Ten bushcraft books that you should read
(that aren’t by Ray Mears)
The various UK bushcraft forums are becoming populated with threads about the new Ray Mears autobiography, and particularly references to his involvement with the Raoul Moat manhunt. I have no doubt it will be a bestseller, and rightly so – Ray’s television programmes, writing and other work is mentioned by clients on every single one of our bushcraft courses and he is largely responsible for popularising the subject of wilderness skills in the last decade. That said, there is a world of bushcraft and wilderness skills knowledge out there in books, online and in other formats that I often recommend to people. Some of these I have discovered for myself through my own research, some have been recommended to me by others but I feel that all will be of relevance to anybody with an interest in learning more about outdoor skills, survival techniques or just how humans do and should interact with the natural environment.
This is NOT a definitive list of the 10 best bushcraft books, and these are not in any particular order, just the order they appear on my bookshelf! I do urge you to try and read a few of them at least.
Bush Craft – Mors Kochanski
This is THE book I tell people they should look out for when beginning to look into wilderness and woodland skills. It was originally titled ‘Northern Bushcraft’ to differentiate it from an Australian manual called ‘Bushcraft’, but the title was changed in later editions. Mors was born in 1940 and has a wide and varied career working in the Northern arboreal regions of Canada, and became a wilderness/survival instructor at the age of 28. This book, complete with detailed line drawings and references, covers almost every skill that our clients want to learn or try for themselves. It is written in away that educates without patronising and was one of my favourites as a teenager.
A Journey to the Northern Ocean – Samuel Hearne
The story of Samuel Hearne, an 18th century English explorer of the Canadian north, is something that anybody with an interest in bushcraft, exploration or the history of North America should put on their ‘must read’ list.
His story is part of the fabric of Canadian history, and his work as a surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company was hugely important in the development of the nation. His book, ‘A Journey to the Northern Ocean‘ is an account of an arduous 3 year journey to establish a trade route in the Canadian barrens but also contains meticulous records of the Indians and First Nation he encountered or worked with.
Walking Home – Lynn Schooler
This was a book I stumbled across in a bookshop in the Highlands. Lyn Schooler is an Alaskan wilderness guide and author. His first memoir, ‘The Blue Bear – A True Story of Friendship, Tragedy, and Survival‘ is a touching tale of the author’s friendship with the Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino, who was killed by a grizzly in the Kurilskoya brown bear refuge on the Kamchatka peninsula. The second memoir (properly titled ‘Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart’) follows Lynn on a solo trek along one of the most remote stretches of coastline in North America, and bounces from his day-to-day decisions and progress to stories of Alaskan natural and human history. Like the previous book, Walking Home has an undercurrent of bittersweet human emotion from the author’s personal life.
It is also a reminder that journeys in the wilderness are not just about route-planning, gear and fitness – you need to expect to deal with everything else you carry with you too.
Primitive Skills and Crafts – Richard and Linda Jamison
Although this is a North American book, a lot of the skills and techniques listed within are transferable to the U.K. The primitive skills movement in the USA is much further advanced than here, and the crossover into modern bushcraft and wilderness skills is rather important. Bushcraft instructors have always relied on skills learnt from First Nations people, from firelighting to hunting, shelters to crafts. This book is not a survival manual, but more of a compendium of demonstrable Native American and primitive skills. The projects listed include pottery, hunting tools, basket weaving and fire pistons, as well as a short section on tracking and paleolithic mindsets.
Food for Free – Richard Mabey
Richard Mabey is a prolific British writer and broadcaster,and ‘Food for Free’ is his most popular work. Now in its 40th year (first published in 1972) this is the UK forager’s bible. I have several copies scattered around the house and office as a reference for lesser-known wild foods, and it is featured in a previous blog on foraging guidebooks. Although not comprehensive, it provides reliable information on over 200 British edible wild plants, along with recipes and background information.
Mountaincraft and Leadership – Eric Langmuir
British bushcrafters tend to focus on woodland and forest skills, partly because of the influence of North American and Scandinavian wilderness literature. This is slightly at odds with the landscape of the U.K., where the vast majority of remote and wild places are mountainous or open moorland. Mountain Rescue statistics show that being unaware or ill-prepared for the elements, unable to use a compass or map properly or being ill-equipped. In order to prevent becoming one of those statistics I strongly urge anybody who heads into the outdoors on foot to read and digest a copy of this book.
It was first published in 1963 but is still current, with regular revisions to take into account changes in equipment and access to the UK mountains. It is now published by the Mountain Training Board, the same people who manage the Mountain Leader (ML) award scheme, and is part of the required reading for the ML awards. It is also used as a navigation training manual by several UK Mountain Rescue and Search and Rescue teams for new recruits.
Outdoor First Aid – Kath Wills
This is the most recently published book on this list, surfacing earlier in 2013. Kath is a member of Llanberis Mountain Rescue team, the SAR team responsible for Snowdon and arguably the busiest in the U.K. This book builds on the many other first aid manuals out there, but focuses specifically on outdoor environments. It includes sections I haven’t seen in other similar manuals, such as dealing with gunshot wounds or multiple casualty triage. The pedigree of Kath’s Mountain Rescue and REC first aid instruction experience is displayed throughout, and the layout of the book is clear and easy to follow.
Like all of these skills, reading is no match for properly delivered outdoor first aid instruction.
Wildwood Wisdom – Ellsworth Jaeger
Ellsworth Jaeger is an authority on Native American skills. This book, written in 1945, was intended to appeal to young and old alike. It can be read in two ways – a manual for campers and scouts for the early part of the mid-20th century, or an account of late-19th Century woodsman and pioneer skills. Either way it is a useful and interesting series of projects, articles and tales relevant to U.K. bushcrafters and traditional wilderness skills enthusiasts.
Shelters, Shacks and Shanties – Daniel Carter Beard
Another North American book, this is written by one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. Daniel was born in 1850 and saw first-hand the temporary shelters used by all types of wilderness dwellers and visitors in the USA. ‘Shelters, Shacks and Shanties’ contains easy-to-follow instructions and diagrams for building a range of natural shelters. If you want to take your bushcraft shelter knowledge beyond tarps and leaf-mould kennels and lean-tos then this is a book you should have on your shelf.
SAS Survival Handbook – Lofty Wiseman
This book is responsible for getting many people interested in survival and other outdoor skills, myself included. Lofty is a legend, and rightly so – he joined the Special Air Service in 1959 and served for 26 years, with his name attached, officially and unofficially to the elite regiment’s most famous operations. After he left ‘The Regiment’ in 1985 he began work as a survival instructor and consultant. The ‘SAS Survival Handbook’ was first published in 1986. It focuses on survival skills, as practised by the military but with relevance to civilians. Unlike most of the other books and manuals in this list, the main thrust of this guide is on finding the most immediate practical solution to any given problem. Many firelighting techniques are listed for example, but the emphasis is on using what is to hand rather than learning how to use a bowdrill set. The line between survival and bushcraft skills is indistinct at times, and regardless of your philosophy for spending time outdoors there will be something of use to you in this book.