The Elements of Woodcraft

In my last post I described traditional camping (woodcraft) visually, i.e. red and black checked woolen shirts…Hudson’s Bay blankets…sheath knives and axes etc.  But what are the essential elements of the paradigm?  Let’s compare the elements of Woodcraft to those of modern camping:


  • Methods and equipment are based on Native American traditions.
  • Emphasizes skills.              
  • Emphasizes interaction w/nature.   
  • Employs appropriate technology.
  • Avoids synthetics and rejects disposables (uses mostly natural fibers – wool, canvas, leather, wood).
  • Equipment and methods are sustainable.   
  • Generally creates local environmental impact but little beyond that.
  • Values time proven methods and skills.
  • Values durable (but often heavy) materials and equipment.
  • Values handmade and homemade equipment.  Woodcraft emphasizes the art of crafting.  Making snowshoes, clothing, moccassins, containers, knives, canoes or cabins, woodcrafters tale pride in making much of what they need.
  • Values roomy, comfortable, functional clothing.  Durability and protection are considered more important than looks or light weight. 
  • Woodcrafters prefer items and apparel of long established design and pattern over the new, fashionable and untried. Experience is highly respected.
  • Woodcraft is characterized by the use of edged tools.  Woodcrafters value light weight equipment (Nessmuk’s equipment weight never exceeded 26 lbs – including his canoe and fishing gear!) but take what they need.  And that includes a selection of edged tools – sheath and pocket knife, hatchet and/or axe and folding saw.   Woodcrafters build cook and camp fires or split wood for use in a portable tent stove and need the right tools to buck wood and split wood for kindling. 


Modern Camping             

  • Modern camping has been heavily influenced by backpacking methods and equipment which were developed from European mountaineering traditions.  Interestingly, much of the new “backpacking style” gear is ill suited for general camping use i.e. it’s not as comfortable in use, tents are not as breathable as those of canvas, lightweight materials do not offer the durability often required of fixed camping or long term camping, etc. 
  • Is preoccupied with technology.      
  • Does not foster interaction w/nature.       
  • Exists in large part because of the development of synthetics and disposables – plastics, nylon, polyester – all petroleum based products.
  • Though equipment and methods appear sustainable, causing little to no local environmental impact, the use of synthetics, plastics and petroleum contribute to significant (and generally unseen) large scale environmental impact.
  • Values new, cutting edge methods, skills and technologies.
  • Light weight in equipment and apparel is valued over all other attributes.  
  • Values high-tech professionally made equipment.  Homemade equipment is often considered inferior and amateurish.
  • Values trim fitting, highly technical, stretchy apparel.  Pockets on upper garments are positioned for access with a pack at the expense of volume and comfort in camp.  Short waisted jackets are preferred over longer, more protective garments.  Buyers choose close fitting sizes instead of sizes that accommodate inner layers.
  • Modern campers rarely carry anything more than a tiny pocket knife.  Interestingly, modern low impact methods and ethics make most woodcraft tools unnecessary so most modern campers are rarely equipped to deal with an unexpected night out, much less a genuine wilderness emergency.      

Now, I am not against the modern camping style.  When I backpack I use lightweight gear and employ modern camping methods.  I like to backpack and backpacking owes its popularity to the lightweight alloys and synthetics that have made our pack loads light enough to actually enjoy.  I guess I turn a blind eye to the impact caused by the production of lightweight materials in order to carry a light pack.  That’s the kind of choice we all have to make when we go to the woods.  Plastics and synthetics are here to stay whether we use them for camping or not.  However, we should be aware of what kind of impact our fun will create and not fool ourselves.  When I go to a place that requires low impact behaviors I cheerfully adopt them.  But if I go where campfires are appropriate and allowed, or where extremely light weight is not required, I use Woodcraft methods.  I like learning and developing these skills.  I believe they make me a better outdoorsman and more knowledgeable about nature.

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