Many outdoor skills can be classified into survival, emergency preparedness, primitive and bushcraft. Understanding the differences can enable us to better enjoy a smorgasbord of outdoor activities. I have seen far too many survival-course students waste time on elaborate shelters and techniques that are never going to work in a true survival situation. There certainly is some dovetailing of methods, but knowing from where the skills were derived and what makes them useful can truly help enhance your outdoor experience.
Survival skills are methods you can employ to simply survive an extreme situation or disaster in the bush. They are not recreational skills.
One of my greatest fears was realized after I began the genre of survival shows on TV. Some started looking at survival as more like a fun hobby than a way meant to keep you alive and get you out of a bad situation. Understand this: Survival is not fun. It is difficult, scary, humbling, painful and, in a word, ugly.
There is only one thing you want to do in a survival situation, and it isn’t “build a pretty shelter.” Don’t get me wrong — practicing and learning survival skills recreationally is a terrific way to get a handle on the methods. But you must keep an overarching serious and even somber attitude about the purpose.
Survival skills are meant to be used when the chips are down, the paddle is broken, the trail is lost and you’re not sure if you’re going to make it out alive. You are trying to make it home.
Emergency preparedness skills are used in more urban circumstances, such as dealing with a hurricane or blackout or house fire. They are important to study. Knowing how to conserve water or food during a disaster can save a life. These skills require knowing your neighborhood and surrounding areas to better equip your home, car and family for the worst.
Fire-starting might be vital even in a city. In the grips of a freeze, homes can be without power. Knowing how to get a fire going anywhere, anytime, is just about the most important all-around survival skill you can master.
Primitive skills are among my favorite. They involve techniques from an earlier era, and while it’s true that many methods employed by the aboriginal people of any given geographical area may be called upon to aid in survival, many of these skills are time-consuming and require a great deal of instruction and practice.
A good example of a primitive skill that dovetails into survival is making snowshoes. You can make them by utilizing hard wood and some kind of mesh that has been cut into strips. It can take many days, even months, to make them correctly. Making them for a survival situation might involve using branches, plastic, pieces of metal or whatever you can find.
Basketry, earth pottery, hide-tanning, building elaborate shelters and cooking are all beautiful primitive skills. They are not necessarily survival skills; they are more thriving skills — skills that are part of a way of life in the bush.
Bushcraft, like primitive skills, takes time, energy and expertise to accomplish. Even though these skills also can be adapted to survival, they originate from the desire to make yourself comfortable.
Building wooden chairs, tables or even a log cabin are amazing things to do but are mostly unnecessary in a survival situation. Still, these are the wonderful skills you can learn on a camping trip. They usually involve learning the proper use and care of knives and axes, knot-tying techniques and lashings. They are some of the most fun activities you can do in the bush.
The importance of knowing the differences among wilderness survival, emergency preparedness, primitive and bushcraft skills lies within your given circumstances.
Generally, primitive skills are very long-term and require more than one person to accomplish. Bushcraft involves medium-to-long-term skills and requires knowledge of the pioneer way of life. Emergency preparedness is a whole other thing, typically preparing for situations close to home.
Survival skills may pull from all these areas — but no matter what, survival is, by its very nature, meant to be short-term. Remember, the only true goal of survival is to get home alive and well.
Check out these merit badge pamphlets for ideas on practicing survival and “beautiful outdoor skills” on your next outing.