Some of my favorite memories are from camping trips. I’ve been lucky enough to hike in Yellowstone, Monongahela, Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia and many parks and forests around my home region of Eastern Ohio.
The pictures I’ve taken don’t do justice to the experiences I’ve had, experiences of freedom, self-reliance, community, and even fear. One time in Western Pennsylvania, for example, a hiking partner and I were washed off the trail by a massive thunderstorm.
This taught us important lessons about survival, keeping a cool head under pressure and preparedness as we struggled back to the trail.
Camping has very direct carry-overs for a prepper’s life. Camping allows us to learn valuable skills and put knowledge into action. It also gives us an opportunity to test ourselves away from civilization, even if it’s only a dozen or so miles away.
In this article, we will examine some of the lessons that can be taken from camping and hiking and how they have explicit or implicit connections to prepping.
Soft Skills and Hard Skills
Hiking and camping are ways of teaching two types of skills, hard skills and soft skills. By my definition, hard skills are things that you use your hands for, things that are physical, and that you learn from other campers or survivalists.
In the category of HARD SKILLS we would include:
- Planning for a camping trip or emergency and packing the correct equipment
- Siting and setting up a shelter
- First Aid
- Purifying water
- Knot tying
- Identifying edible wild plants
- Knowing which food will be easist to carry and provide the most nutrients
- Using a compass
- Knowing how to find water
- Skills in using a knife or axe
- Self-defence against predators of the two legged and four-legged type
- Basic knowledge of a vehicle in case of breakdowns
- Fire making and fire control
There may be a whole lot more, but I thought these were the basic ones needed.
Soft skills are personal skills that a person inherently possesses or develops, rather than skills that are taught by doing a specific course, or on the job training.
Make no mistake these are the skills that enable you to make a success of camping or surviving in difficult situations rather than relying on hard skills alone.
Let’s look briefly at each soft skill as used in camping and prepping.
It’s important to give and receive feedback from others, making sure people understand where they are going, where to meet, what to do in an emergency and so forth. It can make the difference between comfort and suffering, and can even save lives.
This is not about barking out commands, but about inspiring confidence in others to give of their best, to ensure you all work together as a team in the interests of the group.
The leader may not necessarily be the one with the most accomplished set of hard skills, but rather a person who knows how to inspire confidence and bring out the best in people.
Problem Solving Skills
Thinking laterally is a skill often needed in camping and survival. When the accepted or usual solution is not available you need to find another way to do things.
An example is someone forgetting the tent poles and using sharpened branches lashed together to create a pretty handy structure on which to hang the tent.
Another example was on a beach drive in the middle of nowhere when the 4X4 had no water in the radiator. It was thankfully a slightly rainy day and a couple of clean towels spread across the windscreen soon caught enough water for it to be squeezed out carefully into the radiator allowing the vehicle (and occupants) to get home.
Flexibility / Adaptability
If an idea doesn’t work don’t be afraid to discard it and look for another solution. We’ve all come across those types who will persist in trying to get something to ‘work’ while everyone else gets frustrated, instead of brainstorming with the group for another alternative.
Example: No pot scourer– use river sand or any coarse sand and a cloth to get those pots clean.
You need to be able to make quick decisions when necessary instead of discussing all the pros and cons – by which time the crisis has either thankfully passed or everyone is up shit creek.
For example it starts raining and you’re near the river that is likely to come down in flood and wash people away. Get to higher ground– which route doesn’t matter as long as its up as fast as possible!
A person needs to know how long it will realistically take to make camp or break camp, get a fire going, and have food cooked.
Good time management will help you set attainable goals for distance to be covered, chores and duties, instead of pushing fellow campers and family to the limits of their endurance unnecessarily.
Someone with good time management will realize that younger children my need to be carried when they get tired and allow time for slower progress instead of planning a route that requires getting to X spot by sundown in order to reach shelter.
Rather, aim to get there by midday then if things go wrong you are not struggling along in the dark.
It takes time to cook or hunt along the way – plan your camping trips with ready to eat meals that can be quickly heated or high protein snacks instead of relying on hunting/fishing/trapping, as this is not reliable and cannot be accurately timed.
Paying attention to and using these hard and soft skills are what create the largest carry-over between camping and prepping.
Camping gives us an environment where we can use or learn new skills, rely on our knowledge and test new gear, but in survival situations those skills need to have already been honed – there isn’t time for testing and errors.
Camping also gives us experience in the backcountry and having a limited amount of supplies, something that you truly cannot know until you experience it firsthand. Reading about it or watching a video on the internet doesn’t prepare you sufficiently for the reality.
You have to experience the hardship of not packing the right equipment, not taking the right food, going hungry, forgetting crucial items, or packing way too much and being burdened with a heavy backpack, to improve the next time.
At least with camping you know you have a home to return to if it gets unbearable, whereas in survival situations you just have to keep going.
Self-reliance is becoming more and more passé in a world of instant information and complete connection. It’s becoming less necessary to tinker and to learn skills when YouTube or Wikipedia can give us all the information we need.
At a campsite or in a survival you may not have the luxury of those aids. Learn what you can from the ‘old timers’, they have years of experience and will often be keen to share their knowledge.
Self-reliance happens when it’s just us, and a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s about being aware of our abilities and limitations and being able to use our knowledge and skills effectively. It’s also about having confidence in our own abilities to manage difficult situations.
As an example a CV joint collapsed due to a bad road broke in the middle of nowhere. It was night and dangerous for the family to stay where they were.
The father found a log in the bush nearby that fitted across the car, tied up the gearbox with rope, pushed the side shaft in again and with the hood tied down over the great big log sticking out managed to limp a few miles at a time – pausing periodically to push the side shaft back in until the family reached a remote transport camp.
The car was parked off and the family given a lift to their destination where they were to stay with relatives. A day later armed with the parts a relative came back with the father to help do the necessary repairs to get the vehicle on the road again.
Everyone should know the basics of mechanical repairs to a car, to stay mobile in SHTF situations.
Camping can teach this because it gives us a situation where we are limited in our ability to use technology and must rely on skills and spontaneity. It takes away the safety blanket a bit and makes for reliance on simple gear and simple skills.
This is especially true for the minimalist camping style that is becoming more popular and uses the bare basics of gear during a hike. Self-reliance is something we can hone while spending time in the woods or backcountry using the skills we learn while at home.
Shelter vs. Water
Shelter is very important in cold climates, as one cannot survive very long in low temperatures, but one cannot survive more than three days without water so your camping trip should teach you about these two elements and how to balance them.
If taking a fairly long hiking trip then plan your route around the water – make sure you have checked a map of the area thoroughly and know where to get to fresh water.
Make sure you have a water purifier with you like the Sawyer mini straw water filtration system. Then plan for shelter that will keep the people you are responsible for warm and dry to avoid hypothermia in cold climates.
Bushcraft is a term used to refer to wilderness skills. If you’ve watches Les Stroud or Dave Canterbury on television, you have been exposed to bushcraft.
The aim of bushcraft is survival in the wilderness by using skills, techniques and tools from a minimalist perspective. It is an ultimate survival skillset and something that is sharpened by camping.
Bushcraft is built around using knives, axes and simple tools to forage, hunt, fish, build shelter and ultimately survive.
For example, a bushcraft campsite could incorporate a simple shelter made of tarp, rope and branches with traps to catch small rodents, a handmade bow or atlatl for larger game and a fire built using a fire bow.
While you may not need to be this extreme on a camping trip, camping does allow you to practice bushcraft skills in a wilderness setting.
Food and Gear
There is a weird feeling in the backcountry of knowing you’re away from civilization and have limited supplies, but also knowing that your pack carries food, water and shelter – the necessities of survival.
Camping teaches you how to pack food and ration accordingly. When you go on an extended camping trip you quickly learn that you can survive on less food than you think and that simple, packable foods are the best. When I got camping I’ll usually bring lots of protein rich bars, jerky, and packs of almond or hazelnut butter.
Take along some MREs based on load weight plus you can choose MRE bars like these. Substitute canned meat for dried meat as it’s lighter to carry, and take among Ramen noodles which are also lightweight.
It may not be “comfort food” but it allows me to get an accurate read of the total calories I’m carrying. Hiking allows you to learn how much food, or how many calories, make for a comfortable trip.
Camping also allows you to experiment with different camp stoves and cooking gear, if you decide to pack non-prepared foods.
It is also worthwhile to learn what wild food youcan forage to supplement meals. Make sure you camp with someone who knows what they are doing as you don’t want to risk getting poisoned by something you foraged.
Local knowledge beats a field guide book as often plants can look very similar and one wouldn’t want to risk a mistake.
I’ve gotten by with a minimalist kit including a sterno, wire stove ring and a cup that I use mainly for morning coffee or tea, but you can get much techier with your gear by buying something like a Jetboil.
There is always the question of weight and space though, much like with a bug-out-bag. Camping teaches you to check everything you put in your pack and ask if it deserves the added weight.
Camping and hiking can teach you the value of other people and make for some very concentrated interactions.
Camping with partners allows for tasks to be divided so that more can get done in a shorter time, and this will apply to survival situations when you may need to set up of break camp in a hurry, forage for food, prepare a fire and find water all within a short space of time.
There is also the general truth that your group’s knowledge is the sum total of all of your experiences. So, if you have a newbie hiking with an expert, the knowledge and experience level is automatically heightened.
There are also times where hiking with others can make for difficult moments. Once, when I was hiking in the Allegheny forest, a friend of mine tried to take over navigation duties and got the whole group lost off the trail.
It wasn’t too difficult to find our way back, but it also made for high tensions within a tired and hungry group trying to find camp for the evening. Moments like these can test friendships but also give an important lesson in managing conflict within a group.
In a survival situation, these lessons in managing group stress and conflict and using the knowledge of the group can be invaluable.
It’s easy to be distrustful and to choose isolation, but even still, you might have a family or close group of friends to look after. It is important to be able to manage interactions, and camping is way to sharpen your diplomatic skills.
Preparing a campsite is an almost an art form. It can make a big difference to your mentality whether you have a well-prepared campsite or one that is hastily picked.
Walk your campsite first checking which side the rain will come from, the prevailing winds, and elevation.
Pitching your tent on a nice flat piece of ground has it’s bonuses – but if it’s the lowest point in a rain storm it makes for very wet camping – perched higher on ground that is perhaps not as level allows for good drainage.
Make sure you are safe from rising water yet close enough to fetch fresh water from a stream. Check too for lightning – you don’t want to be right up on a ridge where lightning is likely to strike or under a lone tree, but nestled further down.
Falling tree branches can be deadly – make sure your camp is out of the way of branches, or alternatively in such thick forest that if a branch falls it will catch on the other branches.
In Australia, gum trees or eucalyptus are called ‘widow-makers’ due to their propensity to drop a massive branch even when there is no wind!
Also check the ground you are camping on is stable – you don’t want it falling away in heavy rains. Then exposure to insects or animals needs to be taken into account – no one wants to be sited above an ant nest, or near a snake’s lair.
This is also the time to test your gear and find what’s the most comfortable for you whether it’s a tent, bivvy or hammock.Each have their avantages and drawbacks and you will need to make up your mind about whether it’s comfort or speed you are after when moving through an area.
Hiking is a great way to get quality exercise specific for bugging out on foot. Walking for distance under a load builds both strength and endurance. Add in some hills and you’re getting a high-quality level of exercise.
Hiking also makes for mental benefits in that hiking forces you to keep moving, within reason, which could simulate a disaster situation where you’re tired and hungry but need to keep thinking strategically as you move.
One thing that not many people know is that army personnel are taught that when you think you have reached the end of your endurance you have only used 40% of your capability – just keep going because you have reserves of strength you didn’t know you had until you are forced to use
When I was hiking in Yellowstone, I almost encountered a grizzly bear. My group had a sense that a bear was close, there were markings on the trail and bear droppings and when we came upon another campsite two people were up in a tree with a handgun, watching the trail.
They told us we were about 2 minutes behind the bear and would have caught up to it if we were a little bit faster.
This was a pretty frightening moment, especially considering that in that summer 2 people were killed by grizzly bears in Yellowstone (and another in nearby Gallatin National Park), the first time this had happened in more than 20 years.
Camping can make for some scary moments with predators, including bears, wolves and snakes to name a few.
My story illustrates how being in the backcountry exposes us to animals that can easily kill us. However, I did learn an important lesson in my near-brush with a grizzly and that’s to follow my instincts about being close to other animals. It also taught me to be prepared as I clutched my bear mace and used my bear bell while walking down the trail.
Part of camping and survival is to listen to your senses. We have an inbuilt ability to sense when a creature is watching us if we are quiet and aware of our surroundings.
If your hair starts prickling on your neck be aware! The animals may just be watching without any desire to attack, but it’s still good to know where they are. One of the skills is looking through the leaves or trees rather than at them to find the creatures hidden.
This is a good skill to learn so you can spot creatures like a snake or a bird hidden in foliage. Also watch behind you as you walk so that you are not surrounded by animals, cutting off your retreat.
Camping teaches you how to deal with physical dangers and develop a sense for seeing the potential for danger before it overtakes you.
Take note of depressions in the grass where animals may have been lying. On a fishing trip in Africa a family group with kids in tow moved to a jetty to fish.
One of the women mentioned that the grass was flattened near the jetty and thought that a large crocodile may have rested there. Kids were told to be careful and not swing their legs over the jetty.
Only after half an hour of fishing did one of the group, returning from the vehicle where he’d been to fetch more fishing tackle notice the head of a large crocodile protruding from the water right under the jetty, quietly waiting for an opportunity!
Everything mentioned above suggests this main point about camping: camping is a way to learn and use survival skills with the safety net of knowing you’re within reach of your car or permanent shelter.
While camping is a great way to get in touch with nature, enjoy a bit of adventure and get weekend exercise outside of the gym or running track, it is also the time where we test and hone our skills should we need them in a survival situation.
It’s almost guaranteed a seasoned camper will outperform someone who has never tried camping when it comes to real life survival.
How you prepare for camping should have a survival goal in mind– one type of trip can be prepping you for a bug out situation where you establish a semi-permanent camp that can sustain you for months, or take a trip where you have to keep moving and carry minimal equipment and supplies – to prep you for survival on the run.
The former will allow for adventure and a deal of comfort when camping, but the latter may make for the best way to create something like a survival environment.
What are your own experiences with camping and how have they informed your prepping lifestyle? Please comment below.
updated 07/24/2020 by Jeanie Beales
Jonathan is a prepper from Youngstown OH, US who’s simply in love with camping and hiking.