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The City Slicker’s Guide To Bushcraft On A Budget: Your Pack, Fire, And Shelter

hikers preparing their packs

As we have previously discussed in this series, your knife is crucial for living well in the woods, for the simple fact that without one, you would have a difficult time starting a fire or making shelter.  Fire and shelter are absolutely crucial in order to maintain your body’s core temperature at the happy 98.6-degree mark.  If you can make a fire and have a proper shelter, then not even the coldest nights will get you down.  However, that does require some gear in order for you to accomplish this without having a Zippo lighter and a $450 four-season tent.

First and Foremost: Your Pack

This is often complicated far beyond the need.  All you will require for a good pack is something that will hold your stuff and will also hold up to abuse.  Yes, you will need to go a bit beyond a cheapo book bag from the dollar store, but you don’t need to blow $100 either.

Set aside no more than $40 for a good pack, and then head over to your local military surplus store.  You will not need anything huge—a bag roughly the size of a medium “Alice” pack and frame system will suffice.  Make sure it does not have a plethora of straps hanging from it (as these will get caught on everything).


You can head to your local super-store and buy a Jansport book bag (or a comparable brand).  This is sure to smell nicer than the military surplus option, it will be just as cheap, and it will also be simple to use.  Just make sure you also add bungee cords for strapping down your wool blanket or sleeping bag and other items, and you’re good to go.

Fire: Taking Civilization With You

It is said among woodsmen that fire is essential for physical and mental wellbeing.  Fire is seen as what separated primitive humans from civilized man, and for good reason.  Fire allows you to properly cook food, stay warm, process resin, produce charcoal for camouflage and smoke-bathe for scent control, signal for help, and even manipulate metal.  Fire is essential for life.

It Is Safe, Will Burn On Snow, In Rain & In 30 MPH Winds, All Natural Fuel…

However, fire is not exactly easy to make, even if you have access to a lighter.  You have to have three elements in order to have fire:

  1. Oxygen
  2. Fuel
  3. Heat

The first two elements are widely abundant.  Generally, there’s lots of oxygen and wood at your disposal.  Heat is not so common.

Here’s what you will need in order to effectively create fire with little difficulty… on a budget.

First, you need something that will easily light without much heat present.  Many bushcrafters prefer using cotton balls that have been coated in petroleum jelly.  Also, you can even use lint from your dryer, which will burn with one tiny spark.  Obviously, the lint is free.  The cotton balls might cost you a buck and a half per bag of 100.  Not bad for the budget, to say the least.

The reason for using the petroleum jelly is that it slows the burn rate of your cotton or lint ball.  In fact, if you add Vaseline, a standard-sized cotton ball can burn for three minutes –plenty of time to get a good fire going.

Next, you will need a cheap lighter, often found in gas stations.  This is a $2 purchase that will give you over fifty fires (provided you’re using cotton balls).

However, sometimes lighters will not work if it’s windy or wet, and you need surefire.  So, for roughly $15, you can find a ferrocerium rod at any camp store.  When scraped against the spine of your knife, they produce sparks that are thousands of degrees.  This should light your greased cotton balls in two or three strikes, and if the cotton or lint isn’t wet, it will work every time.

Shelter: Home Away From Home

Lugging a giant tent out into the woods isn’t much fun, especially if it weighs more than eight pounds.  If you really want to connect with Mother Nature, then all you need is a good tarp and a reusable space blanket.  If used effectively, you can stay quite dry and warm under these light pack items.

Seal out the elements while high-visibility orange makes it easy for rescuers to spot

Your tarp shouldn’t be too big; otherwise, it will get heavy.  However, a five-by-seven-foot tarp should be just about adequate, for most folks.  It should be waterproof, as that is the main function of your tarp.  If water makes it into your shelter, then your pack will get wet and you will get cold.  If you’re just working with a modest budget, then with a quick visit to the hardware store, you can come out with an adequate tarp for $10.

A reusable space blanket is excellent for keeping you warm, as the shiny material will reflect heat back to you.  A reusable space blanket should only run you about $10 to $15.  Simply suspend that under your tarp, and just above your body, and you should be quite cozy in even chilly weather, provided the wind isn’t whipping through your campsite.

You will need cordage in order to use this system.  The best kind for this job is 550-paracord, which is available in most hardware stores for less than $8 per 100 feet.  The 550-paracord will allow you to suspend your tarp by tying your lines to saplings, deadfall, or even your handmade stakes (another great use for your knife).

Last, one of the best investments you can make is a 100 percent wool blanket.  Wool is one of the only known materials that can get wet and dirty without losing its insulating properties.

An easy modification for a wool blanket that will allow you to turn it into more of a bedroll is by adding laces with your 550-paracord.  All you need to do is figure out where your feet stop when the blanket is over your neck.  Then, simply sew the 550-paracord to that mark and also to the bottom edge of the blanket.  This will allow you to fold it over by tying those laces together, covering your feet from getting cold.  Then, sew laces to the edges, except for the top, which is where your head will stick out. Once you’ve done that, you’ve just created a $20 sleeping bag that will stay warm even if it gets wet.

Also, with the use of a blanket pin (less than $10), you can even change that sleeping bag into a hooded poncho.  No, it would not be very good for the rain, as it is not waterproof, but it is excellent for cold, dry (or misty, drizzly) weather.

The best kind of wool blankets for bushcrafting use can be bought from military surplus stores or online.  However, do check the materials tag before you buy, as some GI blankets are not 100 percent wool.  If you search online, then you may find Italian army wool blankets that are very comfortable and extremely effective.  This might run you about $30, but this upgrade would be worth every penny on a cold night.

We’ve covered your basic shelter needs, but there are still other tools that are necessary for your pack, that are important for maintenance, first aid, and a way to stay hydrated.  While you might have a place to stay for the night, and a nice fire near the tarp, you’re going to be getting rather thirsty. Check back next week for more information on finding clean drinking water.

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