Survival Skills and Bushcraft Basics Guide

Bushcraft seems to be everywhere. From Bear to Ray Mears, watching celebs on TV can cause an interest in bushcraft courses. Bushcraft seems very Olde Worlde- untill your camping or you get lost on a walk. Then the skills can be lifesavers. Would you know what to eat and what not to – how to camp and where to walk without a compass, map, or even a light?  Why not make 2012 the year to stay safe and learn some skills?

I spoke to Jason Ingamels from  Woodland Ways about the basics of bushcraft, from how to navigate without a compass, what to eat, where to camp, how to keep mosquitoes away, how to start a fire in wet conditions and what to pack.

Why is bush craft so popular in your opinion?

There has been a huge amount of interest in Bushcraft & Survival Skills within the UK since the appearance on our TV screens of celebrities such as Ray Mears and Bear Gryll’s; highlighting a variety of different enjoyable skill sets. I believe these TV programs have made a wide part of the population take a look at their own lives and to start thinking about how they fit in to their natural environment. Modern humans lives are incredibly complicated, and I think the natural beauty of re-connecting with the skills of our ancestors plays a harmonious balancing act for our souls, this is where our courses at Woodland Ways Bushcraft & Survival come in.

How did you get into it?

I was inspired as a 9 year old child by a book that was given to me as a gift, it was Lofty Wisemans SAS Survival Handbook… as soon as I had this in my hands that was it, I was out building dens, learning fire lighting, tracking animals and I haven’t looked back since. I went through various training programs to teach professionally and now I run Woodland Ways, one of the busiest Bushcraft & Survival Schools in the UK.

Can the UK be dangerous?

Without a shadow of a doubt! Exposure to the elements can be a killer, which is why your immediate priority in a survival situation is shelter, and then if appropriate warmth. But looking beyond the basics there are plants out there that will kill you if digested.

What do you carry and what are your key items?

It sounds like a cliché but seriously your biggest asset is your brain, there is a certain psychology in understanding how to survive in the wild, and your knowledge should be the biggest help… it is unfortunate though that a little knowledge can be very dangerous, so it’s a good idea to get out there on a training course, have some fun and learn some skills. If you want to know the most important piece of equipment, I’d say a good knife. With this you have the ability to construct shelter, to fashion materials for fire and hence cook your food and make water safe to drink.

What about foraging for food, are there protected species that shouldn’t be touched?

It is vital in the UK to understand the legal framework of collecting flora. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. Uproot is defined as to ‘dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing’, whether or not it actually has roots. Legally the term ‘plant’ includes algae, lichens and fungi as well the true plants – mosses, liverworts and vascular plants.
Even plants growing wild are the legal property of somebody, and under the Theft Act, 1968, it is an offence to uproot plants for commercial purposes without authorisation.
Generally it is accepted to gather the four F’s, Flowers, Fruits, Foliage and Fungi where there are no local buy laws in place to prevent you.

Plants in protected areas

A variety of statutory designations are used for sites of high nature conservation interest, including National Nature Reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in Britain Owners and occupiers may be prosecuted if they destroy plants growing in these sites or remove plant material, unless they have first consulted the statutory conservation agencies (English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage or the Environment and Heritage Service, Northern Ireland).
It is illegal to pick, uproot or remove plants if by-laws are in operation which forbid these activities, for example on Nature Reserves, Ministry of Defence property or National Trust land.
For example. It is now illegal to collect fungi in Epping Forest.
Protected Plants
Plants listed in Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act are protected from intentional picking, uprooting or destruction without a license. Fortunately in doesn’t include many that are of interest to the forager.

ID of plants

The are over 160 native plants that are considered edible in some way shape or form, but there are also a large number of poisonous plants which can kill or make you seriously ill. The risk is even greater with fungi.
Sorrel can easily be mistaken for young Lords and Ladies! Cow Parsley with Hemlock, Hawthorn berries with Woody Nightshade! YOU MUST GET YOUR ID 110%. All guide books have limitations. No one image can depict a plant in all its infinite variety that results from;-stages of growth, genetic diversity, light and soil conditions etc. Illustrations tend to appear washed out and are subject to artistic license, whilst photographs tend to depict the whole plant in flower and therefore may not give sufficient close up detail of the leaf or other significant features. In plant identification often touch and smell are bought into play which may not be conveyed in a book. Attending a foraging course with a reputable company is the best way of starting.

Tolerance to plants

Anyone can react to even a plant that is listed as edible. I’ve even known someone allergic to Hawthorn! With some plants such as Hogweed a significant amount of people can have an adverse reaction and even some “edible” fungi commonly cause problems with a significant amount of people;- Chicken of the woods, Shaggy Parasol. Always start with a tiny amount to test your tolerance. Once you know you are ok to start gathering there are then some common sense decisions to make also, you should avoid;-the edges of arable fields unless you know the land owner and know they haven’t been sprayed.The edges of busy roads;- pollutants in vehicle exhausts, council spraying etc. Areas liable to flooding, especially where the water may have flowed through centres of population, industrial areas, pasture land or heavily farmed areas.

How can you navigate without a compass?

Navigating in the wilds without a compass is challenging but again, with some good knowledge the practical outdoorsman can calculate a bearing. This is very useful to have a constant understanding of your position within your landscape.
There are numerous ways that you can interpret the landscape, understand the sun, the moon or indeed the stars. Probably the easiest and most accurate is to use an analogue watch.
It is also most accurate if done between 6am and 6pm. Simply point the hour hand of your watch directly towards the sun and bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock. This will give you a North-South line and in the UK between 6am and 6pm the sun will be to the south of you. You need to ensure that you are on correct local time (GMT in the UK), if the clocks are changed for daylight saving like British Summertime you need to bisect the angle between the hour hand and 1 o’clock.
What are the best places to build camp in the wilderness?

I always advise our clients the key thing to consider is where are your resources, and build as close to these as possible. However there are certain areas you would avoid, such as hollows where cold air would sink, on flood plains, right next to water due to the insect risk, on large game trails etc but the most important thing if building a shelter in a woodland is to look up and ensure there is nothing likely to fall down on you.

Can you tell us what to eat and a little about foraging –  what about bugs- can they be eaten? 

Surprisingly food is actually usually very easy to come by… as long as we can get out of our modern day mindset on what constitutes food! For example in lowland UK the common earth worm is a wonderful source of protein. It is best to purge them and then quickly fry them, they taste not unlike a bit of bacon rind.

How do you start a fire – and what if it has been raining?

Always light fire by the easiest possible means… and start at the end. If you have to resort to rubbing two sticks together to get fire then there is no point in creating an ember if you have nothing to burn. So start off and gather your fuel, and then your kindling, and then your tinder. I teach c.14-16 different methods of getting fires going but as a general rule of thumb when we are lighting fires for real we rely on high grade sparks. This is because they are resistant to wind/rain, and will get lots of natural tinder’s going. If you’re working in very wet conditions you may need to dry your tinder by placing it inside your clothing to let your body heat dry it out, and also to split your fuel into the heart wood where it will be nice and dry.
What wildlife can you spot in the UK? What tips do you have?

My favourite mammal to watch is deer, and my favourite of those is watching Roe, they have so many characteristics that can throw the casual observer. If you want to get close I suggest learn the art of tracking, discovering the signs that are left by the species. Once you know they are in the area use track traps and barriers to find them. Once in site be aware of your shape, sound, smell, silhouette, shine… get yourself upwind and if the deer bolt and you loos sight head uphill, I bet you’ll be surprised you may just find them again!

What are the difficult skills that need to be taught? 

Truly the most difficult of skills has to be the ability to light fire… In any conditions. It may be that on a nice warm sunny day with plenty of material you’re fine… but how about in the freezing cold, when it has been pouring with rain for 12 hours… could you do it then?

How do you keep mosquitoes off you in the wilderness? 

In the UK try this one, take some Elder leaves (Sambucus Nigra), give them a real good scrunch up in your hands to release the juice, and then smear this on exposed areas… you’ll stink… but the mosquitoes won’t get you! (I should point out it is best to try this on a small area of skin to begin with to make sure that you are not allergic!)

Your 3 desert island items?

Wow, 3… that’s generous! I’d simply say my knife… however as I now have two luxury items I’d take something to shelter under and a fire steel…!

If you are interested in a bushcraft course – please click to see all of our Bushcraft Courses in The UK. 

Have you got any top tips for budding bushmen and women?