21 May 2012

Definitions, we need them even if we don't like them

Specifically speaking of a few terms. We'll start with 'Bushcraft', since it has apparently been a hot topic of late within the online community. The debate, it seems to me, stems from some folks not actually understanding what it is and where it came from, and confusing it with another term. We'll get to that.

What follows it a copy and paste from Wikipedia, I know, bear with me please;

"Bushcraft is a long-term extension of survival skills. A popular term for wilderness skills in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the term was popularised in the southern hemisphere by Les Hiddins (The Bush Tucker Man) in Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere by Mors Kochanski and recently gained considerable currency in the United Kingdom due to the popularity of Ray Mears and his bushcraft and survival television programmes. It is also becoming popular in urban areas; areas where the average person is separated from nature."

Take special note of the last sentence.  Now understand that the 'woodsmen' from yesteryear, the mountain men and so on never used nor had an inkling of the word 'Bushcraft'. This is where many are getting confused. Bushcraft is merely an extension of skills, it is not a means nor a method to an end in and of itself, rather it's just a deeper layer of typical skills. Stop trying to make it into something it isn't, in my opinion, it was never intended to be a system or methodology, it is simply a collection of skills.

If your mental picture of 'Bushcraft' is only using this limited set of skills in conjunction with 'period gear' then you've missed the point. You can define 'Bushcraft' anyway you want however, if you are intellectually honest I believe you're going to come to the same conclusion, it's a skill set, not a methodology and was never meant to be such. It's an extension of woodsman's basic skills, nothing more, and nothing less.

Frankly, it's also a fancy name for something that's been around for eons. Most of the constipation I am seeing these days comes from confusing skills with methods to an end, it doesn't have to be. If one admits that it's simply an extension of skills, a skill package if you will, and not a method like ultra light, period trekker, traditional, blah blah blah, then the confusion goes away.

Let's clearly separate the concepts.


Skills are just that, skills, they are ways to achieve or accomplish a task in the short term. For example, a man needs a fire, he needs both skills and tools to build an appropriate fire. One method might be a lighter, another a ferro-rod and still another is a friction fire. Each of these require a lesser to a higher degree of skill to achieve. In other words, provided the fire lay is the same for each and of acceptable design then the skills needed to ignite it vary depending upon tool selected. The skills just get deeper, from using a lighter (little to no skill) to using friction (high degree of skill). The point is, the term 'Bushcraft' is a designator for a series of deeper skills, NOT a methodology.

(Note to readers: I am neutral on methods, I don't care how it's done, I have no bias for or against how other people do what they do. Frankly, it's none of my business how they do it. I don't judge others and do not expect to be judged.)

Methods are ways to do something in a broader scope, keeping it to subject matter at hand consider these three methods of doing the same thing.

Ultralight Backpacking, Camping, and Trekking, using modern ultralight gear in the pursuit of experiencing the wild places. This is a method to go and do using the lightest gear possible.

Traditional Camping, or camping in the old style, the simplest way to put it is non-ultralight. Not using modern gear similar to gas stoves and so on. It's a method to go camping without paying attention to weight while adhering to certain types of gear. Think of the way camping was pre-1970 but post 1900. Often there's still the use of tarps and tents, and other camping specific gear, only from a period that predates Ultralight.

Period Trekking & Camping, all equipment used is authentic to a specific time period in history and these range from paleo to 1800 & 1900s.

There is a difference between a method and a skill when it comes to outdoors enjoyment. Confusing the two is simply going to cause heartburn and the reason for that is a skill set varies in usefulness dependent upon necessities of the circumstances at hand.

If I'm hunting for elk for example, and a storm blows up late in the day. I'm at higher elevation and there's no chance of getting back to my primary camp before the storm and nightfall overtake me. Having made the decision to spend the night on the mountain I am now faced with how to do it. I can rig a tarp quickly, STOP! So I decided on a tarp rig for shelter for the night, not a lean-to or some other shelter built out of what's on hand. I'm surmising here that would be considered a 'bushcraft' skill. Now the reality is I've built many lean-to and other improvised shelters. In this case I wouldn't have time to do it. However, having the skill to do it has also helped me to pick where to put my tarp, in which direction to face the open area. I've substituted materials here but used a skill to determine the where and how.

Let's take it one more step, let's say we've set out on the Appalachian Trail. We're a long way from anything and camp is set. We've broken out our gas stoves and getting ready to whip up some Mountain House when for whatever reason, our stove isn't working. Hungry and now frustrated we have a series of choices. Eat it cold, eat something that doesn't require cooking, or eat nothing. Well, provided fires are permitted, build one. Erect a pot holder type set up above the fire, cook the food in the old way. Again, the method was getting into the woods, using certain types of gear. Skill augments method here and allows for a warm meal.

Bushcraft is not a method, it is a collection of skills for use when needed or desired. It is a collection of tools in a tool box, an extension of abilities. It's great to have them, it's great to practice them, you do not always need to use them. Where this idea came from that it's a method or the only way, or a purist way is beyond me. My guess would be it originated with folks who don't actually get out much, who have developed a mental image of 'how it should be' that isn't actually influenced by real dirt time, and subsequently make judgements upon others method based upon this flawed mental image.

Don't confuse skill sets with methodologies and you'll have less heartburn.


  1. Well put!


  2. Thanks, I hope it helps to clarify for some folks that have been wrestling with it for a while now. Though sometimes I wonder why it's even worthy of wasting digital bits on.

    1. Yeah I quit trying to label it a long time ago. I will never live up to some people's idea of "bushcraft standards" but I love getting outdoors and hitting the woods and I learn the skills that will make that easier and allow me to enjoy it more. I wish people would put the emphasis more on "getting out" rather than what you're doing and how you're doing it when you're out.


  3. THANK YOU! I think that is one of the best and most sensible ways to define bushcraft that I have seen. Unfortunately, it is not how the term has come to be used in most areas (at least from what I have seen). I think for many "bushcraft" has become precisely the use of a limited, prescribed set of skills, combined with period gear. This mentality has gone a long way towards chaining people down and keeping them from the woods.

    1. Agree with you on how it has come to be used, and the fact that it has become a hindrance. Instead of going and doing it, it all gets cluttered up with the how and making sure it somehow fits within a certain dogmatic set of principles. Having the skills is great, practicing the skills greater still, knowing when to use them and when to not be chained by them is the end goal in my opinion.

    2. Yes, yes, and yes. I think people who are too worried about how 'pure" someone else's methodologies are need to get outside more...

  4. Great post! This is a topic I've been struggling with lately and this article helps put the subject in better perspective.


  5. Well said, AG! Primitive skills are tools in a toolbox to be used where appropriate and feasible. There's no need for blind adherence to one methodology or other. I also agree about too many folks not getting out enough and having too much of a theoretical focus on things.


  6. Excellents arguments, brother!

  7. Ow... it seems there are more of us contemplating this sort of thing simultaniously!!
    But I took it one step further.... although I might just be one of those that didn't really understand...;-)