Maybe you’ve stepped outside with the intention of going for a walk and ended up out for a longer time than expected. Or perhaps you just feel drawn to the outdoors and want to explore it in a new way. Perhaps you’re here because you’ve seen the word bushcraft and have no idea what it means.
Regardless of your intention to start bushcraft, learn a bit more about it, or read up on why to avoid it, this article is here for beginners and experts alike who want to expand their knowledge. We were all beginners once. Somewhere along the line, I went from a kid that curiously eats worms to an adult who chooses to eat (the appropriate) things outside.
So, what is bushcraft? Where do you even begin? It’s a huge field of exploration that will only open more doors the further down the rabbit hole you go. Let’s just start here and feed the fire within you that is the desire to learn.
What is Bushcraft?
Bushcraft is so many things. In a far too simple definition, we can just say that bushcraft is a broad set of skills and knowledge that are related to the outdoors. When I say the outdoors, I mean the forests, deserts, arctic tundra, the grasslands, and every piece of every different environment Mother Nature has to offer us. Like I said, it’s a big field of study.
With this definition, bushcraft could just be a simple tree identification. It can also be exactly how to use that one tree to start a fire, trap a meal, and cook it in order to survive.
There are experts all around the world that have spent their lives studying the art of bushcraft. People focus on one aspect of bushcraft and master that piece before even starting the next. In order to get started in bushcraft, I feel it’s important to get a shallow well of knowledge in a wide range of topics. Then you can move further into each one.
Sample topics in bushcraft include shelter building, fire making, edible wild plants, hunting and trapping, lightweight travel, toolmaking, water purification, and every little thing you need in the woods. It’s important to remember, this is a craft. It takes time to learn and even more time to master. Be patient with yourself as you make mistakes because you will.
Bushcraft Vs Survival: What’s the Difference?
Television shows like Man vs Wild give us the idea that bushcraft and survival are the exact same thing. While bushcraft tactics can be used in survival scenarios, it’s kind of like saying a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square. They’re similar, but not the same.
Bushcraft is a set of skills that will definitely come in handy during survival scenarios, but there’s a clear distinction between the two. We can look at some quick definitions to find the differences.
Survival: “the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances” (Oxford)
Bushcraft: “skill at living in the bush”(Oxford), “the usage and practice of skills, acquiring and developing knowledge and understanding, in order to survive and thrive in the natural environment” (Wikipedia)
With these different definitions, there are two glaringly obvious distinctions. The first of which is situation or adversity. The second is duration.
Survival is a situation that you have not chosen. You’re fighting for your life and attempting to get out of that situation as quickly as possible.
Bushcraft on the other hand is just about living within the outdoors. You are making the choice to go out for an expedition, however long you choose it to be for. There’s no fight for your life in bushcraft.
So, while bushcraft skills can save you in a survival scenario, the two are separate from each other while being intertwined. I see bushcraft more as an activity that brings me back to my true roots and nature. I practice bushcraft when I want to feel more connected to the natural world, like the several generations before me.
Common Bushcraft Activities/ Skills
Like all the definitions have told us, bushcraft is a set of different skills that compile an overall knowledge and skill base to make you proficient in bushcraft.
These primitive skills mainly come from ancient methods of surviving before we had the comfort of the indoors. They range greatly and the different skills and activities all have hundreds of different methods to check out.
The true fundamentals of bushcraft are those skills that keep you alive. I’ll go briefly over each different skill that I would label as fundamental.
Everyone’s view of making a fire is the classic “rub two sticks together” method. While that’s definitely an option, we’ve come a long way from that technique. Building a fire isn’t just about getting something lit either. There’s a lot that goes into making an effective fire that can last as long as you need it to.
Friction fires are a great method for starting a fire that can also serve as a great party trick. It’s the methodical way of rubbing two sticks together. Bowdrilling, hand drilling, and fire saws are three of the most common ways to start fires in the bush. Each of them requires different woods, different techniques, and a lot of practice.
Another, much easier, way of starting a fire is with a fire striker. These “Ferro rods” are made of a metal alloy that burns at hot temperatures when struck with a harder metal. Getting a spark from a striking rod turned into a full-blown fire is a whole process that takes some time to master.
Here are a couple of other quick terms you’ll want to know to get a good understanding of fire building in bushcraft.
- Batoning: The act of splitting wood into smaller sizes with a knife
- Tinder: Dry and flammable material that is small enough to take a spark
- Kindling: Small pieces of wood as beginning fuel to get your fire started
- The Fire Triangle: Heat, oxygen, and fuel. The three things you need for a fire to live.
Building a shelter requires another toolbelt of different skills, along with hundreds of different styles to learn about. I recommend starting with maybe three different shelter types, heading out into the woods, and just practicing those three. Shelter styles get highly specific to your environment and you won’t often need more than your favorite one.
Shelters are necessary for proper protection from the elements. Sun, rain, wind, and snow can all threaten your safety and comfort while you’re out in the bush. A well-built shelter will keep you warm and dry in any of the toughest elements.
The best method of shelter, in my opinion, for bushcraft is a durable and waterproof tarp carried with you at all times. There’s an infinite number of uses that tarps have and a shelter is only one of them.
A-frames, lean-tos, and hundreds of other designs can be built with a tarp. Even without a tarp, these shelters can be made from the materials you find around you. There’s no experience like sleeping under your own stick and leaf shelter after a long day of building it. It’s a rewarding feeling that you often find in bushcraft after a long day’s work.
Some other skills that go into shelter building are:
- Knot tying
- Collection of natural materials
- Cordage making
- Weaving grass and bark
In bushcraft, collecting your own food can be a difficult task, but there are several different ways to get the right nutrition. You can forage for berries and other edible wild plants, or you can try your luck at trapping and hunting.
When it comes to foraging for edible wild plants, you need to follow the right steps in order to not put yourself in danger. Identification can be tricky, which makes carrying a good ID book along with you a necessity. Petersen’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants is a great resource to make sure what you are eating won’t harm you.
A good rule of thumb for foraging is, if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. Don’t even touch it. There are thousands of plants out there that can kill you in a heartbeat and a lot of them look almost the exact same. Be careful.
Hunting and trapping your own food is a great source of protein that can keep you running in the bush. It can be a little harder to find success, but with the proper patience and techniques you can end up with a warm meal at night.
There are a lot of different methods to hunt and trap wild game. You can practice your traps and lures, or you can bring out a good survival bow to hunt bigger game. This is where your knot tying and cordage making can be useful as well. A lot of small skills come together for feeding yourself. Build a good fire, clean your kill, and enjoy it freshly roasted.
Water collection and purification
Water is going to be one of your top priorities when out in the woods. It’s one of the necessities that you can’t survive long without, so finding it is one of the first things you need to do.
Foraging for water can be difficult, or incredibly easy, depending on the environment you are in. There are many different ways to collect water, even in the most difficult environments. Research the areas you may be in because water collection will be very specific to that area.
Once you have water, you need to find a way to bring it to camp and then purify it. Moving the water can be a harder task if you don’t already have something to carry it in. Read up on different container making and you can easily get something whipped up while out in the bush. This will save you a lot of walking back and forth to the water source.
I like to carry a water filter for purification reasons as well as a tiny bottle of iodine or bleach as a backup. You can also boil the water if you don’t have another purification method.
There are a lot of different tools that you’ll need to get into bushcraft. It can be a pretty long list at the start, but it’s often best to try using what you already have. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started in bushcraft. But, if you’re asking how to start bushcraft, you do need some basic tools.
This is a pretty long list, but I’ve tried to split it up into the basics and what you can spend time to save up for. Take a look around at each piece of gear and see what you may have at home already.
These items I see as a necessity before heading out into the bush. There might be some things you want to add to the list over time, but this is a good list to get started with.
- Knife – debatably the most important bushcraft tool there is
- Firestarter – a striking rod and some tinder
- First Aid – all the basics
- Backpack – a durable and comfortable pack with plenty of storage
- Tarp – durable and waterproof for shelter
- Boots – durable, waterproof, and comfortable boots
- Clothes – breathable and quick-drying materials that keep you warm
- Gloves – a must when using sharp tools.
- Water purification and storage – treatment drops or filter and a water bottle
Here are a few items that I would add to my pack further down the line. They aren’t as necessary from the get-go, but will definitely come in handy as you continue to explore the world of bushcraft.
- Hatchet – for chopping down trees and splitting wood
- Saw – for making tools, clearing trees
- Survival Bow – for hunting bigger game
- Machete – trail clearing
- Trap nooses – easy to use and lightweight nooses for snares
How to Learn Bushcraft
Fortunately for beginners, there are countless resources to help you get started with how to learn bushcraft. Depending on your learning style, you can pick and choose from a combination of different resources. Personally, I am much more of an experiential learner than anything, so I had a lot of trial and error in my learning.
If you’re a visual learner, audio learner, or any other type, try out all of these methods and see what’s best. I still love to sit down and watch YouTube videos of bushcraft skills for hours on end, even though I know I learn best from going outside.
YouTube is a great source of informational videos that will show you how to do every bushcraft skill imaginable. There are some great channels that have professionals showing you a wide array of different skill sets.
Be careful of amateur videos that give you false information. These can lead to you getting hurt by practicing a skill in the wrong way. I have some personal favorites that you can check out here.
Bushcraft 101 and Ray Mears Essential Bushcraft are the classical bibles of bushcraft that I recommend to all beginners. While there are loads of different books out there for every skill imaginable, these give a good overview of everything. Starting out with a simple overview book is good to nail down the beginner’s skills.
Find a book that you like (I like the ones with the most pictures) and get to know it. Take certain parts of it out into the woods with you and practice from it. This is the best way to learn.
We’ve got a whole article on the best bushcraft books that you can check out for some fantastic options.
There are tons of survival/bushcraft schools and courses available for you to try out. These are great for beginners and experts alike.
There are plenty of introduction courses, but there are even more that go into specific skills. Most of the best bushcrafters alive have started their own schools that are definitely worth checking out.
Television is a double-edged sword when it comes to learning different bushcraft skills. It can teach you a huge amount of valuable information. Then in the next moment, it can teach you to do something that will do way more harm than good. For example, Bear Grylls drinks his own urine from a snakeskin. Never do this. It’s all to make “good” television.
Truly good television is a smaller collection of shows that give you the real thing. Alone, Ray Mears Bushcraft, and Ray Mears Goes Walkabout are much more accurate representations of bushcraft.
I think TV is a good way to decide if you want to get into bushcraft. It lets you look into the lives of people living in it and you’ll know if it looks interesting to you or not. I wouldn’t take most of my information from TV, but it can be enjoyable to watch.
“Practice makes perfect” is the saying that frustrated me over and over as a younger kid. I wanted to get things right the first time and gave up pretty quickly. Bushcraft forced me to be patient with my skills and keep on practicing.
This is a hobby or lifestyle that is going to make you experience a lot of failure and frustration. This is the way you learn what works and what doesn’t. For example, bowdrilling is all about fine-tuning where you position your body. After enough practice, it becomes second nature and you can do it without thinking.
Go out and practice. If it’s embarrassing to be a beginner, which I can relate to, just go into your backyard and try some basic beginner projects. You’ll start developing skills faster than you can imagine by getting out and just trying things.
Bushcraft Project Ideas
Now that you have a general understanding of the types of skills needed for bushcraft, you can get outside and try out some basic projects. Finding one place to start can be difficult because you want to try it all. Harness that excitement and put it towards productive learning. Then try it all in the span of a week, a month, or however quickly you feel like moving.
The first skill I ever learned in bushcraft was getting a fire started. It is pretty easy, and more importantly, the reward is huge. There is instant gratification in starting a fire. You get to see what you just made as well as feel the warmth.
Getting a fire started is as easy as getting a striking rod, a knife or metal striker, a cotton ball, and some petroleum jelly.
Collect sticks of all different sizes before you start striking and have them ready in organized piles. The smallest should be as thin as you can possibly find and move up from there. The kindling will light quickly to help get larger sticks lit.
Coating a cotton ball in petroleum jelly is a great trick for getting a fire going quickly. It lights easily and burns for a longer time than you would think.
Hold the striker and practice making sparks with the back end of a knife or a metal striker that may have come along with the striking rod. Aim these sparks at your cotton ball and once lit, slowly add your smallest sticks. Once these catch, you can begin increasing the sizes, slowly but surely.
This is a great way to start learning how to build a fire. The other methods take a lot more practice, and I would say are best to be learned further on.
Going out into the woods and trying to build shelters is a great starter project. Even if you don’t have a forest in your backyard, you can practice setting up a tarp in different styles. It’s the repeated setting up that makes it happen quickly in a pinch.
Explore the forest and experiment with building lean-to shelters. Lean-tos are the perfect first shelter. They’re easy to build, but also show you how important it can be to be thorough.
Spend a night in your shelter and get the feel for what it’s like. If you’re miserable, you will know in the future that you want to spend more time adjusting certain aspects of the shelter.
Setting a Trap
Traps are a great skill to master for bushcraft. You can feed yourself rather well off of small game that you trap. There are several different methods for traps. I would recommend trying out snares to begin with because they are pretty easy to set up and you can get a lot of them up to increase your chances of success.
Setting a snare for a rabbit is simple. You create a noose with a sliding knot in a string or metal wire. A bent-over stick or just the movement of the animal can be enough force to pull the noose tight and catch your game.
A successful snare is all about placement. Find a highly trafficked area, like a small game trail or the entrance to a rabbit’s home, and place your snares en route.
Check your snares every 24 hours at a minimum. You don’t want to catch something and let it suffer for a long time, nor do you want some other predator to come in and steal your dinner.
Getting started in bushcraft isn’t meant to be tricky. The world of bushcrafters is a welcoming place and everyone loves to share their experiences and different tips they’ve learned over the years.
The hardest part can be taking a step out the door and beginning your journey. Luckily, you don’t even need to leave the house for your bushcraft journey to begin.
Start where and when you feel comfortable. You’ll experience a lot of discomfort in bushcrafting, but you don’t need to start with it.
Find some basic skills that pique your interest and just play around. There’s no pressure to get everything right your first time. Everyone messes up, everyone makes mistakes. If you can remember that, you’ll be an expert in no time.