BARACK Obama grabbed headlines last week when he took time out from a scheduled visit to Alaska to trek through the wilderness and to pick up survival skills from British survival expert Bear Grylls.
Oprah Winfrey loves it so much she camped overnight in Yosemite National Park — with the cameras rolling all the way.
Matthew McConaghy had a camping-themed wedding in which guests were offered the opportunity to stay in tents, and even the glamorous Eva Longoria loves to recall the childhood wilderness trips during which she and her siblings learned to live off the land.
Here in Ireland skills like lighting fires and cooking under the open sky are no longer solely the preserve of the scouting movement and a few outdoors enthusiasts.
Growing numbers of families are getting in on the act, whether it’s just enjoying a family camping weekend or joining the Irish Survivalist Group and learning basic survival techniques such as shelter-building and water sterilisation.
You might suppose modern children and teenagers would be reluctant to leave their iPads, but they’re utterly fascinated by the traditional skills of fire-craft and shelter building, says adventure expert Ed Ledesma, of Tipi Adventures Ireland.
Ledesma and his company offer people the opportunity to experience what he calls “a true sense of wild camping” — clients camp in an Indian-style teepee or ‘tipi’ and sleep in a hammock beneath the open skies.
Participants get to learn some basic bush-craft skills — foraging for fuel, lighting a fire using flint and cotton wool smeared with vaseline, building a shelter from debris and tying the knots required to set up tarpaulin shelters and hammocks.
“They have great fun — when they light their own fire with flint and cotton wool they’re delighted,” says Ledesma, who runs wilderness sites in Wicklow and around the country.
“We take families and couples as well as single people and school children, and give them an opportunity to explore some basic outdoors living.
“Not a lot of people realise that they cannot drink water directly from the river — ideally it should be boiled for three minutes at least, as this kills harmful bacteria,” he explains, adding that the concept of camping and bush-craft has become so popular the company is planning to offer special courses in bush-craft next year at its wilderness site in Wicklow and in a new location between Westport and Newport in Mayo.
Interest in traditional survival skills is increasing, believes shopkeeper Sven Odinson, 51, who runs the Irish Prepper and Bush-craft Store in Macroom, Co Cork. Odinson opened his shop a year ago after several years operating a market stall, and is pleased by the public response.
“I sell everything for the outdoors, from tarps and hammocks to tents and fishing equipment to hand-crafted Irish-made knives and a range of emergency food supplies known as Meals Ready to Eat which come in silver Mylar bags and are very good.”
Customers come from all over Ireland and Munster, he says, and are a varied lot: “I have hobby campers, schoolkids interested in fishing, and also a lot of serious survivalist-minded people who would be in their late 30s and up.
“They come from every part of society, from your average Joe to little old ladies. The kind of people that you’d see coming out of Sunday Mass are buying flint and steel to light fires, water purifiers and filters and Dutch ovens, which are made of iron and look like the old Irish bastable and are used for cooking over an open fire.”
Odinson is one of more than 1,000 members of the Irish Survivalist Group founded in 2012 by former merchant navy officer Frank Deegan and Corkman Tony McHugh.
“It’s basically about learning bush-craft, returning to nature and getting away from computers,” says Deegan,48, whose organisation teaches its members — aged from nine up — survival skills.
“It’s about re-wilding your life. It’s good for your mental health to get out into nature and live a simple life for a while,” he says.
“What we’re doing is bringing people back to the old ways of survival. It’s about foraging, identifying edible flora and fauna like berries, making coffee from dandelions and soup from nettles or tea from pine needles, as well as teaching how to hunt and fish.”
Members include several families with young children, who also become adept at these skills, he says. “I think it’s important that children learn these things.
“We teach how to build bridges and toilets, how build our own shelters, live off-the-grid and even sterilise water through a special technique where you boil it in plastic bottles.
“We have members who live without running water or electricity — they use solar power, using generators for operations and operate rain water collection.
“If you can live off the land and off your own wits, it’s a big bonus but if you’ve spent all your life in front of a computer you won’t have the skills to get you through when the lights go out!”
The network also focuses on the skills of ‘prepping’ which involves everything from teaching members how to grow and dry their own vegetables to storing food and practising fire-craft and water filtration.
John, a 53-year-old who lives in the mountains outside Macroom is a prepper — officially defined as someone actively preparing for a possible catastrophe by stockpiling food and other supplies. “Prepping’ has become a bit of a buzz word,” he says.
“The term wasn’t there when I first decided to live a sustainable life. I was just into basic survival skills!”
These days John lives in a house he built himself from recycled timber and wooden pallets: “It’s a circular, one-room dwelling about 25’ in diameter with a grass roof.”
The house is heated by a wood burning stove. Water comes from an on-site well and his electricity comes from a generator, although he’s currently planning on getting a wind turbine.
Food is stored assiduously— he has, he says, “about nine months’ supply of food in tins, dried goods, as well as medical supplies and toiletries”. His garden offers everything from carrots and cauliflower to peas, beans, tomatoes and potatoes.
For more find the Irish Survivalist group on Facebook and visit www.intothewild.ie
EMBRYOLOGIST Barbara Hughes was looking for something fun for her family to do together when she stumbled on the idea of wilderness camping.
Hughes, who is married to children’s books illustrator PJ Lynch,thought the idea sounded interesting and that her children — Ben, 14, Sam, 11, and Evie, nine — would love it.
An urban lot, the family lives in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, while Barbara who is back in college studying for her PhD in reproductive medicine had never camped previously.
“One of my sons had been in the scouts for a while and when I came across Tipi Adventures, I thought it was very different. Wilderness camping, I felt, would be a challenge and something we could all do together.
“I didn’t even know you could do wilderness camping or bushcraft in Ireland. I’d never heard of it, but I thought it was something that would engage the kids and be a learning experience,” she says.
And so it was. The family, and their dog Ziggy, headed off to Co Wicklow and Tipi Adventures for a two-night wilderness tryout last July.
The children learned to build, light and cook on their own fires:
“Each child got their own fire flint, frying pan and can of spaghetti, so they lit their fire and cooked a little meal for themselves. They foraged for firewood and learned how to use different sizes of kindling to start the fire,” says Barbara.
The family stayed on air-mattresses in a big tepee — similar to an Indian tepee says Barbara, 44, — and brought their own food and sleeping bags.
“There was a stream nearby and we took water for the stream and boiled it for the tea and cooked all our meals on the open fire. We cooked sausages and chicken using a camping rotisserie, and used a special Kelly kettle for boiling water.
“It’s a very light piece of camping equipment. You put little twigs and dry leaves into an inner funnel of the flask and light it and the water heats up.
“We also cooked lots of marshmallows and chocolate biscuits on the fire. The children were showed how to whittle a stick and use it to roast the marshmallows.
“We also had hot chocolate made on the open fire. PJ and Ben even slept outdoors in camping hammocks slung between trees, thoroughly enjoying the experience, she says.
“A lot of children today are caught up with their iPads and have forgotten how to simply play and have fun.
“Ours loved it all — collecting the firewood, crossing the stream on a log — even going for a walk was an adventure – we’re thinking about doing it again next May.”
“I recently took the children camping to West Cork for four days which was something I would never have done otherwise and we had a great time — it’s as if we’ve all caught the camping bug.”
Bring: Food and drinking water, but if required, on-site catering can be arranged.
€360 per tipi for two nights — max six people in each.