My take on bushcraft

Grab a drink, get comfy and prepare to read…

There have been a number of discussions in the blogosphere lately concerned with the nature of bushcraft. Some inquisitive and insightful minds have taken a step back to try to see the big picture. Why has product “X” become so associated with bushcraft? Why does modern bushcraft mimic certain historical periods? What the f@%# is bushcraft?! I think all of this questioning is great. It means we’re taking time out to examine what we’re doing, rather than just automatically accepting things the way they’re presented to us by certain personalities, marketing departments or crowd mentalities. And while it is worthwhile to explore what the term “bushcraft” itself means to each of us, it is far more meaningful and rewarding to just get out into the field and workshop to develop our skills and knowledge in a way that makes us happy, in whatever form it might be. I have to admit that I was hesitant to write this post at all because my personal view doesn’t pertain to anyone else, but I figured I’d throw my 2 cents out there for the heck of it. I’m not trying to redefine what the community calls bushcraft or ruffle anybody’s feathers. I will continue to publicly use the word bushcraft as it is commonly used. The following simply describes what the word has come to mean to me.

A few months ago, I came across a post by the user “rautasarvi” at the Bushcraft Finland forum that truly redefined the concept bushcraft in my mind (http://bushcraftfinland.atfreeforum.com/metsastys-kalastus-ja-keraily-f30/jousi-t259.html). Actually, what it did was to allow some thoughts which had been brewing for a while to percolate to the surface and crystallize. This guy rautasarvi is talented, and I mean TALENTED. He can probably make just about any piece of gear you’d want and do an amazing job at it, too. His real name is Ilkka Seikku, and his website is http://tuluskivi.suntuubi.com/. In his forum post, Ilkka showed how he made a functional, hunting-legal bow…with no tools. Let me clarify: He made a bow in the forest without bringing any modern tools with him whatsoever. He used rocks, boulders and a moose bone he found to do the work. These were his tools. When I saw that post, one thought sprang to my mind: “Now THIS is bushcraft, TRUE bushcraft.” This man went to the bush and created a serious tool with his brain and hands. At that moment, I realized that my personal understanding of what true bushcraft really is became “the skills and knowledge which allow people to survive and thrive in the natural environment using only those items and materials which can be found/modified there.” This would cover the technology level and lifestyle of natives in the New World, Australia and other areas prior to contact with more artificial technologies from outside, as well as those of any human society which was totally self-sufficient (and yes, I do realize that even this is nebulous, since everything that exists today can be traced back to some original natural material or process if you go back far enough).

I do realize that this definition covers only a small subset of what we call bushcraft, but after seeing how Ilkka made that bow, I just have not been able to view bushcraft in the same way. Somehow, it just doesn’t make sense to me to lump together the making of Ilkka’s bush bow with the use of a ferro rod and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls to make fire and a sil-nylon tarp held up with parachute cord to make a shelter. Don’t get me wrong, I have NOTHING against these items and methods, and a ferro rod and modern tarp are regular parts of my gear selection. I’m not planning on rejecting modern implements and technologies etc. and “going paleo”. I’m just saying that I can no longer categorize those three things together under the general heading of “bushcraft”. Maybe what I think of as true bushcraft should be called “paleocraft” or “stone-age craft” or “nature-craft” or something. Maybe there is already a name for it, and I’m just unaware of it!

What we commonly call bushcraft spans the gamut from “true bushcraft” to “modern camping” (yes, there’s an immense range there), and varies from person to person and area to area. I think of it as often focusing on old-timey camping and survival skills (e.g. those of the mountain men, pioneers in both North America and other continents and that presented by Nessmuk, Kephart, Kochanski etc.) with some modern implements and some ancient skills and knowledge thrown in as well (a perfectly “normal” bushcraft kit might include a Kephart-style knife, a ferro rod and a bow-drill set). My gear choices, skills and methods happen to share much with the conventional view of bushcraft, but considering what I now think of as “true bushcraft”, I hesitate to continue to call most of what I do bushcraft. I would almost rather call it “woodsmanship”, “traditional camping”, “wilderness survival/living” or something along those lines. Sure, there are some elements of true bushcraft in what I do (using natural tinders, eating wild edibles, using fire for warmth and cooking, using harvested materials to make tools/implements etc.), but not nearly enough to put me in a league with people like Ilkka. I am in fact interested in increasing my knowledge and skill in the area of true bushcraft, for example by learning flint knapping and similar skills, but honestly, I love using steel knives and axes, metal pots, matches and other modern items like this.

As I said earlier on, part of me is hesitant to make definitions and categorize things like this, since the important thing is just to get out there and do stuff, not to argue semantics. Hopefully, though, this post has encouraged you to look at our hobby from a slightly different perspective.

By the way, the knives (and axes) are coming, I promise. 😉

-WW

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11 comments on “My take on bushcraft

  1. Perkunas says:

    Thats something i keep wondering. You know, i see a LOT of ´crafters who are trusting, hardcore way, to gear,and kind of laugh and overlook, the guys with ceap gear, but higher state, of ability to adapt in the wild, just cause they can craft all kinds of vital gear, from shelters to traps, with NO commercial aid, not even a length of treny paracord.

    Ill keep reading andposting comments as i go forward, rest assured 🙂

  2. Perkunas says:

    Something i wonder in soe guys, is that when someone, just like Rautasarvi,shows something that he can do WITHOUT any gear…….these guys say that yes its great but i have to learn first to do it With gear,and thats bit awkward in my eyes. Surely, its easy to learn a hellova lot of skills done without gear, than use the lack of proper gear,as an excuse for Not doing it.

  3. Perkunas says:

    Its not once or twice, when ive felt the same, and posted similar thoughts man. I mean now, that i have been against the thing i feel thats going on…the bushcraft´s origins and meaning, is turning more and more closer to average hiking and i think that the guy with latest gps gear gore-tex, ul-tent and no knife at all, can be soon called as bushcraft, sitting in that directors chair cooking with the titatium micro stove, with no idea of how the guys did their living possible, if not even comfortable,with less gear, and more will to adapt. Trusting to tech instead of putting effort in skill and stamina is always idiotic. By stamina i mean, that sometimes i wonder….nowadays its called arctic winter hike, if you manage to walk in the park in a marked trail, for an hour, and then sleep in wood heated cabins :). To me bushcraft might be also toughing it as well, i think. You cant cant always whine about cold,moist and hunger, but man is used to get the best, the longer we live this frigging urban life.

  4. Perkunas says:

    Paleocraft, might be the highest way to be a bushcrafter, i agree on that, easily. Although i like gear, to review,test,try and use, own gear, ive learned to get rid off it as well. I mean, if i purchase one piece of kit, i have keeping it as a rule, that ill get rid off atleast one. This has lead me, in these 2 years, to actually get rid of 75 percent of my gear. I dont have anymore 5 different meth stoves, 4 different gas stoves, i dont have 7 axes, theres not 11 packs in my closet anymore. I noticed a good while ago,that in i still seemed to use mostly the same gear, even if had choises to gater always a different set up /kit. Knives are my sin, i love em, and i still have em coming in. But i also get rid off those as well, and keep only the ones that work for me,sometimes the good ones have to go too, as being unemployeed or student,from time to time, means youre mostly broken,with empty wallet,so that has also, guided me,in away, to live with less.

    Its good that man can execute the bushcraft as he wants to, as every one of us is different. Still, i sometimes wonder, as to me, the CRAFT-part in bushraft is very important. To learn to do gear, etc all bt yourself, by any means.You can your anorak jacket from commercial canvas, with modern commercially made thread, its good action in my books,if comparer to buying one from a shop. And somene makes it from self-hunted fur and self-made thread, thats more than ok to me as well. Still, sometimes i wonder why man has to has his nessmuk,kepahart knife or other knife named after historial user,and still the same guys, overlook a forged flintstriker and flint,as a method of making fire, “because my shop bought,factory made modern, LMF firesteel with annoying reindeer handle on it” is a whole lot better…..well….it sure works, but in my eyes, youd be more true to the cause/hobby, if youd make that flintsteel,as it can be made by just about anyone. And then learn to make fire with it, even if you would not carry it always, or as your only firemaker. Bushcraft aint about gear,after all. IMO.

    I see rich kids, getting involved in bushcraft scene all the time. And it makes me kinda sad, as it starts by gettingall that latest gear, shown in websites,from videos to forums. As if a woodclone, or a Duluth pack, Zebra pot, would make you a bushcrafter in a blink of an eye. To start bushcrafting, that is a hobby to others and more like a life style,religion to others, you sure dont have to spend a whole lot to begin with. Ofcourse it nice to have a wellbuilt gear, but the original crafters had to settle less too, when it all began. Pot is a pot, no matter the brand. Mora doesnt shame, in basic whittling and carving use, to any other 300 euro priced woodclone. Any pack that is durable, will work as well,and you can always make your own too, it was a tradition to original too, in many occasions.

    I have been goin outdoors, since i was like 7, and i had my first week long hike, at age of 10 in winter camp, and ever since i have been goin out for these about 25 years, but i cant say it had made me a bushcrafter. My hikes have been average hiking, but not camping. My gear has been very modest always, still is but i remember how modest it was at 90´s ,not to mention the 80´s when i was still a kid. I didnt dream about certain knives, nor certain boots, and i still did long hikes, and had nothing to complain about,as i didnt know about overseas offerings, of gear. That was more than good,actually. The more you/ i grow our knowledge and the more we come up with money, it seems to eventually lead us to wrong paths, of being lazy and making excuses for not doing and not going, as we have created high requirements, may it be that we a certain type of knife, or a softr bunk etc. In a way, the more you make money, the older you are, the less you have balls :)….and some of us, notice this, and maybe, thry bushcraft, we start to search for the old days,and wonder in the woods….?

  5. Ross Gilmore says:

    I think you are right. I’ve always had a hard time distinguishing one level of technology that I can not duplicate in the woods from another level of technology that I can not duplicate in the woods. It never made sense to me that a steel pot is “bushcraft” while a titanium one is not. I can’t make either. It makes sense to me to separate things into that which I can make in the bush, and that which I can not. I have no problem applying the term “bushcraft” in a more general sense, to cover tool use, but I don’t like it when people take one random technology and hold it as superior or more bushcrafty than another, when they can duplicate neither in the woods.

  6. OZme says:

    I agree on the point about that the Bushcraft is not gear dependency. It is not what you carry in pack, but what you carry in your brain.
    In my case, I can not carry every thing as knowledge at this moment, so till I learn how I can carry all I need in my brain as a skill, I need to carry them in my pack. This way, it helps me learning new skills, which will replace the gear I carry.
    But here comes the human weakness, tempts me to carry more than needed. Giving thought on “what is Bushcraft” will give me the course collection.
    One thing I start to understand as “My goal” of Bushcraft is “to be able to produce every thing I need out from nature myself”.

  7. Thanks for the great comments! Fortunately, we’re all able to figure out what bushcraft means to us individually. I try to not even get hung up on the word itself.

    Moving closer and closer toward what I call “true bushcraft” is also my goal (at least to do everything once, so I will have the ability for the future), but like I said, I don’t really want to stop using steel tools, pots etc. I like them! 🙂

    I think the term “bushcraft” is getting a way too specific definition in the community these days. Like you said, Ross, steel is bushcraft, but titanium isn’t… WTF? Firesteels are bushcraft, but lighters aren’t. I would almost prefer a too-broad definition of bushcraft, than one which singles out certain products or methods promoted by well-known personalities or groupthink.

  8. Finnman says:

    For me personally bushcraft is like mindset / lifestyle. And I think part of bushcraft is that you don´t use latest hightech gear for every task on bush. Many of the things can be improvised from natural materials which traditional know-how. For example: Modern hiker wants to make food so he grabs his gas-stove from backpack and warms up potful of ready-meal soap or like. Where bushcrafter makes small cooking fire with natural tinder and maybe carve pot hanger and start to prepare his meal. But for me it won´t make much difference if that pot is made of titanium, aluminum, steel or whatever metal. The key point is that you improvise that “heat” and hanger to make your food. Not carry it with you (gas stove).
    Also it´s great thing if you can make bow with bare hands and some stones´n bones, but it´s also great thing (not less bushcrafty) if you can make functional bow with your knife you carry. And if you use factory made string on your bow it´s still ok, but if you try and manage to do string by yourself using sinews etc. that´s simply great!
    If you lit your fire with butan lighter don´t have to be ashamed if you have right attitude to bushcraft otherwise, but many bushcrafters want to use older or more traditional methods for fire making just for pure fun and for the sake of hobby / interest. And it´s really good thing if you atleast once succesfully manage to make fire with steel&flint or evern firebow. That gives you good advantage on tough situation where you need fire, but you don´t have your matches/firesteel/lighter or they will fail somehow.

    – Finnman

  9. Good points. Thanks, Finnman!

  10. Ron says:

    Hi,
    I, for one, have allways felt that what 80% of the “bushcrafters” call bushcraft really isn’t, but I have come to accept the term as a general way of covering a wide area of interests, ranging from living as a iron age-man to relatively primitive camping in the woods to knifemaking.
    Personally I feel that hammocks, nylon tarp, $500 knives, fuel stoves etc. are more camping than actual bushcraft. Finnman makes some very good points, too.
    I do not call my self a bushcrafter in the sence that I practice bushcraft as I, and appearantly you too, see it. I am more of a traditional camper with my wool, canvas and leather stuff. Right now I lack the knowledge to go without these, but when I look back at what I have learned in the 2 years I actively practice “bushcraft”, I can see I am just standing at the base of a huge learning curve, relearning Mother Nature’s way and using and appreciating her gifts.
    People like your Finnish friend will be the masters that will teach use newbies and hopefully we ourselves will teach these ways to others some day.
    I’ll keep checking back and learning from you and others like you…

    Thanks for the blog!

    Vi ses
    Ron

  11. Hey Ron, great to see you here! And thanks for the comment.

    So it seems we have some similar ideas about bushcraft. 🙂 I always feel like I have 99.9% to learn, even though I make progress every year. It’s kind of a great hobby to be involved in, actually, because it’s nearly impossible to learn it all, so there’s always something new.

    Hope to read your comments here on a regular basis. 🙂

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