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Bushcraft 101 or How to Bring Even Less Survival Gear on Wilderness Adventures

Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury

A lot of us pride ourselves on having a lightweight backpacking gear list coupled and the advanced hiking skills that make it possible to replace extra gear with experience and know-how.

But how far are you willing to push the gear vs. know-how trade-off? Would you be willing to bring a lightweight saw and a more robust knife on your backcountry trips if it meant you could leave even more gear at home and make what you need to survive in the field instead?

It’s an intriguing question, certainly, but I think it comes down to your priorities and the environmental conditions you are likely to face on your journey. If you’re more interested in hiking high mileage days along well-developed hiking trails, you’ll probably opt to carry more high-tech, ultralight backpacking gear so you can maximize the time you spend hiking. But for longer extended journeys, especially those off-the-grid in wilderness areas that have no hiking trail infrastructure, it may make sense to carry less and make what you need without carrying it in with you.

If you’ve ever considered trying to push the self-sufficiency envelope and pick up a few bushcraft skills or you are curious about what the bushcrafting craze is all about, I recommend you pick up a copy of Dave Canterbury’s Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival. It provides a surprisingly readable tour of the fundamental tools and skills used in bushcraft, including the best overview of knife grinds (shapes), what they’re good for, and knife safety I’ve ever read anywhere.

Gearing Up and In the Bush

Bushcraft 101 is segmented into two parts:

  1. “Gearing up” for bushcraft, which explains the tools one carries into the field and how to create and manufacture more with them such as packs, shelters, cooking systems, cordage, and firestarters.
  2. “In the bush” skills that bushcrafters (and any other outdoors-person) should probably learn, from campsite selection and off-trail navigation techniques to fishing, trapping, and basic food processing techniques

The distinction between these two bodies of knowledge is very useful because anyone can benefit from the bushcraft skills that Canterbury describes, even ultralight backpackers who opt to carry in high-tech tools rather than making their own from trees and other local resources.

If you’re at all interested in off-trail or wilderness travel, Canterbury’s Bushcraft 101 provides an excellent introduction to the breadth of bushcraft skills you can teach yourself or seek expert instruction on. Who knows, maybe it will even help you lighten your gear list.

Disclosure: Philip Werner received a free reviewer’s copy of Bushcraft 101 and enjoyed reading it. 

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  1. I consider the importance of bushcraft as more for safety and convenience than as a way to save weight. Many bushcraft skills are too time consuming when you are trying travel a reasonable distance, but really come in handy in a pinch.

    There are too many cases of backpackers that are handicapped with a lack of orientation, firebuilding, knot tying, … skills and end up relying on gear.

    Any item in your pack can fail or get lost and you need to know how to get by without these items.

  2. What’s the general consensus about how bushcraft and LNT relate (or don’t)? Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by outdoor survival techniques, and I certainly see the logic in learning and practicing bushcraft. But I can’t help but worry that if too many people started practicing bushcraft (especially in heavily used areas), we’d soon be left with heavy scars across the landscape. Is there an appropriate time and place for bushcraft that would mitigate these risks?

    • Good question. Leave no trace isn’t a set of rules, but judgements that you need to make in any given situation. Real life and death survival situations always trump LNT, so use it or lose it.

      But in a non-survival sitiuation, I think it really depends what kind of bushcraft skill you plan on using. Tying knots has no impact so you can do them anywhere. When practicing other skills, you need to assess how impactful the type of bushcraft “project” YOU plan to implement will be. Cutting down a tree may be high impact, but picking up deadfall and building a shelter with it,and then rescattering it isn’t.

      Next, you need to assess how heavily used an area is by others and the local climate to determine and whether you’re adding to an overuse situation by creating more overuse. For example, practicing highly impactful bushcraft skills near a major hiking trail or a dessert area where the land recovers very slowly is probably a bad idea. But its probably ok in the wilds of Alaska where no one goes and where the land can naturally recover in a reasonable time frame.

      I can’t emphasize enough the LNT isn’t a set of rules, but a set of questions for people to ask themselves about their impact on the outdoors (how much of a trace they leave). The final judgements have to be made by the individuals themselves based on the situation and not by an outside agency.

      When it comes to questions about bushcraft, you need to be very specific when considering impacts and not just clump all Bushcraft skills together.

  3. I guess you’re right here, Philip. In a Life or Death situation, I’d rather leave some trace. Then, if it’s safe to do so, building a campfire in a wood stove can be something psychologically rewarding, more than just snugging into your sleeping bed in order to be warm. I guess that “Bushcraft” is not 100% incompatible with LNT practices and lightweight/ultralight backpacking. Tents, stoves… everything of this can fail, which doesn’t mean go Rambo on the woods with a machete to build a cabin and a roaring fire, just know how to do without a tent or a stove in a pinch. And there’s not even need for a “survival knife”!

  4. Bushcraft by choice rather than emergency on public land, national forest, is wildlife destruction by amateur carpenter. However, if you have access to private property — it’s a free country. chop chop chop.

    The idea that someone backpacking or hiking gets lost, but happens to be carrying an axe to build a shelter is absurd. for the weight of an axe, a hiker concerned about getting lost would be better served carrying a GPS, PLB, and a map.

    • So you think it would be better to call out a search and rescue team with your PLB if you’re wet and cold rather than carrying a fold up saw in winter that you could use to cut enough wood to make a warming fire. Seriously? That sounds rather selfish. Putting others at risk so you can carry less survival gear.

      • Yes Phillip, you are correct. National forest belongs to all of us.

        It belongs to you, it belongs to me.

        So if I get lost on your property, would you prefer I wack at a tree that belongs to you to spend the night, or call on the public services and volunteers that are setup for this? I’m all for self-sufficiency. A GPS is for self service, PLB is for rescue, and cell phone is a hybrid for self-service with forest ranger coaching.

    • Keep in mind, hunters by the drove on public land regularly build shelters and fires every year. They don’t get cited for damage to wilderness.

      But again, most practitioners of bushcraft are most active in autumn and winter. It’s pretty damn hard to find anyone who use those skills during spring and summer.

      Generally, in the winter-camping crowd, salvaging deadfalls is considered as low-impact and complies with “leave no trace” principle as it is the snow that get scotched, not the ground.

      But you know, bushcraft in the winter makes sense: what the hell else you’re suppose to do for 10 to 15 hours of darkness?

    • I totally disagree. I am an avid bushcrafter and trail hiker. I have yet to damage anything other than the deadfall of the trees around me. No bonfires are made or timber felled. It IS possible to lightweight hike and practice bushcraft fully without ANY damage to the environment.

  5. Bushcraft fits right into the skills and planning part of backpacking, the two things that do not weigh anything.

    Let’s say I’m hiking with a group and want to be prepared to splint an injury. If the trip is above treeline, I’d pack Sam Splints, but if it is mostly in the forest, I might pack a folding saw instead.

  6. For me bushcraft is not a unique discipline. It is just a set of wilderness skills. They can be applied in different ways as the situation requires. Much of what we do when backpacking, from selecting water sources, to reading the weather, to navigation, to camp site selection are basic bushcraft skills. Some of the skills are not appropriate in all situations, but that is true with anything.

    That being said, this book is not where I would go for information if I wanted to learn more about buschraft skills. The author, as much as I like him as a person, lacks even basic understanding of current gear and practices, and as such has a hard time relating the wilderness skills (buschraft) to what one would or should be carrying. A section on backpacks which when it comes to specific recommendations starts with military surplus packs, and ends with DIY wooden frames, is hard to relate to the current state of technology and available options. Just because we put the word “bushcraft” in front of something doesn’t mean we have to forget all we have learned over the decades. The skill sections are very basic, to a degree where they do not give a clear picture to the beginner as to how to actually complete the tasks. There are some interesting points, but not my go-to book for basic buschraft information. Free books like Woodcraft and Camping by Nessmuk, and Woodcraft by E.H. Kreps can offer the reader just as much information.

    I think this was a missed opportunity to make a truly good compilation of information on wilderness skills. Dave certainly has some interesting things to say, which could have been incorporated into the book, but weren’t.

    • Ross – thanks for the perspective. This is a basic book, no doubt, but I think it provides a decent overview of the kinds of bushcrafty skills one could learn more about, acknowledging that there is overlap between backpacking and bushcraft.

      As for learning those skills, I don’t think there is any way except to learn them from someone who knows what they are doing and is willing to share their knowledge with you first hand. Ther are some things you just can’t learn by reading about them.

  7. I got my copy about 10-days ago and found it to be a surprisingly good read. It was well written, which is a bit of a surprise as after reading quite a bit of Dave’s stuff, I wouldn’t say he is known for his literary skills. There were a lot of ideas that I’ve seen elsewhere, and some new ones, all compiled into one source which was nice. The aesthetics of the book are also pretty cool as simple things like curving the page corners and a nice solid cover (which appears to be waterproof) were nice touches. I think my only gripe is that there was definitely a shortage of pictures. While the illustrations were good, there simply were enough of them. There were a lot of topics which really needed some kind of graphic to more clearly illustrate what was being referenced. Dave does a really nice job with his YouTube channel and offers a pretty cool product line at his website for those interested in woodcraft and Bushcraft.

  8. Why buy the book when you can view his Youtube videos…Just saying! I look forward to every new book on “Bushcraft” or “Living in the wilds” or “Survival” as I do every new TV show, especailly shows like Naked & Afraid and the new one on the Weather Channel something about Fat and alive or something like that I watched tonight..I find the “Bear” guy dangerous and avoid watching his shows..I watch in almost every program these so called “Experts” who nearly fail miserably, with fire making, shelter building and hunger, while eatable plants on within my view from my Lounge Chair as well as building Materials and ways to start fires other than a flint and steel. Unless the Production staff create fake scenarios just to keep your interest which is very common these days..Creating artifical “Fear” and “Worry”..just to keep you riveted to the Tube… My personal collection of “Survival Books” total some 105 of this sort and each one shares a bit of knowledge that none of the others share, and all in my opinion are based or updated versions of the Original Publications by Horace Kephart and Nessmuk, (Whom I have first edition copies of) Bradford Algier, and the Boy Scout Manuals from the 50’s and 60’s of which I have the entire set of Merit Badge Manuals except for two. There are four Authors who do stand out and they are: the Foxfire series 1-9. Tom Browns series with Illustrations offer a lot of similar but not so similiar Survival Techniques..Very few Survivialists even think of the Bush Shelter in Brown’s books and shiver with cold with the materials needed to keep them warm within arms reach (which is why I think the Producers of this Program “Fake it” a bit.) “Survival Skills of Native Americans”. and the author of some 20 Books on surviving the outdoors, Bradford Angiers.

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