Exploring bushcraft with survivalist Dave Canterbury

bushcraft
Learning how to construct a primitive lean-to shelter is essential to survival in the backcountry. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For most, the term “bushcraft” isn’t a familiar one. Fostered by a set of outdoor enthusiasts who value exploration and preservation above all (think Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and, more recently, Yvon Chouinard) bushcraft infers an accomplished level of outdoor wisdom and know-how, in which self-reliance—the ability to manage one’s most basic needs and then problem solve any situation that may arise—is paramount. Bushcraft is the art of wilderness survival.

Bushcraft 101
Survivalist and self-reliance expert Dave Canterbury's primer for your next backcountry trip.

To become proficient in the practice of bushcraft, one would need to master the skills of firecraft, navigation, trapping, creating shelter, tracking, and the use of tools, both modern and primitive. The goal? To gain enough experience in the outdoors that one would not just survive in the wild, but thrive there. But proficiency comes with practice, and everyone needs a starting point. Enter Dave Canterbury.

Within the bushcraft community, Canterbury is like a beacon in the mist. Co-owner and supervising instructor of the Pathfinder School, which, incidentally, was named by USA Today as one of the Top 12 Survival Schools in the United States, Canterbury recently penned a lifestyle manual titled “Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival.”

In it, he identifies and explores the best practices of the seasoned outdoorsman—from budget busting shortcuts to vetted tips on making short order of essential field tasks. Straightforward in both text and concept, this illuminating field guide in no way alienates the new student. For those passionate in their pursuit of the backcountry, it’s a must read.

We had the chance to ask the author a few questions. This is what he shared.

Five C's of survivability
Understanding the 5 C’s of Survivability will force you to rethink your pack. Image courtesy of Bushcraft 101

How is bushcraft different than wilderness survival?
Bushcraft is the art of using natural materials to manufacture necessary comfort and convenience, using minimal tools, while in the outdoors. Wilderness survival relies on gear. If you were to lose your kit, bushcraft skills would be of great benefit to ensure your survival.

When were you first introduced to bushcraft?
From a young age, woods lore fascinated me. As I became interested in things like primitive archery, and 18th century frontier skills, my interest in bushcraft spiked. But when I was younger, the word bushcraft was not common. Writers like Daniel Beard and Thomas Seton have written books about woodcraft, which now seems to be synonymous with bushcraft. To renew interest in the forgotten art of woodcraft in the U.S. eventually became my passion.

gut a fish
From fishing with improvised rods and tenkara, to trapping small game and smoking it, one must hunt to eat in the backcountry. Image courtesy of Bushcraft 101.

You dedicate the first half of your book to gear. How important is the role of gear in bushcraft?
The importance of gear (beyond good tools) is a bit misunderstood in the true essence of bushcraft, where actual crafting is a key element. But from the standpoint of emergency survival, everyone should carry a minimal amount of gear to cover the main survival priorities—which include shelter, fire, water, and food.

You dedicate the second half of your book to the bush. What skill(s) would you suggest we perfect before taking on the great outdoors?
In the book I talk about the "5 C’s of Survivability"—which are cutting tools, covering elements, combustion devices, containers, and cordages. These are the things that are most difficult to create from natural material.

The best advice is to practice the things that require the greatest amount of skill before you need them. In the case of emergency survival, making shelter and fire would surely top the list. Fire directly affects your ability to keep warm, dry out wet clothing, disinfect water, signal for rescue, and cook food. It's easy to carry a knife on your side or the ferrocerium rod and lighter that should be in your pocket, but it's very difficult to carry a viable shelter attached to your body, so it's important to seek that out.

fire
The biggest mistakes Canterbury sees are adding too large of a fuel source to the fire too early, and too much fuel too early, starving airflow. Image courtesy of Bushcraft 101

What seems to be the most challenging skill for Bushcraft 101 students to master?
Fire is a difficult challenge for most, and, when I say this, I’m not referring to primitive fire methods, as those are usually difficult for even more advanced students. The average person has difficulty even building a sustainable fire with a lighter, if the materials have become marginal from a rain or snowstorm.

Making a proper fire lay, and then creating good viable tinder, are key elements that must be practiced until they become muscle memory. Creating a good fire is about using lots of dry, combustible materials that have been processed to expose lots of surface area. After ignition, it’s all about manipulating the oxygen flow and fuel level to attain a sustainable fire.

What is the greatest threat to man in the backcountry?
The greatest threat to most people is themselves, to be honest! Remembering to move slowly, to pay attention to surroundings, to hydrate often, and to control heat loss and gain through layered clothing, will eliminate many problems before they can occur. The three things that get most people into problems (other than mechanical injuries) are hyperthermia, hypothermia, and dehydration.

navigation
Learn what five navigation methods every woodsman should know. Image courtesy of Bushcraft 101

Are classes offered on bushcraft skills? 
There are many schools throughout the U.S. that teach survival skills, primitive skills, and everything in between. But finding a school that specializes in the true intent of bushcraft is a bit more challenging. I’m the co-owner and lead instructor of the Pathfinder School in southeast Ohio. We teach classes almost year-round, in all aspects of survival and bushcraft. Our Pioneer (intermediate) class teaches crafting skills.

A time you had a close call in the field?
Anytime you go into the field you will face situations you must work through if you are practicing your skills. One day a bow drill fire will come easily, and the next time it may be near impossible.

I remembering being on the water in south Florida when the sun was shining and the sea was calm. Then within a short period the weather changed drastically, becoming a nerve-racking scenario involving getting to the closest shore to make a quick shelter because remaining on the water or traveling back to dock was an unthinkable danger in itself.

Nature will always provide the problems for you to solve; that is one thing you can count on. Practicing a basic set of skills, and carrying a base emergency kit, can turn a potential survival scenario into simply inconvenient camping.

Buy the book here.

Subscribe to Dave Canterbury’s YouTube channel here.

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