Some are of the opinion that autumn is the time to begin hibernating. To be clear, I don’t mean hedgehogs, but people. Under a posting of a seasonally-relevant fire-lighting article on one of my social media pages, a commenter retorted “If your (sic) out and about camping at this time of the year you’ve made a mistake”. This wasn’t one of my ususal readers but it is emblematic of a certain attitude that camping is to be done in the summer months only.
There are some of us that know better, though. I don’t meant this in a superior, snotty way. Rather, I mean there are a host of aspects of nature and outdoor life to be enjoyed, even as the leaves begin to fall and days become noticeably shorter. Autumn brings with it golden leaf hues, low sun angles, casting long shadows in the afternoon, cold, crisp air as night falls, and Orion coming into view above the horizon, as the skies darken. In my book, these are all aspects of the season to be savoured, positive reasons to be outside, not inside and, yes, even camping.
More specifically, if you want to continue to extend your bushcraft knowledge and skills, even as summer is left behind and autumn progresses into winter, there is much to be done. Furthermore, keeping your existing skills honed over the darker and colder months of the year will mean by the time spring comes you won’t be rusty.
What follows is a range of ideas for extending your bushcraft year, getting the most out of your time outdoors in autumn and, through this continued focus, expanding your bushcraft skills and knowledge. I start with activities that are fundamental to making full use of natural materials for bushcraft and survival but don’t necessarily need any special permissions from landowners or access rights. Some of the later suggestions, related to camping overnight might need you to see permission for some types of land in some territories. Most of these, however, are relatively easy to facilitate…
Autumn Leaf Identification
Autumn in deciduous woodland is a colourful time, when the trees turn from green to yellow, gold, orange and red. It’s also good time to extend your ID skills, both in terms of expanding your knowledge of how to identify species you already know in spring and summer but also confirming a question mark you might have over a species you’ve seen before. The maple you saw in June going a bright red in autumn may well help you nail down the ID. Identification of leaves doesn’t have to be limited to looking at those left on trees.
There will be plenty of colour on the ground too, particularly after a spell of autumnal winds. Even in municipal parks you can wander through thick layers of newly fallen leaves, at least before park workers get there with leaf blowers.
Brush Up On Buds
Many people state they find tree identification hardest in winter. If all you have looked at through the spring and summer is leaves, then you will indeed find it hard once the leaves have fallen from deciduous trees. That said, bark can be studied year-round and can be very helpful in determining trees species. Many associate buds with spring but buds form the year before. By autumn, though, buds are fully formed and available to view right through the winter.
Buds are generally very characteristic to particular species and therefore a great way to identify them. Armed with a good tree ID field guide you can spend your autumn and winter months studying the buds you find on regular outings, you’ll become very familiar with at least the common and widespread species. Furthermore, if you start in the autumn, when there are still leaves around, this will be another feature you can cross reference and associate with the buds. Then, after the leaves fall you’ll have a great head start for winter tree ID. And, in the spring, as the buds begin to burst, you can blend your new-found bud knowledge with spring leaf and flower identification.
Become Better Acquainted With Berries
By late summer there are many varieties of berries in the woods, on waysides and in hedgerows. This extends into the autumn and some berries even persist into winter. Many are good eating, either raw or providing the basis for excellent jams, jellies, cordials and other culinary uses, which will add flavour to your winter menus. In most jurisdictions you don’t need special permission to pick berries from land where you are allowed to access and this includes public rights of way. But you do need to differentiate between the edible and the poisonous, and know the good ones from the unpalatable.
Further reading – Ten of the best European Berries To Forage
There is an oft-quoted rule of survival which is that red is a warning sign, that all red berries should be avoided. True, you don’t want to be be eating some red berries, such as holly, Ilex aquifolium, black bryony, Tammus communis, to name a couple of examples that bear red berries long into the autumn and winter. But leaving out all red berries also means leaving out many tasty and nutritious fruit too. Equally, there are berries of colours other than red that contain dangerous levels of toxins. The long and the short of it is that leaving out all red berries is too simplistic a rule. IIf you are serious about learning to feed yourself from nature, you have to learn to recognise the fruit for what they are, regardless of colour, just as you can with fruit you are used to eating. Unlike the supermarket, where you only have the fruit to make a correct identification, when you are out in the countryside you also have other parts of the plant, shrub or tree to help ID the species. Admittedly, you aren’t going to pick something poisonous in the food store, though. Hence, plant ID skills are a core part of your ability to feed yourself from nature, a key bushcraft and survival skill. You can continue to work on this ability throgh the autumn, for sure.
You can start by working on positive identification, rather than foraging for food, until your experience and confidence grows. It’s something that you can undertake in short sessions or spend the whole day doing. It’s very helpful to have a plant plant ID book and a tree ID book. These days you don’t even need to carry them with you though. Take photos on your phone of features of the species, including the fruit, stems, twigs/stems, bark, leaves and general character of the species. When home you can use your ID guides to narrow it down. When you think you know what it is, do an internet search on the species you think you have identified to help confirm your theory. At some point, you might also find my Tree and Plant Identification Masterclass useful to hone your ID abilities.
Learn More About Fungi
It’s rare that you go into the woods and see no fungi at all. The season of most concentrated fungi fruiting, however, is in the autumn. It’s a great time to get out and see many fungi in a short space of time. Certainly to start with, don’t think about picking any for food purposes. As you no doubt already know, there are a number of potentially lethal species to be avoided. Indeed, there are thousands of species of fungi, some very hard to identify, or at least differentiate from similar species, which may have wildly different toxicity. Moreover, fungi can be quite variable in form and generally look quite different when they first emerge through to when they fully mature. It’s highly advisable not to run before you can walk.
To start with it’s good just to observe and become familiar with common species. By definition you will become most familiar with the most common species you see in your area. This gives you a frame of reference to work from. Get a good field guide, which will help with identification of what you see. Many fungi develop quickly, with significant changes from one day to the next. So, go back to the same areas where you have spotted fungi regularly to increase familiarity. An option for deepening your fungi knowledge further is joining a fungi foray with a local mycology group. These are often advertised locally and generally relatively inexpensive. Alternatively, a quick internet search for autumn fungi walks in your area should yield a list of options. Some professional foragers also run fungi foraging walks.
Further reading – How To Learn About Fungi Safely
Study Animal Tracks And Sign
As you are wandering around on your woodland walk, looking at leaves on the ground, you may also spot animal tracks. Indeed you are more likely to spot clear imprints of footprints in autumn and winter. In the damp months of the year, the ground tends to be softer, with more mud. There is also less green vegetation. This means there is more media on which sign will easily be left and on which you will easily see it. In winter, when snow is on the ground, is one of the best times to assess the variety of animals present in a landscape, as their activity is written clearly on the snow. In winter you may see signs of activity not so apparent at other times of the year, such as different forms of feeding due to scarce food resources.
If you’d like to learn more, check out the Frontier Bushcraft Tracking and Nature Awareness Course.
Take A Night Hike
Being able to navigate in the dark is useful year-round but becomes increasingly relevant as the evenings draw shorter in autumn. If you don’t want your hikes to be curtailed by 16:00 in winter, then learning to be confident in walking in the dark will pay handsome dividends.
Start with walking routes you are already familiar with in daylight. Even if you do not need a map and compass for these routes normally, use these hikes into darkness as an opportunity to check your skills in familiar territory. Once you are confident, you can extend to less familiar areas. Maybe set a date in the future where you and some friends will walk a section of lowland trail in the dark and work towards the skills and confidence to do so. It’s very enabling to be able to go where you want when you want and the autumn and winter are months to extend this ability.
If you’d like help getting your navigation skills up to scratch, check out the Frontier Bushcraft Navigation 101 Course.
Light Fires In Cold, Wet Conditions
Fires are most valuable when they are hardest to light. If you travel far and wide enough, cold and wet conditions can present themselves at pretty much any times of year. One week you can have warm summery weather, the next it can be days of persistent rain. The latter can be enough to throw you off your firelighting game, even in summer unless you are practiced in fire lighting in wet conditions.
The best time of year you have available to practise in cold, wet conditions is during the autumn, winter and early spring. Ground conditions can be damp for extended periods of time, so you are forced to source good quality kindling away from the ground. This puts you in a position where you have to differentiate between dead twigs and live but dormant twigs. This goes back to buds. Dead twigs don’t produce buds. Lighting fires in the northern temperate zone in the autumn and winter is one of the hardest places to light fires consistently. Practice here and you’ll be good to go anywhere.
Further reading – Tactics For Fire-lighting In The Damp, Cold Months
Bivvy With Jack Frost
When you next see a frosty night forecast, rather than retreating to the warmth of your home, think about how you might bivvy or hammock out in the woods for a night. Do you have the kit to stay warm? Could you modify what you already have? Could you get by with wearing socks, long johns and a wooly hat or do you need to add a warmer sleeping bag or an under blanket?
Once you’ve figured out how to extend your existing gear to sleep out on a frosty night, give it a go. Try to find somewhere relatively close to home, even the back garden. This way you don’t have far to retreat in case you end up cold and uncomfortable. Take warm clothes and a flask of hot drink too just in case. Even if you don’t get the perfect eight hours sleep, you’ll learn a lot. Experience trumps theory in this regard and you’ll be able to iterate your kit quickly and improve how you use it so you become more and more comfortable when out on a cold night. Plus there’s nothing better than waking up toasty warm in your bivvy while snow gently falls all around you.
Further reading – Winter Bivvying: How To Stay Warm In A World Of Cold
Winter Weekend Campout
Much of the above activities can be included in a weekend (or longer) in the woods. If you have access to a suitable piece of woodland, where you have permission to camp, why not organise a winter campout for you and some friends who are of a similar mindset? There’s always a great campfire atmosphere in colder months of the year. As the darkness envelops you and the cold descends, you really appreciate the fire and the friends you share it with.
Further reading – Winter Woodland Wildcamping: 21 Tips & Tricks
Cook A Casserole On A Campfire
If you are camping out for the weekend, you are going to need some food. Because it gets dark relatively early, you have plenty of time for cooking in the evenings. You also welcome being close to the fire when it is chilly. A hearty meal for the colder months of the year, which will also keep you warm through the night in your bivvy or hammock is a casserole or stew. In terms of keeping washing up to a minimum, many recipes are also one-pot meals. A basic beef stew recipe might include diced beef, onion, celery, carrot, parsnip, potato, herbs, stock cubes, butter. You then have the option of adding dumplings for extra stodge value.
Follow The Moon And Constellations
Shortening days mean longer nights. While this may be restrictive to some activities, it does mean you have the heavens over your head for longer each day. It’s a great opportunity to study the motion of the stars and the Moon as well as become familiar with the main constellations. As well as being fascinating in its own right, this has practical applications in natural navigation. Some of the constellations such as Cassiopeia or Ursa Major, otherwise known as The Plough or The Big Dipper, point out the location of Polaris, The North Star. This then gives you geographic north.
Other stars can also give you direction. One of the most prominent and recognisable constellations of the autumn and winter sky is Orion. The first star in Orion to rise over the horizon each evening rises directly east. The only problem with this is it’s hard to recognise the star on its own. But as you start to recognise the constellation emerging above the horizon, you know you are looking broadly eastwards. Remember that the Sun is a star and the reason it rises in the east is not because we orbit the Sun but because the Earth spins. Just as the Sun rises in the eastern part of the sky, so do the stars. If you are looking at a star which is rising then you are looking broadly eastwards. If you are looking at a star which is setting you are looking broadly westwards.
The motion of the Moon is quite complex but the illuminated part of the satellite is down to the light of the Sun. The motion of the Sun is regular and easily predictable, so in this way the Moon provides a good indicator of direction. There are many fascinating aspects of the winter sky and always more to learn about – certainly enough each year to keep you occupied until the lengthening days of spring.
Make Candle Holders And Improvised Candles
Once your neck has tired of looking at the sky for the evening, you are going to need some illumination around camp. Candles provide a lovely gentle light. A few strategically placed candles around camp can provide a very reasonable level of working light, particularly when combined with a camp fire. Equally a candle next to your bivvy provides enough light to read by. The effectiveness of candle illumination is improved by raising it up away from the ground so illumination is coming from above, rather than below. It is very easy to make a candle holder from natural materials to achieve this. Take a stick of thumb thickness, cut it to the height you want the candle held above the ground. Then split it a little way down by tapping your knife gently into the end. Once split in one end, point the other end. Take a 15cm (6 inch) length of a 2cm (1 inch) wide strap of suitable bark such as birch or cherry and double it over into a loop. Insert the tab ends into the split, put the candle within the look and pull it tight against the stick to hold it in place.
Further Reading – How To Make An Improvised Candle Holder
Keep the stub ends of the candles you burn. The next time you use a small tin can of food – smaller cans of sweetcorn or fruit are an ideal size – you can create an improvised candle using the old candle stubs. Put the tin near your campfire at a distance which gives a good heat for roasting food. Place the candles in the tine and wait for them to melt. Once the tin is about two-thirds full of molten wax, carefully move it away from the heat of the fire. Use a couple of sticks to hold the tin and don’t lift it too high from the ground as you move it – if it drops, you don’t want molten wax splashing all over your feet and legs. Away from the fire, add an improvised wick. The easiest way to create this is tightly twist up some tissue into a pencil thickness wand of material, long enough for the end to be clear of the wax. Place this wick into the centre of the molten wax. It won’t stay in position while the wax is molten so put a small stick across the top of the can, just off centre, for the wick to rest against while the wax sets.
Further Reading – Making a Tin-can Candle
As the leaves come down from the trees in autumn and into winter, you have a fresh supply of thatching material for leaf shelters, otherwise known as debris shelters or debris huts. There are two broad types – those which rely on fires for warmth, which are open on the side facing the fire, and those which are enclosed designed to retain a volume of still, warm air around your body. To provide decent thermal insulation, you need about a forearm’s depth of leaves. To provide waterproofing you need about a full arms depth of leaves combined with a slope angle of around 60 degrees. When done properly, these shelters are remarkably effective at cutting down the mechanisms of heat loss to a cold environment. You are not likely to need one of these shelters for survival purposes in the UK or much of western Europe (since you are always going to be within walking distance of a road) but they are fun to build and a good experience to sleep out in. You may well find them warmer than your usual bivvy. This being said, start off on your first night inside one by sleeping in your usual bivvy bag, sleeping mat and sleeping bag. A well constructed debris hut will be warm, dark and quiet – perfect for a good night’s sleep.
Read More, Study More
As much as yout might try to spend more time outdoors in autumn than normal, putting the above suggestions into practice, there is much less daylight towards the end of autumn and into winter, than in the summer. Moreover, there are a bunch of great bushcraft, survival and wilderness living skills books, that you should read at some point. You might was well make use of the dark nights to catch up on some outdoor literature. Don’t think this has to be undertaken only at home. In my neck of the woods, from late October to mid February there is less than 10 hours of daylight, with the shortest day having less than eight hours. This means more than enough hours of darkness for sleeping, with a significant amount spare too. Of course, some of these hours of darkness can be spent around the campfire, enjoying the flickering flames and warmth. Some can be spent looking at the stars or going out for a night navigation hike. Even so, there is plenty of time for reading, while your casserole simmers, or cosy in your bivvy bag with a candle casting light. So, when you are packing for a woodland campout in the fall and winter, you would do well to pack a good book too. There are some basic bushcraft and survival book recommendations on my resources page, but I would love to hear more suggestions from readers in the comments below too.
Further Study – when you are at home, you can also make use of my extensive Online Elementary Wilderness Bushcraft Course, furthering your skills and knowledge, ready for adventures ahead.
There Will Be More Than One Autumn…
The above should give you plenty to work on as the nights draw in and the days become colder. Indeed, to really work on many of these skills and areas of knowledge (fungi for example) will take multiple years. Don’t let this put you off though. With any skill set which takes time, there is no better time to start than the present. Autumn is here and winter is not far behind. Rather than hibernating until spring, make the most of the coming months and take your bushcraft skills to the next level. And don’t forget to enjoy the process.
I’d Love To Hear From You
Let me and other readers know your thoughts in the comments below; which of the above do you plan to try or work on? Which areas are you already familiar with? Do you have additional tips for these? What else do you suggest others try this autumn, as we head towards the end of the year? Leave your thoughts, ideas and observations in the comments section below…