The Benefits Of Journeying To Your Core Bushcraft Skills

by Paul Kirtley

Camping on rocky shore of a Scottish loch

Journeys necessarily take you to new places - places you have not camped before, which have different resources and challenges. Photo: Paul Kirtley

During a recent multi-day canoe trip in Scotland, I turned to thinking (again) about the benefits of making a journey.

In a post on Instagram from the trip, I wrote "I love the self-contained nature of making journeys with everything you need. It's a mobile expression of self-reliance, in terms of equipment selection and preparation, menu planning, as well as the skills and experience to negotiate the terrain. Combined, these aspects take you to parts of the natural world rarely seen by many.”

Of course most would agree your bushcraft skills could come in handy on pretty much any outdoor trip.

What I want to discuss in this article, is the benefit to your skills of the journey. This is different to the benefit the journey receives from your skills.

A Journey Removes You From Your Comfort Zone

“Comfort zone” tends to be an overused term these days, inhabiting buzzword bingo territory along with “learning curve”, “raising the bar’, “reinventing the wheel”, “thinking outside of the box” and other such figures of speech.

My use of the term here, however, is not just figurative. A journey literally takes you out of your comfort zone.

I’m of the impression that many bushcrafters do most of their bushcraft in the same small area. Certainly I’ve observed a good number of bushcraft enthusiasts who are prominent on social media from Canada and the USA, the British Isles and across Europe to Turkey often post photos from the same spots. They go back to the same camping spots repeatedly. One guy I have in mind with a large following on Instagram largely posts photos of knives and cooking steak from the same small piece of woodland. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against good knives or a quality steak cooked on the fire. That’s not my point.

These familiar spots - familiar even to the passing social media audience - are what I mean by comfort zone.

These places are easy. The location of relevant resources is known. There’s an established fire site. There’s a favourite rock or log you sit on. You know where you like to sleep. You know which trees to tie your tarp between and the correct spacing needed to tie off the guylines squarely. You may even have a natural shelter which you leave constructed and come back to. These “survival shelters” or “bug out camps” are effectively home from home. There is an established order and an established routine.

Compare this with turning up to a piece of woodland you have never seen before and having to set up camp. The latter forces you to think outside the box 🙂

A Journey Increases The Efficiency Of Your Core Bushcraft

In the context of making a journey, arriving at an unknown spot and having to set up camp for the night tends to be towards the end of the day. You don’t have much time to sort out where you are sleeping, where to cook, where the firewood is, where to obtain water, then organise the resources you need, in the quantity needed, before nightfall.

You need to set up your camp, get water filtered and/or boiled and cook. If you are using a fire for water boiling and cooking, this involves good, efficient fire-management.

Below is a timelapse of Paul "Spoons" Nicholls and I setting up camp one evening during a recent trip.

 

Similarly in the morning, on a journey, you tend to need to be up, breakfasted, go to the toilet, have a wash, break camp, pack, leave no trace and be off in fairly short order.

In between camps, you are also using your bushcraft, reading the terrain, using your navigational skills, sourcing water and processing it.

In applying your core bushcraft skills in real contexts, with little time to spare, you are forced to become more efficient.

A Journey Increases Your Experience Of Application

People write to me asking all sorts of questions about the outdoors. One of the common ones is how to choose a good campsite. Treated as a general problem, there are many parameters. Avoiding hazards comes first generally, followed by proximity of resources and comfort.

Choosing a safe camping spot means avoiding widowmakers, dead tree crowns and hung-up deadfall, staying out of dried-up river beds, and having higher ground onto which you can retreat to if camped next to rivers. Generally you want to stay clear of nests of bees, hornets, wasps, ants, etc. In some parts of the world you also want to stay off obvious animal trails. If you are going to have a fire, you also need to make sure you can safely do so.

Proximity of resources means just that. You want the resources you need for your camp to be relatively close by. Again time is a factor on a real trip. The exact resources you need for any camp will vary but they will almost always include water and often will include fire-lighting materials as well as firewood. You may also need materials for pot hangers and other camp utensils.

Comfort is about flat, level ground, avoiding localised low spots which fill with cold air (and water if it rains), sheltering from the wind and thinking about where the sun will hit first thing in the morning. The hard nuts might look down their noses at comfort but rest is important. The amount and quality of rest you get affects how you function when you are not resting. That said, if you are tired enough, you can sleep just about anywhere…

These are basics, checked off every time you set camp in a new place. Every time. And, on a journey, every place you set up camp is different.

pot hanger set up on rocky dried up river bed

Basic skills are adapted to the circumstances on a journey. Photo: Paul Kirtley

You will no doubt have a basic system, a preferred set of knots you use to tie your tarp and a system for arranging your gear underneath. Even so, every time you set-up camp, you are having to work out where your tarp will fit, how to suspend it, what to tie off to and the other details, as well as how to arrange your communal or cooking area. On our last trip, our camps varied from woodland to rocky beaches. For each one, we had to adapt our basic systems and apply different techniques in different combinations.

By using your techniques in different settings presented by a journey you increase your experience in employing those techniques. In doing so, you become more proficient with the techniques and quicker in their implementation in any setting.

A Journey Increases Your Knowledge of Nature

On our recent trip we covered a route from the mountains down to tidal waters. This canoe journey started on a small river, not much more than a creek. Later we covered the length of a big lake before entering a larger river, which took us all the way down to an estuary.

All of the route was in part of the UK where we don’t spend the majority of our time and the journey took us through a range of habitats. There was much here that was familiar, particularly in terms of trees, plants and fungi. But some species were more localised or unusual to us.

Along the way we saw a lot of wildlife too, particularly birds. Again, many were familiar from up and down the country, from small songbirds to larger birds such as herons and buzzards. We also saw resident kingfishers, numerous local migrants such as oystercatchers, coming inland for summer, as well as a good number of ospreys, recently returned from Africa. Other migrants, including swallows, sand martins and swifts were all present at various places on our route.

In the river we saw trout, salmon and even an eel. All along the river was also much sign of european beaver.

Osprey at top of tree against blue sky background

An osprey perches on high tree tops. Photo: Paul Kirtley

On a number of occasions, as we paddled along, we saw roe deer close to the river bank, sometimes even oblivious to our silent passing. One morning I was woken by the sound and feel of footsteps on the ground nearby. Then a clatter of hooves and the alarm call of a roe. It had stumbled into our camp on its morning walk…

I spend a lot of time outdoors. But I’m always learning. Regularly I witness something I’ve never seen before. The more you go out, the more you’ll see.

When I run courses, I’m typically in same locale for much of the time. In doing this you get to know the local wildlife, its activity and cycles through the seasons and notice the differences from one year to the next. When I make journeys, I notice more how different populations enjoy particular habitats. In moving through a landscape, you start to see patterns in where particular plants, trees or fungi species grow. You see the same with animals and birds, you notice the patters in where you spot the deer, where the ospreys construct their nests, where the oystercatchers like to hang out.

You notice other correlations too. Lots of flies over the water and fish rising, correlating with the presence of herons, grebes and other birds which feed on fish. And if you don’t notice these fish-related things, travelling with a keen angler such as Paul “Spoons” Nicholls, will make sure you do.

We camped wild for five nights, each night in a different place. I’ve never camped in any of these places before and it’s quite possible, I’ll never camp in any of them again, even if I follow the same route.

We had fires at each camp and each night we had to quickly source the fuel we needed, from kindling up to main fuel. We used lighters, matches and firesteels, rather than anything more primitive but the choice of materials and where to site the fire is still important. Other than birch bark, we didn’t use the same materials twice but every time our fires were lit on first attempt, used for cooking, managed carefully, tidied and left safe and with minimal disturbance to the land.

You don’t benefit from the varied practice (and I mean practice, rather than practise) unless you change the setting, change the context, change the materials.

“I’ve never used large, dead standing hazel in the round like this” said Spoons. "It works pretty well, doesn’t it?”

In making your core bushcraft skills work in the different settings presented by a journey, with different materials or combinations of materials each and every time, you increase your practical knowledge. In doing so, you become more proficient with the techniques of bushcraft, you learn first hand what is widely applicable and which techniques need more specific materials.

In travelling through an environment, you gain a better understanding of various habitats, how they transition from one to another and what you’ll find there.

A Journey Hones Your Kit

A journey hones your kit in several ways.

When you are in a fixed camp, particularly when you don’t have to travel far to get to it, you can get away with taking more kit, heavier kit, just-in case kit, kit to try out. You can get a little extravagant with your set-ups.

Sometimes this excess over the bare minimum is welcome. It’s nice to camp with a little luxury sometimes.

But on a self-propelled journey you can rarely afford to take so much with you. You have to think hard about what you take and each piece of equipment earns its place.

Moreover, if you do take more kit than you need on a journey, it tends to get in the way. More to unpack. More to pack. More to lug around with you.

So, a journey demonstrates what you do need and what you don’t. It tightens your set-up and allows you to discard the unnecessary.

personal outdoor kit items

There are core items which are of value on any journey. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Backpacking kit laid out on floor

Certain types of journey dictate types of kit and over time your outfit for that type of journey will become honed to what really works for you. Photo: Paul Kirtley

There are core items but then there are items which work particularly well for types of journey or times of year. The more experience you have of making journeys, the more able you will be to pack appropriately for the next adventure.

Kit that doesn’t stand up to hard and continued use tends to show its colours on a journey too. In this sense, over a number of journeys, you break the stuff thats substandard and end up with a lean outfit of kit which will stand up to the rigours you demand of it.

So, journeying hones many aspects of your outdoor skills as well as your equipment. But let's not forget the joy of the journey. Your adventures are enabled by your skills and your equipment and, in this sense, there is a virtuous circle of improvement engendered by regular journeying.

I'd love to hear about some of your biggest lessons learned while on trips as well as your most memorable nature encounters. Let me and other readers know in the comments section below...

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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including The Bushcraft Journal and Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Shawn halloran

Hi Paul!
This was your best article yet! It came at the right time too. I am planning a solo canoe trip with my dog. It is only on the Lahn, but there are some nice stretches of quiet areas with some diverse wild life. Your writing, as usual, inspired me to realize it, to make it happen. Thanks! Please keep the articles coming. I hope to read from you soon.
Warmest regards,
Shawn

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Shawn, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad this resonated with you and it has spurred you to take action.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Marcel

Hey Paul, it is such a refreshing thing to get out there doing what you love; jump off that tread mill so to speak. The journey can be on foot, in a canoe, or even in a vehicle. It’s the stops along the way, with the sights and the sounds, and the challenges of using our skills in new inventive ways. But the most important is that the skills become second nature, and the inner man is renewed with each step of the way. The journey becomes part of your skills, and your skills part of the journey. In the early and mid 1970’s, I had fashioned a canvas tarpaulin into a 3 foot by 6 foot 6″ hammock, which was sewn with 50 lb test nylon fishing line to form long sleeves that I could pass a rope and wooden shaft through. I used a cheap plastic cover for rain gear, and I simply hiked with a 4″ folder, an aluminum mess kit, and a magnesium ferrorod (scrape the magnesium type) for wet weather, and paper matches for most of the time. I learned to split the matches in half to conserve them. I baked bannocks, cooked rice with raisins, and ate sardines from a tin, unless I caught small fish with my collapsible rod. I learned to mimic certain bird calls, ate wild plants, saw sunsets and moon rises and watched the stars in different seasons. It made me realize that I was part of the earth, not to manipulate it, but to be in it. I also left no trace, not for environmental reasons, but simply to not be found. I was private with the earth. No one needed to know I was ever there. In rain, or high sun, I could assemble my camp in 3 minutes and dismantle it in as much time. My fires were never large, but functional, peaceful, and I used only dead wood, broken by hand, or between a tree crotch, and if too big, burned them at mid point and fed them into the fire gradually. Hardly no effort was made for my fires. But the peacefulness was what I remember most. Nature is balanced, and by simply being in it, we find balance.

Fondest regards,
Marcel (Buck) Lafond

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Marcel, thanks for your comments – very nice sentiment and philosophy here.

Warm regards,

Paul

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