Walking into the world of bushcraft can feel like walking through a door to Narnia. You have no idea where you’ve ended up nor do you know where to go next.
Now that you’ve gotten to this point, we can help guide you along the way. While it can be tempting to jump into each and every skill that you hear about, there are some skills that are best to start off with.
The basic bushcraft skills that are perfect for beginners are those that will lay the foundation for further skills.
These skills take care of your basic needs and often play a role in other bushcraft skills. For example, catching dinner means setting snares, which requires knowing how to tie the right knots. Then you need to know how to start a fire in order to cook it.
Bushcraft is a collection of skills that are put together to do various tasks. These basic skills can be the starting point for a long journey into the forest.
Start with your basic needs
The best skills to learn right away are the ones that are going to take care of your basic needs. Bushcraft is about living in tune with the wilderness, and that means staying alive. It isn’t a fight for your life, but you need to pay closer attention to the basic necessities than you normally would.
Our basic needs follow a general guideline rule of 3’s. You can only survive a certain amount of time without your needs. The “prioritization” is as follows:
3 seconds – In the most extreme environments you may only be able to survive 3 seconds without proper shelter. Shelter can also be considered simple protection from the elements. Fire can fall into this category as well because of the warmth it provides.
3 minutes – In general, you have about three minutes to live without access to proper oxygen. David Blaine once held his breath for eight minutes or something crazy, but I don’t recommend it.
3 days – Without water, you’ll only last about three days. You may hear, “hydrate or die-drate” pretty often when talking about water needs in bushcraft.
3 weeks – Three weeks is how long you have to go without food. Personally, about a day without food is hard enough for me, but your body can survive for three weeks. It just won’t be fun.
With this reference, you can understand what’s the most important when in a bushcraft scenario. While you may only be going on a trip for a week, you don’t want to sacrifice eating for the entire week just because you can. The best basic bushcraft skills, to begin with, are those that will keep you alive and happy outside.
To give you a good start, I’ve come up with the 5 most basic bushcraft skills that I think every person should get down early on in their bushcraft career. Some people may think another skill should be included here, but these five will get you far.
While it may not seem like one of the most important skills, knot tying plays a role in just about every different aspect of bushcraft imaginable. A good knot can make the difference between a tarp that falls down at night and sleeping comfortably. Granted, you can always tie a BFK, a big f-ing knot, and sometimes that will work. Have fun untying that though.
Without basic knot tying skills, you’ll never set up a tarp correctly. You’ll never be able to get a bowdrill set up correctly to start a fire. Traps won’t be tied correctly, so you won’t eat. These are the foundation of all things bushcraft.
Knots fascinate me. There are so many different ways to tie them and so many different applications for each knot. There are knots that stay tight only under tension, and some that do better underwater than others. You can spend your life studying knots and hitches.
First, we need to explain the difference between a knot and a hitch. A knot is used to join different ropes together, or a rope to itself. It will stay together regardless of any separate object. A hitch joins the rope to another object such as a pole or branch. Without the external object, the hitch falls apart. Some of the most useful knots are a combination of the two.
Now that we can understand the basic differences, we can go into a few knots that are useful in bushcraft. Remember that knot tying takes a lot of practice and patience. I love carrying an extra strand of paracord around with me just to fiddle with and practice knots.
I’m not going to go into detail about how to tie each knot here. I love the site Animated Knots for great visuals and slow step-by-step instructions on hundreds of knots. Check it out and grab a small piece of rope to start practicing.
A bowline is an old-school knot that originated as a way to connect a rope to the bow of a boat, hence the name. This is a great knot to tie for fixing a rope to any object. You can modify it slightly and make a bowline on a bite to create a knot that can latch on to objects with tension. My favorite thing about a bowline is that it’s easy to untie even after under high tension.
Climbers used to tie in with a bowline before moving to the figure eight. It’s quick and easy to tie, but also pretty easy to mess up. I don’t like putting my own weight onto a bowline, although it will hold you if necessary.
A trucker’s hitch is one of those combination knots that uses a couple of different knots to form a hitch. It’s the perfect connection for when you need to pull a rope tight. You can get a huge amount of leverage with a trucker’s hitch to secure the line with a lot of tension.
The trucker’s hitch is also incredibly easy to undo. There are a couple of different slipknots involved so it stays together even under immense tension, but you can pull and release the knot easily.
I use this knot on almost every connection point for my tarp setup. It’s easy to get the tarp pulled tight with a trucker’s hitch. That means I then will shed water easily rather than pool it up.
A clove hitch is a great way to connect a rope to an object so that you can pull on either end of it without any slip. I often use a clove hitch to attach my guy lines to stakes on the end of my tarp. I also use this to secure my bowstring on a bow drill setup. It’s easy to adjust and stays put under a lot of use.
Figure-eight knots are great for when you need to put a lot of weight on the end of a rope. They are simple to tie, and simple to check if you’ve tied them correctly. There’s a reason that climbing gyms use this knot. It’s reliable and hard to mess up. Even if you do mess it up, it will probably still hold your weight.
With these four knots, you should be able to get some good work done. There are loads more that need to be added to your skill set, but remember that we’re just working on the basics here. Regardless of the knot you choose, always keep in mind that, “A not neat knot, is a knot not needed.”
Fire starting is one of those primitive skills that is just as fun as it is necessary. It’s highly important to have the right skills to start a fire because when night falls and the temperature drops, you need to stay warm. Not only does fire give you warmth, but it also boils your water to clean it and cooks the food that you worked so hard to collect.
There are a lot of different methods to start a fire, the most simple being with a lighter or a match. I definitely recommend carrying a fire kit with those starters in it, but I also think there’s a huge need for knowing how to start a fire without them. Before we jump into different methods, I want to just talk about fire.
A fire has basic needs, just like the rest of us. The fire triangle is a good way to understand the different three things it needs to survive. Fire needs Fuel, Oxygen, and Heat (a source) to survive. If you take away any of these three things, you don’t get fire. You have an empty, cold space, or just some stacked logs.
Oxygen is readily available to fire unless you are on a bushcraft expedition in the vacuum of space. Since we’re likely all to be reading this and practicing on Earth, I’ll assume you have easy access to air. It’s important to remember that your fire needs that same easy access. If you load too many sticks, you can smother your fire by removing its access to oxygen.
When talking about fuel, we’re typically talking about wood. Wood comes in different sizes for a fire and it’s necessary to be familiar with the different levels.
First off, tinder is what starts the fire up. It is finely shredded bark or a cotton ball you’ve brought from home. Tinder can catch a spark from a striking rod and take off. Kindling comes next and is tiny sticks. The twigs that you find on young branches that have fallen make perfect kindling. From here you can slowly, slowly, bring in larger sticks.
The larger the wood, the more energy it produces, but the more energy it needs to light on fire. It’s a slow process of building up to full-blown logs that you can cook on.
Now for the source. This is where a lighter or a match makes for the easiest solution, but you won’t always have those when you go out. When a lighter gets wet or you lose your matches, you still need fire. In those situations, we need to resort to primitive skills.
Friction fires are one of the best ways to start a fire when starting with nothing. You can get a friction fire started with only the things that you find in the woods. It’s a long and difficult process, but with practice, you can light a fire in no time at all.
Bowdrilling is one of the most effective forms of a friction fire that can be started with almost any species of wood. It takes a lot of practice to get down, but muscle memory soon takes over. You can start with a pre-fabricated setup before making one of your own. If you want to make your own, I recommend using woods like cedar, juniper, or sage to start off with.
Hand drilling is another form of friction fire that has fewer pieces in the setup. In this case, it’s only a spindle and a fireboard. The materials and correct woods are often harder to find for a successful hand drilling setup.
A fire saw, or a fire plough, is another really cool method of starting a friction fire. Bamboo works really well for this, mostly due to its hollow shape.
Another great source to keep with you at all times is a Ferro rod, or more simply a striking rod. You can make a huge shower of sparks with the back end of your knife, or a hard rock like quartz. If you have perfect tinder, you can get a spark to catch and slowly turn into fire.
Fire building is a fun skill to get down. It’s easy to practice in your backyard and you can get a group together to try out different methods and share bowdrill sets. Making fire is my overall favorite bushcraft skill and there’s no one perfect way to do it. Try out a lot of methods and find what works best for you.
Remember that in some environments you can only survive three seconds without shelter? These are extreme cases like going down in a plane above the arctic wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. Chances are you won’t be headed out in these environments, but it’s good to know this.
The more realistic scenario is getting stuck outside overnight in a huge rainstorm or a sudden cold snap. This is when you want to know how to build an appropriate shelter for the situation. Left unprotected, you’ll probably last longer than three seconds, but it can still be lethal to go without it. You can develop hypothermia in minutes, even in 60-degree temps.
My favorite shelter to bring into the bush is a tarp. It’s an incredibly versatile piece of gear and you don’t use it just as a roof. I have a tarp in every pack that I take into the woods, and a couple more at home waiting for their turn. If you want to carry it, or bugs are a huge issue, a tent can be worth the weight.
If you’re out there without a tarp or tent and want to rely on primitive skills, a stick and leaf shelter can be just as effective, it’s just a bit more difficult to set up. Here are a few of my favorite shelters to build with, or without a tarp.
Lean-tos are the basic, simple shelter setup that you can build just about anywhere that you have access to sticks and leaves. You start with a solid wall, or by creating a solid ridgeline with a long tree branch. You are making a spot to lean sticks against to then build a “roof” on top of.
Once you’ve gone through and leaned hundreds of sticks against your support, you can use leaves, ferns, or other plant material to lay down a thick layer on the roof. Alternating leaves and sticks will help hold them in place. Plant material does a great job of insulating as well as shedding water in a rainstorm.
An A-frame is my go-to shelter setup. You need to have a tarp or two perfect trees for a stick shelter. This setup is done by stringing a tarp between two solid objects so the ridgeline is level to the ground. All of the corners are stakes out and tightened to effectively shed rain away from where you are sleeping.
If you’re looking to settle down a bit longer in a shelter then I think a Tee-pee is a good choice for that. You can build a tee-pee out of three main support beams that are tied together at the top. With these supports, you can weave other sticks horizontally through to create a stable structure.
One of the best parts of a tee-pee is the ability to leave a hole in the top where smoke can exit your shelter. You can have an interior fire that won’t light the whole thing up in flames, nor will it smoke you out.
Food and Water
Collecting food and water is often a difficult task, but completely necessary. If you’re going out on a bushcraft expedition without bringing food, you’ll need to practice the proper skills to find it out there.
Let’s start with food. Everyone loves food, and no one likes being without it.
Essentially, you have two different options when out in the bush for food. You can gather edible wild plants, or you can hunt for live game. There are big pros and cons to each of them, and they’re both important skills to have, depending on your environment.
Edible wild plants can be found anywhere you go but are highly localized. You can study the plants of one region for your whole life and then be completely lost when you travel 500 miles west. This is why plant identification can be so tricky and dangerous. A lot of edible plants look like plants that are also toxic to humans.
Find a really good identification book that you can follow easily. Practice identification, and never, never eat anything that you aren’t 100% certain of its ID. In general, I only eat plants that I have tested out and made sure that my body does well with them.
Trapping and hunting can be a great source of protein, and it can also be a big disappointment. It’s just hard. You can set 10 traps one night and not see anything in them in the morning. You can bring a bow out with you but never get the chance to fire it.
Snares tend to be the most successful trap in the wild just because there’s more small game to be found. You can also set a huge number of these and walk away, then just wait. Check your traps every 24 hours at max. If you leave a trap unchecked, you can end up putting an animal through unnecessary suffering, or another predator will come in and steal your dinner.
For bushcraft, I think that having a combination of hunting and gathering skills is the quickest way to success. Preparation of food is also incredibly important. You can’t eat raw meat and there are some plants that you need to boil as well. This is where your fire skills will come into play.
Water is one of the first things that you want to find when you go out into the woods. It’s hard to go without it for a long time and the effects of dehydration will be felt within hours of going out, depending on the weather. You can last a lot longer without food than you can without water, so you need to prioritize water.
Finding water can be as easy as walking up to a stream, or as difficult as bagging trees to collect water from evapotranspiration. Since this is a planned expedition, you want to study your environment and decide what the best way of collecting water will be. Maybe you’ll just walk downhill and find a stream, but you might have a more difficult task ahead of you.
Wherever you find water, you need to properly purify it. There are a couple of different methods to do this, and everyone has their own preference. Personally, I carry a squeeze filter and have bleach as a last resort. This method is lightweight, quick, and reliable. There are also other chemical drops, iodine tabs, and UV pens that all work.
If you’re without a method to purify water, your fire skills come in handy once again. You can boil water in a pot, or if you’re really in a pinch it’s possible to boil water in a plastic bag.
Regardless of how you choose to do it, you have to purify your water. A waterborne illness will not only make your time out there miserable, but it can also quickly kill you.
One of the most essential bushcraft skills to get down is navigation. Today, it’s pretty easy to resort to a GPS or even a watch that tells you your exact location. It’s kind of hard to get truly lost in the modern world. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
A map and compass are your best friend when navigating through the wilderness. I don’t like to rely on anything that is battery powered, because that can quickly disappear. Knowing basic orienteering can guide you out of a tricky situation, or to a water and food source.
If you’re out there without any form of navigational equipment, you can resort to truly old-school methods.
Find High Ground
Finding high ground gives you a good vantage point to see what you’re dealing with. If you know you aren’t too far from civilization, finding a peak to climb can give you a better understanding of what direction you need to travel in. This is a hard method to encourage because it requires a lot of energy spent.
Society has built villages and entire cities based on the presence of water for thousands of years. If you are lucky enough to find a stream, stick with it. This way, you have access to drinking water as well as the possibility of finding civilization. Often, following water downstream is the best way to get to larger sources, and therefore, people.
Learn to Read the Sun and Stars
Sailors have guided themselves with the stars for centuries. It’s an incredible skill that is also incredibly difficult to master. You may be able to just point out Polaris, the North Star, and that can be enough. Polaris can be a good anchor for deciding on which way to travel.
The sun is also a great indication of direction. You can follow the sun in the morning to travel east, or in the evening to travel west. This is true no matter where you are in the world, which makes it a great tool in your belt.
Starting bushcraft is a big undertaking. There are so many skills to learn before you even head out into the woods. The good news is, every skill is fun. I love starting fires, tying knots, building shelters, and finding my own food and water. There’s something special about the self-reliance that you need to have during bushcraft.
As you move forward in bushcraft, you’ll realize that most of the skills come back to the basics. These are the skills you want to spend a lot of time on and master. They’ll go from basic bushcraft skills to second nature in no time at all.
These are the skills you want to go out with. There are more to learn, but start here and you’re guaranteed to be on a path to a successful life out in the bush. Now go step out your door and get started. Happy camping!