Basic Outdoor Skills


On my first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, my friends and I learned a lesson that has stuck with us to this day. We went out fishing and started paddling around the myriad of islands, paying more attention to the fishing than our location. Without us realizing it, the sun started to go down. This is not a big deal when you are in your home territory, where you know every nook and cranny. Not to mention growing up in North Dakota where you can see every yard light for 30 miles. However, when it got dark in the BWCA, it got real dark. It would be fair to say we got scared. We paddled faster to try to get back to camp… a camp we lost all track of.


In hindsight, and after talking over the experience around countless campfires over the years, we were ok that night because of the basic outdoor skills our dads had taught us to that point. Yes, we made a ton of mistakes that night. But, we would have been just fine spiking out if we needed to. The following list of skills is the short list of what we knew and learned during this experience. What is important to remember is I am still learning these skills to this day, as I am teaching them to my own family.




Knots are first because they are the thing that confuses most adults. The earlier you learn them, the better and the more you use them, the easier it is to remember them. A couple of interesting things we have learned from teaching our kids knots are that—with the popularity of ratchet straps and other tie-down aids—we use knots less. Knots the boys knew when they were younger, they have forgotten.


Asking the youngest kids to tie knots this winter revealed a parenting truth I needed to learn. We spent a lot of detailed time with the older ones and more general teaching time with the younger kids. So, this summer, we are all going to work on knots together around the campfire with some friendly competition. If you don’t know your knots, YouTube is full of great videos on the knots you should know. Here is my short list: square knot, clove hitch, taut-line hitch, double half-hitch, bowline, and sheet bend. One recommendation is, as you are teaching knots, use them in an activity that helps kids understand why they should know them. Be patient. Everyone picks up skills at a different pace.




Being aware of your surroundings is incredibly important. With the advent of technology, it’s a skill that needs to be emphasized. I am going to be clear on this so no one reading this continues to blame kids for the lack of this skill. This skill is learned two ways. First by example and second by opportunity. As adults, we need to demonstrate awareness and talk through the process with kids so that they can learn this skill. More importantly, we need to give kids the freedom to go into the outdoors and play, learn and observe. Many adults are so worried about safety that we hamstring kids by obstructing their opportunity to learn outdoor skills. The outdoor skill that suffers the most from the “safety” fear is awareness.




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This seems like an easy skill to learn, but there is way more to fire then you may think. I will never forget the time my dad and I were hiking in the rain and he said, “ok start a fire”. I looked at him and explained how everything was wet and no one could start a fire. He proceeded to the nearest tree, gently picked off the peeled birch bark, soaked the bark in a puddle, collected two handfuls of matchstick-sized dead twigs and pulled out a match and started a fire on the first match. He demonstrated that day the importance of understanding fire and how to start a fire when you don’t need it so that you can when you do need a fire. The keys to learning fire is how to start a fire, contain a fire and put it out—cold-to-the-touch—when you’re done with your fire in all conditions, in any season.


First aid


First aid is an important skill that people get all worked up over. The thing to remember is the word “basic.” The first step to first aid is to calm yourself and then calm the person you are helping. As a family, pick up an old scout handbook (1980s or older) or Red Cross first-aid book. Go though cuts, direct pressure, bites, burns and breaks. Take the time to practice and get comfortable with the basics. Basic first aid can be used in any aspect of life, and the best way to be calm is to know what to do and/or who and when to call.

Buddy system


Whenever there is a story of some mishap in the wilderness that goes bad, there are a couple of common denominators to the situation. One of the common things is someone was out alone that never told someone where they were going, the route or when they would be back. In stories with a positive outcome or an outcome with closure, you will find people who had at least one buddy along. The buddy system doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, but does provide built-in support to work together to get through the hard time. Your cellphone doesn’t count as a buddy!



Finally, respect. It is important to understand and respect the outdoors and nature. We, as adults, need to realize that it’s more important to respect nature than to fear it. Fear leads to irrational decisions that never help in a bad situation. Respecting nature leads to wise decisions that prevent you from getting into bad situations. Kids also learn respect by example and experience. Fear prevents kids and adults from learning respect.


That night in the BWCA, our dads didn’t panic when it got dark. Unlike us, they were confident in the skills we had at the time to keep us safe if we had to spend the night in the woods. We each had a day pack with us with everything we needed. One of the dads stayed in camp and the other paddled out to the middle of the lake in front of our campsite, lit a lantern and waited. I will never forget coming around a corner, thinking we would never find our way back, only to see the light in the middle of the lake leading us to a hot meal. That night, we didn’t get scolded. Instead, we were asked what we learned.


Fast forward half a decade, and two of us that got lost that night undertook a twelve-mile night paddle with a severely sick camper to get him to the emergency room. That night, we navigated by counting strokes and reading a map by flashlight. We were able to succeed that night because of the basic skills we were taught growing up and the lessons we learned along the way. It’s our responsibility as adults to do the same for kids today.