Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
How many tools do you take with you into the woods? How many of the tools you depend on, and actually use, do you make there?
Who doesn’t want a more functional camp? Most people who are camping, or just out bushcrafting for the day, like to make things. Fortunately, there are a handful of ways to make any camp even better, and nature provides the resources. But it requires a certain level of simple skills, using simple tools.
However, when it comes to the outdoors, simple is always better.
In the 1920s Dover Publication, Woodcraft and Camping, by George “Nessmuk” Sears, an entire chapter is devoted to Camp Cookery and how things are usually done—according to him.
While discussing a campfire, he details the essentials for cooking and dealing with the fire stating, “No campfire should be without a poker and tongs.”
I for one can relate to this adage, for I know too well how difficult trying to move, or rearrange, coals and burning logs can be without a proper poker stick.
I’m sure we’ve all reached in, thinking we could quickly move a log with our hand before the heat or flame got us. But it usually ends badly. While a fire poker stick is quite a simple affair, for those who cook with a kettle or pot—that has a bale to suspend over a fire—there is a certain type of poker that is required.
This can be made with a fixed blade knife, small saw, machete or axe type of chopper. Preferably, it should be made from green wood, as to resist fire more readily, but I like to use whatever is available—usually a stout dead stick will do.
I go for something about broomstick-thick and between 3-4 feet-long. It should have a neatly trimmed forked section at the bottom, for grabbing pots and kettles from the fire, as well as hooking burning wood to move and rake coals.
The top end should be flattened, almost to a point, for fire poking and lifting the lid of a kettle or pot. So, it’s best to make it like a flathead screwdriver.
This simple tool adds safety and convenience to any campfire.
In the backyard or camp, there is no denying how important a wooden stump can be. There is something to be said about having a flat surface to rely on. After a day of outdoor activities, a flat place to sit down in camp is comforting, while also making a good table or nightstand at the end of the day.
When it comes to building a fire, or other “camp crafts,” a stump is the perfect work bench for splitting or carving wood. When laid down on its side, it makes a descent surface to saw on, especially if a “V notch” is carved into the side—making it multifunctional.
My most used wooden tool is the mallet (maul). Having a hardwood hammering tool beats grabbing any old wooden stick to use as a baton/hammering device, because chances are, it will be rotten and crack at the first blow.
This tool can be made easily with a saw and fixed blade, axe or tomahawk. I have made many mallets, of all different sizes, so there isn’t a real right or wrong size.
Select a stout piece of wood, dry or green, about 3-7 inches-thick, and about fingertip to elbow length. At about the length of a hand (fingertip to wrist) make a mark and then saw around the wood, about ½” or deeper.
Stand the wood up so that the sawed section is on the bottom and, using a knife or preferred cutting tool, start to baton the wood towards the saw cut. This will start to take shape as the handle but will need to be carved/refined until comfortable.
Wedges are another important wooden tool to have, especially if there is no heavy tool to split wood available—or if there is only a light tomahawk in camp. If you only have a fixed blade on hand, then wooden wedges are your best friend for splitting logs.
Start with stout, hardwood pieces. I select wood about the length of my forearm, and about 2-3 inches-thick. A machete or tomahawk can make these fast by chopping a chisel, or “wedge,” on each side.
The top portion should be beveled to reduce splitting when it is pounded by your new mallet!
Throughout history we have learned that tools can also be weapons or hunting devices. Two that come to mind have been around since cavemen where tossing them at Dinosaurs—the spear and the throwing stick.
Spears have been made from wood by almost all indigenous cultures around the world. They serve many different purposes in a camp, besides tossing them at a T-Rex. A spear is an extension of your arm, allowing a much higher reach into trees, for bird nests (for tinder) or fruit. It’s also suited for dark places, in which a hand should be wary.
For frogging and primitive fishing, a spear is the perfect wooden tool, but it isn’t limited to water; small mammals are also targets for the mighty spear wielder.
Make a gigging spear by selecting a long pole that extends higher than your eyes, for safety reasons. Pick an end with the least knots on it and, with a knife or tomahawk, split the pole twice in the shape of a plus symbol, about 6-8 inches down.
At this point, firmly hold the pieces together, as if they were still intact, and sharpen them all together as one point. Then, wedge sticks in the slits (opposite each other) so they are splayed open.
From this point it is a matter of fine tuning it to optimum sharpness. Use cordage to bind just below the splits to prevent further splitting.
A throwing stick is almost as simple, and primitive, as throwing a rock at something. To make the most out of a throwing stick, it can also be modified to be a useful camp tool.
Select a piece of wood, about the length of your fingertip to your armpit, and about wrist thickness. I like to select a piece of wood that has a slight curve to it, but not as dramatic as a boomerang. A chopping tool can help with the construction, but any knife will do. One end should be carved flat, like a screwdriver, for hard digging into the ground, and the other end should be rounded, for bearing down hard with a hand, when digging.
It serves the purpose as a throwing weapon for small game like squirrels, marmots, iguanas, sloths and rabbits. For this reason, it’s also known as a rabbit stick. It is thrown low to the ground and sideways and doesn’t take too much practice to get good with. The curvature helps keep it flying somewhat straight.
The other benefits of the tool are digging up roots or a trench for a Dakota fire pit. It can also be used as a baton or wedge in camp—a true multifunctional wooden tool!
In my book, no camp is complete without a pair of tongs. It is inevitable while cooking over an open flame, or on a grill, something will fall in the fire. A pair of tongs, made from green or deadwood, will save the day, and could easily be tossed back into the forest or taken to the next location, if need be.
There are many ways to make tongs. I have made them about four different ways, out of wood and bamboo, but the idea is essentially the same.
One way is to find a green, flexible branch with a nice “Y” fork in it, that can be trimmed about seven-ten inches above, and about three inches below, the “Y.” Some minor carving to flatten the outer ends, or a saw to checker and texture the inside grabbers, will be all that is needed. This is the simple way. It works and is fast to make.
Another way is to locate a green or dry stick, twelve-fourteen inches-long, about broomstick-thickness, and split the wood down to about the last five inches. At the end of the split bind the wood with cordage, to prevent further splitting, and fit a small stick in the split to spread the wood.
The tongs are essentially done, but it is best to carve the outer parts of the grabbers to a chisel. This will make it easier to sort of scoop meat and vegetables up off a frying rock.
Another modification I do, is carve one end into a chisel and the other into a sharp point, for stabbing meat or poking to check how cooked it is. It is also a fast way to retrieve fallen food from a fire.
Tools don’t necessarily need to be made from space age, modern materials to be functional. What has been used in the rustic camps of yesteryear can be just as useful today.
Plus, it sure is rewarding to make them yourself! K&G
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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