Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Gear of George Washington Sears/Nessmuk

George Washington Sear a/k/a Nessmuk is one of the most widely read authors in the bushcraft community. His book Woodcraft and Camping, published early in the 1900s has become a go to guide for many outdoorsmen. You can get a copy of his book here.

As is the case with most people to whom we look up, idolization soon follows. A fair amount has been said about what Sears believed and what he did, but it is hard to find many statements that are actually supported by his writings. In this post I attempted to go through Woodcraft and Camping and see if I can outline a coherent list of the gear that Sears used or advocated.

The first challenge that I encountered, is that Sears is admittedly trying to write a book which captures his more than fifty years of experience as an outdoorsman. As a result, much of his writing contains contradictory or incomplete statements. At times he will say that he uses only minimal gear, and a few pages later he will proceed to give cooking instructions using items which are nowhere to be found in the kit to which he referred earlier.

I will also disregard the weights that he gives for his combined gear and its volume. Measurements of individual items are presumably correct, but when he starts to give estimates for the total weight of his gear, some of the numbers are hard to believe. For example, on page 6 of the book, he states that his canoe, extra clothing, blanket-bag, two days rations, pocket axe, fishing rod and backpack never exceeded 26 lb. Even assuming a ten pound canoe, this leads even Kephart to assert that this must have been only possible in summer. There are other similar instances throughout the book, which give me pause when looking at the numbers he provides. I will attempt to provide available measurements from contemporary examples, whenever possible.

Possibles Pouch (What Sears calls a ditty-bag):

He states that it is 4 inches by 6 inches in size. It contains a dozen hooks, four lines of six yards each, three darning needles and a few common needles, dozen buttons, sewing silk, thread, ball of yarn, sticking salve, shoemaker’s wax, beeswax, sinkers, a file for sharpening hooks, a vial of fly medicine, a vial of pain killer, and two or three gangs of hooks on brass wire snells, water-proof match safe, strings, compass, bits of linen and scarlet flannel (for frogging), copper tacks, and other light duffle. He states that it weighs 2 ½ ounces, but that seems highly unlikely. Maybe he is referring to the weight of the empty pouch.

Backpack (knapsack):

Made from oil cloth (according to Kephart, from canvas), with no frame and no hip belt. He specifies that it weight 12 ounces, and is half a bushel in capacity (35 liter, 2150 cubic inches). This is a fairly small pack. The size is what today we would consider a day pack, comparable to a Coleman RTX. A modern pack of that size weighs about 1.5 lb, so a 12 ounce weight is not unreasonable for a very basic pack It is unlikely that he consistently fit all of his gear in such a small pack, but he writes that it holds his blanket-bag, shelter tent, hatchet, ditty-bag, tinware, fishing tackle, clothes and two days’ rations. To me this seems a rather extraordinary claim.


Two woolen shirts, two pair of woolen drawers, two pair of woolen socks, woolen coat, woolen vest, woolen pants, hat, and boots. This set of clothing will leave one extra pair of socks, an extra shirt, and an extra set of drawers.


Blanket bag-Sears states that it is made of Mackinaw (misspelled in the book as “Mackinac”) wool, large enough to cover a man’s body, and open on the top and bottom. It appears to be made of one or possibly two blankets that has been sawn together on one side. The weight of a modern wool blanket, size 5 ft by 7 ft is about 4 lb. If the bag is made of two blankets, the weight would be about 8 lb. Sears states that all his clothing, his blanket-bag and his tarp weigh 8 lb total. This seems highly unlikely as a single blanket will weigh over 4 lb alone, and the tarp about 2 lb. The number is possible if by clothing he only means the extra clothing, and his blanket-bag is made from only a single blanket.

Tarp/Tent-Sears gives three different tarp and tents systems that he appears to use. One is mentioned on page 6 of the book and is a waterproof cotton cloth (most likely canvas) size 6 ft by 8 ft. Judging by the weigh of his other tarp, this one probably weighs about 2 lb. The second tarp he describes on page 20, and is a 9 ft by 7 ft strong cotton waterproof tarp (again, most likely canvas). He gives the weight of this tarp as 2 1/4 lb. The last shelter system he describes is a tent for which he provides the specifications on page 17. It appears to be open on one side to take advantage of the fire. In size it is 9 ft by 4 ½ ft, with covered sides. He gives the weight of the tent as 3 lb, with additional 5 ounces for the nail/tacks. He states that it will take an experienced person three (3) hours to put up this tent properly. He also gives specifications on how to waterproof the tent using alum and other chemicals.

Pillow bag-This is just an empty bag that is stuffed with leafs, moss or grass to make a pillow.

Cooking Gear:

The cooking gear comprises of five pieces of tinware. The largest one seems to be a 2 quart kettle, along with a number of smaller nesting dishes. The total weight provided by Sears is 2 lb. This is certainly possible if the items are very, very thin. In comparison, a single 14 cm Zebra pot weight 1 lb 10 oz. When backpacking, Sears states that he only carries two of the pots, one being 6 inches my 2 inches high, and the second one being smaller.


Hatchet-The hatchet used by Sears was a custom made one. The handle appears to be about a foot in length, and it is a double bit hatchet. The weight is not specified, but it is probably similar to that of a Small Forest Axe, about 2 ½ lb total.

Belt knife-Much has been written about this Nessmuk pattern knife, and people have tried to apply its shape to just about every use, from wood carving to any other general bushcraft use. The description that Sears provides for this knife is “The one shown in the cut is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with”. It does not appear anywhere that he actually used this knife for woodwork or general bushcraft. It has the shape of a hunting/skinning knife, and the uses listed by Sears seem to support that. That would certainly be an important use of the knife for Sears considering that most of his outings relied heavily of hunting or fishing. I’ve looked at some other sources, and it appears, that typically, wood work was done with a small folding knife, not a belt knife such as the one described here.

Folding knife-This is a double bladed pocket knife. Sears states that together with the sheath knife, it is all that is needed for camp use.

Fishing/hunting gear-The fishing equipment that Sears used seems varied as would be expected from any fisherman. As an example, one of the rods he lists, weighs 5oz according to him. In several places he speaks of his muzzle loading rifle as well.


The food lists that Sears provides are lengthy and diverse. Some of the items he speaks of regularly are ham, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, bread, butter, canned food, beans, and other types of meat. Hunting and fishing also appears to be a very important source of food for him. The weigh of his food must have been massive. It is very likely that many of the trips he describes were undertaken by canoe or mule train.

All of the above items are compiled from anecdotes and interspersed references in the book. In only one location do we ever get a description of a specific trip along with a detailed gear list. That can be found on page 53. The trip is a solo backpacking expedition, which he planned to take about seven (7) days. The items he took on the trip were: rifle, hatchet, compass, blanket-bag, knapsack, knife, one loaf of bread, two quarts of meal, two pounds of pork, one pound of sugar, with tea, salt, etc. and a supply of jerked venison. One tin dish, twelve rounds of ammunition and bullet mold.

There are several things which can be noted from this one trip into the woods. The first is, once again, the massive weight of his food. Along with two pounds of pork and one pound of sugar, the weigh of his food must have exceeded five pounds. On top of that, he describes killing three deer on his ten day trip, so he can have sufficient food. Apparently, dried foods such as rice were not in the picture.

The second notable thing is the absence of any shelter. This seems to have been a deliberate omission designed to save weight, although clearly inadvisable. In fact, at the end of the chapter, Sears writes: “Nothing but the exceptionally fine, dry weather rendered such a trip possible in a wilderness so cut up with swamps, lakes, marshes and streams. A week of steady rain or a premature snow storm...would have been most disastrous. Reader, if you ever are tempted to make a similar thoughtless, reckless trip-don’t do it.”

Another notable thing about Sears, which can be seen in the whole book is the total lack of any water purification or even water storage system. From what I saw, no where did he mention any type of water bottle or method for cleaning water. It appears that people had stronger stomachs in the good old days, and that he relied heavily on natural sources of water. Most likely however, the water bottle has simply been omitted.

I was also struck by the way Sears camped. First of all, his style of camping requires large use of natural resources. Almost every camp he sets up requires the chopping down of at least three trees about a foot in diameter, if not more, and the killing of a deer or some other animal for food. These days, few of us can afford that type of camping. The second interesting thing I saw was the incredible amount of time it takes to set up a camp. His tent alone takes three (3) hours to put up according to him. On page 40 he additionally describes a camp stove which takes one (1) hour to make. This does not include the gathering of fire wood, or the preparation of his sleeping surface. The setting up of a camp seems to have taken at least half a day.

Whenever I read other people’s writings about Sears, I always end up with the impression that he was a rough woodsman and that his writings reflect the golden age of camping and bushcraft. The more I read his own writings however, the more I reach the conclusion that he was a regular guy, just like any on us. He spent just as much time and money finding the “perfect” gear, and found the wilderness just as challenging. The fact that he considers a ten (10) day trip off the trail to be some type of an extreme adventure, makes me reconsider the rest of his accounts.

I want to end this post with a quote from Sears which I really like:

“...there are some who plunge into an unbroken forest with a feeling of fresh, free, invigorating delight... These know that nature is stern, hard, immovable an terrible in unrelenting cruelty. When wintry winds are out and the mercury far below zero, she will allow her most ardent lover to freeze on her snowy breast without waving a leaf in pity, or offering him a match; and scores of her devotees may starve to death in as many different languages before she will offer a loaf of bread. She does not deal in matches and loafs; rather in thunderbolts and granite mountains. And the ashes of her camp-fires bury proud cities. But, like any tyrant, she yields to force, and gives the more, the more she is beaten. She may starve or freeze the poet, the scholar, the scientist; all the same, she has in store food, fuel and shelter, which the skillful, self-reliant woodsman can wring from her savage hands with axe and rifle.”

This is certainly not the modern, politically correct view of nature, but I find it the closest to reality.


  1. Good Post...


  2. Ross, your take on Nessmuk is very well-thought-out and sensible. I think I agree with just about everything. One thing to keep in mind is that his book was compiled from a whole series of separate articles which he wrote over the course of time. That may also explain some of the inconsistencies.

    I, too, noticed how his fixed-blade knife was intended for game prep and eating, yet many in the bushcraft community today use them as general-purpose knives, including for wood carving...

    It's nice to have a list of his gear in one nice, tidy article. I was actually just planning on compiling a list like this, but now I don't have to. Thanks! :)


  3. Heresy!

    Thou hath brought into question one of the elder gods of bushcraft!

    Seriously, though. I've been struggling with the 26 lb load for a while now, and find it challenging to assemble such a slim load, even with modern materials.

  4. Sounds like a cool man. Too bad we don't have more details on how he weighed his gear.

    For example for weighing his clothes and blanket, maybe he didn't count the weight of the clothes which he was wearing which would just leave the blanket, extra socks, and extra shirt and pants.

    Thanks for sharing and linking to the PDF of the book.

    Also, I noticed one typo when you talk about how he killed deer for meat, you spelled it 'meet'.

    Take care and have a great day!

  5. Col. Townsend Whelen had an interesting take on Nessmuk that expresses why Nessmuk was able to travel so lightly. The quote can be found if one wants to look for it... but it is not flattering, so be warned! Bradford Angiers quotes it in a few of his books and compilations.

    I mention this because that light a load is really just not applicable for most of us under any but backyard camping conditions.

  6. And I should add, great write up Ross! I enjoy your columns and look forward to the next one, every time.

  7. Thanks for the info brionic. I did some searching, and I believe the quote to which you are refering as seen in Basic Wilderness Survival Skills by Bradford Angier is:

    "Except for a ten-day trip in Michigan some ninety years ago,” Colonel Whelen told me, “the only backpacking that George W. Sears (Nessmuk) ever did was across short carries between lakes in the Adirondacks.”

  8. It's probably worth remembering when calculating/judging weights that Nessmuk was basically a tiny person - about the size of the average 12 year old boy. Having seen his canoe, and his rifle, it's very apparent that he justified a lot of his custom gear on that basis - his hatchet, in the illustration, might be closer to 10-12 oz, the handle of his "big" knife perhaps 3-3.5" long. Perfect for HIM, but not the other 95% of us!

  9. Oh man, I think we are all going to be in trouble. This is indeed heresy. :)

    Thanks for all the great info guys.

  10. Great post and spot on assessment. Sears also suffered from poor health -- TB I believe -- which limited his ability to travel long distance and lift heavy loads. He was so weak that he couldn't actually lift a 35-pound Rob Roy canoe. He weighed only 100 lbs.

    As far as your list, your results mirror mine. I ended up 429.5 oz. total for the list that I compiled on my website. There's no doubt in my mind that he could do any trip with this gear. Using modern gear, I've gotten my spring/fall weight down to about 13 lbs. without the canoe.

    The canoe is an interesting side note. He used different canoes for different trips. The 10-pound canoe was one of the last built for him by Rushton. It was a cedar lapstrake boat of 8.5 feet. The Sairy Gamp weighed just over 10 lbs and measured 9 feet long.

    If you haven't poked around into some of his other writing, you should. He was a poet as well. Here's a link: