What an eyesore. The campsite, an idyllic pitch of granite and pine in central Algonquin Park, had been blemished by of a couple of yahoo bushcrafters.
They had cut down standing trees to build a makeshift lean-to shelter and lashed it together with cordage made of young saplings. An elaborate kitchen area, complete with a table, storage compartments and a circle of benches was constructed. Conifer boughs were cut to make a bed, set in front of a large fire pit away from the designated metal fire grate placed by the park wardens.
I saw them paddle off before I reached the site. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues and I imagined the majority of their gear was purchased at army surplus stores. The only things not green were their bright white Tilley hats disappearing into the distance.
They weren’t doomsday preppers practicing for a worst-case scenario or campers playing some dystopian future fantasy game—they were worse. They were fake bushcrafters.
The term bushcraft has been around for a long time. It’s generally defined as skills to help one thrive in the wilderness. To quote bushcrafter Steve Watts, “Without the context, it’s just arts and crafts.”
Bushcraft techniques have been employed for millennia by indigenous peoples. Today, bushcraft is enjoying an in-vogue moment and become a bit of a catch-all term.
Bushcraft can refer to everything from firecraft, tracking, navigation by natural means to higher-impact techniques inappropriate (and even illegal) in some managed wilderness areas—like cutting boughs for bedding or live branches for cordage, and non-emergency shelter building. Don’t even get me started on the campers who attempt to reestablish the configuration of their living rooms’ furniture at campsites and leave it for the next camper and have the audacity to call it bushcraft. It’s crappy camp carpentry.
I find a fundamental difference in the way the wilderness is treated by people who believe they’re out in the woods to thrive versus survive. Real bushcrafters practice leave no trace camping—the guys I met were just ignorant slobs who watched way too many “wilderness survival” YouTube videos and were playing make-believe. It’s when less-than-ethical techniques practiced by unskilled campers then show off their exploits on their social media pages and video channels that bad behavior can get passed off as the norm for others to adopt. It’s creating a strong movement of false prophets.
I find North America to be far more plagued by false bushcraft messiahs than Europe or Australia. For some, the term bushcraft seems to be just another way to say you’re a camper that’s mixed both modern wilderness skills and primitive techniques. Closer to home, it’s too often a way for buddies to act out a survival TV show for the weekend.
Building a shelter to weather a storm is definitely a wilderness skill. Going to a protected wilderness park on a warm summer day, cutting down living trees to build a half-ass lean-to and leaving the structure intact when you leave—well, that’s just ignorance.
Would it be different if these immoral bushcrafters kept clear of provincial, state and national parks and practiced their skills in remote areas, like Crown land? Some say, yes, but I’m undecided. Regardless of the designation of the land you camp on, everyone should follow leave no trace principles. You never know when another happy camper will be paddling by next.
Kevin Callan is the author of 18 books, including the best-selling The Happy Camper and his popular series of paddling guides.
This tripod cooking technique is a low impact bushcraft skill and easy to dismantle And leave no trace—Kevin Callan approved. | Photo: Ontario Tourism / Goh Iromoto