Bushcraft: Wilderness Living in the 21st Century

March 28, 2017

By Tierney Angus

It’s a return to the forest and a primitive way of living; it’s an escape from city life and the technology of our present time. It’s a natural extension of the beard-and-plaid aesthetic so popular today – and it’s having a huge moment online.

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This is bushcraft: The art of practicing wilderness skills while enjoying the great outdoors. It’s not about survival skills or preparing for the apocalypse, although the techniques do share similarities. Survival is staying alive long enough to be rescued and get home, whereas bushcraft is about using wilderness skills and knowledge to stay out in the bush longer.

Popular bushcraft accounts have been popping up all over Instagram and YouTube in the past few years. This is partly due to the success of BBC presenter Ray Mears (and here in Canada, Les Stroud and Mors Kochanski), whose videos and TV shows have reached international audiences, but also largely dependent on the sharing nature of bushcraft itself. Many YouTube and Instagram bushcraft celebrities learned themselves from online communities, and choose to pass on their knowledge to others.

Joe Robinet, 32, is a rising Canadian YouTube star. His channel, JoeRobinetBushcraft, has over 250,000 subscribers. He was also a contestant on the first season of History Channel’s Alone, a survival show in which ten people are dropped off in a remote wilderness with only the contents of their backpacks and without any connection to the outside world.

“When I lost my firesteel and had to tap out, I was crushed – just crushed,” said Robinet. “I thought I was going to be out there for at least three months. I didn’t have enough time to do there what I wanted to do. I thought this was going to change my life.”

Robinet’s online popularity led to some harsh trolling after his Alone episodes aired. “My favourite comment was, like, ‘Fuck you for losing your firesteel!’ – Yup! Fuck me for losing my firesteel,” he laughed. “I ruined their lives! I had a Boy Scout leader from B.C. message me and tell me his troops could run circles around me,” Robinet said. “Like, good fucking pep talk there, Scout Leader!”

Despite this setback, Robinet continues to make YouTube videos and loves to share his successes and failures through his bushcraft channel.

“I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. I’m from Windsor. It’s worse than Toronto… I’ve gotta drive past Toronto to get anywhere,” Robinet explained. “I grew up going car-camping with my mom in a Coleman tent, so when I see this stuff, it’s blowing my mind. People are actually out there doing this stuff, in this day and age. Finally, now, I’m able to make my passion, my love, into my job,” he said. “It’s going out and enjoying myself, filming it, and going home and putting that footage into something that – hopefully – people are going to enjoy and watch.”

Nick DiFrancesco, 28, has over 23,000 followers on his Instagram account @blackwaterbushcraft. He spent three years living in the small community of Red Lake, Ont., near Woodland Caribou Provincial Park – almost 2,000 kilometres northwest of his hometown of Hamilton.

Bow drill friction fire using Black Spruce on Black Spruce in -15 Celsius weather. All materials gathered on the spot. This day was a very memorable one for me because while I was gathering all my materials I fell through the ice up past my knees in freezing water. The rush of instant pain was excruciating! Luckily I had all my wools on, and I was able to get an ember and fire on my first try. It is very rare when I find myself in these situations, even in the remote wilderness, but it just goes to show that practicing your skills and keeping a positive mental attitude really can save your life one day, or at least your feet. Sure I had the means to start a fire a lot faster, but through the pain I kept driving on with my friction fire goal. I always burn my friction fire set too, as it forces me to keep practicing with new materials. If you really want to master your friction fire skills, I urge you to do the same too. #survivalskills #bushcraft #borealforest #frostriver #bowdrill #bushcrafting #camping #outdoors #discoverON #firecraft #wildernesssurvival #frictionfire #gransforsbruks #liveauthentic #liveofftheland #edc #knife #getoutside #nature #wintercamping #hiking #wildernessskills #survival #selfreliance #survivalist #woodsman #woodlore #wildcamping #wilderness #yourstodiscover

A post shared by @blackwaterbushcraft on

“I was working with Red Lake Outfitters, so that gave me a lot of good experience,” DiFrancesco said of his job guiding clients on canoeing and snowshoeing trips, including some high-profile wilderness experts like bushcraft icon Ray Mears. He said the most meaningful work he did up north was with Indigenous youth from Pikangikum First Nation.

“We’d go up there and teach wilderness skills to the youth. It was an outreach program, Project Journey,” said DiFrancesco. “Pikangikum is one of the most remote Indigenous communities. They have no running water. There was a language barrier, too – they speak Ojibwe – but it was very rewarding. We’d go up once a month, and then at the end of the summer we’d do a 10-day canoe trip with them.”

DiFrancesco said he started Instagramming to share his love of the boreal forest with a growing online community. “I didn’t know what hashtags were,” DiFrancesco confessed. “It was funny, too, because I’d post all my photos on Facebook and my city friends, they don’t give a shit – no interest at all – but once I started going on there [Instagram] it blew up pretty quick. A lot of people ask me how I got so many followers, but I honestly think it’s just the land. It’s not me, it’s the scenery,” he explained.

Although living in a remote wilderness area is a dream for many bushcraft enthusiasts, DiFrancesco stressed that it’s not all that easy to cut ties with civilization.

“The day-to-day life, it’s lonely. It’s also great, too, don’t get me wrong… but it’s not as easy as people think,” he said. “You need to buy underwear? You need to drive four or five hours.” For most bushcrafters, the appeal of the movement is mostly about spending more time outside. “The more you learn in the category of bushcraft, the more the forest reveals itself to you,” said DiFrancesco.

Joe Robinet put it simply:

“I just wanna go camping.”

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