This guide was written to give those who don't have much experience in the outdoors a place to start. There is not a lot of new ideas here, most of this material can be found as general knowledge in many places. You'll notice that this guide is lacking in demonstrations and specific instructions. I have purposely stayed away from these because they can be found in almost any book on woodcraft or a simple Internet search. There is volumes of data already written on tarp setups, fire making skills, water treatment, etc. I want people to read this guide then decide what is best for themselves instead of copying someone else. Of course in this day and age there must be a disclaimer. Any and all of the information in this guide is to be used at your own risk. I cannot and will not be held responsible for any harm you may cause to yourself or others while using this guide. Please be safe, be careful and I hope our paths will someday cross in the woods.
Part 1 – Safety and Security in the Woods
Part 2 – Your Woods Kit
Part 3 – Camp Craft and Skills
Part 4 – The Psychology of Woodcraft
Part 5 - Summary
Part 1 - Safety and Security in the Woods
It is highly unlikely that you will be attacked by a bear, bitten by a snake or kidnapped by rednecks in the woods. In reality, If you are hurt in the woods it will probably be your own fault. Keeping yourself safe in the woods is determined by two things, awareness and preparedness. If you are aware of what's going on around you in the woods and prepared with some basic tools, knowledge and gear, your time in the woods can be safe and enjoyable.
Let's start by looking at a couple of different scenarios. It's a sunny 70 degree fall day and you decide to take a four hour day hike. You hop in the car, drive to the trail head, grab a bottle of water and start hiking. About halfway into your hike, the temperature drops 10 degrees, a thunderstorm rolls in and now you are wet, cold and a couple of hours from your car. An uncomfortable if not potentially dangerous two hour hike awaits back to your car. When you finally reach the trail head you are tired, miserable and mildly hypothermic. Probably not what you had in mind for a relaxing day in the woods.
Now let's look at the scenario in a different way. It's the same sunny 70 degree fall day and you decide to take that same 4 hour hike. Only this time when you park at the trail head you look up and notice the clouds are moving fast and getting a bit darker as they head your way. Instead of just a water bottle, you also grab a small day pack with your woods kit in it. A couple of hours into your hike you notice that the temperature is dropping, and the wind has picked up. You look up and see that the clouds are now even darker and moving faster than when you started your hike. You quickly pick a good spot on a bit of high ground, note the direction of the wind, grab a tarp and some rope from your kit and have a shelter setup in a few minutes. The rain starts to pour and you're dry and comfortable, munching on a snack from your kit as you watch the storm roll through. After twenty minutes or so, the rain and wind quit, you roll up your tarp and rope and continue on with your hike, eventually getting back to your car with only muddy boots and good memories of your time in the woods.
Scenario two, you decide to take a solo trip into some state land for a couple of days. You hike in and find the perfect spot in a canopy of maple and birch trees next to a stream. You setup your tent a few yards away from the water so you have easy access to it and turn in about 9:00 pm, just as the rain starts to fall and the wind picks up. An hour later you are awakened by water running down the hill behind you and soaking the floor of your tent as dead branches from the flood damaged trees you're setup under are crashing down around you as the wind snaps them off. You get out of your tent and spend a miserable night wrapped up in a wet sleeping bag, leaning against a tree on the hill above you. The next morning, you pack up your wet gear, swear off camping forever and head for home, tired and wet.
Or... It could go like this. You find the perfect camping spot next to a stream, you notice that there are signs of previous flooding and some damage to the trees on the bank because of it. You decide, even though it's not as pretty or convenient, to setup on the higher ground behind you at the top of a small hill. You turn in about 9:00 pm just as the wind and rain start. An hour later the wind is blowing and you are dry, comfortable and asleep as the rain runs down the hill away from you and into the stream. Because you are in a small clearing, there is no danger of falling branches or trees. You wake up the next morning refreshed, walk down to the stream to get some water and put a pot of coffee on the fire as you think about what you want to do in the next couple of days.
Both of these scenarios show the difference in experiences when you're aware of your surroundings and prepared for what could happen. Being prepared and aware are not difficult skills to learn. Here's some ideas to start working on.
Weather - Learn about cloud formations and what they mean, Teach yourself some backyard weather forecasting skills and look up at the sky often to see if the weather conditions are changing. Learn some old time weather lore, It's fun and pretty accurate.
Slow Down – I see so many people hiking that look straight ahead as they plod down the trail, their minds only on the destination, not what's going on around them. If you slow your pace just a little bit and look around, you'd be surprised at what is happening in the woods. It's always a good idea to stop occasionally and look behind you to see where you're coming from if you have to turn around.
Campsite Selection – There is no such thing as the perfect campsite. But you can make yours a pretty darn good one with some simple steps. If you're camping near water, look for signs of recent flooding, If an area looks like it floods often, it's probably not where you want to be in a rainstorm. Look at the lay of the land, Don't setup camp in depressions or at the bottom of a small hill or rise to avoid being in the path of running water if it does rain. Look up in the trees, Make sure there are no dead or hanging branches that could fall in the wind, Make sure those trees are healthy and not ready to fall over. Look down at the ground to avoid setting up around things like poison ivy or insect nests. Keep your camp clean and neat and hang your food and garbage in bear country to avoid attracting unwanted guests to your camp.
Carry your Kit – Always carry your kit, even if you’re only going for a couple of hours, You're not immune to Murphy's law while you're in the woods. Be prepared, make your kit light and easy to carry and it will become a habit.
Part 2 - Your Woods Kit
Kits are a very personal thing, You need to carry the essential items that you are comfortable with. What you carry should depend on your climate and your personal tastes. A kit to use in the Southwest U.S. will be very different than one used in the Northeast U.S. Your kit should contain what you need and not a whole lot of what you want. When you create your kit, cover the basics first, then worry about comfort items. What you carry your kit in is your choice, Some people use small day packs, some use fanny packs or shoulder bags, some choose to carry everything in their pockets. Whatever you choose to carry it in, make sure it's convenient, The easier it is to carry, the more likely you are to have it with you when you need it. Here's some ideas on getting started with your kit.
Food – Almost anyone can go a couple of days without food with no ill effects. I rarely carry more than a few snacks in my kit when I'm day hiking. If you are hiking in a true wilderness area where you have the potential of getting lost or stranded and it may take a while for someone to get to you to help - a few extra food items in your pack is a good idea. Having a small fishing kit or some knowledge of edible plants in the area is also a good idea.
Water – You can go days without food. If you end up going more than a few hours without proper hydration, you put yourself in a dangerous situation. Carry some water, but also carry a couple of ways to treat water. A simple metal water bottle can be used to boil water, making it safe to drink. A small bottle of chemical water treatment takes up little space and is a great backup. I carry a large metal cup and a metal water bottle for storage. This allows me to boil water if needed in the cup and immediately transfer it to my storage container and start boiling more, without having to wait for it to cool like I would if I carried a plastic bottle. If you don't want to boil or use chemical treatment, a small backpacking filter is another choice. Whatever kind of water treatment you decide to carry, practice with it at home first so you are familiar with it when you need it.
Shelter – In the first scenario above, a simple tarp made an otherwise miserable trip into a pleasurable one. A durable, lightweight and inexpensive blue 8x10 poly tarp is an excellent starting point. Once you get used to using your tarp and decide to upgrade, you'll find there are a whole lot of choices out there in commercially made tarps. After using and practicing with a poly tarp, I chose to make an 8x8 waterproof tarp to my own specifications that fits my favorite setups. No matter what type of tarp you decide to carry, I encourage everyone to learn at least three ways to set it up. Two ways should be quick and easy in case of a sudden rain and one should be a stable long term setup for spending a few days out. Two additional items you must have to properly setup a tarp are stakes and some rope or cordage. I choose not to carry any stakes with me. Instead I'll quickly make them on site from sticks laying around, but many people carry a few lightweight aluminum tent stakes in their kit. I recommend carrying at least 50' of lightweight rope or cordage. I also carry a sandwich bag filled with cutoff pieces of rope and cord of various sizes so when I need shorter pieces I don't have to cut into my longer length. When you buy rope and cord, always check the working load or breaking strength. I don't recommend carrying anything less than a 100 lb. breaking strength. Military 550 paracord is an excellent choice but almost any strong, inexpensive rope will do for general camp chores. As for rope safety, never rely on any rope that is not specifically made for climbing to support your weight and never use rope to lift anything heavier than half of its working strength.
Another important point about shelter that is often overlooked is to remember is that shelter starts with the clothing you have on. Wear the proper clothing for the season and keep in mind any weather changes that occur on a regular basis for that season. A Mylar emergency “Space Blanket” is also a good, inexpensive piece of gear to toss in your kit in case of an emergency.
Tools – Besides knowledge, the most important tool you can carry in the woods is a knife. Any woods kit should include at least three cutting tools. A sturdy sheath knife, a folding knife or multitool, a folding or wire saw and a hatchet or ax are some of the many choices out there. Whatever you decide to carry, don't forget to also carry some way to sharpen them. Cutting tools are the most useful tools you will carry in the woods. They are also the most dangerous. Just like any other tool, learn how to properly use them and practice with them to become proficient in their use. Buy the best quality you can afford but before you do, make sure it's comfortable to use, It should fit your hand well as you will be using it often. I choose to carry a custom sheath knife, a Swiss Army Knife (Officer's Model) and a small tomahawk in my kit. I find that they are more than sufficient for any of my cutting needs.
I consider a flashlight another indispensable tool in the woods. I carry a small inexpensive LED flashlight on a lanyard. I carry this around my neck as soon as it gets dark so I never have to worry about not knowing where it is when I need it at night. I also carry a couple of chemical light sticks and an emergency candle in my kit for backup lighting in case my flashlight is lost, broken or the battery dies.
You should never go into the woods without carrying a compass and having some directional finding knowledge, I also recommend learning and practicing at least two other ways of finding direction such as the stick and shadow method or navigation by stars. A map of the area you're going to is also a good idea, I would make it a requirement if it is an area you are unfamiliar with. I print out maps from the many free mapping sites online and store them in sandwich bags to keep them from getting wet.
Fire – Fire skills are one of the most important parts of your woods kit. Always carry at least three ways to start a fire. Fire allows you to boil water to make it safe to drink, keep yourself warm, cook food and signal for help. Fire making is important. Carry modern fire starting methods such as a “bic” lighter, strike anywhere matches, a magnesium fire starter, etc. You may think it's not “Woodsman-like” to use a lighter to start a campfire but when it's cold, raining and you are are shivering, and you need to get a fire started fast, modern fire starting methods are your best friend. I believe everyone should know and practice primitive fire starting skills such as a bow drill or flint and steel, but also carry modern fire starting tools in case of an emergency. Fire is a skill that needs to be practiced; you can practice at home building fires in your barbecue or a fire pit in your yard. Use different woods and tinder and see what works best. Practice with wet woods on rainy days so you'll know what to do when you get in that situation. Carrying emergency fire starters such as paraffin soaked cotton or others for emergency situations is also a good idea.
When you decide to start a fire in the woods you accept the responsibility for that fire. Fire safety cannot be ignored in an environment where almost everything can burn. A small, hot fire made with dry hardwood will be more than sufficient for any cooking or heating you do in camp. There is no place for huge bonfires in the woods. A safe secure fireplace must be used, with anything flammable on the ground cleared away in a minimum of a three foot circle. Do not use stones from a creek or stream for your fireplace as they can contain pockets of moisture which can explode when heated. Make sure your fire ring is put together tight enough to not allow the fire to creep out from between the stones. Most importantly, make sure your fire is completely out before you leave it. I always use enough water to make a “fire soup” and stir the soaked ashes with a stick to make sure nothing left in the fire ring is still hot or burning. Be careful with fire, the last thing you want is to be responsible for starting a forest fire.
First aid – Always carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. It is an excellent idea to take a first aid course so you know how to deal with medical issues in the woods. I've found that making up my own first aid kit works better for me than buying a commercial one. Do your research and build a first aid kit that fits your needs. I also include insect repellent in my first aid kit.
Extras – These are, in no special order, some of the extras I carry in my woods kit. Two bandannas to be used as potholders, head wear, filters, rags, etc. A small bottle of hand sanitizer for use after going to the bathroom or before cooking or eating (some brands can also be used as an emergency fire starter). A hand towel for general washing up, a spare pair of eyeglasses, two or three plastic shopping bags, a whistle for emergency signaling, a wooden spoon and a 55 gallon garbage bag for use as an emergency bivy, raincoat, shelter or ground cloth.
The list below is a sample woods kit. It should all fit in a regular day pack with room to spare and should weigh no more than 10 lbs at the most.
Strike anywhere matches in a waterproof container
Magnesium fire starter
50' Light duty rope
Large metal cup
Metal water bottle (Full of fresh water)
2 Chemical light sticks
Spare eyeglasses (if needed)
First Aid Kit
8x10 poly tarp
Compass and maps
2 or 3 Plastic Shopping bags
Emergency fire starters
55 gal. Trash Bag
Partial roll of Toilet Paper
Part 3 – Camp Craft and Skills
Knots and Lashings – Having some rope and cordage skills will make your life a whole lot easier in the outdoors. Learn a few basic knots and practice them until you can tie them in the dark. The knots I've found most useful in the woods are a square knot, a bowline and a taut line hitch. These three allow me to do almost anything I've ever needed to do. It's also a good idea to know a few simple lashings for joining poles for shelters or making camp fixtures and furniture.
Camp Order and Safety – Keep your campsite neat and tidy. Clear away anything on the ground that you could trip over or that could be a potential hazard. Look in the trees above and around you for dead branches or whole trees that are dead and could fall in the wind. Check the area for insect or bee nests before setting up your camp. If you're collecting firewood, stack it neatly, I always prefer things to be hanging up instead of laying on the ground. Simple hooks can be made by lashing a forked stick to a tree to hang your pack or coat on. Don't be a slob, take pride in the appearance of your camp.
Camp Hygiene – Hygiene in the woods is mostly common sense. Don't leave garbage laying around, carry out what you carry in. Bathroom needs should be taken care of a minimum of 150 ft. from your camp and any water source. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, fill it back up when you're done. Toilet paper should either be burned in the fire or carried back out with you. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer to clean your hands. Wash up away from water sources not in them unless it is a very large or moving body of water. Remember, a small amount of dirt is going to be on your hands, face and probably in your food. It isn't going to hurt you, it's part of being in the woods.
Part 4 – The Psychology of Woodcraft
Most of us have had some defining moments in our lives, whether it was related to the outdoors or not, it opened our eyes to what we could do to improve ourselves. One of mine came as I was hunting on a friends land a few years ago. I carried very little gear besides what was needed for a typical deer hunt, It was on about 400 acres of private land that bordered hundreds of acres of state forest. I was dropped off at a trail and told to walk down to a ground blind where three or four trails came together. I sat in that spot for a few hours paying more attention to listening for the approach of deer than my immediate surroundings. When the appointed time came to meet up with my host where I was dropped off, I stood up and walked to where the trails came together. I realized at that second that I could not identify the path I walked in on. Although I was in no immediate danger, a wave of panic started to creep up on me. If I chose the wrong path, I could be hiking into hundreds of acres of state land late in the day, and could possibly be spending the night in the woods unprepared. I carried a compass but did not check it before I went into the woods to get a reference point to which direction I started, I was convinced I had put myself into a bad situation. I was starting to stress out, but instead of panicking, I forced myself to stop where I was, I took a deep breath and decided to take an inventory of the situation. I knew I had probably an hour of daylight left before it became dark, I knew one of the four paths that were around me was the correct one, and I knew that eventually my host, who knows this piece of land a lot better than I did, would come looking for me if I didn't show up at our meeting place. I was dressed for the fall weather, had a knife, a space blanket and some matches in my pocket. As soon as I thought about it, I realized I wasn't in such a bad situation at all, and that there was a better chance of me getting out of the woods than having to spend the night. Almost immediately the feeling of panic subsided. Once I got my head clear I started looking around and noticed my boot tracks from where I walked in - something I had not thought about in my previous state of mind. I started to follow them and in a few minutes heard the sound of my host's ATV as he was coming to pick me up at our rendezvous point. Shortly after this experience, I was somewhat embarrassed by it and didn't talk about it with anyone. The more I thought about it, the more I looked at it as a test and that I had passed. I realized that the moral of the story is that although I was actually not in any great danger, If I had let my panic take over and headed in the wrong direction, I could have been making a big mistake that would have turned it into extremely uncomfortable time in the woods for myself and for my host who would have had to try and find me.
Panic and stress in the woods can turn small issues into big problems. If you find yourself in a situation where you are starting to feel panicked or stressed, Sit down, let it pass, think about how you got into it and ways to get out of it. Take stock of what you're carrying; if you are prepared for such an event, there is no reason to panic. In most cases there is a simple solution, although it may not become clear until you calm down. I've told this story to a few close friends whom I consider to be experienced woodsmen, and was surprised to learn that most of them had similar experiences, so it can happen to anyone. I've used what I learned from this many times, from not panicking when the trail I'm on seems to disappear to checking my compass and taking note of the direction I'm heading when I'm exploring new areas. We all will make mistakes in the woods. Some more stressful than others, how we deal with them and what we learn from them is what is important.
Part 5 - Summary
The reoccurring theme throughout this guide is the ideas of Awareness, Preparedness and Common Sense. This guide is by no means complete. Use it as a starting place; there are countless resources for improving your safety and enjoyment of the outdoors. Search the Internet for forums and blogs related to the outdoors, visit your local library and download a few of the many outdoor books available free online. Take from them what is useful to you and experiment with the techniques you find. Practice your new skills in the controlled environment of your house or yard before trying them out in the woods. You'll find that the more confident you become in your skills the more you will want to expand them. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your time in the woods.