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Adventure / March 19, 2017

6 ways to camp like a caveman

Written by: Justin Park

Dave Canterbury doesn’t do titanium. And he wouldn’t feed freeze-dried bag meals to his dog. He’s a self-described “old-school dinosaur” who followed a passion for period-accurate 18th century tracking and scouting into a career as a guide, TV personality, and primitive skills instructor.

He makes a surprisingly compelling case for not only bucking the ultralight trend but learning the woodsmanship necessary to become a competent camp builder and campfire cook.

His new book, The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild, is a blueprint for doing just that.

Culled from our conversation and his book, here are the six guiding principles of something we’ll call Canterbury’s Campfire Cooking Code of Honor:

    1. Use the fuel you’re already burning. Canterbury doesn’t use the ubiquitous JetBoil-type titanium stoves that run on propane canisters. He figures that’s a waste of a good fire.“The fire is really already the center of most campsites anyway. You’re gonna sit around that fire, smoke’n’joke, drink beer, whatever it is you do at night at camp. Talk about the fish you didn’t catch, the deer you didn’t shoot, the one that got away or the one you’ve gotta track down the next morning. It’s all gonna take place around the fire, so if you’re already sitting there why not cook a decent meal instead of stepping away from an already roaring fire to use your JetBoil to cook something that my dog wouldn’t even eat.”
    2. Stop counting grams. There are limits to what you can realistically carry into the backcountry, but Canterbury says the 35 pounds a relatively fit adult male can carry should be more than enough to carry your shelter, food and tools over distance.
      “I’ve got an instructor at my Pathfinder School who had a student tell him he didn’t want to carry in a cast-iron stove saying ‘That thing weighs 5 pounds!’ My instructor told him ‘Well, lose 5 pounds, dude, and carry the stove!’” says Canterbury.
    3. Break your pack weight into thirds. Canterbury suggests devoting one third to shelter and sleeping system, one third to tools (his book recommends a basic toolbox of a cutting tool, a means of making fire, a cooking vessel and cordage for building things at camp) and the final third to food and luxuries such as a book, toothbrush or a flask. That breakdown provides around six pounds for food—enough for a week or so.
    4. Use the resources around you. While you can bring in dried meat to add to meals, Canterbury advocates fishing, trapping and hunting to augment staples like rice, instant potatoes and biscuit mix. “I want to show people you don’t have to be a professional hunter or trapper necessarily to be able to catch food, you just have to know where the food’s at,” says Canterbury. Almost all fish and game eventually visit the water’s edge, which makes it an ideal spot for snares and nets. Edible plants and mushrooms are also often found near water (which you’ll need anyway).
    5. Learn to cook with fire. There’s one central truth to campfire cooking: flames burn, coals cook. Canterbury says one of the most underappreciated campfire cooking methods is “baking.” Burying food in coals is a time-tested but forgotten method of transforming raw ingredients such as fish, root veggies and meat. This process is easier with aluminum foil, but can be done with no gear. Canterbury’s book offers a wealth of primitive cooking techniques.
    6. Choose your wood carefully. Part of the woodsmanship required to be a skilled backcountry chef is knowing what wood to burn. Softwoods such as fir and pine burn hotter but don’t form coals as well. Canterbury recommends starting fires with softwoods but building the coals required for cooking with hardwoods such as aspen, maple, beech when available.If you have to cook with softwoods like pine, beware the resin they can leave behind on cookware and flavors they can impart to food. Coat cookware with grease and cover dishes with foil when you have to use pine.

Sound like work? It is. But Canterbury believes that work keeps the campground experience authentic.

“That ambiance around the camp, that’s really what it’s all about,” says Canterbury. “Enjoying meals around an open fire is something our ancestors did 2,000 years ago. There’s a connection. Sitting in front of a fire cooking is a connection to nature itself. It really is.”

Do you have a book for us to review? Pitch it to us at [email protected] 

about the author

Justin Park

Justin is a Breckenridge, Colorado-based videographer and writer with strong roots back home in Upstate New York. His passions alternate between the shamelessly frivolous and the ruthlessly practical. There’s backcountry skiing and mountain biking for the sheer thrill of it. There’s hunting, foraging, spearfishing and cooking to put food on the table.

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