The Definitive Bushcraft Skills List

man in the wilderness in the winter

by Nick O’Law

Bushcraft is the art of living in a natural environment, within and in harmony with nature. It is distinct from (though it shares a lot with) survival, where the mindset is only about getting out at the other end as safely as possible. Bushcraft will teach you skills not just to survive, but to thrive in comfort, and rely not on your gear, but yourself. This is a list of the skills you will need.

Finding and Purifying Water

Water is almost certainly the very first thing to worry about when learning bushcraft. The rule of three gives you a maximum of three days without water, which goes down to one in very hot, arid conditions. Remember that even once you have found water, in most cases it will then need at least to be filtered and possibly distilled or boiled before it is safe to drink.

Finding water is often just a matter of understanding your surroundings well, such as knowing that water flows downhill, so valleys and gullies are always a good start. Humans are only animals, and all other animals need water too, so following animal trails or watching for birds flying quickly (they fly slower after drinking, because they are heavier) are also good strategies.

There are many, many different ways to purify water, and there is not space here to do justice to all of them, but suffice it to say that filtering will remove only the larger particles, distilling will get rid of smaller stuff, and boiling will kill bacteria. Sometimes all three may be needed.

Finding Food

There are three ways to find food in the wild: foraging, hunting and trapping. Foraging is by far the easiest to learn, and is likely to produce the most reward. Learn what plants you can eat, and how best to cook them, but be very careful of lookalikes and mistakes. It is best to take a knowledgeable guide out with you at least for your first few trips, and to begin with ingredients and recipes which are simple and well known, like nettle tea and blackberries. Richard Mabey’s Food for Free is an acknowledged Bible for foragers.

Remember that bushcraft is not an ‘all or nothing’ venture’, it can be whatever suits you, so starting off by trying recipes out at home, and then only cooking what you are confident with in the bush is a good way to go. With all foods, but especially in the case of mushrooms, be very careful to only ever eat what you are absolutely certain is safe. Try to get off the beaten path, because the passage of many often obscures or kills plants, and fungi especially are very delicate.

After foraging, trapping is the next most reliable source of food. Learn first to make a few good traps. The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild is a great introduction to many types of snares and traps, with some basic bushcraft tips as well.

wilderness trap

photo: Apache foot trap

Remember that one of the most important things when trapping is to know your quarry, so go out and learn, not just about whatever you want to eat tonight, but also about its environment, where it’s likely to be, what might get to the trap first and so on, and try to factor this into your considerations when building traps.

Finally, there is hunting. Hunting is certainly the ‘coolest’ but also the least efficient way of getting food, and is best suited to large, wild game which it is unrealistic to trap safely and must be killed from a distance. Even in this case, the best course of action may still be to construct a trap to keep the animal immobile, and then approach and kill it from afar with a ranged weapon such as a bow or spear. On the other hand, this approach requires that the hunter checks all their traps very regularly, to avoid inhumane treatment of animals, or losing their quarry to another predator.

If you do decide to hunt directly, obviously ranged weapons are the far preferred choice. What you choose depends on your style of bushcraft, but most people will be going for some kind of bow. Once you have made this decision, the most important thing is the welfare of the animal as it dies. Bowhunting is great, and you may be perfectly happy with the ethics in principle, but surely a quick, clean death is preferable to a slow, dirty one? Make sure you are using the appropriate arrows and a strong enough bow to kill the animal as quickly as possible, and of course make certain that you will only hit an animal, not any people who might be in the vicinity.

Train hard first, practice in your back garden, then on static, and (if possible) moving targets in the woods, before attempting to hunt live game. If you get advice and help from a more experienced hunter then always heed it! Other than that, have fun, happy hunting!

In the case of both hunting and trapping, it is wise and educational to follow the Native Americans and try to use as much of the animal as possible. The primary reason for hunting is meat, but animal skins are a classic of bush tailoring and can be stitched with sinew of the same carcass. Antlers and bones make good tools (including needles), fish hooks and knapping strikers.

Making and Using Fire

Fire Starting methods can be categorized as: strikers, friction, and ‘modern’ methods. Strikers (such as flint and ferrocerium) will last forever (or near enough) but can be tricky to get used to using, and require very good, dry tinder.

With the exception of the fire plough, (which can be useful, but is very labor intensive) all friction methods are drills, which are the most ‘primitive’ of the fire methods. Most use some kind of wound cord, but you can also use your fingers. Drills are difficult to master and can be very tiring, and only really work in the right (dry) conditions with good tinder.

Once you can build (and build up) a fire, learn and practice building different sizes and shapes of fire, for different uses. For example long, thin fires (which can be made to be much hotter at one end) are the best for cooking. The Native Americans of old had a saying which went something like “Red man builds small fire and stays warm, white man builds large fire and stays warm collecting firewood”. There’s nothing wrong with being white, just don’t be white and stupid, build the correct fire for the job, and always clear up and leave no trace.

For longer term living and the beginnings of homesteads, you can also build perfectly good wood-fired ovens and kilns for making baked food and fired pottery. Practicing pit roasting (where you bury a fire with what you are cooking and dig it up the next day) is also an easy way to learn to cook big, hearty meals, without much advanced field dressing of meat.

Tracking

Tracking is an incredibly important bushcraft skill, with applications across the field. Good tracking will of course aid your hunting, but also realize that the flight pattern of a bird or a cloud of midges can lead you to water. The best way to learn tracking is in the field, by long practice. If possible start with a guide, who can teach you what to look for and ‘how to see’ in the right way, then develop further on your own.

Tracking should eventually become not a skill that you actively decide to use, but a part of how you see the world around you, an awareness of your environment and its mechanics.

Tying Knots

Although this is not ‘directly’ a useful bushcraft skill, you will find it comes in handy in a lot of situations. Building shelters is the most obvious, but tying up fire drills and hanging cooking pots also come to mind. Try to learn a range of different ones, across different applications. This is a good list to start with.

Situating and Building Shelters

The title includes the word ‘situating’ because the very first thing to know about shelter is what to build in a given environment, and exactly where to build it. Learn a variety of different environment-specific types (snow hole, debris hut etc.), and practice, practice, practice! Practicing and learning the little tricks which can only come with experience will make your shelters much better when you need them. Shelters should also be appropriate to conditions. If the weather looks good and you are only staying for one night, a few sticks and some debris as a heat reflector are enough, but a two week camp in late Fall is obviously a different matter.

Once you have the smaller, faster types of shelter down, invest time and build a more solid structure like a log cabin, or a shelter built into the side of a hill. This is good experience for long term bushcraft, or if you ever decide to set up a small homestead.

Remember not to discount man made shelters. Try out a few different tarps and learn to use them well. Learn the difference between heavyduty and ultralight and find what you like. If you prefer the heavier side of things, this advice applies more to tents. Remember also that many countries also have systems of free ‘mountain huts’, such as the bothies in Scotland, which provide free accommodation, and sometimes a fire and basic rations.

Finding your Way (Home or Away)

The most basic navigational consideration is to know how to get back to where you started. After that, you also need to know how to get where you are going, and ideally some place of safety in between.

The most important thing is to have a good working knowledge of your environment and its geography, so that even without specialist skills you can have a fighting chance. Look at some maps before you leave, and know where important resources like rivers and public shelters are.

Next is a compass, and knowing how to use it, as well as knowing at all times roughly what direction important places (your home, the nearest place of safety, your shelter etc.) are in relation to you. From this standpoint, you can work on ‘wild compass’, skills like learning to read the stars, sun and moon, and pick up signals from your environment, like feeling rocks, and using which side is warmer to work out where north is.

Taking Care of Yourself

Often overlooked is the art of what do when things go wrong in the bush, which is surprising given the number of sharp tools and fearsome animals available to cause havoc. Foraging again comes in useful here, as some plants (most notably the dock leaf) have medicinal qualities, and any non-harmful, large leaved plant can be used to improvise a bandage, at least briefly.

This is probably the only area of bushcraft where unless you have vast experience, and really know what you are doing, you must take ‘non-primitive’ equipment out with you, making sure to cover every eventuality. Pay particular attention to treatments for injuries from wild animals if they are in the area, serious cuts and bruises (so go heavy on dressings and plasters) and food-related illnesses (food poisoning, indigestion etc.).  Do not be afraid to take a big kit with you, it will be worth it one day.

Many first aid organizations such as the red cross offer training courses, and mountaineering and survival schools often do the same for specialist, bushcraft related first aid. Guidebooks can also be useful, and both The Bushcraft First Aid: A Field Guide to Wilderness Emergency Care Expedition Medicine come well recommended.

Hand Skills

These do not really come under a particular heading, but are important to mention nonetheless. Learning to use an axe, saw and knife properly, as well more specialist tools like a froe or a crook knife for whatever you are particularly interested in will save you a lot of time and effort.

A good place to start is with learning to make tools and equipment for all of the above skills. Make yourself a netting needle, fid or bradawl for complex ropework, or learn to make a knife from flint and pine pitch. Knowing a few ways of building a compass is also very handy. Hunting equipment is very satisfying to make, fishing hooks, lures and flies have endless variations to learn and play around with and bow making is a great thing to add to your arsenal of skills. Good guides can be found all around the internet, but in the case of blacksmithing, forging and more complex bow making skills like tillering, a course or at least some advice from a professional is must.

For a lot of the more ‘primitive’ inclined bushcrafters, the end game here is to flintknapping. With a good knowledge of flintknapping one can make all the tools for bushcraft, including those necessary for making further tools (bow making supplies for example). In the modern day, flintknapping techniques can also be applied to the thick glass which often washes up on river shores, for making arrowheads and blades.

A similarly fundamental skill is making rope, thin cords and threads (and then presumably needles, for which bone is often best). This skill more than any other is a part of ‘absolute bushcraft’ or primitive skills, where everything is made by you, from what you find around you.

In Conclusion

The best way to truly learn ‘bushcraft as a whole, is to combine these elements together, for example, you might take a weekend to learn more about bushcraft cooking, and eat only wild food, prepared only on a campfire, with only vessels you yourself have made. The point is to not treat these skills in isolation, but as parts of a single ability to live independently in the wilderness.


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2 Comments

  1. Bushcraft skills are extremely important to have. That is why after my family was impacted by Hurricane Katrina, I have made sure to teach my two children many of the skills that you have listed in your article. Prepping is so important because we never know what might happen and what resources we may or may not have access to. Of course, it would be ideal if we had some cheesecloth and bleach around after a disaster hits to purify our water. But, if we don’t, knowing how to make a fire and boil the water we have access to can save our life. Thanks for the tips and the links to other resources!

  2. If you have some rural property (or know someone who does), build a low tech shelter there now, or at least pre-position supplies for building one on site. A cast off above ground pool that developed a leak and will be thrown away makes a good beginning for a short yurt, for example. A metal cattle panel, with round perimeter formed from steel ‘T’ posts to serve as the wall support. Install pool bladder upside down over structure – done. A slightly taller T post in middle for water to slope away from center would be a good idea.

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