Last Updated on 27/05/2023
What are bushcraft skills? In this article, we explain what bushcraft skills are and why they are different from survival skills. You will learn the most essential skills for bushcraft and how you can use them to your advantage.
What Are Bushcraft Skills?
Bushcraft skills are all about mastering the art of surviving in the wilderness to the point where you can actually thrive by living off the land. These techniques have evolved over thousands of years and help us connect deeply with nature, become self-reliant, and maintain health and fitness without modern amenities. Bushcraft skills are very similar to survival skills but not quite the same – you will rarely ever need to carve a spoon to survive but maintaining a fire is both survival and bushcraft.
Key bushcraft skills include fire craft for building and maintaining fires, woodcraft for identifying and using different woods, foraging and hunting for food and water, navigation to keep from getting lost, shelter building for protection, and knot skills for various tasks. Learning these skills isn’t just for the survivalist preppers out there but for anyone who identifies as an outdoorsy person and wants to learn more about the land and how to use it.
You can take bushcraft courses in person and online, or you can learn everything you need to know by following blogs like Gear Assistant as well as the thousands of Youtube videos from people who want to teach you. They all take time, patience, and practice to master, especially skills like primitive fire-making and making small game traps.
How to Learn Bushcraft Skills
While we are about to share what the most essential bushcraft skills are, we are not going to break down each one with a step-by-step guide because that would turn into a 10,000-word guide. Instead, you can do your own research or wait for us to get around to writing the. There are two ways to learn bushcraft skills, the fast way and the slow way.
Bushcraft Courses and Training
Taking an in-person bushcraft course gives you a safe place to learn and practice bushcraft skills with the help of an expert showing you what to do and what you are doing wrong. Believe me, this will save you a tonne of time and will give you the chance to ask as many stupid questions as you can think of. If you can’t find an in-person bushcraft course near to you, then you might consider taking one online.
The main benefit of bushcraft courses is that they organize and compile everything you need to know into a curriculum so that you don’t have to search for a thousand different questions. Even experienced bushcrafters benefit from taking courses and training with specialists who are the best in their fields.
Self-learning and Practice
The way I learned, and I am sure most people learn bushcraft skills is through reading books and watching videos of other people doing it. I grew up on Ray Mears, Les Stroud Survivorman, Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, Alone, and all the good shows. I then went onto Youtube and spent hours watching primitive bushcraft skill videos, of which there are many. This allows you to pick and choose the skills you are most interested in or most need to learn instead of learning a lot of information, some of which might not be relevant to you.
15 Most Important Bushcraft Skills to Learn
What are bushcraft skills, and are they the same as survival skills? Bushcraft skills and survival skills are similar but not the same. Here are what we consider to be the most important bushcraft skills you can learn to become proficient at outdoor living:
1. Starting a Fire
Understanding how to start and maintain a fire is probably the most important bushcraft skill you can learn. Fire will keep you warm on a cold night, provide light, boil water for hydration, cook food for nutrition, harden wood for bush tools, keep bugs and animals at bay, dry your clothing, and provide a means of signaling in times of emergency. It’s super important.
Primitive fire lighting is the skill of being able to form an ember using nothing but natural materials and coax that ember into flame. Bow drills, fire plows, and flint with steel are some popular methods to learn. You should also learn about finding dry tinder and then using it as the basis on which you build a fire.
2. Finding and Purifying Water
Finding fresh water in dry environments is a skill in itself and involves understanding a mix of geography, plant identification, and animal tracking. Understanding geography helps you to locate broad areas where you are most likely to find water, while certain types of plants can signal that water is either close by or could be reached if you dig down. If you are struggling to find geographical features, then you can sometimes follow animal tracks, certain bird calls, or even butterflies and dragonflies.
Once you find water, though, you need to be able to make it drinkable so you don’t make yourself sick. If you have learned the skill of fire making and have a container to boil water, then 5 minutes of bubbling is all it needs. There are alternative methods for filtering fresh water that are maybe less reliable but ok in an emergency. For instance, making a filter using gravel, sand, carbon, and some cotton inside some kind of funnel container.
3. Shelter Building
Some survival experts might put shelter building as the number one bushcraft skill to learn, but I think water and fire take priority unless the weather is bad. If the weather IS bad, then knowing how to quickly put a roof over your head is a necessary skill to have. This might mean having the skill to find a certain type of tree for shelter or knowing where to look for a cave. Or it might mean being able to use sticks, leaves, moss, or anything you can find to build your own shelter.
Shelter building becomes a bit of an art form once you have mastered a certain style of frame. The simple lean-to or A-frame structure is a great starting point to learn, but if there is an opportunity to use a pre-existing structure to save a bunch of time, then this, too, is a bushcraft skill.
4. First Aid
For any serious bushcrafter who likes to go on extended trips into the remote wilderness, then learning the basics of first aid is something you must not put off any longer if you haven’t already. Just knowing how to stop bleeding or apply a tourniquet could save your life. Then there are things like learning how to bandage a wound or strap up your wrist, which can reduce the dame done by any injuries.
To deal with common illnesses, first-aid training will help you to diagnose when something is wrong and pinpoint where the problem is. If it is something serious, then you can make your way to the nearest hospital ASAP, or if not, then you could learn how to treat it using natural medicine. More on that in the foraging section.
Being able to navigate through the dense wilderness is a bushcraft skill that has become rarer than ever since the invention of the smartphone and google maps. Skills like reading a map, using a compass, and understanding natural navigation markers can help you avoid getting lost, as well as avoid wasting time and energy walking around in circles.
6. Tool Maintenance
Maintaining your tools is a skill most beginner bushcrafters underestimate when starting out with brand-new blades and axes. When you are out in the woods on your own, there’s no REI to go and replace your saw if it snaps or Home Depot your axe if the handle breaks and you need a new one. You need to be able to maintain your tools, keep the edges razor sharp, and replace any wooden parts like handles when needed.
For this bushcraft skill, you might need to learn the technique for sharpening a knife; then, you might need to learn which stones you kind find on the ground to sharpen your knife with. Or you might need to know how to select the right wood, carve the entire shaft, and secure a new axe handle into the head. If you have a bushcraft tool inside your backpack, then you should know how to maintain it and fix it where possible.
7. Knife Skills
A knife is one of your most important tools as a bushcrafter, so understanding basic knife safety is a must. The more time you spend outdoors, the more you realize how much you use your knife when it is strapped to your belt. Once you feel comfortable using a bushcraft knife, you can move on to more advanced skills like intricate cutting, splitting, and carving.
There are different types of knives you can get for specific tasks such as whittling, bushwhacking, butchery, and hunting, or small multipurpose bushcraft knives you can hang around your neck for easy access. Each one will take time and practice to learn how to use it skillfully and can become a bit of an art form.
8. Woodcraft and Carving
The basics of this bushcraft skill begin with learning the difference between different types of wood and trees. Some woods are good for making structures because they are strong with high resin content, while others are more flexible and better for making tools. Unless you know, you can waste a lot of valuable time and energy crafting something out of food to find it breaks on the first use.
Woodcraft involves not just knifework but also precision axe striking, sawing in a straight line, and knowing how to work with imperfections in the wood. Bushcraft tools are an important part of woodcraft and carving, but we will cover this in more detail in a separate article.
Once you know a thing or two about the types of wood, you can learn how to use them effectively. Woodcraft is often used by bushcrafters to do things like carving spoons and bowls, making a bow drill or other fire tools, constructing a simple pot hanger for cooking, animal traps, and arts and crafts, which pass the time in the evening.
Knowing how to handle a knife for woodcraft and carving is useful for hand tools and devices, but carpentry is necessary to build solid shelters, furniture, and bridges. For long-term bushcraft, you would ideally want to build yourself a log cabin through the summer, along with a bed, table, chair, and fireplace. This takes a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge to learn from start to finish. Still, with a good understanding of carpentry, you can probably figure most things out without constantly watching Youtube tutorial videos.
10. Foraging for Food
Foraging for food is something I always love to practice because every time I do it, I learn something new. Being skillful enough to recognize edible plants and differentiate them from lookalikes can help provide essential nutrition when practicing bushcraft with limited food supplies. However, foraging for food can be dangerous if you are overly confident without the true knowledge to back it up.
Depending on the time of year, you may be able to source leafy greens, edible flowers, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables just by recognizing a leaf. I like to use multiple textbooks at a time (often 4 or 5) when foraging for food because sometimes the pictures look a little different from your sample.
My advice would be to learn which common plants in your local environment provide the most sustenance and nutritional benefit, then learn them like the back of your hand. Learn what they look like in all four seasons, learn what habitats they grow in, learn how the plants were used hundreds of years ago, and learn how they smell and feel. Only by doing the fieldwork will you truly gain expert bushcraft knowledge about foraging wild edibles.
11. Natural Fibre Cordage
Rope isn’t readily available in the woods; you have to make it. Knowing which plants to use, how to process them, and then how to twine them together into strands that can then be braided to make rope is a unique skill that not many bushcrafters possess. But hundreds of years ago, this would have been a well-known practice.
You can use all sorts of plants to make natural cordage, like stinging nettle stems, tree bark, tall grass, and palm trees, among other plants. Once you know how to make natural cordage, you can make all kinds of things, from clothes and accessories to bags and containers. A good place to learn is Youtube; check out the video below from the grandmaster of bushcraft himself, Ray Mears:
12. Knot Skills
Knowing how to tie various types of knots can be very useful in many bushcraft scenarios, such as constructing shelters, setting up snares or traps, or securing items in your backpack. Admittedly, you can get away with knowing just one or two different knots, but if you learn just ten of the most useful knots for bushcraft, then you will be able to do things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
Tieing multiple things together isn’t always as simple as linking two ends of a rope together. Sometimes, like when a shelter or raft building, you have to lash two pieces of wood together at a 90-degree angle, not move, and not come undone, which poses a whole load of problems if you don’t know what you are doing.
13. Tool Making
A lot of bushcraft skills involve using various tools to achieve certain tasks safely and effortlessly. This might be carving a spoon to stir food and eat with or crafting a bow and arrows to go hunting. Being resourceful is what really matters when you are limited to natural materials.
Also, hand tools like axes, knives, hammers, and shovels are all useful tools that are used to enhance your bushcraft skills. The parts of these tools that are made from metal typically need to be bought or traded for, but the wooden parts and pieces are all replaceable. If you have the skill to fix and replace them as and when needed, then you will never be put in a difficult position if something breaks.
14. Trapping, Fishing, and Hunting
While hunting is not practiced by all bushcrafters, the ability to trap, fish, and hunt for food using primitive methods is a traditional bushcraft skill that can bring you much closer to the land if you do it respectfully.
Trapping small game using snares and deadfalls is very important on self-sustaining bushcraft trips because they work while you are sleeping and busy with other tasks (money in the bank, as I like to say). Understanding how to locate a game trail and successfully set a trap takes hours of practice and patience, but it is definitely a bushcraft skill worth mastering.
Fishing using primitive methods that utilize bushcraft skills of wood carving, tool making, and cordage is another lost art. Fishtraps weaved from willow or harpoons carved from bone with tiny little barbs rarely get used when there is modern equipment that works much better available for so cheap. A real bushcraft practitioner might use things like a fishbone, teeth, and thorns from trees or rose bushes as hooks or even fish at night using a flaming torch and spear.
Hunting larger game can be risky and takes a certain level of skill to be successful at. You need to be a proficient tracker and stalker, as well as have the tools to take an accurate shot from a distance. This might be with a bow, catapult, or spear, but primitive bushcrafters will rarely use a gun unless for self-defense or survival.
Preparing and cooking food in the wilderness, particularly on an open fire or a bushcraft stove, takes a lot of skill and focus to pull off without burning everything to a char. The last thing you want after spending all day hunting to come home with a small bird is to burn it on the fire. It destroys the nutritional value, ruins the flavor and enjoyment, and leaves you feeling hungry. On the contrary, you don’t want to undercook some meat that could make you sick.
Bushcraft cooking skills can include grilling, baking in ashes, spit roasting, or cooking in a Dutch oven.
What are bushcraft skills? Hopefully, after reading this article, you can remember at least five of the fifteen we have mentioned here. Let us know if you think there are any we missed out.