This time of year is always exciting for us. Spring has normally made itself at home by now, the hedges and fields are starting to become full of wild food and our woodland courses have begun. We run skills courses all year round, but from April-October we have a course running almost every weekend and our feet don’t touch the ground. I’m writing this at the end of a weekend of glorious welsh weather (it only rained twice!), and looking forward to our foraging courses, bushcraft weekends and navigation courses in the coming months.
On Saturday we were joined at our woodland site near Clawdd-Newydd by Deb, Mo and Darren. Darren is an existing client and friend, previously having taken advantage of an offer for some custom navigation coaching but Deb and Mo were new to our courses.
We call our one-day bushcraft course the Bushcraft Basics Course. It covers the essential skills that are common to all sorts of adventures – lighting a fire, building a shelter, finding drinking water, cooking over a fire and even a little bit of foraging. We also try to cover as many tips and tricks that we think are relevant and that come up, such as sharpening a knife or organising a camp. We run several bushcraft skills courses throughout the Spring, Summer and Autumn, and our clients range from families looking for a new activity and beginners, to people planning on an extended trip overseas and other adventurers.
The course starts with a short briefing, then a walk into the forest, seeking out edible plants and identifying some of our native woodland species along the way. We talk about connecting with the landscape, and the art of ‘tuning in’ to the forest environment – putting aside the worries and stress of modern life, and becoming more aware of the sounds and sights of your immediate surroundings. This is a skill that is under-utilised by most of us, and it is particularly important if you use your time in the great outdoors to relax and unwind. If it takes you half a day to ‘switch off’ then you are missing out on a huge chunk of that valuable time. Being aware of changes in the weather because of the noise in the tree canopy can affect how you plan ahead, or make you decide to move your camp.
After spending some time exploring the importance of stopping, listening and connecting we move on to how to find safe drinking water. This would normally be further down the syllabus, but it coincides with crossing a stream in the forest!
We carry on moving along a narrow path, barely wide enough for the army-surplus rucksack I’m carrying with the tools and equipment for demonstrating the skills and techniques we’ll need that day, as well as lunch! We run the courses with a ‘leave no trace’ ethic apart from one small area where we have placed logs to use as benches and a small cache of dry firewood. This is where we operate from, with students working within a short distance of this area. I run through what we will be doing next and then issue knives and firesteels, plus a short safety briefing on using a knife.
We start off with firelighting, and I go through the fundamental firelighting skills and a short demonstration on lighting a fire. I don’t believe in teaching just ONE technique, but where possible trying to explain how a process or skill works so students can later adapt that process to suit their requirements or resources. Firelighting is a good example of this, with different woods and tinders being prepared in different ways and different techniques for making the spark, flame or ember needed for combustion.
Next the students separate and work individually to practice the techniques I have just demonstrated, learning from any mistakes made and building a muscle memory that should hopefully stay with them for years to come. It can take time to get right, but patience and perseverance makes all of the difference between success and failure.
The logical step after firelighting is techniques for cooking over a fire, including making pot hangers and using tripods to suspend cooking pots over the fire at the correct height. Copious amounts of tea and coffee are often consumed during this period, and thoughts soon move towards for lunch. This weekend we went for something simple, tasty and filling – rice, fish and wood sorrel foraged from a nearby patch. A little bit of soy sauce and the perfect woodland lunch was ready!
After lunch we discuss the organising and discipline of a camp, particularly the ‘kitchen’ area surrounding the fire. This is something that can make your life in the woods, mountains or other ‘wilderness’ environment a pleasure or a pain – discipline, organisation and a defined process for cooking, cleaning and storing equipme
nt. Next it is on to shelter building, complete with a small model of the shelter I want them to build and some tips on making the process that much easier, such as using a tarp to collect leaf litter for the roof/walls. This period takes up a surprising amount of time, and shows that balance between knowledge and equipment. Knowledge has no weight penalty, and can be carried without leaving a crucial part of it behind. Knowing how to build a shelter completely from natural materials is a fantastic skill to have, but they take time to build. A small tarp and/or bivvy bag weighs a certain amount and takes up room in your bag but mean that setting up camp can take minutes instead of hours- what is most important for you, in that situation?
The rest of the day is taken up with techniques such as setting up a tarp, sharpening knives and axes and more advanced firelighting techniques such as using a bowdrill set, a traditional flint and steel and other methods. Towards the end of the day we pack everything up, make sure the fires are safely extinguished, the ground underneath is cool and that there is little or no sign of us having spent time in the area. Wherever possible we should all take time to do this after leaving an area, even if it is a 15-minute lunch break.
The description above comes from our Bushcraft Basics course – an entry-level course aimed at novices or people who want to get to grips with the basic skills first.