Time to get to know Mr. Wilderness. Big interview with Johan Skullman.
Johan, you are known as the bushcraft guru, the expert for modern survival…
Stop! I do not like to call myself a bushcraft guru. The term is too narrow. I do many different things: tours on foot, by canoe, on skis, with a pulk (toboggan) or dog sled… A bushcraft guru tends to sit in the undergrowth sharpening his knife whilst thinking about survival. That is too boring for me. Bushcraft skills are the stepping stones to other things, so I like to pass on such knowledge to others – so some people regard me as a type of “survivalist from the forest”.
But it all started in the forest, did it not?
Exactly. I grew up in a forest region in Southern Sweden. Fishing and hunting was part of our everyday lives and the entire family were orienteers: my mother, my father and my older brothers. It is a popular sport in Sweden, it takes you out into nature.
Did you already become an orienteer?
It was only later that I took part in competitions, but I learned how to handle a map and a compass when I was five years old because I copied what my brothers did. Our family life took place outside. When we went on big tours, I sat on top of my father’s backpack. We played on our own in the forest, my parents were not worried. They knew what we had to learn before they let us go outside.
And what did you learn when you were kids?
How to use a knife, how to make fire – and most importantly, how to be in safe control of both.
Globetrotter Magazin Info
Occupation: Retired Major of the Swedish armed forces, now outdoor guide and developer for companies like Morakniv, Primus, Aclima, Hestra, Hanwag, Fjällräven, Tierra and Brunton.
Family: Johan has three children. The oldest, Max, has turned his outdoor passion into a job following in his dad's tracks and now works as a musher in winter in north Sweden.
Being in control of fire and a knife – the foundation for a successful outdoor life?
A knife is man's most important tool. You can build protective shelters with one, make a fire and prepare food. You never stop using it: to cut wood for the fire, to peel off strips for tinder. For me, a knife is a symbol of survival. However, the knife, sharpening stone and fire steel are part of one system. The knife is actually not complete without those other things.
Fixed blade or jackknife?
It depends on the application – and especially where and how you carry your knife. You should be able to reach it quickly without the risk of loosing it. If you carry it in your pocket, take a jackknife. Otherwise I prefer fixed blades because they are more stable and you can do rough work like splitting wood. I often wear a knife with a short, fixed blade inside a protective cover around my neck. I cannot loose it, can have it quickly ready to hand and have my hands quickly free again if need be.
Back to your outdoor career. Straight after highschool you went to the army?
In Sweden, military service was compulsory and I went to the reconnaissance and news unit. That was not the intention but I realised that I could sleep outside 90 percent of the time. I liked the tough and physically hard training. I was curious and wanted to know how to get the best out of a team. Suddenly, the military was more interesting than I had thought. So I stayed for around 30 years.
You never wanted to go to university?
I went there. One of my tasks was to research how to improve soldiers' clothes and equipment. Because I was really interested in human physical capabilities, I was sent to the University of Sport and Physiology. I also learnt a lot about performance design and materials at the University of Textile Science. On top of all that I benefited from great practical training as a mountain guide and survivalist. And I had helicopter training too.
In Germany, there is hardly any link between the army and the outdoor scene. Why is the situation so different in Sweden?
Maybe because nature is harsher over here and because people are more involved with it. First of all, it is about human needs: protection from the elements, food, navigation and first aid. Everybody needs to know about such things. As a civilian, you are free to take your decisions and can cancel a tour. At the military, you often do not know what will happen next, and you need to take action. Everything does not always go according to plan in your free time either. In a whiteout for example, all your senses are affected, so you cannot evaluate everything correctly. Things can go wrong.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia brand, said that an adventure only begins once things get out of hand. Do you think the same?
I want to enjoy an adventure more than anything else. It does not only begin once things become dangerous. My skills of improvisation and problem-solving are needed when something goes wrong. The uncertainty has a certain appeal and you approach your limits in a different way. But it is more than the pure survival instinct. Adventure can be a lot – from easy to jolly hard. If you do something you have never done before – no matter how difficult – then it already is an adventure.
What went wrong?
In 2010 I went on a skiing tour in Japan, fell into a hole and broke my leg. We were in a very isolated area and I sat in the snow thinking: “Holy shit, this is going to be tricky”. My lower leg was completely twisted, I had to align it first. After I had done that the pain was bearable. However, it would have taken us 14 to 24 hours to get back to civilisation on our own because the snow was pretty much bottomless. I would have needed to be carried the whole way on an improvised sled. Luckily, we got reception and a helicopter collected me.
You aligned your own fracture?
Yes, my companions first had to reach me. You need to handle a situation, that is one thing I learned at the military. Something can happen at any time, no matter how good you are, and you need to be prepared for it. You should not fight the situation but find a solution. I am glad that I did not need to be taken out on a sled in Japan. It is anything but funny to experience something like that. I am nevertheless relieved – now I know how to handle such a situation.
Isn't there another way to learn that?
Well, yes, for example when I accompany events like the Fjällräven Classic or the Polar or when I give seminars. I show people how to act in such situations. Of course training is only training, but you learn how to analyse a situation and then how to act.
You have just got back from the annual Fjällräven Classic, one of the world's biggest trekking events. What do you do there?
I take care of the participants, offer small courses and issue safety instructions. It is usually a nice job, I am constantly outside, I meet enthusiastic people and we spend a great time together. This year was quite tough though, almost like being on an expedition.
What happened? Bad weather?
No. I had pulled my shoulder just before we left, was in a lot of pain and could not carry my backpack. Do not ask me why, but I somehow believed that nobody would notice anything. In the evening I was totally exhausted and just collapsed onto my mattress. It is not necessarily true that you become wiser the older you get.
You record explanatory videos about the wilderness for Fjällräven, like how to pack your rucksack. Is your backpack always perfectly organised?
That varies depending on the trip, but I always pack so that I can reach everything when I need it. Water bottle, knife and rain clothes are always at hand. I put the wet tent into the bottom compartment. And on top of that, my pack strategy depends on what I will need in the evening, for long breaks and for short breaks. That is a Scandinavian philosophy. If you asked an American, he would probably have a different answer.
How does an American pack his backpack?
Do you know the movie “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon? I have never seen such a huge backpack which is so light! She put it on so easily – if she had not taken care, it would have flown away! I am just kidding: Americans tend to pack the classic way with the heavy weight close to the back. That means they have to rummage around more often to find things. In Scandinavia, we regard a backpack as one total load. It is irrelevant where you put your sleeping bag or jacket because in terms of load, the difference is only a few hundred grams or so.
The other crucial question in the outdoor scene is light or sturdy? What do you think?
I do not believe in ultra light equipment for trekking and hiking. I mean, what is the deal if you can save 300 grams but your backpack falls apart during the tour? However, I would not do a mountain run in heavy trekking boots. Before each trip I decide afresh what I need and how stable it should be. I often get asked about the ultimate equipment and I have no idea – there is no such thing. There are just items which are perfect for certain situations. In general, I am in favour of a “back to basic” approach meaning solid equipment without any frills.
Do you adhere to that method when developing products for Swedish manufacturers?
Absolutely. I worked with a sewing machine for the first time when I was 12 or 13 in order to repair backpacks and trousers. Then I started wondering why the trousers had got into such a state and reinforced them. Later on, I added pockets to knee pads. And on another occasion I sewed the arms of a down jacket onto my sleeping bag. After that I developed and tested equipment with the military. I have always wanted to improve things, make them easier to use and more functional.
Which products on the market feature your ideas?
I played a role developing the knife by Morakniv Eldris for example, and with Fjällräven's Keb clothing line. These products were created by a team. I often take inspiration from other people and feed it into product development – so these particular products not only feature my ideas. There was a participant at the Classic this year who could not stop raving to me about his Keb trekking trousers – that pleased me of course. Keb is a very modest trekking line and we made sure that the pockets – untypically few for Fjällräven – are perfectly positioned. The clothes should however be suitable for various activities. I also like tours which combine different activities.
What would be your perfect tour?
I have travelled a lot – privately as well as with the military – experiencing everything from jungle to desert, and I like the different landscapes and seasons. But personally, I prefer the high north. I like to roam around the great forest areas in North America. In Alaska, I did some great wilderness trips on foot and with a canoe. We also climbed some unknown mountains. I like such discovery adventures which combine several disciplines. Nevertheless, the winter is something very special for me. Long tours on skis and with a pulka where you can feel the isolation. I know then that I have to go to my limits and cannot allow myself to make any mistakes.
Do you still have a dream destination on your bucket list?
I have never been to the southern hemisphere and the Antarctica. I would like that, I think I would be especially fond of the landscape. At the same time, I am not very keen on the logistics which it involves.
Do you ever just go on holiday and simply relax?
I like to go to the Greek islands or to Lanzarote with my children. I prefer some sort of accommodation in an old town instead of in a hotel. And with only a few other people around.
23. November 2016, Interview: Globetrotter Magazin/Julian Rohn | Translation: Cindy Ruch