Spending a weekend in the woods with just a change of clothes and a sleeping bag may not be everyone’s idea of a great holiday, but this is no ordinary camping trip.
During the next few days, I’m going to be armed with a set of bushcraft survival skills, courtesy of experts Woodland Ways, which means should I someday find myself lost in the wilderness, I’ll have the means to make it out alive.
Although I’ve done my fair share of camping in the past, the absence of a tent this time around is making me feel apprehensive.
After a 20-minute car ride from Oxford train station, I’m abandoned on a road in the middle of nowhere and meet the rest of the group, some who are clearly diehard Ray Mears fans.
Backpacks in hand and waterproofs ready, we’re led into the forest by instructors Adam and Ruth, arriving at a clearing housing a roaring fire and hot water ready for tea. It’s all quite civilised until the bashers (rectangular tarpaulins) and bungee cords are produced. This is our home for tonight.
My partner and I pool resources to make something that at least resembles a tent. After much to-ing and fro-ing, with a bit of light bickering for good measure, our shelter is up and the sleeping bags are rolled out. Sorted.
A short walk from camp, we find Ruth surrounded by 16 dead wood pigeons. This will be our dinner – once we have removed the meat from the bird. I’m taken back to A-level biology when I had to dissect a pig’s heart, and start to feel light-headed.
But I pull it together and fight through the retching to rip the breast from the pigeon, blood and guts flying about. Preparing food without the help of a supermarket is not for the faint-hearted.
Once dinner has been devoured, it’s off to our sleeping mats for a night in the open. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain. In the morning, it becomes clear that the damp weather has brought with it an abundance of slugs. One woman declares over breakfast: “I found a slug in my sleeping bag.” Next time, I promise myself, I’m packing a tent.
As if reading my mind, Ruth tells us we’ll be building more permanent shelters today. “The rule of three is your key to prioritising tasks for survival,” she explains. ”You can survive for three minutes without oxygen, three hours without exposure, three days without water and three weeks without food.”
So shelter-building is high on the list of techniques for survival. If you’re caught out in the open, getting away from the elements is essential to avoiding death by exposure.
My partner and I decide to try the ‘leaf-debris hut’ option. We start with a triangular frame made from branches scavenged from the forest floor.
The next stage is cutting down bracken and fern to cover the top, and then finding a good five or so inches of leaf litter to form the roof, all scooped up with our hands. Once everyone’s shelters are finished, the camp resembles a hobbit village.
With lunch playing on my mind, we’re put to work gutting and deboning rainbow trout, and then the next stop is how to make fire. Adam talks us through a brief history of techniques.
One method that blows me away is setting fire to wire wool by using a 9v battery – cool! Adam then makes the traditional techniques, such as a bow drill and flint, look effortless. When it’s finally my turn, it all comes to an abrupt end as we are deluged by rain.
After an uncomfortable sleep, thanks in no small part to snails trailing across my face in the night, I awake dry and surprisingly warm.
It’s time to dismantle camp and head back to the outside world. I’m looking forward to a change of clothes and a shower, but am sad to leave the simplicity of the woods. I may be exhausted, but the skills and tips I’ve learned are definitely ones worth hanging on to.
Still, next time I head into the woods for a holiday, my promise to myself of bringing a tent will definitely not
Woodland Ways weekends
from £219pp. Available in Oxfordshire and Derbyshire.