A look at how to put your bushcraft skills to use at home
“WHAT I CALL BACKYARD BUSHCRAFT IS LOW-STAKES FUN WITH KNIVES DOING WORK THAT COULD BE DONE WITH OTHER TOOLS ... BUT IN THE DOING, YOU DISCOVER SKILLS, METHODS, AND ... SELF-RELIANCE YOU OTHERWISE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD.”
Ilive in the suburbs. I work in an office. I have a tool chest full of luxury goods that I call my knife collection. I have grown accustomed to the lifestyle that only a little bit of age, experience, and savings can provide. I like to spend time outside, quality moments with my wife, running around with the kids, or throwing a summer barbecue. I love the great outof-doors, but to be clear, I am no Daniel Boone. But I, like other men and women, have the simple need to protect my investment and keep nature at bay. I do it with knives.
Knife collecting has always been a thing for me, but only after getting hooked on the vicarious outdoor adventures of Nutnfancy’s Youtube videos and cable survival shows did I get a sense for just how practical knives can be as all-around outdoor tools. Now you might quip that I have a “keen grasp of the obvious,” but as a result of this revelation, I can now (after years) allow myself to have fun doing yard work. Everybody wins.
Real bushcrafters have real skills with knives. It’s not nothing carving a wooden spoon from scratch or crafting a clever trap or a sturdy shelter. These are very handy skills that may, in some cases, save your life in the wilderness or at least make it easier to stir your pot. Recognizing that my lifestyle may be on the mild end
“[BACKYARD BUSHCRAFTING] IS A VERY PARTICULAR SET OF SKILLS THAT MAY SAVE YOU FROM AN INVASION OF VINES, A PARTY WITHOUT A FIRE PIT, OR A SUMMER WITH NOTHING TO DO.”
of things, I call what I do backyard bushcraft, a style honed for the suburban survival experience. It’s a very particular set of skills that may save you from an invasion of vines, a party without a fire pit, or a summer with nothing to do.
Backyard bushcraft comprises several loose categories: vegetation abatement (or as I refer to it, fighting the Hydra), firepit prep, and special projects. This style of bushcraft may not be as hardcore as what you see on the survival shows, or do around your own campfire, but it keeps this place habitable and provides an excellent opportunity for my knives to prove their worth.
FIGHTING THE HYDRA
Grape vine. Virginia creeper. English ivy. Poison ivy. All of it. Everywhere. All the time. A literal web of vines undergirds the grass of our backyard. To pull on one is to pull on them all. Climbing the fence, slowly breaking it down, reaching for the house intent on destruction through attrition. Vines are the number one enemy. Cut one and seven more pop up in its place.
When I test out the capabilities of a new knife, cutting vines and ivy in the backyard is usually the first test I put it through. Vines are tough and fibrous and prove a great medium to test blade geometry, edge quality, and pivot strength. “Pivot strength?” you ask. “Shouldn’t you be using a fixed blade for that?” Maybe so, but I’m not always up for carrying a belt knife when I’m out in my suburban Eden, and there are some spectacular folders that get the job done.
For years I was using an XL Cold Steel Vaquero for de-vining in the backyard. Its sinuous, 6-inch, serrated blade made short work of anything it came near and was especially useful in a pull-cut against a web of vines. Recently though, I have been branching out.
In addition to vines, we have these weird, wiry weed-trees that seem to pop up overnight right up next to the fence, where the Vaquero, due to its size, is not an option. I am very partial to serrations in fighting fibrous vegetations, so lately the task of cutting them at the root (as they are too deep to pull) has fallen on the diminutive Spyderco Delica Serrated Wharncliffe.
Yes, that’s right, the wee little Delica, the polar opposite of the XL Vaquero, does the job about as well. The Spydie-edge serration pattern is so perfectly aggressive that the 3-inch blade works perfectly in an edge-in pairing grip. Just grab the weed-tree between your thumb and the edge, pull and it’s curtains for the weed-tree!
The family fire pit is a popular addition to many backyards these days. It allows cul-de-sac dwellers to experience the feelings of security, togetherness, and gratitude that come with a real campfire. The fire pit is also a last refuge of this suburban man’s primal self. I cut wood, I gather family, I strike flint, I make fire, I prove my worth.
A task as critical as fire for my tribe cannot be left up to just any tool, and certainly not a hatchet. To get those store-bought, kiln-dried logs down to fire pit proportions, I baton knife through wood ... like a lumberjack.
The Cold Steel Trailmaster is my knife of choice for batoning wood. Sharp, tough, and big, the Trailmaster looks like a wedge in cross-section and has a shock
absorbing craton handle. So, it may not be winning any beauty contests, but it’s perfect for high-impact activities. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it makes me feel safe having that big ole’ bowie by my side when I cannot see beyond the firelight.
I’ve had my Trailmaster for about 24 years. In that time, it has seen a lot of action, because no matter what new knives come in, I always know I can thrash on the Trailmaster and it will keep coming back for more. But it’s not an all-arounder; we all know the only legit way to light a fire is with a feather stick, and the Trailmaster is a little too much for that purpose, but fear not.
Meet the new SOG Aegis, newly redesigned, rebuilt, and rebranded. SOG recently took its classic bestsellers and completely changed tack, refining and enhancing the designs, and improving build and materials. When I got the new Aegis, I was admittedly rough with it, wanting to make sure the rebranding wasn’t just window dressing. It was not.
The blade on the new Aegis is cryo treated D2, a very respectable upgrade from the AUS-8 steel the model used to sport. The blade stock is thin and fully flat-ground, making it an excellent slicer and a phenom at carving wispy ribbons of wood for a feather stick.
In profile, the Aegis blade looks like a mini chef’s knife and would make an excellent food-prep knife for the campsite as well. The first test I put to the Aegis was slicing a block of cheddar and, yes, it’s an excellent cheese knife, if you were wondering. In any case, the SOG Aegis is becoming invaluable in my backyard bushcraft panoply of blades. Now I just have to figure out how to ignite my feather sticks without a Bic!
Inspired by the quarantine training videos of Filipino Martial Arts expert and Forged in Fire judge Doug Marcaida, my daughters and I made a bamboo dummy in the backyard to practice martial arts and fencing techniques. It’s basically a cross with an extra leg to represent the body and arms of an opponent. To make it, we used the most highly proven of all my blades. But first, a little exposition...
To gather the bamboo for the dummy, we had to venture to a nearby swampy area where a vast and thick bamboo forest had overtaken the landscape. Cutting bamboo is a machete’s job, but where I live, one doesn’t risk being seen wandering around with a machete, so I brought my TOPS Tex Creek to the bamboo forest. I love the Tex Creek. To me it is a perfect field knife, tough, sharp, and comfortable to use. Not too flashy but handsome and at home in a beautiful tan leather sheath.
With the lanyard looped over my thumb and across the back of my hand, I can “choke back” on the Tex Creek and get a snapping, percussive chop, leveraging all of the 4-inch blade and some of the handle too. Even still, it took four or five opposed-angle chops to fell the bamboo. Then, sliding the blade up and down the trunk, I stripped the branchlings. I repeated this process with a second shoot, this time a little wiser with my chopping. After a few very loud and indiscreet minutes in the bamboo forest (those hollow shoots reverberate), we emerged with two extra-long poles.
After an awkward walk home, we set up in the backyard and I grabbed the blade that has been with me since seventh grade, my US Military issue 18-inch Ontario Knife Co. machete. I got it after seeing the movie Commando and have had it ever since. The Ontario Knife Co. machete has actually reached legendary status in my mind. It is the blade I’ve had the longest and have done the greatest number of stupid things with, and yet, its 1095 steel blade and hard plastic handle are strong as ever.
With my favorite backyard bushcraft knives, a vague plan and some 550 paracord, it was time to build this dummy. The girls had evaporated by this point, having had enough excitement from the getting of the bamboo itself.
First, I cut one of the large bamboo shoots to the size of a tall man, leaving a little extra to sharpen into a hypodermic tip to be pounded into the ground. Cutting the tip was fun and no problem, one angled swipe with the machete and the anchor side was done.
However, cutting bamboo straight across, which was how I wanted the “head” portion, was more difficult.
I found out that when you chop bamboo across the grain, you end up crushing the hollow shoot, not cutting it. So, to square off the top, I used the serrations and the curve of the XL Vaquero to cut just above a joint. The resulting trimmed and pointed bamboo shoot was the body of the training dummy. For the arms, I planned to get fancy— notched construction.
Using the Aegis, I cut a notch at about shoulder-height on the “body pole” and then cut a notch in the middle of the “arm pole,” roughly two armlengths long. The flat ground blade of the Aegis made for some really nice controlled carving. Usually I am a stickler for an even blade-to-handle ratio on folders, but in the case of the Aegis the big handle/little blade recipe makes for a very controllable knife when carving.
I married up the notches, making the arm piece perpendicular to the body piece, and wrapped the joint with paracord. And now comes the weird part: pounding what now looks like a big cross into the backyard. Setting the sharp end of the main pole on the soft ground I gave it a few whacks with the flat of the machete blade, driving it into the earth like a large tent stake. There it stood, teetering, begging me to attack it. But before I did, I thought it wise to shore it up with an extra leg.
STEP TO SELF-RELIANCE
I stepped back, took a look at my afternoon’s work, and thought for a minute. What I call backyard bushcraft is low-stakes fun with knives, doing work that could be done with other tools or perhaps needn’t be done at all. But in the doing you discover skills, methods, and most importantly, self-reliance you otherwise would not have had. Maybe that’s a little like real bushcraft.
With backyard bushcrafting, I created a way that I can train martial arts with my family while school and lessons are not an option. Self-reliance. I am in awe of those who possess the knowledge and confidence to go willingly into the unknown and test their self-reliance in a struggle against nature, and I don’t mean to minimize that. For me, this dummy was only a very small step toward self-reliance. Ultimately though, I believe the real study of bushcraft is the pursuit of ever-higher levels of self-reliance, which to me, is a virtue.