By Horace Kephart Softcover, 912 pages, $19.86 • Amazon.com
One of the earliest (and still one of the most knowledgeable) authorities on living in the woods was Horace Kephart. He lived in and wrote about the wilderness for most of his adult life. His body of literary work was groundbreaking, authentic and timeless. He wrote about what he had experienced firsthand, and his advice was sound at the time, and still is today. The techniques and tools he writes about represented technology around the turn of the century, but a wise reader will recognize it as reliable tech, not low-tech. Virtually the only part of his writing that needs second-guessing might be some of the dated medical advice, and even that is readily adapted to today’s medical practice and products. And speaking of products, nowhere in this combined volume’s 900+ pages is a product or piece of gear recommended for any reason other than that it is the best for the job. In fact, much of the gear described as appropriate is either universal in nature, or is something the reading outdoorsman can put together himself.
Kephart’s then-groundbreaking compilation was one of the first to build upon the work of George Washington Sears (a.k.a Nessmuk) to codify the things that work in the woods, but it was not the last. Two generations of outdoor writers have followed, some very good and some pretty weak, but the better ones share a commonality where a close reading reveals just how much writers and outdoorsmen owe to the seminal source, Horace Kephart.
The book under review was originally published as a single volume in 1906, Camping and Woodcraft. It was expanded in 1916-17 into a two-volume edition, with Vol. I being Camping and Vol. II being Woodcraft. The reprinted edition we review here was published under one cover by the University of Tennessee Press, and has a very good introduction by Jim Casada that puts this body of work into the context of its time and helps us understand why it is one of the best-selling outdoorsman’s books of all time. [Author’s note: This version is available on Amazon new for less than $20, and it’s a bargain. Order by its ISBN: 0-87049556-9.]
Vol. I, Camping, might today be entitled “How to Live Comfortably with What’s On Your Back,” as it is not a volume that deals with meeting federal regulations on how to properly dump the black water from your 4WD “camper,” or how to site your Winnebago for the best satellite reception. Volume I alone is blessed with 270 illustrations, all concise line drawings that have reprinted very well.
The topics completely covered include outfitting, tents for fixed or for “shifting” camps, light camps and camp equipment; bedding, clothing and personal kits; tools, utensils and furniture; provisions, camp making, the camp fire, dressing and keeping fish and game; and seven chapters on camp cookery including beverages and desserts and a chapter on “cook’s miscellany” that alone are worth the modest cost of this book.
Vol. II is pure “woodcraft,” and it is not redundant to material in Vol. I. Kephart lived alone in the woods for decades, and that was the laboratory where he conceived and winnowed good ideas, good techniques, good gear and what Generation X pundits like to call “best practices.” Nobody who has spent much of their life in the woods will agree with Kephart on every point, but anybody who appreciates how hard-won some of his wisdom and advice was will want to see what he has to say. In his discussions of traditional or commercial gear he seldom pontificates, but gives pros and cons and how it might apply to individuals or circumstances. A lot of Vol. II is what a sniper might learn in the “fieldcraft” part of his training. It comprises the skills to live and operate effectively, even comfortably, in an extended outdoor setting. This is a multi-faceted skill set, and what Kephart taught a hundred years ago is still germane today.
The first part of Vol. II deals with getting around in the woods—pathfinding, navigation, figuring routes, mapping and even spelunking. He offers detailed discussions of packs for hikers, hunters or what we now call operators, at least as they existed a hundred years ago. He treats us to a very mature discussion of marksmanship in the woods, and how this real-world situation differs from range shooting.
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Kephart gives good instruction and pointers on axemanship, and the qualities and utilization of wood; and on the hasty construction of axeman’s camps, caches and hidden camps, and what he called tomahawk camps in the days when the terms tomahawk and hatchet were often used interchangeably. He gives well-illustrated coverage of minimalist cabin building and making rustic furniture; of making bark utensils, bast ropes and twine, withes and splints for building or baskets; on tanning and other animal products, bee hunting, edible plants, living off the land for meat, and accidents and medical emergencies. Even tangential subjects such as bee hunting are covered with clarity and style. These two volumes under one cover are the cornerstone of any outdoor library.
This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® 2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® magazine are available here.
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