Friday, September 19, 2014

Long Term Wilderness Living: Blanket vs. Sleeping Bag

Recently one of the guys I follow on YouTube had an interesting video discussing the merits of carrying a blanket vs. a sleeping bag as part of your gear when attempting long term wilderness living. I thought it was an interesting subject, so I figured I would share some of my thoughts with you. For more of my ramblings on long term wilderness living you can check out the post here.

So, for this discussion I will assume a scenario where a person is going to carry all of his gear on his back, travel into the wilderness, away from any civilization or human contact, and spend anywhere from a month to a year there. Shorter than a month is just a regular camping trip, and longer than a year becomes problematic for any set of gear. Keeping that in mind, what are the benefits of carrying a blanket(s) for your insulation as opposed to carrying a sleeping bag?

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Before I begin with the discussion, I just want to say that for purposes of this post I’m assuming that we are using wool blankets of appropriate size and thickness. With respect to sleeping bags, I’m assuming we are using high quality modern sleeping bags. I will NOT be discussing the US Modular Sleep System (MSS). Very often it is presented as a representative of “sleeping bags”. The MSS is very old and outdated technology, and for that matter it wasn’t even cutting edge technology when it first came out. The current state of technology has moved way past that. I will also assume here that all other gear stays the same, and that the only choice being made is between carrying a blanket and a sleeping bag. 

Advantages of Blankets:

  • Blankets are more durable than sleeping bags. Because blankets have a solid construction and do not include things like baffle tubes and shell materials, they are more durable and easier to maintain.
  • Wool blankets are more fire resistant, so they can be used closer to a fire and can be dried out more easily near a fire.
  • Blankets lose less loft than sleeping bags when wet. Because blankets have a solid construction instead of using fill to create loft for insulation like sleeping bags, they lose less insulation when wet because their thickness doesn’t diminish due to the presence of moisture like it does in sleeping bags.
  • Blankets can more easily be used as makeshift clothing items than sleeping bags.

Advantages of Sleeping Bags:

  • Sleeping bags offer much, much, much more insulation for the same weight than a blanket. A 5lb blanket is generally considered to be good enough stand alone insulation for temperatures down to 32F (0C). On the other hand, a 5lb sleeping bag like the Western Mountaineering Bison GWS can give you a temperature rating of –40F (-40C). That is a huge difference. You can achieve the same insulation rating (32F/0C) of a single 5lb blanket with a sleeping bag that weighs 1lb or even less.
  • Sleeping bags compress much, much, much better than blankets. Since sleeping bags use fill based materials to provide loft for insulation, they compress significantly better than blankets which have a solid construction.

So, looking at the above lists, you can easily reach the conclusion that if you are going to undertake a long term trip into the wilderness, you should bring blankets with you rather than a sleeping bag. After all, they are more durable, loose less insulation when wet, are easier to dry out, and can be used in more configurations.

However, I would assert that the advantages of the sleeping bag are so significant that they trump any advantages that might be presented by a blanket, and as such, the sleeping bag would be my choice for insulation in a long term wilderness living scenario. Let me explain.

In my opinion, and from my experiences, every advantage offered by blankets can be compensated for when using a sleeping bag. However, you can not make up with blankets for the advantages of a sleeping bag. Let me give some examples to show what you can do to compensate for the disadvantages of a sleeping bag.

  • Problem: Sleeping bags are more easily damaged by fire, and as a result harder to dry with the use of a fire. Solution: A properly rated sleeping bag does not require the use of a fire to keep you warm. It can be dried out even in winter by leaving it out in the sun during the day. It can also be dried out by placing warm rocks in the bag contained in a sock, which will drive out the moisture, or keeping it by a small, well controlled fire. It’s a bit more work than drying out a blanket, but you can certainly compensate for the disadvantage.
  • Problem: You can not use a fire to supplement the warmth of a sleeping bag as you can with a blanket. Solution: This is only a theoretical problem. You do not need a fire to stay warm when using a properly rated sleeping bag. If for some reason you have to, heating up some water on the fire and placing a hot water bottle in the bag will supplement the insulation. If you have a tent with a wood burning stove, you can easily use it with a sleeping bag. Relying on a fire to keep warm during the night is only an emergency measure. It is not suited for long term living. Only half sleeping during the night in order to keep a fire burning, and then spending a large part of the day gathering sufficient fire wood is a poor long term living strategy.
  • Problem: Sleeping bags are harder to use as makeshift clothing. Solution: You can actually quite easily wrap a sleeping bag around you to stay warm. Better yet, since your sleeping bag is about five times lighter than your blanket, you can afford to bring a proper jacket and still have a lighter set up than the single blanket; and you can then use the sleeping bag and jacket together for added insulation.  
  • Problem: Sleeping bags lose more insulation when wet than blankets. Solution: There is no good solution here other than keeping your gear dry. A small stuff sack will keep your sleeping bag dry no matter what. That being said, whether you get your blanket or sleeping bag wet, you have to resort to alternate solutions for insulation. While a wet blanket is warmer than a wet sleeping bag, you will freeze is either if the weather is bad. If on the other hand we are talking about gradual moisture build up like condensation, then drying your bag out each day and using a vapor barrier liner (VBL) will eliminate the problem.

While the above solutions are not perfect, and can be annoying, you can certainly maintain a sleeping bag in working condition in a long term wilderness living situation. This is especially true if you have a tent, and even more so if you have a tent with a wood burning stove. The blanket however has no way of making up for the advantages of the sleeping bag. No matter what, for the same insulation, blankets will be much heavier and much bulkier than a sleeping bag.

Well, you are a strong lad, you may not think that is a problem. However, look at it this way: You have a limit on how much weight you can carry, whatever that may be. As such, the weight of the gear you carry is a zero sum game. For every pound of gear you add in one department, you have to take it out somewhere else. So, if instead of a 1lb sleeping bag, you have to carry a 5lb blanket, those 4lb by which your sleep system has been increased have to come out of somewhere. Now, instead of those 4lb of extra blanket weight, you could bring:

  • Five #1 foothold traps
  • 548 rounds of .22LR ammo
  • 3lb scoped rifle with 137 rounds of .22LR ammo
  • four extra sleeping bags
  • An extra sleeping bag and two jackets
  • A tent with a wood burning stove (SL3 Fly: 1lb 8oz and Titanium Goat 12” stove; 1lb 10oz)

In my mind that significantly shifts the equation. I will gladly deal with the added difficulties of drying out my sleeping bag if in exchange I got a rifle and 137 rounds of ammo, or five extra traps. For me that has a lot more benefit in a long term wilderness living situation than the fact that the blanket will get less pin holes when close to the fire than the sleeping bag.

This is the opportunity cost of using a blanket. What do you have to give up in exchange for carrying the extra weight and volume of the blanket? When compared to a sleeping bag, the answer is A LOT! Whatever benefit a blanket may hold over a sleeping bag, it is significantly outweighed by the its bulk and weight. If all other gear stays the same, by replacing a blanket with a sleeping bag, and keeping the overall weight of your pack the same, you can bring significant amount of extra crucial gear like traps and ammo.

The numbers become even more extreme when we consider lower temperatures. To achieve the temperature rating of –40F(-40C) that you can get from a 5lb sleeping bag, you will need at least five blankets (being optimistic), which will run you about 25lb. What crucial gear will you have to give up for those extra 20lb? That is about 25 #1 foothold traps. That is a full trap line and then some! Or, you can outright bring two rifles and a year's supply of ammo.

This calculus is nothing new. We keep telling ourselves that mountain men of the past used blankets, so they must have been great. The long hunters and mountain men knew that blankets were not great insulation. Virtually every journal entry or account from the 18th and 19th century where cold weather travel was involved, people had a single blanket and the rest of the insulation was provided by furs. The outcome was that gear had to be carried on pack horses or sleds, but even then no one carried five blankets. The numbers just don’t add up. The moment down sleeping bags appeared on the market such as the Woods Arctic Robe in the late 19th century, they quickly replaced blankets for the woodsman, becoming the standard for expeditions in the early 20th century. 

The usual response to the above argument is that a blanket will not be heavier than a sleeping bag because you only need one small, light blanket because you will sleep by the fire to stay warm. Let me know how well that is working out after day five of sleeping only an hour at a time so you can feed the fire, and then spending several hours each winter morning gathering fire wood for the night. Then let me know how well that is working out when you have fallen sick, or sprained an ankle or shoulder but still need the firewood so you don’t die during the night. On a short trip blankets can be fun and entertaining. For long term use however, you just have to give up too much in order to bring proper insulation comprised of blankets. With all of its limitations, in my opinion the sleeping bag is the clear choice for long term wilderness living.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Foothold Trap Modification: Chain Alterations

In my previous post on foothold trap modifications, I discussed how I make a night latch trigger adjustment to my traps. You can see the post here. I also outlined the three areas where I think trap modifications could be beneficial to the trapper:

  1. To catch and hold the animal more effectively
  2. To minimize suffering for the animal and any damage to the fur
  3. To protect and preserve the traps

This post will address a modification that will effect the first and second of the above points. It will allow the trap to hold the animal more effectively, and will decrease any suffering to the animal and potential damage to the fur.

Foothold traps, much more so than body grip traps require secure anchoring in order to effectively hold the trapped animal. An animal caught in such a trap will naturally struggle to get out of the trap for a period of time. In so doing, if the trap is not properly secured, the animal may pull away the trap. Furthermore, if the trap is not properly anchored, the struggling animal may hurt itself in the process. Modifying the trap chain is a good way to address both of those concerns. As I mentioned previously, just about all modern traps are good enough to use out of the box. These modifications just make them better.

For this post I will be continuing to work on the same Oneida Victor #1 foothold trap that you saw in the previous foothold trap modification post.

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For this modification you will need a specialized tool, called a J-Hook Tool. While it is possible to do the work without it, it makes things much, much easier, and I wouldn’t work without it. You will need the tool to open and close the J-hook connectors for the chain and swivel links.

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As you can see, on this particular Oneida Victor trap the chain is attached to the side of the trap. For a lot of people, the ideal place for the chain attachment is the bottom center of the trap, not the side. It is believed that this reduces potential damage to the animal because it gives it less leverage when pulling. I have no idea if this is actually true. It is how I was thought to do it, so it is what I do on my traps. In all honesty, leaving the chain attachment on the side of the trap will serve you just fine. For this post, because the trap allows for it to be easily done, I will relocate the chain to a center mount.

Either way, begin by opening the J-hook on the side of the trap and removing the chain. Once the J-hook is opened, you can thread it out of the hole and remove it from the trap.

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The next step is to center mount the J-hook on the trap. As I said, it is easy to do on these Oneida Victor traps because they have a center mount hole on the base through which you can thread a new J-hook. That will give you a mountain point for the new chain.

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Some traps don’t have such an option. Some people weld center mounting brackets on the base for the conversion. I don’t think there is a point in doing so much work on a trap this size. I would say that if your trap doesn’t easily allow for the switch, leave the chain side mounted, unless you are doing a four spring conversion to the trap, in which case the welded base plate is needed for reinforcement to prevent bending of the base.

As far as the chain itself, I like to use single link #2/0 stainless steel chain. I also like to place additional swivels on the chain, as well as a quick release connector at the end. Be very careful when selecting chain components. Products that look the same may have very different strength characteristics. For these traps, the factory chain has a tensile strength of about 200lb. That is enough to hold target animals up through raccoon and opossum. I try to pick replacement components that are stronger, keeping in mind that your chain will only be as strong as its weakest link. Here is how I set it up:

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I start with the J-hook threaded through the trap base/frame. I then add a single link of #2/0 chain, then a swivel, then three links of #2/0 chain, then another swivel, and a quick link connector at the end. The result is quite a bit shorter than the factory chain, about nine inches overall.

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I like a shorter chain because it gives the animal less pulling ability because it can’t get any momentum going. Close all of the J-hooks using the J-Hook Tool.

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For this modification I used just hand tools because I know not everyone has access to a work shop. The tools and parts I used are as follows:

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  1. Hammer
  2. Metal working chisel (Home Depot)
  3. J-Hook Tool
  4. Standard 3/16” J-hooks (1)
  5. Standard swivels (2)
  6. Large quick link connectors (1)
  7. #2/0 single link stainless steel chain (Home Depot)

All of the above link are from Fur Harvester’s Trading Post so you can combine the shipping if you are thinking of purchasing the items. The owner is a great guy and orders ship out immediately. That being said, you can get the same supplies at many good distributors. The hammer and chisel are used to cut the chain links. It is probably the hardest part of the job if you are only using hand tools.

This modification will increase the overall weight of the trap. The factory chain weighs 2.6oz, while the new modified chain weighs 4.7oz. This brings up the weight of the completed trap to 14oz. Of course, the modifications I am showing you here are the ones for my standard traps. When I attempt to make a more easily portable set, I will have to implement different modifications, which I will discuss at a later time. Just for comparison, my Belisle 110 body grip traps weight about 15oz each.

You may be wondering why I use a quick link connector at the end of the chain. I do it so I can attach whatever end piece I want. If I am using wire anchors, I can connect them directly to the quick link, if I am using wooden stakes, I can attach a larger loop, or I can link directly to a drowner lock (have to enlarge the hole on the drowner lock to use with the large quick link connectors). 

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So, what’s the point? Well, I think these modifications make the trap anchor stronger and more secure. The components are stronger, and the shorter length gives the animal less momentum when pulling. The center mount also allows (theoretically) for less leverage when the animal is pulling. This, combined with the additional swivel points (three overall counting the J-hook itself) will decrease any damage that can be caused to the animal.

Nothing says that this is how you have to modify your chains, or that you should modify them at all, but it’s what I like to do to my traps. Only one step left before I can put this trap to use…

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty

Nanook of the North is a documentary/docudrama film released in 1922 and filmed by Robert J. Flaherty. The film follows the Inuit man Nanook and his family over a period of three years between 1914 and 1916 in Quebec, Canada.

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You an see the film in its entirety here:

Now, it is important to remember that the film was created before there was a concept of documentary film making. As a result, many of the aspects of the film are dramatized, and not accurate. For example, Nanook’s real name was actually Allakariallak, and the woman in the movie was not actually his wife.

More importantly, by the early 1900s, Inuit in Canada had already started using western clothing, and hunting was routinely done with rifles, not traditional weapons as depicted in the movie. Flaherty had asked the participants to use the traditional means instead. Even so, the techniques used were genuine, and it is generally agreed that the components of the movie relating to the demonstration of skills including hunting, are real and represent the communal knowledge of the people in the area. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Trip Report: Early Season Bear Hunt 9/6/14 – 9/7/14

This year New York State has opened an early bear season in September because bear numbers in certain areas have increased. I decided to take advantage of that and do some bear hunting before the regular season. That way I can avoid the competition from deer hunters, as the deer season overlaps with the bear season. So, I grabbed my gear and got going.

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In my experience, animals, including bears, are most active in the mornings and evenings. To take advantage of that, I started out early. I was out and making my way through the forest by 4:30 am. I had scouted the area before, and knew there was a large adult bear in the area. I had had an encounter with him earlier in the year and kept my rifle at the ready in case I ran into him. Small bears tend to run away if you cross paths, but the big ones my charge.

Hunting big game this early in the year is not my favorite activity, especially here in the northeast. The forests here are dense enough as it is, but while all the vegetations is still out, visibility is almost non existent. Unlike out west, where long range hunting is common, here in the east, hunting out in the forests happens at very close range. Unless you are in a man made clearing, out in the woods typical range for a shot is about 20 yards. If you have a 50 yard clear shot, you are very lucky. Glassing for game is not a realistic hunting technique here. Your best bet is to ambush or call in the animal. That is why you see so much tree stand hunting.

The signs weren’t optimistic. I found a good amount of deer and turkey sign (naturally because I wasn’t hunting either), but no sign of bear.

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Because it is early in the year, and probably because it has been warm and humid, the plants and animals were abundant, including the mosquitoes. I am currently covered in bites.

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This area of the forest is comprised of mixture of deciduous trees and pines. The deciduous parts of the forest were overgrown, so I made my way towards the more open pine areas. Just as I was nearing my desired location, I heard some loud hauling. It sounded like a person was trying to imitate a coyote, but wasn’t doing a very good job. I figured someone else was hunting in the area, so I proceeded carefully. A few minutes later, I saw a large coyote running away about 30 yards to my right. Apparently that’s what some coyote’s actually sound like.

I found a somewhat open area, and set up. My set up doesn’t really mean much. I just get low to the ground, and make sure that I have a line of sight 270 degrees in front of me, and that there is dense vegetation to my back. I’ve had good luck with this set up before.

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My tools were simple. All I brought was a Buck Gardner predator call (distressed rabbit/mouse combo call), a T.A.G. game bag kit, a 25 gallon trash bag, and my Savage 11/111 rifle chambered in .308.

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By the time I got to the location it was a bit after 9:00 am. I got into position and started making distressed rabbit calls and listening. Even though I was in a relatively open area, I still didn’t have visibility much past 50 yards, with clear lines of sight for no more than 20 to 30 yards. I would hear any animal coming long before I saw it.

Not long after, I heard a noise to my left. It wasn’t a bear, but rather a young buck. He was clearly attracted by my calls. He wasn’t randomly passing through the area, but instead was headed straight for me. He would look at me, grunt, mark the area, circle a bit, then do the same.

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I couldn’t tell the exact number of points, but the main antlers were about a foot long. My hope was to be able to see them more clearly from the pictures, but this is the best my point and shoot camera can do. Of course, this was all happening because it isn’t deer season yet. Once deer season starts, I’m sure I’m not going to see a single one.

Keeping with the tradition of only seeing animals that you are not hunting, a nice, fat, gray squirrel decided to come down from the trees and pose in front of me, knowing that all I had with me was my .308.

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Anyway, I kept calling for the rest of the morning with no luck. Shortly after noon, I took a brake and ate some lunch.

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After that I decided to change locations. There was another relatively open area further east. I packed up and started moving. I had to go through some dense vegetations in order to get there.

I kept going for about half hour through the brush, trying to navigate. I broke through some thick brush, and to my great surprise, about 5 to 10 yards ahead of me was a small black bear. Clearly it was as surprised as I was. I threw down my map, and tried to shoulder the rifle. I’m used to lifting the rifle into position with nothing on my shoulder, and didn’t account for the fact that I had my backpack on, which has rather thick shoulder straps. The but of the rifle caught on the strap, so, I had to reposition it. All this took about two seconds, but by that time the bear was running like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t want to take a shot at a running animal.

I got low to the ground, and tried to call it back, but with no luck. It wasn’t the bear I had come for, but I was still disappointed to have missed it. I don’t really mind unsuccessful hunt. I enjoy being out in the woods, and hunting is just a bonus. However, when you get that close and miss, it keeps me up at night for a long time afterwards. All I could do was make my way out of the thick brush.

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I didn’t bother doing any calling in the evening. I’m not a fan of trying to call in a bear and then going to sleep in the same area. I just pulled out the mat and sleeping bag for some rest. Lately I’ve stopped using the tent unless I expect rain or snow.

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Anyway, that was it for the hunting. I had to make my way out, and I wasn’t going to take a bear unless I had the time to process it properly.

The pack you see in the pictures is my Gregory Palisade 80. It’s my big pack, and I brought it in case I had to carry out meat and fur. Unfortunately there was no need for its intended purpose. I kept it somewhat filled with my uncompressed sleeping bag. It was very disappointing to be heading out of the forest with a very light pack, especially under the circumstances. That being said, I was very happy to get away from the mosquitoes.