Bushcraft on a Budget- How to get everything you need for under £100.

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 In this article we are going to look at what equipment you really need to get out into the woods overnight in comfort. As interest in Bushcraft has grown in recent years, so has the number of companies selling equipment that they describe as ideal for bushcraft, and would have you believe is either indispensable or life changing in some way. But what do we really need to get out in comfort, without the kitchen sink in tow?


In essence we need somewhere to cover the basics of living, so that includes:

Somewhere to sleep in comfort, protected from the elements

The ability to collect and carry water

The means to light fire and prepare firewood

The ability to boil water if necessary and prepare and cook food

A reliable light source for night time

Something to carry all the above in, plus food and anything else you add.


I have set myself the target of putting together an essential kit to cover all the above needs, for as little money as possible, so gacve myself a £100 budget. Now I do believe that when it comes to certain items of equipment the adage that you get what you pay for stands, and some of my own kit is quite expensive. However some of it was very economical and high quality none the less. The key thing on a tight budget is where to compromise, some “cheaper” items compromise on quality to reduce cost, particularly the wares of the typical High Street outdoor store, others compromise on other things, key ones being weight (obviously light weight is often a quoted selling point of all outdoors kit to target walkers and climbers), fashion etc, which might be better areas to sacrifice on.

 

 

If your budget is tight, then you need to consider what sort of camping you want to do. If it’s just to get outdoors and not to cover huge distances on foot, then having lightweight kit isn’t so essential. It’s also true that if you are looking for a quiet weekend in the woods, at one with your environment and surrounded by nature, then you probably can give the latest High Street Goretex jackets with their bright colours a miss, and get an equally good, if not better, mute coloured army version for a fraction of the cost.

Ever since I was a Scout as a boy, I have always looked to ex-military kit as a reasonably reliable source of robust and functional outdoors kit. If soldiers didn’t break stuff using it day in and day out then it’s likely to prove durable and reliable for us as well. Military gear is usually deliberately over engineered with tough stitching, zips and seams and durable fabrics, including all sorts of Gore tex clothing. The downside with military kit is it’s often a bit heavy, and when you buy army surplus it clearly won’t be new. That said, when you hunt about it’s not uncommon to find stuff being sold that is unused and spent its working life on a warehouse shelf somewhere. Army surplus suppliers will describe their items as Grade 1 or Grade 2. Grade 1 may have signs of professional repair but everything that should be present is, and functions correctly, e.g. zips buttons straps etc.

Grade 2, you might be getting your needle and thread out to replace a button or make a small repair, and it may look a bit used with previous repairs, stains, marks etc but it should still work, but will want a good airing!

This applies to all items of kit regardless of what it is. The key is to search around, and if you are buying in person try to bargain as sellers usually have some flexibility on price and a desire to clear their shelves before the next pallet comes in.

On eBay look for auctions ending when most people aren’t watching e.g. listings set to end at 8am not 8pm due to seller error or ignorance to find the best auction bargains. I also once heard a theory from a retired Sgt Major and eBay maestro that seems to hold some truth, which was that private sellers selling individual army surplus items that end during the day are often soldiers partners/husbands/ wives selling some of their other half’s old kit on the quiet to clear some storage space at home . As such they often do so without knowledge of what the listed item may actually be worth.  Check if the reserve is met with a very low bid as an indication of what the item is likely to sell for, and if no one else bids on it and you may get a real bargain.

I have listed the suppliers for the items I bought unless they were private individuals selling single items on eBay.

 

 

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SLEEPING BAG/BIVI SYSTEM

So for something to sleep in, on and under, I have gone for a British Army tarp, which was cheap at £10.50 from a private eBay seller because it was missing the stuff sack. These tarps or bashas as they are also known, are a bit smaller than some typical bushcraft intended tarps,  but are much tougher as they are made to take the weight of a man when used as an improvised stretcher, and multiple sellers will have them on eBay competing on price.

A conventional bivi bag and sleeping bag would take a big chunk of the budget at around £50 and having one sleeping bag always means an uncomfortable compromise if you’re camping year round, as no one bag will be suitable for both midsummer and midwinter. Instead I went for a Czech Army bedroll from Military-Mart on eBay at £12.50 listed as grade 2. It turned up in very good condition but for a few missing buttons. This is a sort of swag, an inner sheet, a thick wool blanket and a waterproof outer cover with hood that all button together. The out cover has a zip all the way down the left side and across the bottom so it can be opened right out and used like a duvet, or you can turn the top down a bit, or stick a leg out the side if you’re too warm. You can also add or remove as many wool or fleece blankets at minimal extra cost to truly give you a system for all seasons. The only down side is bulk. In cold weather the extra blankets would make the roll very bulky, however,  this approach gives a versatility you don’t get with a sleeping bag and bivi bag at a fraction of the cost. In fact having seen it, I was so impressed with the versatility for warmer months, I  immediately ordered a second one to keep myself, as I intend to give away the complete contents of this article in a prize draw.

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In order to prepare fire wood the bare minimum you need to split small logs is a knife, and if you know what you’re doing, wrist diameter wood can be broken without resorting to a saw. That said an axe and a folding saw do make tasks like shelter building and preparing firewood much easier, so I bought a Bahco hand axe at £13.69 and a Highlander wolverine folding saw.

AXE

The axe arrives in need of work on the edge, which goes some way to explaining the low cost, but it is easily sharpened and holds its edge well. The handle is of decent quality and its comfortably weighted making it suitable for splitting and carving tasks. In fact I know a bowyer who put off by more expensive axes makes all his longbows using one of these.

It does not come with an adequate mask, just a rubber stretchy thing that the blade will soon cut through once you put an edge on it. This does however give you the opportunity to personalise your axe with a home-made mask from a bit of leather. Use synthetic sinew for an attractive and very strong thread to stitch it.

SAW

The Wolverine saw from Highlander is £8 ( from EBay), compared to the market leading and long established Bahco Laplander much beloved of Ray Mears and many others, which goes on Ebay new between £17.50 -£22.50, and is as much as £25 in retail shops. I tested both saws back to back, and found performance to differ, with the Wolverine taking about 30-50% more cuts to go through the same diameter birch logs as the Laplander. That’s not to say it doesn’t cut well, it does, it just doesn’t bite the wood fibres in quite the same way as it’s more expensive rival and is therefore slightly less efficient. Annoying if you use it multiple times every day, but an ideal thing to compromise on if moneys tight and it’s for more occasional use. The Wolverine does have all the key safety features you would expect, a blade lock that locks closed and open, is easy to operate (better for kids than a Laplander as its button isn’t so stiff), and a grippy ergonomic rubber handle. It also has a lanyard hole, although when the blade is closed the top 2 teeth will cut into the lanyard so the design here is rather flawed, but of course a lanyard is non-essential.

KNIFE

For a reliable knife I chose the entry level, long established Mora Clipper, (now called the Companion) 10.95 from The Bushcraft Store. This is extremely good value, being adequate for splitting small logs if struck with a baton, great for wood carving with a blade that allows you to get into curves and angles well and is ideal for most other tasks. The handle is plastic and it only has a half tang, (the length of the metal blade inserted into the handle to join them), but these knives are none the less very robust for what they are. I use these for students on all my courses and am yet to have one break.

 

STOVE

Cooking and water collection are addressed with a Swedish army trangia style meths burning cook set. This was an eBay purchase, grade 2 quite bent and battered but works OK for £7.50. It includes a base/pot stand, a meths burner and a cooking pot with a lid that doubles as a small frying pan, with deep enough edges to also use for drinking. Items like this that perform several tasks for you are another way of keeping your pack light, whilst still having the equipment you need.

WATER BOTTLE/COOKSET/KNIFE/FORK/SPOON/TIN OPENER

The water bottle I bought was another army surplus bargain, a Yugoslavian army cook set cost me £6.50 from Wilderness Leisure in Farnham last year. Persistent e-bay hunting should still match this price if patient.  This set comprises of a plastic 1 litre water bottle, an aluminium cook pot with a plastic lid that also clips to the opposite end of the handle on the cookpot to make a dumbbell style twin bowl plate for eating, a small plastic drinking cup and a very robust knife fork spoon set, arguably as good as anything you might buy in a camping shop for more than the cost of the whole set. The knife blade is rather robust sharply pointed and with a sharp edge with tiny serrations. It  could easily be made into a really useable tool if need arose with a bit of time and a flat rock. Some from a batch of army surplus ones I bought recently had clearly been sharpened up in this way by soldiers, perhaps in case the enemy launched a surprise attack during dinner! The knife also incorporates a tin opener in the handle, which can also open your finger as you eat if you’re careless! All comes in a cloth belt pouch, very lightweight yet robust, and far cheaper than the British equivalent but no less useable. When testing all this kit over a couple of chilly February nights, I put my faith in the seal on the water bottle when I trusted it in my bed roll, filled with boiling hot water when the temperature dropped.

SLEEPING MAT

A mat is a must, not just for comfort but for insulation from the ground which steals heat from your body by conduction. There are many variations on the air mat, and some are incredibly comfortable, light etc but also costly. I compromised on price here, getting a particularly thick/dense army surplus version of the foam sleeping mats everyone’s familiar with. It has two chunky metal lined eyes in one end and ties to secure it when rolled up, and whilst not as thick as an air mat is very dense and rubbery for what it is, and can always have a layer of leaves or springy foliage put beneath to add a bit of extra depth and comfort if needed. This was the princely sum of £4 again from Wilderness Leisure last year.

 

CORDAGE

For putting up the tarp, I bought the cheapest genuine 7 strand 550 test paracord Ebay had to offer, at £3.25 including delivery for 50ft, seller 1ST V2U. Tarp lines can stretch, so braided cords are best but expensive, the best cheap alternative is the paracord, but in heavy wind and rain it will stretch as it’s polyester and is actually designed to give a bit for cushioning when the chute opens. This simply means remembering to periodically check and tighten tarp lines in wet/windy weather.

HEAD TORCH

For illumination, I trusted Energiser to provide me with a head torch as I used one of their right angle torches for years on my bullet proof vest when in the police and found it to be reliable, rugged and well designed.  I didn’t want to trust an unknown brand as there are too many cheap, low quality torches on the market to be sure of what your buying if it’s an internet purchase and you aren’t familiar with the model/make. I wasn’t disappointed with the Energiser head torch. It has 7 LEDs, a range of power settings to preserve battery life, and a max output of 100 lumens which was more than adequate. A great torch for only £10.49, seller 7dayshop on EBay.

FIRE STEEL

Last but not least of the kit items I needed, a fire steel. Not all fires steels are equal. In fact the differences  in performance, and how long they last varies due to quality, and size of the rod as well as materials. The acknowledged market leader, if there can be such a thing in such a diverse market,  is Light My Fire of Sweden, with a few different sizes and styles in their range, the decent sized larger fire steels costing £12-16 and providing thousands of showers of consistent, hot and abundant sparks for little effort before its used up. In my experience the TBS Fire steel from the www.thebushcraftstore.co.uk is at least equal in quality to the bigger Light My Fire ones, the rod is of similar diameter and only fractionally shorter, it provides at least as good and hot sparks in abundant showers and retails at £6.50, just as good in my mind as the market leader at half the price.

BERGAN/RUCKSACK

Finally, I needed something to carry everything, and the budget was very tight. However a car boot bargain of a tatty, but functional British Army short back Bergan, including side pouches was acquired for £5, after haggling because its rubberised water proofing on the inside of the top pouch had sort of melted and stuck to my fingers when I put my hand in! Not nice, but not a problem once I put a large grip seal bag in the top pocket to act as a liner and keep the contents clean, and a good bargaining tool to knock the price right down. Its a little scruffy but functions perfectly, and packed with all the above kit has a dry weight of 12KG, which considering we know we compromised on weight with the stove, sleeping bag and tarp is very good. Food and water for and overnight trip would take this to about  16kg assuming 3 litres of water ( water is 1kg per litre) which is still manageable as a walking pack for most adults.


So there we have it, everything you need to sleep, stay warm and dry overnight, cook, cut wood, light fire, collect water and carry your kit- total cost £98.83

If I had another £20 spare I would also consider buying a DD scout hammock, which is a basic lightweight but strong hammock designed for those under 6 foot tall, I use them for kids and small adults on my courses, but I have slept in one a couple of times and got in fine, although the fit was snug around the head and feet. Scout Hammock £21.95 on eBay from DD Hammocks. Provided your campsite has trees hammocks are great for getting off the cold, wet, or hard and rocky ground, or any other unfavourable floor, including those in hotter climbs covered in insects, snakes and scorpions, provided there are trees to fix it to. Hammocks are versatile and very lightweight, taking up little pack space. You can use them as a seat when relaxing, a place to keep kit dry and tidy in the day time, you can stick a sleeve over it or some elastic loops when not in use and peg it up under your tarp to give yourself day time covered living/workspace if required. Well worth the investment if you have the extra money to spare.

 

From this point on, you can selectively add or upgrade your kit as need and money arises, but beware of filling the spare space in the Bergan, at this point carrying what we have listed here, you are already beginning to master traveling light with only what you truly need for comfort, so don’t be drawn in by the bright colours of packaging and the unnecessary shiny baubles and gimmicky gadgets within. Instead try to answer problems with skills learned and natural renewable natural resources before carrying a kit item to do a job, and when buying equipment, know you have researched well and considered what you really need. Why buy something superlight and expensive if you only carry it from a car park to a pitch rather than hiking with it for miles? Why carry a pot stand or tripod for the fire when a hazel rod can be cut from a coppice stool to make a pot hanger to do the same job for free, and three or four more will grow in its place (assuming you have land owners permission to cut the wood of course, irresponsible cutting will simply make landowners reluctant to allow people onto their land at all).  Consider kit acquisition with care and don’t spend unnecessarily. Most expensive doesn’t always mean best.

A final note. We’ve talked a lot about the merits of buying surplus kit but don’t  forget that improvising or adapting some kit items can be a great way of getting something exactly the way you want it, not to mention being satisfying in itself,  without spending a fortune. From sharpening blocks and strops to reflector ovens, axe handles, knife sheaths and axe masks, all can be made for minimal cost. With a bit of imagination getting outdoors with quality functional equipment needn’t break the bank.

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