Most of us at some point in time, fantasize about wandering off in the woods and living of the land for an extended period of time. As unrealistic as this is, we do still find time to explore the outdoors. Adventuring outdoors can be challenging, but it is extremely gratifying. There is nothing like being in the woods without a person around for miles and just observing nature. Before setting off on a great outdoor adventure though, there are some outdoor skills you should take the time to learn first. We have collected some fantastic resources to help you learn the skills you need to thrive in the outdoors.
You don’t just take off into the woods and automatically know how to do all of the things you need to do to make it. These skills take a lot of practice to master. The great thing is they are actually pretty fun to practice in controlled situations.
First, I am going to talk about everyone’s favorite outdoor activity, building a fire. There is nothing like sitting around a campfire sharing stories with good friends, or the security that a fire can give you when you are in the woods alone. There are so many methods and gadgets out there for fire building, and every one has a favorite. Truth is, there are 3 basic elements to make a fire, and everything else is just personal preference. You need Fuel (wood), Air, and Heat (Spark / Flame).
Firewood is essential to building a fire and to be successful you need a few different sizes. Tinder, Kindling, and Fuel sized pieces of wood (or other material that will burn) will get your fire going and keep it going.
Tinder is usually small and easy to get started, but burns long and hot enough to light your kindling. I like material like jute twine, inner bark from dead cedar, wood shavings, and dry grasses. Kindling is just a little bigger and serves to get the fire big and hot enough to start burning the fuel. Dead branches and twigs are great for this if they are dry. Sometimes if they are too big, you will have to split them down. When splitting kindling, I try to make a few different sizes from pencil thin up.
The fuel logs are even bigger than the kindling. I prefer around wrist width to start with, and if the pieces are bigger I will split them down into a more manageable size. Once the fire is going bigger logs will burn longer, so it is nice to have some on hand.
It sounds silly, but this is often overlooked when building a fire. If you stack your logs in a way that prevents airflow, you are going to have a hard time keeping them burning. Make sure you leave gaps when stacking your fuel and you will be fine. There a lot of interesting ways to stack firewood, but as long as you leave your fire room to breathe you should be fine.
Heat (Spark / Flame)
This is where there are really a lot of different options. The ultimate goal is to have something that will ignite your tinder. Some people like primitive fire making methods like bow drills or flint and steel, others like gadgets like fire steel and Magnesium Bar. I think knowing how to use these items is a good idea, but my first choice for starting a fire in my area is a Bic Mini. They are cheap and reliable in most environments, and as long as they are stored properly they will last a long time.
For a much more detailed look into starting a fire and keeping it going, check out this great post by Graywolf Survival.
Another outdoor skill you should learn before setting off on your next big adventure is knot tying. I don’t think it is necessary to learn a lot of decorative knots, but there are a few essential knots you should know how and when to use. This outdoor skill comes in handy for everything from building improvised shelters to repairing broken equipment.
From Bowlines to sheet bends, the number of knots and variations out there is mind boggling. I am not going to attempt to put a knot tying tutorial in this post, instead I will direct you to a few websites that I think provide the best information for knot tying.
Scouting magazine is a great resource for outdoor skills. Their article “How to tie 10 essential Scouting Knots” does an incredible job of teaching how to tie some of the most essential knots for outdoor activities.
Another resource for knot tying is Animated Knots. It is much more in depth than the article. With instructions for over 300 types of knot it can be a little overwhelming.
If you are like me you prefer a tangible book to read when you are learning something new. In that case, check out The Knot Tying Bible: Climbing, Camping, Sailing, Fishing, Everyday.
Protecting yourself from the elements in incredibly important. Should something happen when you are out in the woods, one of the most important outdoor skills is being build a shelter to keep you warm and dry. The options for building shelters are endless, but the basics are all about the same. A good shelter protects you from the weather and provides you a sense of “home” in the outdoors.
There are varying levels of complexity to wilderness built shelters. They can range from a debris hut, which isn’t much more than a pile of leaves, to the teepee like Wickiup. It is very important that no matter the type of shelter you build you select a good location for it. You want to be in an area that has readily available materials for building, is safe from falling branches, and is away from hazards like insect nests, and potential flooding.
Field and Stream magazine has long been an expert source for outdoor skills education. They published an article with directions for building survival shelters that is definitely worth reading.
Outdoor Life Magazine also has an excellent article on outdoor shelters that also goes into using tarps in your shelter building.
I often say I just want to go get lost in the woods. What I really mean is I just want to escape for a little while; I have no desire to get lost anywhere, much less the woods. That is where learning to navigate (either with a map and compass or a GPS device) comes into play. One of the most essential outdoor skills, navigation, makes sure you can get from point A to point B and not end up at Point 48 instead.
There are really two methods for navigation, the first is with a map and compass. I think everyone should understand this before moving on to more technological means. The map and compass have been around for ages and it is not going to quit working anytime soon. If you are new to this, check out Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS, 3rd Edition (Mountaineers Outdoor Basics).
The second method people use to navigate outdoors is a GPS device like the Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator. These devices are amazing and incredibly useful. They are often accurate down to a few feet and have a dizzying array of features that allow you to map out your planned hike. The only problem I have with them is that technology fails. Maybe you drop it and it breaks, maybe you forget to charge the battery, or maybe a solar flare disables the tracking satellites (far fetched I know). What I am saying is I like to have a backup when I use these devices, just in case.
Clean water is something most of us take for granted. In the outdoors, I don’t trust water I didn’t bring myself. I won’t drink any of it without treating it first. It may be overly cautious, but there is a lot of nasty stuff that can get in water that I would prefer not to drink. Giardia does not sounds like a lot of fun.
So how do you get rid of these contaminants? Water treatment is another of the most important outdoor skills. The most common methods are boiling, filtering, and chemical treatment. You can also combine these methods to take your water treatment a step further.
Boiling is the most common form of treating your drinking water. To do this you need some kind of container for your water. Bring the water to a boil and keep it boiling. The CDC recommends a minimum of 60 seconds to eliminate pathogens. Check out this guide the CDC published to help you know how to treat your water.
Filtering is next in line and is often combined with some other means of disinfection. I carry a Sawyer Products SP103 Mini Water Filtration System because I can put inline in my hydration pack. Be very careful when choosing a water filter as many of them will not provide the level of treatment required to make water potable.
Chemical treatment is also an effective solution for eliminating the nasty germs that can live in water. Again check to see that the product you purchase will work on the germs that you want to eliminate.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While not an exhaustive list, mastering these outdoor skills will have you well on the way to being a capable outdoors adventurer. I think that every one is capable of learning these outdoor skills with practice. So get outside and give some of these things a try. Anyone have any excellent resources for bushcraft and outdoor skills that we missed? Let us know in the comments.