Even when my dad finally hooked up running water for his parents and gave grandma a washing machine and real kitchen sink we still had to go to the outhouse to take care of business. Grandma always had a vegetable garden and canned her home grown veggies as well as sewed her clothes and made quilts.
My other grandparents came from similar backgrounds. My mother’s mother actually lived in a farm house when she was young during the depression. When they swept the kitchen floor the odd bits of food would fall through cracks in the floor boards going under the house where the chickens would gobble it up.
All of the clothes they wore were handmade, just as the patchwork quilts on their beds were made from scraps of material left over from making clothes. After decades of experience my grandmother made the most beautifully intricate patterns in her handmade quilts.
From Need Comes Ingenuity
All of my grandparents lived through the great depression and WWII (one grandfather was actually a corpsman in Europe and was injured in combat), and so often they had to improvise and make do with what they had. Suffice it to say, I learned a great deal from these people about how to survive on your wits, and how to fish, hunt, camp, and garden, as well as a number of other things. I can do pretty much everything I try to do. I’ve rarely had to call a repair man.
My mother learned from her mother how to can food and sew. When we were kids most of the clothes we wore my mother made. Then this was just how life was for a great deal of people, now many people are trying to get back to these roots. This is what brings us here.
History of the Canoe
Here in North America the Native Americans made hide covered and birch bark canoes. These were made with a frame of bentwood covered with animal hide or birch bark which peeled in fairly large sheets from birch trees for the hulls.
The canoe is a simple boat that examples of can be found all over the world. From the large, hollowed out logs with outriggers of the Polynesians, (remember the intro to the 70’s television show Hawaii 5-0?) to frames covered in animal hide or tree bark. Many indigenous peoples utilized this vessel for traversing the waterways in their area.
The covering would typically be stitched with rawhide lace or plant fiber, and all of the seams would be sealed with white pine pitch. Cedar planking would be used for the floor. Some were made with cedar plank hulls and then covered with hide to waterproof it.
Getting Started: Gathering Supplies
A fairly easy to make survival canoe can be made utilizing these same principles. If you are pressed for time and happened to have a tarp or large sheet of sturdy plastic, you can make a simple frame using materials at hand like reeds or saplings, or thin branches from surrounding trees.
By using green material (living plants) it will easily bend into shape without much effort or fear of breakage and by being green the material will have some flexibility and more strength than dried material of equal size. A pencil thick stick of dried wood will easily break but a green stick will merely bend.
To start gather a few armloads of material for the frame. This should be about 1/4”-1/2” in diameter, (.6-1.25cm) for the vertical ribs and 1/2”-1” (1.25-2.5cm) for the keel and horizontal frame members. Start by making four rings of two sizes, two approximately 18” (45cm) in diameter, and two approximately 36” (90cm) in diameter.
Diagram: detail of half of a canoe
Do the Math… It All Adds Up
If you are a smaller framed person you can probably make it a little smaller but I’m 6’ and 260 pounds (183cm and 118 kg) so I want something with a little room. When constructing your canoe consider that to float comfortably with you in it you will want to displace about twice your weight.
How to Adjust for Your Weight
If you have supplies don’t forget to add that extra weight to the equation. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon (1kg per 1L), so if you weigh 240 pounds (109kg) and you have 100 pounds (45kg) of gear then you need to displace at least 680 pounds (308kg), or 85 gallons (322L) to ensure a safe float. Consider that most standard canoes have a weight capacity of 800 pounds (363kg) (so even if you don’t need to build quite that big) it is a guideline to work around.
Making the Rings
So anyway, now that you have all the materials start by making your four rings. Construct them by bending the sticks into a circle entwining them and lashing them together. If you don’t have cord you can use strips of cloth from your own clothing if you have it to spare, if not then you will have to use material from your surroundings.
Constructing the Strips
If you have plastic water bottles you can cut strips from it by cutting in a spiral like peeling an apple, cut these about 1/4” wide. After you lash it with the plastic strip if you have access to fire you can gently heat the strips and they will shrink tight. If nothing else is available plant fiber may be your only option.
Dry vs. Wet Fibers
Suitable fiber can be obtained from most tree bark, the fibrous layer between the wood and outer bark from dead trees is best. If there are only live trees available peel the bark only along one side, peeling all the way around the tree will kill it. You can peel the bark off the twigs and branches you used for the frame.
Wet fibers will have to be dried by placing them inside your clothes next to your body or over a fire. If you happened to have fishing gear with you monofilament line will work for lashing as well, just be sure to save enough for fishing.
Here is a decent video on how to make cordage from bark.
- Space the rings equally apart along a 1” diameter stick (or two lashed together) about 10- 12 feet long for the keel (the keel is the bottom most frame part upon which a vessel is built). Two more like this positioned on about the 2 and 10 o’clock position on the rings make the gunnel (or gunwale, this is the top edge of the boat).
- Place two more positioned at about the 5 and 7 o’clock positions, bring these all together at either end of the canoe and lash them together. This will complete the horizontal framework.
- Next bend the 1/4”-1/2” diameter sticks around these horizontal frame rails about every foot or so to form the ribs. Lash all of this together firmly. Make sure you have the ribs (and everything else for that matter) as even as possible to maintain stability of the vessel.
- Now that you have the ribs in place you can put a floor in your canoe by lining the bottom with 1/4”-1/2” diameter sticks and lashing them to the ribs. It doesn’t have to be a solid floor but at least a couple inches apart so your foot can’t go through and damage the hull material.
At this point, if you have a tarp or plastic you just spread it out on the ground and place the frame in the center. Be sure to clear the area of rocks and sticks so you don’t make holes in the material, you don’t want any leaks.
Pull the tarp up over one side and lash it in place. If you do find any holes in your tarp you can patch it with pine pitch and a cut off piece of the tarp material or some plant fiber.
Next, stretch the tarp as taught as possible up over the other side and lash it in place. Make sure the edges are even, any excess can just lie in the boat and it won’t hurt anything. If there is enough extra you could add a few sticks to make an awning to shade you from the weather if it’s hot or raining.
Now that you have the sides in place work on the ends, pulling the material as tight as possible and lashing it into place. If you are using a tarp it likely has grommeted holes along the edge, you can use these but you will still need to make more. Since these holes are along the top or inside you won’t need to worry about sealing them.
Here’s a great example of a survival “kayak” being built (the guy in the video titled it as a kayak but it looks like a canoe to me):
Now that you have completed the vessel (or you can do this while you are drying your cordage material) you need to make it go. Since it would be extremely difficult to build a bush craft engine, ok, impossible, you will need to make a paddle. And yes, it’s a paddle not an oar. A paddle is held by the boater and not connected to the boat, while an oar is connected to the boat via oar locks mounted in the gunnel.
You could make a single paddle, this would be easiest, but whatever you do make I suggest that you make two just in case it doesn’t hold up well or you drop it in the water and lose it. You wouldn’t want to be up the creek without a paddle. You can also make a double paddle, this is easiest to use but harder to make.
A double paddle has the flat part on both ends of a longer pole (8’ or so) so you can paddle left to right (or right to left) with alternating strokes without having to cross your body with your arms like you have to do with a single paddle. In my opinion the double paddle is better.
Constructing Your Paddle
To make the paddle you need to get a stick about four or five feet long, 1 1/2” in diameter with a fork on the end. Cut the fork so that you have two equal ends about 18” long. Leave the ends of the fork spread and weave over and under with strips of bark or some wide bladed grass or water plant like a cat tail.
The cattail material is much stronger when dried so after you weave the paddle suspend it over the fire to dry it, same for the seat material, or dry it before you weave it. To make a double paddle simply make two paddles with longer handles and lash them together. They will need to be two to three feet longer to overlap for lashing together.
Paddle by Hatchet
Another way of making a paddle requires a hatchet or axe and is considerably more labor intensive and likely less practical. If you do just happen to have a hatchet you can make a solid wood paddle from a log of about 8” in diameter. You need to make wooden wedges and drive them into the log to split it in order to get a flat piece of wood to work with. Once you have accomplished this you then just shape the paddle with your hatchet.
Here is a video of someone making a wooden paddle:
The Humble Cattail
Cattail grows all over the world on water’s edge. Cattail is easily identifiable by the very distinguishable hotdog shaped brown flower that grows on the ends of a single, long stalk.
The Many Uses of Cattail
If you find cattail not only can you use the leaves to weave paddle blades and seats for your canoe, but you can use the fibers from the long, wide-bladed leaves for various uses.
Cattails as Food
The root is an edible tuber. It doesn’t taste good, sort of like dirt, but it’s edible and actually fairly nutritious. If you do harvest the plant for the leaves and the tuber for consumption please cut off the portion of the tuber with the plant and leave part of the tuber in the ground so that a new plant can grow. You can even make cattail flour! Cattails produce more edible starch per acre than rice, potatoes, or yams!
Cattails as a Weaving Material
Since we’re on the subject of cattails, if you do happen to have an ample supply you can also make your cordage from the leaves as well as baskets for gathering and storing gathered food such as the aforementioned tubers, berries, or other edibles.
Here is a good video on making cordage from cattail leaves:
You can also use the cattail leaves to weave a seat for the canoe if you so choose and want to spend the extra time to keep you from having to kneel the whole time. To do this you just need to add a few cross members where you wish the seat to be then weave the cattail leaves through them. “Viola”, a seat!
Here’s a good video tutorial for weaving with cattail leaves:
More uses for cattails are drying the bulbous flower end for fire tinder and using the full stalk as a torch.
But What If?
But what if you don’t have a tarp or plastic or tent to cover your canoe frame with? That’s a very good question, the short answer is to be better prepared, and the long answer is start peeling bark. Birch bark is ideal as it peels off in large sheets and is pretty durable. Birch bark canoes have been made for thousands of years.
This method of construction is more painstaking and time consuming than the survival method described above and this is not a temporary canoe but rather an actual true canoe that will last for years.
The real key to making it through a survival situation is to live being as self-sufficient as possible in your daily life. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world lived off the land for thousands of years and as civilization encroached upon their lands more and more of this knowledge was lost.
Today many people are concerned about the durability of society as we have become accustomed to our easy, comfortable way of life, and so they are trying to regain this lost knowledge. With the spirit of independence, if you learn to live at one with the land then you can never be lost; you can only be in a different location doing the same things you would do anywhere else.
If you’re not accustomed to living outdoors off the land, just look at it as rustic camping. Camping is actually good practice for survival in the woods, when we were kids we used to run off into the woods for days at a time with a fishing pole, a pellet gun or a .22, a knife and a blanket or sleeping bag; sometimes we took a tent. Of course when we got older we drove to the lake and set up tents and got out the cooler and lawn chairs, built a fire and enjoyed the fresh air and crickets while we waited for a fish to get on the line.
Certainly if you are ever lost in the wilderness you will want to get back to where you call home, where your loved ones are (and your stuff) but in the mean time you will just have to live life. Find food, find water, make shelter and use the land to facilitate these goals.
Whether it’s making a weapon to hunt meat, a bow drill to start fires, weaving plants into a canopy or basket, or making a canoe to travel down the stream if you are living in the manner of self sufficiency you can never be truly lost.