‘Bushcraft’ is just a word used to describe a set of skills which are used in the outdoors or ‘bush’ to make yourself comfortable out there. When we go camping we use some of those skills, navigating using a map and compass, putting up a tent or cooking on a camp stove could all be considered part of a bushcraft skill set. A real mastery of bushcraft though extends to skills which rely primarily on your knowledge of what you can find and use from the natural environment rather than your equipment.
Having a few of these skills in your ‘tool box’ can allow you to attempt longer more adventurous camping trips as you will not have to carry as much equipment, and be able to gather the things you need along the way.
Being able to light a camp fire on your camping trips will mean that you do not have to carry a stove or fuel. You might need a few tools to gather and prepare your firewood and you will definitely need to practice your fire lighting skills before relying on them during a real camping trip.
A hatchet or small axe will make gathering fire wood much easier but this is really a backup as your first choice should be to rely on dry twigs that you can gather, to cook a normal meal on your campfire you won’t need more fuel than you can get from twigs. These are easy to collect with nothing but your hands, your strategy should be to collect twigs that are dead but still attached to trees and bushes as these will be dry.
For any fire lighting, you need to be collecting dead wood, there are some species of wood that will burn satisfactorily when they are ‘green’ or still alive such as ash which has a particularly low moisture content when it is alive. Generally, though you must seek out dead wood that is still standing as the moisture from when it was living will have dried out and it won’t have soaked up moisture from the ground yet.
The advantage of making your fire from twigs is that if you can collect some nice small ones, no thicker than a matchstick then you won’t need any finer tinder and will be able to light them directly with the flame of a match or lighter. From the very smallest twigs you should graduate up to larger sticks but for an average cooking fire, you won’t need to collect anything much thicker than your thumb. A few big handfuls of dry twigs and sticks will be enough to boil a litre of water or cook a quick meal for one. If you are camping with a larger party get everyone to collect wood and you’ll have enough for everyone.
If you struggle to find enough dry twigs maybe you need to resort to using your hatchet. In really wet weather small twigs become saturated quickly and you might need to resort to splitting larger pieces of wood with your axe to get to the dry wood inside. You can carry a folding saw to cut wood and give it nice flat ends to allow you to split it more easily or you can use a much easier technique by laying the axe blade against your piece of potential firewood and striking them both simultaneously against your chopping block, this will split the wood along it’s grain and a twist of the axe head will separate it completely.
Once you have split down to the centre of your firewood it’s a simple task to split it a bit further and make fine shavings with the blade of your axe or a knife and then these shavings can be lit with your matches or lighter.
If you want the whole bushcraft experience you can even carry a ferrocerium rod for fire lighting these have the advantage of being totally resistant to water and will never malfunction or fail but they do demand slightly finer tinder to produce a flame. You can light fine wood shavings with them but it will be easier to get the flame you need if you can find some finer tinder such as thistle down, cat tail seed down, cedar bark or something similar.
Once you’ve got your fire lit you can get your dinner cooked, that is after all why you have lit a fire right? I suppose in extreme arctic temperatures you will need a fire to stay warm as well but on your average camping trip, your fire will be for cooking.
These can be as simple or as elaborate as you want but simplicity is often best, a pole suspended over the fire on two forked sticks is often all you need to suspend your cooking pot.
Alternatively, if you want to use the embers of your fire to cook on you need to wait for the flames to burn out and for the fire to reduce to glowing coals, you can then place your pot directly on the embers. You can also make the most of the embers of a camp fire by wrapping things in tin foil or leaves to cook directly in the heat of the fire.
This is one of the skills that made long-distance exploration possible in the days of the Hudson Bay Company and of exploration and discovery. People soon learned that they couldn’t carry enough food and equipment for their long journeys, especially as some of these journeys had no finite duration, they would often be gone for months or even year’s map making and discovering.
They would have to hunt, fish and gather food along the way and while this isn’t normally a problem nowadays as we can plan our camping trips to allow us to resupply from settlements along the route but we can add to our camping experience by doing a little foraging.
If you are very confident in your skills perhaps you can set out planning to gather food as you go but you need to remember that hunting and fishing are restricted by laws related to land ownership, rights to hunt and fish, the ownership of firearms for hunting and animal welfare legislation related to trapping and hunting. You can still gather a few plants and fungi along your way though to enrich your boring freeze-dried or vacuum packed camp food.
You need to spend a lot of time and study on foraging though to make sure you are not going to collect and eat something that will poison you a few examples of commonly found edible plants and fungi that are hard to get wrong are;
Burdock: The swollen roots of this plant are edible at the end of it’s first year of growth and can be cooked like a potato.
Golden Saxifrage: is a great salad ingredient and easy to identify from it’s strange petal-less flowers.
Penny Bun (also known as Cep or Porcini): one of the most sought after culinary mushrooms this can be identified from it’s pores instead of gills like most other mushrooms. It does share this feature with other members of the ‘bolete’ family but the shiny brown cap and the white ‘cobweb’ pattern on it’s stem.
Being able to make useful or decorative items during your camping trips is not only a useful skill but a great way to spend time around a camp fire in the evenings. You may need a few tools if you plan to be adventurous with your crafting but a sturdy knife is all that’s strictly essential.
Crafting skills will provide you with the hanger for suspending your pot over the fire, skewers, spoons and other utensils for your camp kitchen. They will become mementos of great excursions and you will probably keep them for a long time after your camping trips, with a bit of practice they might even be great gifts for friends and loved ones on your return from your adventures.
You might wonder what the use of these skills are in a world where we have light weight titanium cookware and camping stores that can sell every conceivable luxury for your camping trips but camping is a way to throw off the complications of life and work and get back to basics, using bushcraft skills we can go back to an even simpler style of living and get closer to nature which makes camping trips all the more satisfying and therapeutic.
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