You might think you have some bushcraft skills but how many of these are you master of?
You never spent the night in a snow shelter? Wait, you don’t even know the right kind of wood for the spindle in your bow drill?
How about purifying water using the sun? Please tell me you could at least do that.
Have no fear, you can learn everything you need here to impress your friends and more, including making rope from plants and yes, even the bow drill.
This is the ultimate guide to bushcraft skills. So without further ado, please enjoy:
Disclamer: the information you find here is for information purposes only. OutMore is not responsible if you go out and hurt yourself trying this stuff nor do we want you to get hurt trying this stuff. Please be careful, be smart, and be cautious.
Bushcraft Skills vs. Wilderness Survival
Many people think bushcraft and wilderness survival are the same thing, but this isn’t necessary true.
While bushcraft skills will absolutely help you survive in the wild, the ultimate goal of wilderness survival is to get rescued (to read more about survival, check out 9 Essential Survival Tips and Why Day Hikers Are Most At Risk).
Bushcraft is focused on the actual craft of these things. That’s why bushcraft is such a fun hobby. But it’s a little more than that.
Bushcraft skills will help you adapt to any situation or environment and many of the skills you will learn could even be applicable in an urban environment.
The four main components of survival are shelter, food, water, and fire so naturally I will cover bushcraft skills to help you master each of these categories in any situation. But on top of these, bushcraft deals a lot with tools and navigation.
Within each of these categories, there are many skills you will want to master. But have no fear, this is your ultimate guide to bushcraft skills.
First thing is first, you need to get yourself protected from the elements. While some people are particular to one type of shelter (probably a lean-to), there are many types of shelters you could build.
Before you build your shelter, you have to find the right place to make it and there are many factors you will want to consider:
- Dry -- Is it going to stay dry? It might be dry now but if it rains, will water run down into your shelter or pool up nearby?
- Flat -- sleeping or doing anything else on a slope is really not ideal.
- Near a game trail or a body of water -- you don’t want to be too close to where predators or large game regularly travel.
- Natural features -- are there natural features that you can use as part of your shelter? Are there natural features (e.g. rocks or dead branches) that are a danger to you?
- Wind direction -- you don’t want the opening to your shelter facing the prevailing wind direction.
Here are just a few types of shelter you should master as part of your bushcraft skills set:
1) Simple Tarp Shelter (Tarp and Cordage required)
If you have a tarp and some cordage with you, you can build some pretty great shelters (like a yert or teepee) but if you don’t have much time, make something simple.
The easiest shelters using a tarp are either a lean-to or tarp tent (pictured below).
To make a tarp lean-to: start by tying two corners of the tarp to two trees that are about as far, or farther, apart as your tarp is wide. Weigh down the other two corners using rocks on the ground several feet back from the trees to make a big slant.
To make a tarp tent: run cordage between two trees and drape your tarp over it to make an “A” frame. Weigh down the edges with rocks to make it sturdy.
2) A lean-to with no tarp
You can absolutely make a water-proof lean-to shelter without a tarp or cordage with the right skills.
First, find the right location (see above for tips on choosing a spot). You’ll be looking for a sturdy place to hang your ridge poll and lean rib poles against it.
Look for two trees about 6-8 feet apart and tie your ridge poll (if you don’t have cordage, read below for how to make cordage from plants) at least stomach height, or higher if you want a bigger shelter. You could also use a branch of a tree, a stump, a pile of dirt, a boulder, or really anything that you can securely fasten your ridge poll to. Get creative if you need to.
Once you’ve got your ridge poll secure, it’s just a matter of leaning sticks up against it to create your frame.
If you have a tarp, you can lay your tarp over the frame to create a better lean-to than the tarp lean-to described above. If you don’t have a tarp, cover the frame with brush and debris. You can start at the bottom and overlay branches as you work your way up to create a kind of shingle effect that will keep the rain out. Pile on the debris really high for more water protection.
Have your fire a few feet from the opening of your lean-to and the shelter will reflect heat back onto you. If it’s raining or windy, you might want to build walls to your lean-to.
3) Quick Debris Shelter
This is easily the quickest, dirtiest shelter you can make but it works in an emergency and therefore could save your life.
A debris shelter can be made as easily as making a large pile of dry debris, like pine needles or leaves. Make it longer than you are tall and at least 36″ high (higher is better). Then, simply tunnel into the mound, leaving a layer of debris below you to insulate you from the ground.
Sleeping with debris below you and covering you like a cocoon can keep you surprisingly warm so this is a useful bushcraft skill, especially if you have little time before nightfall and you’re expecting a cold night.
If that’s a little too dirty for you, consider building a:
Quick A-frame Debris Shelter
If you have a little more time and some cordage, you can set-up a quick A-frame. Lash together two sturdy sticks into an “X” shape where the legs of the X are tall and wide enough for you to sleep between. The top of the X doesn’t need to be nearly as big as the legs.
Find a third stick that is a foot or two taller than you and lash one end to the top of your X, making a tripod where two of the legs are the X and the third extends much farther. You should now be able to see how you will sleep inside this.
The next step is to lean sticks, or ribs, all along the frame of your shelter and then pile on a ton of debris onto these sticks.
It’s simple but it works.
4) Teepee or Yert
Building a yert is a bit more advanced than the other shelters. It requires more effort (and much more energy) and thus is not ideal if you’re in a survival situation.
But if you decide to set up a yert, there are huge benefits to it. First of all, it is more stable and provides better shelter than the other shelters. Second (and most awesome of all), you can have a fire inside!
There is a simpler option than a yert -- a simple teepee. This is one of those bushcraft skills that is easy in theory but slightly more difficult in practice.
The key to making a good teepee is finding the right poles or sticks. They need to be fairly long, straight, and roughly the same length.
Start by finding three good strong poles which will give your teepee it’s structural integrity. Lay these pulls next to each other on the ground and lash them together in a figure-8 pattern. They should be tight enough to stay together but still move independently. Now put them up in a tripod shape. The tripod should be pretty sturdy when you pull on it.
Now place your other poles all around like ribs to form a good skeleton, with not too much space in between each pole. These poles should be long enough to extend above your tripod a little.
Leave a gap in your ribs for your door. Tie a crossbeam chest-high or lower across this gap for the top of the door.
If you don’t have a tarp, weave tree boughs with green leaves or needless on them through your ribs. Start at the bottom and work your way up, overlaying them like shingles to provide maximum rain protection. If there is moss available, you can roll up sheets of moss and spread that over your teepee. This will provide the best insulation.
If you have a tarp, you could just wrap the tarp around the frame of your teepee or use a combination of tree boughs, debris, and a tarp to get both rain protection and insulation.
There will be a natural hole at the top of the teepee which you can leave open but that will allow some water in when it rains. It’s best to hang a tarp over the top of the teepee poles so that it protects the hole from rain but doesn’t meet the walls of your teepee on all sides.
This gap should allow smoke to get out so you can have a fire inside…just be careful not to light your shelter on fire.
5) Snow shelter
In winter conditions, the most useful type of shelter may be a snow shelter. You can make the simplest snow shelter simply by digging out a hole in an existing pile of snow.
If you can’t find a natural snow drift big enough for a shelter, you can make your own and then burrow into it for shelter. Make sure to check the structural integrity before going to sleep in it so it doesn’t collapse on you during the night.
Snow shelters can be surprisingly warm and could just save your life if you’re in a survival situation in winter. It’s also fun to practice making them if you’re just touching up your bushcraft skills.
You could also use compressed bricks of snow to build a structure (an igloo), but this requires much more time and energy.
6) Finding Easy Proteins -- Grub, Insects, Muscles and More!
One of the best food sources you can have is one that provides calories without requiring too many calories to get it. Knowing which plants to eat is crucial (see #7 below) but plants don’t provide a huge amount of calories or protein.
The easiest and perhaps best food sources are those animals that move slowly or not at all -- grubs, slugs, snails, muscles, and more! Learning how to find these easy sources of protein is an essential bushcraft skill.
I just hope you’re not too squeamish to throw back a grub!
7) Foraging Plants
Knowing which plants are edible can save your life and is a pretty cool bushcraft skill. Plants are the easiest meal you will have to catch…if you know which ones to eat.
Foraging may be less glamorous than building a shelter or trapping wild animals but it is just as important. This is the skill that takes the most education and is very region-specific.
The best way to learn foraging is from an experienced mentor. The second best way to learn is from a really good guide.
Start by learning common weeds that can be found many places like dandelion, chickweed, and clovers then get a good guide for your region. Here is a great list of foraging books from wildedible.com
Remember the #1 rule of foraging: don’t eat it unless you are 100% sure that you have the right plant.
When it comes to trapping, keep it simple and use common sense. There are a ton of different traps you could make but they mostly come down to snares and deadfalls (for fish traps, see #11).
The simplest trap you can make is a simple snare. With this trap (and with any trap really) placement is key: try to find an animal den or a highly trafficked trail to place your trap.
All you have to do is tie a loop in one end of a string or wire (wire works best because animals can often escape a string), like tying a loop on your shoes. Then, begin to pass the other end through the loop to create a second loop that tightens as you keep pulling the long end through. This second loop is the one that will snare the animal.
Set up the loop outside a small animal’s den or in a highly trafficked area by tying the long end of the string to a tree branch. You may need to keep your snaring loop open using sticks.
It may also help to set up a stick funnel to guide the animals into your loop. The idea is that the animal has to go through the loop on it’s way somewhere and will catch the loop with a foot. As it passes through the loop, it will pull it tighter with it’s foot and catch itself.
Important Note! -- if you set up a snare trap (or any other kind of trap), please take it down when you’re finished with it. It’s cruel to leave them up and not check them because animals can be trapped for days suffering. Also, don’t set one up in your neighborhood. Cats and other loved pets can get snared by accident.
Tracking is an art and a skill that requires practice and training. But the first steps are to be observant and look for a few key things.
It’s helpful to know that animals, like humans, are creatures of habit. They will take the same paths from their homes to a water or food source on a daily basis.
Being able to identify these commonly traveled paths is crucial in knowing where to hunt, set traps, or in the case of larger animals, where to not set up camp.
There is a ton that an expert can learn from a footprint or track but for the beginner, start by just being observant. Do you see any animals? Where do you think they find food and water? What signs do they leave behind as they move around?
Look for other signs of animal traffic like torn branches or overturned rocks. Try to identify where the animals are going. They’re usually not meandering around aimlessly even though it may seem like it.
For a little more advanced knowledge, check out this great video:
Before we get into hunting, I need to mention that hunting is one of the last things you should be doing in a survival situation. Finding water is vastly more important and urgent as people can survive without food for a long time. And if you do need to eat, you should be trying to get easy calories by foraging or finding slow moving animals (see #6 and #7).
Hunting really encompasses many different bushcraft skills -- tracking, using a bow, using baits or scents, possibly setting traps, knowing your animals, etc.
So becoming a good bow hunter is certainly a useful bushcraft skill.
Just like skinning a cat, there’s more than one way to catch a fish. Being a good fisherman with a rod is one thing but do you know the proper place to set a gill net? How about a funnel fish trap from sticks?
You can find an excellent guide to making a funnel fish trap here, or read on for a brief description:
You need an odd number of saplings (seven is a good number) several feet in length. The length of these will determine the size of your trap and the size of your trap will determine the fish size you can catch with this trap.
Tie the saplings into a tight bunch around a short stick (a different stick than your seven saplings) to keep them in a uniform circle. Make a hoop out of a supple sapling for the main opening and insert into the end of your bundle of saplings that is not tied together.
Starting from the tied end and moving toward the open end, weave some long plants in an over-under pattern through your saplings. You can use long vines, cattails, or whatever you can find and you can use a combination of different plants. This should give you the main cone for the trap.
If you’re fishing in flowing water, you can stop here with just the main cone but you’ll need to be strategic about where you place your trap. You’ll have to position it in flowing water angled upwards so the fish can’t swim out. Putting it in flowing water means you’ll probably have to anchor it with some rocks or tie it with cordage to keep it in place.
If you don’t want to position your trap this way, or are fishing in water that’s not moving so fast, you can make another cone as a top. Stick an odd number of sticks in the ground in a circle of a diameter a few inches (this is where the fish will swim in). The sticks should be angled so their top ends form a circle about the same diameter as the opening of your main cone. Weave the sticks the same way you did with the main cone.
Now all you need to do is throw some bait in the main cone, tie the top onto the main cone and set the trap horizontally in the water. It may need to be weighted to keep it down or tied in place to keep it from floating away.
This is a passive trap so set-it-and-forget-it. In other words, walk away for a few hours then come back to check if you’ve got a fish.
12) Prepping and Cooking Meat
If you managed to catch an animal or fish, would you know what to do with it? Do you know how to clean it and have a plan for cooking it? This may seem trivial but if you’re touching up your bushcraft skills, this is a good one to master.
Not all parts of an animal are edible so do you know which ones and how to remove them? The inedible parts could be useful for other things, so have a plan for those things. For example, if you made a funnel fish trap (see #11), you can use the guts from a fish you caught as bait to catch your next fish!
Gutting a fish is pretty simple: start by make a shallow cut from the anus to the head. Don’t make it too deep or you’ll cut open the intestines. You should be able to open the fish up now and see the guts. Use your finger to wipe out the guts and cut anything that is attached.
Cut off the head if you want but there is some meat in the cheeks you can eat and the eyes are absolutely edible (sorry, not sorry if that’s gross to you).
As far as cooking goes, don’t over-complicate it by trying to make skewers or something. You’ll likely get your fish everywhere. If you have a pot or pan, use that (obviously). But if not, take some time to set up a sturdy but simple spit by pounding two Y-shaped sticks into the ground on both sides of your fire, with a sturdy stick between them.
However you choose to cook your meat, think out how you’re going to cook it and do it carefully. You don’t want your hard-earned dinner dropping into the fire.
13) Make a Tripod Pot Holder
This is a simple but often overlooked skill. If you’re trying to cook a stew or boil water without a tripod, you risk spilling a very valuable resource.
You want three good strong poles of green wood or fresh dead wood that is still standing. These should be about 5′ tall and at least 1″ thick.
The trick here is how you tie them together. You want to start by wrapping your cordage around one branch several times to make it secure. Next, line out all three in straight line on the ground and weave the string in, out, and then around all three poles several times. The final touch is to then wrap the cordage a few times where it crosses itself in between the three poles.
The poles should now be tight enough to stay together but still move independently so you can spread them apart to make a tripod.
Next, find a strong stick with a branch that makes a natural hook to hang your pot on. Cut the hook to be about an inch long for hanging your pot. Make a notch in the other end of the stick and tie your cordage around it, with plenty of cordage hanging off.
Now you can hang your pot on the stick and drape the cordage over the tripod to have something to raise and lower your pot.
14) Find Water
Finding and gathering water may be the most life-saving of all these bushcraft skills.
Furthermore, you might be able to find water but it’s not safe to drink. A skilled bushcrafter can find water in almost in situation. But equally importantly, a skilled bushcrafter will know when it’s safe to drink.
As a rule of thumb, unless you’re gathering rain water or melting snow, you should assume your water is contaminated with micro organisms that need to be killed before consumption. Boiling is the favorite method but you could also use a lifestraw, water tablets, or build a solar still (see #15 below).
If you are unable to purify the water you find, you risk getting sick which is more than unpleasant -- it could kill you. If you’re in a survival situation and you come down with a case of giardia from contaminated water, the illness will dehydrate and immobilize you, severely diminishing your chances of rescue.
Assuming you have the ability to purify water, here are the main sources of water to look for:
Lakes, rivers, streams, etc. This is the most obvious source of water but finding it is not always so obvious.
If you don’t see any water, scan the area and look for signs of water. Look for green vegetation, especially in areas where there isn’t an abundance of green vegetation. You may need to get to a vantage point to get a good look at your area.
Even if you don’t see water directly, look for damp ground. You may be able to dig up some water or even absorb some from damp soil into a bandanna which you can then wring out.
Think about the topography -- water runs downhill. If the area you’re in is hilly, check the valleys in between the hills for signs of moisture. Check any low-lying areas.
Sometimes animal trails lead to water. Also, bees always make their hives within a few miles of a water source. Finding a beehive doesn’t tell you exactly where the water is, but lets you know you’re not too far away.
You can often dig to find water, the only question is how deep do you need to dig. It’s only worth going after ground water if you have good reason to believe you can get to some within a few feet below the surface.
Look for signs like damp ground or especially green vegetation compared to the surrounding vegetation. Dig a small hole and see if the ground is getting wetter as you go down.
Any water you collect from the ground will need to be filtered (bandannas work well for this) to remove sediment and purified to kill bacteria.
Rain Water and Dew
Collected rain water is probably the safest water to drink because it likely does not contain the nasty micro organism that make you sick. As long as you collect it in a clean container, you can drink rain water directly.
Gathering dew can be a surprisingly plentiful source of water. Collect as much as you can from leaves or set up a tarp the night before in such a way that the dew will run down to a collection vessel.
Another trick to collecting dew is tying a bandanna to your ankles and walking through grass in the morning. You can then wring out your bandanna to get the water.
15) Build a Solar Still
A solar still is a great way to desalinate water or purify sketchy water. The downside is that there is an investment in energy to build it and time for it to work.
To make a solar still, you will need a tarp or plastic sheet, a collection vessel like a pot or water bottle, and something to dig with.
Start by digging a hole in a sunlit area, near a water source. Place your pot or water bottle in the soil in the middle of the hole. Make sure it’s stable and won’t tip over (you can use some rocks if you need to). Fill the hole around the water bottle with the water you want to purify, let it fill up with ground water, or stuff it with fresh vegetation.
It’s best if the ground is wet and you dig until it fills up with water but if that’s not possible, fill the hole with water you want to purify. If you have to add water and it keeps infiltrating into the ground, you might need a second tarp to line the bottom of the hole.
Cover the hole with your tarp or plastic sheet and try to make it air tight around the edges. Finally, place a rock in the middle of the tarp above your water bottle so that water running down the inside of the tarp will drip into it.
A solar still works by allowing sunlight to warm the water in the bottom of your hole. When some of the water evaporates, it leaves behind salt, bacteria, and most chemicals. These aren’t destroyed but they stay in the water that remains in the bottom of the hole. The evaporated water rises to meet the tarp where it will condense and run down the inside of the tarp until it drops in your water bottle.
This means that the water left in your hole is NOT pure. If anything, it has become concentrated with the salt, bacteria, or chemicals but the water in your water bottle has been distilled and is drinkable.
16) Get Water from Plants
Plants are constantly releasing water into the air. This bushcraft skill traps that water and collects it in a way you can use.
You will need some plastic bags or sheets of plastic and cordage to tie off the bags. Look for trees with wide leaves because the increased surface area means more evaporation. Choose a branch with a bunch of leaves that are clean -- no bird poop or mildew.
Shake off the branch to get out any insects or loose dirt. Tie your bag tightly around the branch, trapping as many leaves as possible. Put a small rock in the bag to weigh it down on one end so the water will run down and collect there.
This method may take several hours to collect a little water so you might want to set up many at one time.
Here is a great guide for more clarification:
It’s also possible to gather water by cutting into some plants but you have to be extremely careful about this. Many plants produce toxins to prevent animals from eating them. Only do this if you know what you’re doing.
Never drink the water from a Saguaro cactus, it will make you sick. You can, however, get water from a barrel cactus (as well as get directions, see #26 below). You can also get water from bamboo. The water from an unripe coconut is very hydrating because it is isotonic, meaning it contains the same amount of salt as your blood.
17) Melt snow for water
Even when it’s cold, your body still needs water. But if you’re in snowy conditions, getting water from snow is probably trickier than you think.
You might think to eat the snow but this is wrong!
Even if you have plenty of warm clothing, the snow will chill the inside of your body a bit. Your body will respond by trying to make heat metabolically, by burning calories. When your body burns calories it also uses water to do so. You end up using more water to generate calories to warm your body than you get from the snow.
Furthermore, you want to be very careful about using your body heat to melt snow. While this is possible, you need to be very aware of how cold it’s making you because hypothermia is likely a bigger concern than dehydration.
For these reasons, a fire is crucial for getting drinking water from snow…but also tricky. If you have a pot and fill it with snow, the bottom of the snow will probably melt, creating a gap between the melted snow and the snow above it. You will then burn your pot.
It’s best to melt a little snow and keep adding to it as it turns to water so you can monitor the bottom of your pan and make sure the snow is actually in the water.
You can also consider making a Finnish Marshmellow. Wrap some snow in a mesh bag or piece of clothing that you can hang near a fire (not over it!). As the snow melts, catch the melting snow with a cup or bottle.
18) Make a friction fire
This skill is unneccessary most of the time but the whole point is to be prepared for anything, right? So if your matches got wet or you lost your ferro rod, this skill could save your life.
Also, it’s just a cool skill to have.
There are several ways to make a friction fire: Fire Roll, Hand Drill, Bamboo Fire Saw, Bow Drill, etc. The bow drill is probably the most well-known.
This is something you’ll have to practice…a lot. But here are the basics:
You need to choose the right wood or you will never achieve an ember. You want a soft wood that is not resinous. Hard woods have too high of an ignition temperature and woods with lots of resin don’t light well either (although they may burn well after the fire is started).
It’s most important to have the right wood for two pieces -- the spindle and the baseboard. These are the two pieces that rub together to make the ember. The spindle should be a round, smooth stick about 1′ long by 1″ diameter.
The baseboard should be a flat (flat as you can make it) board. Make divots in your baseboard so your spindle fits nicely in them (seat the drill) and doesn’t pop out as the spindle vigorously spins. Then cut a little notch from side of the baseboard to the center of the divot to allow air to get to the contact point between the spindle and the baseboard.
Now you need just two more pieces -- the bow and the socket. The bow is pretty much how you might imagine it: a curved stick with a string tied between the two ends. You want a nice, sturdy stick but one that is still comfortable to hold.
The socket can be wood or rock. It’s best to use hardwood if you’re using wood. It should fit nicely into the palm of your hand on one side and be able to cup the spindle on the other.
To use the bow drill to start a fire: wrap your spindle once in the string of your bow and hold the bow with your dominant hand (right hand for most people). Place the baseboard on the ground and the bottom end of the spindle in the divot on the baseboard. Hold the socket with your other hand and place it over the top end of the spindle. Put your dominant knee on the ground and the other foot on the baseboard to hold it in place.
Now move the bow drill back and forth consistently, with long strokes. Once the spindle is seated well into the baseboard and is turning nicely, it’s time to go for it. Increase your drilling speed, keeping long consistent strokes until the baseboard is smoking well.
Hands down, the best bow drill instructions I’ve come across are in this video here:
Feathersticks are made by shaving a dry stick to produce curls of wood that hang off the stick. These are really useful firestarters, especially in wet conditions.
The thin slices of wood, or feathers, can lose moisture and heat up easily when a flame is close, plus the spacing allows oxygen to get in. The main body of the stick is still attached so that can ignite after several of the “feathers” have burnt up.
Making it is simple but takes some practice. Start at the far end of a dry branch that is not rotting. With a sharp knife or hatchet, shave thin slices into the stick, slicing away from you.
Be careful not to sever your slices from the branch; you want to leave them attached. Work your way towards you until you have many curled slices similar to the picture below.
20) Fire Starting
Building a fire is different than getting a spark or ember from a fire starter. In an arid climate, building a fire may be a trivial task. But in a place that gets a ton of rain or in snowy conditions, building a fire from a small spark or ember is an art.
It’s essential to understand the fire triangle. Every fire needs three things to burn -- fuel, oxygen, and heat. If you are missing any one of these, your fire will die.
That’s just the bare basics. Making a fire in difficult conditions takes some practice. Here are a few tips:
- Gather dead wood that is standing vertical as opposed to laying on the ground. It absorbs less water that way.
- Always split the wood. The middle is dryer than the outside.
- Make a platform of wood using your larger pieces of wood (these should be split too!) and build your fire on top of that. It’s easier to start a fire that is not on the cold, wet ground. As a bonus, your platform becomes a coal bed once the fire gets going.
- Prepare everything first, have a plan for how it’s going to go down, and don’t skimp on resources. You don’t want to be scrambling to get more kindling that is 20 feet away while your fire is dying because it doesn’t have enough fuel.
21) Make a Fire Bellow
Oh, how underated the power of air is!
Sure, you can huff and puff all day and night like a big bad wolf and that helps a fire, but nothing will revive a fire like a fire bellow.
Like so many tools described here, the concept is simple but the execution is a little tricky. A fire bellow simply takes a wide stream of air and compresses it to a smaller one so it’s moving faster and aimed exactly where you want it to go.
If you’re crafty, you could fashion one out of wood but many outdoor enthusiasts like to carry a pocket bellow in their fire kit. You could also use a hollow reed, or really anything that is hollow and long, but you won’t get the air compression that really makes these things excellent.
22) Making Cordage From Plants
Rope or cordage is one of the most useful things in the wilderness and crucial for so many other bushcraft skills. But it’s not always something you have with you.
Pro tip: replace the shoelaces on your boots with military grade paracord, that way you’ll always have some cordage without having to pack it…Or, if you know how to make cordage from plants, you’ll always have cordage too!
The more you know, the less you need.
The first step in making cordage from plants is to find good fiber. The fiber should already be fairly strong but also something you will be able to twist and tie to make strong cordage.
Strong fibers can be from the inner bark of trees (the phloem layer), stalk fibers, or grass fibers. Some of the best plants for making cordage are: yucca, stinging nettle, milkweed, cedar, and dogbane. But you can make cordage with other plants that give good fibers.
If you’re using fresh fibers, it helps to boil them first to remove the soluble starches so you’re only left with strong fibers.
Whether you are using fresh or dead fibers, you want to make sure they are thoroughly dried before continuing on as wet fibers will shrink when they dry, causing problems in your cordage.
The next step is to buff the fibers. Simply roll them back and forth in your hands until they become fluffy and stringy.
Finally you’ll need to tie the fibers in the right way. The video below demonstrates the best way I’ve found to do this:
Flintknapping is the art of making stone tools like spears or knives from rocks. As the name implies, flint is a common rock used for this but obsidian, chert, or even glass will work too.
WARNING -- there are some dangers associated with practicing this skill. Flaking the stones creates small particles which are bad for your lungs so a mask is recommended. Also, you will be making very sharp tools so there is always a chance of cutting yourself. Be careful!
Flintknapping is a huge skill that could be practiced and practiced. You want to try out hammers of different hardnesses, ranging from rocks to softwoods. Slowly chip away at a large flake of stone until you feel you have some control over how much you’re chipping off and try to make a sharp edge. Also experiment with different kinds of rocks if you can find them.
24) Maintaining Your Tools
Yes, this is an important bushcraft skill.
Your tools are your lifeline in the wilderness and if they get damaged or simply worn down from use, being skilled at fixing them is crucial.
You should practice sharpening your knife, ax, or hatched using something you would have access to in the wild, like a flat stone. Also, practicing flintknapping (see #23) will teach you a lot about your tools.
25) Ax skills
Now you know how to maintain your tools (see #24), you need to know how to use them too. An ax may be the most useful tool you have.
Splitting wood safely and efficiently is one of several essential bushcraft skills. If you don’t do this safely, even a small injury could cost you your life in the right (or wrong) situation.
A few simple tips:
- For small pieces, if you need to hold it before you strike, it’s safest to gently tap your ax into the wood until it’s stuck. Then, with both hands on the ax, you can lift the whole piece of wood up with the head of your ax and smash it down to split the wood. That way, you don’t have to strike a piece of wood while holding it.
- Always look for a natural crack in the wood to exploit and try to strike it or hammer into it there.
- For big pieces, don’t just hammer away at the center of the wood until it splits. Strike the far side until a small crack develops and then work the closer side to extend that crack.
- Always be prepared to miss or your ax to be deflected off the wood if you accidentally strike the side. You should not be striking the wood in such a way that it will hit you if you miss. If you’re swinging hard at a piece of wood, make your strike in a downwards motion so the ax goes into the ground if you miss.
Finding Your Way
26) General navigation
In my opinion, everyone should be able to read a map and use a compass, whether you’re trying to develop your bushcraft skills or not. But if you are trying to hone your bushcraft skills, you should master map reading (including topographic maps) as well as finding north without a compass.
Practice Using a Map and Compass
To practice your use of maps and compasses together, it’s fun to get your hands on a topography map (get from USGS here) of the area and go out to where you can see a few landmarks. If you’re in a mountainous or hilly area, you can go essentially anywhere. If it’s not so hilly, you might have to find the highest viewpoint you can.
Use your compass to site the exact direction in degrees to one of the landmarks and draw a straight line on the map in that direction through the landmark. Repeat this for a few landmarks and your lines should all cross exactly where you are!
Finding North Without a Compass
Here are a few basics of finding direction without a compass (forgive me if some of these are too obvious but I’ve come across enough people that don’t know these basics):
- The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
- If you’re in the northern hemisphere, the sun will be south of overhead during the day. So if it’s noon, your shadow should point slightly north.
- The further north you are, the further south the sun will be during midday.
- The sun will be further south in the winter than in the summer. So if it’s summer and you’re not very far north, the sun might appear directly overhead.
- As a general rule, moss grows on the north side of trees. This is not an absolute rule but often times you’ll find a forested area where moss is all growing on one side. You can be pretty sure this is north. If that also agrees with the direction of the sun, then you can be pretty sure you’ve found north.
- If you’re in a dessert, look for a barrel cactus. These are shorter cacti that don’t branch (see picture below). This cactus is sometimes called a compass cactus because it leans to the south.
Being a hiker, one of the greatest habits you can develop is to be observant. This comes naturally to some people so if this seems obvious to you, you can skip reading this section. But if you’re like the rest of us who totally zone out after you walk 100 yards, you need to develop this habit. It could save your life.
This is a habit and any habit can be learned. It’s important that whenever the trail turns or just every so often, you take a look around for something unique you’ll remember.
Don’t just try to take a mental picture of the landscape because it often looks the same in many places. Is there an odd shaped tree you just passed? Cross any streams? Did you take a sharp right after that big boulder? Make a mental note of these things and approximately how far into your hike they appear.
Noticing these things could save your life if you’re lost or, at a minimum, give you confidence you’re on the right trail when you’re on your way back. You’ll know you’re doing well when you find yourself thinking “ah yes, the fallen tree in the trail is about a mile from my car and a little further we should pass that boulder that looks like a face.”
27) Night Navigation
The day (or night) might come when you have to find your way in the dark and that’s a totally different ballgame than navigating during the day. Your field of vision is dramatically smaller and shorter and the forest can be down-right spooky.
You will hear different sounds at night because of the different animals that are only out at night. Also, sound travels better in cold, moist air. So you may also hear more sounds in general.
You have to be more observant of small features that will help guide your way and keep better track of time to estimate where you are.
There are a lot of benefits to practicing navigation at night and it can be really fun. Just make sure someone that is not with you knows where you are and when you should get back. That person is your insurance in case you get lost.
One other bushcraft skill that can help you find your way at night is…
28) Learn the Constellations
For millennia, native peoples have used the constellations for navigating both the seas and land. Just learning a few, and how to use them to navigate, can help you immensely in finding your way at night.
Remember, there are different constellations in summer and winter (also in the northern and southern hemispheres) so make sure you learn a few from each season!
The easiest thing you can do is be able to identify the north star reliably (assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere). Here are the bare basics for finding the north star (which will always point you north):
- In the northern hemisphere, the north star (Polaris) will appear the same number of degrees above the horizon as your latitude. For example, if you’re on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which is 36° north latitude, the north star will be 36° above the horizon all night long.
- If you can identify the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), the two stars that make the far end of the dipping part, point to the north star.
- The north star lies at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), but this is harder to identify than the Big Dipper.
If you want a deeper dive into using the constellations for navigation, here is a good resource:
29) Crossing a River Without a Bridge
People die every year because they underestimate the power of flowing water. Some people try to navigate flooded rivers in a canoe, some try to drive across a flooded road, and some get swept away while crossing a river without a bridge.
The number one rule of crossing a river is that if you have any doubts about crossing it, don’t do it. Ask yourself -- do I really need to cross? If the answer is yes, then try to find another way, even it means hiking out of your way to a bridge.
If you absolutely must cross a river and there is no bridge anywhere nearby, check these things first:
- The speed -- as a rule of thumb, if the river is flowing faster than walking speed, it is not safe to cross.
- The depth -- don’t cross if the river gets above your thighs or the thighs of the shortest person with you.
- The turbidity (muddiness) -- muddy water usually means the river is flowing higher than normal, a sure sign of danger. You should be able to see the bottom of the river all the way across.
If you’ve now decided to cross, plan out your route. Make sure you’ll be able to get out on the other side and avoid steep banks. Look for a wider, flat part of the river where the water is not flowing so fast or deep.
If you’re in a group, cross all together with your arms linked. Put the strongest people on each end. Move slowly and communicate really well the whole time. Face upstream to keep your knees from buckling.
30) Making a raft or a boat
This skill can range from super simple to extremely complicated. I have seen things as simple as a tarp stuffed with light branches used to cross a still body of water. On the more complicated end, some people have made full-on canoes using nothing but their survival knives.
There are certainly ways to burn out a tree to make a canoe but that takes time and energy. Anything that is boyant can be used to make a raft, including any kind of large container or lashed together dry logs.
Get some inspiration from this guy who makes a raft out of trash bags and sticks:
31) Navigating a River
Assuming you’ve got a good canoe or some kind of sturdy raft, navigating a river is definitely a bushcraft skill you’re going to want to master. You probably don’t want to try this using the trash-bag boat you learned in the last section.
You might be heading downstream to seek rescue and travelling by river is the only way to go. Or you might be trying get away from animals or people. No matter what the reason, you should be familiar with how to control your boat.
You should be aware of the flow of the river -- is it lower than normal or is it flooding right now? There are different dangers to look for depending on this question. If it’s low, look out for rocks that might otherwise be covered. If it’s high, be aware of floating debris and rapids that don’t exist during low flow.
In a bend of the river, you often find shallower water inside the turn and deeper water on the outside of the turn.
If you come upon a rapid and you’re unfamiliar with the river, scout the rapid first and consider carrying your boat around it (known as portaging a rapid). It’s a bad idea to go into a rapid with no idea what to expect.
Final Thoughts on Bushcraft Skills
Sharpening up on your bushcraft skills not only makes you a better survivalist, it makes you more creative and aware while you’re out in the bush. This guide provides all the skills you need to know to be a master at bushcraft and the more you know, the less you need. Now, it’s up to you to go out and master these skills.
If you enjoyed this post, you might be into making the ultimate survival food -- Native American Pemmican. Learn how with this Authentic Native American Pemmican Recipe.
Or maybe you’re into making your own insect repellent? Check out The 5 Absolute Best Beautyberry Insect Repellent Recipes.