Finding a guide: Three books of wildcraft and survival

Bushcraft books

“I’d love to hike in the wilds of Alaska.”

“I can help you with that.”

“You can”

“Absolutely.  Just one question.”

“What is it?”

“Do you want a guide or do you just want to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere?”

This opportunity was offered to me years ago.  As much as I wanted to go, I turned it down.  I didn’t think my wife would like me “camping” for six months without helping out with the bills, among other things.  The other reason was, I didn’t think I was skilled enough to last that long in the wild without support.

Oddly enough, I never considered the use of a guide, even though that was an option.  Hunters and explorers use guides all the time.  Their knowledge of the area is something I would not have going in.  It is an advantage that should not be ignored.

But what if you want to go it alone?  How do you go about learning the skills needed?  You could take some lessons.  There are schools that teach bushcraft or wilderness survival.  The classes aren’t cheap though.  They can start from $350 and go to $800 for a one week class.  (And that doesn’t include the destination cost, or the costs of food, hotel, and gear.)  Your class might cost more than your dream adventure.

You could check out Youtube for lessons, but what if the person you’d prefer doesn’t make videos?

You can educate yourself by reading their books.  This gives you the opportunity to learn new skills and work on them at your pace with a substantially lower out of pocket cost.  The downside is that you don’t have the instructor there to show you what you are doing wrong if you can’t get that specific exercise down.  (This is where having videos help.  More on that later.)

I currently have three “Wilderness survival” handbooks in my library and while there are similarities, the authors who write them had distinctly different styles.  This is both good and bad.  A person you might like from TV or Youtube might be too dry or too, “out there” in book form.  On the other hand, if you go in with no perceived notions, you will easily pick out the book that fits your personality.  This is a great advantage and will help inspire you to succeed.

Of the authors, two are widely known and the third is somewhat known.  They are Dave Cantebury, Cody Lundin, and Tom Brown Jr.  I’m going to start with Tom first

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Tom Brown Jr is the first person I heard about who was into Wilderness Survival.  It is the title of his handbook, but to say he is a survivalist would be wrong.  In the book, Tom talks about the lessons he learned from his adoptive grandfather and all the time he spends in the eastern pines of New Jersey.  His book teaches Native American skills for living in the wilderness while being a conservationist.  Tom spends many pages explaining the different shelters you can build, but goes further by describing where they should be built and what mistakes he made along the way.

 

 

 

Tom Brown Jr’s book is also the only book of the three to have a section on edible and medicinal plants.  Each plant listed has its common name, scientific name, a plate drawing, description, general habitat, (Don’t expect to read what zone or climate here) range, food, medicine, and other uses.  I’m very leery of any medicinal qualities of plants until they are cross checked for truth. The points of other uses for these plants, though, is worth the price of the book alone.   Knowing what plant is best for making a specific tool, helpful for fire, or an insect repellent is worth its weight in my opinion.

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Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival also talks about attitude, water, fire, shelter, hunting, trapping, fishing, cooking, preserving, tools and crafts.  All written as if the author is talking to you one on one.

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This is my first book on wilderness skills and is still one of my favorites.  I do recommend pairing it with a good tree/plant identification book with full photographs so you can better identify the plants he describes in his book.

 

Cody Lundin’s 98.6 Degrees (The art of keeping your ass alive) is very different from Tom’s and Dave’s book.  There are no plant descriptions here, no primitive shelter instructions, no animal track guidelines, and definitely no hunting skills.  Cody focuses on only one thing in this book, how to survive until rescued.

With such a singular focus, you’d think his book would be rather thin.  Nope.  It’s 215 pages long and is the only book of the three to have color photos in it.

 

Cody goes through the entire process of being lost to being found.  With a large amount of paper being spent on mind set.  He hammers home the fact that your outlook and attitude go a long way towards your survival when lost in the wild.  Cody brings up the truth about fear, how it affects the body, and how to control it. He talks about weather, hypothermia, starvation, dehydration, and how to avoid these problems.

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Cody guides you in making your own personal survival kit.  He keeps it basic and doesn’t include anything that a novice couldn’t figure out how to use.  It gives you the basics without breaking the bank.  (Or your back)

98.6 degrees is also the only book that mentions to not only tell someone where you are going and how long you will be, but also describe what you are driving, the gear you have with you and other ways of identifying yourself and your direction if you are lost.

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Cody writes his book in the same fashion as John Muir did when he wrote his famous VW repair guide for the complete idiot.  (John Muir the VW fan, not Muir the conservationist.)  His book is full of lush cartoon panels and interesting characters.  It fits perfectly with his Hippie image.

 

The last book is Dave Cantebury’s Bushcraft 101 – A field guide to the art of wilderness survival.  Dave’s book falls in between Tom’s and Cody’s.  It leans heavily towards early camping and long term living in the woods than it does survival.

Early camping, sometimes called bushcrafting, takes its roots back in the late 1890’s to 1910’s era of camping.  It was the first version of light camping though carrying a small amount of equipment and making what you need along the way.  Dave brings up the early eastern camping pioneers of Horace Kephart and George Nessmuk Sears and updates their philosophies to our modern times.

Dave divides his book into two parts:  Gear and camping.

In the Gear sections he defines what are the 5 C’s and ways of using the tools need for each category.  He talks about what was carried back in the day and how they can be used in today’s world. Dave shows you shelters made from tarp or branches, various useful knots, and how to make a stove stand.

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In the camping section, Dave talks about set up, hygiene, the different types of fire kays, navigation by compass, measuring distances, figuring time by daylight, tree identification and uses, trapping and processing game.

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Bushcraft 101 also comes with an appendix on edible and medicinal plants.  It is very basic.  There are no pictures or drawing of the plants, no scientific names or areas found, but it does have a wonderful description of poultice, infusion, decoction, and ash.  Something I wish Tom had done in his book.

Dave also throws in some camp recipes for your adventurous spirit.

If you want the textbook on Bushcraft/Woodcraft/Wildcraft, this is it.  If you’re hoping for a personal conversation with Dave, look elsewhere.  Dave wrote this book like speaking at a lecture.  Just the facts. Personally, I was disappointed by this.  I was hoping to have a little more one on one story time with Dave, like I did with Tom.  I wasn’t looking for what he learned from his father per say, but his lessons would hit home better if he attached a few camp stories with them.

The bright side is that all of Dave’s chapter and subchapter items can be supplemented by his videos on you tube.  You will have to search his channel to find them, but it’s a benefit that can’t be overstated.  Reading the book and seeing how he does it brings you as close to the classroom as possible without being there.

So there you go.  Three different books by three different authors with three different styles.

All bring up the basic survival needs:

  • Attitiude
  • Knife
  • Shelter
  • Water container
  • Rope
  • Lighter or other fire starter

Two talk about plants (one in depth, one extremely basic)

One talks about the proper communication needed before venturing out your door as well as having a way to communicate to others if needed for a rescue.

All will help you stay safer than you would without their knowledge.

All will give you more confidence in yourself as you practice the skills taught and the kits built.

All will make your time in the bush a little more enjoyable.

Anyone of them is worth the money.  All you have to do is choose which is best for you.

See you on the trail.

Smoking in the backyard.

I’ve recently found out about a old style of minimalist camping called Bushcraft.  It was created in the late 1800s and focuses on using skills to replace equipment so you don’t need to carry as much and keep your negative impact on the land as low as possible.  (It also is a great way for those with a very low budget to get into the hobby.)

Wanting to learn more, I discovered Bushcraft USA, a website that has tons of information on the subject.  In the forum section, there is a section called Bushclass that is chock full of lessons and exercises to motivate you.  (You have to join the forums to see this section.) It’s like scouting but at your own pace.  There are pictures or videos of how to do the exercise and a section to post your attempt at it.  The guy, Sgt Mac, who created the class broke it down into three sections:  Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced.  I dove in deep and so far have done ten of the thirteen required exercises along with completing three of five electives.  I just finished an exercise of making a twig fire. You’d think it would be easy, but I figured out a way to complicate it.

Here’s how I reported it.

First, normally I would just use palm frond stalks and be done with it, but since this is a twig fire, I wanted to do it right.  I collected small oak branches three weeks to a month ago for this exercise, then I piled them up nicely by my firewood to let them age/dry. Surprisingly, its been a moist month. Lot’s of heavy fog in the morning and three showers, one two nights ago. Yep. The wood was still wet. You could bend it almost in half before seeing a split. (No cracking sound whatsoever.)

It took roughly an hour to cut up the twigs using hand pruners. (The wood had dried enough to the point of being hard to cut with the pruners)

Since I was doing this, I figured I’d try and use some Spanish moss as fire starter. Grabbed a bunch and pulled it apart until I found some that felt dry to the touch. I placed the old, half burned wood in a platform and rested the moss there as I continued to work on the twigs.

Three sizes stacked up in separate piles along with a starter set, I was ready to go.

Try out the ol’ ferro rod and…

Nothing.

I was getting enough spark. No problem there, but it just wasn’t catching on the moss. Maybe it’s too wet or needs air. I pulled at it and fluffed it a little.

Again, nothing.

Sweat was dripping off my brow. (It was 80 something which is overly hot for this time of year, even in Florida.)

“That’s it! Time for the big guns.” I went to my pack and pulled out my fire bag. Inside was the starter I knew would work. Pompous grass heads. These things are like pulled cotton and roughly six inches in size. They take a spark quick and burn hot! I took a quarter of it and shoved it under the Spanish moss.

-Skritch!- The striker scratched along the ferro rod.

-Whoomp!- The fluff lit up instantly.

The moss over it didn’t light! It must’ve been wetter than I thought. Disgusted with it, I tossed it aside.

Pulling out more pomp grass fluff, I tried again. Again it lit beautifully, but the twigs would not catch. They must be too wet and too smooth on the outside.

So I took a few that I knew to be the driest (They actually snapped when I bent them by hand.) and feather sticked them.

I pushed the twig pile aside, noticed some unburned pompous grass and hit is with the rod. As it burned I set the feather sticks on it one by one. Yay! The took! I rolled the twig pile back over the burning tinder.

-Sssssss.- The twigs sizzled. Wow. Those twigs were really wet! But they caught and man did they smoke. I’ve made many fires in this pit and this was undoubtedly the smokiest one ever. But it held and it grew.

Time for some pictures.

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That should be roughly knee high.

Pictures done, I took the rest of the twigs and threw them on. After all that work, I was damned if I was not going to use them. The flame got really high. Higher than I like to be honest. It settled down quickly enough though and I threw in my new cup and a tin of cloth for some other experiments.

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I wanted to see how quickly the cup would boil the water and make some char-cloth for my fire starter kit.  (Char-cloth is a fabric version of charcoal.  It’s made of cotton, and lights easily with a spark so if you don’t have a lighter, you can still start a camp fire fairly easy. It also burns slower than the Pompous grass puff I used so the twigs would have a better chance of igniting.)

After those were done and the twigs pretty reduced to ash, I put out the fire. Again smoke billowed from the pit as water poured onto the wood and coals.

It took a bit of work, but I got my twig fire going. I was happy.

Ten minutes after I cleaned up a siren howled outside. Gee. I hope it wasn’t for me.