Eight Lost Arts of the Outdoors


“Do you also use a slide rule?” a friend asked me as I got my course plot­ter out to plan our cross­ing between islands. He stopped laugh­ing because his GPS couldn’t get a sig­nal and the fog was mov­ing in. Come to think of it, I did once have a chem­istry teacher who made us learn how to use a slide rule. Old-school tech­niques work great when high-tech equip­ment fails, but you must have the know how. Here are the eight “lost arts” that every­one should learn.

1. Read­ing a Topo Map
In the days before smart­phone hik­ing apps and GPS, read­ing topos was con­sid­ered a fun­da­men­tal out­door skill. Know­ing the mean­ing of con­tour lines, land­marks, and how to visu­al­ize what a land­scape would look like from a topo map was how we stayed found, deter­mined which peaks where “scram­ble-able” and which would require tech­ni­cal skills and gear, where to find water, and what was a sen­si­ble dis­tance across the ter­rain. We now can load a lot of this info on devices, but devices can fail.

2. Dead Reckoning
When you’re in your sea kayak in the fog, or hik­ing off-trail through fea­ture­less woods, dead reck­on­ing is all you have. Using a chart or map, a com­pass bear­ing, and a watch, dead reck­on­ing is how you nav­i­gate with no land­marks. Time and trav­el speed help you deter­mine where to turn. Over time you’ll learn to trust your com­pass, your cal­cu­la­tions, and your gut.

3. Burn­ing Wet Wood
In one of my ear­ly out­door lead­er­ship cours­es, we gath­ered fire­wood. The instruc­tor came around and poured water on it and told us to start a fire. A lot of kin­dling and frus­tra­tion lat­er, we were able to keep the fire going through the night. It turns out, you need that fire the most when things are wet. The clas­sic “boy scout juice” cheater approach isn’t avail­able to most of us since isobu­tane can­is­ter stoves have tak­en over the mar­ket, so now’s the time to mas­ter the wet-wood fire again. Tips: tons of real­ly small kin­dling for a long, long, long time.

4. Fix­ing Stuff
Liv­ing in a dis­pos­able cul­ture, com­bined with many gear manufacturer’s gen­er­ous return poli­cies, we’ve been robbed of a crit­i­cal skill: fix­ing our gear. In addi­tion to help­ing us out of jams in the back­coun­try, fix­ing gear is lighter on the plan­et and the wal­let than replac­ing it. It also saves you from hav­ing to re-learn new gear and gives your kit the “griz­zled vet­er­an” look.

5. Tar­pol­o­gy
For many decades, the abil­i­ty to rig an awk­ward square tarp in rain and wind was a nec­es­sary skill for trav­el­ing light or storm-proof­ing your camp kitchen. Short­er out­ings and para awnings have reduced the need for on-demand tar­pol­o­gy skills. But when you’ve got a few trees and a sketchy fore­cast, tar­pol­o­gy is your friend.

6. Knots
Taut­line hitch, highwayman’s hitch, tim­ber hitch, trucker’s hitch, fisherman’s knot, bow­line. Climbers still know the fig­ure eight, but cam straps, cara­bin­ers, and bar­rel locks have allowed our knot skills to dwin­dle. As a NOLS instruc­tor friend taught me, you don’t know a knot until you can tie it in the dark and the rain. Prac­tic­ing in a cold show­er with the lights off is optional.

7. Hang­ing Food
Anoth­er knot-based skill, keep­ing food away from crit­ters is nec­es­sary in bear coun­try, or even in places like on Olympic Nation­al Park’s coast­line with it’s clever and aggres­sive rac­coons. As more parks are requir­ing bear can­is­ters, the abil­i­ty to toss a line over a branch and hoist bags of food have decayed like an aging pitcher’s fast­ball. But bear can­is­ters are expen­sive, bulky, and dif­fi­cult to pack for long trips or large groups. Re-enter the art of the bear hang. Part tree selec­tion, part throw­ing skill, and part knot knowl­edge, the art of bear-bag­ging is far from dead.

8. Cal­cu­lat­ing Exposure
Cal­cu­lat­ing a photograph’s expo­sure is like dri­ving a man­u­al trans­mis­sion: it gives us more con­trol, but in the era of auto­mat­ic cam­eras, many peo­ple don’t know how it’s done. If we can mas­ter your under­stand­ing of how a cam­era sees—even a basic smart­phone camera—we can turn cap­tur­ing a sim­ple scene into a fine art. It requires a cam­era with some man­u­al con­trol (even many point and shoots do) and some time to learn. But visu­al wiz­ardry will be at our command.