How to Build Your Own Bow and Arrows When Lost in the Wild



Strong, flexible wood is the best bow.

Strong, flexible wood is the best bow. (Tim MacWelch /)

This story was originally featured on Outdoor living.

Bow and arrow have been used by hunters and warriors for thousands of years. A simple yet elegant weapon, it has provided meat and helped defend civilizations for centuries. Today, bows have become high tech, like carbon fiber compounds, crossbows, and arrows set on razor sharp points. But we must not forget the traditional bows and arrows of our ancestors. They can provide us with a wild game bounty or a defense against predators in a primitive survival situation.

If you find yourself alone in a perilous situation in the backcountry, here are the items you can use to craft a traditional bow and arrows.

Gather the good stuff

The right piece of wood is out there, if you know what you're looking for.

The right piece of wood is out there, if you know what you're looking for. (trevor pye / Unsplash /)

Choosing the right materials is the first place to start when building bows, arrows, and other archery items. For the arch, you will need a strong but flexible wood that wants to return to its original shape after bending. As for the arrows, you will need to select a sturdy woody coppice growth, shoots and saplings that are close to the desired final diameter for your arrows. Knives, rasps, scrapers, sandpaper, and power tools will allow you to make great bows at home, but in nature, a good knife should be enough to carve the staff.

For same-day shooting, choose a bow that is dead and dry, but not rotten. For future bow making efforts, cut live wood and dry it for a few months for best results. Choose hardwood species like Osage orange, black locust, and hickory for arches (although many other hardwoods may work). Choose a bow scope that is relatively straight and generally free of knots, side branches, and twists, about 2 inches in diameter. Cut it to a length of about 5-6 feet long, but make a mistake on the length side. The longer the bow, the less it has to bend to reach your draw length and the less likely it is to break.

Use charcoal as a marker

A simple piece of charcoal from your fire can become a soft marker that will help you trace your arch lines and keep your sculpture on track.

A simple piece of charcoal from your fire can become a soft marker that will help you trace your arch lines and keep your sculpture on track. (Tim MacWelch /)

For a single piece of wood, the arches seem to have a lot of pieces. Even though it can come from the branch of a tree, the bow will have two limbs (one upper and one lower), a grip, a back and a belly, among others. Understanding the back and stomach of a flexible stick is the most critical part for a bowmaker. Each sapling or branch will have a natural way of bending. This will determine where you sculpt and how the arch will be constructed. Try bending your future bow staff in multiple directions and notice how it bends naturally. Mark the stick on the inside of the elbow so you know exactly where to sculpt (I like to use charcoal). This will become the belly of the bow, which is the side that faces the archer (not the side of the bow facing the target).

Sculpting the arch

Some branches and saplings are uniform enough to become a bow without any cutting or carving, but most sticks will require a certain size to become a "stick bow."

Some branches and saplings are uniform enough to become a bow without any cutting or carving, but most sticks will require a certain size to become a "stick bow." (Tim MacWelch /)

Start removing the wood with a knife from the belly of the limbs where they don't bend much, while leaving material in the areas of the limbs that bend a lot. Only remove the wood from the belly side of the limbs – leave the back intact. The goal at this point in the process is to bend the limbs evenly into a curved shape along their entire length. Remove material slowly and recheck limb curvature frequently. Use basic carving slices or try the combination of a small stick and knife for faster reduction. The grip area (in the middle of the arch) and the extremities of the limbs should have very little curvature. Thick sticks will require a lot of carving while narrow diameter sticks may only need a bit of shaping. Refine each limb so that it bends evenly along its entire length, with each limb bending like a mirror image of the other. This final shaping is called tillering, and it's a step that you can't rush.

Make a notch for the chain

To complete the bow, you will need to notch it for the bowstring, and this should be done in such a way as to avoid damaging the "back" of the bow.

To complete the bow, you will need to notch it for the bowstring, and this should be done in such a way as to avoid damaging the "back" of the bow. (Tim MacWelch /)

In order to adapt your string to the bow you will need to carve or file a few small notches on both sides of each point, being careful not to dig into the back of the bow. They only need to be deep enough to hold a bowstring in place. Going too deep will weaken the arc and create a stain that may break off. Another option, which I often use, is to cut a square tab at the end of the arc. This can be done with a saw, and it's a pretty sturdy place to loop the rope. All the notches can be reinforced for extra strength. The ends of each bow member can be wrapped with a strong string or covered with a protective sheath. Horn tips were a common device in the past, but string windings will work very well in a contemporary survival setting. String notches can be created when the bow is half done, and this can allow a string to be used for gentle bending tests (to see which parts of the bow need more sculpture). Just be careful not to pull the string too far while you're still sculpting the bow (it might break it).

Mix your own glue

Super glue is a great thing to carry in your survival kit for dozens of reasons beyond repairing your archery gear, but you can make your own as well.

Super glue is a great thing to carry in your survival kit for dozens of reasons beyond repairing your archery gear, but you can make your own as well. (Tim MacWelch /)

When you attach an arrowhead to an arrow shank, a small drop of glue can go a long way. If you're running out of super glue or haven't brought any, there is an option. Pine sap and sticky sap from other needle trees can be collected and cooked to create a heat activated glue that has been used by our ancestors for millennia. You will just need a little sap (either fresh and sticky or dried and crisp) and a container to heat the sap (an old metal can work just fine). Collect your sap in the container and cook it near the fire to liquefy it. You can add charcoal powder to the sap while it is hot, to increase your bulk and act as an aggregate (like gravel in concrete). Don't worry if the hot pine sap ignites. Just cover the container and it will come out. You will only need to cook it for a few minutes, and it can be used immediately or allowed to cool and harden for future use. You just need to warm it up and apply it hot to preheated surfaces. For example, heat the pitch, the arrowhead and the arrow. Spread the pitch on the hot arrowhead and insert it into the notch on the arrow shank. Hold it tightly until it cools and hardens (it won't take long). Work quickly and reheat anything that didn't work as expected.

Build arrows

Carbon fiber arrows are quick and flexible, but when you're short there are other options.

Carbon fiber arrows are quick and flexible, but when you're short there are other options. (Tim MacWelch /)

Start by collecting straight branches or saplings that are at least 30 inches long and between entre inch and ½ inch in diameter. Like arches, they're best when they're dead and dry, but you may need to work 'green' wood in a pinch. Cut and straighten them as best they can and cut an appropriately sized notch at each end of the tree. The 'notch' end should fit snugly against the bowstring and the arrowhead end should match the tip of the projectile you are going to use. These notches are best cut with a saw. Try to avoid splitting the arrow, as this will weaken it. Tie up your feathers and determine what type of arrowhead or stitch you will use based on your available materials

  • Warning: Never use a homemade wooden arrow on a modern compound bow. The high resistance and speed of a compound bow can literally detonate wooden arrows, rather than launching from the bow, resulting in serious injury.

Fletch your arrows with duct tape

Duct tape can mend a torn arrow and replace one.

Duct tape can mend a torn arrow and replace one. (Tim MacWelch /)

You won't always have the perfect gear for the job in a survival environment. However, those who have duct tape in their kit have a material that can be used for a multitude of jobs. Whether you're repairing existing arrows with torn fletching or making an arrow straight from duct tape, it can work wonders. To make duct tape 'feathers' on your arrow shank, simply take the end of the shank between two pieces of duct tape (sticky sides together) and cut off the excess. There you are. Your arrows will not fly as well as they would with plumage, but they will fly truer than without fletching. Give it a try, you might be surprised how easily this technique works.

Turn cord 550 into a bowstring

You can twist your own bowstring from strong plant fibers, but it takes a long time and the results are unpredictable. Instead, try the 550 cord.

You can twist your own bowstring from strong plant fibers, but it takes a long time and the results are unpredictable. Instead, try the 550 cord. (Tim MacWelch /)

Like duct tape, the 550 cord can tackle a lot of tough jobs. It is also the right thickness to pass like a bowstring. Right out of the box, it's a bit too stretchy (the bow strings shouldn't stretch – they absorb some of the bow's power with each shot). Twisting them can remove much of this unwanted stretch. To make your bowstring, tie loops at both ends of the 550 rope, using bowline knots or a similar tie. The string should be 2 inches shorter than the length of the bow. This will give you a 5-6 inch gap between the string and the handle when the bow is threaded.

Making beer bottle arrowheads

Trash, like beer bottles, can be shredded into surprisingly sharp arrowheads.

Trash, like beer bottles, can be shredded into surprisingly sharp arrowheads. (Tim MacWelch /)

For hundreds of years humans have tried to fashion all kinds of arrowheads. From richly chipped stone points to carefully carved bone and wood points, there are many examples we can use as an example or inspiration. Today, simple arrowheads can be cut from thin metal, chipped from glass or stone, or you can simply carve a 'field point' on the tree itself. If you add a point, consider reinforcing it. Add glue to the notch, then insert the arrowhead. Wrap string, dental floss, dried tendon segments or dogbane fiber around the shaft and arrowhead to add support. You can also seal your packages with more glue to make sure the arrowhead and binder stay in place.