s people seek adventure closer to home this summer, a bushcraft course is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the countryside and tune in to the natural world, all while learning a new set of skills.
Building a shelter, foraging for ingredients, lighting and cooking over a campfire – these are all things that chime with the modern appetite for slow travel and reconnecting with more traditional ways of life.
The bushcraft companies mentioned below are now taking bookings again, with hygiene measures in place around coronavirus. These vary from course to course, but include social distancing, the wearing of masks, and the sole use of one set of tools per person.
Build a fire
The flagship skill of any seasoned bushcrafter is the ability to summon up a comforting campfire using only the resources laid on by the wilderness. Trueways Survival’s day-long fire lighting course will take you through everything you need to know to make a fire in any circumstances, even if you find yourself out in the woods without so much as much as a cigarette lighter. You’ll learn to identify the best wood to gather for tinder (dry grasses, bark and pine needles), kindling (small twigs) and firewood, or, in a pinch, how to shave down a damp twig into a ‘feather stick’ which will catch light.
It’s many a fair-weather camper who loads up on snacks only to forget the essentials – if this sounds like you, take solace in the fact that a handful of crisps can be sacrificed as an oily fire starter. When it’s time to strike that all-important spark, there’s the classic combination of flint and steel, as well as time-honoured tools like the bow drill and hand drill. You’ll also be taught the essential skills of knowing where and when to safely build a fire, how to put it out, and how, crucially, to leave no trace.
Yorkshire/Hampshire/North Wales. One-day fire lighting course £105 per person.
Of all the potentially life-saving bushcraft skills that most of us have lost touch with in the developed world, the ability to find potable water in the wild tops the list. Being lucky enough to have drinking water straight out of the tap at home won’t help you out in the wilderness, where the ability to locate and harvest safe water is a critical survival skill.
It’s not as simple as filling up your water bottle from the nearest river, either: chances are that farm animals will have contaminated it upstream. Standing water can be full of nasties, too. That’s why it’s crucial to filter any water you’ve collected, and then purify it either chemically or by boiling it for five minutes. You’ll learn all these skills on many introductory bushcraft courses, including this one from Jack Raven Bushcraft.
Kent Downs, between Canterbury and Ashford. One-day bushcraft course £85 per person.
Get a roof over your head
Sleeping beneath the stars is all well and good, but often – in the UK, especially – a night in a hammock is just not going to cut it when it comes to protection from the elements. Trueways Survival’s shelter building course will prep you with the skills to get a roof over your head in no time, from picking the perfect spot (near a water source is always a good place to start) to choosing the layout of your new abode – will you go for a cosy A-frame, a (hopefully) sturdy lean-to or a ‘super-shelter’, using space-age mylar foil blankets and tarp?
With your comfortable bolthole built, you’ll be taken through the best way to set up your hammock or bed to ensure a good night’s sleep – essential for giving you the energy to tackle the next day’s adventures in the great outdoors.
Yorkshire/Hampshire/North Wales. Two-day shelter building course £215 per person.
Hunting and tracking
While a foraged feast might tide you over for a while, there’s no substitute for hunting for your own meat or fish dinner to keep you well-nourished during your adventures in the outdoors. The six-day Forest Hunter course from Frontier Bushcraft will equip you with all the tools you need to (sustainably) stalk and hunt deer, from identifying their tracks and other markers to shooting, skinning, and preparing a delectable venison dinner.
If the thought of gunning down big game is a little too grisly for your tastes, then one of Coastal Survival’s fishing courses might be for you. Against the spectacular backdrop of West Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, embark on a coastal adventure which will see you fishing for meaty conger eel, mackerel and bass – or, if you’re unlucky, wrassling with a slippery, needle-sharp garfish, which can be grilled up in a pinch even if their lurid green bones are a little off-putting. Closer to the shore, rock pool foraging can yield such delights as mussels, velvet crabs, and edible seaweed.
Frontier Bushcraft’s Forest Hunter Course is held in Moray in the Scottish Highlands. The six-day/seven-night course costs £727 per person. Coastal Survival holds courses off the coast of Bridport, West Dorset. Prices start from £126 per person for a day-long fishing course.
Coastal Survival holds courses off the coast of Bridport, West Dorset. Prices start from £126 per person for a day-long fishing course.
Forage for food
Food, along with fire, water and shelter, is one of the four pillars of survival – but it’s vital that you know what you’re doing before you start browsing the aisles of nature’s supermarket. Bushcraft handbooks abound with horror stories of mispicked mushrooms and toxic berries, some of which look almost identical to more innocuous lookalikes.
Did you know, for example, that eating the deadly webcap mushroom, easily mistaken for the truffle-like chanterelle, often results in kidney failure? Or that each aptly named death cap, a doppelgänger for several innocently edible mushroom species, is potent enough to kill two humans?
It’s not just mushrooms you need to look out for, either; Britain’s hedgerows are bristling with unforeseen dangers. While feasting on fistfuls of blackberries is one of the great joys of a country ramble, you’d do well to avoid the berries of deadly nightshade, which will induce terrifying hallucinations on the way to hospital; or mistletoe, whose vomit-inducing berries will render you distinctly unkissable.
Happily, help is at hand. Wild Food UK offers a range of foraging courses which will help you pick out only the safest (and tastiest) woodland ingredients, from the mighty chicken of the woods mushroom to the perennial foragers’ favourite, wild garlic. Roasted chestnuts and stewed apples are among the cockle-warming treats you can cook up with foraged finds, while citrussy wood sorrel, pineapple weed and nettles are among the more surprising edibles you’ll pick along the way.
Courses held nationwide, including Ledbury, Hertfordshire; Dartmoor, Devon; South Downs, Hampshire; and Eyam, Derbyshire. From £50 per person for a half-day course (under-16s go half price).
Navigate the forest
A far cry from the macho ex-SAS types who dominate survival television today, the modern bushcraft renaissance was spearheaded by Ray Mears, whose gentle, overgrown-boy-scout demeanour brought the outdoors into our living rooms in an accessible way. The company he set up pre-TV fame, Woodlore, remains one of the country’s leading bushcraft organisations.
On their two-day woodland navigation course, you’ll learn how to use a map and compass to make your way through the forest, making use of natural features to plot your path.
To learn to read an Ordnance Survey map is to unlock a new language of runic symbols which can tell you far more than just the layout of local footpaths or the elevation of the nearest big hill. For example, there are different symbols to tell you what type of woodland you’re entering, which can give you an insight into what kind of food you might be able to forage there – it’s coniferous woodland you want, for example, if you’re after some pine nuts for a homemade foraged pesto. Some maps are so detailed that they even include prominent rocks, which can be an invaluable tool in determining your position if you’re well and truly lost.
Woodlore’s two-day woodland navigation course is held in the East Sussex countryside near Tunbridge Wells and costs £300 per person.
Cruise virus risks: when to travel to minimise them
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints” – the bushcraft credo is a golden rule and it’s important to abide by it, but it does make it trickier to take home a souvenir of your adventures. Enter Wildway Bushcraft, whose spoon carving course in the forests of Hampshire will see you gather around a campfire and engage in the ancient art of turning a block of wood into a piece of practical and beautiful cutlery. The expert course leaders will teach you all about how to choose the perfect type of wood, why it reacts to carving in certain ways, and how best to oil and finish your spoon so it’s both campfire and kitchen ready.
Courses are held in woodland across Dorset and Hampshire. The one-day spoon carving course costs £75 per person.
Woodland stag parties
Brandishing a bow and arrow might not sound like the best-advised activity in the context of traditional British stag dos, but this is no traditional stag do: a two-day camping adventure with Wildway Bushcraft, featuring archery practice, axe throwing, and the skinning and butchering of a deer. Needless to say, booze is off the agenda until after the activities involving sharp objects – just one reason why this will prove more memorable than cutting a swathe through Riga or Prague over a long weekend – but there’s plenty of time for a few beers as you enjoy a hearty dinner of freshly prepared venison stew around the campfire. The (human) stag goes free, and also gets to take away a tanned hide as a souvenir.
Held in private woodland in Hampshire. From £95 per person.
In 1991, the 5,000-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman was found entombed in a glacier in the Tyrolean mountains. Among Ötzi’s perfectly preserved possessions were medicinal mushrooms, including birch fungus – thought to be used as a treatment for the whipworm found in his stomach. Today, many powerful drugs are derived from plants: aspirin from willow bark and morphine from poppies, for example.
While you won’t come across anything quite so potent on a walk through British woodland, there are a host of plants which can help relieve the kind of minor injuries which commonly afflict bushcrafters. A dried marigold flower, for instance, can be rubbed onto insect bites and stings to reduce swelling, while primrose has long been used as a salve for wounds. Sage, meanwhile, is said to be something of a panacea, used to aid digestion, depression, and even memory loss. As with all foraging, it’s important to know exactly what it is you’re ingesting, so an expertly guided woodland medicine course like the one offered by Woodland Ways is a good idea for beginners.
Appleton, Oxfordshire. One-day course costs £95 per person.
Take a 10-day challenge
Learning to survive and thrive in the outdoors is a lifelong pursuit, and while a day or weekend course is the perfect way to dip your feet, a longer trip is a great way to test your mettle and find out if you’re harbouring an inner bushcrafter. Woodland Ways’ Immersion Survival Course sees you taking to the woods for 10 days, learning all the basics of wilderness survival from putting up a shelter and lighting a fire to butchering game and cooking it on the campfire. You’ll also learn how to fashion animal bones into tools, make buckskin moccasins, and even build a woodland sauna – by the end of this one, it might be the modern world, not the woods, that needs some adjusting to.
Appleton, Oxfordshire. Ten-day course costs £895 per person.