There’s no doubt about it, winter is well on its way and summer a distant memory. Winter in the United Kingdom, as with everywhere else, brings with it wonderful changes in the natural world. One of the most dramatic changes occurs to trees. As leaves fall and they take on a totally different character making it much harder to identify deciduous trees in the winter. Keen students of bushcraft should be able to identify trees in winter as well as summer. This skill is a foundation of bushcraft on which all further skills are built; after all, you can’t make a bow drill if you can’t identify the most appropriate type of wood to use.

Read on to learn about five trees that you can practice identifying this winter

Common Ash

Bark of the ash tree

Bark of the ash tree.


Ash or Common Ash or, if you would prefer the Latin Fraxinus excelsior is a tree found throughout Europe.  It is native to the United Kingdom and, in the right conditions, can 
live for up to 400 years. Fully grown ash trees can reach a height of around 35 meters (around 115 feet).  Ash trees are dioecious, this means that male and female flowers normally grow on different trees, although in some cases male and female flowers can grow on the same tree, although on different branches.

Identifying Ash in the winter

In the winter months, after the leaves have fallen, ash trees can be identified by its bark which is either grey or a greyish-brown. With older trees, the bark can grow to feature deep ridges.  The tree’s distinctive black buds are also a key feature for identifying ash trees.

Bushcraft uses for ash

Ash has a great number of uses in UK bushcraft.  Dead, standing wood from the ash tree makes for great firewood, and it is also a favoured tree for making bows.

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Silver Birch

Silver Birch Bark trees


The Silver Birch or Betula pendula is native to Europe and the UK.  
The presence of silver birch trees can often help improve the soil quality, helping other surrounding plants to grow. This is because the roots of the tree go deep into the earth, drawing up otherwise inaccessible nutrients to the tree, these nutrients are then recycled on the surface when the leaves fall from the trees.

 

Identifying Silver Birch in the winter

Silver birch is one of the easiest trees to identify. Its white, or silver, bark remains that colour all year round, in addition, the tree can be identified in winter through its twigs which are rough to the touch.

Bushcraft uses for Silver Birch

Silver birch is one of the most useful trees when it comes to bushcraft. Most importantly, in winter, its bark can be used in fire lighting. To learn more about how the bark from the silver birch can be used in fire lighting watch our video below.

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Elder 

Bark of an Elder Tree


Elder, Sambucus nigra in Latin, is native to the UK and throughout much of Europe. Apparently, the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ which means fire, due to the fact that the
hollow stems are used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.  

 

Identifying elder in the winter

In winter elder can be identified through its green and distinctive smelling twigs and ragged buds which often have leaves showing through the bud scales.

 

Bushcraft uses for elder

Elder has several uses in UK bushcraft. It typically grows near rabbit warrens, providing a good indication of a source of food, the flowers can be used to make wine, cordial or tea. The berries, while mildly poisonous, can be eaten if they are cooked first.

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Hazel

Hazel Trees

 

Corylus avellana or hazel, is native to the United Kingdom. Hazel trees can live for up to eighty years and reach a height of 12 meters.  Hazel trees are associated with doormice, doormice fatten themselves up for winter by feasting on the hazelnuts and, in the spring, doormice eat caterpillars that are found on the leaves of the hazel tree.  Hazel trees are also associated with magic or myth and has been thought to ward of rheumatism, to encourage fertility and was considered the ‘tree of knowledge’ in Ireland.

 

Identifying hazel in the winter

Hazel Trees


Hazel is best identified in winter by the small nuts that are held in short leafy husks which cover about three-quarters of the nut. In autumn it is likely that the tree will bear small catkins, though these are not likely to be found in winter.

Bushcraft uses for hazel

Hazel is perhaps best known for its flexibility, this makes it an ideal material for shelter building. It is also a favoured wood for being used in bow drills. Hazelnuts, of course, are also an excellent source of nutrition, containing over 600 calories per 100 grams

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Beech

Beech Trees


The beech tree, or
Fagus sylvatica, is native to southern England and South Wales.  Beech trees are also found across Europe from southern Sweden to northern Sicily. They can live for hundreds of years, some coppiced trees can even live for around 1,000 years. The tree has a long-standing association with femininity and is considered the ‘queen’  of British trees. Historically, it was thought that beech trees have medicinal properties.

 

Identifying beech trees in the winter

Beech trees can be identified in winter by its sharply pointed leafy buds. See the image below for an example of these buds.

Bushcraft uses for beech trees

Beech trees are notorious for dropping their branches, often called widow makers, hence never camp under a beech tree! Dry beech leaves can be used for tinder and the wood can be burned, although it doesn’t burn as well as ash.

Kit

Below we have listed a few pieces of kit that are essential for going out into the woods during winter or at any time of the year.

Further Reading 

Here are some other blogs that might be of interest, use the arrows to navigate between them.

 

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In this blog, we’re going to have a look at some of the things that change in our woods in autumn. As all skilled bushcraft practitioners know being in tune with nature is the key to improving one’s skill set. Every time we go out into the woods it is important to look around and take it all in, this blog will help you do just this by providing you with some autumn characteristics of UK woodlands to look out for.

 

Animal behaviour 

autumn in the UK woods


Autumn doesn’t just bring with it a change of colour in the leaves, it also brings a change in animal behaviours. Here are a few to look out for.

  • Birds
    Falling temperatures and declining availability of foods cause some species of birds to migrate throughout the autumn.  Keep an eye out for birds such as Swallows which migrate from Europe to Africa in the winter, returning to their feeding grounds in spring.  There are other less long-distance migrants, altitudinal migrants – those that migrant short distances from north to south – include Skylarks, Meadow pipits and Snow buntings.
    For more information see the RSPB’s website here.
  • Hedgehogs, dormice, and bats
    Hedgehogs, dormice, and bats consume large quantities of fruit, nuts, and insects in the run-up to winter in order to increase their proportions of body fat and prepare for their hibernation.
  • Deer and Boar
    For larger animals, such as deer and boar, autumn can be a busy time of the year. These animals are all seeking mates, so while it is a good time of the year to see them it is best to keep your distance.

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Fungi 

Mushrooms in autumn in the UK woods


Autumn is a great time of year to spot fungi. Remember though, never eat anything that you have not 100% positively identified as safe. The kingdom of fungi is an enormous one, with over 15,000 species in the UK alone. The Woodland Trust outlines several of the most common types of fungi found in the UK,
here on their blog

 

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Trees

Alder trees for bushcraft 

The UK woodland is a fantastic sight in autumn. The deciduous trees are losing their leaves and the woods are carpeted with an amazing array of colours. Identifying deciduous trees in autumn and winter is a key bushcraft skill that will help you with other bushcraft skills including friction fire lighting and shelter building.  The Woodland Trust has an introduction to identifying trees in the UK in autumn and winter in their blog here. 

 

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Kit 


Autumn is a fantastic time to get out into the woods and practice your bushcraft skills. We’ve listed some equipment below that might come in handy when practicing your autumn bushcraft.
Please note that aside from Bear Blades Wildway Bushcraft is not associated with any of the brands or pieces of equipment listed below – we don’t get anything extra if you choose to purchase one of these items!  

 

Further Reading 

Here are some other blog posts that might interest you. Use the arrows to navigate. 

As autumn draws in around us and thoughts turn to winter our bushcraft practices adapt and change with the seasons. Though we might not have as much snow this year as we did at the start of 2018 there still might be enough to practice one of the most essential winter bushcraft techniques; lighting a fire on snow. In this blog, we will briefly recap the basics of fire lighting and then discuss some techniques for lighting a fire on snow. Read on to learn more or skip to the section that interests you the most.

 

Fire lighting essentials

Lighting a fire on snow
We’ve covered the basics of fire lighting in detail here, but essentially it comes down to correctly gathering and preparing your materials, not rushing or skipping any stage of the process and ensuring that you have all of the materials that you will need before lighting your fire.


If you are interested in more advanced fire lighting techniques then why not join us on our one-day friction fire lighting course or our weekend bushcraft course.

 

Is it worth the effort?

Before starting to attempt to light a fire on snow it is worth asking yourself it is worth the effort. If you are already cold, tired and wet, in short, if it is coming close to a survival situation, then you need to be sure attempting to light a fire will not exhaust your remaining energy reserves. You will need to judge each situation on its own merits and make your own decisions based upon the situation and your confidence in your skills.

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Lighting a fire on snow

When it comes to lighting a fire on snow the key thing to remember is that it melts. This means that building a fire directly onto the snow itself will not only get your tinder wet but will also, should you manage to get it lit, melt the snow beneath it and disappear into it.

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Building a platform

One of the easiest ways to construct a fire on snow is to build a platform, either consisting of split logs or stones and place your tinder on top of it. This will give you a dry and firm base on which to light your fire.

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Digging down

If the snow is of a reasonably shallow depth, like the kind that we might experience in the south of the UK in winter, then it is a better idea to dig down. Removing the snow until you have reached the level of the earth and then constructing a base on this earth (so as to keep the moisture out) will not only insulate the fire but will also ensure that it doesn’t melt the snow.

Preparation for lighting a fire in the snow

Lighting a fire on snow

Successful fire lighting depends on good preparation, in any weather, however, this goes double when there is snow on the ground. Ensure that you have plenty of dry tinder with you, and ideally keep it in your clothes where it can’t get damp, and plenty of firewood to keep the fire going throughout the night.

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Kit 

Lighting a fire on snow

Here are some pieces of kit that you might find useful when lighting a fire. Please note that aside from Bear Blades Wildway Bushcraft is not associated with any of the brands or pieces of equipment listed below – we don’t get anything extra if you choose to purchase one of these items!

 

Further Reading

Here are some other blog posts that might interest you. Use the arrows to navigate.

Lighting a fire in damp conditions is a vital bushcraft skill. Fire is key for keeping warm, cooking food and a whole host of other bushcraft activities; as with all elements of bushcraft the real skill comes in being able to do it in less than ideal conditions. This week, we’re going to look at how to light a fire in damp conditions. This will include a recap of the basics of fire lighting, a look at some basic axe techniques and a video of how to make feather sticks – a very useful tool when it comes to lighting a fire in the rain.

Feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the sections that interest you by clicking on the links below.  

 

Fire lighting basics 

Light a fire in damp conditions


No matter what the conditions are, successfully lighting a fire relies on following some basic principles. In this section, we’re going to quickly recap some elemental fire lighting principals. Never rush these as getting the basics wrong will make it much harder for you to succeed in lighting a fire and therefore cause you to waste more energy than is needed. 

 

  • Start with tinder

    Successful fire lighting begins with finding appropriate tinder. Whether this is natural tinders such as birch bark, or tinder that you have brought with you, such as balls of cotton wool. In damp conditions, you will need more tinder than you would in dry conditions.  If it is going to be damp it is better, if at all possible, to plan in advance and bring your tinder with you. After all, you don’t want to have to spend time looking for tinder when you are already cold and wet.

  • Kindling

    Now that you have more tinder than you think you might need, it is time for kindling. Kindling is small twigs or sticks no more than pencil thickness. It very important that kindling is dry, we will look at how to find dry kindling in damp conditions later in this blog. After gathering kindling of pencil thickness,  collect sticks that are around as thing as a thumb. If wood this size is not readily available it can be made by splitting thicker pieces of wood into smaller individual pieces.

     

  • Larger pieces of wood

    After the thumb-thick pieces of wood, it is time for larger pieces of firewood. You need to several pieces of firewood of steadily increasing size and thickness. Split wood will burn faster than wood that has not been split. We will look at axe techniques for splitting wood later in this blog.

  • Preparing the ground

    Before lighting your fire it is important to prepare the ground. In damp conditions, it is a good idea to raise your tinder off the ground. This is best done by clearing away any fallen foliage, down to the bare earth and then laying a platform of small, pencil-thick sticks. You can then use this platform to build your fire on.

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Sourcing wood in wet conditions

Fire lighting in damp conditions


Keeping in mind the basic steps for fire lighting, the first step (after having checked that you’ve brought your tinder) is sourcing dry wood for kindling – or for making into tinder if necessary.
Remember, when you’re looking for wood, dead, standing wood is the best for fire lighting. With that in mind here are some tips and techniques for finding wood in damp conditions. 

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  • Gather as you go


    One of the most common mistakes is in waiting until you are at your campsite before starting to gather fuel for your fire. Rather than waiting until you’ve arrived at your destination gather materials as you walk into camp.

  • Look for dry patches and don’t pick wood from the ground


    Look for patches of dry ground around trees, such as patches that have been sheltered by the tree’s canopy. If dry, dead, standing wood is not available then look for twigs on the ground under the shelter of the tree. Dry, dead twigs will snap cleanly if pressure is applied to them if the twig does not break cleanly or simply bends then discard it and continue your search.

     

  • Look for the wood inside


    While the outside of the wood, be it a branch or twig, might be wet the chances are that the inside of the wood is dry. Provided that the wood is not soaked through then whittling away the outside of the wood can give you access to the dry wood inside. For larger pieces of wood, you will need to split it either by batoning or by using an axe.  We will look at the finer points of both techniques further on in this blog. 

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Techniques for batoning

Batoning is a technique for splitting smaller pieces of wood with a knife. It involves placing the knife on one end of the piece of wood and the other end of the wood on the ground. The back of the blade should then be struck with another piece of wood to force it into the piece of wood that you are trying to split. With the blade of the knife now embedded horizontally into the piece of wood you should now strike the front part of the protruding blade. Strike this part of the knife regularly with equal force each time until the wood is split.

Considerations when batoning

When batoning it is important that you use a fixed blade, e.g. not a folding blade, knife. The knife should ideally be full tang, or narrowing tang otherwise you risk breaking the blade on the knife and causing yourself injury. Batoning should only be attempted on pieces of wood that have a diameter that is smaller than the length of the blade of the knife. For larger pieces of wood an axe should be used.

Axe techniques for splitting wood

Weekend bushcraft course

Larger pieces of wood will need to be split with an axe. Remember to ensure that you are stood or knelt in such a way that, should the axe slip, it will not strike your legs (or any other part of your body).

Splitting smaller rounds

Smaller rounds of wood can be most easily split by holding the axe and the round of wood horizontally together so that the head of the axe is in contact with the top of the round. The axe and round of wood should then be brought down together hard on a raised surface – such as a tree stump.

Splitting larger pieces of wood

Choose a stump about knee height and place the larger piece of wood on this stump at the furthest stable distance away from your body. Position your legs away from the stump so that should your swing miss the axe will not hit your body. Raise the axe to around chest height, ensuring that you have a good two-handed grip on it, then bring the axe down, in a smooth and slow motion, into the wood that you want to split. Remember to let the weight of the axe do the majority of the work.

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Carving feather sticks

Feather sticks are a great way of lighting a fire when it is damp. The can be made from small rounds of wood that have been split either by axe or by batoning. Watch the video below to learn how to make feather sticks.

Watch: Carving Feather Sticks

 

Kit

Here are some pieces of kit that you might find useful when lighting a fire in damp conditions. Please note that aside from Bear Blades Wildway Bushcraft is not associated with any of the brands or pieces of equipment listed below – we don’t get anything extra if you choose to purchase one of these items!

 

Further Reading

Here are some other blog posts that might interest you. Use the arrows to navigate.

 

LEARN FIRE LIGHTING, SHELTER BUILDING, AXE SKILLS AND MORE ON OUR WEEKEND BUSHCRAFT COURSE. 

In certain situations, the ability to source clean, drinkable, water from seawater is an essential survival skill. This blog looks at this vital coastal survival skill in more detail, as always feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the section that interests you the most. While we don’t yet cover desalination on our current courses we do look at water sourcing and water purification on our weekend bushcraft course and our intermediate bushcraft course.

 

What is the problem with seawater?

Seawater into drinking water

‘Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink’ as the Ancient Mariner said, but what exactly is the problem with sea water? Basically, seawater contains salt and humans can only ingest so much salt. The salt content of seawater is much higher than what we can safely consume. Our kidneys have to produce urine that has a lower quantity of salt than salt water, therefore in order to get rid of the amount of salt consumed by drinking salt water we would need to urinate more than we drink. This would mean that we slowly dehydrate ourselves while becoming thirstier.

Removing salt from salt water

Seawater into drinking water
Removing salt, from salt or rather saline water, involves separating the salt particles from the water particles. The easiest way to do this in the field is through evaporation. This process involves heating the water in one container until steam forms and can be collected in another container. The easiest way to do this is to run a piece of tubing from the first container through which the steam condenses when entering, into the second container.

This may not always be practical though so be prepared to improvise the tubing with plastic sheeting angled so that it catches the steam from the first container and allows the water to run into the second.

 

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Weekend bushcraft courses UK Dorset Hampshire


Other considerations

Drinking water in the bush
Desalination is a complex and energy-intensive process. It can be difficult to get right and consumes fuel supplies. When looking for sources of water in coastal area desalination should be a last resort. Some other methods of gaining fresh water are outlined below.

  • Transpiration
    Water moves through plants, including coastal plants, from its roots through to its leaves, stems, and flowers where it evaporates. If the coastal area in which you are looking for water has a lot of vegetation or there is nearby vegetation inland then these plants are an excellent source of water. Simply throw a bag, such as a survival bag over the leaves of a nearby plant. Tie the bag off at the opening over the branch, then wait. In a few hours, the water from the plants should have evaporated and gathered in the bottom of the bag.
  • Search for other water sources
    Coastal areas have water running to them, through the form of rivers or streams. Finding where one of these water sources comes out and then tracing it back upstream will provide you with a source of freshwater. Be warned though that if you select water from a stream close to the beach then it is likely to be saline.

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What to expect on our bushcraft course 

Discover our weekend bushcraft course
On our weekend bushcraft course, we will introduce you to the principles of water filtration. Although we won’t introduce you to desalination we will show you how to source water and create a basic filter using natural materials.

We will also introduce you to the principles of shelter building, friction fire lighting, food preparation (fin, feather, and fur), knife skills, axe skills and many other bushcraft essentials. If you would like to develop your bushcraft skills further then our intermediate bushcraft course is for you. 

 

Click here to find out more about our intermediate bushcraft course. 

Kit mentions 

Here is a run through of some of our favourite kit, while we don’t use this for water purification we do take it out in the woods with us. 

 

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Intermediate bushcraft course

Further reading 

Use the arrows below to navigate these related blogs.

 

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 Maximising the effectiveness of your sleeping kit means getting the most warmth out of the lightest set-up. This enables you to sleep out in nature in all seasons and carry less weight, in terms of backpacking this means that you can cover more miles. Maximising your sleeping kit does not, though, mean that you need to spend a fortune on a lightweight sleeping kit. While lightweight backpacking kit is, typically, more expensive by understanding how your current setup works you can get the most warmth out of it without spending any extra money.

As always, please feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the section that interests you the most. We will cover the kit that we mention towards the end of our blog but it is not a definitive list, if you’re looking to buy new pieces of kit then it is always best to try it yourself rather than relying on recommendations.

 

Understanding your sleeping kit

Understanding your sleeping kit

Understanding how your sleeping kit works helps you to maximise its warmth. Essentially, your sleeping kit is made up of your sleeping bag and a sleeping mat of some kind, we’re not going to cover tents, tarps or bivvy bags in this blog. We will look at sleeping bags in more detail later in this blog but this section shall focus on the general details.

  • Sleeping mat

    Sleeping mats provide two essential elements of a good night’s sleep – comfort and insulation. Insulation is provided by keeping your sleeping bag, and therefore your body, away from the ground as no matter what the temperature the ground is going to be colder than the air around it and, obviously, colder than your body temperature.

     

  • Closed cell foam mats

    These are the typical ‘Karrimat’ style sleeping mat. They are pretty inexpensive and by and large indestructible. They are also very well suited to cold conditions as they do not compress easily. In very cold weather they are best used in combination with a self-inflating or blow up mat.

     

  • Self-inflating mats

    These mats work with a combination of foam inside an air-tight pocket. The valve, when opened, lets air in and inflates the mat. Mats that you blow up work in the same principle but without the valve.

  • Insulation

    When a warm surface, in this case, your body, comes into contact with a colder surface heat is conducted away from the warm surface. So in the case of camping, particularly in colder weather, the ground will slowly take heat away from your body. Mats of all types, closed cell foam mats, self-inflating, blow-up, provide insulation from the ground reducing the speed at which heat is conducted away from your body.

     

  • Sleeping bag

    Your sleeping bag works by trapping air between your body and the outside world. We will look at how to maximise the warmth of this air later. This trapped air is what keeps you warm, it is for this reason that it is important to look for a sleeping bag that has a good baffle, this is the piece of the sleeping bag inside the hood which can be tightened around your neck to trap the air in.

     

  • Pressure points

    When your sleeping the parts of the sleeping bag under your back and shoulders are compressed. This flattens the fill of the sleeping bag and reduces its effectiveness. This is why the mat underneath you needs to be good enough to keep all parts of your body away from the colder ground.

     

  • Understanding temperature ratings

    Sleeping bags typically have temperature ratings that are as follows;  comfort rating, limit temperature and extreme temperature. The comfort rating is the temperature at which the bag can comfortably be used, the limit temperature is the temperature at which a person can use the bag, in a curled up position without feeling cold.  The extreme temperature rating should not be used as a guide when choosing a sleeping bag, as it is the maximum temperature at which the bag can be used without occurring extreme cold injuries, hypothermia or, death. The majority of popular commercial sleeping bags use the EN ISO 23537 system.

     

  • Choose the sleeping bag that you need

    When it comes to maximising the effectiveness of your sleeping kit it is important to choose the sleeping bag that you need. Sleeping bags that have a lower comfort rating are typically heavier. Therefore you need to balance warmth against weight. If you’re mostly camping out in the UK summers then there is no need to have a bag that goes down to – 22.

     

  • Clothing

    Wearing a thermal insulating layer in your sleeping bag can help you to keep warm. Understanding this enables you to take a lighter and lower rated sleeping bag particularly in the early Spring and Autumn months where the temperature can fluctuate wildly. Don’t wear the clothes that you have been walking in the sleeping bag, they are likely to be damp through sweat and dirt. A dirty sleeping bag is less effective than a clean one.  Remember also to protect your extremities, wear socks and gloves to protect your hands and feet.

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Bushcraft course from Wildway Bushcraft

Warming your sleeping bag

Understanding how your sleeping bag works enables you to use a lighter weight, less warm bag, while still being comfortable. One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to sleeping bags is that they warm you. The reality though is that you warm the air trapped in the sleeping bag, this air in turn is what keeps you warm.

 

Ensure that the air is trapped in

Use the baffle of the sleeping bag, the padded part of the bag close to your neck, and the hood of the bag in order to trap the air in. It is important to do this in order not to create a bellows type effect, where the hot air is pushed out and the cold air sucked in. 

Use a hot water bottle 

There’s no need to take an actual hot water bottle with you, a metal water bottle can be filled with heated water, placed in a sock and put in your bag before sleeping. If you have the water and the fuel to spare this is an excellent way of keeping the bag warm. If you’re camping somewhere where you can have a campfire then simply fill the bottle with water and place it close to the fire.

Down vs Synthetic 

Ah down vs synthetic, it’s an age old debate. The correct answer, when it comes to which should you choose a down bag or a synthetic bag, is whichever one suits you. There are some key differences and considerations when it comes to down and synthetic bags which we will explain in the following section (if you’re going for down though make sure that it is ethically sourced). 

Down bags 

Typically down bags are lighter weight for warmth than synthetic bags. They compress down further than synthetic bags and are typically better at wicking than synthetic bags, therefore making them better in the summer months.

Synthetic bags

The key difference between down and synthetic bags is that synthetic bags are better in damp or wet conditions. When wet or damp down bags will typically lose the majority of their thermal properties, synthetic bags, however, will retain more of their thermal properties. They also tend to be cheaper than down bags. 

 

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advanced fire lighting

Kit 

We’ve mentioned some kit above and aren’t going to touch upon it here. When it comes to sleeping kit though it is a matter of personal choice and finding out what works for you.  What’s outlined below is a brief run through of our choices of knives, axes and tarps.

Further reading 

Use the arrows to navigate between posts.

 

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