What you need
A trio of puukko knives – the Finnish style that is the author’s favorite. A good knife is a must for every outdoor trip.Tailor your gear to your getaway
Paddling with Darren Bush
There’s this game often played at team-building events. A facilitator divides 30 people or so into five or six groups, and each group is given a list of twenty-five items that could be useful in a survival situation. Each group is told they are stranded on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, and has to prioritize which items are most important, and each person in the group gets to select one item. Okay, go.
I hate that game. I hate that game because there’s always someone in the group who says you need the compass, someone says you need the sextant so you can tell where you are, even if you don’t have charts or a way to tell anyone where you are. Someone says mosquito netting. Some joker always says to keep the rum. No one keeps the shaving mirror.
In other words, none of us are as dumb as all of us.
It also confirms the fallacy that it’s the gear that will save you. Even making the right choices (keeping the mirror, the water, the chocolate, etc.), you’re still in the middle of the ocean.
Shows like Man Vs. Wild and Survivorman show survival skills, but I think that’s different from Bushcraft.
There are things you should always have with you when venturing away from civilization. By this, I mean anywhere where you are not likely to encounter many other people. A few years ago a cyclist riding across Iowa hit a rock, crashed his bicycle, and ended up in a ditch about twenty feet from a fairly major two-lane highway. He was down low, invisible from the road, and had nothing. He was spotted by a random pedestrian after a night in the ditch as ten thousand cars drove merrily past him.
The idea behind bushcraft is a mental one. It’s not so much about knowing how to create five different snares for catching rabbits as about how to be mentally comfortable in the outdoors, even if you’re not necessarily physically comfortable.
What to carry varies by individual. Some have long lists, but I think of it differently. There are seven items (or categories of items) you need to carry. That’s it. If I gave you my list, it wouldn’t necessarily work for you, because you may not know how to use the gear, or you’re in a place where it doesn’t make sense in that environment.
First: you need something to shelter you from the elements.
The reason I don’t give a list is that the elements change radically from place to place. Sometimes you need shelter from rain, sometimes from sun, sometimes from wind. What you carry depends on where you are. Consider tarps, mosquito netting, a small tent, a bothy bag, or whatever will protect you best.
I carry multiple items so I can adapt to different situations. I always have a tarp and enough line to rig it up in multiple configurations. With a tarp and bug netting, you can be comfortable almost anywhere, if you know how to rig it.
Second: something to gather and/or purify water.
If you can stay protected and hydrated, your chances of survival are extremely high. This could be a filter, purifier, chemical treatments, etc., but you also need something to put it in. In the desert, a square yard of heavy clear plastic, a water bottle and a drinking tube will provide moisture from a solar still. See, it all depends on where you are. An empty water bottle is always a good place to carry all this stuff.
Third: something to keep you warm.
It’s nice to be out of the rain and hydrated, but a small fire will warm your body and cheer your soul. You need multiple ways to start a fire so if one fails, the other ones don’t. I also carry firestarters and a fair number of them in my climate, since damp is the primary state of many things where I tend to paddle and hike. Of course, no number of firestarters will compensate for your inability to build a good fire structure.
Oh yeah. Clothes keep you warm too.
Fourth: a way to keep cool.
This is usually less of a problem, but it bears addressing. In hot and arid climates, of course, shade is your friend, and evaporative cooling is your other friend. Tarps and the ability to rig them properly should take care of the shade, and evaporative cooling is up to your improvisation.
Fifth: food, or some way to procure and prepare it.
You’re unlikely to find yourself in a situation where you need to kill, skin, gut and roast a chipmunk over your nice bed of coals. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to know how to dress and prepare animal protein; I can do that, but I really don’t care for chipmunk.
What I am saying is that in a half century of being outdoors, I have never been in a situation where my long-term survival was based on this skill. Learn the basics of trapping and all, but it’s much easier to carry extra dehydrated food in most situations.
I do think learning to identify edible plants in your region is a good thing, as it has a good psychological side benefit. When I was a young man hiking the Sierras, I found that wild onions and bouillon made a nice soup. As far as calories, it wasn’t adding much, but it felt good to know there were a few things I could eat and it was a nice break from the mac and cheese with Spam cubes, a staple of Scoutmasters in the 1970.
Sixth: Something to tell people where you are.
One of my favorite parts of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days was when the Boy Scout troop set up semaphore signals across a cow pasture. UNGENT. SEND HEAP. IM BADLY CURT. One of the boys commented it might be easier just to drive over and get a ride to the hospital to treat your curt, if it were that ungent.
Yes, I carry a signal mirror, but what I really like is my cell phone. Failing that, my VHF radio. Failing that, a sat. phone or PLB. It’s all about where you are and what’s on your itinerary. Wilderness tripping requires a different set of rules, of course.
Seventh: something to lift your spirits that ain’t necessarily spirits.
Once your basic needs are fulfilled, it’s a mind game. How do you stay positive and upbeat? That all depends on the person, of course. A deck of cards might give you hours of solitaire while you’re solitary. Like Harry Potter, I think chocolate cures just about anything. A pocket New Testament and Psalms can be had for fifty cents at a used book store, and I like Psalms. It’s all about a pick-me-up when things look bleak.
Of course, your micro-bottle of Jameson might be good in your coffee while you wait for help, but avoiding mind-altering substances is a good idea where you need a clear mind.
And … a good knife.
To that I add one thing that fits in all categories and none at the same time; a good knife. A good knife is small, sturdy, and sharp. I prefer the Finnish-style puukko, which is the Land Rover of cutlery. I can use it to split a birch log, carve a spoon, and making shavings to start a fire. I never go anywhere without it unless the TSA is involved.
I encourage you to think about the process differently. The easy thing to do is print out the list of bushcraft or survival items on some website and put them in a bag and call yourself prepared. I’ve been there and done that, for sure. Make yourself a kit with the seven categories, but do it thoughtfully.
You’ll be glad you did, should you ever need it.