Spring is a time of great change, of significant transformation in the landscape. The pace starts off slow, with subtle signs here and there, available to the attentive nature watcher. Then, as the days grow longer, there is acceleration. Life seems to burst into the previously dormant world. It’s a wonderful time of the year to be exploring nature and the more you are out, the more you’ll witness. After the short days of winter, it’s a good time of year to dust of your bushcraft knowledge, sharpen your skills and sample the best that springtime has to offer.
Get Up With The Birds
The return of migratory species from overwintering in warmer climes, combined with the mating season for birds kicking off in full, gives rise to a spectacular increase in birdsong in the woods and hedgerows in spring. At first it can seem like a cacophony, a chaotic mass of chirping. After listening for a little while, however, your brain begins to tune into particular songs, repeated refrains and identifiable sounds. If you spend a springtime weekend in the woods, you can not only take the opportunity to have an early night, to have a good sleep under your tarp, only to be awoken by the dawn light and the chorus of birdsong which accompanies it.
Catkins And Blossom
Spring is a time when dormant shrubs and trees come back to life. Catkins and blossoms are one of the first signs of this resurgence of activity in the hedgerows and in the woods. Catkins are spikes of small flowers. Catkins are most closely associated with hazel, alder and willows. Blossoms are closely associated with fruit trees in particular. In the early spring we can expect to see the blossom of blackthorn, otherwise known as sloe, as well as the cherry plum, or myrobalan plum, both of which have very similar and very pretty and flowers which appear before the trees come into leaf. It’s quite a transformation when these species come into flower, from a very dark skeletal hedgerow or understorey in the woods, to an explosion of white or very light pink blossom and a spray of brightness and colour.
Catkins are present all winter but as the life begins to come back into the tree, the catkins expand. Catkins are something that are fun to look for with your kids in general but what is especially fun when you see the catkins of hazel, is to also try to spot the much smaller female flowers on the same tree. These look like a cross between an alien egg and a hermit crab, with the tiny but brightly coloured pink styles emanating from the green bud-like structure . The other catkins to look out for in the spring which are really very attractive and very distinctive are the catkins on willow and in particular goat willow, otherwise known as pussy willow, Salix caprea. The chestnut brown buds begin pretty indistinct but they will explode into a delicate, furry-looking structure with silky appearance, tipped with sulphur yellow pollen making them very distinctive in the spring landscape.
All of the species mentioned here, willow, hazel and alder are common, widespread and useful species for a multiple bushcraft uses. Now is a great time of year to start spotting them. Familiarising youself with these species, looking at their features more closely and more carefully and learning to identify the species year-round should be part of your core tree and plant identification for bushcraft and survival. Further, noticing the blossom of blackthorn allows you to keep a mental note of where to find sloes in the autumn. As the spring progresses, you can also keep an eye out for the blossom of wild cherry, as well as hawthorn, both of which bear fruits later in the year.
Sup Some Sap
Towards the end of winter and the beginning of spring, deciduous trees draw up more moisture from the roots and pump it up and into the rest of the tree. This immediately precedes the sprouting of leaves in many species and several species can be tapped for their sap. Traditionally, sap was used for various different purposes both in Europe and in North America. As well as the sap of maple species being collected to produce maple syrup, the spring sap of birch species has also been collected. Birch sap can be drunk on its own. Raw it’s slightly sweet and somewhat earthy tasting. It can also be reduced into a syrup. Other uses include making birch sap wine.
Now you don’t necessarily have to tap a birch tree to taste the sap. Any damage to bark on a larger limb or even a small branch when the sap is really flowing will give rise to drips of sap emanating from the tree. I remember one March being out with a group of friends on a very sunny day. It was blue sky from horizon to horizon but it there was very little greenery in the woods. Nevertheless, it was one of those early spring days where you could sense life was coming back to the environment and about to burst forth.
As we sat down to eat our lunch under some birches, I started to feel like I was getting drops of rain on my head but was puzzled due to the blue sky. Was it a spring shower from a rogue cloud? No, above me one of the branches of the birch trees was rubbing against another tree, creating a wound on at lease one of the trees. From this area of rubbing, sap was running and dripping off one of the branches lower down. So even a small opening in one of the trees can give me the opportunity to taste the sap.
If you want to go further, methods of tapping into a tree to extract sap exist but you need to be careful in how you do this. It is important not to leave the tree effectively bleeding to death or even leaving a deep wound, open to infection. If you are to tap a birch tree then, when you are finished, you should always add a plug of wood that is the same size as the hole that you’ve made in the tree trunk. Saw off the plug flush with the trunk so there is a good seal to stop the flow of sap. A good plug also ensures the tree is not open to infection. I guess I should also note at this point that not all trees are non-toxic and so you should be careful to positively identify the species from which you want to taste sap.
Whip Some Willow
Rising sap brings much more moisture into the body of a tree. This has the effect of making the bark wetter and looser. So for a species which yields fibrous bark that is really good for making natural cordage, the springtime is ideal timing for collecting the bark in order to make some natural cordage. Willow species are one of the best examples of this. In the latter part of the year and over the winter the bark is really quite difficult to remove but as soon as the sap starts to rise the bark loosens, leading to willow yielding its bark much more easily. Taking the bark off willow branches has the added advantage that it smells really pleasant. The best way to prepare the bark is to first scrape off the outer bark with the back of a bushcraft knife. This reveals the inner fibrous bark. Once the outer bark is been scraped off, the inner bark can be removed in sheets or strips. The removed the inner bark can be pared down further then twisted up into natural cordage immediately. Of the fibres can be further prepared in order to produce a longer-lasting and more flexible cordage. This latter process involves boiling the bark fibres with wood ash from the campfire to create a alkali solution, then drying the fibres before again tearing it into strips and laying this material up into cordage.
Eat The Leaves
A further natural consequence of rising tree sap is the tree has the required nutrition and impetus in order to give forth its leaves. Some of these leaves make good eating in the spring, even if later in the year they become unpalatable, indigestible or even somewhat toxic. A prime example of this is the leaf of common beech, Fagus sylvatica. When its leaves first emanate from their buds they are a light green, delicate and somewhat flimsy. At this stage they are tasty, having a flavour somewhat like lemon mixed with a nuttiness that you expect from beechnuts in the autumn. The leaves are a good addition to salads and sandwiches when they are in this very early stage. A little bit later in the year, when the leaves are more mature, taking on a darker green colour, they are stiffer and contain more cellulose. They become less palatable and indigestible. Another good source of edible leaves in the spring are lime trees (species in the genus Tilia).
Forage For Spring Greens
If you’re itching to do some foraging for spring greenery, then you don’t need to wait for the leaves to come out on the trees. Many forest floor plans like to get a head start on the trees above them. The simple reason to this is that once the trees come into leaf, they absorb a lot of sunlight, which would otherwise hit the forest floor. This is it exactly what tree leaves are for, to absorb light, and through the process of photosynthesis converts energy for the tree to use. This can mean the leafy woods of summer can be quite a dark place compared to the bright early days of spring.
So if you are forest floor plant, looking to get energy from the sun, it’s in your interests to get your leaves out earlier than the trees, so you can take advantage of the increasing strength of the spring sunshine. Hence you will see a lot of forest floor plant activity early in the spring, maybe even in the late winter. This activity is allied quite closely with many spring flowers appearing as well. I should caveat this point with the fact that you are not the only hungry animal or insect out there, having survived the harshness of winter. Some plants have evolved chemical defence mechanisms against being predated by animals when they put out their first leaves. This means some common and well-known spring species of plants are in fact poisonous to humans is whether as well as other animals, for example snowdrops, daffodils, lords and ladies, celandines and bluebells. So, you should be cautious.
That said, there are a good number of worthwhile spring greens to keep an eye out for adding to your salad, ranging from wood sorrel to wild garlic. You could also look for the delicate lacy leaves of pignut, to indicate the location of its small but tasty edible tuber. If you are going to undertake some springtime foraging, however, it behoves me to advise you to seek further guidance, from good quality online foraging articles, foraging guidebooks or going out into the field with a professional forager to learn from them directly. And remember the most important rule of learning wild food foraging – if in doubt, leave it out!
Longer Days, Longer Walks
As days grow longer, it’s an obvious statement to say you can spend more time outdoors in daylight. In the context of enjoying outdoor life, for the average working person, longer days mean you go from arriving home from work in darkness to travelling home or arriving home in daylight. Therefore, at some stage, there will be enough light remaining each evening for you to go out for short short walk to see what’s going on in nature around you, even if that’s a local town park. You will see clear changes from day to day at this time of year. Getting out for walk is also good for your health and fitness. Regular walking is good for cardiovascular health and definitely puts you in good shape for longer walks in the summer.
At weekends or days off in the longer days of spring, you can afford the time to take longer walks. You can spend more time out looking at nature, foraging, practising skills. And if you are spending the weekend out, camping in the woods for at least an overnighter, spring is a great time to explore more. You can extend the range you walk out from your regular camping spot or spend more time getting to know an area you’ve been planning to visit for a while. In the depths of winter, camping out largely consists of doing what you have to in what little daylight you have. In spring, you have the luxury of more time, more exploring and you can extend your activities with the increasing day length. Increasing your time walking and exploring in pace with this is a natural way to increase your time outdoors and fitness without really noticing. It’s a little bit like going back to being a kid when you played outside until it got dark.
Plus, the time you are going to spend outdoors in spring is high-quality. There’s lots going on in nature to observe and learn about, so there is the dual benefit of fitness and knowledge. You can also even practice some navigation skills while out and about whether that be map and compass or extending your knowledge of natural navigation.
Examine The Equinox
Ask most people about what direction the sun rises and what direction the sun sets, they will tell you the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. While this is broadly true, it’s only exactly right on a couple of days of the year. More specifically on the days of the equinox – once in March and once in September. On all other days of the year, however, the sun is going to be rising and setting somewhat north or somewhat south of these points. Around the time of the equinox is a really good time to deepen your understanding of the apparent motion of the Sun through the sky and what this can tell you about direction. Equinox means equal night. This is the time of year when the length of the day and night are approximately equal. It’s also the time of the year when the rate of change of day length is greatest. In the spring, you will notice the Sun sets several minutes later each day.
The nature around you reacts to this increased light, Indeed we have been talking about this concept implicitly in much of what has gone before in this article already. Not only is the day getting longer but also the sun is getting higher in the sky each day. More specifically, the Sun’s highest point is getting higher each day. If you think about noon in the middle of the summer compared to noon in the middle of the winter, you will already recognise the height of the Sun is really quite different at each of these seasonal extremes. Spring is a time of rapid change and much of this is driven by growing daylight hours and increasing height of the Sun in the sky. This is a good time of year to study the Sun’s motion in a bit more detail, checking sunrise times and directions, sunset times and directions and maybe even the elevation of the Sun at local noon.
So far I’ve mentioned much about increased sunshine, sunny days, blue skies, rising sap, singing birds and lots of life and brightness in the environment. We should remember, however, that it can still be pretty chilly at this time of year. Even if the daytime temperatures are climbing, there can be significant temperature differentials between daytime and nighttime. So if you’re planning on camping out, then be prepared for potentially chilly nights in the spring. It often catches people out. Certainly if you have a clear sky in late March or early April, you can easily have frosty nights. If you are camping out, do remember to take warm clothing for potentially cold evenings, make sure you have a warm enough sleeping bag for the season, and maybe some thermals.
If it is still chilly, some of these Winter Woodland Wildcamping Tips & Tricks will be useful.
If it’s going to be chilly at night, it’ll be worth making sure you have plenty of firewood and a good campfire established before dusk. Of course this gives you the opportunity to work on your fire skills. With the longer days of spring, you have the potential to experiment a little bit more. While in the winter you may just revert to the tried-and-true methods that you know to get a fire going quickly, spring provides a bit more time to get the fire going before it becomes dark. This gives the opportunity to practise new skills or apply existing skills that might be a little bit rusty. Spring is certainly a good time to sharpen your skills and expand the range of tools in your fire-lighting toolbox. And remember, those cold, clear nights are the ones which give the opportunity to really see the stars. Another opportunity to extend your knowledge of natural navigation…
Watch Out For Widow-Makers
If you want to be camping out at this time of year it’s the time of year when you most need to be really conscious of potential deadfalls and widow-makers. After the winter months there may well be dead branches hung up in the trees. We tend to have more gales in the autumn, winter and early spring. This can leave trees weakened, branches prone to fall or even detached but still up in the canopy. This is something to be conscious of even when visiting sites that you are familiar with. Things may have changed since the last time you were there, particularly if you’ve not been to camp there since the previous autumn. So always look up to make sure there is not something there waiting to fall down on you that wasn’t there before.
The other thing you should be aware of, particularly in the context of the spring camping is, as the sap rises it makes the limbs of trees much heavier. This can cause branches which may have received some damage in the winter to suddenly fall. So in the spring you will see and hear about many instances of sizeable branches falling from trees. In particular, in European deciduous woodlands you should be especially aware of large specimens of common beech, Fagus sylvatica, as well as oak trees, Quercus species. Both can drop sizeable branches that would cause serious injury or death. Even vehicles parked under some branches would suffer terminal damage, such are the sizes of limbs which can break off.
In light of this, you might then ask the question of how do you know whether or not a large branch these trees is going to drop off? Well you don’t, so the rule is to avoid camping under large beech trees at any time of year. Also avoiding large oaks is a good precaution, even if oaks have a reputation for being strong trees and living many centuries, I have seen as many large branches fall from oak trees in deciduous woodland in the UK as I have seen large branches of beech trees fall.
Sharpen Your Knife Skills
This time of year is also good time of year to sharpen not just your fire skills, natural navigation and extend your bivvying experience but also your knife skills. Many of these skills go hand-in-hand, whether it’s making tent pegs for your tarp, feathersticks for your fire, a shadow stick for direction finding. Not only do you have more time in spring to work on your fire skills, you also have more time around the campfire to work more on crafts. A good example might be that you collected some willow to take off the bark to make natural cordage. The wrist-thick branch of willow that you’ve harvested for the bark can easily be sawn to good lengths then split in order to carve spoons. So you can work on your carving skills from the materials you’ve already collected.
By getting out and about from the early spring onwards, you not only learn a lot more about nature and how it can be useful to you through the medium of bushcraft, you also start taking your personal skills and knowledge to the next level relatively early in the year. The spring represents months of opportunity of pushing various techniques up a notch or two and, ultimately, ending the year at a higher level of proficiency than if you didn’t really get going will your skills until the summer, when half the year has already gone by. The woods and meadows as the spring bursts forth, as the countryside fills with vibrant life, is a fantastic time of year to be out. The energy is contagious….
What do you most enjoy about Spring?
Let me and other readers know in the comments section below. I read every comment. Looking forward to hearing from you….
A version of this article first appeared in Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine.