#AskWoodlore – Interview with Keith Whitehead

Earlier this week we invited you to send us your questions for an interview with one of Woodlore’s Fundamental Instructors, Keith Whitehead, about our courses. Many of you kindly took the time to submit your excellent questions, and yesterday Keith sat down to answer them:

Fundamental Instructor Keith Whitehead

Keith teaching splicing on the Camp Craft course

Question: After just completing the last course of the season I finally understand what you and the other instructors have been saying when quizzed about the Journeyman. “The more you put in, the more you get out.” I put a lot into the course, physically and mentally, but I got a lot more out of the Journeyman, including good friends and an unforgettable but tough and rewarding experience. Dan, Keith and Rob, thanks for all your help, encouragement, support and sense of humour.My question to you, Keith – After the Journeyman and the obvious positive experience and impact it had on you, what course/adventure/challenge did you undertake next and why?I’m really interested to know how the Journeyman experience contributed to what you did next, plus I’m looking for something else to do after next year and you haven’t steered me wrong yet. 😜 – Chris G (WINNER OF KEITH’S FAVOURITE QUESTION)

Answer: Hi Chris, I’m glad that you enjoyed the Journeyman; you and your team did very well! Just like you, the course set me thinking very deeply about my approach to the outdoors and about what I would like to do next. I think that it is the subtle differences that really show through: you have a better idea of priority, you realize the importance of looking out for others and taking in the slack when you need to and you have a much better understanding of how to prepare for future trips.As far as what I decided to do next, I made the decision to make teaching and working in the outdoors a full time occupation. This in turn led me on to learning more advanced skills in the Arctic and here in the UK. I think the key is to use the skills that you have learned to pursue what you are passionate about. Once you have identified what that is, you can move forward better prepared and continue the learning. That’s something that never stops!

Q. Dear Keith, please give key characteristics of a teacher being able to light up a passion in a student to learn bushcraft. – Marcin

A: Teaching is a skill just like any other; some people are naturally gifted in this respect and others have to work harder at it. The key characteristic in my opinion is passion. You must be passionate about passing on what you know but more importantly, you must be passionate about the subject that you teach. With passion comes a willingness to learn and a greater depth of knowledge; it also fosters enthusiasm which is immediately sensed by your students. If you combine this with patience and a love of seeing others succeed, you will have an excellent foundation from which to teach and inspire others.

Q. Would you say there are any keys to friction fire lighting, in humid/wet conditions, other than preparation? Are there any special ways of carving the notch to generate more heat for example? Thanks again Keith. – Ciaran

A: Sorry to disappoint you Ciaran but there are no magic tricks in this respect. Good selection of materials, good carving, and good technique are what counts in any environment. In damp or humid conditions remember to look for dead standing wood and carve down oversized pieces if the outer wood is damp so that you can access the dry wood inside. Once the ember has been formed, it is best to let it get air quickly. Releasing it from the notch and lifting it off the ground can help with this but what really makes the difference is practice. Practice in difficult weather with wood that has been found naturally and not stored and you will be much better prepared if you should ever need to use this technique for real.

Q. I love being outside and I am quite a lot. Problem: I am from Sweden, and I have serious problems with the cold. So I enjoy a few months but not more. What should I focus on learning to cope with this? – Annelie

A: Hi Annelie, I’ve spent some time in Northern Sweden so I know how cold it can get in the winter! It is a stunning environment though and it’s well worth learning how to stay warm so that you can enjoy it. Learning how to dress for the cold is essential and not as easy as it may first seem. It’s a big subject to go into but excellent advice can be found in Lars Falt’s book “Uteliv på vintern”. Lars is one of the true masters of his environment and his book will give you a very solid idea of what to focus on.

Fundamental Instructor Keith Whitehead

Keith during the Woodlore Arctic Expedition in 2014

Q. As quartermaster, what are the top three things that make life easier when camping? – Anonymous

A: Good friends, good firewood and good weather! The first two are guaranteed when I work with my colleagues but the third is a little more unreliable. Bad weather makes good training though so it all works out well in the end.

Q. Apart from working at Woodlore, what would be your perfect job? – Scott

A: I wouldn’t swap my job for the world but I do love my camera. I think I’d spend some time getting considerably better and then beg National Geographic to give me a job.

Q. Hi Keith, I hope I find you well. My question is:  What role do you think the bushcraft community can play in making modern society more conscious of our environments, nature and how we rebuild the relationships that have been lost over only a generation or two? All the best. – Andrew

A: An interesting question. I believe that leading by example is the best way forward. Share what you know with the next generation in a practical way and make bushcraft part of what you do when you go outside with your children/grandchildren. If your knowledge and skill is shown to have practical application and make things easier or more interesting, people are more likely to follow your lead. Once people see the incredible resources of nature and that they still have relevance, respect for and relationships with the natural world will follow close behind.Practising the skills and reciting the knowledge without any context makes them lifeless and nothing more than oddities from the past. The key is always in their relevant application.

Q. All the imagery of Woodlore instructors I’ve seen shows them in expensive garments/kit from the store. I understand marketing and don’t object to this, however my question is this: is the content of the courses based and reliant on modern kit? Or is there scope for a more traditional/primitive aspect within your schooling which isn’t so dependant on brand names? – Mark

A: Hi Mark. Kit is a controversial subject and often misunderstood. I buy and wear what I do because I’m an outdoor professional and having good quality kit that is reliable and tough helps me to perform better during the months that I spend in the field. Just as a carpenter would buy the correct tools for their job, so do I. Having said this, it’s true that I spend far more time out and about than most and that what I choose may not be the best option for everyone.Our courses have been developed over decades to give people the skills to make journeys in wild places and enjoy being in the natural world. Some of these skills are very old, some have been developed by Ray and others in the team, and some are decidedly modern. All are taught because they are practical and effective; none of them rely on brands.

Q. You have a really useful kit list for what to bring with you to a course; is there anything that isn’t on the list that you would advise to bring along? – Tim

A: Absolutely! By far the best thing to bring on a course is determination and a will to succeed. Both are free and both will enable you to take as much away from the course as possible. I hope to see you soon.

Q. What are the most common bushcraft myths that your courses dispel? – Bentbrook GC

A: This is a fairly long list but some of my favourites are:

• The utility of a knife is always proportionate to its cost/size.
• Clear, fast moving water is safe to drink.
• The drill and hearth of a bowdrill set must be of different woods/hardnesses.
• Slugs are largely inoffensive.Just to be clear, none of the above are true.

Q. If all you need is knowledge for bushcraft and a good shape knife, then why so much kit been sold? What is the only bit of kit apart from the knife would you keep to aid you in the field? – Paul

A: Some pieces of kit are very useful and some just make life a bit easier. What an individual chooses to take on a journey is down to their own needs and what they expect to encounter in terms of environment and purpose. Bushcraft is a set of skills and knowledge that enable you to go and do other things and is not an end in itself. I think that this is where some of the confusion arises. Of course if I am carrying everything that I need, I want to minimize what I take so that I am not weighed down on my travels but what I do take needs to be completely reliable, well designed and robust. A good, practical knowledge of bushcraft helps me to choose what to buy, pack and leave at home for any particular journey.Most things can be improvised but some are more difficult than others. I think a steel cooking pot would be high on my list so that I could carry and boil water easily. There are many other uses for this of course.

Q. Ray is very famous also in Germany. Are there only courses in English? – Hans

A: Hello Hans. Unfortunately, all of our courses are run in English. However, we have many students coming from all over world to learn at Woodlore and they all come away with a great deal of success. We give out a lot of information during lectures but the essential, practical nature of what we teach is always accessible. I’m positive that you would enjoy your time with us!

Q. Are there any seasonal differences in what is taught depending on the time of year ? – Jonathan

A: Most of what we teach remains the same throughout the year because the skills are so robust. There are some things that change however; the materials that we use to make cordage will differ from the beginning to the end of the season as one resource becomes difficult to harvest and another matures into usability. Plant foods also change throughout the year as different plants or parts of plants come into their season.It’s a wonderful thing to be able to see nature change through the year and reassuring to know that the techniques that we teach are reliable throughout.

Q. As quartermaster, which piece of kit is most abused and needs replacing the most? – Stuart

A: I have to say that most of our kit sees a lifetime of normal use every year and that it stands up to this incredibly well. I think that the poor old billy cans probably get the hardest life. Constantly on the fire, always wet, often having food burned onto them by the unwary or inexperienced and sometimes even being used to carry embers or dig wells in damp ground; they lead a very harsh existence. At the end of each season they need to be cleaned of all the collected carbon which is a considerable job but I have never had to replace one because of breakage. The things that I replace the most are consumables such as saw blades and lantern mantles but generally speaking, everything that is designed to stay in one piece, does so.

Q. Hi Keith, when & how did your first get into bushcraft? Is there any advice you can give to the younger generation to get them outside more? – Tim

A: Hi Tim, I was bought a copy of Ray’s first book (now sadly out of print) when I was studying as an undergraduate. The book had relevance to my subject and interests and to be honest I had never come across so much applied research before. I found the whole thing fascinating and the enthusiasm with which it was written was obvious and infectious. Eventually I found my way to Woodlore on the Fundamental bushcraft course and just stayed.I think that I would advise the younger generation to do what I did as a boy: go out with friends and have adventures. If you spend time playing outside and enjoying yourself, you soon fall in love with the natural world.

Fundamental Instructor Keith Whitehead

Keith taking part in vital swift water training before the course season begins

Keith has enjoyed reading and answering your questions; we hope you’ve enjoyed reading them too. We would like to thank everyone who sent in their questions for Keith and congratulations to Chris G, whose question was picked as Keith’s favourite. Chris wins a £20.00 Woodlore Voucher for his entry.

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