I was a big fan of Star Trek as a child; this was back in the days of Captain Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a sacrificial guy in a red top who would invariably die. Of course, it was all very tongue in cheek and good light-hearted entertainment. It seemed like every few episodes the USS Enterprise would be attacked by another spaceship and would take a hit, maybe by a photon torpedo or something similar. And Kirk would radio down to Scotty in engineering and be told something along the lines of “Main power is down Captain, we’re switching to auxiliary power”.
Now I can vividly remember, even as a child, thinking to myself “If the auxiliary power still works, why don’t they make the main power the same way so that still works?”
So after that somewhat tenuous opening link, I’m going to talk about auxiliaries, or backups. Typically, when the subject of backups arises within a bushcraft context it’s around knives. From time to time, I get asked what backup knife I carry. In fact, whenever I’ve been asked about backups it’s always been about knives, I’ve never been asked what backup tarp I take, or backup sleeping bag or backup torch.
To an extent this makes sense, a knife is arguably your most important tool in bushcraft and of course it’s simply impractical to carry a backup of every piece of kit you have. So, think carefully about which items you might need a backup for. Also, remind yourself that bushcraft is about knowledge and not kit!
Going back to our Star Trek example, it seems to me that backups can be:
- Worse quality than the main item,
- The same quality as the main item, or
- Better quality than the main item.
A few thoughts on those options:
- I’m not sure that I want a backup that’s inferior, and therefore potentially not up to what I need.
- It doesn’t make sense to have a backup that’s better than the piece of equipment or tool that you’ll be actually using, surely you want the best tool for the job in the first instance?
- So for me that means having a backup that’s as good as the primary piece of kit or tool, so essentially a duplicate of the main item.
There’s another option I can think of – having a backup for something that you aren’t carrying with you! See below about natural tinders.
Backups and options aren’t the same thing.
Along with most people working in this field I recommend carrying 3 different ways to light a fire (many of those same people will tell you that everything you carry should do 3 things; I struggle to think what I might do with a ferrocerium rod other than light a fire, but I still take one with me!).
You could argue that each of those three items is a backup, but for me this is a different thing. I don’t advise taking three ignition methods because they work as backups, rather because different ignition methods work with different tinders and different environments so carrying a variety of ignition methods gives you options.
In the photo below is a ferro rod, lighter and a fresnell lens as 3 methods of ignition, as well as a few manmade tinders (which I carry as a backup in case I can’t find any dry natural tinder to use!).
Going back to the question of what backup knife I carry – it’s a Gransfor Bruks Small Hunters axe. My advice here is to think a little bit laterally; a knife is a cutting tool, so is an axe. If I break my knife or lose it, I still have a cutting tool. If I break my axe or lose it, I still have a cutting tool and I can make a new handle or I can adapt how I carry out certain tasks to accomplish them with a knife instead.
I could also fashion a cutting edge from a piece of flint.
Apply that thinking to other items.
Also think about carrying a repair kit so that you can fix things if you need to.
Training and training kit
Another bit of reminiscing, this time around 20 years ago. I was watching Alan Shearer being asked about practicing penalties as England were about to compete in a football tournament. Shearer explained that it was pointless to practice penalties as it was impossible to recreate the situation of actually taking one in a tournament (he’d changed his mind on this by Euros 2020!)
As an ex-soldier this didn’t make much sense to me. We went on the ranges frequently to keep our marksmanship up to scratch. We went on exercise to practice. None of this actually replicated the conditions we’d face in battle, so why did we do it? To build muscle memory; to make sure that instinct kicked in when we had to do it for real, that we would do it without thinking, without hesitation. It’s the same reason boxers do drills and martial artists do katas or forms.
It’s also the same reason why I light a fire the same way every time, mostly because it’s a method that works, but also because that one time, when I really need a fire rather than because I’m messing around in the woods, the time when I’m stressed, anxious, maybe wet, cold and hungry, that’s when I want muscle memory and instinct to kick in, so I do the thing that works without having to think about it.
My point? Practice all of your bushcraft skills as often as you can, in as many weather conditions as you can and in as many different environments as you can. When we’re delivering survival courses we’ll talk about improvised methods and I tell our students to make sure that the first time they try something isn’t the time they really need it to work.
Practice until you get it right or practice until you never get it wrong.
I’m a believer in the second of those options.
Which brings me on to training kit. I’ve heard plenty of people make comments such as “It’s OK for training, but I wouldn’t take it with me in the field”. Why train with a tool or piece of equipment that’s different to the one you’ll actually use?
Going back to the football analogy – why would you practice with a different football than the one you’ll actually use in the game?
Or in the army, we used the exact same equipment to train as we would use in combat. We didn’t go to the ranges with an air rifle, we trained with our issued weapon (SLR in my day).
So practice with the tools and equipment you’ll be using. Now with that said, it doesn’t hurt to try other items as well to get familiar with different tools and techniques, but when you head out, stick with the tried and tested.
I’m not sure I have one really, but I’d like to remind you of a few points:
- Think carefully about what kit you want a backup for.
- Think about the quality of the backup.
- Give yourself options
- Be competent with whatever you’re carrying
- Practice, practice, practice!
I’d be glad to hear your own advice for backups and training kit.
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