As a keen outdoorsman and Scout Leader I believe that wilderness skills, and particularly bushcraft skills, have an important role in Scouting.
Being able to look after yourself, with minimal kit, in a variety of environments allows you to explore places you might otherwise avoid and get more out of the places you go.
I think bushcraft provides people with a better understanding of their environment and a greater respect for nature.
These are all values that are important to me and I am lucky enough to run a Scout troop with an outstanding set of leaders that share this ethos.
Good Citizenship Through Woodcraft
One of Baden Powell’s aims was to "teach good citizenship through woodcraft".
Bear Grylls has captured the imagination of many young people and we as Scout leaders firmly believe that we can develop Scouts and run a rewarding programme by learning and sharing bushcraft skills.
We do this by incorporating different skills into our weekly programme and also by running camps with the troop where we can focus on a particular set of skills.
We recently ran a bushcraft skills weekend for our Scouts and their parents. The aim of this weekend was to help the Scouts qualify for their survival badge.
Paul Kirtley asked me to write about how I approached the set up and running of a Scouts bushcraft camp so that it could be shared with other Scout Leaders who follow this blog.
Preparation for a Bushcraft Camp
As with most things in life, and certainly in Scouting, good preparation is the difference between success and failure. If you put the effort in up front things will run more smoothly, everyone will know their role and what's expected of them and you'll have everything to hand when you need it. Below I will cover a few areas of preparation that you might want to consider in organising a bushcraft camp for Scouts.
Setting a Goal for a Bushcraft Camp
Having a goal in mind will help you focus on what you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to teach certain skills? Complete tasks towards a badge? Or give people a new experience such as sleeping in natural shelters? It could just be that you want to create a fun weekend and enjoy the woods; if that's your goal then great. Think about the goal of your camp and then plan accordingly.
Picking Activities for a Bushcraft Camp
Once you know what you are trying to achieve, you can plan your activities. On our last bushcraft camp we were aiming to teach the skills that the Scouts would require to earn their survival badge. With this in mind we looked at the criteria for the badge and set out a number of activities over the weekend that would enable this learning.
We included the following activities:
Learning about survival situations – How they can occur and how to react if they do.
Firecraft - Learning about tinders, using firesteels, collecting firewood and practising fire lays.
Signalling - Using light, sound and symbols. This included demonstrating torches, signal mirrors and whistles and then a team exercise where we set up a large signal fire and set it off.
Wild foods - Looking at local, seasonal wild foods on a walk through the woods in small groups and trying some along the way. Preparation is important here as its better to know where wild foods are before you set out with a group of Scouts rather than hoping that you bump into some along the way. We also produced hand outs that showed wild foods from the area we were in so that the Scouts had something to refer to.
Hunting and trapping - Not specifically part of the survival badge but we were keen to share some basic trapping and snaring skills with the Scouts. We demonstrated some simple snares and deadfall traps and then gave people a chance to make their own. Again, we featured some basic traps on the hand outs so that there was a point of reference. We also discussed the legal considerations affecting trapping for real. We covered stalking (moving silently) and the manufacture and use of throwing sticks which is a great practical exercise that Scouts love.
Game preparation – Most Scouts really enjoy getting stuck in with game prep and don’t seem to share the squeamishness that often makes adult students remember another important task they must attend to. To prepare game you need to acquire it. More about that later...
Shelter - Building and sleeping in shelters is great fun for all ages and Scouts love it. We equip Scouts with a bivvy bag in case their shelters leak and we set up a couple of example shelters for people to copy. We start shelter building with a brief on the theory, a discussion on what you might be sheltering from and sharing ideas about materials that we might use.
Choosing a Venue for a Scout Bushcraft Camp
This will be a personal decision and depend on the needs of the group and the activities being undertaken. Those of us in Scouting are lucky, we have a number of Scout camp sites across the country to choose from and most lend themselves to bushcraft activities.
Having thought about the goal for your camp and picked the activities you are going to focus on you will have an idea of what resources you will need in the local area and can choose a location accordingly. For example, if you are practising fishing, being near water is a must. Firecraft requires wood, tinder and permission to light fires. Navigation exercises will need suitably challenging terrain, and so on.
Personally I prefer to have a camp based in the woods and not in the middle of a barren field so that's one of my first considerations in choosing a suitable site.
Numbers and Helpers for Your Bushcraft Camp
If you are organising a bushcraft camp it is important to consider how many attendees you are able to accommodate, whilst still giving people quality time so that they can learn in small groups or on a one to one basis. I cant give you a ratio of Scouts to leaders/helpers as every troop is different and the skill level of those leading varies. However I’d urge you to think hard about this and ensure you have enough helpers, ideally with some skills that they can share on or usefully employ around camp.
Skills You Need to Run a Bushcraft Camp for Scouts
To be able to run a bushcraft camp for Scouts you will need some understanding of the skills you are trying to pass on. The better you know the skills, the more effectively you will be able to teach them. But here is the real magic - there is an old saying "if you want to learn something well then teach it to others". I find this so true and it makes absolute sense. To be able to teach, you must first learn yourself; this is why people that teach a skill or a subject master it more quickly than those who just practice for themselves.
So, decide what skills you can teach already or what you want to be able to teach in the future and think about how you can best pass these skills on. One of the things I do when attending training courses or watching an expert is not just look at what’s being taught but how it is being taught.
If you have the opportunity to be around good bushcraft instructors then watch how they prepare and deliver their sessions. As a Scout leader you can then copy the teaching method as well as the subject matter.
If you do go on a bushcraft course to further your skills then ensure you take lots of notes as an aid memoire.
Another thing you can do is find people in your district who have skills you want to learn and then invite them to come and teach you or your Scouts.
At a basic level, if you want to run a simple bushcraft camp for your Scouts then focus on shelter building and firecraft. Learn the basics of these and how to pass on the important facts and then work up from there.
Resources Required for a Bushcraft Camp
Thankfully most Scout troops will have all of the hardware they need to run a camp outdoors - shelters, cookware, water containers and so on.
To run a bushcraft camp you might want to consider adding the following to your kit list if you don’t already have them:
- Knives – Mora knives are great and you can get them from Clas Ohlsen for about £3 each;
- Firesteels – The Light My Fire models are the best (in my opinion) and these are great for teaching good firecraft;
- Sharpening stone – an oilstone and some oil are fine;
- Leather strop or old leather belt;
- Folding saws – The Laplander saws are cheap and very reliable;
- Cuts kit – you should already have a decent first aid kit and the skill to use it but I like to have a cuts kit on my person when anyone (me included) is using a knife;
Other than this you just need the materials that relate to the activities you are teaching - wire for snares, tinder for demonstrating firecraft and so on.
If you are teaching people to prepare game then of course you will need game.
Where to get game? I have found butchers to be pretty lacking in this area. One butcher offered my skinned and gutted frozen rabbits imported from China... not what I had in mind! I have had the most luck with the local shooting community. So make friends with the local game keeper or gun shop owner and explain that you need game, ‘in the fur’ or ‘unplucked’.
Don't forget to mention it’s for the local Scouts. Overall I find that people have a positive view of Scouting and they are happy to help out so tap into this and don’t be shy asking. For our last bushcraft camp I managed to acquire 8 geese from my local gun shop owner in return for a bottle of wine – a good transaction we felt. A quick chat with Paul on the phone about the best way to cook them and some ingenuity from our Group Scout Leader and we were away...
The Days Before Your Scouts' Bushcraft Camp ...
Leading up the camp you will need to put in some final preparation work to get the most out of your time during the camp.
I would recommend you recce your chosen site well and look for resources and locations that you are going to need during the camp itself:
Shelter building – Requires well drained ground and building materials. You should also look out for risks from above such as beech trees that can drop branches; avoid these areas.
Firecraft – You should establish where you can light fires, where fire fighting equipment is and where the best supplies of tinder and firewood are all in advance of the camp itself.
Trapping – May require suitable construction materials such as hazel and you should look at quieter areas of the site for evidence of game runs and sign. When teaching trapping its important to discuss the location of traps and showing a game run puts this into context.
Wild foods – I have already mentioned this but it’s worth reiterating; if you get to know the site in advance you can identify wild foods at your leisure and be ready to point these out during the camp itself. You can also use this time to spot any poisonous plants that are best avoided or highlighted as a risk when teaching about plants you can use.
Risk assessment – One final point to remind ourselves of is the need to carry out a risk assessment for the environment and the activities that you have planned.
Seeing the Warden
If you are using a Scout campsite for your bushcraft camp then I urge you to go and see the warden in advance and explain what you are planning. You will find that they are more relaxed if they understand what you are planning. They will usually know the site a lot better than anyone else, so will be able to point out wild foods and useful plants that you may miss.
Some Final Thoughts...
Running a camp with a bushcraft theme is a fun and rewarding venture for all involved. But remember you don’t need to restrict these activities to when you are away on camp.
Throughout the year we use troop nights to focus on specific skills such as first aid, firecraft and knife work. Then when we get out into the woods, Scouts and Leaders alike are working from a more advanced starting position than if we just did these things a few times a year.
The key to running good bushcraft training for Scouts is preparation: The more you put in, the more you everyone will get out.
Good luck with your Scouting and I wish you all well on your adventures.
Do you have any tips you can add to this or lessons learned from previous bushcraft camps for scouts? If so, let us know in the comments below...
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