compass.
A quality bushcraft knife is one of the most essential field tools. Used for processing wood, food, and making other bushcraft essentials, it should never leave your side.
Along with a knife comes its sharpening and maintenance. A sharp knife is a safe knife. This goes for all other edged tools. Keep them maintained!
Maintenance is critical for all other tools. Is your cordage dry and strong or is it old and dry rotted? Did you burn out your canteen when you boiled it dry? Review your gear after every trip and before every excursion.
The number one bushcraft skill is fire-making. Fire keeps you warm and your body temperature up. It purifies water and cooks your food.
Fire Preparation and Tinder
The first step of fire is material selection. By material, we mean tinder, kindling, and fuelwood. Learn the difference between each (yes, they are very different) and know that you need 10x more tinder and kindling than you think.
Gathering tinder is as much art as is it science. White pine needles are great but are a failure if there are even a little damp.
Practice making feather sticks. These little guys mix both knife and fire skills to get them just right.
Alternatively, you can make your own fire starters. Cotton and Vaseline, dryer lint and paraffin, as well as a host of other combinations are easy to make and carry with you.
Next is fire lays. Teepee, star, and log cabin fire structures all have their best use based on materials, environment, and weather conditions. Practice each as a skill until they are mastered.
The next bushcraft fire skill is processing wood. Getting the fire going is only half the battle. Once the kindling starts, you need to feed it. Under many scenarios, you will need to have enough wood ready to feed the fire for hours.
Processing firewood takes a lot of energy. Will you drop a tree with a knife, axe, or saw? Bucking a log into manageable pieces takes a tremendous amount of calories and energy if you only have an axe. Saws are efficient, but they have limited other uses (when compared to a knife).
Once you have the wood to the proper size, how will you split it? Batoning, or splitting wood, can be done with a knife, but it takes a stout blade to take that kind of abuse.
Your other option is a star fire. Take several logs and position the tips in the center of your fire and move them in as the fire burns. It doesn’t require an axe or saw, but requires more monitoring lets you have a dead fire.
Tinder, check. Kindling, check. Fuelwood, check. Time to start the fire.
The knowledge gained from each method aids those that came before. If you are successful in selecting wood for a bow drill and can use it in damp conditions, then starting a fire with matches is a breeze.
There is only one thing worse than making a fire… making two fires.
Fire preservation is the art of nurturing coals and letting them smolder for long periods of time. You can do this while you are working or when you have to move camp.
When staying stationary, you can roll a large log over your coals to get a slow-burning fire that will go for hours without maintenance. The combination of little oxygen and large mass keeps the smoldering going for hours.
If you need to move camp, practice keeping a lump of coal alive on the move. You can do this with a manufactured bowl made from bark, or using fungus. The horse hoof polypore and Chaga have both been used for centuries to do this. Learn from history!
Location, location, location. Oh, and materials. Yeah, and techniques.
One of the most varied topics in bushcrafting is shelter building. From tarp shelters to a debris hut, to a lean-to shelter. There are as many options as there are environments to protect yourself from.
Building a shelter is as much about techniques as it is about materials and preparation. The good news is that just about every wilderness survival book and bushcraft book has multiple chapters focused on the use of natural materials for your bushcraft camp.
Whether your shelter uses modern materials (e.g. paracord) or is completely natural, there are learning materials. Likewise, there are methods for short-term shelters and shelters to last a long time. You will never run out of material to learn for shelters.
Three days without water and dehydration will critically affect your ability to function or worse. You need safe drinking water or you will die. It’s that simple.
The ability to collect, purify, and carry water in the wilderness is tantamount to survival. Collection and transportation require the skills to fabricate a bowl, bottle, or other containers that can hold water.
Next is identifying the proper water source. Learn the difference between potentially potable water (e.g., melted snow, and moving water) vs. non-potable water (e.g., stagnant bodies of water).
Finally, untreated water is unfit to drink. You must purify all water you drink or use to cook.
A special note. I am a firm believer in boiling, chemical processing, and commercial water filters. I do not believe any amount of sand and charcoal (in a homemade filter) can remove giardia.
With that in mind, bushcraft reduces down to boiling. Whether that be rock-boiling in a hand-crafted container, or a fire and a stainless-steel water bottle, make sure you know how long to boil before you make yourself sick. Otherwise, amoebic dysentery will be part of your future.
Most of us can last at least a week or two without eating. That doesn’t mean it’ll be enjoyable.
The rule that we can last three weeks just means that our heart is still beating. It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do much for the last few days. Calories in must equal or exceed calories spent. If not, you are starving.
Foraging is surprisingly easy once you build up confidence. It’s a skill that takes an investment of time and is probably best learned through a class. Never ingest anything (food or medicine) that an expert hasn’t positively identified.
While foraging may not yield a tremendous amount of calories, plants don’t run. If you want higher caloric density, then meat is for you. The skills of trapping, hunting, and fishing are where the calories are at.
Snares, figure four deadfall traps, and trotlines are all skills worth learning and practicing (where legal). Along with harvesting small game, you must learn how to process and cook it so that it is safe to eat.
Next is foraging for wild medicinals. Many of our modern medicines have been derived from natural materials.
Aspirin was derived from Willow Bark and many polypore mushrooms are antibacterial. The Iceman Otzi even had pieces of the birch polypore in his bag and his stomach. This mushroom is useful for battling parasites, as an antibiotic, and has been used to fight inflammation.
Add these ancient tools to your toolbox.
There aren’t too many bushcraft projects that can be accomplished without cordage. Most beginning skills depend on synthetic rope such as paracord. With its inner fibers, paracord is infinitely useful.
As your skills improve, add cordage making to the toolbox between your ears. Given the right materials, you can make cordage that rivals most modern options.
These skills require knowledge of materials to gather (nettles, willow, milkweed), the knowledge of how and when to process them, and finally how to process the fibers into a usable rope.
More About Bushcraft
Bushcraft, like all prepping skills, is ever-evolving. While the evolution isn’t in technology, it is in your understanding, practice, and mastery. With so many skills to learn and apply, the process is never-ending; check out our other articles in the Bushcraft category for more resources.
Calculate the value of these skills in weight saved in your pack and their utility during urban and suburban survival scenarios. Or the application of bushcraft skills during an off-road bugout.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The more you carry in your head, the less you carry on your back.