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  • Ken Ilgunas

The end of hiking and the bushcraft revolution

Humans have always walked, but humans haven’t always thru-hiked. (Thru-hiking is when you hike a long trail for months.)

Our species has been too preoccupied with the task of feeding ourselves by hunting, fishing, and farming. No one had the time to joy-hike twenty miles a day — fueled by Snickers bars — for matters of the soul. But now, every year, thousands of people set off to hike one of the big 2,000-mile trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, which was blazed in 1937.

I have been on my share of thru-hikes. I’ve hiked 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I designed my own 1,700-mile thru-hike over the Great Plains so that I could follow the path of a pipeline. I am slowly section-hiking the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland. These were mostly terrific experiences, but I sometimes wonder if thru-hiking will one day be remembered as a fad. I wonder if we will find more enriching ways to have long-term experiences within the natural world. (More on that in a bit…)

I like big hikes, but sometimes I feel like they’re more of an extension of our restless society than a salutary escape from it.

There is something puritanical about a thru-hike. That’s because thru-hiking is work. You must plan ahead, work toward a long-term goal, and apply the requisite discipline, diligence, and frugality so that you can wake up and do it all again.

You mind is so occupied with numbers — calories, ounces, miles — that you often neglect to smell the roses. You could spend six months in an ecosystem and learn almost nothing about it. You’re too laser-focused on your life-defining goal.

You could say there’s something commercial about a thru hike, too, because in order to hike a trail in a timely, efficient manner, you’ll likely be purchasing high-tech, light-weight, and pretty expensive gear.

(My Keystone XL journey cost me roughly $7,000, when you add up all the new gear, food, and maps, as well as the camera and iPad I bought to be able to virtually share my journey.)

Go hike the Appalachian Trail, visit a shelter, and listen to thru-hikers converse. Most likely you will not hear stories of spiritual awakenings or observations about the behavior of a fascinating bug. Most conversations center on mileages, or the pros and cons of their gear.

Contrast all of this with “bushcraft,” otherwise known as “primitive skills” or “survival skills.” Bushcraft skills include: identifying edible mushrooms, navigating with signs of nature, building a fish trap, constructing a shelter, tracking animals, and a million other things.

My bushcraft journey started two years ago. A casting producer for the reality TV show, Alone, suggested that I apply. I declined, largely because I snootily looked down upon the genre. But after I watched a few episodes, I respected the show and thought that I could perform well on it. I sensed that I could tolerate the isolation and discomfort more than most contestants, but I recognized how my bushcraft skills were inferior.

So I joined a year-long, ten-weekend course. Each weekend was focused on a new skill: shelter building, tanning a deer hide, fashioning a bow from an ash tree, making a basket from willow…

I felt more immersed in my natural environment than I ever did on my hikes. I entered into a weekend-long “flow state” when building my shelter. (See above video.) I felt like I was learning the names and uses of trees that I’d otherwise thoughtlessly stride beneath. I could better imagine myself in the shoes of a distant ancestor. I could look at a nettle and comprehend how this one annoying plant is actually amazingly useful. (Someone wrote a book called 101 Uses for Stinging Nettles.)

Of course there are many great things about a thru-hike. You get to see a lot of land at a nice pace. You get really fit, really fast. And, from the environment’s point of view, it’s a low-impact hobby. Hiking may be mundane and repetitious compared to the diversity of bushcraft, but anything that gets us outdoors (even if it’s puritanical) is a good thing.

Yet bushcraft is much more of an immersive, enriching, and infinitely novel activity than the simple north-to-south enterprise of putting one foot in front of the other.

On the last day of the course, I said to a fellow student that we could be out here for a full year and we’d only be scratching the surface. To truly learn to read the clouds, understand the habits of local animals, build a chimney, a boat, a perfect arrow, a pair of moccasins—all this stuff would require not just a year or a lifetime, but generations.

Sadly, I am not a born bushcrafter. My instructor and some of my peers are. They tell stories of wives complaining about the roadkill they bring home. They enjoy dousing salmon skins in a bath of egg yolks (useful for tanning fish skins). They are passionate about their bushcraft. Me—I merely enjoy and respect it.

I’m more puritan than pagan, more driven than dreamy. I find thru-hiking relatable because it calls on the same skills that were taught to me in school, work, and sports: focus, persistence, self-denial, toleration of physical discomfort, etc. I’m more predisposed to zip through the forest to check off my one big goal than to intermittently pause to inspect the plant world or contemplate geological mysteries. Or to fall into a nature-induced mystical reverie.

I probably won’t ever end up on Alone, but I’m grateful I have some bushcraft skills to pass on to my daughter. Maybe she will come to have a more evolved relationship with the natural world than me.

If hiking got us out of the house, bushcraft can get us into nature. And that would be a good thing for the human spirit, and for a world that desperately needs more humans with a sharpened ecological consciousness.

This all got me thinking about what a future might look like if bushcrafting replaced thru-hiking.

Perhaps, instead of spending months on a trail thru-hiking, we’ll go “bush-hiking.” We’ll walk half with primitive gear, half with high-tech gear. Half with greens, half with Snickers bars. A hike will be less about racking up miles; it’ll be more about navigating to the next forest clearing, where we can live with fellow bushcrafters and work on crafts for a week. (This isn’t that silly of an idea. Appalachian Trail founder, Benton MacKay first imagined the AT is a way to connect a series of self-owned, utopian “community camps” where people could learn, live, and farm.)

Perhaps instead of following narrow trail lines, we’ll gather in circlular forest glades. Rather than Backpacker Magazine, we’ll read Bushcrafter Magazine. Rather than feeling proud about hiking the triple crown, we’ll feel proud about knowing how to erect a log house, build a birch bark canoe, and navigate by the stars.

Benton MacKay had his utopia, so I can have mine. In my utopia, we create our best future by reclaiming our best past.


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