If you're living in the U.S., the U.K.-based Paul Kirtley may not be the first name you think of when someone says woodsman or survival expert, but he's in the small group at the top of my list of bushcraft aficionados. Paul is an experienced outdoor professional who specializes in guiding trips in Scandinavia, Canada, and Africa, as well as teaching bushcraft and survival courses out of his home base.
I've followed Paul Kirtley for quite quite awhile and was quickly drawn to him because his trips and techniques are very similar to my preferred style of wilderness experience, and the northern forest he often roams looks an awful lot like my favorite haunts. His use of traditional bushcraft skills while on wilderness treks is particularly appealing.
Paul uses modern media channels to readily share his advanced outdoor knowledge and traditional bushcraft skills. He relays this information with clarity and typically with the intricate details that show he truly owns the skills through great experience.
You can follow Paul on his personal blog (www.PaulKirtley.co.uk), his YouTube channel, or Instagram (@PaulKirtley); subscribe to his podcast (I've really enjoyed Paul's new podcasts, which have featured other outdoorsmen, including Ray Goodwin and Kevin Callan); and take courses through his bushcraft school, Frontier Bushcraft.
Paul's excitement for outdoor adventure and bushcraft and survival skills is contagious and inspiring, and I'm excited to share it with you. Check out my recent chat with Paul Kirtley:
You’ve built your business, Frontier Bushcraft, around guiding and teaching bushcraft skills. Were you raised in a family that loved the outdoors? Did your passion for the outdoors originate somewhere other than with your family?
I grew up in the country and as a child, I was always playing outdoors. My parents were keen hikers and took me on day hikes from when I was quite young. We’d walk in the forest behind our house, as well as go into the mountains in North Wales. When I was a little older, I would venture out in the woods with my friends. I got to know those woods very well. We didn’t use a map and compass to get around the woods. We got to know the area near our house and over time ventured farther and farther out. This is the classic home-based navigation system used by a lot of native peoples, and I believe that having to build a mental map and find my way around without a map or compass stood me in good stead for feeling comfortable in the woods wherever I travel.
Your writing and videos are fantastic! Really solid advice that you can tell is backed up with plenty of real-world experience in the field. Can you describe your development and learning process?
Well, as I mentioned, my outdoor skills development started when I was a boy, exploring the large forest near my parents' house in North Wales and hiking the mountains of Snowdonia.
Later in my childhood, we moved to northern England (another rural area), which is where I spent most of my teenage years. I had a small group of friends who were interested in survival skills, and we’d go out to the woods and build shelters, light fires, purify water, try to build traps, and the like. We had a couple of survival manuals, and we worked from those. One manual in particular, Lofty Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook, I knew by heart because I’d read it so many times.
In my later teens, I got into mountain biking cross country and there were lots of areas to explore in the hills and valleys around the area we lived. In some ways, this really developed my psychology of self-reliance with minimal equipment. Even though I was out for only day trips, this was before mobile phones, and I was pretty much on my own in terms of getting home safely. This also provided a really good base of fitness, which I transferred across into mountain walking backpacking.
I went to university in Edinburgh, Scotland and had easier access to the mountains of the Scottish highlands. I’d developed my hiking and navigation skills in the Lake District, which is not too far from where I lived with my parents. When I went to Scotland, I started making solo backpacking trips in the mountains and glens, again in the days before mobile phones. I loved the idea of self-contained, self-reliant journeys. I read as much as I could on backpacking and even though I had little money as a student, I tried to improve my kit as much as possible. I also worked on putting together lightweight food menus from inexpensive ingredients I found in supermarkets, rather than buying expensive specialist hiking foods. All that time, I was working on my navigation skills, too.
After I graduated from university and moved back to England, I would regularly jump on the train to Scotland with my backpack and head out for a week or so of hiking and wild camping. I also undertook my UK Mountain Leader training and assessment during that time.
I then started taking trips in Europe, and after a trip to Spain's Pyrenees, I started to think back to my interest in survival skills, mainly from two perspectives:
- First, my trips were increasingly remote, and I wanted to make sure I had backstop skills in case something went wrong.
- Second, I felt the modern camping equipment (e.g., stove, food, etc.) made it very easy to be in a little bubble of your own creation.
As a child, I’d always been interested in nature. I wrote in notebooks about plants, flowers and other things I saw on walks with my parents; but at this point, to an extent, I wasn't feeling as connected with nature on my trips as I wanted. On the Pyrenees hike, I camped in a beautiful mountain meadow. Nearby, I found wild strawberries--so delicious and so full of flavor. At that point, I knew I wanted to know more about the natural resources available to me. It was not long after this trip that I made a resolution to seek out formal training in bushcraft and survival skills.
Have you had any significant changes in your outdoor endeavors or style over the years?
With all of my outdoor activities throughout the years--hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, canoeing, ski touring, snow-shoeing and winter camping--I think my focus has always been a love of the natural world and being self-reliant. I like the aesthetic of wild places, so much so that I explore it with my photography, too. And at the core of whatever I did, was a desire to be self-reliant. I always wanted to have an adventure, but eliminate stupid mistakes--avoid the avoidable. I thought about what I was doing and how I did it. Whether it was an 80-mile cycle ride or a week-long backpacking trip, I always took responsibility for getting myself home.
You spent 10 years working for Ray Mears as an Instructor at Woodlore, Ltd. This sounds like an incredible experience. What was it like?
It was a great apprenticeship in not only bushcraft skills, but also teaching outdoor skills. I had instructional experience from running a ju jitsu club in London, and I found my experience with clearly explaining and demonstrating skills helped in coaching people to develop physical skills in the outdoors.
I started as a course assistant, helping Ray and Juha Rankinen on bushcraft courses in the UK. This was a part-time role initially, but after a couple of seasons, I was offered a full-time job with Ray.
Working with Ray was not always easy. He has very high standards and expects a lot of the people he hires. Ultimately though, you come out the other side of the process all the more capable because of it. Working with Ray also provided other great opportunities, such as working with Lars Falt, one of Sweden's leading survival experts.
I eventually became the Course Director of Ray’s outdoor training business. I was responsible for running many of the programmes myself, as well as recruiting, training, and managing the team of assistants and instructors who worked with us. I did this for around five years before leaving to start my own wilderness skills training and expedition company, Frontier Bushcraft.
I love wilderness trekking. The challenge of covering large distances, often over challenging terrain, by foot or canoe, living self-supported in the wild, and seeing incredible wildlife and scenery. Many bushcrafters and survivalists give me the impression they never really hit the trail and get into the wilderness. What do you think the average bushcrafter would learn from taking a longer backpacking or canoe trip with you where you incorporate bushcraft skills training and development?
I tend to agree with you, too few people who enjoy the skills of bushcraft are lucky enough to be able to enjoy a trip through really wild country. I think part of the reason people go to a fixed camp and practice bushcraft skills is because that's how a lot of bushcraft courses are run. Plus, I think part of the issue is that while people may have the bushcraft skills, they don’t have the journeying skills. You need to be able to navigate and have good first aid skills before you start any wilderness trip. You then need the specific skills for the mode of transport, whether that be paddling skills for wilderness canoe trips or skiing ability for ski touring. It’s quite a learning curve.
One of my motivations in starting up Frontier Bushcraft was to offer wilderness trips that had a traditional bushcraft element. With our week-long courses, we include an element of moving from place to place, as well as a good discipline and getting people into a different, more self-reliant mindset, which allows us to access different resources. While undertaking a canoe trip in Canada, for example, guests learn about the trees and plants surrounding them, which ones are useful, which ones are edible, which ones indicate water or direction. That way, there is much more connectedness to the environment and people relax into it, rather than travelling in a bubble, where they feel entirely dependent on the modern kit they have with them and stressed if anything fails or malfunctions. Having some woodcraft knowledge, the ability to light fire, fish, and use natural resources is very empowering.
Bushcraft living involves using resources from the natural world around you. Many outdoor organizations have adopted the principles of “Leave No Trace” and would likely object to many bushcraft techniques. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think you need to strike a balance. Unless we are talking about a small sliver of the last remaining example of a unique ecosystem, I don’t believe that not allowing people to touch the environment is the best way to preserve it. If people don’t go to wild places, they don’t value them. When I teach people about useful wild plants, in particular wild foods, they take great care not to step on those plants when they next see them, even if that plant is common and widespread and difficult to avoid. They immediately value it. I think education in the value of nature has a great role to play. Also, bushcraft to a large extent defines our historical relationship with the rest of nature. Note my emphasis here on the rest of nature. We are not separate from nature. This point needs to be put across more strongly in outdoor education. Nature is a community that includes people. The western view of recent times is to see ourselves as separate from, and even above, nature. This is one of the reasons we as a society don’t value nature and wild places as highly as we should. All that being said, we also need to educate people on how to clear up after themselves when out on trips. I’m always dismayed when I come across messy campfire remnants, containing tin cans, foil, and the like. It’s so easy to avoid and best practice with leaving as little trace behind you as possible is central to what we teach. As a tracker, I check the campsites of my students very thoroughly, and they are often surprised at what I find. At the end of the day, you have to guide yourself and your behavior by respect for the natural world.
UPDATE: Check out more about Paul's thoughts on LNT in an article on his blog.
It seems that bushcraft skills are often demonstrated solo (e.g., individual bashas to sleep under, personal bialys cans to cook in, each person carrying their own axe, etc.). Do your groups travel this way on expedition?
I think at the heart of a lot of people’s bushcraft interest is a desire to be self-reliant. So people like to think of themselves as being self-contained and capable on their own, and that’s an admirable goal. On expedition, it can be nice to have a bit of decompression on your own and away from the group, and a personal sleeping area is a good way to do that. But I also enjoy tent life on Winter camping trips, so I think it is about the context of what your are doing. If you are in a canoe with someone all day, it can be nice to have some quiet time on your own in the evening. If you are walking on your own most of the day, it can be nice to come together as a group at camp.
On all of our trips, we cook communally. That’s just the most efficient way of doing things. It’s about economies of scale with your fire or stove and dividing up the roles, so someone can collect firewood, while someone else is preparing food and so on.
With respect to cutting tools, again, it depends on the nature of the trip and how heavily those tools need to be taken. On Summer trips, you need an axe less than you do on Winter camping trips with a heated tent. So in the latter case, you take more axes in the group than you might on a Summer canoe trip.
You have to be realistic about the journey you are trying to make, rather than being individualistic or egotistical about the skills and tools.
Many of our readers are volunteer or professional outdoor leaders, and many aspire to be in such positions. What are the different requirements as far as skill, preparation, and mind-set between someone who is proficient with bushcraft skills and a wilderness guide?
I think the big thing is experience. And you need to be a people person. You can be good with your skills, but you also need to be good with people. You have to have a genuine care for your guests. You need to have enough skills and experience in an environment so that looking after yourself is not an issue. An inexperienced person gets stressed, whereas an experienced guide takes the conditions in stride. Most importantly, they make good decisions with judgment based on experience and reflection. With experience, a good guide can put nearly all of their daily effort into looking after and serving their clients well.
There are many people who dream of opening a bushcraft or survival school or possibly guiding venture. You obviously have the wilderness skills; what business skills did you have to develop and run Frontier Bushcraft?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Running a small business requires you to wear lots of hats. You have to manage people, develop and implement systems for doing things, learn how to market, deal with accountants and other business service providers, learn to negotiate, and work collaboratively with other organisations. I sometimes think running a small business is like a survival situation. You are responsible for getting through the next day or week or month or year--no one else will do it for you. You have to break things down into manageable tasks and prioritise. If you can do this, then you can go to bed at night, knowing you’ve done things as well as you can. There are never enough hours in the day…
It looks like you run some pretty amazing trips in other countries and on other continents (e.g., Sweden, Canada, Africa, etc.). Can you tell us a bit about your planning process for these trips?
Each trip is different. You have to start with a good concept--a reason for going. From a skills perspective, it also needs to encapsulate some core skills for the environment, whether that's bushcraft skills or other journeying skills. A core part of our philosophy at Frontier Bushcraft is for our courses and trips to be enabling. We do not want our students and guests to become dependent on us. In fact, we want the exact opposite. We want people to become less dependent and more able on their own, so if they wanted, they could undertake similar trips on their own. That’s what we mean by enabling. Of course, they would have to undertake all their own planning, risk assessment, organization of ground resources, work with ground partners or outfitters, hire satellite phones, put emergency plans in place, etc.--all the things we do for our clients. And that’s why many people come back and do multiple trips with us. They are happy for us to arrange that aspect, and they like travelling with us. They like our ethos, and they know they will meet like-minded people on the trips. The great thing for us as instructors and guides is that because we always aim to make our students and guests as capable as possible, we end up running trips with great groups of people, who know what they are doing already or who can contribute strongly to the group effort and are really willing to learn as we go.
Here in Minnesota, we love Winter camping, especially in our Snowtrekker tent. I was surprised to see a Snowtrekker tent (made by Duane and Margot Lottig, right next door in Wisconsin!) featured in one of your articles about Winter camping. I’ve typically seen Europeans using Lavvus in Scandinavia. How did you come to use the Snowtrekker, and can you offer any comparison points of the Snowtrekker versus a lavvu?
While I’ve done a good amount of ski touring in the Nordic tradition and have spent times living out of laavus, we were keen to explore the world of snowshoeing with toboggans and hot tents. They all go together very well and are as suited to the boreal forest of northern Scandinavia as they are to the northwoods of North America. With respect to the tents in particular, many of the Scandinavian canvas lavvus, while very well constructed, are quite heavy for the ground space they provide. Also, the stoves that are made for them are very heavy. They are good combination with a snow machine and trailer, but they didn’t suit our desire to move with snowshoes and toboggans. We wanted something lighter and more efficient for the weight. Hence, we looked at Snowtrekker. The A-frame shape of a Snowtrekker is much better suited for drying clothes--it’s a subtle, but important thing when you are hauling your own kit. We added some hanging lines right along the inside length of the apex of the tent, which allows us to get the clothing and footwear of four people up in really warm temperatures and get them bone dry. This makes a massive difference on multi-day trips. It's much harder to do with a conical tent, which gives you only a small amount of drying space in the hottest part of the tent.
Where do you want to take Frontier Bushcraft in the future?
I want to continue to take a considered, intelligent form of bushcraft that respects and understands the amazing diversity of natural resources to as wide a range of people as possible. We’ll continue to offer solid, great value skills training in bushcraft and other wilderness journeying skills and, over time, expand the range of wilderness trips we offer so that people can both experience those places, as well as apply and develop their skills in a real-world context.
Scott, may I say a big thank you for inviting me to do this interview for BMP, and to your readers for their interest in what I do. I wish everyone happy trails and memorable camps!
If you want to read more about Paul's adventures, his Winter camping techniques, or his bushcraft skills, or listen to his podcasts, or just shoot him an email, be sure to check out his personal blog: www.PaulKirtley.co.uk.
Also, even though Paul only modestly mentioned it in the interview, aside from being renown throughout the U.K. as a top-of-the-heap bushcraft instructor, who is wicked good with a knife, axe, and paddle, Paul's also got a great eye behind the lens. Check out a few of the incredible shots Paul has taken on his many outdoor adventure trips throughout the years (you can admire these and other photos Paul has taken on his blog, www.PaulKirtley.co.uk, or follow him on Instagram (@paulkirtley) for even more outdoor photos):