I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature with no help from servants or hired guides. ~ Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart

The woodcraft I speak of refers to the methods used by early pioneers and later by outdoorsmen.  Woodcraft skills are essentially those of native cultures made more efficient by modification using European technology (of 200 years ago or so).  Old-timers defined camping as recreational trips to easily accessed locations and one that could be enjoyed by those with limited outdoor knowledge and experience.  They defined woodcraft as a set of skills, combined with extensive woods knowledge, which allowed one to live and travel, for extended periods, in trackless wilderness. According to Horace Kephart, the author of one of the best books on the subject:

Woodcraft may be defined as the art of finding one’s way in the wilderness and getting along well by utilizing Nature’s storehouse.  When we say that Daniel Boone, for example, was a master woodsman, we mean that he could confidently enter an unmapped wilderness, with no outfit but what was carried by his horse, his canoe, or on his own back, and with the intention of a protracted stay; that he could find his way through the dense forest without man-made marks to guide him; that he knew the habits and properties of trees and plants, and the ways of fish and game; that he was a good trailer and a good shot; that he could dress game and cure peltry, cook wholesome meals over an open fire, build adequate shelter against wind and rain, and keep himself warm through the bitter nights of winter – in short, that he knew how to utilize the gifts of Nature, and could bide comfortably in the wilderness without help from the outside.” ~ Camping and Woodcraft (various editions published in slightly different form from 1909 through 1988)

While woodcraft does not reject technology, it also does not reject traditional ways.  Writers of the woodcraft period didn’t emphasize equipment because very little specialized camping equipment existed.  Instead, they described the various skills and techniques of outdoor living.  If a particular technique required one to fashion or purchase some item of equipment, the old-timers would mention it, but the recommendation was nearly always secondary to describing the skill or technique.   What does woodcraft “look and feel” like?  Woodcraft is red and black checked woolen shirts, smoked moosehide moccasins, canvas Duluth packs, Bannock bread and flapjacks, Hudson’s Bay blankets, wooden snowshoes, sheath knives and axes. 

Unfortunately, woodcraft has become a long-lost art, the paradigm being entirely superseded by modern, lightweight, low-impact camping techniques.  In order to learn the old skills of woodcraft, the student of today must pick it up themselves, from the how-to books, written by the old masters.  The woodcraft age, which began in earnest in the 1880’s with the published writings of Nessmuk in “Forest & Stream” magazine, ended with the death of outdoor writer Calvin Rutstrum, in 1982.  The last bastion of woodcraft literature, the “BSA Handbook”, began eliminating woodcraft content as early as the late 1940’s.  Surprisingly, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in woodcraft.  Much information about the subject is now available online and a number of original woodcraft titles are still in print (see my recommended books post).  In addition, at least one outdoor school, (Jack Mountain Bushcraft) is now specializing in teaching woodcraft skills.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply