Woods Competency

Recently, a client made the comment that he was a “student of wilderness survival, not a bushcraft type”. This struck me as sort of odd, so I asked him a bit about how he differentiated and why. The upshot was that he, although spending a lot of time in the wilds with minimal gear, saw his practice as being entirely focused on bettering his chances in emergency situations. His view of bushcraft was that it amounted to an interesting, but not really relevant, set of anachronistic camp craft practices for those who wanted to really live in the woods, not “survive life threats and get-the-fuck-out as fast as possible”.
Although his explanation made some sense, it left me contemplating this perceived difference. His is certainly not the first opinion I’ve encountered that separates bushcraft into a different category from wilderness survival. This separation does hold some water: Bushcraft (Woodcraft, Woodscraft, as you prefer) is a dedicated practice of living and working in a traditional manner with minimal, and somewhat primitive, tools in a wilderness environment. Wilderness survival is an oh-shit-situation, where something has gone quite wrong and getting home at all is drawn into serious question. It is easy to draw a line between the practices of bushcraft and survival training and say one is a lifestyle, and the other a means-to-an-end practice like medical training or tactical driving. It’s easy, but is it right?

An Imaginary Divide?
There are numerous approaches to wilderness survival, and the development, refinement and maintenance of wilderness survival skills. As such, there are numerous arguments about which is right, and who is wrong.
Those who cannot do, particularly those who cannot innovate, debate. Everyone has an opinion on a given topic, and many folks are extremely willing to share their opinion, but mileage always varies. Much debate is driven by low-mileage individuals, who may “know” a lot but have proven very little of it to themselves. These folks are quick to point out flaws in others thinking, but they rarely if ever take their own knowledge outside in the dirt and try to break it. They fail to actually build strength, through finding and solving failure, and instead attempt to satisfy themselves with arguing as if it were a real form of doing the work.
I am sure that there are those who would bitterly argue that wilderness survival skill is far removed from bushcraft, just as there are those who would that no one can develop competent survival skill without being a bushcrafter. On one side, they might say that bushcraft practice is akin to studying musketry for contemporary gunfighting needs. Meanwhile, on the other side, they might say that studying survival skills without the depth of knowledge granted by bushcraft leaves one wholly incompetent to really get the thing done. This isn’t really about declaring one, or another, hardliner to be right or wrong. We have no real interest in participating in argument. If hard lines have been drawn, then those drawing them aren’t going to change their minds. They will simply continue to contribute noise. Our interest is in a little bit of signal, for those also interested. With that in mind, it is this issue of competency that grabs hold of us.

Bushcraft, as commonly seen, is more of a committed lifestyle, a dedicated approach to being in, enjoying and having success in the woods by primitive and minimalist means. It is not an approach strictly for extreme situations. Wilderness survival is an emergency, not a planned event or a chosen practice.
So, isn’t that a pretty big difference?
It certainly can appear so, especially to an individual regarding strictly his/her own survival needs. Often the most distinct examples of bushcrafters are serious traditionalists, who work hard to embody a classic style, i.e. North Woodsmen and others from bygone eras. To these practitioners who seek the depth of living a traditional bushcraft lifestyle, to do it fully means living in the wilderness, comfortably by ones own hand without modern conveniences. There are also those who do not make a full-time existence out of bushcraft, but still approach with great dedication and effort to traditional ways. You will see these folks eschewing contemporary tools such as chemical tinder, and often preferring traditional costume over modern garment technology.
This can be a very alienating style for “modern” individuals looking to better their survival skill. They do not go into the woods in heavy wool flannels and felt hats, with leather possibles bags filled with natural fiber cordage and char-cloth tinder. Rather, they go out in Polartec and Gore-Tex, with Cordura backpacks, carrying modern fire tools and 550 cord. Often enough, these items are issued by their employer, and the act of going into the woods is serious work for a particular goal, rather than recreation or any end unto itself. On these surface appearances alone, the bushcraft lifestyle can appear to be something far different and of little value.
To begin to see some of the common ground and value, it helps to get over limiting first impressions. One must take into account that bushcraft exists well outside the traditionalists. There are more modern minded bushcrafters, who seek a balance between long-term knowledge and modern technology, to achieve ideal results. They will make more, if not full, use of technologies ranging from modern garments to chemical tinders and storm-proof lighters. They do not appear as distinct as their traditionalist brethren, however, and it seems that many see them as being on the modern side of this (mostly imaginary) divide between bushcrafters and modern survival students. It looks familiar, so it must be like me, is the flip side of the same coin that says if it looks alien, it must be of no value. This is the sort of closed loop thinking that must end, for any successful student of survival.
The difference remains that a lifestyle is still not an emergency, and techniques ideal for a lifestyle may not serve those experiencing true emergency. Many bushcraft practices are more a form of camp craft, than in extremis emergency practices. This difference does not mean that one has no bearing on or relevance to the other. Survival skills are a distillation of woods knowledge and practice, with specific focus on getting through an emergency, rather than living, in the bush. Bushcraft practices do a great deal to inform wilderness survival practices, as is only reasonable given that such methods are long proven means of getting by in the wilderness.
The ideas of bushcraft and survival are far from antithetical. The experiences and lessons learned from bushcraft, and experienced bushcrafters, also contribute a great deal to strict survival skills. The range of trial and experimentation afforded by bushcraft has provided a great many lessons to be distilled down to simple, proven, methods of achieving desired results in the wilderness. Bushcraft practice provides many opportunities to try different methods, and evaluate tools, without the dire consequences that may threaten in a survival situation. The knowledge available from this field is invaluable to wilderness survival: Bushcraft essentially provides a laboratory in which to test and refine the essentials necessary for survival.
Even if viewed as similar, but disparate ideas, let us pose a pair of questions:
What is a survival kit, no matter how modern, but a set of minimal and fairly primitive tools?
What survival situation could not be bettered by deeper experience, and greater comfort, in the environment?
Any practice of working and living in the woods, in particular with minimal and primitive tools, should be of obvious benefit to wilderness survival needs.

We Are All Bushcrafters
A few truths as we see them:
Survival skills being highly perishable and always improvable, survival students need to be continually practicing, using, testing and refining their skills. Most wilderness survival students are those who spend time in the wilderness (the bush, the woods, the desert, BFE, the boondocks, et al, etc. and ad nauseum): They seek skill, because they exist in an environment that demands it. It follows then, that the smart ones will do two things: Use their time in that environment as an opportunity to further hone their skill in relative comfort and security, and; Conduct themselves in the environment in a way that supports their survival needs.
The best survival plan is the one that is wholly integral to ones experience in the wilderness. The tools and practices of survival are not just those which you default to when an emergency occurs, but those which you have been integrating into everything from your pack contents, to your clothing choices, to how you move through your environment. Survival begins not when emergency occurs, but at the very start, in your home or workplace from which you depart, when you make the right preparation. You do not break out the skills of survival when the emergency happens, you are either using them as an integral part of how you conduct yourself in the wilderness, or you aren’t. If your conduct is poor, your likelihood of being in a true survival situation is increased, while your odds of performing well in that situation are decreased. Conversely, if your conduct is good, your odds of being in a true survival situation are decreased, while your odds of good performance in that event go up.
Your practices in the woods are part of your survival skills. You are depending on yourself, and the items you are carrying, to create a micro-environment that supports your survival. Lifestyler or not, what you do in the woods, is bushcraft. If you’re on a SAR team, if you’re a rural police officer, if you’re a nature photographer, an occasional hiker or a serious mountaineer: Your practices in the woods are your bushcraft. You decide how serious you are about those skills, and how dependent you wish to be on modern conveniences and technologies, in those practices. You decide how to prepare and conduct yourself in the woods (and in the time leading up to being in the woods). You decide if your wilderness survival tools and skills are going to be kept in some protective bubble, or be taken out and used as integrated parts of your wilderness behavior.
The choice is yours whether your bushcraft supports, or hinders, your survival skills.

Bushcraft as a Practice
It is possible to hone your bushcraft, for your needs, without being a lifestyle bushcrafter doing it for the doing. None the less, it is not an occasional thing. Like shooting, like medical skills, wilderness survival skill must be refined, and repeated, regularly or it goes away. Choosing to make a dedicated effort at developing good bushcraft as a foundation for survival, means making it a routine practice. For those who choose to, the routine practice of serious bushcraft instills a competency that cannot be attained through occasional survival courses and training sessions. This competency instilled is greater than simple skill proficiency, or ability to use the tools of a survival kit, it is a competency for existing in, working with, and depending on the resources of austere environments.
Such competency contributes to improved decision making and a decrease in disorientation when emergency occurs. The mental shift from being sure you’re warm, well and will go home soon, to not being sure you’ll be warm, dry, sated, or going home ever again, is going to be jarring. Shaking things out into a functional process will go more smoothly if you have a developed level of familiarity and competency in the wilderness. Already having a comfortable familiarity with depending on your abilities, with your tools, to work in and with varied natural environments to continue existing, puts you ahead of the curve when an emergency occurs.
The approach we have been cultivating in our core group since the beginning is this one of woods competency. Across the BFE Labs team we have a varying interest in, and ability to practice, traditional bushcraft, but we all have a very strong interest in, and need for, developed and robust survival skills. To that end, we practice bushcraft, and use time in the woods as opportunity. The learning that occurs from even the briefest personal experience in the woods is remarkable. There is a lot that you can learn very quickly.
Quickly you learn that attending a couple courses, stocking a survival kit, and then never touching the skills or tools again is a zero-return endeavor. You expended furious energy, for a short period of time, and walk away with almost nothing except additional weight.
Almost as quickly you learn that the time you’re spending in the dirt and sticks, while initially shorter than a furious survival skills crash course, is staying with you. With each trip, each exercise, each ramble, you’re finding yourself doing more things from confident memory. You begin to stretch a bit, and innovate for yourself.
This is the point, in any endeavor, where you start to meet with failure. There are days in the woods when it sucks to be you. This is also the point at which many people quit. They return to the internet, and start posting about how much X, or Y, method sucks, and how much better Z method is. Why? Because they were doing X or Y, and it made them feel weak and silly at some point, so therefore Z method (that they’ve never tried, so it’s never damaged their ego) must be better. Stepping outside of this, and continuing to “embrace the suck” until it sucks less, is the road to success. The more opportunity you give yourself to find the weak points, break things and have problems, in a controllable environment, the stronger you, your practices and your selection of tools will be when a survival situation occurs.

Harsh Definition of Needs
There is endless minutia that can be delved into and studied in the arena of primitive/minimalist wilderness skills. These are often drawn into the practice of strict survival skills and their training, to varying degrees of return. If your goal is survival above bushcraft for its own sake, harsh evaluations need to be made in where and how you invest your time.
There will be time for the tempting esoterica. You may not be a lifestyle bushcrafter, but you have a lifetime to invest in bettering your survival skills. Begin with the skills and methods that are of benefit to you the most directly, and build from there. The basics of water, shelter, fire etc. cannot be practiced enough, and you can find ample opportunity to practice them in controllable conditions. From there, work outward, and seek to define what your needs actually are. As you define them, refine them. You do not need great breadth of knowledge, but rather depth of knowledge. Edible plants are good to know, but given the time you can go without food vs. how quickly you can die of hypothermia, not nearly as good as being absolutely sure you can make a fire. Knowing forty different types of shelter construction technique may not serve you as well as being hypercompetent at two that work in every environment you’re in. Just as it is possible to carry too many extraneous tools, adding weight and slowing you down, it is possible to have too much in your mind, clouding your decision making and keeping you from fully developing skill at the things you’ll really need.
Your primary goals are going to shape your bushcraft, and your survival craft as it extends from that. If your primary goal is not camping, staying warm, drinking and eating, then these are things you must do in order to achieve whatever your goal is. Be it climbing that mountain, escaping an enemy in the area, penetrating the area and finding that enemy, placing and monitoring cameras to capture images of rare and elusive snow leopards, killing meat for the table, or what-have-you, your goals are something other than the simple practice of the necessities. This is what demands both gear minimalism and depth not breadth: The better developed your skill, the more you can do with less. The better proven your kit and skills, the less extraneous bullshit you will feel you need. The less extraneous bullshit you are carrying (in your pack and in your head), the more robust your decision making. Your bushcraft, and your survival craft that it provides foundation for, must be in synch with your overarching needs/goals. Your competency is not defined by being competent at skills you have no use for, or that are incompatible with your objectives. Your woods competency is being able to go into the woods, with the tools and skills you need and no more, and accomplish your goals without increasing your risk, and being able to come back even when the worst happens despite your best efforts.
This takes work. Practice and refinement are essential. Investment of time is required. You are no more prepared because you own a survival kit, than you are a musician because you own a guitar, to paraphrase.

This is not to say that the practice of woods or survival craft is a strictly DIY affair. There is no substitute for quality instruction. Good instruction can fill in for personal bad experience, as you benefit from the learning of others mistakes. Good instructors can help good students filter out a lot of bullshit, and achieve better depth faster. Note, we don’t say “professional instruction”, because by default not all professionals in this business provide quality instruction. Do your due diligence before plunking down your hard earned cash; There are many great, talented, and even truly gifted instructors out there, focusing on both strict survival skills as well as deeper bushcraft lifestyle, endeavor to spend your money with them. The best of these also make it quite clear what they teach: Beware those who pass off controllable-environment bushcraft methods as survival skill, and vice versa.
If you look, there are also many good instructors who are not professionals. Speaking personally, a healthy portion of my wilderness skill is rooted in spending much of my life among traditional cowboys in the southwestern US. Men and women who make their living out, particularly those who know more about a bedroll than a bedroom (and such folks do remain, though their numbers dwindle), have a great deal of knowledge about getting along in the outdoors. It behooves anyone who encounters such folks to close mouth, and open ears. (Of course, now it probably won’t be long until someone presents himself, bedecked in Stetson, boots, waxed mustachios and wildrag, as a cowboy survival expert, teaching “SagebrushCraft” or some such horseshit).

If your interest in bushcraft skills is primarily survival, seek whatever breadth you desire, once you have established a deep competency. Invest your time and energy appropriately, now, in learning and refining, regularly and mercilessly. Such an investment can be drawn on at any time, but you will only get out of a thing what you have put into it. The choices, as always, are yours

2 responses to “Woods Competency”

  1. […] good article on Woods Competency at BFE […]

  2. Jay says:

    An excellent article that reminds us of what could have been done when the $h*t goes down.

    I salute you!

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