Written by: Paul Sveum, Jack Mountain Bushcraft School
As a master outdoorsman and fly-fishing guide based in Maine, I’ve explored and survived some very remote places. I always feel more alive in the wilderness, perhaps because life is less guaranteed without all the trappings of modern infrastructure. Out in the bush, even the most carefully laid plans can quickly go awry, thanks to the whims of Mother Nature, which is why it’s so important to have a core set of bushcraft survival skills you can rely on if/when things take an unexpected turn.
Throughout my career, I have worked to distill the complexities of wilderness survival into a few basic skills, so that my clients can readily recall them when needed, whether to save their lives, or just make their trips more comfortable. We’ve all filled our waders with freezing water, or had fingers go numb during winter, or struggled to light a fire with green wood, but these bouts of bad luck don’t have to turn into disasters. Even basic bushcraft skills can mitigate uncomfortable situations before they escalate to a threat. Below is a list of essential skills specifically tailored for anglers. I hope it allows you to feel both more secure and more connected to nature during your time on the water.
1. Carry a Good Knife (and know how to use it)
A good knife is the quintessential bushcraft tool, allowing you to cut wood, clean fish, and start fires (among other things). But what makes a good knife, and which one is best? You may not like my answer, but the best knife is the one you have with you when needed. Cost, brand, size, make, and model are all secondary details. With that said, a functional knife should have a fixed blade around 4-5 inches long, preferably with a bevel meant for cutting wood, but free of other gimmicks such as serrations or gut hooks. I’ve been using carbon steel for years, since it’s easy to sharpen and can also throw a spark. I can cut down small trees, butcher a deer, construct a camp, and light a fire all with my trusty knife, and I encourage everyone to carry and become familiar with this most-important item.
While there are many ways to use a knife, one of the most important bushcraft techniques is to use it in combination with a baton or stout stick. Place your blade securely on the target, firmly hold the knife with your thumb wrapped around the handle (like you are gripping a baseball bat) and strike straight downward with the baton onto the back or spine of the blade. Whacking the back of the knife gives the user a ton of burst power, which is great to split wood or lop branches off a tree.
2. Learn to Build a Fire
Fires are crucial for staying warm and cooking food, but their value is more than just utilitarian. The importance of fire on the human psyche cannot be overstated. We sit around a fire in the morning, watching our coffee percolate; at midday for shore lunch; and at night, we gather around to watch what a friend of mine calls “Caveman TV.” If you ever doubt the power of a campfire, notice where people gather at a campsite when there isn’t a fire lit—usually around the cold, dark fire pit.
Knowing how to light a fire is a clutch skill to master. You should be able to ignite, establish, maintain, use, and extinguish a fire in your area at any given time. Don’t wait until the cold has set in too far: if you can’t touch your thumb to your pinky, your hands are already too cold to have the dexterity required to light a fire, which means you’re already in trouble.
The most important aspect is proper fuel selection. Wood lying on the ground is typically wet or rotten and won’t burn well, so get in the habit of looking up instead of down to find suitably-dry fuel. I look for small, dead trees that are still standing, or branches that are suspended off the ground, usually in big driftwood piles. A good rule of thumb is that your fuel should be the same size as your ignition source. If you are lighting a fire with matches, for example, use dry sticks about the same diameter as a match. From there, steadily increase the size from match to pinky to thumb and so on.
I recommend carrying two different ignition sources (matches, lighter, flint rod, etc.) on your body in two different places. I always have a fire kit in my hip pack, and a second stash of matches and homemade tinder in my jacket pocket. Bringing your own tinder is crucial, especially when trying to start a fire in the rain or snow. My preferred tinder is made from cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly, stored in a small water-resistant container such as a pill bottle. The mixture is easily ignited by spark or match and will burn hot for several minutes, even in the rain. The secret to keeping a wet fire burning is to pile your wood right next to it so the heat will help dry out the remaining fuel.
3. Stay Hydrated
Human survival is determined by many factors, which can be broadly lumped together into the Rule of Threes: we can live three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food (give or take). Assuming you’ll have plenty of air to breathe, and will be able to return to civilization before three weeks pass, securing a supply of potable water should be your primary concern.
Collect water in the cleanest form you can find. Sediment and algae will make your chemicals and filters less effective, and can leave a foul taste. If the only water you can find is turbid, let it settle out for half an hour, then carefully pour the cleaner water off the top to use for further treatment. Boiling is easiest, or you can add 5-8 drops of 2% iodine tincture per liter of water and let it sit for another half hour. If you prefer water that doesn’t taste like a hospital floor, try adding a vitamin C tablet or a drink mix packet with citric acid to mask the iodine. Just remember that neither of these methods will remove sediment or inorganic toxins, so if the water you are drinking is suspect, you can always try adding a filtering method; even running it through a bandana is better than nothing.
4. Learn to Cook Over a Fire
Cooking at home requires little more than a flick of the wrist to turn on your stove, but in the bush, it’s a bit more complicated. Camp stoves work fine, but if you can master building a fire, your pack will be lighter and your options will be wider. You’ll need to know which wood to use, how to process it, and how to maintain the fire to match your cooking method. You also need a sturdy pan or pot, preferably made from cast iron. They’re heavy, but allow for a wide variety of uses, including baking bread and cookies, roasting meat, and turning out a hotdish that’ll make your auntie in Minneapolis proud.
Properly maintaining a cooking fire will give you better control over your heat, and allow you to tailor the fire to match your cooking method. If you are roasting meat in a dutch oven, for example, you’ll want to burn dry hardwood like oak or maple, which produces mounds of glowing coals. When baking in an old-school reflector oven, use small bits of firewood so you can keep the flames high and clean. Cooking for a crowd is tough over a small circular campfire, so for a bigger group, make a long, narrow fire pit instead. Not only will it give you more cooking “real estate,” but you won’t have to cut your firewood into pieces, since longer logs can be laid over the coals intact. Avoid using wood that contains high levels of pitch, such as pine or spruce, which can impart an acrid flavor and throw sparks and ash onto your food.
Pro tip: Warm bread is always a treat in the bush. One simple method is to roll some dough into a long “snake,” wrap it in a spiral around a thin green stick with the bark removed, and prop it up next to the fire. Rotate occasionally and slather with butter, if available.
5. Watch the Weather
So far I have talked mostly about physical skills, but a huge part of bushcraft is awareness of your surroundings. As anglers, we are already keen observers of water, but sometimes we’re a little too keen. I have been so focused on fishing that I didn’t even notice the three black bears watching me from the opposite bank of the Aroostook, or the herd of bison crossing the Yellowstone 20 feet upstream! It’s easy to develop tunnel vision out there, but like an NFL quarterback, it’s good to keep your head on a swivel at all times.
When you first arrive at the river, spend a few minutes taking note of environmental factors, such as wind speed and direction, the type of cloud cover, ambient temperature, and relative humidity levels. Try to recall the weather from the previous day, so you’ve got a basis for comparison. As your fishing day goes on, take periodic glances around and re-evaluate those factors. Did the wind change? How’s the temperature? What are the animals/bugs doing? Which way are the clouds moving? By staying aware of minor changes in the weather, you’ll be much better-prepared when the major changes hit.
If it’s a warm day and you see tall, dark storm clouds stacking up, you’re likely seeing a cold front crashing into warm air. Prepare for an intense (but brief) storm by finding a suitable place to hunker down, or better yet, get off the water entirely if that’s an option. If it’s a cool day and you see thick, low clouds rolling in, that is most likely a warm front sliding under cooler air, meaning damp, cloudy weather will likely follow. Preparing for this one is a bit easier—get out the dry-fly box, because fishing is going to pop!
These five tips should make your time outdoors more enjoyable, and a bit safer too. Keep in mind, however, that the only way to truly master this stuff is through hands-on experience. Instructional articles and videos are fine, but if you really want to develop reliable bushcraft skills, consider taking some in-person classes. Once you start building your skills, you’ll be amazed by how much more comfortable and secure you’ll be out on the water.
Paul Sveum is a master guide and the fly-fishing director for the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. He also teaches fly-fishing courses for beginners and for advanced anglers at Jack Mountain’s Field School in Masardis, Maine.