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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

To Bushcraft or not to Bushcraft? Expedition Skills

Following on from last weeks post reviewing the Karrimor Trig rucksack this week we are going to discuss the idea of using bushcraft skills on expeditions.

Samuel Hearne who we mentioned on the blog just the other week adopted bushcraft techniques out of necessity on his journeys because the most up to date modern equipment and techniques of the time were simply too heavy for long distance exploration and he accepted that he needed to rely on native skill and knowledge to feed himself and maintain his kit over long periods. Nowadays with very light weight equipment being readily available it may be possible to carry all the kit you need for longer periods but it's the law that is the main thing that prevents us from heading into the wilderness for long term bushcrafting or to use bushcraft skills on our expeditions.

Nessmuk 1873 b.JPG
       By Nessmuk (George Washington Sears) -, Public Domain, Link

At the time of writing his 1884 book Woodcraft and his articles for Field and Stream magazine the kind of camping George Washington 'Nessmuk' Sears's was advocating was considered light weight. Nowadays the heavy canvas, tool kit and cookware would be considered grossly heavy by almost anyone contemplating an expedition on foot.

At the time though his approach was not practised by recreational hunters and campers and even the frontiersmen and mountain men of the early 1800's would, out of choice, travelled in companies sharing heavier kit between them and relying on their survival skills in extremis rather than as a routine. 

Compared to the heavy canvasses and iron cookpots of Nessmuks era though we can carry a titanium cook pot and a small gas stove that weighs less combined than the small hatchet he would have carried to process his fuel wood. Out tents or nylon tarps weigh a tiny fraction of his canvas tarpaulins and while they might now not be suitable for using to drag firewood or stretcher a casualty as they are much thinner and not as abrasion resistant as an old fashioned canvas they are more waterproof and far, far lighter.

bivibag, thermarest, sleeping bag and fly sheet; a combined weight of about four kilos, probably half the weight of an old canvas tarpaulin. 

A modern light weight camping shelter. 
Because the kit we have available nowadays is so light weight we can afford to carry more food than we might perhaps once have had the capacity to carry so we might be able to travel a little further without re-supply or without having to resort to fishing or hunting. Nowadays carrying hunting and fishing kit would be considered by many to be additional unnecessary weight on expeditions, but that's not the main reason that bushcraft and modern light weight camping an expedition seem to have parted ways. 

In the UK land ownership has been such a contention issue over the centuries and laws so restrictive regarding access to and passage over land that many of the rights exercised by Nessmuk during his adventures are denied us now. We couldn't go on an expedition across the UK and expect to hunt, fish and trap our own food or to be able to have fires wherever we camped in the evenings. Because we can't do those things we then have to rely on the modern light weight camp stoves, freeze dried food, and other modern equipment. Because we are then tied to using a modern stove instead of a fire we don't need an axe and saw to process firewood or a firesteel or bow drill kit to light it. Ye we might be able to whittle beside the camp stove in the evening but it's not the same as a camp fire and whittling for whittling's sake might be good practice for real bushcraft skills but without a purpose to you're whittling it's not really bushcraft. 

It's a great shame that we don't have the right to practice bushcraft in the countryside here in the UK, a right that is protected in law in Scandinavian counties. Allemansrätten in Sweden allows people to access more or less the whole countryside as long as they follow some sensible rules. These rules might include bans on fires in high risk areas during the Summer or completely in specific nature reserves, bans on fishing in certain conservation areas and the need to abide by relevant firearms and hunting laws. But largely access to the countryside is unrestricted as long as you practice courtesy and don't approach near peoples dwellings. 

At a camping shelter in Tyresta National Park in Sweden, due to fire risks and the need to maintain this pristine piece of primeval ancient forest fire, other than in designated areas like this one, is banned and you may only use wood supplied at camping shelters like this one rather than being allowed to cut and gather your own wood. But this is the exception rather than the rule and outside of these protected areas there is even greater freedom to experience the outdoors. 
 While I do love this principle and regularly take advantage of it on my trips to Scandinavia I can't see it working in the UK. The much larger population, the fact that most of the land is intensively managed lowland agriculture rather than forest and upland does not suit free access and neither does the mentality of many people here in the UK. We certainly aren't as a nation as closely linked to the landscape as out Scandinavian friends and I worry, having worked in the countryside my entire career, that the general level of respect for nature and the countryside here is far too low for people to be trusted with full access to the countryside.

The number of times I've seen people flout signs saying not to disturb undergrowth or cut live trees, even a few years ago at the 2014 Bushcraft show I watched a man and his young son, systematically cutting down willow coppice stems to make way for their shelter despite signs asking people not to cut vegetation.  The amount of litter I find in the countryside, the poaching that goes on, the gates that get left open, the dogs that are allowed to freely roam and terrorise livestock I'm not sure our nations countryside could survive the kind of access that Allemansrätten gives the Swedes.

Bushcraft when practised properly does not impact the countryside negatively, a neatly coppiced hazel rod here and there, some harvested fruit, fungi or some legal caught fish or game, a fire carefully extinguished and the ashes scattered, shelters taken down after use do not disfigure or endanger the countryside. That is not the perception though and and any thought of cutting wood, having fires or harvesting wild food on a hike, camping trip or expedition is fairly likely to be met with disdain by modern light weight campers, especially because of the weight of the kit and equipment that allows you to do those things. Additionally the though that you would burn wood or cut a piece of living hazel to make a spoon, whistle or bow for your fire set will shock and horrify people who don't understand the nature of hardwood trees and the benefits of coppicing. Leaving no trace is a good moto of campers but actually if more people engaged with bushcraft instead of insulating themselves from nature with modern light weight kit maybe they would feel inclined to leave a positive trace in the environment.

Chris Loynes of the University of Cumbria gave a great talk about this idea of leaving more trace at the Nature Connections Conference in Derby in 2016 and published a blog post on the topic HERE.

With the availability of modern light weight kit camping and bushcraft have become two very separate things to most people and that is a shame in some respects.

We'd be really interested to know how you link your practice of bushcraft with other outdoor activities and would love to feature some guest blog posts on the BushcraftEducation blog with peoples thoughts and ideas. Please get in touch with us through social media or in the comments section on the right of the page. We look forward to hearing from you and perhaps to publishing a guest post from you soon.

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