I’m a Bushcraft Fire-Starter …

It is not hard to find fascination in the elemental power, beauty and value of fire, especially with regard to its effect on the human race. So I was delighted to head once again for the woods of Oxfordshire and meet up with fellow trainee fire-starters on the Woodland-Ways ‘Intermediate Fire Weekend’.

Ability to kindle fire in the wilderness is a primary skill for the outdoorsman. It has been said that ‘the more pressing the need, the more challenging the task’, and this was evident as we got into the detail of what fire is, how to ignite and how to sustain it. The level of dedication to experimentation and research into fire making by Jason Ingamells and  his team should not be underestimated, and was a great platform for exploring exactly what is happening during the process of combustion. Not only this but an examination of the history and archaeological record of fire making gave a rich context to our own attempts at creating flames.

It was great fun to try out a host of techniques from flint and steel with Amadou (prepared tinder fungus Fomes fomentarius), regular matches and lighters, modern pyrophoric steels with myriad tinders both natural and man made, through to exothermic chemical reactions created by mixing potassium permanganate with sugar, and also with glycol antifreeze! We also learned about how to use various parts of a 4wd vehicle to yield fire materials and ignition sources.

Fire forage challenge

Fire forage challenge

After learning about where to site fires for different purposes, and various fire-lays, the instructors issued a challenge, asking students to return to camp within two hours having collected natural materials to light a small fire using sparks. Foraging suitable materials, even when using a modern steel (which sheds high grade sparks of 2,980oC) has its challenges for the learner, and springtime is a part of the year less abundant in tinders. However, all participants successfully gathered, prepared and ignited fires which were sustained for a few minutes, and gave a great feeling of success!

I chose to gather the few remaining dead grasses I could find (as stage one kindling) and spread them between my jumper and shirt to dry them out prior to ignition. With a little catkin down as tinder (dried in my pocket) added to the buffed grass, I was relieved to see my sparks take effect, and kindle the other materials into flame.

My confidence in creating effective wilderness campfires safely is certainly higher, and I look forward to drilling further into the realm of fire making at the advanced course where we will learn about friction fire techniques!

Going live with Medair in S. Sudan

I have long admired the work and reputation of Medair, an international agency relieving human suffering in some of the world’s most remote and devastated places. I was glad to be contacted a few weeks ago and asked to undertake a technical consultancy for them in the world’s youngest country, S. Sudan.

Basic services we take for granted in the UK (electricity, water and sewerage) can be absent or inconsistent in developing countries, and a significant challenge for relief agencies is maintaining electrical infrastructure to safe and effective standards. For this reason I was contracted to assess and make recommendations for improvements to the electrical supply and distribution at the Medair Office and Accommodation compound in Juba.

Medair NTB

Getting to grips with security lighting

Great to be back in the field, and in a location I am familiar with from Tearfund days. I felt thoroughly welcomed by the Medair team and was able to dive right into the fascinating conundrum presented by their compound electrics. After a security briefing, general briefing and site tour I began lifting the cover on various parts of the system to understand how mains power, generator power, solar power and inverted battery power are supposed to be distributed to deliver 24/7 supply across the site.

It was encouraging to find that several key aspects of the system were of high quality and well installed, due to the efforts of a previous Medair logistician and experienced electrician. As ever the biggest challenge is often the local wiring, which is a credit to the ingenuity of those who put it in, who always find a way to get electricity to come out at the other end. The difficulty is the scenic route that electricity takes, often down very thin poor quality wires of indiscriminate colour coding, and not infrequently electrifying parts of the circuit which should never be live.


Inverter System Checks

The tendency of poor wiring to act like a fuse in the event of a surge, and melt together with other wires is the source of many ills in NGO compounds. Working with electricity requires constant vigilance about what is live to avoid a shocking time. Mercifully careful planning, working at odd hours to avoid disrupting staff, and locking the generator shed ensured I could poke around without any hair raising experiences.

More novel hazards included live snake eggs found inside a double wall socket, torrential rain and broken roofing tiles, and the fact that repairing a 500W halogen security light is a superb way to meet all the insect life from a half mile radius!

After 12 days assessing, advising, speaking with staff and suppliers, and re-wiring some aspects of the system, I felt confident to complete my recommendations and action plan. Happily it is now possible to find contractors in Juba able to repair and upgrade electrical systems to satisfactory standards, and who are able to accommodate the requirements of international organisations. I enjoyed my time with Medair immensely and wish the team every success as they continue to meet the needs of people exposed to extraordinary poverty.

Entomology Magnet

Entomology Magnet

Great Game Gets Groovy …

So, how do you unwind after a hard day’s drive across Europe?

Nathan Beard Ventures – Taking Expedition Technical Support to a new level!

This short film was put together by Joby Newsom, The Great Game expedition film editor. You can follow him on twitter @Jnewson.

Who are those guys … ?

… they’re good! This was Butch Cassidy’s comment on trackers pursuing him in the wilderness despite crossing rivers and solid rock. I recalled this quote while learning tracking skills with Woodland-Ways a few days ago.

Tracking training at camp by Jason Ingamells

Tracking training at camp by Jason Ingamells

Somewhere between an art and a science, following signs left by animals and humans is a fascinating jigsaw. The diverse evidence of a creature’s movement through an area is as varied as the senses. I was absorbed by spending time tuning in to what was going on around us in the woodland perceived by sound, smell and touch, as well as sight. The subtleties within a set of footprints were teased out by Jason Ingamells, as he taught us how to identify direction, speed and even consider the mood of animals as they passed.

Tracking - a serious business ... :o)

Tracking – a serious business … well, sort of! 🙂

Practical training was enhanced by wide games to hone our stealth skills. The first challenge of creeping up on a blindfolded man, through woodland, without making a sound, was considerable. Especially when the individual has acute hearing and Jedi direction finding skills, well done Jay!

The second challenge of creeping up on a Border Colly dog sat in camp seemed virtually impossible. However, the advantage of a headwind, smearing mud and ash on my face (next time I’ll remember my balaclava!), and 45 minutes of crawling on my toes and finger tips through foliage put me within 15 feet of my prey before being detected.

It is amazing how much information is out there on the ground describing the activity of woodland creatures. I appreciate I have only begun to recognise some of the headlines, but look forward to spending more time examining the fine print!

A taste of Spring …

Recently I met fellow students of Woodland-Ways for a day learning to forage for wild resources. Our focus was not only food, but also plants with medicinal and artisanal properties, and those good for firewood and fire lighting.

We enjoyed a glorious sunny day guided by Kevan Palmer, who is a senior instructor and genuine expert in wild plants. As we ambled, peered, sniffed, and nibbled our way round the woods it became clear that Kevan’s fascination with foraging is both highly practical and well researched. It was amazing to realise just how many common plant species have been utilised over the centuries by our ancestors, and what a wealth of nutrition and remedies are growing in our woods and hedgerows.

Spring Forage Day with Woodland-Ways

Spring Forage Day with Woodland-Ways


Journeying through the common names for local flora was fun, ranging from the erudite Lords and Ladies, the medieval sounding Yarrow and Ale Hoof, to the aptly named Stinky Bob! I was interested to hear how one of the other instructors had put his plant knowledge to good use applying Yarrow to a cut which resulted in rapid healing without scarring.

I learned that some plants considered a nuisance weed can have valuable properties. Uses for the Stinging Nettle are almost as prolific as the plant itself including; eating (after wilting to denature the stings) with a vitamin and mineral content which far out strips more common greens, cordage when the pith is removed and the strands twisted together, and curiously as a remedy to it’s own sting! Not for the faint hearted, Kevan demonstrated with decisive actions how to pluck, crush and extract the juice of a nettle without sustaining further stings, creating an immediate antidote for any unwary friend already stung.

If grasping the nettle isn’t your thing then apparently Goose Grass is almost as good. Although identifying Goose Grass, or Cleavers is interesting given that every county has about three different local names for the plant.

Salami and Primrose Sandwich - Delicious!

Salami and Primrose Sandwich – Delicious!

I duly plumped up my lunch time sandwich with freshly gathered Primrose petals, and enjoyed tasting amongst other things; Hedge Garlic, Bush Vetch reminiscent of peas, young Hawthorn leaves, Wood Sorrel like apple peel, and the dried seeds of Cow Parsley with a flavour akin to Cumin.

It became clear that correctly identifying flora is not necessarily a simple task given that the morphology and characteristics of each plant change with the seasons, and some within the same family can have radically different properties. Few more so than the Carrot family (Umbelliferae) where innocuous Cow Parsley which provides a delicate herb for fish, is very similar looking to its relative Hemlock which would be the last mouthful you ever tasted if unfortunate enough to eat any. Learning to forage with an expert to hand is definitely recommended!

I am already looking forward to the Autumn Forage day where we may get to try some of the forest fruits and berries which will be decorating the woods. Next stop animal tracking later in May, I will let you know what we manage to spot before it spots us!

Great Game Gets Going …

RGS Start Line for Great Game Expedition

RGS Start line for the Great Game Expedition

Midday on Saturday 13th April the Great Game Expedition truly began. Conceived by Jon Beardmore, his 9month overland journey will proceed from Kensington to Kuala Lumpur.

Days leading up to the departure were made more exciting by major mechanical issues in Boris the 20yr old Landcruiser. These were resolved by Julian Voelcker and his team, enabling Jon and I to drive from the gates of the Royal Geographical Society on Saturday and onward to adventure!

First night camp near Dunkirk

First night camp near Dunkirk

I have been travelling with Jon for the first week providing direct technical, driving, and navigation support before he continues into Ukraine and beyond.

It has been great fun driving across Western Europe getting to know Jon and Boris better. You can chart live expedition progress using the link below to the DeLorme Satellite Tracking System on Boris’ dashboard.


Rhine side sundown in Cologne

Rhine side sundown in Cologne

We have camped next to the Dunkirk beaches, by the Rhine in Cologne, in the centre of Dresden, and arrived in Krakow to the welcoming 4Friends Hostel on Tuesday night. Yesterday was spent crawling around Boris making repairs and improvements, and delivering the last elements of training before the start of Jon’s solo journey.

Highlights for me have been helping Jon get into the swing of his expedition, and making direct improvements / repairs to Boris’ onboard systems. It has been great fun camping on the vehicle roof, meeting new people and countries (Belgium, Holland and Poland for me), learning some Polish, and plenty of laughter!

Beard and Beardmore say farewell in Krakow ...

Beard and Beardmore say farewell in Krakow …

Challenges have been the uncertainty created by ‘dynamic’ vehicle electrics which appear to show various false hazard warnings at random, and the lack of time to learn more European Languages!

I bade Jon and Boris a fond farewell this morning as they departed Krakow en route for Lviv. I am now returning to my family in London and will continue to support the expedition from the Headquarters of Nathan Beard Ventures. Here’s to adventure at home and abroad!

Beard Bushcraft Blog Begins …

Since I was knee high to a badger my delight in the outdoors has abounded. Time as a boy spent in the woods, and especially on the Sussex farm managed by my Grandpa, formed a foundational interest in living, working and playing in wild places. The joy of making things from sticks, creating an open fire, using a pen-knife, eating al fresco and observing wild animals and plants has become an enduring passion.

Woodland-Ways - Buschcraft

Discovering the realm of Bushcraft and survival skills was a revelation, purchasing my first copy of ‘The SAS Survival Handbook’ aged twelve gave to many hours of experimentation in the practical skills required to enjoy wild places with confidence. Some of the experiments were mildly hazardous, and I found out as a youth why it is not a good idea to construct a full size arrow firing boar trap in your suburban back garden.

My library is somewhat biased toward the work of Ray Mears, and I enjoy the incredible diversity of indigenous skill and wisdom he presents, which enable communities to live more harmoniously with their local environment. A friend at work introduced me to the Bushcraft School Woodland-Ways, and the notion of studying and learning practical wilderness skills woke a deep yearning in me. Consequently I enrolled on the Woodland Wayer Course entailing two years of practical training entirely based outdoors, which is the most comprehensive course I could find.

Study is split into seventeen weekend modules, and it is my intention to write a blog after each, to share some of my favourite things about what I am learning.

The Woodland Wayer 2013 intake began in March. Clearly a meeting of kindred spirits, undaunted by cold and wet, students and staff enjoyed a long weekend revising the foundational skills of choosing and using bladed tools. Much sawing, chopping, batoning, whittling and carving was had around the camp fire. The process of safely teasing a spoon from a lump of Sycamore was expertly overseen by Jason Ingamells and Kevan Palmer.

It is a great pleasure to be studying something so close to my heart, and to share that with my family and friends. In time I hope to qualify as a Bushcraft instructor and further learn the way of the woods by sharing it with others.

What happens if … ?

This question is often in my mind, as a logistician certainly, as someone involved in expeditions clearly, and never more so than as a Dad! Hence I have been keen to maintain a First Aid qualification since my teenage years. I have passed various courses including, Basic First Aid [St. John’s], First Aid at Work [Red Cross], and First Aid for Overseas Workers [Red Cross], but most recently I attended the Remote Emergency Care [Level 2] course run by Woodland-Ways in conjunction with Training Expertise, which took things to a new level.

Woodland-Ways - Bushcraft

Entirely based in a remote woodland environment the training was substantially scenario based, and over the course of 48hrs in freezing conditions the students spent plenty of time rescuing one another from a variety of life threatening predicaments. None more grave than simply lacking an open airway. It is astonishing how simple it is to save someone’s life with the knowledge of how to move their head to open their airway.

Vital stuff, and good to get some refreshed answers to my ‘what if?’ questions, especially now that I’m heading off with Jon Beardmore on his Great Game Expedition, and as I look forward to the prospect of wild camping with the Beard family.

The Great Game Expedition – Now with added Nathan Beard Ventures

Earlier this year I became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This has been something of a dream since embarking on a life long fascination with the way the world works, and being inspired by Great Britain’s rich history of exploration and adventure.

Given my desire to provide Technical Logistics support it was a natural step via the ‘Geography Outdoors’ Bulletin of Expedition Personnel which led me to Jon Beardmore’s ‘Great Game Expedition‘. In January the expedition was looking for technical support and I offered my services with regard to Vehicle Management, Off-Road Driving and Recovery, Communications and electrical supply.

Since January I have made numerous equipment recommendations as Jon has continued to prepare himself and Boris, the 20yr old Landcruiser, for this extraordinary journey. In addition we have enjoyed some roof-top camping, equipment testing and off-road driving forays into the wilds of Sussex [see Flickr link for film and pictures].

Recently I proposed joining the first part of Leg One of the expedition in order to give support with driving, filming, map-reading, and ironing out technical glitches en route to the Ukraine. I will be driving with Jon from Kensington to Krakow from next Wednesday.

The Great Game Expedition – LEG ONE

What is Nathan up to?

Since concluding my 7yr glorious season at Tearfund, Nathan Beard Ventures is in the making. Freelance Humanitarian Tech. Support, Training, Expedition Logistics, Project Management, Team Development Facilitation and enhancing people’s lives through Bushcraft! Watch this space, and don’t hesitate to contact me for availability …