The terms “survival” and “bushcraft” are often used interchangeably and yet sometimes treated as separate, even competing, disciplines. As a bushcraft survival instructor I obviously have my own views but I wanted to take a step back and look at these terms anew. It set me thinking about what these expressions really mean, how they relate to each other, and in fact whether they are discrete entities or perspectives on the same subject?
Here are some dictionary definitions I found for “Survival”:
“The process of remaining alive or in existence.”
“The process of carrying on despite hardships, trauma.”
“The act of perseverance or remaining functional or viable.”
“The act or fact of surviving, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.”
These definitions cover all forms of survival and not specifically wilderness survival, nevertheless they are useful.
Bushcraft on the other hand is defined as:
“Skill in anything pertaining to bush country, as in finding one’s way, hunting or finding water.”
“Ability or experience in matters concerned with living in the bush.”
“Skills gained by, or necessary for, living in the bush.”
Important distinctions here are those of duration and adversity. Wilderness Survival is about methods and psychology for dealing with unexpected and adverse circumstances that threaten our lives outdoors. More often we are talking about a relatively short period in which we either return to safety or perish.
From the above definitions for bushcraft, one of the operative words is “living”. This implies a long-term strategy and not necessarily an unexpected situation, or an immediate threat to life. The longer duration implicit in the term “bushcraft” also sheds light on another important distinction – the knowledge of natural resources and their sustainable use. Our ancestors and modern day aboriginals were expert bushcraft practitioners – they would have possessed a profound knowledge of their natural environment, passed on from their forebears. In a survival situation however, use of natural resources may have less of a significance and sustainability would be low priority. The longer time span allocated to bushcraft would also allow the development of tools, community effort and greater levels of comfort in the wilderness.
So on the surface there appear to be fairly neat distinctions between wilderness survival and bushcraft. Put simply survival methods are about unexpected emergency situations, keeping yourself alive and getting back to the safety of civilization. Bushcraft is about using nature to sustain yourself for protracted periods in the wild, often voluntarily.
So how do these ideas relate to bushcraft and survival training in modern society? Most of our lives are relatively disconnected from the aboriginal hunter gatherer lifestyle, some city dwellers dramatically so. To be thrown unexpectedly into the wild would for many be a hostile and life threatening experience. People want to know how to deal with such a situation – practical advice on what to do and how to think. I suppose you could regard this as a kind of defensive strategy which fits well with the ideas of preparedness that extend to urban survival. In my view these are perfectly useful and valid approaches.
There is however another perhaps complementary approach which is to embrace the wilderness, seek it out and learn to understand and live in it. This can be as simple as spending a few days living in the woods, collecting your own water and lighting your fires with sparks and supplementing your food with foraged items. The motivation to learn these bushcraft skills is often a little different from the motivation to learn survival skills – it may be more about the satisfaction of re-connecting with nature, interest in learning crafts and gaining some level of self-reliance in the wild. True enough some people attending bushcraft courses are concerned about the changes in society and climate change and want to be able to rely more on the land for basic necessities. It is interesting that in some ways survival can be seen to look to modern civilization for short-term salvation, whereas bushcraft looks to the wild for long-term salvation! Personally I think both views are valid and not conflicting. The possession of both skill sets and attitudes make for a rounded approach.
Although I have made some distinctions between bushcraft and survival it is important to consider that some of the key skills are common to both approaches. For example, the four pillars of survival – fire, water, shelter, food contain skills that are central to both disciplines. It is in the objectives that differences may be found. For example, in a short-term survival situation food may be a lower priority, but for bushcraft, food is fundamental because by definition we are looking at a long-term situation. More to the point, with correct bushcraft knowledge, food is all around us in the wild!
Also the kind of shelter we would build in a bushcraft living scenario would be more elaborate than a simple overnight survival shelter. Fire again can be very important in both survival and bushcraft but the number of uses for fire in a bushcraft living situation would be greater. In survival we might use modern materials to ignite and establish our fire, but in bushcraft we are looking to do this with natural materials. Again we are looking at a longer time span – modern fire lighting materials would eventually run out, however there are unlimited combustible materials in nature if we know where to look and harvest them sustainably. Navigation is also an important bushcraft and survival skill, but it is the objective that is different. In bushcraft it is knowledge of your home range and the ability to move around to collect resources, in survival it is usually about getting back to civilization.
Perhaps it is because many of same skills apply, that distinctions between bushcraft and survival have become blurred and confused. If we have those skills we can use them to fit our objectives.
Of course it is possible for a survival situation to become protracted when rescue doesn’t arrive. In this case survival often turns to bushcraft with a concomitant shift in mindset. Typically the survivor stops expecting someone else to rescue them, focuses on their immediate environment and gets on with plans to improve their lot.
Equally we could be happily practicing bushcraft in the wilderness when a change in circumstances throws us into a survival situation!
In the end, it is good to understand the distinctions of the two disciplines, but also where they overlap and complement each other.