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HomeSurvivalClothing

Birch Bark Shoes

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp

 
In the bush, I have found there are often times when our survival training has gotten us out of a bad situation and back on the brighter side of things.

I have not found a lot of emphasis on the ability to establish some form of footwear, whether on a temporary or more permanent solution to the problem.

In the upcoming fabrication, we will discuss a temporary system and a permanent option.
My preference is to refer to survival concepts as options, as I feel there is not one right answer to any problem, but many, or a better option.

So first off, what will cause an individual in the bush to find themselves without footwear? Listed below you will find some circumstances that I have personally come to know as causes for such a situation, and a solution I sought to better my circumstances.

When venturing across a frozen lake, sometimes in the process you will go through the ice and while trying to return to the ice surface or shore, you might lose one or both boots, thus leaving you without footwear.

You may be canoeing down a set of rapids with boots in the bottom of the canoe or perhaps placed loosely on your feet, and after an upset you emerge to find your canoe, gear, or footwear going downriver doing the natural navigational thing. Also, when traveling in the bush, you might stop at a lake and enjoy the welcomed cool, wet water on a hot day, only to return to find some small animal has run off with your salty-tasting footwear.

These examples and many more will, without a doubt, leave you without footwear.

So, as individuals who like to spend vast amounts of time in the bush, we must ensure our mobility, because any aspect of bush living requires the individual to have some form of mobility.

In this writing I have outlined some options for an individual faced with this situation.

This article I call "Birch Bark Shoes." Practicing and understanding this technique will give you a greater awareness as to the versatility of nature's materials. If we take the time to understand what is available and know what options we are trying to accomplish, we will make it.

I have found from personal experiences, being in the Northern Bush and experiencing the wonders of nature in all four seasons, that nature will provide all that we need, if we take the time to listen.

My hope is, with this information, one never has to be in a predicament where they have to endure some of nature's harshest climates without footwear.

I once tracked an individual lost in Northern Ontario. In the early stages of disorientation this person had lost his shoes in some mud pit prior to going deeper in the bush.

While tracking this individual for days, it had become apparent to myself in the early stages that this individual was having extreme difficulty, wandering aimlessly about without footwear. With nature's trails and the soil releases, I came to realize, this would become too great an obstacle for this individual to overcome in a short period of time.

Finally, when this had become an impossible task and this individual could venture no more (thus limiting his options for survival), this was the end of the trail and hope for any options. There was another instance, when I had someone call me and ask if I would be willing to take a group into the bush.

Once in the bush, I asked everyone to remove their footwear to see who would have an option to allow them to proceed.

I have found that many people do not usually calculate this in to their plan of options when going into the bush, or have come to know of some options. So what are our options?

Without an immediate solution to our being without footwear, one must find something on a temporary basis to protect our feet, as anyone can attest to at some time in their life, when suddenly stepping barefoot on sharp rocks or harsh substances.

In a bush situation this is not a place to be barefoot or in sock feet, as this will only lead to injury, pain and infection. And if one should end up in such a situation, the rest of our options are virtually impossible to perform, as most require some form of mobility.

Anything temporary is just that -- temporary. But, it will afford you the time and protection needed to stabilize your crisis situation.

In nature, this temporary footwear task can be accomplished by looking around the area, first for a soft dry protective layer to go against the foot. This will give you comfort and distance from the ground.

Any soft items such as windblown grasses, cattail down, a compressed hive, dry moss leaves, etc., will soften and protect the foot. Secondly, for the outer layer and a means of engulfing the foot, this is accomplished with sheets of birch bark, a slab of willow bark, a woven reed or birch layered mats, any firm encompassing material that is durable for a short time solution.

To keep these protective layers securely on the foot, any lashing items will suffice. This can come from a belt, string, duct tape or even a roller bandage. Maybe yarn from your sweater woven into cordage, a spruce root, making birch bark cord and many more options will give the securing needed.

At such time as your situation has stabilized, and you now have the opportunity to establish more protective systems, this is a good opportunity to start the fabrication of a permanent footwear option.

Usually most individuals at this stage in their situation seem to have lots of time. This system of constructing footwear will allow you to maximize this time and will assist in keeping the mind agile, but give a great sense of accomplishment when completed.

From this technique you will have many ideas begin to form in your mind and other comforts you can obtain in your situation, such as birch bark sleeping bags to fill with cattail down to sleep in instead of on the ground, birch back pack sacks to allow you to transport forded supplies and many more ideas we will cover later.

 
These birch bark shoes, when constructed in the fashion we will describe, give the best comfort and mobility, as bush ground is very uneven and slippery in most cases. The shoe to be constructed is naturally made of birch bark from the white birch tree. This tree is classified as a hard wood and is plentiful and very visible in most areas. See photo 1.

The white birch tree is a very versatile tree, and I am sure will offer many options to an individual faced with unforeseen circumstances. Some of its versatile uses include water, fuel, navigation, shelter, cooking and medicinal to name a few.

When a stand of white birch is found, use whatever cutting implement you have at the time. Cut a strip vertical down the tree and pry back the layers of bark.

In the spring the bark will release from the tree easier, being your optimum, but even if it is not spring, this can still be accomplished. The back for the fabrication of the shoes in the photos was acquired in late November. This will ensure the reader that late season bark will also serve our purpose.

 

With the vertical strip cut, there will be the outer whitish layer and the "leathery" brownish layer. The best I find for fabrication of the shoe is the brownish layer, but as the photos depict, I have also crafted with the outer layer. From photo 2 you can see the difference between the tree's exterior and the interior back layers. Provide yourself with a good number of these bark sheets. The longer the vertical cut and the bigger diameter of tree will provide you with a bigger sheet to take your material from.
In photo 3 I have taken these sheets and separated the layers of bark, then cut strips from the bark at approximately three quarters of an inch wide and approximately three feet long.

Whether the strips are cut vertically across the bark sheet or horizontally across the sheet will be your preference. Cut a test strip from each direction and pull until breakage occurs. This not only gives you your strength of the strips, but a feel for how tight to pull the strips when fabricating the shoes.

 

With approximately sixty-five strips of 3/4" wide and 3 foot long, I lay the strips as shown in photo 3 to get a gauge for how wide to lay them. Use your foot as I have done with the shoe in the photo, or draw an outline in the dirt of your foot's dimensions.

Lay approximately eight or nine strips lengthwise on the ground, and this should accomplish this task.

When cutting birch strips from a round tree and trying to lay them flat on the ground, they will seem springy.

So to reduce some of this springy memory, soak these strips in water if available. This should assist greatly with the springiness and also later when the weaving process has begun. You will see that the wet slick strips not only slide easier but form to mold better.

In photo 4 you can see the weaving process begin with strips laid lengthwise. Now put some strips width-ways, starting at the midpoint of the length strips and coming across the length strips. Take one strip at one side and go under a length strip first, then continue on to the strip laying beside it and go over that strip. Then proceed to the next strip and under again. Continue this process until you have achieved the look of the matting in photo 4. Snug the strips up now to remat any gaps and to ensure a solid weave.
Some ideas, as I mentioned earlier, will start to develop in your mind for how to use this technique for other comforts: possibly shelter walls, a rain catcher, a sun shade, etc. Photo 5 shows a process of how to add length to the strips to allow you to make your matting longer or wider.

I have cut the ends of my strips to a point. This facilitates easier weaving of over and under.

Add enough strips length-ways and width-ways to your mat that will give you the size desired.

If you go wider or longer at this point, it will greatly assist your fabrication later on as you will see in the photos.

 

The matting that is being constructed at this point forms the sole of your footwear, and the added length of strips that are put in, add to your thickness.
So one stage complements the other. In photo 6, this is the length and width at this point. I find it beneficial for the length at this stage to be longer. This will facilitate much easier curvature of the toe section once the front of the shoe is pulled over.
Photo 7 gives you the idea now of the benefits of the matting being extended beyond your initial dimensions. If you feel that more matting is needed, this is a good opportunity to add to your mat.

If sufficient then, place your foot onto the mat and find something to assist in forcing up the sides. This is only necessary if you feel you cannot hold the strips in one hand and weave with the other.

In the photo, I have used some pieces of willow that are soon to become my fireboards.

Look for a couple of logs or stones in the bush or dig in the sand a small depression, a little wider than the dimensions of your foot you drew earlier.

With time and practice, you will find fewer items will be needed for assistance.

In photo 7 the heel is placed where the overlapped strips stopped. Push down on the shoe, or push your foot onto this matting and force the sides up to start to mold your matting into your foot dimensions.

If the shoe's dimensions were out of proportion to your foot, this would only facilitate a sloppy shoe and would not be as effective for mobility.

With the toe section being woven past the tip of the foot, now the front section is rolled over towards the tongue of the foot. Thus, the task of holding and weaving strips is much easier in the forming of the top section.

Photo 8 shows how this toe section is pulled up towards the top of the tongue, and this edge now becomes the starting rim where your foot will ultimately slide into.

Now that you have the woven mat placed against the tongue section of the shoe, use the width strips to join the sides of the shoe to the top mat section.

While still applying the over and under process, at this stage of adding layer upon layer, the wet strips give some advantage with their slickness. As the stiffness of the shoe becomes apparent, so does the tightness in between the weaves.

To help send the strips through this tightness, the cut, arrowed ends assist in weaving.

When pulling these strips through, snug them up and keep the form of your foot in mind. The tension you can apply on these strips, as you will see, is considerable, as first seen in the test strips. This will, no doubt, give you the idea for the cordage we mentioned earlier.

Continue this process all around the shoe, as the front matting has started the rim of your shoe to slide your foot into.

To fabricate the rim for the rest of your shoe, you will see that when pulling up the sides, a long length strip will go right around the heel section, thus giving you the rim of your heel section for the rest of your strips to weave into.

When you have strips that are longer than your rim, do not cut them off. Just fold them over and weave on the inside with the extra length. This adds layers to your shoe and stiffens the shoe.

Now, to add layers to the inside toe section. This is a difficult task, but if you in the first couple of photo (photo 5 & photo 6) added an extra layer or two, you now have gained the thickness inside the shoe in that section and do not have to do the toe section at this stage with extra length strips. Weave these around the shoe also.

In photo 9 we see a somewhat completed formation of the shoe, close to dimensions. At this time, it is best to tighten up the straps and mold the matting and keep adding layers of straps to the exterior and interior of the shoe. The amount of layers one adds will depend on the amount of protection they wish to achieve.

My preference is to add lots now to save having to add lots later.

At this point in fabrication of the shoe, it might feel somewhat "springy." This is normal. By adding more layers and tightening the straps and removing any gaps, soon the springiness will be replaced by solidness.

If your first shoe is imperfect, this can be overcome with practice and visualization. Try making a miniature model at first, say, the size of a children's shoe. This will assist you with forming, holding and weaving the shoe and get the final product more quickly so you can see where you will have some difficulties prior to forming a full-size shoe.
With more strips, lots of tension applied and all gaps reduced, your shoe should look close to photo 10.

At this stage your shoe will easily fit inside the formed shoe. This is the advantage of a shoe, rather than a boot style. The shoe allows more flexibility of the foot in negotiating the bushes and uneven ground, where a boot style has a limited range in the forward motion.

A low shoe doesn't offer much protection in the shin area. This can be supplemented with a slab of birch bark under your pant leg or wrapped around your leg and secured with one of the means described earlier.

The shoe at this point is still not form-fitting enough to eliminate shoe wobble. This is achieved with the help of cattail down, dry leaves or grasses-any dry, soft substance that will warm the foot, compress to contour to the foot and will not cause abrasions.
In photo 11 you now see the shoe filled with cattail down. This substance not only warms, but contours well and gives the foot protection on the inside against the edges from the strips, as the strips give the foot protection from the edges of the earth.

Using a small twig, you can force in a lot of down around your foot and fill in the hollows around the foot, causing a tightness to occur which will assist in walking.

 

To add to our already manageable shoes, I offer more options to protect our shoe even further, as seen in photo 12.

This is a slab of willow bark, off my walls. This will be placed on the bottom of the shoe to offer another layer from the elements and to protect the strips as well.

In early mornings when the dew-laden ground becomes slick, this rough bark will give you some lateral stability when negotiating the uneven ground.

 

In photo 13 we see that the attachment of this slab to our shoe follows the process in which the shoe was fabricated. Put as many strips as needed to tighten the slab to the shoe to ensure the slab stays solidly attached.

With the extra strips of bark, keep these for your journey, because as you are mobile, the strips will wear out or tear. This is easy to rectify as the extra strips can be woven back into the shoe on the move.

 

During your night of fabrication should you receive a good blanket of snow and are in need of some flotation on the snow, this can be accomplished with more bark placed to the side of the bark, increasing the width of the shoe's surface, or use a wider piece initially.

To fully see the advantage of your birch bark shoes, remove one shoe and travel for awhile. Experience will be your best teacher.

Whether you prefer these shoes with the bark on or off will entirely depend on you. I feel, if you have the advantage of extra protection, utilize it.

Now that you have stripped the bark off the birch trees in your area, I am confident the contrast of white exterior and brown interior as seen in photo 2 will assist your situation, affording you another option.

In closing, having the opportunity to go into the bush and practice our skills, which enhances our comfort and survivability, is an opportunity that should not be taken for granted but respected.

Our respect should come in the form of utilizing the material, but only that which we need to accomplish those tasks.

This way we do not rob our children's children of the opportunity to go into the "bush."

The "bush" is the greatest teacher one could sit and listen to.

You will learn more about natural navigating by following a wolf, than my global positioning system (GPS) will teach you.

Nature will never steer you wrong!

Article and Photos Copyright Allan "Bow" Beauchamp.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1.