Monday, January 30, 2012

Thriving in Nature With the Help of Bushcraft

Warning: This is just another one of my rants, so don’t take it too seriously…

Many of you have probably heard the recent unfortunate story of David Austin, whose body was found in the Scottish Highlands. His family indicates that he had intended to live off the land for a year, using his skills and a small number of tools. It appears that he died from hypothermia less than a month after his adventure began.

The media has been quick to bring Bear Grylls into the fray, saying that the 29 year old David was trying to emulate Bear Grylls. For once, I can honestly say, I do not think this is Bear Grylls’ fault. As foolhardy and dangerous as his methods may be, his aim always seems to be to get out of the wilderness as quickly as possible, the opposite of what David Austin was attempting to do.


Not that there is any need for blame here, but if I was going to place it anywhere, it would be not on Bear Grylls, but rather on people like Ray Mears, and in particular the masses of followers who spend most of their time on forums, regurgitating half though out information with no experience to back it up. Inevitably, one is left with the impression that as long as you are “one with nature”, and “learn to understand her ways through the magic of bushcraft”, you can “thrive” under any conditions, armed with your knowledge and whatever bushcraft knife your favorite celebrity happens to be pushing this season.

All sorts of platitudes get espoused about how bushcraft is some transcendent knowledge that will make nature your loyal friend. If only you were one of the inner circle, and acquired this knowledge, then even after being stranded in the woods for months, the rescue team will find you living in a comfortable shelter, sipping spruce needle tea and relaxing by the fire. The proclamations about bushcraft get only more esoteric and abstract from there, to the point where reading a thread on “What is Bushcraft” can make you feel like you are in a cult.

To be fair, there is some truth to those statements, but anyone who has spent significant time in the woods, more than ten feet away from their car, knows that these are just overly romanticized musing. Unfortunately, as a culture we have lost the day to day connection to our more primitive living skills. Few people even go into the woods, let alone try to make a living there with their own two hands. As a result, we now look at the past with rose colored glasses, and just like an old man sitting on the porch, yelling at kids about the “good ol’ days”, we paint the lives of those who actually had to live that way in a light that removes all of the toil, suffering and hardship. We have lost all realistic grasp on what it takes and the hardships one has to endure when living alone in the woods for any period of time.

Being one with nature, and living off the land looks great on TV. It’s even great when you are doing it with a support crew on a TV show, where a set of cast iron pots magically appears so you can cook your food, and the Range Rover is right there to take you to the nearest hotel when you get cold.

By being so isolated from the reality, and having as our only source of information the limited amount we see on TV, or from someone who has made a few YouTube videos, and now styles himself a bushcraft instructor, we come away with the impression that the only thing that separates us from a glorious and harmonious existence and unity with nature, is the bushcraft knowledge that we have to acquire. The reality of actually feeding yourself off the land, and surviving for prolonged periods of time under harsh conditions gets whitewashed by the romanticism perpetuated by certain TV hosts, and especially those who self-proclaim themselves as their disciples.

The likely reality is that for our ancestors, trying to live alone in the wilderness was either a test of manhood, if done for a short period of time, or a death sentence if done for a prolonged period of time. People survived in communities, which together strived to gather resources where locally available, so that they can survive periods of the year where those resources could not be procured. It is not uncommon to see cultures where the well being of the group depended on one particular time of the year where a specific game was hunted, or food gathered, whether it be salmon run, reindeer migration, or acorn collection. Similarly, the image of the lone mountain man is largely an illusion. Trappers traveled and worked in large teams, separating from base camp only at the end of the trip in order to set traps. Living alone with no human contact or source of resupply has more to do with our imaginations than reality.

Lacking this local knowledge, and the ability to exploit the available resources at exactly the right time, and lacking the safety net and support structure of a community, or resupply chain, “living off the land” or “thriving in nature” becomes wishful thinking, no matter how well you can carve a spoon. It looks like we unfortunately have another person to add to the list of people who have proven that point. 

As you can hopefully guess by now, the title of this post was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I by no means intend to disparage the practice of bushcraft. I believe those skills should be preserved, and they can make a well planned out trip that much more enjoyable, and an unforeseen survival situation that much more manageable. However, we should make a strong effort not to get delusions of grandeur, and start thinking that living alone in the wilderness is firmly within our grasp.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Making a Pot Holder

This is a short video, showing how to make a pot holder from a stick. With this holder you can move the pot around as well as pour water out without having to touch the pot. This will only work on a pot with a bail. The one I am using in the video is the Open Country 2 Qt. aluminum pot.

For a larger format of the video, you can visit my YouTube channel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Types of Winter Camping and Moisture Management

It had been a few weeks since I had made it into the woods, due to the unexpected family troubles. Well, this past weekend I finally did some camping. As luck would have it, I headed out into the woods just as a snow storm hit the area. It wasn’t bad once I got into the woods, but getting there with the car was a nightmare. It was also hard to shoot some of the videos I had intended to make because of the falling snow.

The temperature was about 10 degrees (F), so the moisture wasn’t too bad, but exposed areas formed ice immediately because the falling snow would melt from the body heat and then freeze. So that leads me to mention some different winter camping considerations. I know I seem to do it every winter, but I think it’s worth mentioning.


Of course, during winter the main concern is the freezing temperatures. We have to somehow preserve our body heat, so we can stay warm in the absence of an external heat source. The first step towards doing this is easy-get sufficient clothing for the temperature that you see on the thermometer. Like a friend of mine says, “There is no bad weather, there is only inadequate clothing”. It is a good first step, but after you’ve been out in the woods even once, you will figure out that this is not enough. An equally important factor in winter camping is moisture management.

From a moisture management stand point, there are very different types of winter camping. It all revolves around how easily snow will turn into water and penetrate your clothing. What I mean by that is that snow is a solid material, and because of that it’s actually dry. If you take a shirt which you have kept hanging on a tree branch, and toss it in the snow, you should be able to pick it up, shake off the snow, and have it be completely dry. If the snow however melts for any reason, or the temperature is warm enough to let the snow contain spots of liquid water, you will get wet, which will drastically alter your ability to keep warm.

From my limited experience I have noticed four different winter camping situations.

Cold Weather; No Snow

The first one is when there is no snow. Under such conditions, moisture management becomes fairly easy. Since there are no external sources of moisture, the only thing we have to worry about in the perspiration from our own bodies. Make sure to regulate your body temperature so you do not sweat. If you do, you will end up wet, and the insulation value of your clothing will decrease significantly. There are many myths out there about the abilities of different fabrics, but from my experience, I can tell you that you will be cold in all of them when you are wet. You’ve probably heard that wool keeps you warm even when wet. Maybe it keeps you warmer than some other materials, but from experience I can tell you, it will not keep you warm. I have spent many night out wearing wool clothing, and you will notice exactly which areas of your clothing have gotten wet. The best approach to managing moisture here is to regulate your body temperature by removing items of clothing when you get too warm. Relying on the alleged “magical” properties of whatever material is currently in fashion will not get you nearly as far as a bit of common sense.

Mild Weather; Snow

The second type of situation is where you have snow on the ground, but the temperature is only just about freezing, 32 degrees (F). Under such conditions, your priorities are much the same as when camping in the rain. You need to pay close attention to your water proof/resistant clothing. Many clothing items which are made for very cold environments will not do well under these conditions. For example, reindeer mukluks, while very warm, will get wet immediately, creating huge problems. Similarly, items like ventile/gaberdine, which are intended to function as wind proof layers and perhaps deal with minor moisture, will become waterlogged very quickly, again, leading to problems, as was noted by Nansen during his crossing of Greenland.

In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult conditions to deal with, because you always have to compromise between controlling perspiration and protecting yourself against outside sources of moisture. Wearing a waterproof layer will undoubtedly make you sweat more considering that the outside temperature is not that cold, but may be worth it if you are getting soaked from the outside by the falling snow.

If you are camping in such weather, do not get complacent. More people die each year from hypothermia in exactly such conditions that in extreme cold weather. That’s because people underestimate how quickly their bodies can cool down, especially when wet. While the weather may be mild, you need to pay close attention to any signs of your body temperature being lowered.

Cold Weather; Snow

The third type of scenario, which is what I had this weekend, is when you have temperatures that are under 20 degrees (F), and I would say down to about 0 degrees (F). Here any snow that is on the ground, is frozen well enough as to not provide a significant source of moisture. However, it is still not cold enough for it to never be an issue. Your body still produces sufficient heat so that when the snow comes in contact with your body, especially when you are working and not wearing a lot of layers, it will melt and get you wet. I’ve found that it then quickly freezes and forms ice. You also have to be careful around other heat sources like a fire, because if you get close to it with any snow on your body, the snow will melt and get you wet. This remains a consideration even in lower temperatures.

In such conditions, I still find good waterproof clothing to be extremely valuable. That is why you see me wearing Goretex boots instead of mukluks. I am sacrificing some insulation for the benefit of water resistance. Being wet in these temperatures will be a problem, no matter what materials you are wearing. It is even more of an issue because it becomes very hard to dry your equipment due to the cold weather.

At temperatures these low and lower, there are some additional issues.

Avoid touching metal objects with unprotected hands. At these temperatures, your skin will stick to them. This weekend I was making a video that required me to touch a metal pot. Because I was filming, I only had my fingerless liner gloves on. By the time I was done the exposed skin on my fingers was noticeably bruised from the contact with the metal. You will see in some books that people tell you to warm up your metal tools by holding them in your hand before using them. One part of the idea is good. In cold temperatures metal becomes brittle, and it is better if you can warm it up. However, doing it by holding it in your hand, will leave you with frostbite. A tip I got from a friend is to warm up your tools between the different layers of clothing you have.

Also keep in mind that you have to protect objects which contain water. Keep your water bottle insulated, or it will freeze. Wide mouth bottles have an advantage here because the opening is less likely to completely freeze. During night, flip the bottle upside down. That way any ice that forms will be on the bottom of the bottle. If you can not keep it in your sleeping bag during the night, burying the bottle in about a foot of snow will help to keep it from freezing.

Similarly, a water filter which has been used can freeze and crack. The water that remains in the filter element will expand when it freezes, causing damage. Make sure to keep it in an insulated container if you plan on using one. Chemical treatment of water also tends not to work effectively at these temperatures. The best way to purify your water under these conditions is to boil it. While during other times of the year, this is no where near my favorite method, it is not that bad during winter. First, you are usually getting your water from snow, so you do not have to time your fires with water sources. Second, it is not nearly as bad drinking warm water during winter as it is when it is 80 degrees (F) outside with 90% humidity.

Extremely Cold Weather; Snow

The fourth type of winter camping, and the one with which I have very little experience is when the temperature falls into the negative range. Here moisture almost entirely comes down to managing you perspiration. Even if any moisture gets on you from the outside, it will freeze before it can penetrate the clothing. Waterproof clothing plays less of a role under such conditions. Insulation and breathability are key. The only thing I will say here is that you should not overestimate the breathability of fabrics. Many people will claim that the outer layer they have chosen is the best for that purpose, but think about how much that will matter when you are wearing four layers of clothing underneath. The best way to avoid perspiration is good temperature regulation by removal of clothing during activity. For good sources of information of camping under very cold conditions, give the following two blogs a look: American Grouch and The Weekend Woodsman. Both of these guys are the real deal when it comes to the issue.   

Monday, January 23, 2012

Les Stroud – Stranded Video

Most people are familiar with Les Stroud from the Survivorman series. Before he did Survivorman however, Les Stroud tested out the idea of making a seven day survival video that he films himself, in a two part video called Stranded. The first part features him trying to survive for seven days in the summer, while the second video has him do the same thing during the winter.



Both of these videos are excellent, and are particularly interesting because they show the origins of the Survivorman show that we have come to know so well.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cheap, Lightweight Backpacking Food Part 5-Mixing it Up

As you might have seen from my other posts on food, I like dehydrated food. It is light weight, it last a long time, and if done right, is very cheap. In particular, in Part 4, I talked about dehydrating your own meat.

Here I decided to do it with ground beef. I find that it is the easiest meat to add to your food due to the fact that it crumbles into small pieces, it is easier to dehydrate, and easier to cook/re-hydrate.

To start out, buy a pound of ground beef. Try to get it as lean as possible. Fat will not dehydrate.


Put it in a frying pan without any oil, and cook it.


When done, drain all the liquid that has been released by the meat, and rinse it with hot water.


Just like before, place it in the dehydrator. Wince the pieces of meat are small, you may have to place some paper towels on the dehydrator to keep them from falling through.


After a few hours, the meat should be dry. It will crumble between your fingers, and with some pressure you should be able to grind it into dust. If it is too wet to do that, leave it in the dehydrator for a bit longer.


Now, take a box of rice and beans. The one I am using here is Zatarain’s. I like Goya as well, but any brand will do.


I like to divide the box into two parts. I find the whole box to be too much food.


Mix in about three tablespoons of the dried meat, and you should have a very good recipe for the woods. Keep in mind that the rice has more calories that the meat. If you want more calorie dense food, you should keep a higher rice percentage.


To cook it, put two cups of water in the pot (or as many as the directions on the box indicate). I find that the meat does not require that much water to re-hydrate. Half a cup more than what is required by the rice should be enough.

Place the contents of the mix in the pot, and put it on the flame. Keep it boiling until the water is absorbed by the rice. It usually takes about ten (10) minutes after the water starts to boil.


I usually remove the pot from the flames when there is still a bit of unabsorbed water in the pot. I find that this keeps the rice from sticking. Leaving it to cool will give the rice a chance to absorb the rest of the water.

This is one of the best cheap, lightweight foods I have been able to find. It tastes good, and does not require any complex cooking. The amount of ground beef you see above was enough for five (5) portions, bringing the cost per portion (including the rice and beans) to less than $2.50 per meal. The total weight of each packet, stored in a ziploc bag is about 4.8 oz, and contains about 400 calories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Unconventional Uses for Oversized Logs

A while back a friend sent me some pictures of logging in the North West. Some of them included some rather creative uses for the large trees that were being cut down. I thought I would share them with you.

In this first picture, a moderate size log has been turned into the company’s mobile office. Seems like an excellent promotional tool.


In the second picture, a large log has been turned into living quarters for the crew.


The pictures date back to the early 1900s. I hope you find them as entertaining as I do.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Artisans of Australia: Timbercraft

This is a short film made by Film Australia back in 1984. It shows some of the work involved with restoring a 19th century homestead in the Kosciuszko National Park, Australia.

The work being done is quite interesting, as it is being done only with traditional, hand powered tools. The movie is well worth a look for anyone interested in traditional wood work. The axmen you see in the video are Bill Boyd and Mark Garner.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Condor Woodworker Axe 2012 Prototype Review

As you know from my past posts, I have very mixed feelings about products made by Condor Tool & Knife. The company genuinely seems to care about their products, and closely follows consumer feedback, but at least when it comes to their axes, they have in the past fallen short. It appears that their dedication is paying off, as I ended up being quite happy with their new design.

I was fortunate enough to be offered one of their early prototypes for their 2012 Small Axe model (it now appears to be for sale under the name Woodworker axe). As you may remember, it is the axe I had strapped to my pack during the snow storm a few months back.


I have now done a fair amount of testing with the axe, and while my review was a bit delayed due to unforeseen circumstances, I figured I would give you my honest impressions.


Condor Tool & Knife
Axe Head Weight: Approximately 1.5 lb. The overall weight of the axe is 1 lb 14.7 oz. The current catalog lists the overall weight as 2.1 lb, with a 1.5 lb head.
Axe Length: 17 inches. The production model is listed as having 18 inch handle.
Axe Head Material: Carbon steel
Handle Material: Hickory
Cost: $55.00

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Assuming that this is in fact being sold as the Woodworker axe, the price is quite reasonable. It is not cheap, but is comparable with other mid range axes.  

In terms of performance, I decided to compare the Condor axe to the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. The reason I did that is because of the similar head weight, and the fact that both axes fit somewhere between a hatchet and a boy’s axe. That being said however, the Condor axe is much closer to a hatchet than the Gransors Bruks Small Forest Axe. The handle is two to three inches shorter, which makes a big difference to the way you would use a small axe like this one. While you can still use two hands on the Condor axe, it is much better suited for single hand use.


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The grain orientation on the handle was very good. It is a straight handle design, but I don’t want you to get the impression that they just put a simple stick on the axe head. The handle has gone through significant testing, and it is reflected in the design. There are many fluctuations in thickness and shape along the length of the handle, and I found it surprisingly comfortable to use. Typically, I find axes with a 1.5 lb head to be too uncomfortable to use with one hand, but thanks to the handle design, the axe felt very comfortable and controllable.


The design of the head is also interesting. When viewed from the top, you can see that it is well designed. The cheeks are properly ground, and the convex of the bit is good for an all around axe. The bit and the head overall are a little thicker than the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, so it will favor splitting tasks over chopping ones, but it is a good overall design. The head is attached using a wooden wedge and a circular metal pin.


When we look at it from the side however, the axe comes across as looking more like a shigling, or carving hatchet than a felling axe. That being said however, I did not find any draw backs to the design. The bit has a slight curvature, and the design of the head makes it easy to choke up on the axe. In my opinion the top part of the bit has slightly too much curvature, but I assume that is a grinding defect more than a design issue. While the general shape might resemble a carving or hewing hatchet, the bit is ground like an all purpose axe.


Overall, I am very impressed by this little axe. I have to admit, when I first saw it, I did not expect much. It looked like just another hewing hatchet. After a closer look however, it is clear that it is a well thought out design, that is in fact crated to serve as an all around axe. The performance reflected that. I would not hesitate to take this axe into the woods again. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thank You for Your Support!

As you guys know, I’ve been gone for some time. I just wanted to thank everyone for all the support I have received. Thank you for all of the emails and comments, and in particular, thank you for still reading.


Well, at the end of the day, I ended up with two of the dogs. The brown one you have already seen. Her name is Rhea, and I’ve had her since she was a puppy. The white one is Dexter. He is one of the dogs we were fostering. I will end up adopting him because he is very aggressive towards people, and doesn’t have a place to go.

Anyway, I hope to be back to writing soon. I’ve been out of things for a while, so hopefully my posts will not be too outdated.