Friday, September 30, 2016

Winter Thriving: Clothing and Layering

Layering Up for Cold Weather

If you've spent time camping in cooler weather then this post will be familiar to you and you can skip to one of my other interesting posts on a different topic. This article is for the many people (and parents who are sending their kids to our wilderness classes) who have little to no experience spending an entire day or night outside in the winter. 

There's no such thing as poor weather, only poor choices in clothing. 
While it may be hard to believe, it's actually true that you can be outside all day in 25 degree weather and have a great time! But in order to do this you have to choose your clothing wisely. So let's read up and wise up.
First, we'll discuss various fabrics and their pros and cons. Then we'll discuss how to keep different parts of the body warm.

Fabric Considerations for All Layers:

Cotton: this is a nice natural fiber that is great in warm weather however, it does not insulate when wet and drys very slowly so it's not good for cold-weather conditions. It does hold up well against campfire sparks though.

Fleece/Synthetic Layers: quick drying and retains heat but campfire sparks will melt through it. Good for cold and wet conditions.

Soft Shell layers: look for waterproof and breathable in the label. If it doesn't say "waterproof" then it probably isn't. Works great in rainy conditions but can easily get holes melted into it when around a campfire

Wool: this natural fiber tends to be a bit heavier and bulkier than fleece but is great at insulating even when wet and sparks from a campfire won't melt it. It's good for light rain but in heavier rain it can soak through

*Wild Nature Project instructors tend to use a combination of fabrics often with a wool outer layer unless it's raining heavy then we'll put on a rain poncho, soft shell, or umbrella. We often find wool sweaters in thrift stores for a great price.

Core Layers
Protect your core temperature with at least 3 layers as shown.

What about the rest of the body?!?!
Keeping your core warm is important but it's just the beginning. If you have cold feet, hands, legs, or head then that's not fun and it might cut your trip short. 
Apply the above principles of layering and fabrics to the rest of your body.

Read up on mittens for warming your hands here. 

For feet, go with a wool/synthetic blend sock but make sure it's the thicker(warmer) material. 
Sometimes I see kids show up to class with thin cotton socks and rubber rain boots and then wonder why their feet get cold (see image on right). These kinds of boots are waterproof but provide no insulation. If you wear these in cold weather you need to have at least 2 thick pairs of wool socks on your feet and have an insulating insert in the bottom of the boot. 
I like to wear footwear that is waterproof and insulated.

Don't neglect your legs! Wearing one pair of pants is not enough to keep warm. For legs, our instructors will wear synthetic base leggings and choose thicker fleece for colder conditions. You can spend a lot of money on these or look for the cheaper knock-offs, just avoid 100% cotton. Wearing a poly/cotton blend can work too for your outer or under layers. I often wear cotton pants or 60/40 poly/cotton blend(outer layer) unless it's under 30 degrees or rainy.

And lastly, cover your noggin! Most people know this but I'll say it anyway. Wearing a simple fleece beanie hat is good. Having a neck gator or scarf is better. And then there's the "bomber hats" that you can get with real fur (I love mine) that cover your cheeks.


Wilderness Survival Considerations

Survival on TV
It seems like there's a new survival TV show coming out every month. What is it about this new fascination with wilderness survival, urban survival, or zombie apocalypse survival? These shows can be very informative with lots of detailed information on how to make fire, acquire food, or navigate. However, the information download can also be a trap in that it can have the effect of viewers feeling more prepared than they actually are. Not to mention that there are also things they'll do for the camera that would be pretty dumb to do in real life.

Shelter: heated by fire, bark shingles, warm and dry!
Unless you get out and actually put to use what you are "learning" from videos, TV, books, (and even from taking classes) then you're not really learning and it's not that useful. There's a term for the one who watches the shows from the comfort of the living room and comments "I could do that!" It's called "the armchair survivalist". Avoid them.

Do you have Information or Experience?
Maybe you have a bow and an arrow, and you know what a deer is and you've seen their tracks in a field guide. Does this mean you actually know how to get close enough to take a shot without spooking it? Probably not. It takes skills and lots of practice playing "hide and seek" with the deer to get up close to one, but sitting there in the forest within 10 feet of a wild deer who doesn't sense you at all is an incredible feeling. There is no substitute for real experience and no book or video can take you to that place of real knowing.

An Approach to Practicing Survival Skills
My recommendation is to not bite off more than you can chew. I have seen this many times, where someone goes into "full survival" by bringing nothing with them only to be completely humiliated and deeply discouraged from ever attempting surviving in the wild again. Instead, take it in steps and practice one thing at a time. For example, bring a tent, sleeping bag and food but leave your matches at home and bring a bowdrill, or make one out there. If you were successful then next time add building a natural shelter to your bowdrill fire and so on. Start with what can give you success as the more successes you'll have the more proud of yourself you'll be and the more excited you'll be to go back and step up to the next level. Build confidence without staying in your comfort zone too much though either. Hmmm, is this useful when teaching others these skills? Absolutely. Set your students up for success at first. When there's a failure... pick the situation apart like a detective and learn from it. Get over your fear of failure by leaning into it, learning from it, and recognizing failure as part of the journey rather than an avenue for beating yourself up.

What's most Important in Survival?
4 things to consider in a survival situation, whether it's self-imposed or an unintended circumstance, is that you may need Shelter, Water, Fire, and Food. This is not new information to you if you've read up on survival skills. Shelter can be the most important because you can die from exposure in just a few minutes or hours, while one can live without food for several weeks. However, it all depends on your situation and the conditions that you're in. Even though food is last in the survival order it can be the trickiest to acquire. Think about it, your shelter may take you from an hour to half a day to build but it won't run away from you and neither will your fire (well hopefully your fire won't get away from you!). Food, however, may have legs or wings or slither or crawl and this is what becomes the greatest challenge, in my opinion. You must decide which food resources are worth the caloric effort to go after. Here's a link to an excellent BLOG article on what it takes to keep yourself alive as far as caloric input. It's definitely worth consideration.

Side Note: If you are "practicing" survival and are bringing items with you here's one item to consider putting in your pack. 1 tablespoon of coconut oil has as many calories as a red squirrel and the oil can be eaten raw or used in cooking (frying, stews, salads) and it's cholesterol and trans-fat free.

Survival Fantasy
There is a survival fantasy that often hits the beginner. It sounds something like "I've taken a few classes and read up on survival so now I can just go out into any wilderness area and surthrive indefinitely." Having attempted this myself numerous times over the years I can share a few things that I've learned from such an adventure. (I should also note that if you feel this desire then by all means go out and do it. You will learn a heck of a lot about nature and yourself.) One thing I've learned is to choose the area where I will go into survival carefully. There are places out there where one would starve to death and there are places out there where one, or many people, could surthrive. Knowing the difference is a skill that the ancient scouts of tribal times were good at deciphering. A tribe of people wouldn't just pick a place at random, it had to have certain resources to make it ideal. So why should you just pick a place at random?

The other part of the fantasy that I've seen is the belief that I won't have to do much work because I'm surrounded by everything that I need. While it may be correct to assume that you are surrounded by the resources you need to survive it still takes a lot of focus, awareness, energy, and hard work to meet your basic needs... especially in the first 3 days. This is because in the first 3 days you are making your shelter and fire and securing a water source among other things. However, once you have shelter, fire, and a water source then you are set in those areas so you can spend the rest of your time finding food. I have seen, more than once, a group of people going into a survival trip and essentially "shutting down" within the first 24-48 hours. Most people aren't prepared mentally to do the work it may take in those first days without having much water or any food intake. This is something you can practice. Just start with fasting for a day and building a natural shelter in your backyard during your fast. See how that feels. Then next time try it with only a quart of water intake for the day. (note: if you're feeling extremely tired, weak, or concerned about your health and well-being then by all means end your fast and attempt again another day. You are first in charge of taking care of yourself so that you can take care of others)

So then what does it take to actually survive? It takes gathering real experiences and tested skills. It takes the eye of the tracker or scout for seeing into the landscape for the resources that are available or not available. It takes knowing the seasonal changes and the opportunities that arise. It takes having a realistic and honest view of yourself and the natural world. And most importantly, it takes having a mental state that will enable you to overcome stress, fatigue, and the unexpected. Enjoy the journey and focus on the adventure, the lessons, and your purpose for living and why you want to learn these skills.

(Remember, other people are resources too and having a tribe, village, or community can make survival much easier and more enjoyable)

Ready to take a wilderness survival class?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The key to warm hands in the winter

This is my first post of more to come on winter warmth. The first key to being outside and having fun in the winter (or survival in the winter) is to have the right clothing and layers. 

It took me many years of testing gear, trial and error, and freezing my butt off to get to the point of finally having the right kind of cold-weather clothing and gear to thrive in winter. So I'm here to share with you one of my success findings to keeping your hands warm. Cold hands make it difficult to use your valuable fingers. Don't have cold hands... get-chya some mittens!

The problem with gloves is that they keep all your fingers separate from each other and thus each finger must provide its own heat to warm it. While gloves may be great for dexterity they have got to be pretty thick to hold in enough warmth, which then takes away from all that dexterity.

Here's the mittens that I use.
These were made by my wife. The outer (on the right in brown) are made from shrunk wool sweaters so that they are thick and tough.

The inner liner (on the left in camo) are made from fleece.

The great benefit of mittens is that it keeps your fingers together so they can generate more heat and warm each other up.

When put together this combination has always kept my hands warm. Not only that but I've had hot and sweaty hands when it's 20 degrees outside! 
This means that when it comes time to use my fingers I have no problem having them out in the cold for several minutes before I even begin to feel the winter chill.

I know, kids don't like mittens and a lot of grown-ups don't either. They don't look cool... in fact, these look like big oven mitts. You just gotta embrace the humor of their "look" and trust me, your friends will be asking to borrow them. You can even loan them out to the skeptics and watch how quickly they "ooh" and "ahh" at their comfy warm hands.


Now sometimes I will use gloves, especially when it's above freezing outside. In this case here's one combination that I like:

Rag wool fingerless gloves. The black dots you see are to help with grip in the palm. These gloves retain heat in your wrist and palm quite well while still allowing your fingers to be fully utilized.

Do kids like fingerless gloves? Well as one teen recently put it, "they look really cool!" I agree. So yes, they pass the cool test.

Sometimes I'll wear a light glove liner underneath to keep my fingers warm. 

So there you have it.  Keep those dogs warm out there (your fingers) and enjoy the winter. When you have the right layers the winter can be really awesome because you don't have to worry about insects, spiders, mosquitos, snakes, or heat stroke.

Read about the "Best Winter Footwear I Have Ever Used" here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Backpacks: who needs a backpack when you can wear a vest?

Notice the umbrella? Read why you should pack one.
This is my friend Winston. Former marine, grew up in my hometown, a good ol' caving and creating-mayhem-buddy of mine (the fun and safe kind of mayhem of course). In 2008-2009 he embarked on "A 5,000-mile walk through Southeast Asia in an effort to raise funds for facial-reconstructive surgeries in the developing world." He named this journey the "Smile Trek" and was able to raise $79,230 for his cause.

He began his trek wearing a large backpack, as most people would think to do, to carry his tent, food, water, rain gear, sleeping bag, and other essential items.

However, he abandoned the backpack and traded it in for a VTAC LBE tactical vest that could be customized to suit his needs.

As Winston writes,
"While walking across Spain, I became displeased with my backpack. It threw off my balance, made my shoulders sore, and proved not to be the most accessible packing solution. So I began brainstorming an alternative. I remembered the load-bearing vests we were issued in the Marines and decided to apply it to trekking. The vest I use today has undergone several iterations, as I have improved it over the years. I prefer using a vest over a backpack because it is more ergonomic, distributes the weight more evenly, and allows me to access stored items without interrupting the walk."

While I haven't tried this sort of vest set-up myself I admire and appreciate the ingenuity behind it. When Winston was putting it all together he called me over to check out this set-up first hand as I was his personal "survival and gear adviser", as he put it. I was impressed. He made a point of every gear item being lightweight and packs up small. This is a great fast and light set-up! It makes a lot of sense and here's what I like about it.

1) It balances and distributes weight fairly evenly (front to back, so you don't have to lean forward as if you were wearing a backpack).

2) It allows for the user to attach small pockets, via the "molle system", on the front of the vest for easy access while on the move. Something that backpacks don't have.

3) The vest allows for easy personal customization of what goes where on the front or back.

4) It can be a great fast and light system.

5) The vest system passed the test on Winston's 540-mile South American trek.

So do you think you'll give it a try? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An argument for taking an umbrella into the wilderness!

That's right, I am about to make a pitch for why packing an umbrella in your backpack for your next wilderness foray is a great idea. And it's not going to take me that long to write it out either.

An umbrella is an easily portable, quick to set up, personal shelter. It can be used for one or for many. How many times have you been out in the rain with an awesome rain jacket on but then your pants get soaking wet because you didn't buy the rain pants? Or lets say you do have the rain pants and a great rain jacket with a hood. The hood wraps around your head and puts you in tunnel vision and muffles sounds around you to the point that you don't notice the red fox trotting past just over to your left, but hey, you're dry.

With an umbrella you don't have to worry about your pants getting wet (well maybe a bit at the ankle when you're walking), and you can keep your hood down so you can see and hear around you better.

Here's the reasons I am all for an umbrella in the wilderness:

1) They make a quick shelter that's easily transportable.

2) You can set up this shelter to take a snack break, rummage through your backpack for supplies, look at a map, work on projects or crafts, have a quick outhouse, or fix a wound (great for backpacking or search and rescue operations). Just pop up the umbrella and crouch or sit underneath it with your backpack in there too.

3) If the environment and vegetation allows for it, you can walk with your umbrella and if it's large enough it will cover your backpack too.

4) Phone booth. You can use your cell phone in the rain! I know I know, you're a hardcore outdoorsy dude and don't talk on your cell phone in the rain... but isn't it so cool to answer the phone and say "hey, I can't talk now. I'm in 10 miles off-trail in the Indiana jungles standing in a thunderstorm. What? I can't hear you! I'll call you in 3 days when I'm back into civilization."
Try doing that with a jacket or poncho.

If you want to blend in more with your environment just get the camouflaged one.

What are the drawbacks?

1) Well, obviously it can be hard to walk through the woods carrying one of these without getting caught on branches and thorns. So you can still take your rain jacket and pants for hiking but once you stop for a break get out the umbrella.

2) Durability: There's moving parts and thin parts that can break and fall apart.

3) Weight and size compared to a rain jacket or poncho. You can get the extendable handle umbrella but then it won't cover as much area, or use a larger, longer umbrella.

*Cautionary note: if there's lightning nearby... put it away! (hopefully that's common sense)

I was recently working at a wilderness camp for teenagers when we had an entire day of heavy downpour rain. Guess who had their umbrella with them? That's right, I pulled out my umbrella and you should've seen the envy on so many of the faces. As they sat there in rain jackets that were getting soaked through they immediately got it and understood the benefit of an umbrella. There were even comments of "of course, why haven't I ever thought of that?"

So now go ahead... pack that umbrella even though your outdoorsy friends are going to laugh at you. If it rains out there we'll see who's jealous!

Fall 2014 Update:
On a recent trip to Georgia we went backpacking and camping for a couple of days. It rained on us for an entire day of hiking. Good thing I brought my umbrella!!!

Aside from a rain fly for my backpack I didn't use or need any other rain gear. My umbrella covered me and kept me dry from head to toe. Plus, since I didn't have to have a hood up I could look around and see and hear more easily. Often, with a rain jacket and pants the water then soaks my boots, but that's not the case with an umbrella.

The trail was wide enough that I could fit through it and in a few places where it got narrow I just easily put down the umbrella for a few seconds and then put it back up.

Mora Knife Review: affordable, durable, and all I've ever needed in a knife

What kind of knife do you carry? This is often a common question among wilderness outdoorsy folks and survival enthusiasts. As a wilderness survival instructor I get asked about knives a lot. Sometimes it's the biggest and meanest knife that attracts the most attention but isn't always the best quality. Choosing a knife is a big topic with lots of opinions and a huge variety of choices. If you want to get picky about your knife you certainly have room to do so as there's thousands of varieties on the market.
                                                                                                               The Mora "Companion" knife

I'm here to tell you about a knife that is not an attention getter (well, kids think they're pretty cool looking) but it is my favorite knife for wilderness survival and other practical purposes. It's the "Companion" knife made by Mora of Sweden that has a 4" blade. There are plenty of other knives that are more durable, with a thicker blade, etc, etc, but you are going to pay for it and if you're like me, when you pay more you're less likely to carry it and use it because you don't want to lose it. (sad to say, I've lost a lot of knives)

For me, after using stone tools to carve wood and skin animals, a simple knife like this is a luxury. But you don't have to have used stone tools to appreciate it!

These Mora knives have gone through a few changes over the years and the older models that I still use went by the name "Clipper", so you may still find those online too.

I've had an old "Clipper" knife for about ten years and used it for carving wood, making bow drill fire-by-friction kits, carving out primitive traps, skinning and gutting animals, chopping vegetables, cutting rope, and for splitting wood. The cool thing is that I've never broken a blade on one of these knives nor have I seen one break, though I heard once that it can happen. I've seen blades break from expensive and well-known companies but never from a Mora Companion or Clipper.

Here's why I like this knife...

1) They come out of the factory very sharp, while a lot of other knives need sharpening after purchase. A sharp knife is a safer knife because it doesn't require so much effort for carving.

2) While many knives have a serious bevel (as in exhibit "A" on the right) that causes the blade to deflect and skid across surfaces when carving at a sharp angle, the Mora knives have a high bevel (as in exhibit B on the right). This means it's easier to carve and sharpen sticks with it, and you won't have to grind down the bevel yourself.

3) Price. You can get them from $12-$16 so if/when you lose it you're not out a lot of cash.

4) You get to choose from a variety of colors. Some like the bright orange so you won't lose it while others like the duller tones for greater concealment.

One down-side to these knives have been the sheath. They are made of plastic yet have proven to be quite durable and so this is not the issue. The problem is that over time the knives don't sit in the sheath so easily and will fall out. There's an easy fix for this however. Simply take a hair band (ask your long-haired friend about this) and wrap it around the top of the sheath and the knife. This will hold it securely in place and you can still easily access your knife.(photo of this coming soon!)

Serrated Edge or Non? 
I'm not a fan of serrated edged knives because when you carve a bow-drill spindle, for example, it comes out with all these ridges from the serrated edge instead of being smooth. In reality I have never needed a serrated edge. If you want to read up on this subject further here's a resource.

*Hoosier Workwear in Bloomington, IN now has some of these Mora knives in stock!

Sleeping Bag System: review of the 4 in 1 modular sleep system with Gortex bivy cover

The "Debris-pee" 3-4 person shelter complete with fire pit
Shelter is one of the most important factors if you are going to survive in the wilderness. It's also one of the most important factors in whether or not you will be comfortable and cozy.
I've made and slept in all kinds of natural shelters made from sticks, leaves, and plant parts and in all kinds of weather conditions. Some of these shelters were quite amazing in that I was able to be warm (and even hot) in the cold of winter or dry in the heaviest of rains. While knowing how to build your own natural shelter is a skill that can bring a person to a fantastic feeling of confidence and freedom it is not what I am actually here to tell you about. Instead, I'm going to review a modern sleeping bag system that has been my favorite sleeping bag to date.

And here it is...

This is the "Military Modular Sleep System" which includes 2 sleeping bags; a cold-weather bag rated to -10 to 30 degrees (I know, that's a big range), and a lighter bag rated to 30-50 degrees.

Each of these bags can be used alone; the heavier for a fall/winter/spring bag and the lighter for a summer bag, or they can be combined for a really warm winter bag. For me, this is one of the attractive features because it becomes a 4-season, all-weather sleeping bag.

There's also a waterproof goretex camouflage nylon bivy bag that one or both sleeping bags can slide into so you can stay dry. It also adds another layer, although thin, of insulation. Remember to keep your gortex clean so it can remain breathable! All of this combines for an overall rating of -30 degrees!

It all seems quite durable and I've been using mine for about 4 years (including the lightweight bag in the summertime) and there are no rips, tears, or seams un-stitching.The whole thing packs into a black compression stuff sack (included). This sack is durable and covered in straps. If carrying on the outside of your pack it could catch on branches, which is more of a concern if you are going off-trail.

Not everyone will like the camouflage pattern but I personally prefer earth-tones before bright colors as I enjoy blending into the natural landscape when I am out.

I can personally attest that this sleeping bag system kept me warm in -15 degree weather (with some base layers of clothing on too). I've also slept out all night in the rain a few times and stayed completely dry inside. The bivy covers your head and has some air vents for circulation. The bivy proved to be breathable as it stayed dry inside when I've used it in the cold and in the rain.

The cool thing about this is that if you have a rain cover for your backpack then you don't need to carry a tent, meaning you can pack lighter. One other thing I like to do is leave my therm-a-rest mat at home and just pile up a foot or so of leaves on the ground to sleep on. The leaves will compress a lot but it will add insulation from the cold earth. I recently watched a friend of mine actually build a rectangular bed with branches and then a thick layer of leaves on top. In the end, he was about a foot off the ground and he slept deep and warm.

CONS: The major drawback of this sleeping system is it's bulk and weight (about 10lbs.). Compare this to a cold-weather down bag that may weigh about 1-2lbs. It does take up a good amount of space so take this into consideration. 

The summer bag can pack up as small as any other summer bag and I use a small Granite Gear compression sack to pack it in instead of the large black bag it comes with.

Here's a thought... what if they made these bags with a down fill?! It would cut back on weight and bulk.