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bushcraft and mindfulness tools

Mindfulness & Bushcraft: Perfect Partners

Want to be healthier and happier? I’d say you need more wildness in your life!

by Lea Kendall (Counsellor, Mindfulness in the Woods Practitioner and Outdoor Activity Leader)

We, as a species, need to rewild ourselves. Practising bushcraft and taking time out for ourselves in nature can be our vehicle to honouring our ancient, wild selves. It’s an approach that we teach during our Woodland Wellbeing & Bushcraft Weekend which is one of our favourite events of the year. You may have seen plenty of stories doing the rounds about landowners who are letting wildlife do its thing as farms, forestry plantations and gardens are allowed to go back to nature. Whether it’s called rewilding, natural regeneration or non-intervention, the aim is usually the same; to benefit wildlife by increasing biodiversity. The results in many of these projects have seen a huge increase in the variety of animal and plant life, as well as the joy and happiness that comes to those who get to watch wildlife thriving around them. Species of insects and wildflowers have exploded and following them, all the birds and mammals that come with them. All because humans have withdrawn their input. Let’s take a step back and understand just what rewilding is…

“Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats.” Rewidling Europe

So, can we also apply this approach to how we live our own lives? Absolutely!

Rewilding Your Soul

The health benefits of being outdoors is one topic I find fascinating. As well as being the co-owner of an Outdoor Education & Bushcraft company, I also work in mental health as a counsellor. In my work I have always been interested in the idea of our inner hunter-gatherer. Studies have shown that our brains are still wired up to a live in the world of our ancestors where our priorities were to hunt and gather for food, build shelter, connect with our families and communities and use plants to heal ourselves. Occasionally we’d experience the stress response to run away from danger or fight to protect ourselves from harm. In the world of the hunter-gatherer these stressful instances would have normally been short lived and with the immediate danger passed we’d soon return to the safety of our tribe, an ongoing cycle of relaxation to stress to relaxation, completed and no harm done. Fast forward to today however, and our modern, fast-paced lifestyles mean we spend much of our lives in this stress state. Cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) is racing through our systems steadily and rarely do we get much of a break from this to reconnect with our tribe and loved ones and complete the cycle, allowing the brain to get it’s much needed rest.

Society has changed in the blink of an evolutionary eye, and our brain wiring is nowhere near caught up yet. It’s still happier picking berries, whittling spoons and bonding with each other whilst sat round the campfire under the canopy of the trees and stars.

Research by Mark Berman at the University of Chicago says that if you add 10 trees to any given urban block, residents report a 1% increase in wellness, if you wanted to give the same effect using money for increasing happiness you’d have to pay each household $10,000 or make the residents 7 years younger. Trees, nature, wildness, they all increase our happiness and well-being. So, why don’t we choose to spend more time immersed in nature if it’s so good for us?

I believe that positive mental and physical health can be achieved through the art of bushcraft and being mindful in nature. Here we are doing two very simple things; we are honouring our inner hunter-gatherer and living in the present moment. We are also surrounding ourselves amongst trees in a beautiful forest. Those trees have been scientifically proven to have their own natural healing powers, but that’s a story for another time.

bushcraft and mindfulness in north wales

Bushcraft – Just What the Doctor Ordered

So, how do we start to rewild our spirit? We need to make time to nurture our emotional, cognitive and social selves.

Our good friend Nick Hulley at in2thewildwood is a fellow Bushcraft Instructor based in Staffordshire and a previous tutor on our Woodland Wellbeing & Bushcraft Weekend in North Wales. He brings mindfulness into the very core of his life. Let’s let Nick explain in his own words…

“After my ‘safety-rounds’ along the rides, the trails and the woodland fringes; I ease into the fire circle glade. I lower my rucksack, remove the kindling from home along with the tinder, heft my axe into a couple of logs, light the fire and boil the kettle – wood smoke, tea, crackling billets, fresh cut logs, the fire light flicker, the outer focus stillness and yet the inner calmness continues to enrich my wellbeing. I ground myself, cross-legged and centred. The following fifteen minutes of the breath, the inner sight, the acknowledgement and the continued return to the breath sets me up for the day: this marriage works, forest environments, Bushcraft and Mindfulness: even if it is just a short centre and pause whilst doing.”

When hosting a woodland skills session, mindfulness informs how he moves about the woods, how he uses all his senses to feel the forest, how the trees nourish him, how he pauses and calmly absorbs all about him: likewise for his learners on the courses he delivers for them. Nick continues…

“It is wonderful to now be aware that for all these years, working as I do in a forest setting, that research has been going on with the intent to establish positive links between woodlands & improved health. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing in Japan) and its beneficial outcomes is one of the many researched avenues involving forested settings; which provide a life enhancing backdrop to the union of Bushcraft activities and primitive skills learning complimented by Mindfulness, with its slowed, peaceful and thoughtful considerations of the natural world and our impact on it.”

Rewilding Your Body

Many of us already know how to rewild our back gardens, letting nature take over or by planting native plants and bee-friendly flowers. But we can also increase the ‘wildness’ of our gut by eating healthy, fermented and ‘dirty’ wild food.

fermented wild greens kimchiI’ve recently discovered the process of fermenting wild greens. This is an ancient technique to preserve foods and to increase the nutritional value which greatly benefits the overall health of the body. This further led me to develop my understanding of how the gut plays a major role in our mental health too. It was fascinating to discover that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, it’s like the body’s second brain. Eating fermented food is incredibly good for us and up until very recently in western history we have been preserving food in this way.

The average body contains around 39 trillion microbes & bacteria in the intestines. Our lack of exposure to dirt and animals along with the cleaning and disinfecting of our crops and environment with chemicals, has reduced the biodiversity in our guts, and like the health of the earth, our own overall health has declined as a result. We are our own ecosystems, and some scientists are suggesting we even need to rewild our intestines with bacteria from indigenous people – its sounds crazy but it’s already happening. Want to know more about this subject? Check out Mary Beth Nawor’s Ted Talk.

We can also take positive action when out in nature by getting into the right mindset. I’ve put together a bunch of simple nature-based exercises that you can try for yourself to rewild your body and soul. Take a look at my video which demonstrates 9 techniques you can use.

Immerse Yourself in Nature

So, what have we learned? Practising bushcraft doesn’t have to mean taking on extreme survival skills, pushing yourself to the edge of your endurance or eating up a dish of witchetty grubs, ala Bear Grylls. For me, bushcraft skills are about slowing down, tuning into nature, connecting with our ancient past and being present in our natural environment. Through bushcraft skills such as tracking, carving, nature awareness and plant identification we can become extremely mindful and train our brain to leave the fast-paced, modern world behind even if just for a few hours. bushcraft and mindfulness are the perfect partners to leading a healthier, happier lifestyle, enriched by nature, sharing time with like minds and learning some very old, new skills.

adults learn fire lighting skills in north walesWoodland Classroom are hosting a whole weekend of Woodland Wellbeing & Bushcraft at the National Trust’s Chirk Castle estate in North Wales this summer. You can give some time to your inner hunter-gatherer for a weekend of mindfulness in the woods accompanied by a range of bushcraft activities aimed at focusing the mind and increasing awareness & appreciation of the natural world.  If you’d like to know more about this event, just follow THIS LINK.

“In wildness is the salvation of the world” Henry David Thorough

spring tree flowers guide

FREE Spring Tree Flower Guide

Ask someone “what grows on oak trees” and most people will say “acorns” but have you ever noticed the beautiful pink flowers growing on oak? There’s a hidden world of wonderful tree flowers that many of us walk right by without giving them a glance. In this blog I’ll introduce you to some of the best tree flowers to look out for in spring. You can find them yourself with a free download I’ve created Spring Trees: Flower Guide UK, which you can get your hands on just below.

spring tree flower guide - free download

Get a FREE Spring Trees Flower Guide. Print it out or download it to your phone.

By the way, if you love trees, but struggle to tell one species from another, then you could enroll in my FREE Tree Identification Course online. More details can be found at the end of the article.

 

Which Trees Have Flowers?

The simple answer to this is that all our native and common broadleaf trees have flowers. When you get to conifers (evergreens) things get a little more tricky so let’s set those aside for now.

Most of our trees show their flowers in spring but some, like the elder, wait until early summer. Knowing what order the flowers emerge in spring can be a good skill to help you identify which tree species you’re looking at. Male flowers will become laden with yellow pollen whilst the (usually) more colourful female flowers will eventually mature into the seed, fruit, nut or berry.

The majority of our trees have both their male and female flowers on the same branch, sometimes right next to each other, but others have separate male and female trees, relying on their being a member of the opposite sex in the near vicinity for pollination to occur. I wrote a whole article about which trees are male and female, if you want to know more just follow this link.

Trees like willow and poplar don’t have flowers as we usually know them, with petals, but rather they have catkins, which fill the early spring canopy with whites and yellows. As spring comes to a close the female catkins have gone to seed and you can have sunny May days with masses of fluffy willow and poplar seeds gently floating through the breeze. If you want to find out more about catkins, I’ve written a whole article about them. You can check that out here.

 

3 Tiny, But Beautiful Tree Flowers To Look Out For

3 amazing but tiny tree flowers

3 Beautiful Native Tree Flowers To Hunt Down; English Oak (Quercus robur), Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and Alder (Alnus glutinosa).

They may be small but that doesn’t mean these tree flowers don’t pack a visual punch when you do spot them. Earlier in the season (late winter) we have the tiny flowers of the hazel (Corylus avellana) looking like red tentacled sea-anemones. They are one of the first signs that spring is on its way.

But there’s three more crimson beauties I want to draw your attention to. First we have the female flowers of our native oaks. The green male catkins are also found growing on the same branch. You will find these tiny pink flowers appearing with the young leaves in late April to early May. Look out for them as they won’t be there for long.

Hornbeam, often mistaken for beech (Fagus sylvatica), is another native which produces two very different male and female flowers, the males being catkins. The females resemble the flowers of hazel, with pink tendrils spread out to catch pollen. You will find these on the tree in April.

Lastly, the alder, a tree which favours wet ground and riverbanks. It has not only vividly purple buds and male catkins, but in early spring you might well spot the young female flowers before they turn green and begin their journey to maturing into cones. When young they resemble bright pink cotton buds, a real splash of colour in February and March. Keep your eyes peeled!

 

Know Your Tree Flowers

To someone starting out in tree identification, it can be easy to get confused between tree species which have similar flowers, especially when they’re the same colour. Just take a look at these below…

how to identify spring tree flowers

Top Left: Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Top Right: Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), Bottom Left: Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), Bottom Right: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Here we have four different native trees, each with white flowers, with 5 petals each. So how can we easily tell between them? Well although this may seem confusing at first glance and each of these species could be found growing next door to one another, what we don’t have here is context. What I mean here is specifically the time of year we would find these flowers. The other thing we need to consider is other identifying signs away from the flowers themselves. Here’s my handy hints for telling these trees apart in spring:

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – this is the first tree to come into flower en masse in our hedgerows. We see this in March when everything else still has closed buds.  Also, look out for the wicked thorns on the twig and trunk.

Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) – this is the largest of the four flowers shown here. Notice how the petals are really opened out. They resemble an apple core when it’s sliced crossways, looking like a 5 pointed star. These flowers are typically out in May. Also, you will probably find rotten apples on the ground below the tree, so look out for those.

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) – these flowers can closely resemble the hawthorn, however the flowers of wild cherry emerge before the leaves in April whereas with hawthorn the flowers come out after the leaves. Also, you will not find any thorns on a wild cherry.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – one of the key features for these flowers is their smell. The have a sickly-sweet (though I think it’s pleasant) aroma of almond or marzipan. You will find these flower in late-April to May. An old country name for this tree is the maythorn because it traditionally flowers at this time of the year. Remember, the tree has thorns, so look for those too.

 

Get Your FREE Spring Tree Flower Guide

I’ve created a handy guide you can use when you’re out and about looking at trees during spring. The guide features 18 native and common British trees which have flowers that you might already be familiar with and flowers that you’ve probably never noticed before. The trees are laid out in the order which they come into flower so you know not only what to look for but when to look for it.

I hope you find it useful on your journey to understanding the trees around us.

DOWNLOAD YOUR GUIDE HERE

 

Discover more About Trees

It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.

REGISTER FOR THE FREE COURSE HERE

kickstart your tree id skills, free online course

When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.

“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander

 

Happy tree hunting folks.

James

tree identification courses

Want To Be a Tree Expert? Our Online Course is Coming Soon!

Calling all tree lovers. Do you ever get overwhelmed by the amount of tree species out there and can’t tell one from the other? Would you love to expand your tree knowledge further and deepen your connection to the natural world? Well, I’m really excited to finally reveal what I’ve been working on for the past year…

THE COMPLETE TREE ID COURSE: An exclusive online course to take you from Tree Beginner to Tree Expert. All led by James Kendall from Woodland Classroom.

I’ve released a sneak preview of the full online course which you can watch here…

As I said, I’ve been filming videos for this course for over two years now, visiting trees in all four seasons, and taking hundreds of photographs. With coronavirus having cancelled or postponed all our outdoor activity work I now have the time to put the whole thing together for you.

SIGN UP TO OUR FREE ONLINE TREE ID COURSE NOW

I’d love to have your feedback, comments and constructive criticism on the video, as it will really help me highlight what works well and what could be improved for you. Simply drop me an email at hey@woodlandclassroom.com

Here’s what I hope to include in the full online course:

  • Approx 50 species of trees, both native and common to Britain and Ireland.
  • Videos of each tree species in winter, spring, summer and autumn – so you can see how the tree changes throughout the year and what to look out for.
  • Downloadable identification guide ‘cheat sheets’ which you can take out into the woods with you.
  • Hundreds of photographs, both on location and in-studio, which highlight the distinctive features in each tree.
  • Regular live webinars/chats with course students so you can get direct contact with me and other learners to help you on your progression from tree novice to expert.
  • An exclusive facebook group with all students so you can share questions, pictures and experiences.
  • You will get a certification of completion.

Excuse the pun but… I’ll help you see the wood for the trees 😉

There will be lots more information coming soon but if you’re interested in being one of the first to know when more details are released, drop us an email at hey@woodlandclassroom.com and I’ll sign you up to our Tree I.D. Course Mailing List.

 

MORE ABOUT YOUR TUTOR

I thought I’d include some more information myself and my professional background so those of you interested in knowing more about your Tree I.D Tutor…

I am the Head Bushcraft Instructor and Forest School Leader at Woodland Classroom. I have been working in environmental education & conservation for over 10 years now. I received the Bushcraft Competency Certificate awarded through the Institute for Outdoor Learning after 2 years of teaching experience and practical study. Before setting up Woodland Classroom Ltd I was the Project Manager for Long Wood Community Woodland, the largest community-owned woodland in Wales, overseeing the management of 300 acres of broadleaf and conifer forest. I am also a former Director of Llais y Goedwig, the voice of community woodlands in Wales.

My approach to teaching has always been with an emphasis on steering my students toward fostering a deeper connection with nature through understanding the landscape around us. Bushcraft skills are an effective way to do this as we learn about using natural materials and how we can live with the land, whilst also connecting with our own ancient past by seeing the land through the eyes of our ancestors.

I have always had an affinity with woods, being at home amongst the trees, and I’ve made it my mission to study under some of the UK leaders in bushcraft, greenwood crafts and sustainable woodland management including; Dave Watson (Woodland Survival Crafts), Ben Law (woodsman, author, and eco-builder) Patrick Whitefield (permaculture teacher and author) and Mike Abbott (author and greenwood craftsman).

I am a member of the IOL Bushcraft Professional Practise Group. The group aims to promote best practice in the growing industry of bushcraft.

5 Program Activities all Camp Managers Need to Know About for 2019

5 Program Activities all Camp Managers Need to Know About for 2019

Planning your Summer Camp program for 2019? Struggling to come up with new and engaging ideas? Don’t worry, it can be a tricky process, especially when you want to incorporate original concepts to avoid doing the same old thing.

Between managing staff, organising logistics and marketing your camp, coming up with new program ideas can be challenging. We’re here to help, with our list of 5 activities to make summer camp memorable in 2019.

1. A Minecraft™ Inspired Outdoor Adventure

It’s the video game with over 91 million monthly players and a loyal cult following. Kids love it, so why not encourage them outdoors with a Minecraft™ themed adventure? Designed to get today’s digital generation off their screens and back outdoors, Wildcraft Adventure™ takes the best bits from the video game and transforms them into an outdoor experience they’ll never forget.

kids at summer camp on a minecraft inspired adventure

It’s a brand new way to engage the digital generation in the kind of outdoor adventures that us adults loved when we were kids. This game includes outdoor classics like den building, fire-lighting and scavenger hunts and combines them with video game elements like scoring points, beating monsters and gathering magical items – it’s like living in a real video game. Plus, players will have to use bushcraft, survival skills, teamwork and problem solving throughout.

“Wildcraft is the best activity we have ever found!”
Brenda Sutter, Laurel Tree Charter School, California

It’s designed to be as simple as possible for activity leaders to run with all the tools, resources and guides you need. Find all the details here or watch the video…

DISCOVER WILDCRAFT ADVENTURE PACKS HERE

 

2. Grab Your Lab Coat & Get Scientific

Kids love mystery and surprise so, creating original and interesting scientific experiments can be a real winner. You don’t need a physics degree make this happen either, just some common ingredients, clear instructions and the necessary safety precautions. Here’s a few cool ideas to get you started:

girl scouts doing science in the outdoors

3. If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Host Themed Days

Yes, you may have done this a hundred times over – but, add a twist and the kids will love it. Get together with your camp counselors and have a think about recent kids movies and trends. From Deadpool and Marvel to Disney and Lego – there’s always a new craze you can get on board with.

host themed days at summer camp

Whether you decide to hold a fancy dress day or create activities based on a theme – the options are endless. You can also easily add educational elements in like languages, geography and performing arts.

4. Incorporate Mindfulness

Mindfulness and wellbeing are hot topics for adults at the moment, so why shouldn’t it be for kids too? With the modern pressures of social media and the internet, children need to learn the power of mindfulness just as much as adults. Schools across the US are increasingly incorporating it into the curriculum through a range of activities, so here’s how you can do it at summer camp too:

Combine Mindfulness with Bushcraft

This practice combines nature and ‘rewilding’ to help kids reconnect with the outdoors. By assisting with nature conservation and learning bushcraft survival skills, there are proven benefits that kids’ mental health can improve from the experience.

mindfulness & bushcraft with kids

Practising bushcraft requires children to adopt a mindful approach to their actions as patience, awareness and concentration are all key to mastering activities like knife craft and ancient fire-lighting.

Pair Up Mindfulness and Yoga

Not only does yoga enhance stability and focus, it also aids relaxation and mental wellbeing. Plus, it’s a great way to take a break between daily activities and inject some calm into your program.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Whether you decide to do a seated, walking or guided meditation, it can have a surprising impact on behaviour and mental wellbeing for kids. Here’s a handy article from the ACA (American Camp Association) on how to get started.

child meditating in the outdoors

“Kids are accustomed to using their senses to experience life. They look, touch, smell, and even taste their way through the world. This natural inclination toward mindfulness makes teaching kids to meditate easier than we thought. In fact, it’s a no-brainer.” Laurie Palagyi

Mindfulness and Roleplay

Get the kids to become the animals that live in the woods! Why not use roleplay to introduce kids to mindfulness through engaging them with nature? Check out our handy video on how to use animals as a starting point for practising mindfulness in nature. It’s proven to work with kids and adults.

“Animal Form Games invite participants to empathize with animals, to imitate their attitudes, and, to the best of their human-bodied ability in the throes of a game, practice animals ways of moving.” Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature

5. Get Creative with Campfire Cooking

New flavours and foods can be a real treat for kids. Explore world foods, host a mini street food festival and at the same time enhance outdoor cooking skills with new and original recipes. No need to go gourmet with this one, simple yet tasty will be a winner every time.

summer camp - alternative campfire cooking ideas for food

Here’s a few delicious ideas to add you to your Summer Camp program for 2019:

Smores recipes

Sourced from: https://i.pinimg.com

To Sum Up…

Hopefully, these activities will give you food for thought when putting that all-important program together. If you’re still stuck for ideas though, head to Pinterest which offers a goldmine of tips, tricks and activities, perfect for camp.

If you’re interested in the Wildcraft Adventure™ but aren’t 100% sure about how to implement it, contact us here and we’ll be more than happy to give you all the details you need.

DISCOVER WILDCRAFT ADVENTURE PACKS HERE

In the meantime, happy planning!

James and Lea Kendall from Woodland Classroom

James & Lea Kendall are the creators of Woodland Classroom. “Through our passion, enthusiasm and experience we help people connect with nature, feel healthier and have meaningful experiences through positive activity and creative play.”

“We are experienced outdoor educators with a background in bushcraft, forest school and nature therapy, who love what we do.”

toffee apple slices - campfire cooking

Tired of Marshmallows Over the Campfire? Try This!

Are you looking for a simple but tasty treat that could go head-to-head with marshmallows as the number one campfire snack with kids? Well look no further…

We cook A LOT of marshmallows over the campfire with kids when we host our Forest School sessions and Woodland Birthday Parties. We know children love them, but they are not exactly a nutritionists best friend. They also contain gelatine made from pork or beef and we’re getting a lot more requests from parents who want vegetarian or vegan friendly campfire snacks for their kids when they come out to the woods with us. Last but not least, they’re sticky residue is a nightmare to get out of your clothes. Luckily, we have the solution.

Toffee Apple Slices are our alternative to marshmallows and kids love them! Granted they’re still coated in sugar but kids are getting some fruit down them and this recipe is vegan too. Our favourite sugar to use is coconut blossom sugar, as it less refined and less processed than regular sugar but any soft brown sugar will do the trick. They make a great hot campfire snack anytime of the year, especially in the autumn when you can walk out to an apple tree and pick the fruit straight from the branch.

Ingredients

  • Apples
  • Light or Dark Brown Soft Sugar
  • Cinnamon and Nutmeg – add to taste

Cooking Method

  1. To get a fire that really makes the most mouth-watering toffee apple slices it’s best to let your flames die down and roast your apples over the hot coals – just like you would with a bbq. This will save them from burning.
  2. First gently roast your apple slice over the fire until it begins to go soft and the pulp starts to bubble up.
  3. Next, dip your hot apple slice in a tray of soft brown sugar until it is well coated. Be careful it doesn’t fall off the stick.
  4. Roast your coated apple slice over the fire again until the sugar starts to melt.
  5. Now for the final touch… let your apple slice cool for a minute and the sugar will harden up and give your apple a crispy toffee coating – simply delicious.
  6.  Eat and repeat!
  7. For a slightly spiced variant on this snack then try sprinkling some cinnamon and/or nutmeg into the sugar. Ginger would work well too.

cooking toffee apple slices outdoors

Which Wood Should You Use?

For your roasting stick we would recommend using either a hazel, willow or sycamore stick. At Forest School this can be a whole activity in itself, identifying the tree in the woods, cutting a suitable branch responsibly and reducing the damage to the tree, then practising some basic whittling skills by slicing away the bark near the tip and making a sharp point.

We would recommend using green (fresh) sticks from a tree as they are more resistant to the fire than dead twigs, so will last longer.

sycamore tree - leaf and bud

Sycamore – the winter twig and full leaf.

FUN FACT: Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) actually contains it’s own natural antibacterial and antiviral properties, which is one reason why it is very sought after for use in kitchenware. This makes it a really safe wood to use for roasting sticks when out in the woods with kids.

Full disclosure, I personally can’t stand marshmallows, even though I cook so many, so I was very glad to discover this tasty alternative. Thanks to the Forest School Leader who shared this cooking idea with us at a skill share training day in Derbyshire last year, I can’t remember your name but we’re forever grateful 🙂

Happy cooking everyone.

James

 

James and Lea Kendall from Woodland Classroom

James & Lea Kendall are the creators of Woodland Classroom. “Through our passion, enthusiasm and experience we help people connect with nature, feel healthier and have meaningful experiences through positive activity and creative play.”

“We are experienced outdoor educators with a background in bushcraft, forest school and nature therapy, who love what we do.”

how we trebled our outdoor education business with just one lesson plan

How We Trebled Our Outdoor Education Business With Just One Lesson Plan

the ultimate lesson plan for getting kids off screen and outdoors

We went from struggling to fill our events to selling out within 24 hours, all due to this one kick-ass lesson plan that left kids desperate for more! This lesson plan allowed us to grow our business, reach new audiences and increase our income. In this short case study we’re going to show you exactly what we did and why kids addicted to video games were choosing instead to unplug and come on our outdoor activity days.

The lesson plan is called Wildcraft Adventure™ and we’ll explain exactly what that is later, but first let’s take a look at the amazing response that it got from parents.46,000 reach on Facebook

wildcraft facebook comments

When we first posted our Wildcraft Adventure™ event on facebook we reached 46,957 people, without spending a penny on advertising. Using this lesson plan, just one event got us 2,446 responses and 578 total ticket clicks on the event page!

Over the next few events running this lesson plan we continued to get impressive figures for audience engagement. Combining these with our first event we’d generated over 4,000 new leads on facebook, again without spending a single penny.

wildcraft facebook statistics

wildcraft facebook statistics

In fact, we did even better than this a few weeks later, the same event, using this lesson plan, at a different venue reached over 200,000 people organically on facebook! Again, no money was spent on advertising. Parents were advertising our events for us through word of mouth.

wildcraft mailchimp subscribersWe also got free coverage in the national press from The Week magazine and Wales Online and the best thing is, their journalists contacted us!

With all the interest that this lesson plan generated we grew our mailing list by over 40% in just a few days! Parents didn’t want to miss out on future announcements for Wildcraft Adventures™.

Also, not only were more people subscribing to our newsletter to hear about future events but we were also smashing the industry average ‘open rate’ for newsletters. In the education industry, the average percentage for subscribers opening an email from a service provider is 17.34%. With the success of Wildcraft we were getting a massive 68.18% open rate! That’s impressive by any standard.

wildcraft mailchimp open rate

On top of all that we increased ‘likes’ on our facebook page by more than 34% over the period we announced Wildcraft.

wildcraft facebook likesSource: facebook insights, 1st Dec 15 – 1st Feb 16

As a business, positive word of mouth is the most powerful advertising you’ll ever have. Hundreds of parents shared our events, invited their friends and spread the word for us. This of course, hugely increased the reach of our business and raised awareness for Woodland Classroom and all the other services we offer.

THE LESSON PLAN THAT MADE THIS POSSIBLE

Hopefully by now we have your attention so we’d like to take this chance to introduce ourselves and give you a bit of background as we’re sure you’re wondering how we got to this point.

forest school mentorsWe’re James & Lea and between us we run our own outdoor education business in Wales, UK called Woodland Classroom. We work with parents, schools and organisations to engage children in the outdoors. We’re passionate about getting kids connecting with nature and having positive experiences through creative play.

It was spring 2015 and we were sat planning our summer programme of events, struggling for new ideas and wondering how many activity days we could realistically fill.

We already had a core audience of parents and kids who were on board for the types of regular activities we provided; bushcraft clubs, forest school sessions, wild play and outdoor pursuits. But we knew that there were so many more families who were not engaging with our business, in short we wanted our business to grow. To do that we needed a way to reach all those parents who were struggling to get their kids interested in what we had to offer. These are the kids who would rather be on their consoles than playing in the woods. That’s where this lesson plan came in, but we couldn’t predict the huge response that it would receive.

“Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices.” American Academy of Pediatrics

Like so many teachers and activity leaders in the outdoor education industry we’d read Richard Louv’s eye-opening book Last Child in the Woods which warns of the rise of ‘nature deficit disorder’ in today’s children. Parents were telling us that they faced an uphill struggle, as there’s such an addictive quality to video games that restricting screen time can cause big arguments in the family home. The more parents we spoke with, the more we heard about this recurring problem.

All this lead to one question; “For those kids who are spending too much time glued to their screens and have little interest in getting out into nature, how do we engage them in a way so that they choose to go outside?” the answer suddenly hit us… “Simple, we take their video games outdoors!”

Let’s be clear, this didn’t mean that kids would be sat on their tablets, playing on-screen games in the woods with us. Our idea was to take their favourite video games and transform them into outdoor adventures that would also have them learning about the natural world without even realizing it.

So, we did A LOT of research. We watched and spoke with children playing video games, identified the most popular titles, then picked out the common themes and features in those games. One game that stood out particularly was Minecraft, which we’re sure needs no introduction. Since being launched it’s sold over 100 million copies. Having ranked it the 6th best video game of all time, Time magazine said of Minecraft; Has there ever been a game as impactful as this one?” Not only is it hugely popular with children but it was also perfect as a basis for creating outdoor adventures. Rather than try and compete against the video games, we decided we needed to harness their popularity.

It was Autumn 2015 we unveiled Wildcraft Adventure™ to the world and the response was incredible! At time of writing, we have sold out EVERY Wildcraft event we have run.

wildcraft facebook comments 2

The tickets for our first events sold out in less than 24 hours and we then spent 3 days answering the phone every 5 minutes to tell potential customers that we were sorry but tickets had all gone. Talk about demand outstripping supply. We didn’t waste these new leads though. Because of all the interest in Wildcraft Adventure™ we were able to rapidly grow our email list almost overnight. We knew we had definitely hit on something.

Facebook comments - wildcraft mailing list

Throughout 2016 we ran as many Wildcraft Adventures™ as we could fit in, around our outdoor after-school clubs and other Forest School events. At the time of writing we’ve hosted 46 of these events across Wales, reaching 860 children. That’s a massive 5,160 hours of outdoor playtime for kids, when they might otherwise have been indoors playing video games. We’ve got many more planned for the future too.

WHY IT WORKS!

Our Wildcraft lesson plans have been such a huge success because they provide a solution to the problem that many parents are having, the daily struggle to get their kids away from their tablets, iPads and consoles to spend more time outdoors.

“What an amazing experience for my son. Like many parents I worry about the time he spends on electronic games and the fact that I have to beg and bribe to get him outdoors. Not so with this genius idea to use popular computer games to tempt him into activities that I knew he would love if he would only give them a chance. When asked if he wanted to go again, my son’s reply was “no, Mum. I HAVE to go again.” Emily Carne (parent)

“I haven’t seen my son (10 yrs old) so animated in a long time. He talked about his experience for two hours solid and now is designing his own ‘real minecraft’ in a book ready to go out in the woods to do it with his friends. I cannot recommend it enough, it’s back to when I was young and no computer games existed, but it’s pure genius to use video games as a basis to start from, the children are already hooked before they even start! Brilliant!” Suki Morys (parent)

“Such a fantastic antidote to the ever increasing creep of the screen.” Hannah Cutler (parent)

AN ON-GOING SUCCESS

We’ve had 100% positive feedback from kids and parents and it’s really put our business on the map. We also found that kids who had been on our Wildcraft Adventure™ were then booking onto our other events. Going forward, we have a larger pool of returning kids and we’re building great long-term relationships with parents who trust our brand.

wildcraft facebook reviews

“Ryan had a fabulous day. He got home and immediately wanted to build a den and a fire. Before coming I had tried to get him to join in a forest school day but he said ‘it wasn’t his thing’. However ‘would you like to go on a Minecraft style bushcraft day?’ And he couldn’t sign up fast enough, he was so excited he couldn’t sleep the night before and you certainly didn’t disappoint on the day.” Jacky John (parent)

“My two had a great time at the Minecraft Bushcraft day, so nice to see them turning off the video game and getting some fresh air and fun! Great, great day, they would go again in a heartbeat!” Laura Murphy (parent)

wildcraft Facebook reviews 2

We have had children returning 4, even 5 times to the same event and Wildcraft is also proving to be a great gateway activity for kids who are new to the world of outdoor pursuits.

“They haven’t stopped asking can they come again. They were so inspired that they will be joining a local bushcraft group.” Lisa-Mare Hayes (parent)

The success of Wildcraft enabled us to both quit our part-time jobs to realize our dream of running Woodland Classroom full-time. We have been able to follow our passions, make a living from them and have now booked a month-long honeymoon in beautiful Thailand.

The next step in our story was creating Wildcraft Adventure™ as a digital lesson plan that we could make available to other activity leader and teachers to run at their own venues. It’s a growing community of outdoor education centres, summer camps, schools, holiday clubs and freelancers who have been sharing in the success of the game. Let’s hear from some of them…

“We’re really excited about the Wildcraft Adventure… I was really inspired by what you guys are doing. We’re looking for ways to get our kids out of the classroom, playing together.  Your game gives us the perfect vehicle for mixed-age, cooperative, outdoor fun.” Brenda Sutter, Laurel Tree Charter School, California U.S.

“We are FULLY BOOKED for both our Wildcraft events and are very much looking forward to it!” Helena Louise Broadbent, Forest Explorers, England

“Wow! What a full on, wild and adventurous day for our kids AND leaders in the woods. Learning new skills, making friends, exploring, building, crafting, cooking and getting muddy… THIS is what real gaming is all about! Really glad we used the pack as it has saved us so much lesson planning and resource time and it is something we will go back to using all year. Good value for money.” Holly James, KidsGroWild, Scotland

“Wildcraft Adventure is a great way to get children away from the screen and in to the natural environment. The children were fully immersed in the game… They loved every minute of it!” Jackie Meager, OutLET Play Resource, Scotland

As a gateway to the world of Wildcraft Adventure™ we have created a special, simplified and fast-paced version of the full game called Wildcraft: Mini Game, which can be played over just a couple of hours. Anyone can run the game, no special training is required and everything you need to know to run this lesson plan is included in the package.

“I have been endeavouring to incorporate more outdoor education activities into my classroom in the last few years. I just purchased your Wildcraft game…what a great idea. I am going to save it for an end of the year celebration activity so that the kids can use all of their newly acquired bushcraft skills. Thank-you for sharing your expertise and passions with the outside world…this teacher across the pond certainly appreciates it.” Susan Brown, Teacher (Grade 3), Canada.

wildcraft mini game sales picture

If you want to try Wildcraft Adventure™ for yourself then click the link below to check out our Wildcraft: Mini Game. We think you’ll love it.

YES, I WANT THIS WILDCRAFT LESSON PLAN

If you want to find out more about Wildcraft Adventure™ you can check out the video below.

YES, I WANT TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT WILDCRAFT ADVENTURE PACKS

forest school in juno magazine

We’re in JUNO Magazine!

We’re thrilled to have been featured in the latest issue of JUNO magazine, talking about the success of our Wildcraft Adventures and the benefits of outdoor learning for children. JUNO aims to promote a natural approach to family life. Our article “Into The Woods” explains how we persuaded children to turn off their screen and come outdoors.

You can also read about us elsewhere in the magazine as we tell our story of hosting Woodland Walks at Underneath the Stars Festival in Yorkshire. The magazine has a whole feature on upcoming festivals in the UK which are family friendly and eco-minded.

There’s also a great piece by Danny English from Communitree where he explains how a connection to nature is key to the health and wellbeing of children. In fact, the magazine if full of good stuff to be honest.

JUNO is a natural parenting magazine that inspires and supports families through its range of features, columns and artwork. Established in 2003, it is published six times a year, in February, April, June, August, October and December. The editorial is broad, covering all aspects of family life for all ages. JUNO is loved by many readers for its articles that share personal experiences and reflections, and for the beautiful and striking images and illustrations from a range of artists.

JUNO offers fresh perspectives in this fast-paced technological world, creating a non-judgemental community for those who are keen to follow “a natural approach to family life”. There are columns on home-education, empowered birth, teens and nutrition; interviews, craft and recipe ideas and a mix of features that can help readers make informed choices as they journey through the challenges of parenting.

JUNO issue 48 front coverJUNO is available through WH Smiths, independent retailers, online at www.junomagazine.com and as a digital edition.

You can read the issue on iTunes too, right HERE

You can also grab this issue of JUNO at Exact Editions HERE

All subscribers receive free access to the full back catalogue of issues in digital format.

Thanks to Saffia and the team at JUNO for working with us and for making us look good 🙂

If you want to find out more about our Wildcraft Adventures as seen in the article, then just follow THIS LINK

Lea

as featured in juno magazine

James Dunlop of Wild Thyme Outdoors

How I Escaped The 9 to 5 And Set Up My Own Business In The Woods

The other day I saw a news report that in the UK there is a staggeringly large waiting list of 51,000 children who want to join Scouting groups across the country – you can read that article here. This one fact alone shows how much demand there is currently for regular outdoor activity sessions for children. Alongside this huge demand, I think there’s an equally growing groundswell movement of outdoor education, not only in the UK but in America too. It seems that everywhere there are initiatives, community schemes and small businesses springing up to offer children (and adults for that matter) quality wild time experiences.

Here at Woodland Classroom we’re one of many growing outdoor education service providers across the country and it’s great to be part of such a thriving community. Like so many others, our business is growing and new opportunities to get kids outdoors are coming to us all the time. We wanted to tell the story of another fellow outdoor educator, who only last year started out on his journey to create his own outdoor education company. It’s also the story of how we were able to help him set up his new forest school and outdoor education enterprise.

James Dunlop of Wild Thyme OutdoorsMeet James Dunlop. He is the recent founder of Wild Thyme Outdoors in Essex, England.  Wild Thyme Outdoors aims to create exciting adventures for people of all ages; joining them in British woodland and the wider great outdoors! They are currently delivering; Forest School programs for school, youth and charity groups, also woodland adventure birthday parties for all ages. They have the privilege of unrestricted and sole access to several beautiful patches woodland which they use and care for to run their wildly exciting programs.

I think it’s the passion of the people running outdoor education today that is really key to it’s increasing popularity. Activity Leaders like James are all so passionate about their subject matters, about engaging people of all ages in nature whether it’s forest school, woodland kindergarten, Scouts & Guides, summer camp, or any of the many forms outdoor education can take. It’s the old tale of the teacher who inspired a child to ignite their own spark for learning about nature and enjoying quality time outdoors. I take my hat off to all outdoor activity leaders (especially all you volunteers) who are passing their enthusiasm on to the next generation.

We sat down with James to here the tale behind Wild Thyme Outdoors and what inspired him to go it alone and become a part of the growing outdoor education scene. We’re happy to say that we were able to play a part in his success story too.

LW (Lea Wakeman) Hi James. Thanks for talking with us. Can you tell me why you wanted to set up an outdoor education business?

JD (James Dunlop) “It’s just part of who I am. Outdoor education is an expression of me as a person, an unapologetic nature geek with a fiery passion for working with children. They are so much smarter than we are, so much more aware! I learn so much just teaching young ones. There is however, an  upsetting lack (in my honest opinion) of outdoor provision for young and old alike. We treat nature as if it is something totally separate to ourselves, even the word nature, a label, is a separation of ourselves from all that it encompasses, what many don’t realise is we are nature too! I want to set up a outdoor education business to give people the opportunity to realise, we are not separate from the natural world, nor should we be afraid of it.”

LW I couldn’t agree more. Tell me about your background and how did you get to this point in your career?

JD “As a little one I grew up in a suburban part of Wales not too far from Newport. It was a time before PlayStation and iPads, my favourite ‘toy’ was a pair of buckskin trousers and a waist coat that my parents had bought back from a business trip to America. I would wear these continuously always wanting to be the Indian in a game of Cowboys & Indians. I have no idea where this fascination with the indigenous people of America came from, but it still hasn’t left me to this day!”

“Long story short, I joined John Ryder of the Woodcraft School for a week as a 16th birthday present, joined the cadets, attended the Army foundation college and post military found myself at Shuttleworth College studying Outdoor Education.”

james dunlop teaches at wild thyme forest school“My first outdoor education job was with Stubbers Adventure Centre in Essex where I live. Stubbers gave me the opportunity to grow as a teacher/instructor but also a canvas to develop my understanding and knowledge of the the natural world and primitive skills. I was given charge and free reign of their Bushcraft Activity Week.”

“After 6 years I entered the fitness industry. But even here my passion for all things outdoors and nature based followed me. I discovered the world of ‘natural movement’ and soon became adept and qualified to teach what is now coined ‘primitive movement patterns.’ The itch to get back to working outdoors grew and grew and before long I was in a position where I either did something about it or moved away from it altogether.”

“Enter an amazing influence! Woodland Classroom pops up on my facebook newsfeed, before I’d finished my coffee I had read, watched and consumed everything James & Lea had on social media and their website, now a YouTube search on Forest School lead me to even more! I was hooked! This was it! The answer to everything I had learnt over the last 10 years, the cure for the itch!”

“So here I am now! Standing on the edge of a woodland with my big idea; Wild Thyme Outdoors – forest school, nature nursery and woodland skills.”

james dunlop, founder of Wild Thyme OutdoorsLW Setting up your own woodland activity school is a big leap. What’s your vision for your business in 3 years time?

JD “In 3 years time, I would like to have multiple locations running forest schools and nature nurseries for various age groups and a committed and visionary team of individuals helping me deliver some of the best nature immersion and outdoor education training in the South-East.”

 LW We first met after you contacted us about our online Mentoring scheme for forest school leaders and outdoor educators. How was your experience with the mentoring session? What did you get out of it?

JD “I’ve never had a mentoring session before, though I do recognise the power of mentorship. For months I was saying to my peers that I needed some kind of business mentor or just a personal mentor of some description. Needless to say when I saw that you offered forest school specific mentoring It ticked many boxes for me. I could have a conversation with someone who was already further down the path so I could get answers to many of my questions and also finally have that mentor, that person that I could be held accountable to.”

“You were both super open and honest about how you structure your business and what pitfalls and hurdles you came across that I should keep an eye out for. This greatly reduces my learning curve and speeds up all the boring admin bits that I hate doing. More importantly you enquired about what I had done and intended to do before I started offering forest school programmes, highlighting things that I was wasting time on and where my focus really should be.”

FIND OUT ABOUT OUR MENTORING SCHEME

wild thyme birthday parties in the woods

James has been having a lot of success with bookings for woodland birthday parties.

LW What was the one most useful piece of advice that came out of the Mentoring session?

JD “To just get on with it! I spend so much time making sure that every possible angle has been covered that it would be 2018 before I was even in the position to start. I’d say to anyone reading this, that if this is what you want, stop fretting and get a move on. Start small, run a few pilot days for friends and family (which is exactly what I did) and tell as many people as you can about what you’re doing. Before the month was out I had countless people asking me for more details and two schools interested in developing a relationship with Wild Thyme!”

LW What was the main benefit of having the Mentoring session to you? What did it enable you to do?

JD “I think the main benefit was to create clarity for me to begin, both you and James were able to put my mind at ease about so many things, and point me on the path that I needed to be on. Whilst I’m all about creating your own journey it can be a massive help to be shown parts of the journey by those who have done it.”

wild thyme outdoors logoLW What successes have you had with the business since the Mentoring session?

JD “Since we last spoke; we have registered the business so it’s official, we have booked our level 3 Forest School Leaders training and we have a queue for birthday parties! We have also explored the realm of opening the Forest School up as a day care/nursery 3 days a week which has been met with great interest.  Our website is being constructed and we have graphic designer working on the brand designs and associated media. Through several connections we have 3 schools interested in our Forest Schools program. It’s all Go! Go! Go!”

LW Thanks for speaking with us James, and best of luck for the future. I know we will keep in touch.

You can find out more about our online Mentoring scheme by following the link below.

GET ONE TO ONE MENTORING NOW

It’s an exciting time to be involved in outdoor education and if you think we could help you like we’ve helped James and so many others, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

You can find out more about Wild Thyme Outdoors and follow James’ continuing adventures by visiting his website RIGHT HERE.

Lea Wakeman

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.

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