The news of a ‘hosepipe ban’ about to be brought into force in large areas of England started me thinking about bushcraft, sustainability and how we tend to view the natural resources that have been left in our care. We run several weekend bushcraft courses in North Wales every year, as well as bespoke events and ‘taster days’… what does it teach us about the natural world we live in and how we perceive it?
Bushcraft is about making full use of the resources that are around us, and knowing what is provided by the natural world. If you want to live comfortably in the wilds, even for a few days, then you would be wise to learn even a little about how plants, animals and other items from the natural environment can be used to keep you warm, shelter you and feed you.
Take fuel for the camp fire for example. If you are setting up camp in a woodland it should be easy to find firewood surely? You’re surrounded by trees, how could finding fuel be a problem?
The thing is, just because it’s made of wood doesn’t mean it will burn! Branches and twigs that have been lying on the woodland floor for a period of time longer than a few weeks are probably too wet to be used without drying out, as will green, freshly cut wood that was recently growing. So you need to be looking for dry, dead wood that is still standing or held above ground level. Immediately that huge amount of potential resource laid out in front of you has been reduced to a a few specific locations. Bugger.
So do you gather a few armfuls of timber, watch it burn and then go off to collect more and risk the fire burning out? Not if you have spent a bit of time lighting that fire in the first place… You quickly learn that this it is much better to gather and stockpile enough wood for at least the night and prevent the need to blunder around the woods in the dark looking for a suitable log. Once you have sweated and exerted yourself gathering that wood you will also make sure that you only burn what is required.
There is a quote somewhere about the wise man lighting a small fire but sitting close, and the foolish man lighting a big fire but having to sit far away…
Finding safe, clean drinking water teaches us a similar lesson. Obviously in a dry and arid desert it is going to be possibly the biggest challenge of each day, but even in our moist climate it can be a bit of a pain at times! There aren’t that many places (mainly upland streams) where it is safe to take water straight ‘from the ground’ in the U.K. without taking a few basic precautions. Boiling and filtration of some kind are the usual options, and both require a bit of effort to facilitate. In winter melting snow is slightly simpler but still requires a pan, a heat source and somebody to watch over it (because water expands when it freezes it seems like you need huge amounts of snow just to gain a couple of litres of drinking water) and you STILL are wise to boil it to make sure it’s sterile! Again, it’s quite a faff and once you have done it a few times during a trip you soon learn to plan ahead, work out how long your current supply will last and above all not to waste a single drop.
At home the vast majority of us just turn a tap and a seemingly endless supply of clean drinking water pours out. The average shower uses about 30litres of water. Can you imagine how long that would take to collect and purify out in the wilderness? At one of our bushcraft school sites we use a heath-robinson contraption that masquerades as a shower. It works by filling a big pot with about 5 litres of water, putting that over the fire until it reaches the desired temperature and then hoisting the whole thing up over your head. 5 litres only lasts a couple of minutes at most, and when you use it you soon learn to conserve what you have worked hard to gain!
If I’m on a wild camping trip out in the hills then I try and plan my route around water stops, and work out where I’m going to be using it. During the day my water usage will mainly be for drinking (hydration bladder or water bottle) and possibly a brew at lunchtime. When I am approaching the area I expect to pitch my tent or bivvy I go in search of water for the night and try to collect about 3 litres. It gets boiled to kill off any unwanted extras such as Cryptosporidiosis or Leptoispirosis then I tend to use about a litre for evening meal and drinks and leave the other 2 litres to cool down overnight ready for breakfast and the next day’s adventures…
I’m not suggesting that we adopt this approach for our day-to-day water usage, but by periodically heading out into the wilderness for an overnight trip we can reconnect with the landscape and use bushcraft and mountaincraft knowledge to remember why these are precious resources, and it might remind us to turn the tap off whilst brushing…