Camp and Trail Advice for Primitive Outdoorsmen and Historic Campers
Updated: Feb 18
I Promise You'll Learn Something! Here are a Few Trail Tips Used by Frontiersmen, Fur Trappers, Soldiers, Emigrants & the Rest of Our Early Western Ancestors
What I think when I roam the wooded trails using the methods of our ancestors…
As primitive outdoorsmen, we step through the veils of time onto ancient pathways with a wanderlust that suits our breed in a very unique way. How do you explain the sensation of your moccasins eating miles of pristine trails beneath the canopies of venerable forests; or looking out over grand vistas of this land from under an old slouch hat? The smell of a wet horse while fording a stream? How about making camp using century’s old techniques, and shedding the bonds of modern dependence? It can be dreamed of but never known until you have lived it firsthand. Primitive hiking and tracking appeals to our primal being because it challenges us to develop our sense of self reliance. It’s in our nature to stand in the pure presence of the natural world and accept her challenge as our ancestors did in the ages before concrete highways and gasoline.
As someone who has been a primitive outdoorsman with over 30 years in the wild, I never tire of the simple pleasures that this hobby offers. The glow of a fire taking hold in your tinder nest while sheltering from the rain; the smell of bacon and coffee on a morning cookfire; the crack of a firelock in the dead of winter, or the confident, firm grasp of an old friend’s handshake are just a few mental images that make it all worth it.
While many of us have years of experience to rely on, there are two realizations that have compelled me to write up some trekking & campaigner tips to toss around the campsite. First, no matter how much you know, there is always something useful to learn from your neighbor. Second, if we are to pass on the tradition of primitive outdoor life to future generations, we need to accept the new generations into our ranks; share all the information we have and give them a sense of ‘tribe’ and belonging. Here are a few nuggets to help the new members along. For all the old hands, you’d honor me to add this to your training materials. (*Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviation of a chapter from The Frontier Plainsman’s Guidebook. The full version of this article contains additional information including my personal field notes, extra hacks and cites sources related to the methods for the historic researcher and authentic reenactor.)
(post 1840s) Forget the pretty printed match boxes; carry matches in a small corked medicine bottle or airtight match safe. Heavy showers, humidity, and body sweat will render your matches useless, unless you dip them in paraffin to waterproof them... but no promises. If your hair is clean and dry, try running damp matches through your hair. You’ll be surprised how much moisture, this draws off.
Flint with steel and punk are more period correct for pre 1830s but either way, they are
easier to start fires with when the atmosphere is wet and windy. Punk can be in the form of charcloth, charred rotten wood, tinder fungus or moistened gunpowder rubbed into cotton cloth or paper. Wind will fan this flame instead of extinguishing it.
If the smoke from your fire or pipe hangs low in the air or the birds hunt insects low to the ground, barometric pressure is dropping and it’s a good sign of a coming rain even if rainclouds have not come up over the horizon yet.
When weather starts to turn rainy, grab a hank of dried lichen, cedar bark, mouse tinder, etc. and wrap it in your oilcloth or stow it some place that will stay dry. Open pinecones are great fire starters due to their high resin content but don’t count on them for anything else but to get the fire started. It is best to split deadfall and get at the inner wood for your fire. The wet exterior can be dried at fireside to be burnt later. This is a team effort and it’s easier if each carries their own light load rather than leaving to just one in the mess to do it all.
Although there are times where you have a limited fuel selection and must settle for whatever is on hand, you should know the difference between the good and poor burning woods. I generally prefer hardwood (broadleaf) over softwoods (conifers) but sometimes broadleaf trees such as the willow are the worst kind of wood to forage unless you are making charcoal. Generally, you want a wood with a slow burn speed that generates a good heat output, burns clean, and leaves lasting coals. Examples of the best woods for
this are Ash, Beech, Apple, Cherry, Cedar, or Hawthorne. There are many decent woods in-between but there are also poor woods that should only be used as a last resort. Poor woods are either too difficult to keep lit, or burn too fast, smoke, spit, spark too much, or don’t give off sufficient heat. These woods also don’t produce a good coal bed. Examples of poor firewood are Chestnut, Fir, Holly, Poplar, Spruce, or Willow. It’s also important to note that a poor burning wood’s ash does not contain enough lye to make soap, or to be used in cleaning cooking implements, or fortify Indian meal.
(*Stick to using good burning hardwood ash, oak, sugar maple, mesquite or fruit-woods for good coals that leave serviceable ash to make lye with.)
Carrying Your Rifle/Musket/Fowler Properly:
Period drill manuals such as Russell’s Instruction for the Drill, Scott’s, Gilham’s, Hardee’s, Casey’s, & etc. will give you the various methods of carrying arms but here is some crucial advice. In rain and snow, carry your barrel downward either at “Secure Arms”, cradled across your forearm, or slung on the shoulder with the muzzle down if you don’t have a tompion. It keeps the rain/snow out of the barrel and lessens the likelihood of turning you into a lightning rod.
(*Additional tip: when coming in from the cold, leave your rifle outside if you can help it. The heat from the indoors will cause condensation inside your bore that will travel down past your ball & greased patch to soak your powder load. In the morning, your powder will be wet and your lands-rusted.)
If carrying a firelock, secure your lock cover or keep your arms in the gun sheath. When marching in the mud, here’s a way of resting without sitting in the mud. Rest the butt stock on the ground and tilt the muzzle forward at about a 25-30° angle with the trigger guard pointed skyward. Straddle the long gun and squat down resting the muzzle between the knees. Rest your forearms on the tops of your knees with both hands gripping the barrel. (Like a witch riding a broom.) Rest one of your thighs on the long gun barrel/fore stock itself and it serves as restful alternative to sitting in the mud like a greenhorn who does not care for his gear, clothing, or health. Sleeping on arms, keep the muzzle between your knees, laying on your side with your head resting on the crook of your arm and the side of the butt stock for a pillow. It’s not that bad in exercise but I recommend not priming your weapon if you enjoy the toe count that you currently have. Also, in any case, remember the age-old adage to “see to your weapon but never let it see you”. When picking up a long arm from a wagon or anywhere else, never seize the barrel and drag your arms toward you muzzle-first.
Marching and Bedding Down:
Wear your drawers inside-out so that the seams don’t chafe you (old Civil War Veteran’s tip).
Wrap a bandage around chafed parts of the legs underneath the trousers to have relief from the abrasion.
Wearing a night cap, turban, or other period wrap will keep your head from getting a chill. If you don’t have any, cover your head in your blanket but leave your mouth exposed. (When breathing into your bedding, moisture in your breath will eventually permeate your clothing and blanket causing you to lose warmth. So vent it away from you as you sleep.)
Don’t sleep in your clothes if at all possible. Wash clothing if needed when you turn in and/or hang up in fair weather if possible. Wear a night shirt and or clean drawers.
Moccasins and other camp shoes help with foot hygiene. Try to keep your socks clean and dry. Change as often as practicable. Let your toes breathe. Harden your feet by standing in cold water each morning. Standing in the cold lye-ash of a hardwood fire before adding socks prevents rash and infection. If your feet blister do not steep them in cold water. You’ll make it worse. Rub them in pig lard and add some chalk or flour. Another alternative is to rub them with some castile soap and replace your socks with a clean, dry pair.
Preparation for Your Trip:
Read your maps; pack a compass; and either a watch or reliable sundial device that will help you track time.
The only person who says they have no use for a map & compass is either a pre-1900 Native American, a tenderfoot who never treks out more than a few miles, or a Liar who entertains the delusion that he’s the reincarnation of Joseph Walker. There are ways to determine where North is, but compass bearings and maps are essential to everyone but the Indians, Mexicans, and Mountaineers who actually spent their entire lives out on the Frontier and developed an uncanny knowledge of the land.
The same goes for having a means to accurately mark time. It’s easy to look at the sun and guess the hour. It’s harder to accurately determine the time. Knowing the time is important for packing, driving, clearing floodplains, reaching your destination before sundown, etc. This is why it pays to carry an almanac, period pocket watch or at least, a sundial-compass.
Care for Your Tinware: Tin boilers, coffee pots and the like are often used as receptacles to pack extra stuff. Don’t do it. The constant motion of either you or the horse you rode in on will cause the protective tin finish to be rubbed away by whatever you stuffed into it. Cook over coals and NEVER put your tin into the flames.
This will weaken the solder on the higher points and having the spout or bails fall off your coffee pot or kettle is just embarrassing. Also, try to avoid cooking over woods that give off a lot of resin in the smoke. (Hence, it is why woods that leave good coal beds are preferred.) Thick smoke coats your tin in black soot that partially insulates the metal from the heat (causing more time to be needed in order to heat or boil); also, well maintained tinware does not soil the rest of your kit. (The pitch soot attracts dust and keeping it off your clothing and gear extends the life of fabrics).
Keeping Food in Camp:
Keep your haversack, bread bag, or market wallet off the ground unless you like ants…in everything. Mice and other rodents also like chewing through your bag for your meal, crackers, sugar, etc. Hang it on the rifle stack or construct some other means to keep it off the ground but always respect the resourcefulness of bugs. Keep everything closed, use mountain mint as a repellent if necessary and post a watch to ensure larger animals don’t wander into camp. If there are trees, consider making at least a tenderfoot's cache to keep your main foodstuffs from the reach of bears long enough to run them out of camp.
Don’t eat where you sleep. You’ll drop crumbs…and be sorry later.
If you kill something, set up your shambles at least 200 yards outside of camp and downwind. The scent will attract every predator in the area.
Do it in a lightly greased pan. Wait till batter bubbles up and hardens. Use knife blade to separate contact between the cake and skillet. Use a sharp, forward motion that will throw the cake forward, up, out, and over to the uncooked side. Practice at home a lot and never try to show off. (Trust me on this.)
Don’t be a Greenhorn! Here are some big mistakes to avoid out there.
Keep your powder horn away from the fire! This sounds like common sense but I've seen a spitting campfire throw sparks right onto a ranger's powder horn. Fortunately, nothing happened. Shift your bullet pouch and horn away from the fire when warming yourself. If it's a large 'white man's fire' shuck your horn and stow it with the rest of your kit. Don't leave your gear laying about camp. I once saw a powder horn kicked into a coal bed by some Darwin-award finalist and the predictable outcome woke up everyone in a 5-mile radius.
Get your own cuspidor! Never spit or throw refuse in a fire while people are cooking or intend to cook. Its uncouth and a splendid way to disrespect the members of your group.
New Hack! Don’t lay your hatchet about camp. Either sheath it or slap its blade into a log or stump. It protects the blade from damage and everyone else from the blade.
Stay Sharp! When chopping sticks, NEVER do so against the ground. It damages the hatchet’s edge and you risk flipping the broken end of the stick up into your eye. Do your chopping on a log or stump or large piece of deadfall instead.
Quicksand is for drinking, not drowning. Many desert rivers run underground. When crossing these, you’ll often encounter quicksand. Don’t fight the quicksand, work with it. I have had my experiences with quicksand on the Mojave river and almost lost a horse so don't repeat the mistakes of my youth. The good news is that the human body is light enough to float on quicksand (I know this first hand from large, deep quicksand fields.) The bad news is that your heavy gear can weigh you down and drag you under. If ever you notice the dry sand of a wash or riverbed moving like a waterbed, the next part is where you start sinking through. Toss your rifle lengthwise upon the dry sand and shuck your gear. None of it should sink and you should be able to extract yourself without losing a thing. Now make a wicker basket or use a nail keg (with loose fitting staves) and dig down, then sink it to the rim. This will become a water source once the sediment settles.
Our ancestors spent centuries mapping our world and discovering its secrets. Now we have the future to rediscover our forgotten past using the secrets of our ancestors. There are things in this life that bring us together and enrich our time in this world. This hobby’s one of them and I’m proud to be in this camp with you. May your tribe be ever growing.