Nature has all the resources that we need in order to survive, but the trick is knowing how to use them, otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of the elements.
Whether you’re hiking, camping, or bugging out, you need to practice these skills beforehand. Do NOT count on your learning them on the spot, when you’re lost in the wild, soaking wet, dehydrated or even injured.
When the time comes to survive, you should be a master at most of these bushcraft skills, which is why I grouped by order of importance, but also labeled them so you know which ones are harder and require more time and practice.
But before we get to the list of skills, let’s set one thing straight…
Table of Contents
What Exactly Is Bushcraft?
Bushcraft is a group of interrelated skills that can help you survive and thrive in the wild with nothing more than a backpack and nature’s resources.
Bushcraft decreases your dependence on store-bought supplies and, in theory, you could survive with nothing but a knife. So even if they run out, there is no need to panic because you are confident in your ability to use the natural resources at your disposal.
Although bushcraft focuses more on wilderness survival, it also teaches us to make the most with what we have even in urban survival situations.
Essential Wilderness Survival Skills
Yes, making shelter is without a doubt the most important bushcraft skill. More important than making fire, more important whan finding food, even more important than finding water.
Why? because the survival rule of threes teaches us that, while you can survive for up to 3 days without water, you can only survive 3 hours without shelter.
How is that possible? One word: hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a real killer, so building a shelter keeps you dry, protects you from the cold and from animals lurking nearby.
If stranded without a tent, make use of branches, leaves, moss, and other materials you see lying around. You can even use items in your bug out bag, such as paracord, your tarp or your poncho.
Probably the easiest type of outdoor shelter you can build is the lean-to shelter. You can use natural materials to build it (like in the video below), or you can use a tarp.
Of course, there are others you should be aware of, such as:
- debris huts
- A-Frame shelters
- snow shelters
- … and many more types.
Starting a Fire
Fire craft is the ability to make, control, and use fire for survival. Without matches and lighter at your disposal, and especially in wet conditions, you should know how to start a fire with the resources around you.
For practiced bushcrafters, a rock, branches, and leaves can be enough. You also need to know how to transport fire, such as carrying a burning coal in dry sage grass to keep the fire going.
The bow drill method showcased below is hard, but not impossible. I would NOT rely on it in a survival situation as even experienced survivors can screw up, not to mention it will rob you of precious energy trying to make it work.
Knowing how to start a fire is just the start. You should also know how to gather wood, how to keep the fire going, where to position it in relationship to your shelter and, of course, to put it out when you leave the perimeter.
As a rule of thumb, you should never leave a fire unattended, even if you’re in a survival situation.
Speaking of survival situations, one type of fire you can make that’s less visible to others is to dig a Dakota fire pit (which basically consists of two interconnected holes in the ground), and build there fire below ground level. Here’s how to build one.
Water Collection and Purification
If you paid attention to the previous skill, you should know you can only live for about 3 days without water.
Keep in mind that, depending on your age and physical condition, your body will feel and be dehydrated before that, affecting your ability to do physical work, defend yourself, or even think.
Now, you probably have a bottle of water in your bug out bag, but that won’t last for very long. Water is heavy so it’s not feasible to put more because you’ll have to carry all of it on your back.
So when your bottle of water runs out, it’s important to know how to find more.
When you do, I suggest you make your camp close to your water source, but take precautions for flooding and animals and other people passing through. Filter your water to remove debris and other contaminants, then boil it to kill bacteria and pathogens.
If it’s winter, know that you can drink water from melted snow, so long as you bring warm it up first.
Don’t leave it up to your stomach to do the heating, you’ll get headaches and expend precious calories doing so. Use a bandana to prefilter debris, and let it melt into a container.
I put foraging in the essentials list category because it’s the easiest way to procure food.
Whether you live in the Americas, Europe, or in many other parts of the world, you should be able to find a variety of fruits, nuts, seeds and other wild edibles you can eat without cooking for extra calories.
Knowing how to identify edible wild plants and how to cook them can come in handy when there’s shortage of game, if you can’t build a fire to cook them on, or if you don’t know any other means of finding food.
It also helps learning to identify and use wild plants for medicinal purposes.
By the way, if you’re thinking about eating mushrooms from the wild, forget about it. It’s very risky, even when they look exactly like the ones in the books.
How to Use Knives and Axes
In bushcraft, many chores require the use of bladed implements. Knowing how to use them correctly is important for security but also to be able to carry out many skills such as hunting, fishing, and building shelter.
It’s crucial to know what your blade is capable of to prevent breakage and possible injury.
You should also learn how to sharpen, store, repair, and protect your knives, axes and hatches to prolong their lives, especially when you’re out in the bush with no way of getting new ones.
When there’s no doctor in sight, you’ll have to deal with any injury that may come your way, whether it’s a cut, an open would or a broken bone.
Since I’m not a doctor, I can’t give you medical advice, but I strongly encourage you to take a first aid course, and don’t be shy about asking what to do in case of accidents in the wild, particularly how to clean and seal a wound and how to make a splint.
Even the most experienced outdoorsmen can get lost. Land navigation is obviously important so you can go back if you’re lost, or if you’ve taken the wrong path.
There are other ways to tell north including by looking at where moss grows on trees. FYI, it always grows on the north side.
How to Fish
Just like hunting, fishing involves the use of tools, only it’s easier, particularly for women and children.
Instead of relying on the traditional rods, reels, and hooks, true bushcrafters practice many alternative methods for catching fish, mainly by making fish hooks and setting up traps.
As a prepper, you don’t need to make your own fish hooks. A small fishing kit or two in your bug out bag should suffice, although learning to catch fish with your bare hands might prove useful.
The Art of Camouflage
Camouflage is used for hiding supplies, escaping detection, or hunting and stalking your prey. Knowing how to properly use camouflage can keep your supplies hidden from looters or help you to catch food to feed your family.
Learning to blend into your surroundings is a critical tool for your survival both in the woods and in urban environments during post-SHTF.
If you want to take things further when it comes to camouflage, check out this other article.
Maintaining Your Tools
If you’re going to do this for the long term, you should keep your tools in tip top shape.
Otherwise, you’ll not only have to buy new ones more often, they’ll be unreliable when you’ll attempt to use them, and even risk injuring yourself (a dull knife IS more dangerous than a sharp knife).
Learning how to make snares and traps is useful for both hunting and fishing. There are different types of traps that you can make and set, depending on the animal you are targeting.
If you’re going to survive in the wilderness, you need to secure food quickly, and by wasting as little energy as possible.
There are dozens of different traps you can make, such as:
One of the easiest and most popular traps you can make is the snare trap. Take a look here:
How to Hunt
I put hunting after foraging, fishing and trapping simply because it’s harder, it takes more practice, and it can potentially attract unwanted attention in the bush.
In fact, whether you’re looking to hunt small game or big game, hunting is a collection of skills into one. You need to learn:
- how to track an animal
- how to use a bow or a firearm
- the importance of baits and scents
- reading animal tracks
- tying knots
- as well as cleaning and cooking your catch.
That’s a lot of work!
Once you caught your prey, the next thing you need to do is to clean it. In cleaning your chase, hang its head up to prevent the gut from breaking.
Cut it from the sternum to the groin. Remove the entrails and clean from top to bottom. For fish, it should be scaled from the tail to the head except for catfish which are scaled from the head down.
Depending on what you’re hunting, you should research dedicated articles for the steps:
Tracking People and Animals
Humans who are not skilled in stealth movement will always leave a trail. If you know how to track signs you will find a missing person quicker.
There’s so many things you can learn just by looking at tracks. You can figure out whether it’s a man or a woman, how long ago they were there, how many people in the group and so on.
Much like humans, animals are also creatures of habit and follow the same paths in obtaining their food and water source. Finding them means you can set traps in strategic places, increasing your chances of catching them obviously.
Keep in mind you should also look at torn branches, overturn rocks and other things besides the tracks to give you more clues.
Check out this handy guide to animal tracks (you may want to print it out, too).
How to Identify Snakes
Anyone who spends time in the woods will likely come across a snake or two. Knowing the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes is essential.
As a general rule, diamond-shaped heads are typically poisonous, while round headed snakes are not. You can also remember “Red and yellow kill a fellow but red and black is your friend, Jack”.
To be on the safe side, you should try to avoid all snakes so you can worry about more important things.
Using Rope and Tying Knots
One of the first things they teach in camping is making rope and tying knots. It is essential for building shelters, making traps, and securing knots for climbing.
You can make a rope from fibrous leaves around you in the woods if you take time to learn it. By adding rope-craft to your list of bushcraft skills, you can increase the strength of the materials you build which can be a lifesaver in an emergency.
Crossing a Body of Water
Getting across bodies of water requires knowledge in water safety, or more advanced skills in raft building, or canoeing. Learn the basics about how to cross a stream or river without a bridge in this article.
Knowing how to be safe around water can mean life or death in a wilderness situation. Knowing how to swim is actually an often overlooked survival skill; people have been doing it “since forever”.
Useful Bushcraft Skills
Building a Cooking Tripod
After cleaning your game, the next thing to do is to cook them. You will need to build yourself a tripod to make outdoor cooking easier.
All you need is three pieces of wood (of roughly the same length, preferably green saplings), cordage, and a cutting tool.
When going through the forest, you will no doubt encounter those pesky mosquitoes and bugs along the way. A mosquito bite alone can put you at risk for diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever just to name a few.
Prevent this from happening by applying insect repellent to those vulnerable areas and by researching some alternate methods for pest control.
Batoning is a wood splitting technique where a knife is wedged in a piece of wood and struck repeatedly with a baton-like object, usually another piece of wood like so:
You will need a sturdy bushcraft knife for this, though I would suggest a hatchet to spare your knife’s blade.
Wood carving serves a variety of purposes, such as making primitive wooden tools and weapons:
- wooden spoons and forks
- mortar and pestle
- wooden spears
- bows, arrows
- a bow drill set for starting fires
Wood carving isn’t something to be very concerned unless you’re looking to live off the land with no temporary home, or if you’re thinking about surviving a long-term disaster in the bush.
Navigating using a Raft or a Canoe
Of course, you shouldn’t attempt this without supervision and you should definitely not do it if you don’t know how to swim.
Still, using a raft or a canoe can mean you leave behind wild animals or even other people who may want to harm you.
How to make Cordage from Plants
If you run out of Paracord, you should be able to make cordage out of plants. Since grass is ubiquitous, here’s a video teaching how to make rope from it:
Building a Raft
Though it’s possible that you’ll make one using paracord, duct tape and other items in your bug out bag, know that it’s entirely possible. Here’s a video showing you how to do it:
Flintknapping, a.k.a. making flint tools out of rocks. You can make hammers, axes, and so much more, let us show you how.
Frequently Answered Questions
Q: How long does it take to learn these skills?
A: As with anything else worth learning, it could take years to become an experienced bushcrafter. This is because you’d have to get good at many of these skills, and this takes time. On the other hand, learning the most basic bushcraft skills could take weeks, if not days. Persistence is key.
if you’re starting out, the first skills you should focus on are the ones that are most important in a survival situation: shelter, water, and food.
Q: What are some common bushcraft tools?
The staple when it comes to practicing bushcraft is the knife. You should take your time picking yours, because you want something very reliable.
Other common bushcraft tools include:
- hand-crank saws
- regular saws
- carving tools
- a portable stove (not very primitive, I know, but you will need it)
- and, of course, a backpack.
Ready to Get Started?
These are just some of the bushcraft skills that can save your life or the life of your family, especially in scenarios that involve spending weeks or even months outdoors.
With some practice, your confidence and skill level increases. It’s best to learn these skills collectively instead of focusing on just one. The work to master these skills will put you well on your way to surviving an indefinite amount of time in the wild.
Here are a few further resources to get you started:
- our collection of bushcraft articles
- our How to Bug Out Forever Course has some good info on surviving on your own away from home, possibly in the wilderness, in case of a major disaster
- Dave Canterbury’s Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival – a staple book on bushcraft
- Mors Kochanski’s Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival
- … and if you’re feeling up to it, Dave has a follow-up on his book for more advanced bushcrafters and survivalists
Do you have more skills to add to this list? Let us know what we missed or feel free to post a comment below. I’ll be happy to hear from you.
updated 03/04/2020 by Dan F. Sullivan