Last week there was a forum post that posed the question of how bushcraft has evolved for you over the years. I thought that the evolution of a person’s approach to the outdoors over time was an interesting subject, and decided to look back at how things have changed for me.
As some of you already know, I grew up in Bulgaria. I was there until I was a teenager. That’s where I first started with outdoor activities. I used to backpack with my grandfather, and spend time on my grandparents’ farm. We are talking about small scale farming without power tools; something that I imagine hasn’t been seen on a large scale in the US for a while. My parents and I also used to ski quite a bit. As a kid, all this mostly translated to me playing around in the woods. There are a lot of things that I could have learned back then but didn’t, mostly because I was a kid and didn’t care. These days I try to think back and remember the things I saw but didn’t ask about.
I moved to the US right before high school. I didn’t do anything outdoor related for the first few years. I didn’t speak the language, had to travel two hours each way to get to school, and we generally had plenty of other things to worry about.
I started getting back into the outdoors at the end of high school/beginning of college. I knew nothing about where to go or what to do, so I didn’t know how to get started. I wasn’t sure what was allowed and where I was allowed to do it. Some research showed me that there was a train that passed right next to one of the state parks from where I could reach the trails. I decided that this is how I was going to do it. It took me about four hours to get to the forest from where I was living. For those interested in the area, I would get off at the Tuxedo, NY train station and then backpack up to the Dutch Doctor lean-to area in Harriman State Park.
My gear was comprised of the cheapest things I could find. Back in Bulgaria I had gotten used to backpacking with very basic gear. Out of necessity everything was what you would call old-school. Our packs were frameless canvas, blankets and clothing was made of wool and cotton. Not fancy Merino wool, mind you; It was the type of wool that still had straw embedded in it. I remember it was a huge deal when puffy ski jackets made their appearance in the early 90s. My knife was an old folding knife, etc. Well, when I started looking for gear in the US, the cheapest thing I could find was army surplus gear. There was a surplus store next to my college, so I started gearing up.
If I remember correctly, initially I had a medium ALICE pack, army surplus closed cell foam pad, a wool blanket (very thick one), MSR stainless steel pot, and an alcohol stove. Water purification was done with iodine tablets, and my shelter was a poncho. I wish I had some pictures to show you, but I definitely didn’t have money for a camera back then, and I wasn’t blogging, so I didn’t care. All of this was happening around 2002.
Jump forward about five years, and I can show you the first glimpses of Wood Trekker through the camera of a friend who was with me on one of the trips.
Still mil-surplus head to toe, but I had made quite a few changes over the previous five years. Developments were slow because I couldn’t get to the forest that often due to the long travel time.
The ALICE pack was replaced with a replica CFP-90. I still had the pockets on it back then. It had a basic frame, so it functioned better than the ALICE pack which I was using without a frame. The blanket was replaced with a US Modular Sleep System (MSS). I had bought a DD 9x9 tarp, an MSR Whisperlite stove and a MSR Waterworks EX filter. Honestly, I don’t remember all the things I had in my pack, but I know it was a lot of stuff. I know my “survival” kit alone needed its own shoulder bag. The little camera case you see on the backpack strap is not for a camera, it’s for another “survival” kit. Why is it attached to the pack? Who knows!? The pack was heavy. About 45lb (20kg) heavy. I remember it feeling like an accomplishment just to manage to get the gear up the mountain to the area where I was to camp. I was also into knives at the time, so I had a bunch of them…just in case.
During that time I started focusing more serious on winter camping. It was a big part of the reason why a got the Modular Sleep System (MSS).
I started blogging in 2010. The reason was that I finally got a camera and a car with which I could reach the woods more easily. I was following a few other blogs at the time and wanted to give it a shot. Not much had changed in terms of gear since the above pic.
I had removed the side pockets from the CFP-90, but the gear was mostly the same. I also really got into axes. We had and used axes back in Bulgaria, but when I started to look for a decent axe here in the US, at the time I just couldn’t find any good information. I started using and reviewing axes just so I can find exactly what I want. I learned a bunch of things in the process. Eventually I found what I liked and didn’t like, and said what I had to say on the subject. Other than more axes and less knives, my gear mostly remained the same.
The biggest change I made during that phase was to switch from a tarp to the GoLite Shangri-La 5 tent in 2011. It was a big change for me.
Shortly after that, I started reading a lot of forums, and got swept up in the whole “the old ways are the best ways” thing. I switched to a lot of wool and canvas during that period because everyone was saying it was the way to go. I even went back to a wool blanket for a while.
I still kept the CFP-90 because I couldn’t find a canvas pack that could carry as much as the CFP-90. I also quickly switched back to the sleeping bag.
Even though I went to heavier materials during this period, I was gradually starting to cut down on weight. I didn’t carry the bivi any more, and reduced all of the small items which usually add up to a lot of weight. I also gave up on carrying a “belt kit”. Instead I started carrying a knife and a few other items in my pockets. Everything else went inside the pack.
This all lasted for a little bit over a year. Gradually I started figuring out that just because people say things should work, doesn’t make it the case. I stopped listening to opinions and just started trying things out for myself. Little by little I started replacing items that didn’t work well with ones that worked better for me. The result was the Wood Trekker you recognize today.
During this process I transitioned to a smaller shelter; first the SL3 and then the Direkt 2 tent. My pack gradually decreased in size to 40L (Black Diamond Speed 40), which I use year round these days. The MSR Waterworks EX filter was replaced with a Sawyer Mini, the Whisperlite Stove was replaced with a Kovea Spider (and few other variants), the closed cell foam pad eventually became an inflatable Thermarest Neoair XTherm, the Modular Sleep System (MSS) was replaced with Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag for winter, even though I still use the MSS patrol bag for warm weather.
My clothing system transitioned from a direct layering system to an action suit system where most of my insulation is stored in the backpack for when I’m stationary, relaying only on minimal clothing when active.
The more time I spent in the woods, the less reliant I became on large fires, and gradually started carrying a hatchet instead of an axe, and eventually just a knife and a small saw. While I still have and use my axes, they are not a primary focus for me these days as a piece of gear to carry in the woods. Wilderness navigation on the other hand became much more important to me during this period.
The latest development in the evolution of Wood Trekker has been to expand the things I do when in the woods. Over the past few years I have managed to narrow down on the exact gear that I want to use, and the skills that I need along with it. Gradually, trips have become routine, and new gear has become uninteresting to me. That is why you see so few reviews from me these days. I’ve figured out what works for me, and I just keep using it. I started doing trips in more and more challenging conditions, but even that became routine.
To counter that, I’ve started adding different components to my trips: climbing, hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.
It makes each trip more challenging, and has given me an opportunity to obsess over completely new types of gear.
So, I’ve gone through Mil-Surplus Wood Trekker, Old-School Wood Trekker, Modern-Gear Wood Trekker, and now Doing-Everything-There-Is-To-Do-In-The-Woods Wood Trekker. Of course, none of these transitions happened overnight. They were gradual and there was a lot of going back and forth.
The most rapid changes have occurred over the past few years. A main reason for that is that I had much easier access to the woods, which allowed me to spend a lot more time there. The other reason is that the more time I spent in the woods, the less validation I sought from others. In the early years, as a lot of people do, I used to question whether or not I was using the right skills and the right gear. I would look to forums and blogs to make sure that I was doing things “properly”. That created relative stagnation. Once I became confident enough in what I was doing, it allowed me much more room for experimentation and development.
Along with my changing approach to the outdoors, there has been a change in my approach to blogging. I started this blog about five years ago. In the beginning I was very interested in gear, testing, and figuring out skills. You rarely ever saw any pics of me or my trips. Over the years I have moved away from that and focused more on trip reports. I know most people don’t like reading them, but I did it for two reasons. The first one I mentioned above, i.e. I’ve largely found the gear I want and the skills that I find most efficient, and don’t have that much more to say on the subject. The second reason is that a fellow blogger rightfully made an observation a few years back that bloggers and forum participants talk a lot about what should be done, but rarely show what they themselves do in the woods. I think there is value in being able to observe someone’s trips into the outdoors. It gives you better perspective on how they do things, and consequently whether or not their ideas and recommendations apply to how you approach the outdoors.
Anyway, this has just been a short trip down memory lane. Hopefully this will give people better perspective on where I’ve come from and why I do what I do.