Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Woodcraft, Comments and Ramblings’

Newly published Warren H. Miller Biography!

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

David Wescott just published a biography of Warren Hastings Miller here, which is certainly the best to date (I’m actually not aware of a more complete biography of Miller).  Wescott obtained much of the information, and at least one never before published photo of the man, from Warren Miller, Jr! That’s right – his youngest son! The new biography gives us a much more complete picture of Miller’s life and experiences. It also straightened out some common and long-held misconceptions that I (and others) have had about him. I have always assumed that one particular person shown in several photographs in Camp Craft was Miller when in fact; it was actually famed outfitter David T. Abercrombie. Wescott’s new biography has several photographs of Miller. Some are familiar images from the books and some I’ve never seen. But now we know what he looked like (I have edited my recent post on Miller’s books, Camp Craft and Camping Out, accordingly).  Thanks go to David Wescott for highlighting the life of a very important figure in Woodcraft literature.

The Woods Life is back online!

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Over one year after some significant technical issues – The Woods Life is back online.  Check back over the coming weeks for new posts.  Thanks!

The Elements of Woodcraft

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

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.


Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

 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.

Technology Versus Skill

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

When I used to teach backpacking and wilderness survival for a college I found I had to “”put on a different hat” to teach the very different philosophies of these two outdoor activities.  Backpacking emphasizes the use of lightweight, technologically advanced equipment.  It involves learning and adopting a philosophy and set of low-impact camping skills to reduce the physical and visual impact of camping in pristine places.  It places great importance on being able to live and travel outdoors while leaving no physical mark on the environment.  It owes its popularity largely to modern synthetic materials, derived from fossil fuels, that make the equipment to actually enjoy backpacking possible.  Interestingly, modern low impact backpacking methods and technologies encourage people to camp and travel in wilderness without having to interact with the environment at all…but at the cost of great technological dependence.   This disconnect with nature has changed most outdoor enthusiasts from the classic vision of woodsmen into outdoor athletes, a description that they like to apply to themselves. 

Wilderness survival is nearly the antipode to backpacking.  It’s an activity predicated on significant interaction with the environment.  It often involves the gathering and modification of natural resources to make shelters or build fires and creates significant environmental impact.  The necessary chores required of survival involve hard work and can quickly cause wear to lightweight equipment.  Survival tasks are much easier done with sturdy fixed-blade knives, or hatchets and axes and rigid framed saws – items that are usually considered too heavy and cumbersome for carrying and unecessary when practicing low-impact behaviors.  My survival experience also tells me that the most successful survivors are those knowledgable of woodlore and the craft of the traditional Woodsman

My experience in teaching outdoor classes and working in outdoor specialty retail is that a great many people are interested in learning activites like backpacking, paddling, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing etc, but consider survival training as a chore or entirely unecessary.  Most users and manufacturers today have overwhelmingly adopted the backpacking model.  Hunters, fishermen, day hikers and campground campers are outfitted with, if not actual technical gear and apparel, at least technical looking gear and apparel.   Campgrounds spout large tents using flexible poles and the look of overgrown backpacking models.  And even Walmart sells clothing that looks the part.  Modern outdoor philosophy has changed from admiring and emulating the woodsman to emulating the adventure racer.  The downside to all of this however, is that the vast majority of today’s outdoor enthusiasts are no longer versed in woods skills and go afield with few of the tools, equipment or apparel most valuable if they were to get into trouble.

Welcome to The Woods Life!

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Welcome to the Woods Life, a blog about my various outdoor interests.  I like to camp, backpack and fish (with both conventional and fly tackle) but with a lifelong interest in the past, I also enjoy anything retro or historic about the outdoors.  I’m learning and refining woodcraft (traditional camping) skills, I like to restore and use vintage backpacking equipment and I collect and use vintage fishing tackle.  I have a large woodcraft and camping  library (40+ titles) dating between 1877 and 1950.  Most are first editions and a few are signed.  I’m also an enthusiast of the early youth outdoor education programs such as the Boy Pioneers and the Woodcraft Indians, both of which predated the Boy Scouts of America.  All of this seems like great fodder for future blogs so stay tuned. 

I plan to discuss some activity or item of equipment and throw in a book review or biographical sketch of some outdoor personality that interests me at least every couple of weeks to a month – maybe more if I can find the time. 

I hope you find  something to interest you in my camp.  So if you’re ready, pull a log up to the fire and let’s get started!