Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

I was fast to a monster cutthroat trout when I spotted a dome tent cart-wheeling its way across the lake. On the opposite shore, a frantic figure dropped his rod and gave chase. Oh boy, I thought. Tonight’s campfire will be torture for that poor schlub. And to think, with a few simple skills he’d have been an outdoor hero, not a zero.

Simple, easy-to-learn outdoor skills can make you the go-to guy in the woods … and in town. Women will want to be with you, men will want to be you. Okay, at least you’ll be the “cool uncle.”

build a fire

Nothing caps the day like a bright, cheery campfire in your backyard or the dank woods. Building one that lights quickly and doesn’t smoke isn’t rocket science. Just start with the right ingredients and a little fundamental knowledge.

Unless you’re signaling the International Space Station, a mid-sized fire (a couple feet in diameter) is plenty for warming, cooking, and camaraderie. Search out three kinds of burnable material: tinder, kindling, and fuelwood.

Tinder is dry, light, fluffy materials … leaves, grass, and bark. If it crunches when you crush it in your hand, it’s good tinder. Gather several big handfuls. Kindling is pencil-diameter twigs and slivers from larger pieces of wood. I like my kindling to have “edges.” It seems to better catch the flame from tinder. A couple good handfuls, four to 12 inches long, should do. Fuelwood is anywhere from an inch to a foot in diameter.

Architecturally, I like the modified log cabin: two fuelwood “walls” forming a right angle, a big ball of tinder nestled in the corner. Kindling leans against walls over the tinder, a few pieces of fuelwood above it all. Here’s what separates the men from the coughing, teary-eyed boys: leave plenty of room for air—a smokeless fire is equal parts heat, fuel, and oxygen. Touch a match, and get out the marshmallows.


GPS can be a lifesaver, but a map and compass skills will bail you out when batteries fail or canyon walls block your signal. A “catchline” leads back to your truck or camp. Here’s how:

Bring along a map of the area. Make note of a stream, road, ridgeline, or other long relatively straight feature near your parking place or camp. That’s your catchline. Note your direction as you walk away from that location, do an about-face at happy hour, and you’re home free.

Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. If I’m really smart, I’ve overshot camp on purpose (say, to the north) so I know to walk south when I hit the stream.

Sharpen a knife

It’s all beer and skittles until you’re in the woods—or behind your barbecue grill—with a knife that won’t cut open a candy wrapper. Luckily, you can put a pretty good edge on your knife with a finger and whetstone.

Grip the knife, extending your index finger along the “spine,” the top edge of the blade. Try for a 10- to 15 degree angle of blade to stone. If you have sharpening oil, use it. Water or saliva will do in a pinch.

On the rough grit side of the stone, make about a dozen strokes with moderate pressure on the blade—as if you’re trying to shave a bit of the stone off—not back and forth. Cover the entire length of the blade with a sort-of curving motion as you “shave.” Swap hands, repeat for the other side of the blade. That’ll do, unless you’re prepping for surgery.


Beer done right! Drinking from a glass honors craft beer: aromas develop, carbonation settles, it warms slightly (a good thing), and you get your money’s worth on a bottle that cost upwards of four bucks. Angle the glass about 45 degrees, and hit the glass about an inch from the top with the beer. If there is little or no “head” (foam) once you’ve poured a half-glass, turn the glass to upright and pour directly into the center of the beer. With practice, you’ll achieve the ideal: an inch or so of head and a rich, malty glass of manly sustenance. Extra points for intensive practice.

Driving a muddy road

Go slow. Avoid braking as it will lock your wheels, and you’ll slide, inevitably, toward embarrassment. Use a low gear and four wheel drive. Look ahead to anticipate a good “line” and maintain momentum. In deep ruts, move your steering wheel left to right—the tire tread will grip the rut walls. Avoid sharp steering wheel movement—the momentum of your vehicle will carry the day, not your tires.

If you get stuck, more weight on the drive wheels helps. If they haven’t already left you in disgust, put your friends in the truckbed over each wheel. Place branches, brush, floor mats, or small rocks in front of drive tires to create some traction. “Rocking” back and forth by going from forward to reverse gears might get you out, but spinning wheels at high speed just digs you deeper toward smirks and eye rolls from your friends. Sometimes, all you need are a few inches of movement to get out of a rut—a small log, shovel handle, or other lever pushing on the bumper might be enough.

Remember that tent? The ability to tie a few helpful knots separates the men from the boys. You’ll find a multitude of uses for a trucker’s hitch, clove hitch, taut line hitch, bowline, square knot, and two half hitches. Watch them in action at animatedknots.com, and you’ll never be that guy at the lake!

For years, I’ve made an informal study of search and rescue reports. It’s clear that just a few stupid moves are to blame for most volunteer callouts. If you don’t want to be the guy we see on the evening news carried out on a stretcher …

Phone home

Charge your cell phone battery. Avoid bucking snowdrifts on a road—they get worse the farther uphill you go. Bring water. Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back. Learn how to build a life-sustaining fire. And take the “Ten Essentials”: Map and compass; waterproof matches; another type of fire starter; emergency space blanket; aluminum foil; water purification tabs or filter; water container; whistle; parachute cord; multi-tool; and duct tape.

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