Bushcraft skills allow you to not only survive in the wild, but in some cases, even thrive. Getting comfortable in the wilderness with the least amount of equipment will bring you a sense of confidence in your abilities. It will also allow you to get closer to nature and the surrounding environment.
Introduction To Bushcraft
The term bushcraft was originally used to describe the art and skills of surviving bush country in the southern hemisphere.
Bushcraft was how our ancestors survived, and it involves several essential skills:
- Locate and purify water
- Light a fire
- Set up a shelter or some form of protection
- Find food (animal or plant)
These skills are necessary for survival, but in a real life survival situation you also need to consider:
- Ability to construct tools
- How to signal for help
- How to administer basic first aid with the materials at hand.
Bushcraft is increasingly popular due to survival and wilderness experts such as Les Hiddins, Ray Mears, Bear Grylls and Mors Kochanski. These experts have spent a lifetime honing their craft, and have produced television series’ and books. Some also provide Bushcraft courses to those wishing to learn skills for survival. Let’s take a look at some of these skills now.
Find Water & Purify It
Finding water is the first of our essential bushcraft skills. We can only survive for three days without it, and even sooner than that we will start to feel the effects of dehydration. Try to minimize the loss of water from the body by resting in the shade during the hotter parts of the day and moving about when it’s cooler.
Looking at the terrain should give some sign of likely spots for water to gather – low points, such as valley bottoms, the base of canyons or cliffs, rock crevices or tree crotches are all good places to start looking. Water will tend collect in these low-lying spots. Even if there are no obvious signs of water in these locations, it’s worth digging down into the earth about a foot or two. Once you hit moisture, wait and allow the hole to fill with water.
If you locate a pool of water in a difficult to access spot, try bunching up some material, place it in the water and allow it to soak it up. You can then drink directly from the material (if you are sure that the water is potable) or squeeze it out into a container for later. You should always be mindful of threats lurking in the water.
In hotter climates that have cooler nights, the morning dew can be an easy source of clean water. A large, non-porous surface area can be used to collect the dew overnight. For example, a tarp or large piece of bark is used to collect the dew and pour it into a container in the morning.
Another technique is to tie a plastic bag or similar over a branch with a lot of green leaves. Over the course of a day, the sun will penetrate the bag; the leaves will undergo photosynthesis allowing the tiny pores in the leaves (stomata) to open. This process releases the excess moisture from the leaves which then collects in the bag. You may need to weight the bag with a small rock so that the water pools in one area. Water collected using this method may not need purifying, but it will need filtration, a piece of material or coffee filter would do the trick. This technique requires you to remain in the same location for a substantial period or at least be able to return.
A tree tap is another bushcraft method of obtaining water from your surroundings. Insert a knife blade into the trunk of a tree (above a large root is a good place) at an upward angle. Insert a piece of grass or a stick into the incision, and the sap in the tree will run down this ‘spile’ into your container. The tree has already completed the purification process for you, and the result is sap that is slightly sweet and watery. Maple, birch and sycamore trees are some of the species that are fit for tapping.
You can locate water by paying attention to animal activity around you. If you see evidence of animal activity that tends to converge downhill, it may be that they are heading towards a water source. Some birds tend to circle waterholes and some insects, such as bees, don’t stray too far from water at all. Watching these animals could provide you with a good indication of likely water sources.
Water filtration and purification are paramount, and if you have any doubts about the quality of the water you have access to, then it is best to treat it.
Filtering before boiling is most often a good idea. You can filter water using material or coffee filters, or construct a bushcraft filter using some natural substances. Use a container and fill it with things arranged from largest and least porous (like gravel and grass) layered above finer and more porous matter like sand, charcoal, and finally fabric. Pour the water over the top and allow it to pass through each layer. This DIY water filter will remove most impurities from the water.
Boiling water for 5 minutes is the easiest way to treat water. Allow it to cool for 30 minutes before drinking or storing. In colder climates, snow may be your water source. It is best to boil snow before drinking it to remove any contaminants.
You can purify water by chemical methods as well. Iodine or Micropure tablets are a lightweight and convenient treatment method if you happen to have them with you. They can take 15 minutes – 2 hours to treat water but are very effective.
How To Build A Shelter
When building a shelter, it is important to consider the environment that you are in – what is appropriate in the snow is very different to jungle scenario or the hot outback. Wherever you are, you’ll need to consider the wind, how close your water source is and the types of local wildlife.
You can, of course, use the natural environment to find shelter. A large hollow tree trunk, a cave or even a fallen tree resting on the stump may be more than enough. If not, here are a few basic shelters you can build using your bushcraft skills.
An A frame is very simple to construct. Find two strong uprights and arrange in an ‘A’ shape, secure with available vines or similar. Rest a longer stick where the two uprights meet, and the other end on the ground. Pad out the walls using foliage or branches, and you have an effective shelter. A variation of this is to use several sets of uprights along the length of the shelter. These shelters are also known as debris huts.
A lean-to is another bushcraft essential. You can use an existing structure, such as a rock face, or a tree and ‘lean’ your roofing material against it. You can build a freestanding lean-to, but make sure you build it facing away from the wind.
A Jungle A-frame shelter raises your bed off the ground away from snakes and insects. Construct two A-frames (one at either end), add the top rail and then secure two side rails. These two rails will form the above ground bed.
Snow caves can provide protection from the harsh cold. Look for a natural snow drift to save digging time and pile up the snow on top. You’ll need to leave it for a while to allow it to compact naturally. This increases the stability of the cave and the insulating ability of the packed snow. Carve out the inside into a dome shape; the shape is important for structural integrity as it helps prevent collapse. Make sure you leave enough room to pile up several inches of pine branches for bedding. These branches will protect you from direct contact with the cold snow.
Finding food comes a little lower on the priority list. We can survive for a few weeks without food, but it does make all our other tasks easier if we can find something edible and keep our energy levels high.
Get to know your local edible plants. These will differ for each location, but berries, tubers, and leaves are likely food sources.
Insects also provide valuable nutrition. In Australia, witchetty grubs are a common wilderness food source. Grasshoppers, mealworms and several types of beetles that are found throughout the world make good, high protein food sources. Yes, for real.
If fish are abundant in your area, they should be your top food source. Relatively easy to catch (for skilled fishermen like myself, at least 😁) and full of protein and good fats, fish are wonderful food sources. A basic survival kit should include fishing equipment. A pre-prepared kit can include fishing line, several hooks and swivels, a small hand reel, sinkers and a knife. These are the basics, and you can tailor your own fishing kit however you like.
Building a Fire – An Important Bushcraft Skill
Fire is necessary for warmth and purifying water as well as cooking to kill parasites in meat. Building a fire is not difficult if you have a lighter, waterproof matches or similar in your bushcraft kit.
Start with dry tinder and add kindling as the fire takes hold. Add larger pieces in a pyramid shape as the fire gets hotter.
If you don’t have a lighter, matches or a fire steel, then it’s time to look at friction sources or a magnifying glass to ignite your fire. The Bow Drill method is the friction method that everyone has seen, and few have mastered. Take a look at Ray Mears using it here:
Construct Tools & Weapons
A good knife, a hatchet, a fold out saw, and a lighter or fire steel are excellent basics to have in your kit. If you need to improvise though, a sharp rock tried with cordage to a sturdy timber handle may suffice as a make-shift hatchet.
A sharp piece of metal, a sturdy glass shard or a broken knife blade fixed to a handle can act as a knife or spear. Hitting two rocks together could produce a spark and act as a lighter. You may have to try a few rocks though, as it depends on the type of rock.
The ability to navigate with a compass and map is a useful skill. A compass suitable for navigation is seen below.
A topographical map will provide you with the contour of the land as well as ‘handrails’. Handrails are natural features easily identified on the map, like rivers, streams, fence lines or tracks. It is advisable to follow these handrails when planning a route. To travel from Point A to Point B using a compass and a topographical map follow these steps:
- Align the long side of your compass base plate from A to B, with the direction of travel arrow point in the same direction as B
- Turn the adjustable dial so that the orientation lines align with the North-South lines on your map and the orientating arrow points to grid North. Make a note of the bearing value displayed (in the picture below it is the value displayed beneath the little white star, under the red arrow and it reads approximately 85°)
- Adjust the grid bearing using the variation (magnetic declination). The magnetic declination is the angle between where the magnetic needle points and True North (the direction of the North Pole). It varies based on geographical location and changes in the Earth position over time (date). You can use the estimated magnetic declination calculator provided by NOAA. To determine if you need to add or subtract the variation, remember this memory aid – West is Best, East is least. That means add West declinations and subtract East ones. You might be able to do without knowing the magnetic declination if you travel shorter distances and a deviation of roughly 1-15° doesn’t matter a lot to you.
- Hold the compass horizontally in front of you, and turn around so that Magnetic North aligns with North as shown on the adjustable dial
If you are without a compass, you can use your wristwatch to give you a general direction. In the Northern Hemisphere, hold the watch horizontal and align the hour hand with the sun. The line between the hour hand and the 12 on your watch is South. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, hold the watch horizontally and point the 12 in the direction of the sun. The line between the 12 and the hour hand will give you a North-South line. The closer you are to the Equator, the less accurate this method becomes.
Another method of navigation uses the stars. In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star (Polaris) is located directly over the North Pole and can quickly help you determine your bearings. To locate the North Star, the main constellations used are The Big Dipper (Ursa Major), and the” W” shaped Cassiopeia.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the main feature used to aid navigation is the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross moves in the sky, but the pointers of nearby Centaurus (see 2) can help locate South. Imagine a perpendicular line from the pointers that intersects with the line between the head and foot of the cross. Draw a line down from this point to the horizon, and you’ve identified South.
You can purchase many different kinds of first aid kits. You may want to personalize your first aid kit by thinking about the likely injuries or ailments that you may encounter. Some of the items you could include are:
- Antiseptic wipes
- Minor Wound and Blister Kit, plus other blister dressings
- Antibiotic cream
- Sterile Gauze Swabs
- Steri Strips
- Wound Dressing Pads
- Crepe bandages and other dressings
- Transpore Tape
- Safety Pins
First aid is one of the most important bushcraft skills. But it’s no use having first aid equipment if you don’t know what to do in an emergency. It is advisable to seek out specialized first aid training and then think about the specific risks you may face. This will give you the best chance of dealing with any unexpected incidents that occur.
Signal For Help
Fire is an effective signaling method. You can set up three separate fires in a triangle shape. This is an internationally recognized signal for distress. You could also place green foliage on top of your fire to produce large amounts of white smoke which could be seen by rescue crews. Both of these methods need you to set up your fire in a visible location.
A whistle can be a useful signal. Three short blasts, three long blasts, and three more shorts blasts are the internationally recognized Morse code distress signal.
Other ways to signal for help include the use of flares (if you have them), using a mirror to attract attention by reflecting sunlight or even spelling out S.O.S in a highly visible location using available objects.
Put Together A Bushcraft Bag
We could improvise if we had to, but an excellent bushcraft bag can be put together quickly and inexpensively. The recommended essentials for a beginner include:
- Sleeping kit (bag, mat, liner)
- Camp stove and dish
- Water bottle (2)
- Folding saw
- Fire Flash
- Tarp and waterproof liner
These recommendations are for someone learning or improving their bushcraft. Someone with more experience would be able to leave home with a lot less – a knife, fire flash, and a saw would be enough.
The list above would ensure you would be able to have a comfortable night in the wild while still testing your basic bushcraft skills. By taking the essentials, including water and some food, you would be able to:
- Set up a shelter
- Start and maintain fire
- Practice finding water and food
If you are unsuccessful, you would still have everything you need to survive a night or two in the wilderness quite comfortably.
You may also start to personalize it by including other items, a hand reel and other essential fishing equipment, a basic first aid kit or navigation equipment.
Bushcraft is an excellent set of skills to learn, use, and improve upon. It enables us to survive in the wilderness whether through necessity or as a way to immerse yourself in nature.
You can practice bushcraft at home before going into the bush to ensure you feel comfortable with basics. You can rely on a few comforts if you’re willing to take them with you, but remember the more you take with you, the more your bushcraft expedition becomes a camping trip. However, you should start with more supplies until your bushcraft skills are honed. Always take the minimum necessary to keep you safe.
As a skill for survival, bushcraft could prove invaluable.
On the 22nd December 2016, Shelley Crooks headed for a 4-day bushwalk along the Punakaiki track on the West Coast of New Zealand. She suffered a debilitating leg injury and had no method of communication. She survived using her extensive bushcraft skills to find water, food and provide shelter and warmth. During her 6 weeks in the wild Crooks ate insects and plants to survive. Her father attributed her survival to her extensive knowledge of bushcraft and outdoors experience.
Veronique Biunkens became lost in the Australian bush for 5 days without food and used her knowledge of bushcraft to survive. She located a running creek to drink from. She found two logs nearby and created a debris shelter by piling branches, leaves and bracken over the top. She padded her clothing with tree moss at night to provide insulation against the cold and covered herself head-to-toe in mud during the day to protect herself from the searing heat.
These two tales of survival illustrate the effectiveness of learning basic bushcraft skills. Not only can bushcraft provide an enjoyable and challenging hobby to practice and eventually master, but it could provide you with necessary survival skills should the need ever arise.