What Is Bushcraft? Your Complete Guide to Becoming a Bushman

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Last fall I stumbled across some YouTube videos that completely consumed my attention. The videos were of guys building shelters out of fallen trees. No music. No words. Just guys working in a primitive fashion. These “Bushcraft” videos displayed skills that seemed so practical. And they made camping look like children play. The next thing I know, down the rabbit hole I went.

Now, I’m going to share with you everything I’ve been learning about regarding Bushcraft.

What Is Bushcraft?

Bushcraft or bushcrafting is a skill set and a knowledge base. At the heart of bushcraft is the knowledge of nature – the various resources that one can use to look for, read, and recognize the indicators in one’s surroundings. Out of this not only comes a deeper appreciation for nature but the ability to be comfortable while one is out in the wilderness.

Defining Bushcraft

Bushcraft describes the activities involved with making use of the natural materials that are found in the wilderness. It also includes many of the skills that have been used by primitive men. Bushcrafting skills allow an individual to have the remarkable ability to adapt and improvise quickly to the changing environment while out in the wilderness.

Unlike being in a survivalist mindset, bushcraft skills allow one to learn the ways of making their stay in the wilderness as comfortable as possible without the use of technology or outside aid.

Bushcraft is all about acquiring skills and knowledge such as firecraft, building shelter, water sourcing, hunting, navigation, and more that can help a person survive in the wilderness.

In other words, bushcraft is the art of not just surviving but thriving in the wilderness.

Bushcraft Popularity

Bushcraft is a term that’s used to describe wilderness survival skills. The term “bushcraft” was popularized by Major Leslie James ‘Les Hiddins an Australian army war veteran and Mors Kochanski a Polish Canadian bushcraft and wilderness survival instructor. Both Hiddins and Kochanski gained a considerable amount of popularity in the UK thanks to Ray Mears’ bushcraft survival television show.

Bushcraft Origins

The use of the word “bushcraft” dates back to the 1800s when it was used by Australians and South Africans to describe those who would live in the bush. The first recorded use of the term bushcraft was in the book, ‘The History of Australian Exploration from 1788 to 1888’ by Ernest Favenc, which was published in 1888.

The word bushcraft comes from the Dutch word “bosch” which was used in Dutch colonies to describe woodland and parts of the country covered with natural wood or forests. This was later used by extension for a country which is why “bushman” was a term given by Dutch colonists to the natives living in the bushes in Southern Africa.

In North America, where there had also been a considerable amount of colonization by the Dutch, the term “bushwacker” meant ‘forest keeper’ or ‘forest ranger.’

The Difference Between Bushcraft/Survival/Camping/Hiking

As humans, we have a close connection to nature. Being out in a natural environment allows us to explore and discover the abundance of nature around us, which is one of the reasons why we go hiking and camping. Learning bushcraft allows us to take these experiences further and enable us to find self-confidence as we move out of our comfort zone and into the wilderness and face new challenges.

Bushcraft vs. Survival Skills

If you’re lost in the woods or have been injured while out in the wilderness, or some other life or death situation, survival skills mean one’s ability to survive in the wilderness and get out of danger ASAP.

Bushcraft, on the other hand, is practiced by those who wish to sharpen their skills to survive in the wilderness without a bug-out-bag.

While there are similarities between the two, bushcraft is the study of survival scenarios done voluntarily. In other words, it isn’t literally about survival, as in, being in a life or death situation. But it does have to do with the practice and sharpening of one’s survival skills in case the need does arise to put those skills to the test.

In short, knowing bushcraft can keep you from being in a life or death situation. Bushcraft or bushcrafting is so much more than just surviving. It’s all about being in the woods and enjoying the experience of being with nature as one practices their skills.

Difference Between Bushcraft and Camping

As far as camping goes, all backpackers carry everything they are going to need in the forest or park while camping, whereas the bushcrafter makes use of their surroundings to supplement their equipment.

The comfort that comes with knowing bushcraft cannot be denied. This comfort has to do with both physical and psychological. For example, camping or hiking through the woods is an enjoyable experience. Being in the wilderness and surrounded by nature can be a great experience, but those who know bushcraft acquire the skills to use the resources in the surroundings.

Bushcraft teaches you:

  • Which plants are edible and which should be stayed away from
  • How to find water sources
  • Build shelter
  • Find out which direction you’re going (without a compass)
  • Forage for food
  • Build a fire
  • Make small weapons

Spending a night out in the woods while knowing bushcraft gives a person the confidence they need to deal with what others would find very unsettling and uncomfortable.

Difference between Bushcraft and Hiking / Backpacking

Hiking is about traveling a distance and measuring distance. Bushcraft is more about calculating the number of days one can stay out in the woods. As compared to hikers, a bushcrafter normally carries heavier gear, or more living-style equipment, such as spoon knives, hook knives, axes, tarps and repair kits etc. That’s because, unlike hiking where one will walk for a long distance across terrain and needs to carry a lighter load, bushcrafting is about setting camp in the wilderness and exploring the area around that campsite.

While hiking conditions your body to go through long distances of rugged terrain, bushcraft can save your life in a hiking trip gone wrong. Also, each can be beneficial to the other since they both include certain skills such as land navigation.

This means you can incorporate your bushcraft skills during your next hiking trip.

That said, it should be noted that hiking trails are very different from bushcraft/camping grounds. For instance, up east, you will find the best hiking trails in protected high peak areas such as the Whites, Greens, and the Adirondacks, where cutting trees, camping or starting fires is illegal. So, it’s important to keep in mind that both these activities are usually done in different places.

Bushcraft Skills

Learning bushcraft skills allows a person to adapt and improvise to overcome difficulties in the wilderness, which in turn leads to an increased level of self-confidence. The following are some of the essential bushcraft skills to learn:

Fire Making

The ability to start a fire under any situation is an essential skill of a bushcrafter. It is also important that you learn how to make a fire that’s smokeless or gives little or no flame. Learning how to use fire for signaling is also another crucial skill in bushcraft. Besides these, fire is used to warm you, cook food and can even be used as protection in the wilderness.

Food

Bushcraft takes a lot of energy which means you are going to need adequate amounts of food and water. The following are the basic bushcrafting skills that will ensure you don’t have to go without food in the wilderness.

  • Foraging — This basically means feeding yourself off the land. This requires a lot of knowledge about local plants and vegetation. Which plants can be eaten, and which plants are poisonous.
  • Hunting –A nice sharp blade is always appreciated by a bushcrafter. If you’ve lost or don’t have access to a knife than learning which stones can be shaped into a blade can also help you hunt for food. That said, you will also need to develop your skills of tracking animals and knowing to distinguish the footprints of different animals in the forest.
  • Trapping —One of the initial bushcraft skills that one learns is how to make a simple snare trap to catch small animals. There are many different snare traps you can learn to save yourself from hunger in the wilderness.
  • Fishing –Fishing is regarded as another useful skill in bushcraft. The good news is that there are many ways to catch fish without having to use an expensive fishing rod.

Cooking Methods

While you will either catch fish or trap game in the wilderness, each is cooked very differently before you can eat them.

  • Cooking Fish — The easiest way to cook fish in the wild is to cut the fins and tail, and cut down the spine, being careful not to sever the spine while you’re at it. The cut should be extended right down to the side of the fish just behind the gills. The fish can then be opened and separated from the skeleton before frying on the fire. But first, you will need to gut the fish. You can do this by sticking the knife in the belly of the fish right below the gills and cut downwards towards the tail. Now, insert your finger and scoop out the guts.
  • Cooking Game – Cooking meat is going to be a bit easier as compared to cooking fish. After the meat has been washed thoroughly, simply place it in the pan and leave it there until cooked.

Water Disinfection

Being sure that the water you find is clean enough to drink is going to be extremely important in the wilderness. You wouldn’t want to deal with a bad stomach while out in the bush. Luckily, there are a few ways in which you can clean water in the wild.

Some of the most common ways of disinfecting water are by boiling it on the fire or using a chemical treatment. You can also use miniature filters and soil/sand filters to rid water of any contaminants.

Shelter Building

Building shelter is the first thing you will need to do once you have found a safe and convenient site to set up camp for the night. The following are some common shelter options:

Tarp Setups

Carrying a tarp is one of the essentials while practicing bushcraft. Having a good quality tarp can provide a decent shelter in the wild during the night and can keep you safe from the elements just in case it rains.

But, how does one setup a tarp?

You will need to use a 550 paracord to tie a ridgeline around a tree. There are a few tarp setups that you need to get familiar with just in case you don’t find two trees that are close enough for setting up a traditional tarp and paracord shelter.

Quick Emergency Shelter

So, you’re in the wilderness and you spent too much time hunting or foraging for food and now the sun’s about to go down.

What are you going to do for shelter? There are quite a few ways in which you can create a makeshift emergency shelter that takes just a few minutes to prepare without tools or a tarp.

  1. Start by finding a log or a downed tree that’s not all the way reaching the ground.
  2. Then find smaller tree branches and place them on the sides of the tree log,
  3. Next, cover with dead leaves, twigs and other branches.

Even without no tools at all, this is an easy way to set up an emergency shelter to keep you safe during the night.

Bushcraft Camp Building

If this isn’t your first rodeo, then you might want to try out something that’s a bit more elaborate. Many people who practice bushcraft look to up the ante every time they are out in the wilderness. One way to show off your bushcraft skills is to build a basecamp bushcraft log cabin. Before starting to build your very own log cabin in the woods, make sure you are not trespassing on someone else’s land.

Knot Skills

Being able to tie a strong knot can come in handy in many situations. Whether you are a beginner or an avid bushcrafter, knowing how to tie different types of knots is going to be an essential skill to have. Some of the most commonly used knots in bushcraft include Figure Eight Knot, Bowline Knot, Clove Hitch, Sheet Bend, and the Taut-Line Hitch.

How to Learn Bushcraft?

So, how does one get started with bushcraft? For those who are wondering about the same question, here are a few things you can do to get started:

Pick a Skill to Learn

Learning bushcraft is going to take time. This means you need to start with a single skill set that you will need to polish before moving on to the next.

First, pick a skill that you would like to learn such as…

  • Learning about different plant species that will help you in foraging for food
  • How to setup up a fire
  • Navigation by studying the stars and/or sun
  • Growing foliage,
  • Learn how to build a shelter
  • Setup a snare trap.

Whatever it is, pick a skillset and practice, practice, practice.

Watch Videos

Whether it’s setting up a snare trap or starting a fire you will need to study the skill set. If books aren’t your thing watch a few videos instead about the skill you’ve selected to learn what you need to do. Watching videos will give you a more practical how-to guide that you can imitate in order to improve.

Practice that Skill Until Perfected

Sure, it’s going to take time for you to learn a bushcraft skill and perfect it. But it’s important to hone a skill before you can move on to the next bushcraft skillset. This is mainly because you wouldn’t want to take any chances once you are in the wilderness, where you could put yourself and others lives in danger by not taking the details of your bushcraft skills seriously.

Revisit the Skill

To make sure you don’t forget it’s important to revisit the bushcraft skill from time to time. You don’t always have to go into the wild to practice the bushcraft skill you have learned.

Revisiting your bushcraft skills will enable you to remember them for when it is really needed. Like playing an instrument or learning a language, you need to keep practicing and revisiting what you’ve learned or else there’s a good chance you’ll forget.

Learn from Others

The wise person learns from other’s mistakes. This means you should ask other bushcrafters about their experiences in the bush. Learning about their experiences can give you new insight that you never knew about. While you can learn a lot by reading articles and books and watching videos online, there’s nothing like having a conversation with somebody who actually practices bushcraft.

Bushcraft Tools

The tools you carry can make all the difference in a trip out in the wilderness. Here, it’s important that you remember the ‘5 Tool Rule’ by David Cantebury.

As a survival expert, David Cantebury is an author and has hosted the TV show Dual Survival. Over years of being a survivalist, David has identified a few tools that are essential for bushcraft.

This could go against the instincts of some bushcrafters who prefer to make their stay in the wilderness as comfortable as possible. But David’s 5 Tool Rule is a smart way to do bushcraft.

The 5 Essential Bushcraft Tools

The following are the five tools that have been named in David Cantebury’s 5 Tool Rule.

Bushcraft Knife

Your knife is going to be your most important asset. Having a good belt knife is going to be critical to your survival in the woods and should always be strapped on your side. There are a variety of bushcraft knives that are available.

The ideal choice is one that’s been well built, has a solid grip and a sharp high-carbon steel blade with a 90-degree spine that won’t break easily. You should also be able to strike sparks off the bushcraft knife if you need to. In short, it should be versatile and strong enough to carry out several tasks.

Bushcraft Axe

The axe is the next tool of choice for the bushcrafter for obvious reasons.

Not only can it be used to drop large trees, but it can also be used to build a makeshift shelter or a log cabin if you want to. While there are different types of axes that are available, the ideal axe is one that’s not too heavy but has just enough weight to chop wood easily.

An axe that’s too light or small will just bounce off the wood and will require more power and energy to fell trees and chop logs.

Bushcraft Bone Saw

A bushcraft saw is another essential tool for bushcraft, especially if you are planning on building a permanent shelter in the woods. Whether you go for a steel or wood frame saw, it should be compact and lightweight. With bushcraft saw you are able to process large wood, making it much easier to cut and build your cabin or for firewood. The bone saw is a great tool to have especially if you need dimensional lumber or need to cut wood logs of the same size.

Bushcraft Hook Knife

One of the tools that have gained popularity in bushcraft lately is the hook knife. One of the reasons for this is because the hook knife is extremely versatile and allows you to do many things. From using it to carve spoons or bowls to shaving, the hook knife has become essential for a bushcrafter, which is one of the reasons why it’s been included in the 5 Tool Rule.

Crooked Awl

Having a crooked awl is a great tool to have while in the wilderness for repairing tools or carrying out other tasks. An awl comes in several sizes and shapes depending on what you are going to be using it for.

A crooked awl is a great way to punch holes in wood or animal hide. The awl is lightweight and does not take much space in your bug-out-bag, but its an essential tool for those practicing bushcraft.

The easy way to get an awl is either buy one online or go to a yard sale or flea market and get an ice pick. Cut the ice pick short and sharpen the edge and its’ good to go.

Bushcraft Projects

The following are some great bushcraft projects that you can start with.

Bushcraft Sawhorse

If you plan on building a permanent basecamp where you will go to practice bushcraft then you probably will be better off storing firewood for winter. Since chopping and processing firewood takes up a good amount of time while in the wild, storing the firewood beforehand will allow you to free time which you can then use to work on other bushcraft projects.

A sawhorse is just the thing you need to process large quantities of wood. You can also customize the design of the sawhorse to use the whole length of the sawbuck to make multiple cuts across a longer log. Go good sawhorse is just the thing you need to cut large amounts of firewood, and the best part is, it can be folded and stored away until the next time you need it.

Build a Fire

Building a fire is an essential skill in bushcraft. But, you shouldn’t only know how to build a fire when the weather is hot and dry. You can challenge yourself by trying to build a fire in wet snow, or while its raining or in windy conditions. There are plenty of bushcraft videos online that you can watch to learn how to build a fire in various scenarios.

Water Gathering

When it comes to bushcraft, one of the basic skills is knowing how to get water from natural sources in the wild. Knowing where to find water and how to collect it is not the only skill a person practicing bushcraft needs to know. Natural water sources, even the water found in rivers and streams, usually contain germs and other harmful bacteria and parasites that need to be eliminated before you can drink. That said, just because the water isn’t clear does not mean that it contains germs and parasites.

While practicing bushcraft you will often find yourself in situations where you’ll need to gather muddy water. While there’s no way of purifying water you can decontaminate the water before drinking. According to the CDC, the best way to decontaminate water from water-borne contaminations is to first filter and then boil the water.

Food Foraging

The four Fs of foraging for food in the wilderness is

  1. Foliage
  2. Flowers
  3. Fungi
  4. Fruit.

Before you can just pluck and eat something that you think looks like food, you need to become familiar with various ecosystems and habitats. Knowing which fruit, flowers, foliage, and fungi is edible is a live saver.

But, it’s extremely important to first get familiar with the plants and vegetation for foraging since a large number of the plants found in natural parks and forests are poisonous or will make you seriously ill.

Simple Shelter

When it comes to making shelter, always choose an area that’s abundant in wood. This will save you time from having to carry the logs and branches you need from other areas to make a shelter. The A-frame shelter is commonly used in bushcraft, mainly because it is effective in keeping its occupants warm and dry in any climate.

Additional Reading Material

If you want to dive deeper into bushcraft here are some great books to get you started in addition to this article…

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GDT’s advice, information, and recommended tools ensure your preparedness in emergency situations. We’re thinking ahead and preparing now

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