Generally my posts on our blog are around ‘How to…’ type scenarios, so how to light a fire, how to put up a tarp etc. I stick to practical posts and stay away from ‘philosophical musings’, but in this one I think I might have veered over a little which has surprised me as it wasn’t my intention at all when I started writing!
Take a somewhat lengthy read and see what you think.
Is bushcraft an expensive hobby? It’s a simple and entirely sensible question to ask. Unfortunately the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might imagine, it’s both yes and no (Schrödinger’s Kit maybe?)!
It doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby, indeed you might argue it shouldn’t be, but when people are first dipping a toe into bushcraft they often become side tracked with kit, where it’s easy to become confused about what’s needed and equally as easy to become confused about which brand/model etc. to go for.
For many people buying equipment is likely to be a large part of the cost associated with bushcraft. I initially wrote ‘right equipment’ but changed it as the cost can often be around buying the wrong kit (more on this later).
When we send out the kit list to people coming on our courses (it’s basically a list of simple camping equipment), we include a note that recommends not buying things for the course, rather that they should beg, borrow and steal them (well not the last one, but you get the point).
Partly this is to prevent people incurring additional cost, but it’s also because we talk about these things on the course. We can give advice and let people try out different items, to actually have them in their hands and give them a try.
Examples include fire steels and axes. When we deliver a lesson on using a fire steel we’ve got around a dozen different types for people to try; on our axe courses we have a selection of different axes people can give a go.
The same can be said of tents, roll mats and sleeping bags but this time it’s our customers who bring a wide range of different types and brands with them. The pros and cons are often discussed over the course of an evening sat around the fire; this kind of impromptu, independent, and often brutally honest, feedback is fantastic for anyone who is unsure of what’s the best fit for them.
Another great example is knives. It’s generally one of the first purchases for people and the question of which knife to buy is a common one on social media. And usually when the question is asked the answers come thick and fast, but rarely does anyone reply with the simple question “What do you want to do with it?”. The same is true of axes. Because the answer to that simple question should guide your purchase, not just with knives and axes, but with everything.
If your answer is “Cut stuff”, then you probably need to do a little more homework on the subject. But what’s more important here is that we’re all different, we all have different sized hands and fingers, so a knife that feels comfortable to me might well not feel comfortable to you. It doesn’t matter how many 5 star reviews a knife (or anything else for that matter) has on the internet, it has to feel right for you, it has to be comfortable in your hand. I know because I made this very mistake; I bought an expensive handmade knife that was, and still is, highly regarded; I waited for it to arrive with great excitement only to find it was too small for my hand! Don’t buy a knife (or axe) without having it in your hand first.
Knowledge not kit
Before going any further, let’s remind ourselves that bushcraft is about knowledge not kit. As Ray Mears said:
“Bushcraft is what you carry in your mind and your muscles.”
And if you haven’t heard that quote before, you are likely to have heard variations of it because everyone involved with bushcraft says so.
Although when you look on many Facebook pages on the subject of bushcraft you could be forgiven for thinking it was the other way around.
This, I think, is simple human nature. Nobody wants to look foolish and when we’re new to something, or don’t know something, we’re often reluctant to admit it, we tend to stick to things where we can avoid making gaffes and embarrassing ourselves. As a newcomer to bushcraft it’s easier to discuss, for example, brands of rucksacks; it’s far less daunting than joining a conversation identifying plants to understand their edibility or herbal properties, whether they can be used to make cordage, tinder or dye clothing.
As an aside, I’ve always been a fan of the maxim:
“Ask a question and you might look daft for a minute. Don’t ask and you’ll remain daft.”
Although I’m not sure if it’s just something I’ve made up over the years!
With all of that said, we do need some basic kit but it’s the knowledge and skills that will lighten your load and stop you from having to take the kitchen sink and all with you (I recently saw a post on Facebook where someone had bought a wheelbarrow to help them transport their kit!).
When I first got started in bushcraft some 20 years ago there weren’t any shops dedicated to selling bushcraft kit. It was a case of getting stuff from army surplus shops and camping shops and adapting, improvising and making your own.
So when I tentatively ventured into the woods for a couple of days all those years ago, I had an old sleeping bag from Woolworths, a sheath knife my dad gave me years before (blunt!), some washing line, a saucepan and a box of matches, clearly woefully underprepared but I managed to put together something that could optimistically be referred to as a debris shelter and was fortunate that it didn’t rain, although I soon realised my sleeping bag really wasn’t suitable for November. (As an aside, when I got into the shelter, it only covered me from toes to shoulders, my head was stuck out the end!)
But I learned from the experience, reflected on it and made a list of things I’d need to be more comfortable. I prioritised the list as I couldn’t afford it all at once. I visited a nearby army surplus and picked up an ex-army sleeping bag and roll mat and a coat that kept the rain out for about 30 minutes, as I learnt through experience (I used it for years, figuring if it rained for longer than that I’d sit in my shelter). I also gave myself time to improve the shelter, so it was waterproof and all of me fitted in!
After a few years of me spending the odd weekend in the woods a friend became interested and decided to come along. That first trip he brought a few bits and pieces in an old holdall, not the easiest way to carry a load. Not long after he picked up an ex-army rucksack in olive green for £10 at a car boot fair; a few weeks later he was given a side pouch by a work colleague in desert colours. Another few weeks later and he bought another side pouch at another boot fair, this time in camouflage! But the point isn’t the colour mismatch, it’s that it was inexpensive but still perfectly suitable for the task.
And that’s a key message, there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all in buying second hand or used kit, in fact it’s a great way to go about things (see ‘Leave no trace’ below) and surprisingly easy to do, there are loads of places online where you can get a bargain.
Popularity of bushcraft
As I said earlier, 15 – 20 years ago there weren’t any ‘bushcraft’ shops. But as bushcraft has become more popular, and I suspect this is true of any hobby or past-time, manufacturers, retailers and marketers have taken notice and moved in. And I’m fairly convinced that they invent terms as well as items of equipment that you probably don’t need.
When I first got involved in bushcraft I don’t recall ever hearing the term ‘cook system’, people had a billy can, usually made from a catering sized baked bean can scrounged from a local greasy spoon, with a bit of coat hanger to make a handle, that’s certainly what I used. One of my friends I used to go bushcrafting with took a frying pan, just an everyday, normal one and it worked just fine.
The same with ‘sleep system’; my sleep system consists of lying down and closing my eyes, it’s worked well for me for 50 odd years.
I’m always wary of stuff labelled as ‘bushcraft’ and particularly avoid anything labelled as ‘military spec’, ‘special forces’ or ‘tactical’; these terms are meaningless and often simply mean they’ve taken a product, sprayed it green or black and doubled the price (and of course anything in green or camo is going to be more difficult to find in the woods if you should happen to misplace it).
But we also get kit that’s supposedly been designed to do a certain task that could as easily be done by learning a particular skill, meaning you don’t need to buy the thing in the first place.
An example would be the extendible hollow tubes reminiscent of old car aerials for blowing air into a fire. They definitely work but why not just practise pursing your lips to achieve the same result and therefore avoid the need to buy, and carry, the tube?
Another saying – ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. I’m generally wary of gimmicky kit, things that are designed to do a multitude of tasks, as I’ve found that often they don’t do any of the things they’re supposed to do particularly well, a kind of ‘jack of all trades but master of none’.
I’m aware of the mantra that everything you carry should be able to do 3 things, and I mostly agree with it, but for me it’s a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule; a fire steel is designed to light fires and nothing else, but I’m not going into the woods without one because I struggle to think of 2 other uses for it.
I’m not saying avoid specialist bushcraft shops because there are some good ones out there and they sell some good kit, but I am suggesting that you should try some of the other options I’ve touched on too.
Leave no trace
Leave no trace is a fundamental guiding principle in bushcraft and one that we should strive to achieve on all of our outdoor adventures. But now, on the verge of environmental collapse, it’s more important than ever.
When I mentioned to some of the team here at Jack Raven Bushcraft that I was writing about the cost of bushcraft as a hobby, Jules Bristow said this to me:
“For me bushcraft should be about gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world around us. As one of the primary ways we as a species are harming the natural world is by mindless overconsumption, it always seemed a little perverse to facilitate appreciating our planet by buying a lot of the shiny gadgets whose production is destroying it.”
And I agree 100%. Leave no trace shouldn’t just mean leaving no trace in the areas we pass through when practicing bushcraft, but it should equally apply to our purchases (and if you can try to extend this philosophy to all aspects of your life, so much the better).
Use things that you already have, modify and improvise if you need to. Buy used or second hand. Buy items that are produced sustainably and minimise our impact on the natural world. Buy items that will last.
I have items of kit that are getting on a bit. I bought my rucksack in 1987 (a Karrimor Jag 75) and it’s been to Belize, Mexico, Kenya, Oman, Malaysia, across Europe and probably places I can’t remember anymore. OK, I’ve had to repair it a couple of times but it’s still going strong.
My Gransfor Bruks Small Hunters Axe has been with me for 16 years, my tarp for 15 years (it’s the one in the photo a little further down in this post).
My point here is that good quality equipment that you look after will last. You can go through one cheap tarp after another because the eyelets tear out, whereas one decent tarp will go on.
If you can, save up and buy one decent item rather than buying several cheap items that don’t last.
I realise that I’ve talked about things that might seem contradictory; I’ve just recommended buying quality items that will last, and these items often cost more. I’ve also said that bushcraft doesn’t have to be expensive. But if you buy a succession of items that break, you’ll end up spending more than if you buy a single item that will last a lifetime.
Think about what you intend to do with your bushcraft as this will influence what you need.
If you’re going to the local woods for the day to work on your plant identification, you’re not going to need the same kit as you would on a 5 day trip to the Cairngorms (many bushcrafters could learn a thing or two from wild campers and hikers who carry their kit on their backs for long distances).
With that said, bear in mind that the people who are most likely to end up in a survival situation are day hikers!
What kit do I need?
I’m not going to provide a prescriptive list of what you need for bushcraft because there are too many variables in play, what environment you’re in, what time of year, your budget etc. But you’re likely to get a few pointers from this post which shows what I’ll typically take with me for a few days in British woodlands from spring to autumn. In the winter I take a different sleeping bag, a bivvy bag and some extra layers, but pretty much everything else stays the same.
You’ll also need suitable outdoor clothing for the time of year and environment you’re visiting (take a look at this post).
Before you buy anything, take a look at what you already have and what can be adapted or tweaked for bushcraft. In a similar vein, ask family and friends if they have any camping or outdoor stuff they no longer use. Don’t be put off by colour, if you have a waterproof coat and it’s red, wear it, who says you have to be in camo? Same with rucksacks and tents.
Once you’ve got an idea of what you already have, draw up a list of what you need (note ‘need’ and not ‘shiny stuff you covet’) and then prioritise. To do that prioritising, take a tip from the survival aspect of bushcraft and think about what’s likely to cause you harm in the outdoors and get hold of items that mitigate those potential harms.
In this country protecting yourself from the elements, both day and night, is going to be at the top of the list, so think about waterproofs, tent or tarp, sleeping bag, roll mat, bivvy bag, Protected from the elements you might not get a fire going, you might go hungry, but you’re unlikely to die of exposure. I always recommend to our students to get those items before buying a single expensive item such as a handmade knife.
In fact if you’re going to the local woods for a couple of days a £10 knife is likely to do the same job as a £300 knife. A used fizzy drinks bottle holds water just as well as a more expensive, purpose made one. You can cook your food in a mess tin with little difference to an expensive titanium pot.
Once you’ve got those items, it’s really just a fire steel, knife, saw, torch and first aid kit.
You might well refine your kit as you go along, but your trials and tribulations of using stuff you already had, or modified, or borrowed, will provide you with invaluable experience and inform your selection.
Bushcraft courses are sometimes viewed as expensive, but I would (unsurprisingly) challenge that idea. If you work out the hourly cost of a course, they come out quite favourably. For example, a 2 day bushcraft course with us currently costs £195 for 46 hours, so £4.25 an hour. Now I know some of that time is spent asleep, so even at 30 hours it’s £6.50 an hour. That’s the same as I pay for muay thai lessons, less than Nicola pays for ballet classes and quite a bit less than an adult education Spanish class I was taking.
I’ve attended courses in the past (and still do from time to time with other bushcraft companies), and whilst I’m likely to be biased here, I think attending a course is a great idea as it’ll give you a good foundation to build on. It’ll also allow you to ask questions of the instructors and other participants about their experiences with kit, the good and the bad, and can help guide you in your own purchases.
Ultimately of course you need to get out and practice these things, but a course will set you on the right path and ensure you’re practicing the right things.
I started this by asking “Is bushcraft an expensive hobby?” And I said both yes and no! Now I’d like to restate that as two questions:
“Can bushcraft be an expensive hobby?” and “Should bushcraft be an expensive hobby?”
The answer to the first question is yes, to the second no.
It doesn’t need to be expensive, think carefully about what you already have or can improvise or make yourself, what friends and family might be able to donate, prioritise what you need, avoid gimmicky items, shop around, consider buying previously owned items and sustainably produced items and make prudent investments.
And of course, look after your kit and it’ll look after you.