Friday, 23 March 2018

Bad weather? Perfect opportunity to practice!

Earlier this week we were hit with an unexpected second dumping of snow. Snow rarely lasts very long in the UK, especially so late in the year so in addition to the standard seeking out of a suitably snowy incline to slide down on our backsides, I seized the opportunity to practice one of the more fundamental bushcraft techniques, lighting fire in inclement conditions. When I first started teaching bushcraft sixteen years ago, I found that having to perform a certain survival skill in front of a group of paying customers was a great way to hone that particular skill under significantly increased pressure! If these techniques are to be of any real use in an emergency then they should be practiced under stressful but controlled conditions. Even then, after time it’s all too easy to become complacent. You know where to find exactly the right resources, you’ve had time to prepare and squirrel away the best bits; even though the materials used are natural and taken from nature, psychologically  you’re as prepared as you would be using carried perfect man made kit. Every now and again you should stray further outside your comfort zone; a kind of sado-masochistic form of refresher training.
Having the ability to light a fire using only what can be found in the woods is a great skill to have. Knowing you can make the necessary tweaks to light that same fire in bad weather conditions develops that particular nugget of bushcraft into a life-saving skill. One main-stay of day to day bushcraft is the trick of splitting and then ‘feathering’ standing dead wood into kindling and even tinder,  to be sure of a roaring blaze when all other natural tinders and kindling are sodden.
In short, you must first find some dead seasoned wood, ideally still standing (not necessarily upright but away from the damp ground). The outer bark may well be wet but the inside should generally be dry if the wood is of the right condition – firm and carve able. Too far gone and it’ll be powdery, porous and therefore damp like a sponge but too green (freshly cut) and it’ll still be wet from sap within the wood. The inner bark is a good first indicator of suitability. Scrape the outer bark away and assess whether the inner bark is brown, brittle and papery (dead and seasoned – perfect) or green and flexible (not seasoned enough). Weight is also a good indicator. Seasoned wood is nice and light whereas green or wet wood is weighty.

Cut or snap a section around 30cm long and around 5cm in diameter. This section should be knot and blemish free for easy splitting and feathering. Wood types do play a part. Straight grained timber that splits straight and true is perfect (Sweet Chestnut, hazel, sliver birch) and even better if the wood is known to be resinous (pine, fir, spruce) which will produce brighter, stronger flames during the early stages of the fire.
Using your knife as a splitting wedge and another log as an improvised wood mallet, split the straight grained, knot free section down the middle. Make sure you use a wooden platform to split onto and consider the follow through of the cutting edge if you slip or split the wood more easily than expected! Keep all fleshy body parts well out of the way. Turn one half of the split timber through 90 degrees and split it in half again, then split each of those halves. The wood inside should be nice and dry and will burn really well as a fuel wood, however it needs further processing to serve as kindling and tinder too!

Take one of the straightest, split lengths and holding it firmly at the top, bear down onto a hard, wooden surface. Working on the sharp edge of the inner most part of the split wood, shave a thin curl from top to bottom leaving the fine shaving attached to the wood. Having shaved off the sharp ridge to make the curl, you will have created two new edges either side of it. Work on these now, shaving down the length of the wood to create two more thin shavings. The trick here is firstly to always work on the new edges or ridges you create as you carve a curly wood shaving but also to slightly dig the cutting edge deeper into the wood as you near the base of the feather stick. This should ensure that your curl is kept on the stick and not just sliced off. Keep shaving away the wood until you’ve amassed a veritable ‘fuzz’ of thin, dry wood shavings attached to a now quite skinny section of wood. Dry tinder and kindling in one neat package!  Of course, there’s a whole lot of finer detail that’s difficult to explain, but that’s the kind of information you’ll gain by getting out there and doing it. Several of these feather sticks arranged on top of one another should form a fail-safe foundation to your fire. Any remaining split wood can be split into thinner splints to make additional kindling. The extra preparation is well worth it and the additional benefits to practicing this technique are most definitely improved carving ability and knife control.


So, back to the snowy morning earlier this week. We’d had a good dumping of snow overnight and come morning, the snowflakes were still coming down, made even more blustery by the icy wind. Perfectly challenging conditions to practice this rough weather fire lighting technique in real conditions! Here are my findings which will hopefully be of use and put more meat on the bones of your own fire lighting training and kit preparation.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that I was fully equipped with warm and weatherproof gear, never putting myself in any real risk and had left full details of my route, location and my expected return time with someone responsible and reliable back home.


It doesn’t make much sense to light a fire out in the open in a blizzard when you have a more sheltered area nearby in the form of dense woodland which also provides all your fuel wood. However, the snow was heavy on every branch and twig and although I gave the trees directly overhead a good shake before getting started, I was still experiencing the odd dumping of snow, blown from the higher branches, right onto my fire place and dry, prepared materials. This could easily have been enough to put the fire completely out. Putting up some kind of temporary shelter before getting my fire going was the obvious answer to this problem. I usually carry an Alpkit rig 3.5 super lightweight tarp which would’ve been ideal in this situation.


I cleared away the snow back down to bare ground and then prepared a platform of dead sticks ready for a second platform of split wood above that. My chosen feather stick wood was dead pine and my chosen ignition method would be a Swedish fire steel creating strong sparks but no flame meaning that my feather stick curls would have to be super thin and good quality. The surrounding depth of snow helped by acting as a wind break to the fire in it’s early stages.

Insulation and protection:

I decided to try and achieve fire as fast as I could so ‘toughed’ it out when it came to working directly on the snow. Very quickly, my knees became frozen to the point of being extremely painful, distracting me from the task in hand and slowing me down. Eventually I took the foam padding out from my rucksack to kneel on. Problem immediately solved – I’ll do this straight away next time!
I also tried to work in only the layers I was wearing for the 30 minute trek in; a thermal top, fleece gilet and thin runners Goretex jacket plus windproof fleece gloves and hat. This was fine whilst on the move but as soon as I stopped and began to prepare my fire lighting materials, my core temperature dropped very fast, exacerbated by the fact that I’d been walking fast or running through the snow and was sweaty, especially my back where I’d been carrying my rucksack. Again, this affected my state of mind significantly. I knew that as soon as I started to shiver, this would be my bodies involuntary attempt to re-warm itself, (the start of a slippery slope to hypothermia) and shivering I was, within just ten minutes of being stationary! Having a good insulating and windproof layer in your winter walking kit is essential, even better if it’s designed to be hastily donned over all your other layers when extra warmth is needed fast. I learnt this years ago during a winter mountaineering course in Scotland and it’s proved to be sound advice. In the colder months I carry a synthetic fill, hooded Rab belay jacket, one size larger than I’d usually wear, already ¼ zipped to prevent fumbling about with cold or gloved hands. Once it was on and zipped up, I could focus completely on getting the fire going without worrying about becoming dangerously cold.

Kit set up:

To make good feather stick curls, you need a sharp blade…and mine definitely wasn’t! To make up for my dull blade, I had to invest more energy and more concentration to get the quality of feather stick curls needed to light from sparks alone. I did have a slip stone in my kit, but pushed on regardless. This oversight most likely added to the overall time taken to achieve fire.

I set off in the morning with no breakfast and after a 30 minute run/yomp through the snow to get there had depleted my energy levels significantly. My grip and my forearms definitely felt weaker due to the combined effects of the cold, physical exercise and an empty fuel tank. I do carry a couple of energy bars in my kit but chose to push on without breaking them out. My lack of easy to access energy in the tank most likely contributed to my rapid cooling and subsequent shivering too. If I’m ever in the same situation again, I’ll be chewing on one while I prepare my materials!

It became immediately obvious that working under pressure in fairly deep snow has the potential for valuable items of emergency kit to become wet or even completely lost if you’re not 100% disciplined about keeping a track of where they are at all times. Wind catches stray gloves or maps and whisks them away in a flash and snow can chill or soak fire lighting kit. Put stuff away in a pocket when it’s not in use, close the lid of your rucksack, hang knives and fire steels on lanyards, keep everything out of the weather and away from the damp.


I’ve made reference to the fact that I chose to light the feather sticks with sparks rather than matches or a lighter. This was mostly to ramp up the difficulty and ensure that despite the inclement conditions, my materials and preparation was on point. The last few curls of your feather stick must be super fine and fuzzy to catch those sparks and create a flame. However, by the time I’d finished preparing all my materials with damp gloves, the snow and wind chill had reduced my dexterity significantly. One good thing about the Swedish fire steel is that it’s large and robust enough to operate with a gloved, clenched fist of a grip which is pretty much all I was able to produce by the point of ignition. Fiddling about with matches would’ve been far trickier! My only option then would’ve been to spend time re-warming my fingers and hands using body heat (most likely shoving those icy digits down my trousers!) to the point where they’d regained enough dexterity to hold a match or operate a lighter.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that one of the key lessons to take away from all of this is to be prepared when venturing out into wild places. Stopping, gathering and preparing enough materials to create fire takes time and energy. In a real situation in such extreme conditions, having good kit on hand would save your bacon. Carrying the right clothing including back up options for extreme conditions, plus emergency shelter, a stove and/or fuel blocks, dry tinder such as waxed tinder card or cotton wool with a reliable lighter, wind proof matches AND a fire steel would mean that you could get warmer a hell of a lot quicker or potentially save yourself if your situation was worse than my self-imposed one. Develop a good system with your kit. Keep it well maintained and know how to use it!

However, despite all my mishaps and poor decisions above, fire was still achieved with a fire steel in the snow. The biggest obstacle to overcome in situations like these is a lack of confidence in your own abilities. Having practiced this skill previously, I knew from personal experience that if I persevered and tweaked my approach to the problem, I’d get there.  Weirdly, trying and failing can be just as valuable a lesson as succeeding first time. All those failures serve as an excellent trouble shooting manual when things aren’t going to plan and ultimately give a lot more depth to your understanding of the technique.
I hope this information is of some help to you in your training. Get out there and try it!


Friday, 19 December 2014

Need a tarp?

Hello, I’m initially breaking radio silence in blog world with a well deserved kit recommendation in the last few days before Christmas! However, keep an eye on this blog as I’ll be updating it regularly over the winter months with articles for anyone interested in traditional skills, crafts, kit advice, bushcraft skills and other adventures. I’ll be kicking things off with a series on making your own outdoor gear from scratch.

In the meantime...if you’re looking to make the transition from tent to tarp in 2015 or possibly hoping to swap your existing tarp for a lighter, stronger version…you must take a look at the Rig range from Alpkit. I have a LOT of time for this UK outdoor gear company, they just seem to keep getting better and better, coming up with new ideas and consistently producing  lightweight kit and clothing of high quality. Tarps are one item from their extensive equipment range that really don’t seem particularly complicated or confusing but don’t forget, you’re effectively investing in a roof over your head! Not a decision to be taken lightly…
The rig 7 tarp in action keeping the winter weather off me and my incredibly cosy bed!
 I’ve been using tarps (or ‘bashas’) all year, every year for several decades now, initially starting with the issue green army poncho in the mid 80’s (not very roomy or lightweight but fairly bomb proof) then progressing onto different sizes, materials, coatings, colours, even making several of my own. I love the simplicity and versatility of the concept and much prefer sleeping outside (but under cover) than crammed into a tiny, sweaty tent. The Alpkit Rig range first caught my eye due to the lightweight pack size compared to their generous coverage when open. The ‘kelp’ choice of colour was perfect for keeping a low profile in the woods too – a mute, non-offensive earthy colour without looking military in anyway. I initially went for the rig 7 as an extremely roomy one person option but was so impressed with it that the much larger rig 21 expedition tarp and super tiny, packable rig 3.5 soon followed.

The big rig 21 suspended from intermediate rigging loops to allow the ends to be folded in and make a fully enclosed and still very big tented area
This was my home for a very rainy mid summer ten day camp. Myself and all the course demo kit lived under here quite comfortably

 If you decide to try one, you’ll immediately notice the small pack size. Once open you’ll like the reinforced guy line holes and webbing tabs providing the perfect compromise between lightweight materials and strength. I’ve only ever seen one webbing loop break so far but the reinforced holes have never torn out or ripped on me yet. As you’re putting it up for the first time you’ll be impressed with the build quality, taped seams and neat, strong stitching. As you lay under it in your sleeping bag, listening to the rain drumming on your rig roof you’ll be amazed to see no leaks and astounded to see no absorption of moisture on the outside, just rain being repelled back to from whence it came (or into a collection device if you’re crafty).

Close up of reinforced guying holes. These are extremely strong even with very thin guy lines shown

The ridge line hanging loops, also reinforced and well sealed

In fact, one problem often associated with lightweight tarps and shelters is that of moisture transmission as soon as you touch the inside of the material. This just doesn’t seem to happen with the rig tarps (must get around to asking them why…). In North Wales recently I had to set up an extremely low bivvy due to high winds and was constantly brushing against the inside of my rig 7 tarp as I moved around inside but didn’t notice any drips coming through as a result. Result!!
Very low rig 7 bivvy tarp in North Wales. I'm lying in a ditch to give me a bit more room inside. Luckily the ditch had an underground drainage system...

My trusty rig 7 again doing a grand job of keeping off the winter snows. This roof pitch looks flatter than it was (the centre was raised to give a secondary pitch), even so the tarp didn't drip inside!
I’ve used the rig 7 as my main camping tarp for several years now and hope to for years to come. It’s the perfect size when open and packed away, strong, simple and light. There’s just no need to look elsewhere! The larger rig 21 has been used as a group shelter on courses, the inner skin on a leaky roundhouse when using it as a base camp in foul conditions and even the roof of a show stand at outdoor events (unfortunately it was nicked recently so I’ll be ordering another one next year).

The massive rig 21 deployed as the roof of our show stand at the wilderness gathering 2013. The tarp easily kept the whole of our extensive display dry and when packed down, takes up around half the volume of the little round willow basket in the fore ground!

The rig 3.5 is a little revelation. It’s a minimalist one person bivvy tarp with all the same features as it’s larger cousins. It’s main advantage is that it packs down absolutely tiny. I mean minuscule!  This makes it perfect for super lightweight, minimalist trips, adventure races and especially as a ‘you never know’ bit of kit in your daypack. I use mine as exactly that and it gets frequently set up as a temporary work area when I’m out in the woods working on a craft of small project on a rainy day. Barely noticeable in your pack, easy to set up and provides a decent dry spot for one person, whittling a spoon by the fire.
The amazing rig 3.5 set up as overhead shelter for a one person temporary workshop area

The same rig 3.5 tarp set up as a good sized, one person survival shelter, open fronted to allow the occupant to stay warm next to the fire (otherwise the open front could be closed down for maximum weather protection and retained warmth as shown below - one corner flipped up to provide a sheltered cooking area during the day)

The 3.5 rig tarp packed away, sitting in between Nalgene bottle/ titanium mug combo on the right and insulated jacket in yellow dry bag on the left. This standard day kit has everything needed for a walk off the beaten track plus emergency overnight gear. The rig 3.5 compliments this small, lightweight but effective set up perfectly
Take a look at some of my images of my rig tarp collection in use and if you’re after a tarp, I can heartily recommend the Alpkit rig range. Check out all the specs here
Happy winter tarping!



Thursday, 6 March 2014

Primitive Packs – load carrying equipment made from sticks, skins and string:

This post was originally published in a magazine but after spending the weekend weaving perfectly useable kit carrying devices using only willow wands and rushes, I thought it deserved an airing!

When I first started down this route over twenty five years ago, it was with a view to learning the essential survival skills that might give me the edge in an unplanned outdoor emergency but I never really devoted a lot of thought to where I was heading and why. Over the years my direction has seemingly changed from ‘survival training’ leaning more towards the traditional crafts and wilderness living skills collectively known today as ‘bushcraft’ although the effortless merging from one into the other implies that this had been my intended journey all along. I was just addressing it by the wrong name!

 Bushcraft as a subject is difficult to define having many variables and countless connotations, meaning different things to different people.  An interest in bushcraft often begins with survival training then delves further, looking towards becoming able to source everything needed for life from the natural world around us. We strive to learn how these natural resources were shaped and processed to benefit our lives in days gone by. With the development of this knowledge comes an awareness of how resources should be harvested responsibly so as not to have a lasting impact on the very environment that provides us with everything we need. One thing’s for certain…bushcrafters will never be bored!

Those of us who like to trace a skill back to it’s roots in order to understand it completely, look to the sketchy clues of the past for inspiration. More recent, well documented hunter gatherer societies help to fill in the gaps but every now and again a window to the past is unearthed enabling us to see first-hand, how ancient people, not too different from us today, were able to live in relative comfort long before we all needed bushcraft knives costing more than a family car and branded waterproof coats flown into the UK from the other side of the world.

One such window discovered in the Otztal Alps, September 1991 was Otzi,  the ice mummy found still surrounded by a good amount of his personal possessions just over 5,000 years after perishing in the snow. Setting aside the mysterious circumstances of his demise for now, the fact that he was moving through such treacherous terrain meant that he must’ve had total confidence in his clothing and gear to even consider it as a realistic option. No goretex covered, down filled jacket for this chap! Instead, his outfit had been skilfully made up from grasses, animal hides, bark, stone, sinews and wood.  Everything he carried and wore had been crafted from the woods, rivers, mountains and meadows he had lived amongst all his life. So based on this evidence and other similar examples, a motivated and skilled bushcrafter could theoretically put together a whole outfit, proving that everything a person needs really can be found in or made entirely from natural resources.  That’s quite a challenge! We’ll need something to carry it all in…

 Otzi’s pack frame:

 Otzi had what most people think was a pack frame lying near him. If so, then this item alone illustrates perfectly, the combining of skills and knowledge that a bushcrafter strives for. A two metre bent hoop of hazel rod formed the frame itself so the maker must have known about hazel as one of the more flexible woods. Two backboards of larch were lashed securely to this using plant fibre cordage meaning that the maker knew which species provided strong cordage and also how to process and construct the cordage needed. A goatskin kit bag was believed to have been fastened to the frame so a working knowledge of how to preserve and cure animal hides in order to make leather and buckskin would have been needed. I don’t believe any shoulder straps were found but these must’ve been present originally and it would be fair to assume these were also leather of some sort.  The images of the broken frame, despite being extremely ancient remind me hugely of some modern day external frame packs I have lugged over hill and dale so it doesn’t seem beyond comprehension that I might be able to make up a close copy that might actually be effective and maybe even comfortable to carry. After all, Otzi did apparently haul his original model most of the way up a snowy mountain with an arrow head lodged deep in his shoulder! You can’t really get a better recommendation than that.
My first job was to cut and bend a two metre length of hazel wood. Having had some success with steaming and bending wood in the past I decided to give it a whirl by suspending the hazel rod over a steaming pot of water, covering both rod and pot with a damp towel. The rod was quite thick and the bend in the middle, pretty tight so my first couple of steaming attempts resulted in splintered hazel. ‘Let’s keep this simple’ I thought so I decided to gently coax the freshly cut section by hand, around a stump acting as a former. This worked well so after scraping the bark off, I tied the frame in position to let it ‘set’ overnight.

Bending a green hazel rod around a former

Leaving the rod to 'set' in position
Otzi’s original back boards were larch wood (yet I’ve also read that they were elm) so just to be different, I made one from yew and the other from field maple. These back boards were split from round timber then carved into two thin planks. I drilled two holes in each end to provide secure lashing points, of course using a flint burin mounted into a hand drill spindle using rawhide lashing and pitch. This worked very well indeed! As I had every intention of using the pack frame I wanted to improve on the original by sealing the wooden parts with birch tar and using deer skin rawhide for really strong, durable lashings instead of the original plant fibre cordage. The rawhide lashings would be applied damp, shrinking as they dried gripping the work even tighter. My birch tar coating gave the wood a nice ‘antique’ effect and strong creosote smell which appealed to the eye but definitely not the nose (although it did keep the bugs away).
Using a flint burin to drill lashing points

Sealing the wood with birch tar
The shoulder straps were made from two 3” wide lengths of fallow buckskin, stitched around the frame with buckskin thonging and tied in place around the horns at the bottom end. I couldn’t help thinking the finished article looked similar to a snowshoe which, funnily enough is another theory as to it’s original use.
Lashing the backboards

Finished frame with buckskin straps
In use:
With pack frame finished and birch tar dry I got to work loading up the frame for a test run. In the absence of a goat skin bag I rolled up my standard day sack kit in a heavily smoked red deer hide and lashed it to the frame with cordage for a touch of authenticity. The frame felt extremely light and the fit was good. As the hazel rod still hadn’t seasoned fully, in theory the green wood frame would conform to the shape of my back during use. The buckskin straps had plenty of room for adjustment and enough spare end to take them from the bottom of the frame and around my waist, tying with a reef knot. This lifted the pack slightly placing it higher over my centre of gravity and taking some of the strain away from my shoulders and neck. I had just re-invented the rucksack waist belt and wondered if Otzi and his mates would have taken advantage of this unplanned bonus too. With the addition of some padding on the back boards this pack frame would not be too dissimilar to any of my modern packs for lightness and comfort!
Loaded up with belongings wrapped in a heavily smoked red deer hide
The burden basket:
At this point, all I had to compare Otzi’s pack frame with was my plethora of modern, traditional hiking rucksacks so in the interests of experimentation I decided to make a completely different load carrying system using sticks, skins and string, the burden basket.
Burden baskets have been used for centuries and still are the world over for carrying heavy loads. The conical shape is an extremely strong design and allows lightweight materials to be used in it’s construction. Typical carrying methods include shoulder straps or a ‘tump line’ (wide strap around the forehead or chest). They can even be fitted either side of a mule or similar beast for hauling a serious amount of gear. Some can be quite decorative, made up from coiled grasses and plant fibres while others are more rough and ready. I went for the rough and ready option, a rigid warp and flexible weft open weave design using green hazel rods and rawhide cordage. This model is apparently influenced by several different cultures from Mexico to Africa and with access to suitable materials, can be put together very quickly.
Before bending any hazel rods, I snipped my way through the remaining supply of fallow deer rawhide, cutting an ever decreasing spiral to create very long continuous lengths once soaked and stretched. With the rawhide lashing and weaving material soaking I carefully bent three similar sized green hazel rods around a former, then another two for spares, plus three hoops for the rigid wefts and left them to set in position. As with my Otzi pack frame, these had the bark scraped off and a coating of birch tar to seal the wood.  Once the hazel components were dry and the rawhide had become flexible again, the three ‘ribs’ were lashed in place to give six equal gaps between warps.
Cutting a spiral of rawhide

Lashing the three hazel hoops in position
The hoops were bound securely in place using rawhide lashings, starting near the base with the smallest and working up to the largest at the top giving the framework a natural flared opening. Soaked and stretched rawhide warps were taken from bottom to top and back again, spiralling around the hoops to tie each section more firmly in place. Lastly, a rawhide weft was started at the top and worked down to the base wrapping around rigid and flexible warps alike, creating a strong mesh. A buckskin tumpline was fitted and my second (and much prettier) pack frame was ready to trial.
Adding in a strengthening hoop
Fitting an intermediate hoop and strong rim
Rawhide warps
Rawhide wefts close up
In use:
Whilst being vastly differing designs, both packs required an additional weatherproof bag to contain small items of kit although the burden basket did not need any further lashings to accept the load. Everything sat inside nicely. The burden basket did exactly what it said on the tin, swallowing up a vast amount of heavy kit. I was amazed at how much kit it could take and impressed at the concept. Each of the individual components on their own were not particularly robust but when woven into a strong but flexible mesh their different qualities combined made a tough bit of kit. It could probably even be used as a fish trap with a bit of imagination!
Buckskin tumpline fitted although this is likely to be replaced/reinforced with shoulder straps
However, it’s certainly not that comfortable when you need to be nimble and light on your feet. This is where Otzi’s pack frame edges into pole position in my opinion. It’s still robust enough to carry your kit but won’t swing about as much or attempt to break your neck when ducking under branches and skipping over logs. My plan now is to oak bark tan a couple of nice thick fallow deer hides to make a roll top, leather sack for it, probably treated with a mixture of animal fat and birch tar to make a kind of primitive dry bag. So in summary, the burden basket is fantastic for lugging heavy loads but my Otzi pack will always be sitting on the top, holding all my essential kit ready to grab and go as soon as the heavy kit can be left behind.
All loaded up and taking it out for a spin. The high position is better for load carrying but a bit unstable with just the tumpline fitted. More traditional models are shaped more like a cone which seems to dovetail better with the tumpline strap and aid stability


Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Winter Bushcraft Challenge

Bushcraft training and survival training are often thought of as two quite different creatures however, there is a point where the two merge and cross over. The Winter Bushcraft Challenge which took place at our Wiltshire woodland site last weekend, is definitely one of those hybrids. Designed as a testing 48 hour exercise, it aims to address some of the essential requirements for wilderness living from a bushcrafters perspective. Kit, clothing and food are deliberately limited at the coldest, wettest time of the year to truly test the participants understanding of survival priorities, their knowledge and their skill in implementing wilderness survival skills training.

Before signing up, participants must have an existing level of skill and knowledge, including a realistic awareness of survival strategy’s in the event of an unexpected be-nightment at the mercy of the elements. In a typical UK based emergency scenario such as this, the recommended course of action would be to seek immediate, safe shelter and do everything possible to conserve body heat, paying special attention to where and how this might be lost (conduction, convection...). Precious energy would need to be retained for keeping warm during the long night, possibly only invested in improving your shelter or making your position more visible to rescuers. Hopefully by hunkering down in this manner you would be alive, safe and well the following morning.
Utilising a fallen birch tree as a shelter framework
However, the Winter Bushcraft Challenge seeks to go further than short term wilderness survival and allows participants to fly in the face of logic, speculating to accumulate with a bit of hard graft, making their potentially miserable situation into a positively enjoyable one! Participants are encouraged to brave the elements, possibly putting themselves at greater risk and invest some of that precious energy to raise their survival chances considerably. It’s a double or quits strategy, even more so due to the fact that their clothing choice (each persons own little micro climate) is deliberately restricted to ye olde wool for inner layers, tight weave cotton for outer layers and one wool blanket per person. For these reasons, plus the colder time of year a warming campfire becomes a high priority in this fictitious scenario, where you would most likely be able to get by without one at other times of the year. The ability to light a fire in cold, wet conditions, under increased pressure, with only sparks as your ignition medium and no pre-prepared dry tinder, is an essential skill to develop.
Burning 'bony oak' for long lasting warmth through the night
Additional items on the limited kit list include a belt knife, small folding saw, a Swedish fire steel, one metal cooking pot, a wooden cup and a handful of safety gear (torch, whistle, phone, first aid kit). Participants are also given a small amount of wild game and rice to sustain them for the 24 hour duration. Even this relatively modest meal obviously requires cooking before eating, meaning that energy must be invested before energy can be obtained. Water too, is deliberately difficult to come by and must be boiled before drinking – a mean trick again designed to get participants thinking carefully about prioritising their survival needs. Almost every decision made in such testing conditions carries consequences and there will always be a trade-off. Any mistakes made only serve to enlighten the participants further, providing the kind of personal experience impossible to obtain from a book, demonstration or lecture.

A hot cup of pine, fir or spruce needle tea is just the job!

Let me stress once again, such a strategy would most likely be a gamble too far in many typical UK survival type scenarios and the kind of natural resources required to build shelter, light fire etc, unlikely to be immediately at hand on your average remote Scottish hillside. I would always encourage anyone venturing out into the wilder parts of this island and similar environments to carry a suitable lightweight shelter system (bothybag, bivi bag, tarp) as well as enough warm layers (blizzard bag, down jacket) and high energy food to help maintain core temperature during the long, winters night. See this suggested packing list for advice

This challenge is less about employing bushcraft skills in a realistic survival scenario and more about encouraging a feeling of self-reliance and total confidence in ones abilities, a heightened awareness of natural resources and less dependency on the reliability of carried survival kits. We’re also preparing for the extremes and the unexpected where a carried survival kit might not provide all the answers. What if it's so cold that just hunkering down won't be enough? What if your clothing and kit are soaked, damaged, inadequate, lost or possibly not even there in the first place? Having confidence in your abilities as well as personal experience to draw upon will ensure a more level head is maintained when sh** meets fan, rather than the onset of panic and a mental barrage of partially retained yet untested information. Your situation may not be exactly the same as this self -imposed practice run but you'll have raised your chances considerably. You’ll know what's possible and what would be dangerous to attempt. Ultimately, you’ll know exactly what you're personally capable of!
Imaginary survival situation aside, your desire to learn bushcraft might stem from an interest in natural history or experimental archaeology. You might have no real interest in survival techniques at all. Reducing kit to a minimum for a challenge such as this puts more emphasis on traditional wilderness living skills, adding meat to their bones and giving them real meaning.

Rear view of a lean to shelter showing the thickness of thatch required to keep the winter weather at bay
Don't forget the insulation between you and the cold earth. Here, Doug fir boughs make a perfect mattress
Your interest in bushcraft might just be about shedding the confusing clutter of modern life, lightening your mental load, regaining control over your life. The knowledge that you can provide everything you need with your own two hands, hard work and grim determination is unbelievably empowering…even if it is only for a weekend!

You might just enjoy the adventure…

Whatever the reason for learning bushcraft, I like to think of challenges such as these, as a final part of the jigsaw.

The Winter Bushcraft Challenge will run again in 2015…but you better be ready! Preparation should include knowledge of building natural shelters, beds, bindings and cordage, well-practiced wet weather fire lighting skills, experience in preparing and cooking various types of wild game, water purification techniques, a good knowledge of wild plants, trees and their uses as well as an honest, hearty helping of just getting out there and doing it!

For everything you need to know, look here