Having the ability to walk into a woodland environment and survey the surrounding landscape for resources is not only a skill but one of the more gratifying experiences the modern woodsman can take part in. With a keen eye, you can begin to create tools, shelters, fire, and other camp implements in your head with each step, it's an exciting time that sparks creativity and tests the limits of your knowledge and skills set. Those more seasoned will no doubt see a great deal more than the nominal woods-goer and methods will always differ by region and nature ethos, but the hallmarks remain the same- safety, fire, water, shelter, and food shall be a top priority.
Here is a skill to add to your toolbox that can be used year-round with a wide variety of materials. A mat can be constructed on a simple woodland loom created quickly from materials off of the landscape to provide safety from the elements by providing a mat to sleep on which aids in protecting you from conduction or it could be used as a roofing material in a natural shelter, hunting blind or even wall covering. Otzi, the famed iceman was discovered to be wearing a swamp grass mat which researchers believe he used as a type of shelter. So not only is this a very primitive skill, but one easy enough to teach to children and is thus considered a basic primitive skill- it's one I feel everyone should know how to do.
For this skill, we will be using cat-tails, which are available nationwide in the United States, but grass, reeds, cane, or bamboo could all be used to effect the same end result. To create a mat you'll need only a few tools, a Machete to harvest your mat materials, cordage to tie it together in the loom and a saw to cut stakes and poles to length. Here we selected the LT Wright Knives Overland Machete, #36 Tarred Bank Line and the Bahco Laplander saw. In the absence of modern cordage, you could easily use grapevines or twisted plant or bark cordage to make this loom system for a mat.
Begin by harvesting your materials, we are again using cat-tail so I'll refer to that throughout the article. Use whatever materials you have in the same way. Harvest the materials low to the ground to get as much length as you can as this will permit you more freedom for adjustments when it comes time to loom the material together. To create a mat that is approximately two-inches thick it will require a bundle of material you can barely get your hand to close around. For a mat up to four inches thick, it will take two handfuls of material. The thicker the mat, the better the insulation value, and more comfortable it will be if laid upon. However, the thicker it is, the heavier it will be which will make transporting a real chore should you be planning to move camps. When on the move, elect for a thinner mat, and when in a base camp, opt for a thicker mat that can be left at that location. If left, roll the mat and stand on its end, this way it will be less likely to mold or hold water and should last several months. Once you have enough materials, it took one pick up truck bed full of cat-tails to create 1 ½ three-inch mats, then you are ready to begin making the loom.
You will first need four stakes, we're just using wood stakes, but tent stakes work just as well. The width of the two outermost stakes will determine where your cordage secures the edges of your mat. We usually keep them shoulder-width apart. The second set of stakes should be placed 4 fingers in and 4 fingers in front of the outer stakes. Just lay your hand on the ground and use your hand as the measuring tool and that will be close enough. These interior stakes will show you where your innermost strands of cordage will lay, securing the middle portion of your mat. Now, once you get the hang of making a mat with a woodland loom, you can add more strands of cordage as desired and created more elaborate mats.
Next, decide how long you want your mat to be. We decided six feet long, so we tied cordage to each stake we placed into the ground and made it just over six feet. At the ends, we tied the two outermost stake ends to a stick about three feet wide, and the two innermost stakes to another stick about two-feet wide. The innermost stick was about three inches short of touching the stick for the outermost stakes. This is to permit the raising and lower of each stick without the worry of them becoming entangled. These sticks will be raised or lowered to allow cat-tails to be locked in between each run of cordage. These sticks control the warp of the loom. Once the shorter stick is raised it creates a notch for materials to be wedged in, this is the weft of the loom. The plant materials are pulled back into this wedge while the longer stick is then raised creating a new wedge, thereby locking in the first wedge. Constant tension must be applied to the longer sticks on one end so the cordage doesn't get loose. A loose warp or weft will create a mat that simply falls apart. In the absence of a partner to help you, you can also use stakes on the working end of the loom to maintain the needed warp tension.
Once you achieve the desired mat length, tie off the ends of the warp using a secure knot. We opted for a jam knot to make it very tight then followed with a safety overhand knot. The mat is technically now ready to use. It can be rolled up and carried to your camp location. If however, you prefer a cleaner edge appearance, you can trim off the edges beyond your cordage which will not only help lighten the mat but give it a cleaner look whilst in your shelter.
While there are other methods of creating a woodland loom, I find this is the easiest one to start with and it produces a consistent end product that makes your primitive camping experiences extremely enjoyable. A simple mat that can get you off the ground, out of the mud, or be used to block the wind certainly means a lot when your outdoors with minimal equipment. While I don't think you'll be leaving your sleeping mats at home anytime soon, this goes to show that again, with a little knowledge, skills, and resources you can create nearly anything you truly need to camp in the wild with very little.