Bushcraft: Join The Route To Mastery

by Paul Kirtley

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A path in the woods

The route to mastery? Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Mastery is a strong concept. Yet, many times I’ve heard people use mastery in a sloppy fashion to mean something along the lines of “I’ve pretty much got the hang of the basics”.



Getting something right once or twice doesn’t mean you’ve mastered it, particularly when it comes to bushcraft. 



Nature presents many different characters and has a way of exposing your weaknesses. If your techniques are shaky and your knowledge limited, you’ll sooner or later face circumstances which overwhelm your skill level.



On the other hand, the more you hone your techniques, extend your knowledge and broaden your experience, the more remote that day of reckoning becomes.



That’s the way I view the route toward mastery – pushing to reduce the chances your skill and mental fortitude will not meet the challenges thrown at you. 

But the road to mastery is very long, where there is always a little further to go.



A mathematical analogy would be an asymptote – a straight line approached but never quite met by a curve. They get closer and closer and closer together but there’s always a little bit more to go.



Another way to think about it is to ask the question how many times do you have to cut something in half until you have nothing left?


So how do we get on the route to mastery and start reducing our skills deficit?

First I’d like you think about carving a spoon… 

When you carve a spoon, you work in two dimensions at a time – plan view and elevation. You start with a log. Let’s say you’ve chosen a section of green birch with an S-shaped kink in it, which will give a nice, natural curve to the spoon.  

You split the log with your axe, along the axis that will form the upper surface of your spoon. Looking at the plan view of your spoon, it looks like a plank. Looking at the elevation it looks like a log with a flat top. You then take a carpenters pencil and draw the shape of a spoon in plan view on the flat surface.

You take your axe and start roughly hewing the sides to take the shape of the drawn spoon. After a few minutes of deft axe work, you look down at the plan view of the piece of wood and it looks like a rough spoon. You hold up the piece to look at the side elevation. While some of the grain is visible from your hewing activity, it still looks like a log, with no discernible spoon shape other than the S-curve you selected.

You now draw a side-on spoon shape on the elevation. Again you roughly hew this shape into the wood using your axe. The plan view still looks exactly as before but the side elevation is starting to take on the shape of a spoon. You go back to the plan view and work the wood with your knife to refine the shape. Then you move back to the elevation, refining the shape. In particular, you work the curve of the underside of the bowl.

 You keep alternating, refining the side of the spoon that requires most work, each time making it more spoon-like than the other.  

Concentrate On What You Are Bad At

Approach the improvement of your skills like carving a spoon. Just as you work on the aspect of your spoon that looks least like a spoon, work on areas of your skills that are least fully formed.

We all enjoy performing tasks or undertaking skills that we are good at. It makes us feel good. Trying to do something in which we are inexperienced, lacking in skill and which requires a large amount of conscious effort to even produce mediocre results is not as pleasurable.

It’s exactly these more difficult areas we should be spending most time in improving. Concentrate on what you are bad at or afraid of and your bushcraft skills will come on leaps and bounds. Spending little time on these, spending most or all of your time doing what you are already good at – or naturally inclined towards – is a very limiting approach.


If your response to this point is, “well, I’m bad at everything”, my reply would be that you haven’t discovered your natural bushcraft talent yet (another reason why you should try many different facets). If you are intent on improving your core skills but feel several areas need significant work, concentrate on what is most important.

Mora knife, Svante Djarv spoon knife and wooden spoon

Refine your skills. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Build Strong Foundations

Beginners in many subjects, not only bushcraft, often want to quickly advance or cover many different topics in a short space of time. This can make for shaky foundations.

Don’t neglect the basic techniques. These are the core of your skill set and form the foundation on which everything else is built.

Don’t Overcomplicate

A common mistake is to equate complicated with advanced.

“If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.”Thomas Aquinas

In bushcraft, simple, elegant solutions are what you should be striving for. Bear in mind, though, that simple can be harder to achieve than complicated.

Simple, effective pot hanger

Don’t overcomplicate things. Photo: Paul Kirtley


Find Somewhere To Practice

What you intend to practice determines what resources and surroundings you actually need. When it comes to finding somewhere to practice bushcraft skills, many immediately picture an area of private woodland.

To my mind, though, this is confusing two things. The first is that we need somewhere to practice a particular skill. The second is the desire to have a quiet, natural place to spend time. The two can be the same place but aren’t necessarily so.

While a camping venue may need to be aesthetically pleasing, a place to practice a skill doesn’t need to be. Finding a landlord who is willing to allow you access to their land is not always easy. It’s also not necessary for progressing many bushcraft skills.


Think about the skills you want to progress. Can you practice them in your back yard or in your garage? Can you legally gather materials locally and bring them to your back garden to use? If you can’t bring the resources with you – for example in honing your tree and plant identification – are there public footpaths you can walk where you can develop your abilities? Can you find other like-minded people who you can join on camps, where the group does have access to private land?

Read more about how to find a place to practice bushcraft skills in the UK.


Spend More Time Observing Nature

At its heart, bushcraft involves a strong understanding of nature.

Whether you have somewhere you can go to wild camp regularly or you can go to a park near your office, which you can visit at lunchtime, make a conscious effort to observe nature more closely.

Set time aside for sitting still and watching. Also force yourself to be more inquisitive. If you see something you don’t recognise or a behaviour you don’t understand, take the time to investigate.



Stop Obsessing About Kit

It’s easier to re-organise your kit cupboard than it is to study a family of plants or to learn to recognise small mammal prints. It’s easier to browse online kit stores during your lunch break than find a green space where you can eat your sandwiches and observe nature.

Every modern outdoors person needs to acquire or make an amount of equipment for their safety and comfort. What sets the bushcraft and survival person aside from your average outdoors person is tools. Because bushcraft involves use of natural materials, we tend to have a few tools, which help with this – a knife, saw and spoon knife for example.

It’s difficult to make a set of tarp pegs or carve a spoon without these few tools. Combined with our skills and knowledge, having these few extra items makes a huge difference to our abilities in the outdoors. Having a drawer full of knives at home, however, makes no difference to your capabilities outdoors.

Don’t mistake this as a criticism of knife collecting. It isn’t. Many people collect things – stamps, model trains, vintage cars, ceramics, to name a few – and I see knife collecting no differently to these. Every collectible has – and needs – its collectors, historians and aficionados.

Just bear in mind that collecting outdoor equipment will no more to make you an effective outdoors person than collecting vintage cars will turn you into Stirling Moss.

Spending less time thinking about kit and more time obtaining skills and knowledge will be time better spent for those who wish to significantly improve their abilities.

Cultivate Focus

Don’t spread yourself too thinly. Concentrate on learning one thing at a time. Don’t be satisfied with knowing a little about something. Strive to learn as much as possible about each particular subject. This is easier when you have the time and energy to focus on one subject/skill.

Burn Your Bow Drill Set


The true skill with friction fire-lighting is not that you can whip out your favourite bow drill set, which has been stored in your centrally-heated house, to produce an ember.

Rather, the full skill-set lies in being able to go into the forest, locate and identify suitable raw materials, which have been stored in the ambient level of humidity, fashion the bow-drill set quickly, then produce an ember. You also need to be able to locate, identify and process suitable tinder and kindling.

Going back to a bow-drill set that you have previously manufactured and you know works is counter-productive to maximising your ability to make fire at will by this method.

The answer is to burn your bow-drill set once you have established your fire. This forces you to make a new set each time. It’s a good discipline for learning.

Similarly, if you make a really good spoon, give it away and then make another one.

campfire with a bow drill set burning in it

Burn your bow-drill set. Photo: Paul Kirtley


Create Positive Constraints


A positive constraint is a situation or event you impose upon yourself or allow to be imposed on you by others, which puts pressure on you to improve in one or more areas. 

Positive constraints can be applied in many areas of life. In terms of fitness, you could enter an event or race, competing in which will require you to improve your fitness or skill from its current level. This simple strategy is much more effective than some vague resolution to “get fitter”.

A positive constraint is even more effective if it is structured so you can’t pull out without losing face amongst friends, peers or team-mates. 

Similarly, if you can create positive constraints around your bushcraft and survival skills, then your mind will be focused on improving the particular skills and areas of knowledge involved.

 You could set aside a number of days where you go to the woods with only very limited equipment and provisions, then use your bushcraft skills to provide for the needs your equipment and provisions don’t. This could be done solo or with a group of like-minded individuals.



Make Journeys

“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.”Tennessee Williams

There’s nothing like a self-contained journey to give your outdoor skills a good dose of realism. It’s all well and good practicing elements of your skill-set but at some point, you have to combine them into a useable whole. Making a journey does this.

For example, even if your campcraft skills are good, you can control an open boat, your paddle strokes are efficient, you know – at least in theory – how to pack a boat for an expedition and you can navigate, you will still learn a huge amount by making a multi-day journey by canoe.

Sitting at home, our thinking becomes flabby. Our mental packing lists contain too many items. Our virtual menus contain a luxurious amount of food. Our perceived packing systems are impractical. Nothing is tempered and honed by the discipline of the journey.

Making a self-sufficient journey under your own steam provides the exposure to reality that is required. It also exposes you to nature. Immersing yourself in nature for a number of days does something to you that spending an afternoon or a day wandering does not. Your rhythm and perspective change.

You are also exposed in the sense that there is less on which to fall back, less of a safety net. You must cope with the conditions and the travails of the journey, using only the things you carry with you and what resources there are around you. You are now responsible for seeing that you remain in good health on the journey and return home safely.

Find A Mentor

At some point you will need help from others. While you can gain input from friends and peers, taking your skills to the next level will, at some stage, benefit hugely from obtaining more focused, expert input.

Find a mentor who will either teach or help you with skills directly and/or push you to achieve higher standards. This can be one mentor or you may need to pick multiple mentors, each for different skills.

The Route To Mastery: A Long And Winding Road

I’m not suggesting that the application of the above ideas and strategies is easy. Some will be easier for you, some easier for others. Practical considerations as to where you live, where you work, what land and resources you have access to and how much time you can spare from family and work will all come into play.

The biggest over-riding factor of mastering any subject, however, is mastery of oneself. If you can take control of your direction and take charge of yourself, applying self-discipline and forsaking the whim of only doing what you feel like at the time, then your skills and knowledge will look very different in 12 months time compared to how they are now.

I’d love to know which areas or skills you aim to focus on in the coming 12 months. Let me know in the comments section below…

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Never Stop Learning: Pushing Your Comfort Zone

How To Find A Place To Practice Bushcraft Skills In The UK

Enter A Virtuous Circle: Take Your Bushcraft Skills On An Adventure

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve

Hi Paul,

This is a great article that puts into perspective how easy it could be to turn into an “armchair Bushcrafter”

I think one of the difficulties facing people these days is knowing how to get started. unless you know someone who can mentor you, people may often pick up bad habits and lead themselves down the wrong path or have the wrong direction toward their own learning, sometimes compounding this by reading someone elses bad habits on forums or social media groups.

it may be handy to have a “right of passage list” somehow giving a direction to get started and maybe a checklist of foundation skills for people to build on?

regards.

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Mell

Animal track and sign… that’s what I am trying to focus on and have been over the last two years…. …..thanks to the addictiveness of the Cyber Tracker evaluations…Spending time with some of the most talented, nerdy and inspiring people in this field has really fed that need to watch and be with nature more…………. I am now totally addicted … but its healthy… I think…. Though my colleagues at our centre find the animal feet and poo collection worrying and a tad smelly at times.

But I love it! There is so much natural history to learn round every corner and my knowledge and understanding of nature grows each time I step into the woods with track and sign in focus – and understanding that that knowledge will continue to grow the more fascinated I become is bloody ace!

I can fall into the trap of skill collecting at times so this article was a right nice reminder to step back and focus. Thank you

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Ben

Mell – define ‘healthy’? 🙂

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Stewart Lomax

Paul,
Great article, that’s why apprentices of old had to produce a masterpiece to prove their worth in their chosen craft.
I find once I’ve gained enough knowledge and skill to pass that skill on I really start to develop myself as I have to really think about what I’m saying and doing. Mostly navigation and camping with scouts. I challenge myself by not taking a stove or matches when teaching DofE so I have to light a fire if I want a hot meal and brew.
I’d like to better my carving and knife skills…. Still need to get that spoon knife!

Regards

Stewart

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Russell

Thanks Paul

I get next to no time to do anything “bushcrafty” apart from birdwatching, with the field craft that goes with it. But as the children get older, I hope to engender some of the wonder I feel for outside in them. They may have bought me a fire pit for Christmas, so especially if we get snow, there will be two children learning how valuable failure is to the soul, because one of them at least wants to learn how to light a fire without matches and Daddy is extremely out of practice. I know how to, in numerous ways. I even have some potassium permanganate and glycerol (stored separately, natch). But I don’t get chance to practice. So that is my task: to teach and whilst doing so to learn.

I might finally try out my spoon knife too, as there is nice bit of seasoned apple wood in the carport….

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Scott Metro

Excellent write Paul. Because of some mobility problems with my legs, my wilderness survival skills are diminishing somewhat because of not getting out as much as I use to.
I always appreciate and treasure your words of wisdom and value your opinions.
Thanks Paul..!!!

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Werner

I noticed that the more knowledge you build, the smaler your kit becomes.
But claim that I master things… every trip or encampment you learn something new.
Another view, a different look at sertain problems.
Bushcraft is a slow, trail and error growing proces just like re-enactment; the more you think you know… the more you are sure that you only know the tip of the iceberg.
When I started medieval reenacting 30 years ago I really was not in to Bushcraft, I only saw swords and armour… then we started encampments. Cooking on open fire, carrying your kit.
Learning how to master the cold with the minimum of kit as you had to carry everything with you.
Just by doing it you start to make things, be careful what you buy. Good quality is often expensif but I still have the same knife for 20 years and it still is my best companion.
Love your Article Paul! Thanks for that!

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stephen cross

very good article paul ,thanks .i really need to get out more in the new year ,more practice on everything for me .get fitter too ….

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Vee

Hi Paul, I really enjoyed your article and it struck a note with me, as I have for the past few weeks been thinking about what bushcraft/survival/ outdoor skills I want to develop in the coming year by way of learning and practising as much possible. Its quite a hard decision as to what to focus on, as I am always so hungry to learn more and more about all aspects of this passion of mine, from tracking and trapping to advanced map reading, from spoon making to pit ovens and bow drills. However, next year my goals are to learn from experts as to how to make and use a bow drill ( I have experimented in my garden many times but never quite achieved it and need some tuition!). I also wish to wittle down my kit as I not disciplined enough in this respect and do much more tarp and bivi overnighters including some hunting, which will open up new challenges. Even writing about this gives me butterflies of eager excitement to get back out there! Roll on 2015, Life is for living!
Many thanks for article!

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Alan

Fungi is my nemesis!! A great article Paul, again with focus on skills..
I am fortunate to spend lots of time outdoors both at work and at leisure, my role sees me often asked random questions about the countryside, nature plants etc so there is some need to have as many answers as possible, it is a fortunate position also in the way that you are always brushing up on your knowledge and re-capping the perishable, and not having the answer is great opportunity to make sure I find out, however 2015 and beyond is going to be all about fungi for me, I’ve steered around the subject for too long!, bar a small number of well known, and intend to learn much more.
As you will fully appreciate, being an instructor, the chance to share knowledge is a great way to polish your own skills, for me there are many life enriching points to being a Scout leader, the biggest being enriching the lives of young people, on a personal level I get to do some teaching of outdoor knowledge and skills in the areas I am competent with, and passing on of skills is a great incentive to practice, practice, practice.. When we think we have become adequately skilled in several areas, we could maybe ask ourselves could we teach this subject well, maybe get involved in doing so,we must remain honest, much of the time I think we will find ourselves putting in more study, time and practice..
My fungi book is staring at me from the shelf!

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James Harris

Excellent article again Paul.
The area i need to work on most is definitely plant identification in the different seasons. I’ve been getting out as often as i can to work on this but there is still a hell of a lot to learn.

James

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Zed Outdoors

Great article Paul and something that I only now fully appreciate having almost achieved my first year in Bushcraft. I’ve kept myself open all year to try or at least appreciate many different disciplines and plan to continue that way into the future. Once I start finding areas of knowledge I resonate with I delve deeper e.g. green woodworking is something i’ve really fallen in love with. Also i’m keeping my learning and practising solely on the basics and testing myself more and more each time. In the new year I plan to focus more on plant ID, camping in different terrains and natural crafts i.e. green woodworking, blacksmith, etc. Many thanks for taking the time to share this

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Rody Klop

I think people are getting afraid to challenge themselves on the other hand lots of people are using “bushcrafting” to escape the ratrace. Like to meditate in nature doing things they like to do without the pressure to accomplish anything. For me bushcrafting is a journey into nature, survivability and awareness. So different people different goals.

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Duncan barnes

Hi Paul,

A great article – I’m trying to teach this mind set to students at work at the moment for their self development! The two best tools I have found to help them are keeping a journal and planning their week ahead at the beginning of the week! I plan My week on a Sunday night!

For 2015 I’m trying not to be too specific – I find when it is it fails, and I miss opportunities that don’t fit my plans! So it’s going to be fire, food and bow/ arrow making!

In addition. I’m trying to plan my weeks so I can spend at least one full day a week In the woods, Heath or river valley! I’ll just have to let the missus I know!!!!

D

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Steve

Hi Paul,

Yup! A thought provoking article. You’re right, it’s a very easy trap to fall into and I’ll hold my hand up to having done it. So 2015 becomes my get out there and shake off the cobwebs year, I have high hopes for decent snow fairly soon and as I live pretty well on the the edge of the Cairngorms it’s out there and practice the arctic survival I learnt in the mob (haven’t snow-holed since 2001 and I love it). Thanks for giving me the boot in the backside I needed mate.

Steve S.

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Churl

Nice spoon.

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Jack McCormack

Hi Paul,
I absolutely love this article. It is really interesting, especially as i am striving to learn more primitive practices such as natural containers, natural tools, and more self reliant skills to go along with the modern day bushcraft and survival skills i have. I never use the word mastery, we are always students of nature, and always will be. Cheers, Jack

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Robert

I used to be really wrapped up in all this stuff, but once I attained Geezerhood, I became convinced that the best way to survive the wilderness experience is to not go there in the first place, but if you must, carry every portable survival tool that money can by, and know how to use it.

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Martin

Another thought provoking blog, thanks friend.

2015 will see me working hard on fire and trapping skills. But then trapping involves so many facets, such as animal signs, habitat, season etc I’m not bad at fire so I guess it’s going to be the trapping I’ll concentrate on.

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Mark

Personally, I think that too many people obsess about kit but the exception is when you realise what skill you are lacking. The other month when I went on a one night camp out I had forgotten how to make a pot hangar. This (as well as other little things here and there) led me to the conclusion that I need to work on my woodcraft. So I am doing just that. I am adding a hook knife to my kit so I can make spoons and bowls. So sometimes I think we can still add to our kit sensibly, in order to grow our skills sometimes. I have also added a bucksaw blade to which I built a frame for. I have snagged an oak stump to use as a saw horse with various notches cut into it and I am making a stave for a bow out of Ash…exciting times 🙂 That being said, I already have an axe *lol* but I have a chopping block and saw horse in one now to help with my wood working.

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Andy Chadderton

Paul

Another great piece of work. Specific content aside, I really enjoy and support the fresh direction that you are ‘nudging’ things. Nothing prescriptive, simply ‘here’s a thought – over to you’ approach.

Per our recent activities, I have seen first hand how ‘bushcraft’ translates into application rather than a thing of itself.

Keep up the good work – refreshing stuff and really stimulates the grey matter.

The suggestion about ‘Kit obsession’ stands a blog all of its own 😉

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Andy,

Good to hear from you and as mentioned to you a blog article regarding “our recent activities” is in the pipeline.

Thanks for your words of support for the above style of article. I think we need to have these philosophical discussions more often and more openly.

Mindset and application are certainly watchwords.

Speak soon.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Nicola

Hi Paul
Great reading again,
I love “collecting vintage cars won’t turn you into Stirling moss” sooo true in all aspects of life!
My heated tent living adventure is about to finish

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Nicola. Glad that resonated with you 😉

Sorry to hear you are moving back inside again soon….

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Petar

Interesting article, Paul and I think educational too. Definitely we must strive toward of mastering own skill set until they become our second nature or until our body memorize all that technics. This year I will try to go outdoor more frequently and to mastering building a base camp with basic tools. Thanks for your time and very valuable informations you share with us!

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Petar,

Thanks for your thoughts on this article. I’m glad you found it interesting.

I hope you can make the time this year to work on the skills you mention.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Marsha

Thanks Paul, I enjoy reading your articles. I used to get “out there” a lot but somewhere along the line I began to lose interest. Could have been the dissention amonst the group I camped with. Anyway I quit practicing and buried my knowledge of all things “bushy”.
Reading your articles is helping me regain my love for bushcraft. For that I thank you. I’m not ready to met up with a new group just yet, maybe just by myself to start with is in order soon.
Warmest Regards,
Marsha

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Harold

What I’ve come expect from your blog, good solid information and thinking. Paul Kirtley Blog has become my go to for reliable Bushcraft concepts. Your video on a weeks food in a side pocket has many gems for anyone traveling the wilds. It’s important to know how to do things but also why. Bushcraft is a good tool for that lesson. What I hope to learn is in recovering skills I lost years ago [ we lived off the grid before there was a grid ]. Winter will be on us soon and these are the areas I want to focus on which will be tough since I am usually all over the map. Knife and axe work especially sharpening, being able to get a good nights sleep in the wilds, knowing my environment and learning to procure food. Lack of food/water and sleep deprivation seem to be the nemesis of many who travel the back country. Keep up the good work and I’ll follow along. Sometimes it takes me the third or forth time to “get it”.

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Ger

Good day Paul,
Another nice post enjoyed reading it as always.

Me and a friend just got started with bushcraft and with
enough means (tent / food) we can “survive” for a week
in Sweden.

We can make fire and cook on it, process water. And we
are wondering would a workshop fire making help ???

Best regards,
Ger.

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Frank Hyland

Hi Paul
I have only been into the wild stuff for ever really, but intently, for about a year. There is a large area of open access and close by with a mixture of moorland, wooded valleys etc. even though I’m working seven days a week at the moment. I get out there every chance I have, I love being outdoors come rain, hail or shine for however short a time. I need to keep practicing everything because if you dont you soon forget. Fire – Steven fry once said the greatest invention of man was the lighter – one flick and you have fire. I tried lighting some damp cherry wood with a match and failed miserably. and looking into wild edibles, I tried some Reedmace roots recently and disliked the taste rather like sweet and salty at the same time but definately starchy. my main task is finding palatable wild edibles! see you out there.

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Rob Anderson

Another fantastic article– and so true. The three areas I am tackling is bow drill– I am doing a minimum of one bow drill fire per week and the other is understanding nature and I am enrolled in Kamana 2 self study class. The final is closely tied to the second- and taking wild edible classes and medicinal prep workshops.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Rob,

Thanks for your comments and sharing what you are doing to improve your skills and knowledge. You are definitely focusing in the right way on important areas. Well done.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Paul Noble

Being new to bushcraft as a discipline, it is easy to be quickly overwhelmed by the many disciplines that bushcraft covers. I am trying to think of the journey in terms of the oft-quoted ‘10,000 hours to mastery´equation, where the 10,000 pertain to the volume of time investment necessary to achieve competence, but where the focus is much more on the journey than on the destination. With younger children at home, time spent out in the woods is less than I would like, but just as you suggest, have broken down tasks into what can be done in the garage, the garden, a nearby park and relatively close woodland and then further afield. The aim for 2016 is to do the introductory bushcraft week course to get a firm foundation, to hopefully get inspiration to discover my ‘natural bushcraft talent’ and move on from there. First rate article as usual…

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Steve MARTIN

Hi Paul, as always an excellent thought provoking article. The pressures of work (Shifts) and life (family) have meant limited access to the Great Outdoors for me over the last few years. Your many articles have given me enthusiasm to “get out there”. This year intend to do the 1000 mile challenge and re-join the local Sea Kayak Club.
Many thanks for the motivation, particularly enjoy your PODCAST and ASK PAUL KIRTLEY. Please keep up good work…

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