Through the COVID-19 pandemic folks had the time to develop new hobbies. Many of these hobbies included outdoor activities offering escapism from the lockdowns we endured. The pandemic and the issues it brought with the global supply chain also brought about an interest in learning skills centered on survivalism and self-sufficiency. Mushroom Foraging and camping are a couple of hobbies that my friends took a new interest in, but how does one go from reading about the outdoors to being comfortable in the wilderness? By putting boots on the ground.
Reading is a great way to build your knowledge base; books, articles, reviews, and instructional videos are all some of my favourite ways to gather new information. It’s thrilling to be able to talk to people about your new interests, but being conversationally fluent in the outdoors does little to improve your skills. Most of us don’t have a mentor that motivates us with opportunities to learn these skills through participation; however, books teach you the information you need to get your hands dirty, and then your challenge is going out and feeling the dirt on your palms. It’s not easy, but if you’re found in a position where you need to use your knowledge in a survival setting, having practice behind you makes navigating a stressful situation significantly easier.
Your brain doesn’t make optimal decisions under stress
Putting boots on the ground and practicing what you’ve learned can not only be helpful, but can avoid potentially dangerous decisions. If you’re outside, hungry and there is pressure to find food, you could potentially make very poor choices or fall prey to confirmation bias. Confirmation Bias is when your brain assumes the identity of a plant/animal/fungus because it’s what you desire. It can be dangerous, but having practiced your skills to where you are comfortable and confident could be the difference between eating a common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) and an immature destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera). Making poor decisions under stress isn’t limited to foraging. Do you get shakes from adrenaline when hunting? Most people do, it’s called Buck Fever. Imagine trying to take a shot when under stress and you’re shaking like a leaf from excitement. The more you get out there and practice when there is no pressure, the more likely you are to be safe and successful if your life depends on your skills.
Learn what not to do
I have learned a lot in my life from getting outside and making mistakes, many of them books couldn’t prepare me for unfortunately, authors haven’t lived in every biome or been through every unique scenario that a person can face. You want to have enough knowledge to avoid dangerous mistakes, but it’s inevitable that you will make little mistakes- and that’s okay! Try not to feel discouraged if you make a lot of mistakes, use them as bricks to build on. The more mistakes you make, the better you will become at mitigating future ones.
Putting boots on the ground should be fun
Even as an adult, going outside and observing nature brings out my sense of childlike wonder. By doing the kind of silly experimentation that kids love to do I learned that Northern Pike will eat pretty much anything that moves, including an apple core. As a teen living in the suburbs, I would watch the bugs while I smoked darts and learned that paper wasps will use coloured paper for their hives if you leave it in a quiet and convenient spot. If going outside begins to feel like work, then you’ll never keep up with it. Find the fun in regular practice. Embrace the child inside you that is mesmerized by everything that nature has on display. The wilderness is not an entity to tackle, but a friend to get to know and grow old with.
Don’t let time constraints be an excuse
Putting your boots on the ground isn’t just about the big trips where you can commit hours or days to your hobbies; it’s about just getting outside to learn anything you can. Every time you go outside and have a look around is time well spent. You don’t need to always bring gear with you and spend hours honing your skills; just a simple hike will give you the chance to see what’s growing and coming into season, who’s leaving signs, what bugs are maturing, what time the fish are eating. Putting boots on the ground should be fun and accessible for you. If you spend ten minutes outside feeling the wind and watching the weather pass, then you’ve already done something to grow in your hobbies. As you’re able to spend more time outside and collect different pieces of information, you’ll become more capable for the days when you can spend hours outside with all your gear, and you’ll feel more comfortable doing it.
Embrace the overlap
As you get outside and develop your practical knowledge, you’ll begin to see how different areas of interest bleed into each other. For example, I read that Early Morels (Verpa bohemica) are often found beneath willows and aspen buried in the leaf litter. What books didn’t tell me is that in the same places I find early morels, I find bear sign. In May, when the black bear hunt begins, there is very little bear sign compared to hunting black bears in the fall, so I go to the habitats where Early Morels are and I’ll often find bear sign as well. Many unsuccessful mornings of hunting have turned into very productive afternoons of foraging (I refuse to admit how many times I’ve stepped in bear shit picking morels). This coincidence probably isn’t the same everywhere, but because I’ve committed to putting my boots on the ground I’ve learned these connections in the wilderness around me.
Books are full of information that is begging to be put to the test. The most skilled folks I know are constantly reading and putting new ideas into practice. Outdoor hobbies are a lifelong learning journey. I am always amazed when I hear elders talk about how much they’ve learned over any given season (just when you think Mamére knows everything!) You’ve done the hard part in learning some foundations, now put on those boots and build on it.