This article was written with Keith Sutton

The best woodsmen tend to be great improvisers, able to solve almost any problem encountered outdoors with the tools and materials immediately at hand. They rely on facts, not conjecture or hearsay, to guide them in choosing safe food and water supplies. They also pay close attention to expert advice that provides often-overlooked tips for subsisting in environments devoid of human comforts and contrivances.

Some have innate aptitudes that foster excellent woodsmanship skills such as these. But, for most of us, intense study and hands-on training are required to become competent outdoors people able not only to subsist, but also to thrive in places far removed from civilization. Let your learning begin here, with this compendium of helpful hints to make your days in the wild much safer and more enjoyable.

Drinking Water Myth-busting

When it comes to procuring safe drinking water in the wild, there are a lot of rumors floating around about what works and what doesn’t. Smart woodsmen should disregard dangerous rumors like these that can lead to ingestion of bad organisms that can cause discomfort, disease or even death.

1. Clear, running water is safe to drink. Don’t count on it. Harmful parasites entering upstream may not discolor the water and aren’t filtered out by rocks, sand or plants. Running water may seem purer than stagnant water, but always treat and purify it before you drink it.

2. You can safely drink water found in natural depressions. This is another prevalent rumor with no basis in fact. You should treat all water before consumption. Boiling is the most certain way of killing all microorganisms. Also effective are chemical treatments using iodine or chlorine products, and filtration using survival products that are made for that purpose, such as the LifeStraw.

3. Drinking salt water in small amounts is safe. Absolutely not. Drinking salt water in any amount will lead to further dehydration, and possibly death, faster than going without water at all. Salt water can be used to cool your body but never to drink.

4. Eating snow is a good way to rehydrate safely. Wrong again. This can actually lead to further dehydration and hypothermia. Snow often contains bacteria and other organisms that can make you sick, so always melt and purify it before consumption.

Healing With Honey

A gauze pad or a piece of sterile cloth infused with honey can be used as a quick-heal covering for mild burns. Studies show that honey has infection-reducing healing properties that can reduce the time it takes for a minor burn to heal by up to four days.

Aspen Bark Bushcraft

Aspens are one of the most beautiful, widespread trees in the mountainous regions of North America. When they die, their bark hardens and separates from the main trunk, creating one of the most useful wilderness survival tools you’ll find in high-elevation forests. The bark is easily carved and cut into pieces, yet strong enough for many applications. Because they’re concave in shape, pieces are great for fashioning makeshift spoons and utensils, bowls, food-gathering containers, tinder holders and shingling for shelter roofs. The fibrous inner bark makes great fire-starting tinder. It smolders very well and easily blows into a flame, making it ideal for catching embers from a bow drill. It’s also easy to ignite with a fire steel, match or magnifying glass. The powdery coating on the bark can be used as an emergency sunscreen. Use your fingertips to wipe it off and apply to your skin. It has an SPF of 5 and can help prevent severe sunburn.

Improvised Spark Makers

If you’ve lost the steel striker for your fire steel and need to start a fire, don’t fret. Many items found outdoors will strike a spark from the fire steel, including common silica-based rocks like quartzite, chalcedony, obsidian, agate, chert and jasper. Dried clam or mussel shells also work in a pinch, or even a piece of broken glass or ceramic pottery.

Protect Your Hacker

Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are inexpensive products you can use to keep steel knives and axes lubricated and rust-free. Mineral oil is particularly suited to knives because it is safe to ingest while also being odor-free and taste-free. For axes, try petroleum jelly. It’s thicker and sticks to metal better. Axes generally aren’t used for food prep, so taste and edibility are not an issue, making petroleum jelly a good choice.

Turtle Dinner: It’s a Real Snap!

Caught a snapping turtle for dinner? That’s fortunate. The meat from one large specimen can provide several delicious meals, and in a pinch, you don’t need to skin the turtle and remove its shell before cooking it. Just dispatch the reptile and bury it in hot coals to cook. When it’s done, you can peel the meat out of the skin and shell for a hot, nutritious meal.

Improvised Fishhooks

In desperate situations, fishhooks can be improvised from many materials. People of ancient cultures often made hooks from bone, thorns and claws, binding pieces together with sinew to fashion workable fish-catchers. Modern metal objects such as needles, safety pins, nails, paper clips or pieces of metal cut from cans work well, too. In a survival situation, don’t overlook any possibility. And to make your task easier when the time comes, it’s wise to practice hook making at home using tools and materials you might have on hand in the backcountry.

Keeping Burrs At Bay

To help shed burrs easily, do what old-timers used to do: Rub the laces of your hunting or hiking boots with paraffin before hitting the trail. A candle stub or tea light works perfectly for this. The wax coating keeps the seeds’ hooks from digging in so you won’t get pricked by cockleburs, sand burrs, burdock and other hitchhikers.

Put A Corkscrew To Work

Having a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew could make you popular at a party when someone holding a wine bottle asks, “Has anyone got a corkscrew?” But are there uses for that curlicue tool in the wilderness? Not many, but there are some. A corkscrew is great for undoing stubborn knots and frozen boot strings. It easily weaves into a tight knot, after which it can be used to pull it apart gently. If you’re stranded on a tropical coast, you can use your corkscrew to open a small hole in a coconut and extract the nutritious milk. Some have also used the tool to tap maples and other trees to collect the sugary sap. And when screwed into a tree, a corkscrew and the attached knife provide a handy place to hang a coat, gun or other gear to keep it dry and clean.

Good Use For Bad Pokeberries

While they look delicious, purple pokeberry fruits from the American Pokeweed have toxic properties and shouldn’t be eaten. Pokeweed is a real bane to farmers, too! That’s not to say it doesn’t have value to the woodsman, however. Native Americans used juice from the berries to color feathers, arrow shafts, garments and even their horses. Early settlers placed fermented pokeberries in hollowed-out pumpkins to prepare a concoction used to dye cloth and yarn. Civil War soldiers made pokeberry ink for writing letters to friends and family back home. (Pokeberries are also called inkberries for that reason.)

To extract the juice, wrap the fruits in a piece of cloth and squeeze over a bowl or other container. Discard the skins and seeds. The coloring will be vivid magenta at first, but it fades if exposed to light for long periods, turning brown with age. Bear that in mind when using it.

Repurpose Fisheyes For Bait

Here’s an old trick panfish anglers often use in a pinch. For some reason, yellow perch love the eyeballs of their own kind, and if you’re in a bind for bait, you can remove the eyes of the fish you catch and use them to catch more. A hook or panfish jig works great for this. Push the curved hook into the eye socket, and using it like a scoop, pop the eye out. Then impale the eye on the hook or jig and continue fishing. Some lure companies have even come out with artificial eyes to capitalize on the success of this technique.

Bandana Wring Out

The plain cotton bandana is often forgotten as a simple, lightweight, helpful piece of wilderness gear. Stick one in a pocket, fold it up in a zip-seal bag or wear it as a do-rag so it will be handy for uses like these.

  • Handkerchief or sweat rag
  • Hand towel, washcloth, pot holder or dish rag
  • Emergency toilet paper
  • Scarf or head cover
  • Tourniquet, bandage or sling
  • Patching material for torn clothing or backpacks
  • Strainer for silty water
  • Lens wipe for riflescopes, cameras or binoculars
  • Bullet patches for a muzzleloader
  • Trail marker or emergency signal
  • Pouch for collecting wild edibles
  • Makeshift cordage or ties

This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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