To me, bushcraft means making the most out of the resources one has available while existing in comfort and harmony within the wilderness. These resources include equipment, personal knowledge and skill and the surrounding environment. The most valuable resource is one’s own personal knowledge and skill, the ability to adapt and improvise.
Equipment therefore, can’t be the sole resource to rely on. It’s good to have, but if you can’t use it effectively and efficiently, it’s just added weight you must carry. Combined with skill, know how and training; gear can be a very effective resource to use at your disposal. In bushcraft you are always refining and expanding your knowledge and skill set through practical application and educational enrichment.
When it comes to gear I like things that are light weight, multi-functional and compact. I carry equipment that’s going to bring me warmth, cover and food by sticking to the principles of the five C’s of survival. There are a handful of items I pack on all of my adventures regardless of how far I hike, how long I stay and however the weather is. Without endorsing any specific product or brand, I’m going to instead focus on the what and why of the basic gear I pack.
1. Baselayer, Mid-Layer, Shell and Outer Wear.
In my opinion this is the most important piece of equipment you can invest in. It’s going to maintain your core temperature, cover you from the environment and provide you with places to store other tools and resources. The right clothing is ultimately going to determine whether you have an enjoyable and comfortable experience in the bush. What you wear will be dictated by season, weather, duration of your expedition and the terrain. Assume at some point the temperature is going to drop, so dress in layers.
The baselayer will be in direct contact with your body so it’s going to be responsible for wicking perspiration and moisture, preventing friction and maintaining your overall comfort level. It should fit tight and close to your skin. Examples include socks, undershirt and underwear. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, spandex, wool, charged cotton and nylon are the best for this layer.
The midlayer should be breathable and fit snugly over the baselayer without restricting movement. Components of this layer can be shed if needed. It’s going to circulate in warmer temperatures and insulate in the cold while also providing protection from the weather, terrain and other environmental conditions. When it’s wet it needs to dry quickly. Cargo pants, pullover and tactical shirts all serve as examples. 50/50 nylon and cotton twill, 100% ripstop cotton, 50/50 ripstop nylon and cotton poplin blend and duck canvas are good fabrics for this layer.
The shell layer is the outermost layer and the workhorse of the layering system. It will protect you from the wind, cold, rain and snow and can be shed when condition dictates . It needs to be moisture permeable and loose fitting because space creates an insulating boundary between you and the elements. Ski pants, rain gear, windbreakers and field jackets are all components of this layer. Gortex, Thinsulate, ripstop polyester, nylon and cotton sateen and duck canvas make great materials for this layer.
Outerwear I consider the comfort items of the layering system. They aren’t essential, but they do augment the other layers and make your time spent outdoors easier and more enjoyable. Gloves, eye wear, footwear and headgear are in this category. As with all gear, equip according to season and specific application. If it’s the winter you’re going to carry snow goggles instead of sun glasses. If you’re going to be using sharp tools or handling timber, pack work gloves along with the insulated gloves. The weather and terrain will dictate if you’ll bring trail shoes or boots and if they’ll be cold weather, wet weather or torrid foot gear.
Calories measure the energy content in food. On a typical day the average human will burn about 2500 calories. It is possible to get by with 1200 calories for a few days. Food is your fuel. Choose meals that are high in protein and carbohydrates, no sugars. Always bring an extra days worth of food than what is needed. For instance, if I’m going out for a day hike I’ll pack as if I were camping overnight. The meals need to be light weight, compact, able to withstand the climate and be easy to prepare. Dehydrated meal pouches are the lightest and most compact item to bring. Protect your food, camp and yourself from animals by using a vault and bag combination. I like granola bars, fruit mix, beef jerky, boil in bag rice, oatmeal, instant cocoa and canned pasta.
One of the five C’s of survival, the container. It is recommended that humans consume two quarts of water in a normal day. A general rule of thumb is that a person can survive three days without any water before organs begin to shut down. Only carry filtered and disinfected water in your canteen. I carry two M1961 canteens each holding one quart. Made from polyethylene, they are lighter than aluminum or stainless steel variations and they eliminate unnecessary noise during handling. It fits snugly inside the LC-1 stainless steel cup with that in turn fitting tightly into an aluminum burner stove. All three components fit securely inside the LC-2 insulated nylon cover. The cover has a small pocket on its outside intended to hold purification tablets. In the winter the insulated cover will keep your canteen from freezing while you are moving. During hot weather a damp cover will keep your water cold for hours. With this one piece of equipment because it is multi-functional, I am able to store water and prepare it for safe consumption.
4. Magnetic Compass
Even if you’re operating on familiar ground you should always have some way to verify your position in case something unexpected occurs. At the bare minimum you can use this to travel in a straight line over long distances. Everyone experiences lateral drift, a slight movement of either to the right or left when walking; especially when fatigued or encumbered. By shooting a bearing you can maintain an accurate and confirmable course. Combined with a map and a protractor, my ability to move confidently, deliberately and accurately has just increased by 100%. There are three types of compasses one might use in bushcraft: thumb compass, base plate compass and lensatic compass. I carry a lensatic compass for it’s multiple functions. It can be used with or without a map. It is of very durable construction and air filled making the overall instrument very sensitive to movement. The floating dial and needle illuminate and the bezel clicks every three degrees, making it easy to use in darkness. The sturdy thumb loop makes it very easy to take accurate headings.
Another one of the five C’s, cover. I would consider this particular item mandatory gear to carry because it’s lightweight, compact and versatile in the field. Being larger than a rain coat it will cover your head, torso and legs. Also, as it is loose fitting you are able to protect your pack or gear when wearing one as well. It can be used as a ground cloth or as a waterproof shelter, stretcher, water bag, rain water collector, wound or compress bandage and carry bag. Most importantly, in conjunction with a thermal liner, you have a warm weather 50F sleeping bag. I carry a military style one, overall dimensions being 56″x96″ and weight not exceeding one and a half pounds. It’s made from durable ripstop polyester material. I have two metal snaps on each side to fasten together when I’m wearing it and strong metal grommets running along each of the sides and corners to use as a tarp. Stay away from disposable ones or those made from plastic or PVC because they’ll never last long in the bush.
This falls into the cordage category of the five C’s. The three main qualities of good cordage are length, flexibility, and strength. If a rope or cord is weak in any of these qualities it is rendered ineffective. For this discussion we’ll distinguish cordage from rope as anything 1/4 inch thick or smaller. Look for something with a strong tensile strength and flexible enough to tie a knot with. I use 550lb, 7 strand, nylon parachute cord with a 5/32″ outer diameter. I pre-cut mine into one foot, three foot, six foot and 12 foot sections. I use different colored cord to distinguish length. By pre-cutting the lengths I am reducing waste and weight and I know exactly how much I have. There are many uses other than shelter building for cordage. You can hang food, set traps, lash a pot stand, make a net or use as a clothes drying line. Paracord can be used in first aid when tying slings, making a brace or using the encased strands for surgical thread. Nylon is extremely flammable and the strands can again be separated to start a fire. Paracord tends to shrink a little the first time it gets wet so when you precut it, add 1/4″ to each length. It is also necessary to fuse the innards and sheath together at each end with a lighter.
7. Individual First Aid Kit
There is a lot of debate within outdoor forums on what one should carry in a first aid kit. As with most of your gear it’s going to fall back on environmental and terrain characteristics, seasonal weather conditions and personal health concerns. I see a lot of backpackers and hikers pack bulky full trauma kits which is overkill. The Army only issues a tourniquet, elastic bandage, surgical tape and gauze dressing that fits into a 3″x3″ MOLLE pouch to each soldier, the big kits are for the medics. Your first aid kit is for individual sustainability and treatment in the field or at camp. Injuries you will most likely face are abrasions, lacerations, burns, sprains, blisters, hypothermia and hyperthermia. I always pack an assortment of band aids, surgical tape, ibuprofen, disinfectant wipes and Neosporin. In the winter I add chap stick, hand and foot warmers. In the summer I augment with sunscreen, bite kit and bug repellent. You may need to include specified medication if prescribed by a doctor. Specialize it around the trips you are planning, and your particular health needs, but don’t over do it.
8. Magnesium Fire Starter
Starting a fire is probably one of the most important and rewarding things you can do in the field, It is also one of the most overwhelming and precise tasks you will undertake especially when the scenario becomes a survival situation. Falling under the combustion category of the five C’s; magnesium fire starters are cheap, waterproof, small, lightweight and reliable. You can fit one in a pocket, attach it to a zipper or snap it to a loop on your rucksack. Not only can I throw a lot of sparks upon tinder with the attached ferro rod, I am able to shave off highly flammable powder shavings that will ignite in the rain. The shavings will burn hot, but they will burn fast so you must collect a pile about the width of a nickel. It’s good advice to not scrape the shavings in the wind as the are fine particles and use a steady surface to collect a small mound. By adding a pile of magnesium shavings to a tinder bundle I can easily spark a flame in the worst conditions. Avoid the Chinese versions as you probably aren’t going to get a 99.9% magnesium bar.
9. Water Filter
Fresh water streams and lakes may look safe but are often filled with dangerous bacteria. The water may also contain dirt or sediments which need to be removed before drinking. When you’re hiking or camping you can never bring enough water with you and it is imperative to have a way to collect potable drinking water. A filter will remove particulates, protozoa and bacteria. A purifier will do the same but also remove viruses offering a higher degree of protection. Although water borne viruses are rare in the North American back country it’s good to have that extra level of protection when SHTF. These systems are lightweight, compact and can be used multiple times over. The main benefit is that there is no wait time, I can drink instantly as opposed to boiling or a chemical treatment. There are many variations of this device on the market; ultraviolet light, gravity fed, straw, pump, bottle and squeeze filters. I use the straw design because it’s compact and when it reaches the end of it’s lifespan, I can no longer draw water through it. Freezing temperatures will certainly damage the water filter cartridge on these devices so never use them in the winter.
10. Pocket Knife
This tool is an everyday carry for me. You can buy one just about anywhere and it is easy to conceal. The pocket knife is legal to possess most places within New York State. Not only is it a weapon, but it is probably the most versatile piece of gear you will own. The simple folding blade design has developed into different variations like the jack knife, Swiss Army knife and multi-tool. The blade should be around three inches long, a half inch wide and firmly held opened by tension or a locking mechanism. 420 series stainless steel will keep a fair edge, resist rusting, spark a ferro rod and is very inexpensive. For smaller knives I like drop point blades because they are strong and versatile for many cutting, carving and whittling tasks. Cutting cordage, field dressing small game and fish, removing splinters and stingers, making fire kindling are a few of the many uses of a small folding blade. I look for non tempered stainless steel and a 90° spine to throw sparks. The knife I bring everywhere is a slipjoint design sodbuster.
The available hours of daylight varies each season. Losing the trail, mismanaging time before or while in the bush, terrain obstacles, unexpected weather or an injury can keep you in the woods past dusk. Each year NYS DEC Rangers head out to assist people down off a mountain, back to campsites or to a trail because they didn’t bring some type of flashlight. You want a torch that’s easy to carry, weatherproof, durable and efficient on batteries. Ideally your flashlight should provide both a flood beam and a spot beam. Regular bulbs burn out fast, halogen bulbs are brighter but, LED’s last almost forever and are the brightest. When chosing your torch consider these four factors: power measured in lumens, range of light stream, weight and durability. Your flashlight should always be at hand, charged and ready to go. I carry a MX991/U version light because it clips easily onto my rucksack and LC-2 load carrying equipment. The switch is multi-mode offering three settings; on, off and signal. A switch guard prevents accidental operation. In the tailcap a spare bulb and five additional lenses are stored.
12. Wet Wipes
Good hygiene while in the field is essential for maintaining positive morale and safeguarding against contagious diseases. During the Revolutionary War the Contenental Army was ravaged by disease, infection and illness due to poor and neglected cleanliness. The temperature and weather will dictate the extent and specifics of your personal care. It’s important to wash your hands after contact with plants and animals or anyone, for that matter. Wash up always before meals and sleeping. A backpacker who doesn’t manage personal sanitation effectively is a backpacker soon to become sick. It is impossible to achieve hospital like sterility in the backcountry but, there is a great difference between one who is slightly dirt covered and another who is a sweaty and filthy mess. When you can’t clean up with water a disposable wet wipe will leave you cleansed, fresh and disinfected. I use a 75% alcohol, 80 count antibacterial wipes in a resealable pouch. They require no rinsing off, kill 99% of common germs within seconds and are non sticky. You can also clean your stainless steel or aluminum cookware as they make an excellent degreaser. I sanitize my knives with them before and after processing meat. Wipes are also an alternative to toilet paper when on the trail. A full package measures 6″x8″x2″ and weighs less than 1/2 pound. Use unscented sheets, the scented brands attract mosquitoes. Never bury or leave used sheets on ground even if marketed as biodegradable as they will take a long time to decompose. I keep the soiled sheets and burn them, they ignite quickly when dry and are excellent for starting fires.
13. Fixed Blade Knife
You can’t expect to have the proper tool for every situation you might come across while in the wilderness but, the right fixed blade knife will fill the role of multiple tools in many situations. Also called a sheath knife, the blade is one piece of metal with no mechanical or moving parts that extends from the point through handle and continues to the butt. These knives tend to be more durable and versatile than the traditional pocket knife or large folding knife. Heavy jobs like rope cutting, carving, digging, meat processing, fire wood processing and self defense are easily done with this type of knife. Ideally you want a full tang blade with a Scandinavian grind. The blade length should be at least four to five inches either with a drop point or clip point and narrow. The handle should also be four to five inches, making a well balanced knife that can be easily held in the hand using various grips. There are many types of steel out there to choose from but 1095 carbon steel series is the more popular for rough use knives being more durable and easier to sharpen than stainless steel, however it is highly vulnerable to corrosion. Avoid double edged blades, serrated edges, ceramic blades, partial tangs and the Rambo type “survival knives”; they are all garbage and not useful in the field. The knife I trust and use the most is a Mil-Spec 499 AFSK. I carry it on the weak side of my LC-2 belt so that I am able to draw it with my dominant hand. Although it has a stick tang, it has proven to be a durable and versatile tool. I’ve batoned so much firewood with this and it has never bent or lost its edge. With the pommel I’ve driven stakes and posts into the ground, broke through glass windows, and smashed many nutshells. I’ve dressed fish, squirrel and turkey quickly and easily. Jobs like notching, carving and rope cutting are no problem for this knife. It’s lightweight, balanced and made to fit in my hand. I had the factory leave the swedge dull for batoning purposes and modified the flat ground edge to a sabre grind.
14. Emergency Blanket
Mylar is a thin, lightweight polyester sheet coated with aluminum, chrome or other reflective metals. Developed by DuPont in the 1950’s it gained it’s popularity from being used by NASA in America’s space program. The blankets are lightweight, inexpensive and compact. They are advertised to trap 90% of radiated body heat. Along with it’s reflective capabilities a mylar blanket is also windproof and waterproof. When using one, don’t cover your head as your breath may condensate along the inside interfering with the process of convection and you also run the risk of asphyxiation. You need to be dry for mylar to work effectively at stabilizing your core temperature. When using one don’t let it directly come into contact with your body, have something between you and the blanket like a sleeping mat or poncho liner. They are excellent at reflecting heat and I love putting them inside my tarp shelter as a thermal liner or behind a fire as a heat wall. Because it reflects well, it will shield you from thermal imaging cameras and protect your electronics from an EMP. It also makes a great signaling device in conjunction with the sun or other light source. Other uses include solar still, hobo sack, tinder, trail marker, rain catcher and cordage. An emergency blanket should never be used solely as a first line defence against the cold. When used properly the blanket can make your stay in the wilderness comfortable and may possibly prevent your stay escalating into a survival situation. I carry a 5’x7′ casualty blanket weighing about 12 ounces. It is thicker and more durable than the typical flimsy space blankets. It also has four grommets at each corner making it easier to string up for it’s many uses.
15. Folding Saw
If you’re going to build a fire or set up a temporary shelter, then you are going to need a folding saw. The blade folds into the handle protecting it from damage and preventing it from harming other equipment. They are perfect for quickly cutting timber to length with a diameter of five inches or less. The obvious benefit from carrying this tool as opposed to a bow or frame saw is that it is compact and lightweight; it will fit in your pocket. You are also cutting faster and burning less calories than you would by using an axe or hatchet. But the greatest benefit that I find is that it is safer than the larger saws or axes. With one you can make straight and clean notches, clear a trail or campsite, process game and of course build a fire. Make sure to get one with a replaceable blade. The blades will either be straight or curved on the bottom. Straight blades are for cutting logs while the latter is for pruning branches. When choosing your saw consider the TPI and kerf of the blade. The less teeth per inch will give you a rough but quick cut, 8 TPI is satisfactory. Kerf is the width of the blade’s teeth and ultimately the width of the cut. A thin kerf cuts faster, requires less force and reduces the probability of the saw binding, 3/32″ is a good kerf. The saw I carry is a little over 12″ when unfolded, and around 7″ folded. The blade is 6″ long stainless steel with offset teeth, replaceable and locks with a push button mechanism that has never failed. I love the rubber handle, it is ergonomic and comfortable, fitting perfectly in my hand. I keep this right in my cargo pants pocket.
The equipment, knowledge and skills that you bring into the wilderness with you will greatly increase your comfort zone and your ability to survive and thrive within the outdoors. Think of your kit and bushcraft proficiency as a toolbox that you can build and adapt. Be creative, think unconventionally. Each piece of gear should have multiple uses and the better you can utilize what you have, the less you’ll need to carry. Remember, one is none.
Always carry the essentials: combustion tools, cordage, cover, cutting tools and a container. These basic items are the foundation of what you need to have an enjoyable and comfortable experience in the outdoors. They are the fine line that separates a survival experience from bushcraft outing. Pack gear that will maintain your core temperature and sustain your biological functions, anything else is considered comfort items or convenience items and added weight.
Above all learn and understand the capabilities and limitations of the gear you carry. You need to train and familiarize yourself with it before you bring it into the field. Don’t bring something right out of the package into the woods with you until you have proven that it will do what it’s supposed to do repeatedly. You should have 100% confidence in every tool you pack.
Learn how to shoot a bearing and calculate a reverse azimuth. Practice tying knots while you watch television. Experiment with fire building and ignition alternatives in your backyard. Familiarize yourself with the various types of grips with your knife. Try out a few tarp configurations before your camping trip. Become proficient with your gear before you venture into the backcountry.