Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“Your Need That Protein!”: Things You Hear on TV That Just Aren’t True

It’s almost gospel on current TV survival shows, and you have heard it over an over again. It is a statement along the lines of “You need that protein”, “Your body needs that protein”, “You need to get that protein in your body”, etc. Every piece of food found or caught is for some reason evaluated not based on how many calories it provides, but how much protein it contains. In fact, it is repeated so often that people watching the shows have becomes preoccupied with protein consumption when in the woods. I see comments about it on forums all the time; people obsessing with how they are going to get protein in a survival situation, because after all… “You need to get that protein”.

iStock_pile-of-meat_Medium_cms(1)

But, how true is that?

Well, on one level, our bodies need all sorts of nutrients. So, on a very basic level, especially if we are talking about long term survival in particular, you will need protein. However, how applicable is that on a more specific level? Do you need protein in a survival situation, even in a long term survival situation? Can you live without protein other than that occurring in plant materials?

In my opinion, for what it’s worth, the “need” for protein is one of the most overhyped, misinformed, and unfounded assertions currently being made on TV survival shows.

I believe that protein is the last type of food you should be going for in a survival situation. Now, beggars can’t be choosers, so if you find yourself with any source of food, you take it. However, you do that because it is food, not because it is protein.

The human body can get energy by metabolizing fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Out of the three, proteins are really the last resort for energy production. Carbohydrates are usually used for short term energy storage and use, while fats comprise long term energy storage. Short bursts of energy generally rely on carbs, while long term, slower energy consumption relies on fats. While proteins can be used as a source of energy, they are primarily building blocks.

Let’s look at some more specific information. Each type of food source has a particular caloric content. They are as follows:

  • Fat: 8.8 kcal/g
  • Carbs: 4.0 kcal/g
  • Proteins: 4.3 kcal/g

Right off the bat, we can see that fat has more than twice the number of calories per gram than protein. On their face value, carbs and proteins seem to have similar caloric values. So just based on this basic data, if you were going to go after some sort of food during a survival situation, your priority should be fat, not protein. Foods like acorns that are high in fats would be a good choice.

If we look more deeply into the topic, the problems with protein consumption become even more pronounced. The issue is that the above caloric data is tested in a lab by burning the materials. When the body attempts to extract that same energy from the food, the results change due to some types of food being more efficiently metabolized. For example, when food is metabolized, some of the energy is lost as heat. The process is called the thermic effect. Here is how much energy is lost as heat during metabolism for each type of food (J Am Col Nutr 2002 Feb; 21(1): 55-61):

  • Fat: 2-3%
  • Carbs: 6-8%
  • Protein: 25-30% 

So, while metabolizing fat can give caloric loss of 2-3% to the thermic effect, you lose almost a third of the energy from protein to the same thermic effect. Combining the above general caloric listing with this thermic effect listing, 10g of each food type will give us 85 kcal from fat, 37 kcal from carbs, and 30 kcal from protein. And, the thermic effect is just one source of energy loss. Certain type of protein matabolization, in particular when producing glycogen that can utilized by brain cells, you can get almost complete energy loss; meaning that metabolizing the protein can consume almost as much energy as the protein contains. Am J Clin Nutr Sept 2009 vol90 no3: 519-526

Energy counts aside, there is also a limit on how much protein the human body can safely consume and process. Generally, anything over 35% of the daily caloric intake being comprised of protein can be dangerous. Certainly, relying entirely on protein can be deadly. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2006 Apr; 16(2): 129-152 The common name for the condition resulting from over consumption of protein is rabbit starvation.

Of course, we can not live without protein, especially in a long term survival situation. According to the USDA Dietary Reference Index, it is recommended that a person consume 0.36g of protein for each pound of body weight (0.8g for each kilogram of body weight). For a 155lb man, that would be 56g of protein per day (recommended). Clearly one can live without any protein for an extended period of time, much longer than one can live without food, but for long term survival, it wouldn’t be a good idea.

That being said, chasing after squirrels may not be necessary. Considering that daily protein requirements are so low and that protein is not a particularly good energy source for the body, worrying about protein may not be the best use of ones time. The reality is that most protein in a survival situation can be obtained from other food sources without actively looking for any protein. For example, as per the USDA SR27, burdock root contain 1.53% protein nutritional value, dandelions contain 2.7%, and acorns contain 6.15% protein nutritional value. Odds are that if you are managing to find enough calories to stay alive, you are getting enough protein in the process without even trying.

Bottom line is, out of all the things your body needs when in the woods, protein is very far down on the list. Your body needs calories, which are best obtained through fats and carbohydrates, each providing the most efficient use of energy under certain conditions. Then, in a long term survival situation, worry about vitamins and nutrients like Vitamin C, which is needed by the body to avoid well known ailments like scurvy. By the time you have managed to satisfy those requirements, you would have most likely already consumed all of the protein that your body actually needs. Unless you are doing body building in the woods, you should not be preoccupied with protein consumption. The fact that a worm has as much protein as an egg has very little impact on your survival.

For example, tests have been done where people have subsisted on a diet of only potatoes with no other sources of protein. After six months, there were no negative effects on the test subjects. Kon S.  XXXV. The value of whole potato in human nutrition.  Biochemical J. 1928; 22:258-260; Lopez de Romana G.  Fasting and postprandial plasma free amino acids of infants and children consuming exclusively potato protein. J Nutr. 1981 Oct;111(10):1766-71 Similar results have been recorded for other plan based proteins like from cassava. Millward DJ.  The nutritional value of plant-based diets in relation to human amino acid and protein requirements.  Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 May;58(2):249-60

It has been pointed out that there are nine amino acids (essential amino acids) that the human body can not synthesize, so they must be obtained from our food sources. Meat provides all nine, while most plant foods provide only certain selection of these amino acids. That is true. It is usually not an issue because vegetarians and vegans eat different types of plants, which provides all the essential amino acids. In a survival situation however, you may not be able to do that, and end up lacking certain amino acids.

The question is, what impact does that have on the human body? The two studies above demonstrate that at least for a six month period a person should have no problem obtaining all of their protein form a single source. I have not found instances of any deaths that resulted from protein deficiency, and in particular from a deficiency from any specific amino acid. The topic of protein deficiency seem to exist, but I can’t find any medical data which would indicate at what point, if ever, a deficiency in the intake of any specific amino acid would have a negative effect on the human body. Typically, a person in such a situation, where death from malnutrition has occurred, the death came about from lack of calories, not lack of protein. Leiter LA, Marliss EB. Survival during fasting may depend on fat as well as protein stores. JAMA 1982;248:2306; Zimmerman MD, Appadurai K, Scott JG, Jellett LB, Garlick FH.  Survival. Ann Intern Med. 1997 Sep 1;127(5):405-9

Now, this is of course all academic. In a survival situation, you eat what you can find. I love meat, and I certainly think there is value to consuming it. I’ve written other posts where I have explained my thoughts on the difficulty of surviving on plant foods alone when in the wilderness. The point that I am making is not that you shouldn’t eat meat when in the woods, but rather that protein is not a priority. If you are going to die due to lack of nutrients, lack of protein will likely be the last thing to cause a problem.

Now, I fully understand that I am trying to make a serious point about idiotic shows. Odds are that the narrator on each shows constantly talks about protein because one of the producers thinks it sounds cool. The reason why I am bothering at all is because of all of the comments I have seen with people being overly concerned about protein consumption as a result of this spectacle we see on TV. I suppose my main point is…stop listening to stuff you see on TV!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Smoke, Mirrors, and Misdirection: What We Don’t See About Wilderness Skills

This post was prompted by several different things that have been brought up recently. The main theme here is that these days we have very easy access to all sorts of wonderful information regarding the outdoors and wilderness skills. Unfortunately however, for the person who is not very familiar with the skills involved, there can be a lot of incorrectly inferred ideas. 

When we write about our outdoor experiences or demonstrate different skills, a reader or viewer has to always have at the back of their mind what information is being left out. Sometimes the omission is unintentional or the result of incorrectly assuming that the reader or viewer understand enough of the concept to see that, while other times it is an outright deception. And let me make it clear, here I am talking about not just bloggers or guys with YouTube channels, but also professionals and television shows.

Man-Vs-Wild-Is-Fake

So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself when viewing or reading any outdoor related material. I can’t give you a way to know the answer to each question, but at least you can ask yourself and the writer for that information.

1. Is what is being said an outright lie?

I find that this doesn’t happen too often with people on YouTube or bloggers, but it is certainly very prevalent when it comes to survival TV shows, the most notorious of which is of course Man vs. Wild, although I think these days we have come to accept that just about all such shows are scripted and fake. We have now seen hosts staying in hotels, staying in tents, performing staged hunts, “caught” game being provided by the producers, faked danger all over the place, etc. Recently I watched an episode of dual survivor where Joe found some Fomes fomentarius (Horseshoe fungus), which by the time he was ready to start a fire with his flint and steel had miraculously turned into dried Inonotus obliquus (Chaga). Not to mention that the “preparation” of the fungus was that for Chaga, not for Horseshoe fungus. Intentional deception at its finest, and extremely dangerous. I wish I could give you a clear cut way to determine when a show is being deceitful, but I can’t. As a general rule of thumb, if you see it on TV, there is generally a producer making the calls, leading to the all too familiar pattern of deception. 

2. Is the author being paid to present the information?

This of course is most directly related to gear reviews. It can range from intentional deception to unintentional misdirection. Some authors will outright push merchandize regardless of quality, while others will try to be neutral. Knowing where the money comes from can help guide your evaluation of how reliable the presenter is. With most reputable bloggers and people with YouTube channels these days, you will see disclaimers when gear is provided for free or through a sponsorship. There is no clear way to avoid this issue, but knowing the relationship between the writer and the product can help with your evaluation.

3. Where is the activity taking place?

Here we enter into misdirection that is probably unintentional, but could be misleading none the less. Mainly, here we are looking at skills or adventures that are being performed on private land without it being clear that it is private land. There are simply some things you can do in your own woods behind the house that you can not do in a national forest. Some are easy to spot such as building log shelters, other are more subtle, such as hunting. There is a huge difference between hunting on your own prepared private land, and hunting national or state forests. The differences between the two types of locations can be very large, so one has to be careful about asking where the skill is being performed before thinking that it can be duplicated under a wide range of conditions.

A derivative if this problem is that a lot of times we think we are observing a skill or project being performed in the wilderness, when in fact it is being performed in a prepared permanent or semi permanent camp, usually on private land. Knowing the difference can alter how valuable the skill would be under the conditions you are likely to encounter.

4. How long did it take?

We see this issue both on TV shows and blogs/YouTube channels. A skill is perfectly demonstrated, a shelter is built, traps are set, fire is made, but no one mentions exactly how long that took. On TV, or in a post, it can seem like it took twenty minutes. In reality it probably took hours. Sure, the skill looks cool, but if you knew the time requirements, would it be practical for what you need to accomplish when in the woods. I too love seeing lean-to shelters with raised log beds, and a large fire burning in front, but I understand the time requirements of such a project. So, when you are trying to evaluate a skill or project, try to make an honest evaluation of how much time it requires and whether it is worth it in the end. After all, time is a resource as well.  

5. Are the skills and projects being demonstrated actually used, or are they theoretical?

By that I mean, does the person doing the demonstration actually utilize that skill in the woods themselves, or are they just demonstrating it in a controlled setting. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but knowing the difference can help you evaluate the usefulness of the information. Talking about how leafs can insulate you is one thing; spending the night out using them as insulation is another. I have found that the reality is usually very different from the theory. Tarp shelters in lean-to configuration look great…until the rain starts and you realize the protection is horribly inaccurate. That is something you learn by doing. Whether the author has used the skill in the woods makes a difference.

6. Is the author making assumptions about the reader’s knowledge with respect to gear and skills that the reader may not actually have?

This is usually done unintentionally, but it does happen that the writer will speak about a project, assuming that the readers are familiar with the wider skill and gear set, when in fact the reader does not have that information. This can quickly lead to misunderstandings.  

 

Now, I’ve seen all of the above things, and I’ve been guilty of some of them myself. I’ve reviewed gear that has been provided to me for free, even though I provide disclaimers to make that fact clear and try to be as neutral as possible. I very often do not account for the time it actually takes to do something. You’ll see me say in some posts that I went over the mountain and camped on the other side. It’s a sentence is the post, but in reality took hours to accomplish. These days I also end up mistakenly assuming that people know more about existing data and studies than some actually do. All of these things can lead to misinformation and confusion.

So, if you are not sure about any of the above when it comes to my writings, please let me know and I’ll try to answer.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Traditional Birch Bark Canoe Construction

I remember watching an episode of Ray Mears’ Bushcraft years ago where he constructed a traditional birch bark canoe. Well, here is a video from 1946 showing the construction of such canoe.



The video is interesting to me not only because of the canoe construction, but also because we can see the traditional tools that are still in use.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Evolution of a Wood Trekker

Last week there was a forum post that posed the question of how bushcraft has evolved for you over the years. I thought that the evolution of a person’s approach to the outdoors over time was an interesting subject, and decided to look back at how things have changed for me. 

As some of you already know, I grew up in Bulgaria. I was there until I was a teenager. That’s where I first started with outdoor activities. I used to backpack with my grandfather, and spend time on my grandparents’ farm. We are talking about small scale farming without power tools; something that I imagine hasn’t been seen on a large scale in the US for a while. My parents and I also used to ski quite a bit. As a kid, all this mostly translated to me playing around in the woods. There are a lot of things that I could have learned back then but didn’t, mostly because I was a kid and didn’t care. These days I try to think back and remember the things I saw but didn’t ask about. 

I moved to the US right before high school. I didn’t do anything outdoor related for the first few years. I didn’t speak the language, had to travel two hours each way to get to school, and we generally had plenty of other things to worry about.

I started getting back into the outdoors at the end of high school/beginning of college. I knew nothing about where to go or what to do, so I didn’t know how to get started. I wasn’t sure what was allowed and where I was allowed to do it. Some research showed me that there was a train that passed right next to one of the state parks from where I could reach the trails. I decided that this is how I was going to do it. It took me about four hours to get to the forest from where I was living. For those interested in the area, I would get off at the Tuxedo, NY train station and then backpack up to the Dutch Doctor lean-to area in Harriman State Park.

Screenshot_2015-04-14-16-51-20

My gear was comprised of the cheapest things I could find. Back in Bulgaria I had gotten used to backpacking with very basic gear. Out of necessity everything was what you would call old-school. Our packs were frameless canvas, blankets and clothing was made of wool and cotton. Not fancy Merino wool, mind you; It was the type of wool that still had straw embedded in it. I remember it was a huge deal when puffy ski jackets made their appearance in the early 90s. My knife was an old folding knife, etc. Well, when I started looking for gear in the US, the cheapest thing I could find was army surplus gear. There was a surplus store next to my college, so I started gearing up.

If I remember correctly, initially I had a medium ALICE pack, army surplus closed cell foam pad, a wool blanket (very thick one), MSR stainless steel pot, and an alcohol stove. Water purification was done with iodine tablets, and my shelter was a poncho. I wish I had some pictures to show you, but I definitely didn’t have money for a camera back then, and I wasn’t blogging, so I didn’t care. All of this was happening around 2002.

Jump forward about five years, and I can show you the first glimpses of Wood Trekker through the camera of a friend who was with me on one of the trips.

IMG_0657   

IMG_0920

Still mil-surplus head to toe, but I had made quite a few changes over the previous five years. Developments were slow because I couldn’t get to the forest that often due to the long travel time.

The ALICE pack was replaced with a replica CFP-90. I still had the pockets on it back then. It had a basic frame, so it functioned better than the ALICE pack which I was using without a frame. The blanket was replaced with a US Modular Sleep System (MSS). I had bought a DD 9x9 tarp, an MSR Whisperlite stove and a MSR Waterworks EX filter. Honestly, I don’t remember all the things I had in my pack, but I know it was a lot of stuff. I know my “survival” kit alone needed its own shoulder bag. The little camera case you see on the backpack strap is not for a camera, it’s for another “survival” kit. Why is it attached to the pack? Who knows!? The pack was heavy. About 45lb (20kg) heavy. I remember it feeling like an accomplishment just to manage to get the gear up the mountain to the area where I was to camp. I was also into knives at the time, so I had a bunch of them…just in case.

During that time I started focusing more serious on winter camping. It was a big part of the reason why a got the Modular Sleep System (MSS).

I started blogging in 2010. The reason was that I finally got a camera and a car with which I could reach the woods more easily. I was following a few other blogs at the time and wanted to give it a shot. Not much had changed in terms of gear since the above pic.

IMG_0336 

062

I had removed the side pockets from the CFP-90, but the gear was mostly the same. I also really got into axes. We had and used axes back in Bulgaria, but when I started to look for a decent axe here in the US, at the time I just couldn’t find any good information. I started using and reviewing axes just so I can find exactly what I want. I learned a bunch of things in the process. Eventually I found what I liked and didn’t like, and said what I had to say on the subject. Other than more axes and less knives, my gear mostly remained the same.

The biggest change I made during that phase was to switch from a tarp to the GoLite Shangri-La 5 tent in 2011. It was a big change for me.

Shortly after that, I started reading a lot of forums, and got swept up in the whole “the old ways are the best ways” thing. I switched to a lot of wool and canvas during that period because everyone was saying it was the way to go. I even went back to a wool blanket for a while.

a (1) 

b (14)

I still kept the CFP-90 because I couldn’t find a canvas pack that could carry as much as the CFP-90. I also quickly switched back to the sleeping bag.

Even though I went to heavier materials during this period, I was gradually starting to cut down on weight. I didn’t carry the bivi any more, and reduced all of the small items which usually add up to a lot of weight. I also gave up on carrying a “belt kit”. Instead I started carrying a knife and a few other items in my pockets. Everything else went inside the pack.

This all lasted for a little bit over a year. Gradually I started figuring out that just because people say things should work, doesn’t make it the case. I stopped listening to opinions and just started trying things out for myself. Little by little I started replacing items that didn’t work well with ones that worked better for me. The result was the Wood Trekker you recognize today.

IMG_8663[3]

IMG_97093

During this process I transitioned to a smaller shelter; first the SL3 and then the Direkt 2 tent. My pack gradually decreased in size to 40L (Black Diamond Speed 40), which I use year round these days. The MSR Waterworks EX filter was replaced with a Sawyer Mini, the Whisperlite Stove was replaced with a Kovea Spider (and few other variants), the closed cell foam pad eventually became an inflatable Thermarest Neoair XTherm, the Modular Sleep System (MSS) was replaced with Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag for winter, even though I still use the MSS patrol bag for warm weather.

My clothing system transitioned from a direct layering system to an action suit system where most of my insulation is stored in the backpack for when I’m stationary, relaying only on minimal clothing when active.

The more time I spent in the woods, the less reliant I became on large fires, and gradually started carrying a hatchet instead of an axe, and eventually just a knife and a small saw. While I still have and use my axes, they are not a primary focus for me these days as a piece of gear to carry in the woods. Wilderness navigation on the other hand became much more important to me during this period. 

IMG_2045[3] 

The latest development in the evolution of Wood Trekker has been to expand the things I do when in the woods. Over the past few years I have managed to narrow down on the exact gear that I want to use, and the skills that I need along with it. Gradually, trips have become routine, and new gear has become uninteresting to me. That is why you see so few reviews from me these days. I’ve figured out what works for me, and I just keep using it. I started doing trips in more and more challenging conditions, but even that became routine.

To counter that, I’ve started adding different components to my trips: climbing, hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.

Copy of IMG_0555[3]

Copy of IMG_0380[3]

IMG_1198 - Copy[5]

It makes each trip more challenging, and has given me an opportunity to obsess over completely new types of gear.

So, I’ve gone through Mil-Surplus Wood Trekker, Old-School Wood Trekker, Modern-Gear Wood Trekker, and now Doing-Everything-There-Is-To-Do-In-The-Woods Wood Trekker. Of course, none of these transitions happened overnight. They were gradual and there was a lot of going back and forth.

The most rapid changes have occurred over the past few years. A main reason for that is that I had much easier access to the woods, which allowed me to spend a lot more time there. The other reason is that the more time I spent in the woods, the less validation I sought from others. In the early years, as a lot of people do, I used to question whether or not I was using the right skills and the right gear. I would look to forums and blogs to make sure that I was doing things “properly”. That created relative stagnation. Once I became confident enough in what I was doing, it allowed me much more room for experimentation and development. 

Along with my changing approach to the outdoors, there has been a change in my approach to blogging. I started this blog about five years ago. In the beginning I was very interested in gear, testing, and figuring out skills. You rarely ever saw any pics of me or my trips. Over the years I have moved away from that and focused more on trip reports. I know most people don’t like reading them, but I did it for two reasons. The first one I mentioned above, i.e. I’ve largely found the gear I want and the skills that I find most efficient, and don’t have that much more to say on the subject. The second reason is that a fellow blogger rightfully made an observation a few years back that bloggers and forum participants talk a lot about what should be done, but rarely show what they themselves do in the woods. I think there is value in being able to observe someone’s trips into the outdoors. It gives you better perspective on how they do things, and consequently whether or not their ideas and recommendations apply to how you approach the outdoors. 

Anyway, this has just been a short trip down memory lane. Hopefully this will give people better perspective on where I’ve come from and why I do what I do.