What is Bushcraft? Bushcraft is the art of living and thriving in a remote location using the resources that nature provides. A more exact definition cannot and should not be assigned, as Bushcraft can mean different things to people who practice it. Like many areas of life, we want to put a label on many things when there are grey areas.
“Bush” is commonly used in Australia, the UK, and Canada for remote wilderness areas. In the United States, we commonly refer to the “woods.” Bushcraft does not have to be done in the woods, it could be done in any remote area.
I studied what Bushcraft meant to many that have it as either a job or a hobby. A key theme came to light from bushcraft books by legendary experts such as Ray Mears, Youtube videos, and conversations. The exact “definition” is not what is important.
When I was young, my family lived on about 19 acres. 75% of it was woods surrounded by fields, and our closest neighbor was at least 1 mile away. I spent most of my time in the woods, no matter the season. When I was about 11, I remember checking out a book from the library on primitive camping. In our woods, I built a “campsite.” I built a lean-to shelter, a table between two trees, and a small bench by a central fit pit.
I would go out and work on different things in the book and just hang out. One evening I remember it was dark, and I had my 6-year-old sister out there with me. My Dad called for us to have dinner. When we got back, we told him we had already eaten spaghetti and meatballs (from the MRE I bought from the Army surplus store in town).
Was this bushcraft? I had no idea what bushcraft was and didn’t care. I was just having fun. But there was something else I liked about it. I just wasn’t quite sure what it was.
In this guide, I will review not only ‘What is Bushcraft?”, but also what Bushcraft means to those who live it and love it and why they do it. You may find it is something that you need in your life also.
Bushcraft vs. Survival
This is a common question. Isn’t it the same thing?
Bushcraft was brought more into the public’s eye with television shows like Dual Survival, Survivorman, and Alone. These reality shows place experts in a survival situation in remote areas with little to no gear for a set period. These shows dramatized Bushcraft for entertainment, placing a definition in people’s minds.
Most Bushcrafters agree that Bushcraft is “living” in remote areas and not “surviving.”
Survival situations can occur anywhere, from being lost in the woods to hunkering down in your home during a disaster. To survive, you are doing the basics to maintain your life while waiting for conditions to improve. Indeed, some bushcraft skills can come in handy during a survival situation, so it is natural to blend the two. However, if you are lost in the woods, providing shelter, water, and food are the main goals to survive. Spending a lot of energy building a shelter with a rack to dry your cookware is not a priority.
People do not enter an actual survival situation on purpose. Something has occurred that was not expected, and their life is in danger. Bushcraft is a hobby. Most bushcrafters will go alone into a remote area on purpose for a short time to practice the art. They know how to get back to civilization, and their life is not in danger.
Another key difference is that a bushcrafter will utilize the natural resources but live in balance with them. For example, you are not worried about leaving trash behind in a survival situation. While foraging, a bushcrafter will not pick every plant he can find. He will leave some, so it continues to grow.
What are the Basics of Bushcraft?
To live in a remote area away from civilization, to live “with” nature, some basic needs need to be met. A common misconception is that Bushcrafters go out into the woods with only a knife. They chop down trees (with their knife) and make an elaborate cabin with a recliner. While social media can undoubtedly amplify this, the amount of gear someone takes into the woods does not define whether they are a “bushcrafter” or not.
The amount of gear and supplies you take into the woods depends on your experience level and the purpose of your trip. Are you alone? Are your kids joining you? How much time do you have? Are you focusing on a particular skill this trip? Meeting the basic needs is planned for a bushcraft trip ahead of time so that it doesn’t turn into a survival trip.
Fire is a basic need for warmth and cooking. Gathering the right tinder, kindling, and larger pieces of firewood is a skill. To start a fire, the fire starting equipment that is used can vary. For the more experienced bushcrafter, a bow drill may be built to start a friction fire. Some may use a ferro rod, while others just pull a lighter out of their pocket.
Staying adequately hydrated while out for an extended period is essential and easy to forget about. While finding water, in general, is usually straightforward, finding clean water to drink is the issue. How comfortable a bushcrafter is with purifying water will depend on the gear they bring. In the beginning, they bring their water with them while they practice building a solar still or rain collector.
Depending on the weather, living in the woods for more than a day or two usually requires some type of shelter. This can vary depending on the conditions and the goal of the trip. A bushcrafter can use a tent if the purpose of the trip is to practice other tasks or if they are moving to a different location each day. Shelters can often be elaborate and take time to build, so some may choose to return to the exact location each trip. Many use tarps and wool blankets that can be easily rolled up and attached to their pack.
Gathering plants, trapping, and hunting are skills that can take years to learn. Learning which plants are edible and how to cook them is essential since some can kill you quickly. A bushcrafter may bring food on a particular trip rather than forage. It all depends on the goal and the experience level. Understanding the area you are in and everything available is a “satisfying” skill, both for your mind and your stomach. Often there is plenty to eat all around.
Knowing how to diagnose and treat an injury or sickness is essential, even more so if you are a reasonable distance from civilization. Having basic first aid knowledge and a plan in case something happens will prevent a bushcraft trip from turning into a survival event.
Most injuries occur from the misuse of bushcraft tools like knives, saws, and axes. When you are tired and frustrated, this is amplified. Keep in mind that “perfect practice makes perfect.” Ensure you use your tools properly, and don’t assume the basics. The tools that you bring can also allow you to make other valuable tools and utensils. Again, some may choose to bring a spoon with them. Others may decide to make one with their Swiss Army knife or Multitool from a tree branch.
This skill also depends on the individual and the trip’s goal. Learning to navigate by looking at nature is a great skill, but a bushcrafter may be uncomfortable with it at a particular time. When getting from point A to point B is the goal, a map and compass may be desired, or even a GPS unit or survival watch.
Consider the clothing you have and if it is suited for long bushcraft trips. Review our guides to plan out your Hat, Pants, Socks, Boots, and of course a pack to put everything in. As you gain more experience, you will find the items that work best for you and make your time outdoors more comfortable.
As I mentioned earlier, one common theme became apparent. It doesn’t matter what the definition is.
People don’t do bushcraft to fit a particular label, so they can say they are this or that on Instagram. Many have their reasons for doing it. All enjoy being out in nature, using their hands and their mind.
But, there is one underlying reason that is common, that some may not even realize.
In Ryan Holiday’s book, Stillness is the Key, Holiday explains how the stoics wrote that stillness is the key to a happy and satisfying life. Throughout history, no matter the religion or philosophy, they all agree on one thing. Internal peace is the way.
Seneca said, “You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with insignificant sin.”
We have the news telling us everything terrible in the world. A device in our pocket reminds us to do this or buy that. Social media has us comparing our life to everyone else. How do we achieve internal peace?
Just by scanning Holiday’s table of contents, one can see how bushcraft and stillness go hand in hand.
- Be Present – Live now, not in the future or the past. We have limited time on this earth. Cherish it.
- Limit your Inputs – Eliminate the noise of the news, gossip, and social media. Epictetus said, “If you wish to improve (your life), be content or appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” When someone asks if you saw something on the news, you can say no, I was in the woods.
- Empty the Mind – Being in the woods helps clear your mind of the noise while focusing on the tasks.
- Cultivate Silence – In the woods, you can hear it. Listen to the silence.
- Have Gratitude – Living off of nature will give you a unique appreciation of what you have. Not in that you are glad to have indoor plumbing, but rather that nature provides everything you need.
- Bathe in Beauty – Everyone goes outside at some point but ignores the outdoors and its beauty.
- Observe what is around you – When you bushcraft, you gain a unique perspective of what is around you in the woods. It is not just a tree or a plant anymore.
- Get rid of your stuff – Bushcraft does not include many possessions. The stoics said that having too much stuff was a burden and led to unhappiness.
- Seek Solitude – Bushcraft could be the ultimate form of solitude. Being alone for days and speaking to no one is therapeutic.
- Find a Hobby – Having a hobby like bushcraft will help get your mind off the day-to-day burdens that life brings.
However, being away from others from an extended period of time can have the opposite affect like we see on the contestants of Alone. This just goes to show how important mindset really is.
Explore the Stillness
Bushcraft doesn’t have an exact definition. It is just a label that we try to apply to someone who enjoys being outside and the stillness. Bushcraft is what you want it to be. It can be having fun building a campsite in the woods as a kid, picking blackberries with your family, or living alone on a mountain for a month.
Doesn’t it sound great? If you are looking for that inner peace, that stillness in your life, then Bushcraft may be just what you need. Explore our Bushcraft section and our guides on shelters and Stoic Principals, for example. Get outside and enjoy nature!