Have you ever sat before a fire under the stars in pure solitude? There is a feeling when you do this. Well, it’s a connection. It is a connection that all of us can make to the wilder side of our humanity.
Though we control our climate inside our home, we can have nearly everything delivered to us, we are only recently removed from the struggles of real life on this planet. However, when we sit around a fire, sleep in a simple shelter outside or even adventure to new wild places, we can touch wires with that bit of humanity that most of us have lost.
Bushcraft is man’s ability to get back in touch with the natural world. It is a collection of beliefs and skills that make the wild world much more inviting. Truth is, most people are terrified of the woods at night. Some are even terrified by day!
Ray Mears, one of the most influential men in modern bushcraft, said that “Bushcraft is what you carry in your mind and your muscles.”
I think that is about right. It is not much about gear and more about the skills you have to survive and thrive despite what you have on hand.
What is The Definition of Bushcraft?
If Ray Mears’ quote did not drive the point home enough, bushcraft is the learning and practice of wilderness survival skills. It has been described as the practice of self-reliance within the wilderness. It is also a development of deep respect for the natural world.
Left out of the definition but worth mentioning is the fact that bushcraft is an activity and it requires you to venture out into the wild places.
Beginner’s Bushcraft Gear
The Godfather of bushcraft, Mors Kochanski said “A well-trained person needs only a knife to survive.”
This is a good metric to measure yourself on down the line. However, in the beginner’s guide to bushcraft, we have to look at some important gear both so you can practice and learn these skills but also be comfortable and safe.
The survival knife is one of the most important pieces of bushcraft gear. If you know what kind of survival knife to carry and how to use it, it can do almost everything for you.
That is not to say that it should do everything for you. In the right hands, though, it can be a single tool that helps you survive and practice a wide range of bushcraft skills.
Some excellent bushcraft knife brands are MORA, Habilis Tools, Pathfinder, and ESEE.
Your bushcraft survival kit should also include a folding saw. Better bushcrafters than me can say things about only needing a knife but I NEED a folding saw, too! When it comes to processing wood to be split there is just no better tool than a saw blade, in my opinion.
The shorter woodsman’s ax is an incredible tool. It will become the basis for how you process firewood. This is especially true when the weather is an issue and you need lots of wood for big fires.
Bushcraft knots are a big skillset and the only way you can pull that off is if you have some kind of cordage to tie the knots into. The two best options for bushcraft cordage are paracord and bankline.
If you have no experience starting a fire then make it easy in the beginning and bring a lighter. However, if you are interested in learning to start a fire without having a lighter or matches bring a Ferro rod along, too.
Small Water Filter
Head to the woods hydrated, take water with you, but also be prepared with a small and simple water filter. Sawyer makes great filters for just this reason. They are incredibly effective.
I like to carry a handpump filter with me but the ultimate goal is to be able to have access to fresh, clean, drinking water.
Lightweight Sleep System
The best bushcraft instructors understand the value of sleep. Using a knife, building a fire, or tying knots are not as important as a good night’s rest. For this reason, I like to carry a camping hammock setup.
They are very lightweight and easy to set up. Build your bushcraft shelters but if your shelter is terribly uncomfortable you should have a hammock to climb into.
At some point on your bushcraft trip, you are going to have to eat. Having a simple mess kit that might include a bush pot, a metal cup, and maybe a steel water bottle is enough. Utensils make it easy, too!
Basic Bushcraft Skills
Bushcraft skills are really the heart of the practice. The core skills below are the basis of what your bushcraft experience will be built on.
There are many ways that you can use a quality survival knife. For the most part, this is your cutting tool. However a survival knife can be a fine carving tool, the pommel can be used to smash or process materials.
Your survival knife should have a 90-degree spine and can be used to strike a Ferro rod.
Your knife could also be used as a batoning blade to process firewood if you did not have an ax or other kind of cutting tool for firewood.
There are a lot of knife skills to learn and you will also have to learn how to best handle the knife itself.
We all love building forts, right?! Well, when you get into building bushcraft shelters like debris huts and lean-tos that is pretty much what you are doing. Learning how to create things like a ridge line and a ridge pole are all part of this awesome set of skills.
If you can construct shelter, then you can maintain your core body temperature in most situations.
Undoubtedly, the most important skill when it comes to bushcraft is firecraft. That is the mastering of the parts and pieces of building and sustaining a fire. Fire is the greatest early invention of mankind. When you make fire you are harkening back to an iteration of human long forgotten.
Fire is easily the most useful skill that you can gain. It does so much for your survival that it is really unbelievable.
- Boils Water
- Makes Charcoal for Filters
- Helps with Rescue
- Keeps Animals Away
Wild Plants and Trees
A bushcrafter is on a mission to draw closer to the natural world. How many plants can you identify when you look outside your window. There are groundcover, weeds, brush, and trees that are all unique and many provide food, medicine, or other benefits.
Identifying wild edibles and wild medicinals takes time but it will allow you the incredible opportunity of looking at the world through a new lens. You will literally be able to see the forest for the trees.
Field guides are a great place to start.
There will come a time in your early bushcraft stages when you will have to go off-trail. What happens when you get far enough off-trail that you cannot see it anymore? Learning how to navigate using things like a compass and map, the sun, landmarks, the stars, and the moon are all great skills.
Google Maps is the totality of our modern navigation so we rarely practice these skills. They are easier to learn than you might think.
The Concept of Dirt Time
I don’t know exactly when the concept of dirt time appeared in the bushcraft community, but it is essential. You have to make fire to get good at making fire. You have to build shelter to get good at building shelter.
The only way that you become a good bushcrafter is to take a sharp blade knife and get in the dirt. Find your own stretch of bushcraft forest and practice your wilderness skills. Only through this dirt time will you begin to develop the necessary skills.
You can read books on the topic and they will help you understand things. You can watch guys on YouTube and seeing things will really help you. None of it amounts to dirt time. The hard truth is that you cannot be a bushcrafter unless you are willing to get out into the wild places and spend time there.
That’s the concept of dirt time. It is completely essential to bushcraft.
In my experience, it really helps to put dirt time on the calendar. Treat it like a golf day or any other kind of trip. Put it on the calendar and make it a priority. In just a few weekend camps you will see radical improvement in bushcraft skills like shelter and fire building. That is, if you are intentional.
This has been your beginner’s guide to bushcraft. Now you know about some of the biggest names behind the craft. You understand that there is some gear involved but the skills are at the heart of this practice.
What come’s next is a focus on the individual skill sets that we discussed above. We have lots of fire builds here on our site. There is no shortage of shelter builds either! Browse the website and take what you like into the woods.
The most effective bushcrafters that I have ever experienced were those who truly enjoyed nights out in the woods. Those who showed the most prowess with bushcraft-wilderness self-reliance skills were those who loved walking amongst the trees and eating over the campfire.
That said, I prefer my bed over my hammock but I still get out in the woods to stay sharp, to hunt and fish. It all adds up to dirt time and a very fulfilling life.
It’s time for you to get onboard.
For more information on building fire, check out our page on Fire. You will also find a variety of articles on our Shelters page to help broaden your skillset.