October 26, 2011

In response to "I am confused about bushcraft"

Ross Gilmore wrote recently on his Woodland Trekker blog regarding the mentality of modern-day bushcrafters, and their attempts to recreate 1800's technology and experiences to become "true" to bushcraft. While he claims his post is his ramblings on the subject, he brings up some good points that I would like to write on.

In my opinion of bushcraft, it's not about preserving our traditional heritage, or rejecting consumerism as Ross says many bushcraft themes revolve around. It's about knowledge of the natural world around you, and the skills to make use of that world. The way my mind works when thinking about the subject is, if the zombie apocalypse happens or nukes are dropped or a widespread natural disaster happens, and we lose all our electricity, technology, and modern manufacturing methods, how would we live? While this mindset leans towards survival, I believe this was the mindset of cavemen, natives, explorers, settlers, and pioneers.

These people did what it took to survive. But more than that, once they took care of their survival needs, they found ways to thrive as well. My favorite quote by Robert Heinlein is, "progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things." This means finding ways to create sustainable techniques and tools, using resources available in that place, and at that time. Native American tribes were centered on this philosophy that you use the resources that were given to you, but use them wisely. For example, very few parts of a killed buffalo went unused.

Ross says that many bushcrafters are trying to duplicate the technique and tools, rather than learning the reasoning behind it. The review of practical men (and women) of the period should be used to gather their techniques and tool usage because these men either learned from someone else who went through trial and error, or they themselves went through the trial and error to figure it out. I don't think it's important to reinvent the wheel, but I do think it's important to know what makes it roll. As a student of anything, you can first learn the how, then the why if you care to. You can also learn the why, then the how, which then strengthens your knowledge of the how. It all depends on your motives.

If we take for example creating fire (a focal point of many bushcrafters). I can bring a lighter or matches to the woods, and start a camp fire easily. But matches run out fast, and so does butane. So instead I can bring a ferrocerium rod, which lasts a lot longer, but requires some preparation with good tinder to catch the spark, transfer it to kindling, and then my fuel wood. While a ferro rod won't last forever, it does teach me proper fire preparation techniques, and learning what works, and what limitations exist. So to overcome the limited ferro rod, I can learn to use flint and steel. But while I can order those on the internet, wouldn't it be better to learn to how locate natural flint, and another mineral that I can use to create sparks? Now I am learning the why along with the how. I have no reservations taking a ferro rod into the woods. I can still learn a great deal from using this more modern tool. But I also wish to learn the more primitive, method of hitting two rocks together, or fiction fire methods. This is my philosophy of bushcraft.

So I have responded to Ross' ramblings with those of my own. I have found that bushcraft comes in many different flavors. How you choose to adopt it is up to you. What is great is that there is a growing community of those interested and greatly involved in bushcraft, and are willing to share the knowledge and skills they have learned. Share with it what you know, take from it what you need, and discard the rest.


  1. I have to disagree. To my mind certain modern so called Bushcraft gadgets do nothing to teach anyone about the natural world around them. You won't learn about plant tinders if you use matches, lighters or a ferrocium rod, because there is no need to learn.These items do not require tinder to make fire.
    Yes people can learn about the environment regardless of what tools they use, but many don't. Then there is the way some people split wood by battening the back of a knife blade. This is not how it was done, and not how it should be done. Axes were made for splitting & cutting wood, not knives. It is not just a tradition thing, it is a matter of respecting one's tools. Someone said that battening a knife was done because it was safer than trying to split wood with a hatchet when holding the wood. There is a typical example of this person having no skill in splitting wood with a hatchet. You don't hold the wood when splitting, and you don't chop it.
    This is only my personal opinion, but I think that the old skills are being lost & forgotten with the use of modern tools and modern ways.
    With respect & Regards, Keith.

  2. Thanks for your comments Keith. I agree that a dependency on modern gadgets of any sort cause us to lose touch with more traditional and non-technical methods of our early ancestors.

    As I said, bushcraft has different depths we can delve into. Our personal desires and goals determine how deep into bushcraft we would like to go. I don't think we (as a bushcraft community) should judge others on what our theory of bushcraft is. There are no hard and fast rules or definitions.

    The creative genius, and outside-of-the-box thinking of primitive man, settlers, and pioneers is what created what we call bushcraft. Second to respecting nature, we should maintain that tradition the most.