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campfire in thailand cave

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #4 The Deeper Jungle

Another day of jungle trekking was upon us; water scorpions, bats, deep caves, slingshots and knife work were all ahead on the trail. We were making our way toward the Thamtaralod Forest Park in Northern Thailand, not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). The park is famous for it’s cave, which would be the highlight of our adventure.

huge jungle tree

Our guide Ting, explained the route… sort of, and we set off from the hill tribe village, giving our thanks for the fresh breakfast of mango, rice and greens we’d enjoyed. This morning we were joined by Djoe, whose family had hosted us the night before. Also joining us was Dham who must be in his early twenties and far fitter than me. Each of them carried their own machete, rather than being kept in a leather sheath as we would back home, they wrapped their prized tools in cloth and stuffed this into their belt. Later on that day, we’d get the chance to see that these tools were not just for hacking and slashing but could be put to fine whittling work in skilled hands.

Soon into our trek I spotted some dead tree stumps which had been hacked into with a machete. Ting explained that this was where local people were searching for burrowing grubs, deep inside the deadwood. These grubs were a valued food source. Thankfully, we didn’t find any ourselves, so I was spared the embarrassment of having turn one down.

Much of our route today would take us along the river, with plenty of opportunities to cool off. The water was warm and refreshing, with shoals of little fish darting in and out of the rock cover. I noticed our hill tribe guides were naturally very aware of their surroundings, always looking about them, ever alert, where as I found myself looking down at my feet more often than not to ensure a steady footing. Djoe and Dham moved with much more confidence though and I watched them scanning the tree tops, with an eye for opportunity. These guys were naturally suited and adapted to their environment, just a quick look at the muscles on their legs was testament to that, shaped by years of walking up and down the steep jungle paths.

walking along the river
Our youngest guide stopped and pulled out a simple slingshot from his pocket. Grabbing a few river pebbles he started launching the stones at a target high up in the trees above him. Ting told me this was an ants nest and these ants were another potential food source. Whether it was the young grubs or the ants themselves that Dham wanted I wasn’t sure. Either way, after a few attempts, he gave up and the ants were left to continue their daily lives. The opportunity to try the slingshot for myself was to good to pass up though, so we had some fun doing target practise at a tree across the river.

We stopped for our mid morning break and our guides unwrapped their machetes and started work whittling away some fresh (green) bamboo. They were making chopsticks, ready for our lunch later and as I’d brought my own knife along I wanted to give it a go. I found bamboo easy to carve and we made short work of the chopsticks, including a few fine details here and there. However, whilst I was using my small Swedish whittling knife, our guides were using their much larger machetes and getting the same (if not better) results which shows how in the right hands this large tool can be used for fine work. I guess it shows that when you’re in the jungle you don’t want to be carrying multiple tools around. As the old saying goes, “The more you know, the less you need.”

making chopsticks

Whittling fresh bamboo to make chopsticks. My Swedish knife versus their machetes.

It was a real treat to watch this simple craft being done by local people in such a natural setting and I was looking forward to seeing their bushcraft in action again later as we were going to need to fashion some torches ready for exploring the cave toward the end of our journey.

beautiful streamWhilst cooling off my toes in the river, I spotted what looked like a water scorpion, with pincers just large enough to give my little toe a nip. Ting grinned, saying “they could give you a nasty bite” but with the look on his face I think he was having me on. Best to play it safe though, time to move on. We came across a tree that Ting cut a small slice from, telling us that the bark is used locally as a medicine, boiled in a tea. Or you could chew the bark to release the medicine. It tasted bitter and reminded me of how willow was used in our past for similar purposes. Willow bark contains a chemical similar to aspirin. Whilst walking I’d noticed Djoe heading off trail here and there to inspect dead bamboo trees, he was clearly searching for the right one. After a few non-starters he hacked into one and selected a length to take with him. The reason for this would become clear later.

Here and there along the river’s length I saw the remains of what looked like simple bamboo frames spanning the width of the river. I asked Ting what these were and he explained that the local people had made fish traps. Having built a bamboo fence across the river, earth would then be piled up to block the river flow. Downstream the river would temporarily dry out so that fish could be picked easily from the mud. Once the catch was done, the river would be unblocked. I wondered if the the bamboo frames get used more than once? That would explain why they’d been left in-situ.

fish traps on the river

cooling off in a jungle waterfallAfter some hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing precarious fallen logs over the rushing river water we reached a little patch of paradise… a small waterfall, complete with natural swimming pool. This is the stuff that old Bounty chocolate commercials were made of. We stripped off and enjoyed the cool water, trying our best to ignore the large spiders suspended in webs not far above us – I never saw them on a Bounty advert. Seriously though, it doesn’t get much better than this, being able to enjoy this special place, with river water just the right temperature. Exactly what you need after half a day’s hike in the tropical heat.

There was another surprise waiting for us when we finished our dip, lunch was served, wrapped in banana leaves. Rice with tofu and greens, cooked fresh that morning. Time to use our chopsticks and see if mine were up to scratch. I’m pleased to say they performed well, though whether I was doing it entirely right, who knows? Dessert was fresh pineapple – which of course over here tastes so much better than what you can buy at home. This was true of all the fruit on our Thailand travels.

jungle food

Our guides had kept these treats well stashed, seemingly producing them from nowhere. Bamboo once again showed off it’s versatility, this time as a drinking cup.

Rested, fed and watered we set off to find the highlight of the trip, the Thamtaralod Cave, complete with bats and rushing water. On our way we stopped at another beautiful location, a bamboo camp. This place was used by trekking groups taking longer trips. We were just passing through but it was great to see how the structure was put together, highlighting again the amazing properties of bamboo as a building material. Being naturally cylindrical it’s very strong and being hollow it’s light to carry. Even the young bamboo shoots can be used for food. I might start calling bamboo the tree of a thousand uses. It seems to be intrinsically linked with the history and way of life of the local people. We stopped at the camp for a short while to make preparations for entering the cave. This is where I got to see some real bushcraft in action.

It was time to put the dead bamboo rod, that Djoe had carried with him, to good use. Ting explained that they would be making bamboo torches which would be lit to explore the cave safely. This explained why the bamboo needed to be dead, so it was dry and took a flame easily. Our guides set to work with their machetes splitting the lengths of bamboo into thin sticks. I had a go myself and once again the bamboo responded very well, being easy to split and running straight. I’ve split hazel rods before for hurdle-making  back home but this task was much easier. The broad nature of the machetes also aided easy splitting as a quick twist of the blade would encourage the dry wood to split down it’s length, without the need to cut much further into the wood.

bushcraft bamboo torch collageSplit sticks were then bundled together and these bundles were tied together using natural cordage. This was more bamboo, but fresh and green this time, which had been soaked in the river. I imagine the soaking served one or both of these jobs; to make the cordage flexible for us and/or to help prevent the flames from burning through the cordage once it was holding the torch together.

Setting off again, torches over our shoulders, it wasn’t long before we came to the cave entrance, and it was an impressive site. The river flowed out of the base and sound of the rushing water could be heard coming from the dark depths within. We could not see any light inside, so who knows how long the cave was. Ting told us that bats roost above among the stalactites and we could see the evidence of their droppings on the cave floor below. Time to use the torches!

lighting bamboo torches

Lighting up the bamboo torches at the entrance to the Thamtaralod Cave.

They lit easily and gave off a steady flame, burning for the good 20 minutes it took to reach the other cave side. Plunging into the cave with a flaming torch, whilst deep in the jungle has got to be an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one – I was in my element and grinning from ear to ear. The cave roof was high above us, so the smoke wasn’t a problem. The main hazard was watching where you put your feet as the rushing water covered treacherous rocks and ledges – so we took it slow. Any points I gained for looking cool whilst brandishing a flaming bamboo torch in a jungle cave would have been swiftly lost if I stumbled and snuffed it out in the dark water. I loved it all though , and felt like an explorer discovering a brave new world.

torches in the caveWe made our way around another rocky bend, then we could see the light at the other end of the tunnel, which revealed a huge cave opening bigger than my house. The bamboo torches were brought together and placed in an old fire pit which gave us some more light to see by. We sat down for a rest on a large ledge within the cave mouth. As we took in the scenery around us it struck me how people from ages past must have used this place as shelter and refuge. The ledge was large enough to accommodate many people and the fireplace our torches flickered away in sat on a raised bowl of earth, and I wondered whether this was a recent addition or something that had been formed by our guides ancestors generations before. Between the fresh water supply, the fish that were abundant in the river, the bamboo growing all round us and the shelter the cave provided I thought this must have been a place where native peoples had lived in the past. I should have asked our guides, but I was too caught up in the moment.

beautiful jungle cave chamberIt was time to say farewell to Djoe and Dham, whilst Ting would lead us up the final hill toward our waiting vehicle. Our guides for the day waved farewell and took their bamboo torches back into the depths of the cave. The image of the flicker of red flame against the natural rock will stay with me for a long time.

our jungle trek guides

Our three guides, taking a well earned break at the fireside. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and skills with us.

Our final trek up the hill was a bit of a scorcher in the afternoon heat, with little shelter as more trees had been cut back in this area to make way for rice fields and grazing. The signs of human habitation were definitely showing again. The final give away was the pick up truck waiting for us at the top of the hill… a welcome sight by that time I must say. After a very bumpy and dusty ride in the truck, we pulled up for a cool Chang beer in a roadside cafe. As you can imagine, it tasted great.

campfire in thailand caveThanks to our guides Ting, Djoe and Dham for answering all my endless questions and letting me get stuck into the activities. Thanks also to Pooh Eco Trekking for a great experience that I won’t forget. I’ve loved exploring the jungle, if only for a brief time, but it’s also made me feel eager to get back to my native broadleaf woods and get stuck into bushcraft over the coming spring and summer. I know where I belong and my heart lies in the woods of Britain… plus the spiders are much smaller there.

Thanks for reading.

end of jungle trek

Tired, sweaty and ready for a cool beer, at the end of our jungle odyssey. We won’t forget this beautiful place.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

bushcraft jungle trek adventure

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #3 Into The Jungle

Cobras, rattlesnakes, giant spiders, termites, exploring caves, tasting strange foods – all part of my two day jungle adventure in Northern Thailand. Whilst on holiday with Lea (actually, our honeymoon) I wanted to get out into the wild and see the jungle up close…. so we discovered Pooh Eco Trekking who have a great range of trips that worked alongside the local Karen hill tribe, including them as guides and hosts, so providing an income for them from eco-tourism. Our trek would take us close to the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) through rivers, caves, villages, steep slopes and winding pathways. I wanted to go on the trek, not only to prove to myself that I could do it but also to experience a taste of the jungle and also see how the local hill tribe peoples lived in this environment and hopefully some of their traditional (though still very relevant) bushcraft skills for myself.

thailand jungleIt was 2 hour drive from Chang Mai to get to our dropping off point and if the craziness of the driver was anything to go by, the next couple of days would be filled with unpredictability. I’m not sure whether he thought his minivan was in fact a race car but he certainly drove like it was, weaving in and out of traffic and over-taking on blind corners. Our guide (Ting) seemed to take it all in his stride, so I assumed this driving was business as usual. As we climbed through the mountains to ever higher ground I noticed the broadleaf jungle gave way to scatterings of pine trees as our altitude increased. Then as we came down into valleys again, the number of pines would decrease again. I hadn’t expected to see such trees here at all. Despite our unpredictable driver, we got there in one piece, if a little shaken.

karen hill tribe weavingWe hopped into a pick up truck to take us down a bumpy track to a village which would mark the start of our jungle trek proper. Here we saw timeless Karen hill tribe crafts in action as a lady demonstrated the weaving of traditional Karen dress for women. The skirt she was weaving would take 2 weeks of constant work to complete. The colours in the cloth were almost garishly bright, reds, blues and yellows, which in Britain would look well out of place, but here they were beautiful.

Pulling my backpack on, we began what would be 3½ hours of trekking to our hill tribe homestay. We started down well worn paths which passed fields which had been cleared for the jungle using controlled fires. These areas were being made ready for the coming wet season when crops such as rice and corn could be planted up, growing in just 3 months, ready for harvest. It was the dry season now so there was less plant life on the jungle floor. We passed the occasional group of cows, bells clanking to give their location away to the farmers. I bet it would be easy to lose something as big as a cow in the jungle. Overhead we passed a few giant spiders (as big as your hand) sitting, suspended in their large webs between trees. I gave them a wide berth… I’m not the biggest fan of our eight legged friends.

bushcraft jungle trek

Beautiful, clear waters running through the jungle, friendly local wildlife and our intrepid explorer.

I also noticed something that was very familiar to me from back home. I spotted trees that had been cut down at their base and allowed to regrow again as multi stems, with rods reaching straight up to the sky. I hadn’t expected to see coppicing here. Coppicing is the traditional woodland management practise in which a sustainable crop of underwood can be produced for a variety of uses (from greenwood crafts to charcoal production). Our guide told us that the locals were harvesting the wood here for firewood on a regular rotation. In addition bamboo was being coppiced to produce straight rods of a useful diameter for building projects. The bamboo was allowed to grow on to a manageable size. All this cutting work was done by hand tools, much with the machete, which here is called simply “mid” the Thai word for knife. It was great to see this sustainable harvesting process in action in a place where it was truly relevant and thriving.

bushcraft jungle trek in thailand

Amazing, huge trees which keep growing all year round. Sustainable woodland management, jungle style, with coppicing for firewood and building material.

It was about this time that our guide spotted something we’d all missed, a cobra, hunting in and out of holes in the ground which had been burrowed by some small mammal. This was no small snake and I admit I felt a little sorry for the furry victim that would no doubt soon be on the receiving end of the hunt. But, that’s nature for you.

Another traditional woodland practise I saw was ring-barking, where a standing tree is stripped of it’s bark right around the trunk at chest level. With the life giving sap travelling through the outer layers of a tree this kills the tree and leaves a standing dead skeleton. This can be a useful practise (if done correctly) in Britain for creating standing dead wood to increase wildlife biodiversity. here though it had a more practical purpose… to create seasoned firewood that would stand and dry in the woodland, ready to be felled when needed. I imagine that this is something that was done in our country also back in medieval times and earlier.

The whole jungle seems browner and drier than I expected, even considering the season, but as we approached the valley floor everything became more lush and as I’d expect a jungle to look, you can blame Hollywood for that fixed vision in my head. As we turned a corner we came across a huge termite mound! Standing higher than me and feeling very solid, it’s amazing to think that such vast structures can be built by something so small. I’m very glad we don’t have termites in the UK as the damage they do to wood is impressive, if a little worrying. You’ve got to wonder at the awesome power of nature though.

jungle machete bushcraft

In the words of Crocodile Dundee… “now that’s a knife.”

Our guide had stopped ahead of us again, but this time I knew this meant there was something interesting to see. He’d heard a rattlesnake and seen it slither off away from the path as we approached. I imagine it would be so easy to be inches away from any animal (dangerous or not) and not know it was there, as the jungle is so dense away from the well trodden paths and many creatures are well camouflaged. I tried to remember the advice of Ray Mears in a programme of his I’d watched years ago… did he say “don’t step on a log incase you disturb the snake underneath it” or was it “step on the log so that you disturb any snake before you step on it” I honestly couldn’t remember… typical!

We came to the river at the base of the valley and I was able to cool my feet off in the water, which was very welcome. As I took a rest, I spotted a plant that looked very familiar growing near the riverbank. It looked like an oversized four leaf clover and I though it might be Wood Sorrel, which is edible and tastes like sour-apple – I love it. Asking our guide it turned out not to be Wood Sorrel but was also edible. It tasted like a salad leaf, and he said that’s how they used it.

jungle hill tribe river workshop

The remains of a riverside workshop where a machete has been hard at work. The beautiful river wound through the bottom of the steep sided valley.

Walking along the cool riverbed, with steep sided jungle walls climbing either side of us gave me the feeling of being nestled in the womb of the Earth, life was everywhere. This seemed more like the wild jungle and wilderness I had in my mind when I booked this trek. But looking around there was also plenty of signs of how the local people were living with the land. Remnants of a make-shift riverside workshop for crafting on-the-spot tools. Bamboo rods grew either side of the riverbank and there were plenty of splintered canes which were leftovers from previous activity. We also came across the remains of old campfires, with only the charred embers as sign. There was no modern litter though, as you might find in a similar situation back home, and that was heartening to see.

Eventually we arrived at our hill tribe homestay, a small village sitting on the hillside – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where it was. We met a few of the older villagers and one man proudly showed off his traditional tattoos across his upper legs. Our Guide also told us that they have these intricate designs all around their groin also, but the old man didn’t show us that… thankfully. These tattoos are done using a bamboo needle. I was starting to see how important the bamboo was to the local people here, it had so many uses.

I watched a local girl with her mother picking seed pods from high up in a tree using a very long hook. They were harvesting tamarind which has a few uses including the flesh as a flavouring in food, added to curry pastes. The shell is used to add to tobacco in hand-made cigarettes and the flesh can also be made into a glue. Having tried the raw tamarind I can tell you it tastes like sour-apple sweets, and is very strong. I actually quite liked it. Once harvested from the tree the flesh would be separated from the shells where they would all be laid out to dry on racks in the sun before being processed.

bushcraft jungle trek hill tribe village

A typical house in our host’s village. Drying tamarind out in the sun. Familiar shaped plants aren’t always what they appear to be.

Our host for the evening was Djoe and his family. The company that organise the treks have a close relationship with the local Karen hill tribe and have an arrangement that families will take it in turns to host trekkers and so payment for the service gets spread evenly through the village. Also, it turned out that Djoe would be joining us as an additional guide for day two of the trek.

hill tribe homestayTheir simple house had a central fireplace, the hub of the home. I noticed hanging on the wall a fine collection of machetes, which any bushcrafter would be envious of. Smoke drifted out of smoke-holes in the roof and as we rested before being served dinner I enjoyed how quiet everything was. No traffic noise here.

Our well-earned dinner included a delicious spicy minced fish, a very spicy soup, steamed rice, cabbage in soy and pumpkin. The food was simple and excellent. After being well-fed and watered all that was left was to watch the sun go do
wn behind the neighbouring mountain as the sounds of the millions of jungle insects rose around us. I think we’d definitely use the mosquito net tonight.

In the second part of my account of the jungle trek we would have a whole host of new adventures and experiences including exploring a river cave with flaming torches crafted from bamboo – which was pretty special. You can read all about those adventures very soon.

Thanks for reading.

James

jungle sunset

Sunset looking from the house of my hill tribe homestay. The end of a great day.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

tasty bread from a dutch oven

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #2 Baking in a Dutch Oven

Baking bread out in the woods has always been one of those mystic arts to me. Something that, like tool sharpening, seems shrouded in mystery. With my ongoing Bushcraft Instructor training I thought it was high time that I made an effort to try it for myself. What’s the worst that could happen?

I also had a 4 litre dutch oven sitting in my shed, which was a Christmas present 2 years ago. I always felt a bit guilty when I came across it. So it was time to do it justice.

I’ve seen it done before but couldn’t for the life of me remember the exact method the teacher used at the time. So when it came to our next bushcraft training sessions I told everyone that I would bake them a loaf for the evening. The challenge was on.

The trick to using a dutch oven, as far as I understood it, was to get an even heat around the whole pot so that your bread would bake all round. So what was needed was a campfire that had been burning for a while to produce a good amount of hot coals, more like what you’d get in a barbecue. It’s this bed of coals and ember that makes an effective cooking fire, rather than roaring flames. I actually brought along some Welsh charcoal for the bake as I wasn’t sure what state the communal fire would be in by the time I came to experiment. This worked really well but I imagine if you use hardwood firewood and burn it down to coals it would be just as good.

cooking bread in a dutch oven for bushcraft

Above: This is not the same loaf as I cooked as it was dark by the time I was baking. You can see though how the coals have been placed on top of the oven lid it help it bake with an even heat.

The good news is that the loaf was a success! In fact it was one of the best loaves I’ve ever tasted, and even better that it was fresh out of the oven. Everyone complimented my on it and the mystery of using a dutch oven is firmly behind me, though I imagine there’s a lot to learn yet. For anyone who wants to give it a go for themselves I’m going to share that tasty recipe with you now….

STOUT & FRUIT SODA BREAD

This recipe fed 6 adults with a very generous slice of bread. They all loved it. Any left over stout can be generously gifted to a camping buddy that likes that sort of thing. I prefer cider myself. Having enjoyed this loaf myself I can say that it was delicious straight out the oven and didn’t even need any butter to improve it though you can try that if you like. It tasted more like a cake than bread 🙂

WHAT YOU NEED

4 litre dutch oven • large mixing bowl • mixing spoon (whittled by yourself preferably) • a metal dish that will sit in the bottom of your oven • 4 small stones (trust me)

INGREDIENTS

2 big overflowing handfuls of strong wholemeal flour

2 big overflowing handfuls of strong plain flour

A half handful of sugar (caster sugar is best as it’s finer)

1 heaped tablespoon of baking powder

1 good pinch of salt

1 big overflowing handful of mixed dry fruit

1 egg

1 can of stout

Keep some extra spare flour left aside for dusting the metal dish

METHOD

Mix up all the dry ingredients together. I did this in advance before the trip and put them in a plastic tub so it would save doing it around the campfire at night.

In your mixing bowl make a well in the middle of the dry mix and add crack the egg in. Then mix with your wooden spoon.

Slowly add the stout until all the dry ingredients are mixed in and you have a ball of dough that holds it shape.

Coat your metal dish in a light layer of your spare flour. This will stop the bread from sticking to the dish.

Place your dough onto the floured dish and sprinkle a little sugar on top.

Now it’s time to use those 4 mysterious small stones. These are placed evenly spaced at the bottom of the dutch oven. The metal dish is then placed on top of these so it sits comfortably. What this does is elevate the dish from the bottom of the dutch oven to allow the air to circulate. This all helps prevent the lower crust from burning.

Place the lid onto the oven and pop it into your campfire.

We surrounded the oven with a ring of charcoal and placed some hot coals evenly on top. This is the part of the process that inly experience can teach you and I’m looking forward to trying this recipe again and seeing if the cooking time changes. I imagine it depends on how hot your fire is and how even the coals are around your oven.

I checked the loaf after 15 minutes and we all agreed it needed longer.

I cooked my loaf for 25-30 minutes but I think i could have got away with taking it out a bit sooner. You will see some burn on the left hand side of the close up picture. This is where there was a flaming log placed right up against the dutch oven so I think it caused that side of the oven to be hotter.

The last tip I was given was to use a clean knife to push into the middle of the loaf. If it comes out clean then the bread is ready.

tasty bread from a dutch oven

Above: The complete loaf. Not bad at all for a first effort. In fact it was one of the best breads I’ve ever tasted.

By the way, did you know that the phrase “the upper crust” comes from a time when those who could afford it would get the more valuable upper section of the loaf rather than the often burnt bottom. So the rich were referred to at the “upper crust.”

I hope this has inspired you to try dutch oven baking for yourself. I’ve definitely got the hook and have made a promise to myself to try a different recipe each time I go camping now. Suddenly the world of outdoor baking has completely open up to me. It’s a real sense of achievement.

Thanks for reading.

James K

bushcraft leader with shelter

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #1 Building Better Shelters

Hello folks. My name is James and I am an outdoor activity leader at Woodland Classroom, where we pass woodland skills and nature knowledge onto others with our sessions. Bushcraft is an element of what we do, fire-lighting, den building and campfire cooking etc but mostly it’s at a basic level. For a while now I’ve been wanting to improve my bushcraft skills and really go much further in depth not only because I love being out in the woods but also so that I can pass these skills onto others someday and continue to inspire children to fall in love with nature and being outdoors.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and enrolled on a 2 year Bushcraft Instructor training course which is going to really push me to up my game which is not only going to be a lot of fun but will also help me to offer so much more to our customers in the future.

Fire by friction, wild food, whittling, advanced shelter building, natural cordage and plant identification are just some of the skills I’ll be covering over the next two years. I’m quite excited.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to call myself a proper bushcraft instructor when it’s all done. Saying that though, you never stop learning and with any good subject worth getting your teeth into, bushcraft is one of those fields of learning that the more questions you answer, the more questions there are. I imagine I will never stop learning.

Part of my training includes keeping a journal of my time learning bushcraft skills, so I though why not make it a blog and you can share my journey, my successes and my inevitable failures too.

As an old teacher once said to me though, “There are no mistakes. Just learning opportunities.”

So without further ado, here is my account of a day spent shelter building.

bushcraft leader with shelter

Building Better Shelters

Aim of the Day: To construct a one-person shelter using only natural materials, preferably with no cordage, which would be rain-proof.

I had a dry and sunny winter day to do this with no distractions which was good because proper shelter building is a lengthy task. From my training I knew that it took 6 of us a couple of hours to construct an effective shelter from scratch, so I would have my work cut out if I as to get it done all in one day.

There had been some recent tree felling work in the woods, cutting down young hazel stools under the power lines, so this as perfect material with which to construct the frame with as hazel is strong, flexible and being freshly cut it should have a longer life span than using older, more seasoned wood from the forest floor.

I wanted to build a classic kennel shelter, sometimes called the a-frame shelter, which uses just 3 sticks to support the whole structure. The shelter also has little room for movement once you’re inside so that there is less air space to be warmed up.

building a kennel shelter

Above: In Ray Mears’ Outdoor Survival Handbook, he describes the stages of building the kennel shelter.

The first task was to find a piece of ground that is flat, no mean feat in Wales. Another tip I had been given was to get down low to the ground so that you can see the small undulations that make up the lay of the land. This way I could pick out a spot that was not only flat, but would not be a pool for water if the weather turned wet and also was slightly raised from the surrounding land, again to shed ground surface water if needed.

My tutor had told me the importance of of ensuring that the triangular frame is locked together well and that each pole is well supported. The most effective way to do this (without using cordage) is using the method seen in the next picture.

shelter build - interlocking polesHere, the ridge pole is resting on both forked sticks and these are also interlocked. This should help prevent slippage and ensures that the weight of the shelter is evenly distributed. I don’t want it all coming down on me in the middle of the night. For some additional support, I saw that there was a convenient stump which I could rest the base of the right-hand pole against. This is certainly not essential, but a bit of added piece of mind.

Next up I started placing the uprights on either side of the shelter frame. These were no closer than a good hand span apart as if they were too close then I would have trouble weaving between them later when building up the walls of the shelter.

I had also been advised to not allow the uprights to stick up too much above the ridge pole as this would encourage rainwater to run down poles and then drip through into the shelter – which I imagine could be very annoying at 2am.

For weavers between the uprights I mostly used birch branches that were lying around the woodland, as when green they are still flexible. Any that were too far gone and dry, went in  a separate pile for firewood. It was time to start a fire for a well earned brew in my billy can. Think birch is quickly becoming my favourite tree because the more I learn about it, the more uses it seems to have – perhaps that’s the subject of a future journal entry.

Birch’s associations with fire are well known in the outdoor pursuits world and it makes great kindling for getting a blaze going. As soon as the fire was going I felt like I had arrived properly.

building a natural shelter in the woodsAbove: Burying the end of the ridge pole into the earth to help prevent it from slipping. Resting one of the forked poles against a convenient stump for added stability. And getting my tea on with my new billy can.

During my Bushcraft Instructor training we had plenty of bracken around us to use as a thatched covering for the weavers on the roof. You can see an example of that in the first picture on this blog page. But at my local woods bracken was not an option so I would have to go with the less effective (so I’m told) leaf litter – which was in abundance at this time of year. There was plenty of beech trees about and their leaves make a carpet on the woodland floor and I know these leaves to last pretty well rather than rot away quickly so this seems a good choice.  Using a blanket I could gather up lots of leaves quickly and then drag the full blanket over to the shelter.

This was still much more work than I had anticipated though and I had been advised to have a full arm’s length depth of leaf litter on the shelter to make it effective against the worst the weather could throw at it. This was a real eye opener as it soon became apparent just how much material I would need just for my little one-man shelter.

shelter building in the woods of wales

Above: The complete naked skeleton of my kennel shelter, complete with weavers from fallen birch with some hazel brash too for good measure.

Another thing I noticed when using the leaf litter was that leaves had a habit of tumbling down to the base of the shelter so that I was ending up with a lot of material close to the ground and hardly any on top. Stuffing handfuls of leaves between the weavers seems to help this to an extent as it gave the leaves something to grip to. But I wonder if this is also a common problem when using leaf litter like this and whether with enough depth of material you eventually over come it? I wasn’t going to find out today.

The day was drawing on and I still wasn’t complete. By the time the light was failing I had to accept that the shelter would not be completed today (the luxury of not actually being in a real survival situation) and I would have to return another day. I had got one side of the shelter completely covered with a fair depth of leaves, but by no means enough, and I was satisfied that I could return another day and complete the job, ready for a trial sleep out.

My last job was to put out my small brew fire and scatter the cold ashes to leave no trace – an important philosophy in bushcraft.

So, what were the main learning points for me:

  1. Shelter building takes longer than you think.
  2. It’s important to get the 3 main poles locked together correctly to maximise stability and strength.
  3. Don’t put the uprights too close together.
  4. Don’t let the uprights protrude too far above the ridge pole, so avoiding night time drips.
  5. If using leaf litter – allow for A LOT of material.
  6. Stuff the leaves into the weavers to encourage them to group to the shelter sides.
  7. Get up earlier in the morning and start sooner *laugh*

half built shelter

Above: The end of a day’s work.. well a leisurely days work anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to complete the job and test it out.

That’s all for now. I hope to keep my Bushcraft Journal up to date with regular posts, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

James K

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