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.

The major drawback of this sleeping system is it's bulk and weight. However, when it comes to winter camping it's difficult to avoid all the extra weight (~10lbs. total) and bulk in the form of warmer gear. Yet again, you won't need a tent.

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.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tents: is that really a "rain fly"?

Now these look like great tents right? You could sleep 4-8 people and have room for some gear inside. They look like they could be set up pretty easily too. These are the kinds of tents that you'll find at Walmart, Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, MC Sports, and many other department stores with a camping section. 

But what's wrong with these pictures?!

Despite the advertising on the box... they don't have a true rain fly. Neither of these will keep you and your gear dry. They are fair-weather tents only and they fool a lot of inexperienced campers, summer camps, and boy scouts! I honestly don't know why tents like this are even on the market. Who would want a tent that won't keep you dry and forces you to pack up and go home in the event of some rain? Why would a company make such a tent and sell it to consumers? This question just baffles me. I recommend not wasting your time pondering these questions and instead just invest in a real tent.

I've worked at several different outdoorsy summer camps over the years and all of them had tents like the two pictured above. We just came to accept that if it rained we were going to get wet. But I'm here to tell you that you don't have to do that too! Learn from our mistakes and lack of information.

The good news is that there are tents on the market that have proper rain flies. Let me direct your attention to the photos below.

Slumberjack 6-person Tent, currently $168 on
Kelty Acadia 6-person Tent, currently $249 on

I recently bought 2 of the Slumberjack tents for our overnight summer camp program and I am very impressed with them. First off, you'll notice that the rain fly goes all the way to the ground thus guiding the water completely off of the tent so that you and your gear stay dry! This is what a tent is supposed to do... it's primary purpose is a shelter and if it doesn't fulfill that purpose then it's worthless. The Slumberjack is affordable and sets up quick with only two poles. It's quite roomy enough to stand up in and has 2 large doors; one on each side.

I will say, for those of you who are stuck with a tent like the ones pictured at the beginning of this post, that there is another option to keep you dry. However, it requires that you carry even more gear in the form of a tarp and some rope. Tie the tarp up (which requires good trees or poles and stakes) and be sure that the tarp has overhang on all sides of the tent. You can get away with this and stay dry but the down-side is the aforementioned burden of carrying the extra gear. My recommendation is to get the tent with the proper rain fly and enjoy your time in the woods!

Steger Mukluk Review: the best winter footwear ever!!!

Like many outdoorsy people I used to go all through the winter with cold feet. I tried many kinds of boots that were well insulated and water-proof. These would work for a while but somehow my feet would still get cold if I were outside for hours at a time, especially in wet conditions. After many years of this I just grew to accept that being outdoors in the winter means putting up with cold feet.

Then one day I discovered Steger Mukluks and my winter life was never the same! For the first time in my life I went through an entire winter without cold feet. How is this possible and what's the magic behind the footwear?

Oh Steger Mukluks how do I love thee... let me count the ways. Bragging about this footwear is one of my favorite winter activities!

1) The outer is made of thick moose hide leather and once treated with water-proofing solution it is well... water-proof and keeps your feet dry even in wet snow conditions.

2) They come with a wool liner for extra insulation. Order them a size too big and double wide so you can layer up the socks and keep your feet warmer.

3) The soles are soft and flexible allowing your feet to feel the ground and for a quieter walk so they are great for hunting or sneaking.

4) The real magic behind how they keep your feet warm is the soft sole. It allows your foot to move and flex with each step. This combined with the looser fit (because you ordered them a size big) allows for greater blood circulation and thus your feet stay warm. It also strengthens your feet and ankles and prevents them from cramping up from lack of movement. Boots will not offer this kind of movement, circulation, and warmth because they are designed with stiff soles and strong ankle support which then holds your foot tightly in place instead of moving as it should.
If you are sitting for hours (as in hunting) then you may feel a bit of a chill but they are still the warmest footwear I've seen.

I've had mine for about 6 years and all the stitching is holding up with no holes. I'm going to buy some insoles before this coming winter to add a new layer of insulation from the ground as they started to get a bit cold from the ground up last winter.

I highly recommend these mukluks if you have a desire to wander, play, or explore the outdoors in the cold of winter.

Ready to order? Go to and choose your style and color. (note: I get no compensation what-so-ever from your order)