Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Food For Backpacking, Camping, and Bushcraft

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about food, so I decided to share with you what I do for my food when heading out into the woods. In part I want to mention some of the foods that I like to carry, but mostly I want to show you my set up, which allows me to quickly get my food ready for a trip.

What I do is that I keep what I call a “food box” in my gear room. In this box I have prepared and measured out portions of food that I can use for my trips. When I am packing for a trip, it makes it easy to mix and match different pieces to create the meals.


The black stuff sack you see is the bag in which I hold the food when out in the woods. I keep the bag inside the box.

The food items are all ones that can last for an extended period of time without any refrigeration. Having a food box like this also allows me to keep track of which foods last and for how long. I don’t bother with foods that require any special care. As a result, this also serves as a decent emergency food supply.

The items themselves vary depending on what I have stocked or found at the supermarket. It is not important to me what the food actually is, it just has to be calorie rich and light weight. I aim for about 100 cal/oz. I think that is a good number for the base food. People who spend extensive time in the woods usually aim for about 110 cal/oz or better but that is usually achieved by adding oils to the food, which I can do as well if needed.

Here is an example of what I currently have in my food box. Again, the items change based on what I buy at any given time.


What makes the food storage system efficient is that I take the time to portion out and pre-package each food item. That way when i am ready to start packing, I can just pick out items and toss them in my food bag without having to do any additional work. I try to divide items into serving sizes, unless they already come that way. On each item I pre-package, I write the caloric value as well as any cooking directions it might have.


In the above picture you see a bag of instant mashed potatoes. I have premixed it with some powdered gravy. It is a single serving size. It contains 240 calories and requires one and a half cups of water to cook. What I did was I bought a large box of mashed potatoes, several packets of powdered gravy, and I sat down one day, divided up the container, measured out the calories, and packaged everything in Ziploc bags ready for use.

Here are some of the other items I have in the food box:

Item Calories Weight Calories/Weight
Mashed Potatoes 240 cal 2.8 oz 86 cal/oz
Ramen Noodles (1) 380 cal 3.2 oz 119 cal/oz
Power Bar 240 cal 2.3 oz 104 cal/oz
Lance Crackers (1 pack/6 crackers) 200 cal 1.4 oz 143 cal/oz
Nabisco Peanut Butter Cookies (4) 280 cal 2.2 oz 127 cal/oz
Hard Salami 260 cal 2.1 oz 124 cal/oz
Corn Tortillas (2) 110 cal 1.7 oz 65 cal/oz
GU 100 cal 1.1 oz 91 cal/oz
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter 190 cal 1.1 oz 173 cal/oz

And that’s about it. It’s pretty simple. A bit of preparation ahead of time makes it easy to pack the food you need in a very short amount of time. Knowing how many calories each food item contains allows me to quickly add up to 2000 or 3000 calories depending on my needs for a particular trip.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Is Qualified to Teach Wilderness Skills?

The topic of who should be allowed to teach wilderness skills has given fertile grounds for disagreement for years. In many respects it touches on the subject of who should be considered a wilderness expert. The views range widely. In this post I want to express my view on the subject, and to differentiate between several points which I think effect the debate.


On one side of the spectrum we have the view supported by people like Cody Lundin. This position takes the stand that wilderness skills are a very important subject matter, placing people’s lives at risk, and as such should only be taught by people with extensive skills on the subject, specifically those who live the lifestyle and skills that they teach. This view comes down very hard on YouTube instructors with a store attached to their channel or blog, is extremely critical of people who practice and teach their skills in “the backyard”, and those who overall lack actual field experience. A good summary of this position can be seen in a post by Cody Lundin titled Choosing a Credible Survival Instructor: How to find the "real deal" in a trainer in whom you will trust your life. Many who take this approach, although not all, believe that there should be a formal accrediting organization which will provide certificates to those who are qualified, much like we have for doctors and lawyers. The rational is that these skills are a matter of life and death, and should not be allowed to be taken lightly. 

On the other end of the spectrum we have the view that anyone who is willing to teach, and to whom people are willing to listen, should be allowed to teach. We see that a lot. A person will create a moderately popular YouTube channel, a blog, or a forum trend, and before you know it they are forming a school and offering lessons. Many of those people get recruited for television survival show, which further boosts their popularity, leading to even more schools. Some of these people actually see themselves as qualified to teach wilderness skills, and while they agree with the above group that these skills are a matter of life and death, they think they are up to the task. Others simply see the skills as recreation, and have no issue teaching them as a hobby even if they do not see themselves as particularly skilled. I imagine that the most recent crop of survival shows like Alone will give is a few more of these wilderness schools in the very near future.

So, who should be allowed to teach wilderness skills? While I don’t think we can reach a consensus, I do think that making some distinctions can be helpful in thinking about the subject, or at least that’s how my thought process works.

Amateurs vs. Professionals

The first distinction I make is between amateur and professional “teachers”. By that I mean, the difference between those who offer information for free (meaning not just a specific piece of information, but that they generally make no money from the activity), and those who are paid to do it. I personally have vastly different standards for each group.

When it comes to amateurs, in this group I include people with YouTube channels, blogs, people who post on forums, etc. They are not paid to produce the information, and have no expectation of making money form it. For them this is a hobby. They do it because they enjoy it, and like to share what they have learned with others. Some of these people are very skilled and offer great information, others offer horrible and misleading information. While this “amateur hour” results in a lot of bad information being pumped out onto the internet, you get what you pay for; and in this case the information is free. It’s up to the reader to decide if the information they are viewing is useful to them or not, and take it with a grain of salt.

When it comes to professionals, the issue can be much different. It is no longer a situation where online friends are exchanging information. Here we now have a person who is selling a product, i.e. a set of wilderness skills. In this group I am including people with schools, TV shows, paid subscription YouTube channels, people who are paid to publish information, who provide information linked to stores etc. The expectations placed on such professionals are typically much higher, not only because they are paid for the product, but also because they portray a degree of expertise in the process of selling their product. They are selling themselves as a teacher by expressly stating or implying that they are skilled in the craft of wilderness living or survival. You do get what you pay for, and since here you are paying actual money, there should be a corresponding quality to the product. Sadly, it seems that there are just as many people who have no idea what they are doing among professional instructors as there are from amateur ones.

Wilderness vs. Individual Skill Experts

So, does that mean that we should require qualifications for professional teachers? Well, I think we need to make some further distinctions within the field of professional instructors before we can look at that question. One such distinction is that between “wilderness experts” and “individual skill experts”.

The dilemma behind this distinction of professional instructors is that there are many people who have never spent a single night out in the woods, who are none the less very skilled at particular tasks. While I may not believe that someone who doesn’t have extensive experience in the actual wilderness is in any way qualified to teach something like wilderness survival, I may certainly want to learn specific skills from them with the understanding that their use of the skills in the actual wilderness is very limited.

A good example of such an instructor might be someone who teaches flint knapping or friction fire lighting. There are people out there who are amazing at flint knapping, but have never spent any time in the woods. Does that mean they shouldn’t teach the skills? Of course not. As long as they are upfront about the fact that they have little experience applying this skill while in the wilderness, learning from them might very well be the best option. While the information may have to be tweaked when it is finally used in the wilderness, it is none the less very valuable. For me this is an individual skill expert.

Such experts are to be distinguished from people who are general wilderness experts. For a wilderness expert, having a set of skills that has been tried and tested in the actual wilderness is key to the product they are trying to sell i.e. wilderness survival, wilderness living, etc.   

Wilderness Skills vs. General Business Skills

Another distinction that can be made when it comes to professional instructors is requirements when it comes to the skills they are actually teaching, as opposed to skills that they need to have to safely operate the business. So, for example, while there may be no need for specific qualifications to teach wilderness survival, we may want to require qualifications that relate to the safety of the customers such as having someone on staff who is trained in CPR, having certain facilities, etc. A person my be qualified to teach wilderness skills, but completely lack the capacity to do it safely as a business.

Moral vs. Formal Restrictions on Teaching

The last distinction when talking about this topic is whether the answer to who should be allowed to teach should be just a moral imperative for the instructors, or whether it should be codified and enforced by some type of agency. Should the answer be more of a personal thing, or an enforcement mechanism?

A person may have no problem coming up with qualifications for who should be allowed to teach as a professional instructor, but may not believe that there should be a governing body that enforces such standards.

So, who is qualified to teach wilderness skills?

I personally fall into the camp of people who think that anyone should be allowed to teach. While there is certainly a down side in the amount of low quality information that is released through the process, I believe that decentralization of information is a good thing because it allows for faster evolution and testing of ideas and prevents stagnation. I will hold professionals to a higher standard, and be more willing to point out poor quality information they release, but I don’t think that teaching should be limited or centralized.

I have no problem with anyone, from the amateur to the professional teaching, whether that be overall wilderness skills or individual skills. My only standard when looking at instructors is whether there is truth in advertising. As long as there is no misrepresentation about who the instructor is or what they are teaching, I believe the consumer should make the determination of whether the information is valuable. I personally think value is contained in the piece of information itself, not the instructor. As such, even someone who has done very little in the field can be able to relate very valuable information from which we can learn. As long as the person is not selling more than what they actually have to offer, it doesn’t matter to me who they are or what their background is. 

So, you will ask, how do we guarantee truth in advertising? After all, the person who doesn’t know anything and is trying to learn will have a hard time spotting the qualified person from the one who simply has the best sales pitch? Should we have a governing body to issue such certifications or rankings? Well, I personally do not believe in such governing bodies. In a field as vague as “wilderness skills” I think the concept is stacked to generate abuse. Who will be on this governing body? If it is going to be a group of current experts, how do we make sure they are not acting in their own financial interest, that they are not expressing personal biases, or reacting against new techniques that were not around in their time? How are we going to keep wilderness skill politics out of the wilderness skills? We could have a very basic standards, like some current guide certifications, such as number of days per year spent in the woods, etc, but where does that leave the guy who is an expert at flint knapping but has never been in the woods? Would that make him not qualified? Anyway, I see a governing body issuing certifications as creating more problems than it solves, so I am not a fan.

Well, then, what do we do? How do we make sure people don’t flock to unqualified people with a good marketing strategy? Sadly, I don’t think we can ever guarantee that. Good salesmen have always managed to gain followers of their product. Snake oil peddling is nothing new. The only thing I believe we can and should do is be vocal about quack statements that we see being put out there, no matter who makes them. In these days of fast traveling, decentralized information, and idea or theory, whether it be good or bad can spread like wild fire in no time. We all see it over and over again, new people who lack the experience to know better, regurgitating poorly thought out information over and over until it is takes as truth. The reason this happens is that people who do know better are either too lazy or want to avoid confrontation, so they say nothing. As a result, it can take years for a stupid idea to run its course, or for an unqualified instructor to get a bad reputation.

I understand the urge to avoid conflict. It’s unpleasant, and when you speak up against someone who has already marketed himself to a bunch of people, who have bought into the image or idea he is selling, you can expect repeated attacks. However, if we don’t do that, we are allowing for unqualified instructors to continue to attracts students who don’t know any better, and for poor quality information to become gospel.   

These are just my thoughts along with some differentiations I thought might be useful. What do you guys think? Do you have any better ideas?  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Taiga Axe: A Russian Perspective On Axes

Most of what we know of axes in the the US and Europe has come from our own traditions. In fact, even those things that we think come from long standing traditional use, have only been fairly recent developments. As such, our perspective can be limited.

Recently I had a discussion about Eastern European axes on a forum. The issue was trying to figure out the use of a Bulgarian axe based on its features. The problem of course was that we were doing that by applying what we know of design features on American axes. The two don’t always coincide. Many of the axes we used to use back in Bulgaria were the way they were just because that was all that was available to us. Having the best features for the task wasn’t really a choice. So, to determine why an axe has particular features, we have to look at the traditions of that country, not just superimpose our own understanding based on our traditions.

Well, luckily, a reader emailed me with some information from a Russian source on axes. It is an article titled Taiga Axe (Таежный Tопор), written by  Igor Shipulin (Игорь Шипулин) in 1982 in issue No10 of the magazine Fishing and Hunting (Охота и Oхотничье Xозяйство). Here is the article as translated by one of the readers of this blog, which is much appreciated. You can see the original republished at the St. Petersburg Hunter here. As a reader pointed out, Russian axes and Eastern European axes are not necessarily the same and do have different histories and evolutions, but the information was still interesting.

Taiga Axe (Таежный Tопор) by Igor Shipulin (Игорь Шипулин)

For the hunter in the taiga there is no getting by without a dependable axe, which must be as versatile as possible. On the market are many axes: from large and medium construction-carpentry axes to smaller hatchets suitable for various household needs. But the taiga axe must have special properties, which can be imparted to an ordinary axe by reshaping.

An axe with soft steel and poorly hardened is to be preferred to an axe with "dryish" steel. If the bit tends to chip, this shortcoming is easy to resolve with a steeper grind. The profile of the grind must be convex, not concave and not straight (fig. 1). An axe with such a grind does not jam in the wood, splits logs well, dulls less. With adequate sharpness such a blade is more than suitable for carpentry work.

Axe 1

Much in the understanding of design rationale is evident in the shapes of old Russian axes, as well as the axes of lumberjacks in the Carpathians, and in North America, on which the blade's upper edge never forms an angle greater than 90° with the haft's axis. All the axes now produced for the market have a wide blade and a protruding upper edge (fig. 2). The shaded portion dramatically reduces the axe's efficiency, as this portion tries to straighten the haft at the moment of impact, creating needless vibration, and thus dampens the force of the blow. To eliminate this deficiency, the shaded portion is removed. This is easy to do by drilling a row of contiguous holes along the cut line, removing the hardened portion by abrasive means.

Axe 2

It is necessary to modify a straight blade edge to a curve (fig. 3), if the width of the hardened part allows.
A straight edge is suitable only for carpentry tasks. When such a blade chops, making contact all at once with the entire edge and hitting the wood at a right angle, it has little penetrating ability. With a curved edge, every point enters the timber at an acute angle (fig. 3) and creates a slicing effect, sharply increasing the penetrating ability of such a blade. Even as the weight of the axe is decreased after modification, its efficiency is increased.

The author proposes two axe variants (see fig. 4 & photo). One is lighter, intended for mobile hunts and smaller trips, as well as commercial hunts when used with a saw. Total weight of such an axe: 800-1000 g (28-35 oz); haft length: 40-60 cm (16-24 in). The other is heavy, for commercial hunts and long trips, during which it is necessary to carry out major tasks. Its weight: 1000-1400 g (35-49 oz); haft length: 55-65 cm (22-26 in). The choice of haft length is determined by the timber's quality and the hunter's height and strength.

Axe 4 

Having modified the axe head, the haft can now be fashioned. It must be thin. The lighter it is in relation to the head's weight, the greater the impact. It must be flexible: a rigid haft "dries" the hand. In cross-section it has a flattened oval shape with a thinner front edge and rounded back edge.
Ideally the haft should be made from the butt end of ash, maple, or elm. It can also be made from curly fine-grained birch. The most suitable butt thickness for making an axe handle is 35-40 cm (14-16 in). The raw stock should be split and then dried with sealed ends.

A haft with longitudinally-oriented grain (fig. 5) is stronger. Before mounting the head, its center of gravity is found (fig.6). Typically this point (U) is located at the base of the eye. Next, the centerline AB [B is missing in the drawing] of the head is determined, going through the middle of the poll and the apex of the bit's edge. This line is a tangent, along which the axe will move at impact.

If we place the edge with point B on a plane perpendicular to the centerline AB, then the end of the haft must touch this plane at point C. On the haft's centerline PU, point P is spaced from plane CB by 3.5-4 cm. How the haft is to be cut is clear from fig. 5, where the shaded portions must be cut out of the stock. The distance from the lower end of the eye (point K) to the haft's maximum bend point (O) measures 10-11 cm. The hand holds the axe at point O during carpentry work. Here the haft's circumference is 12-13 cm, while the thinnest part is at the end of the haft - 9-10 cm around. The final thickness is customized to fit the hand.

Axe 3 

The haft terminates in a hand-securing expansion in a "mushroom" shape (as you can see in the photo). Such a haft is indispensable in cold and rain, when gloves or mittens are worn. The "mushroom" allows the hands to relax at the moment of exertion. The power and accuracy of the blows of a "relaxed" axe are not equaled by the blows of an axe which must be gripped tightly out of fear of loosing it from the hands. The expansion for the "mushroom" is taken into account on the blank. It is fashioned last to keep from getting damaged when the head is mounted.

Getting to the mounting, it is necessary to situate the blank. As the haft is fashioned, the angle of the axe in relation to the plane (line CB on fig. 6) should be checked regularly. In the haft, fitted to two-thirds of the eye depth, a gap is made for the wedge to this same depth (fig. 7). After this, the final mounting fit is customized. Before the wedge is driven in, it is beneficial to dry the haft with head mounted for 2-3 days. Immediately after mounting (or after drying), the head is removed from the haft, fitted parts are liberally smeared with glue BF-2, and the head is finally mounted. Glue is again applied to the fitted wedge of hardwood (ash, maple, elm, apple, pear), and the wedge is driven in. So that the wedge doesn't break when it is driven, it is made short. For the glue to cure completely, the axe must be dried for several days on a heater or by a stove. Final shaping of the haft is done to fit the hand, and the haft is sanded and
permeated with varnish or linseed oil.

The completed axe needs only to be sharpened. The axe will save you much strength and time if its edge is always keenly sharpened. For this it is useful to carry a small wood slab cut to fit the breast pocket, with water-resistant sandpaper glued to both sides - coarse and extra-fine. This slab should easily last a whole season, if the axe does not require serious regrinding.

Big thanks to Leo for the translation. It certainly makes the article much more clear than it was with my original translation.

From what I understand, the author of this 1982 article is trying to provide guidelines for a good multi purpose axe for the taiga. The problem for the author is that at the time axes in Russia, both manufactured locally and imported were what we would call carpentry axes. That was not because that was their intended design and purpose, but was rather the result of scarcity and a number of historical circumstances which made this the dominant pattern for a wide range of uses. That was also my experience through 1995 when I came to the US. The author understands that these axes are used as multi purpose tools, but does not believe they are well suited for the task. The article should be viewed in the context of those available axes. Here is a good example of such an axe pattern that from what I understand, originated in Russia, and has been very common in Eastern Europe and used for everything from felling, to splitting, to carving:


The author more or less provides a tutorial on how to take an axe that these days in the US we would call a carpenter’s/carving axe and turn it into a multi purpose axe. He argues for the removal of any part of the blade that protrudes above a 90 degree angle above the handle. He also states that the blade should be curved rather than straight. See figures 2 and 3. The shades sections in those diagrams show the metal that should be removed.

The author recommends that the handle be carved from dry ash, maple, or elm. Those are much more prevalent woods in the area than the hickory to which we are accustomed. Figure 5 shows how the extract good grain handles from a large piece of wood.   

Two sizes are recommended. When used together with a saw, or for shorter trips, the article recommends an axe that is about 16-24 inches long, with a head weighing 28-35 oz. Just for comparison purposes, that would be somewhere between a GB Small Forest Axe, and a GB Scandinavian Forest Axe. For longer trips, the author recommends an axe with a handle between 22-26 inches with a head weighing 35-49 oz. For comparison, that would range from a GB Scandinavian Forest Axe to a short handle full size axe.

Anyway, I just wanted to share with you this article as it takes a slightly different perspective on axes. Since the article was written, I think there has been a lot of effort put in by modern axe manufactures to produce all purpose axes, which in many ways resemble the ones described here back in 1982. If you wish to read more articles on the subject, just Google “Таежный Tопор”. For some good examples of people following the advise in the article and modifying similar axes, check out the post here, as well as the comments. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trip Report: Bachelor Party at The Delaware River West Branch

Seems like my whole group of friends is getting married these days. My wedding is coming next year, but my friend Rich beat me to it. This past weekend we held Rich’s bachelor party. What better way to celebrate your last days of freedom than with a fly fishing trip?!

We rented a house right on the river, and slowly gathered there over the course of this past Friday.




Not everyone was there to fly fish, but there was a small group of us that were determined to make the best use of the river, despite less than ideal weather.




I had to keep the rain jacket on for a god part of the time. Luckily, the rain wasn’t bad enough to keep us out of the water. Unfortunately, most of us struck out when it came to actually connecting with any fish. Plenty of olives flying around, and a few visible hits, but as it usually is for me with native trout, a frustrating experience.

In the evening fishing transitioned into beer pong… lots of beer pong.


For breakfast we hit up the Butterfields Cafe in the nearby town of Deposit. Excellent food and great owners.


It was a fin weekend, and I’m glad I got to try out that part of the Delaware River. I’ve had the coordinates on my list of locations I have to explore, and this gave me a good chance to do it. I’ll have to go back there soon and try my luck again.