Friday, September 6, 2013

The Gear of E.H. (Elmer Harry) Kreps

In two previous posts I have gone through the books of Geaorge Washington Sears a.k.a Nessmuk and Horace Kephart and tried to create of list of the equipment and gear they used and recommended. You can see the gear of Geaorge Washington Sears here, and that of Horace Kephart here.

In this post I want to go over the gear of a much less known author from the early 1900s, and similarly try to outline the gear and equipment he used. The author is E.H. Kreps. His book Woodcraft is one of the best I have read on the subject and is what I will use in this post to try to outline his gear. My preference from Kreps’ writings stems from the fact that unlike Nessmuk and Kephart, who were recreational outdoorsmen, Kreps spent significant time as a trapper in Canada, so a lot of his writing focuses on more serious wilderness travel than that of the above authors.

I encountered several problems when trying to compile a list of the gear of E.H. Kreps. The first is that he focuses very little on non essential gear. He goes in debt on certain subject that he sees important, but spends no time on items where the choice is not important. For example, while he has a full chapter devoted to the axe, he does not address knives at all. The other problem is that he writes in a passive tense. He speaks generally of “the woodsman”, and rarely recounts any personal stories. Even so, I’ve compiled a list of equipment I have seen in his writings. The gaps would have to be filled by our imagination. It should also be noted that he often writes about two different sets of gear. One is the equipment that is brought to a long term base camp, usually by packhorse, and the other is the gear a woodsman would carry when traveling alone. I’ll focus on the gear he discusses for travel alone and without the use of horses as it most closely resembles what most of us do. If interested, he has full chapters dedicated to building and furnishing a cabin for more permanent base camp. 


Just like the other authors of the time, Kreps recommends all woolen clothing. He states that it should be of medium weight, and not too bulky. He advises against long coats as they impede travel, and prefers those made of Mackinaw. He states that he prefers wool shirts and that vests are rarely used by woodsmen. For pants he recommends any that are made out of wool and are relatively well fitted. Kreps prefers to wear a belt, but writes that it is not important. As a hat, he prefers a woolen toque, and recommends woolen mittens for the hands, covered by cotton ones. He readily acknowledges that the wool clothing will hold snow, which will then melt, but states that wool will stay reasonably warm when wet, and does not offer a solution to the problem.


For footwear, in the colder climates, he recommends buckskin moccasins. For climates where the snow might be wet, or for that matter anything other than completely dry, he recommends pac boots.  


Tarp/Tent: Kreps makes only one mention that I could find of a tarp or tent used during travel on foot. He simply states that “since the entire camp outfit and food supply must be carried on these journeys, the outfit taken must of necessity be meager. Only a ….small, light canvas shelter can be taken…” He goes on to specify that such a shelter, along with the blanket which I will discuss below, can not be used without a fire. Presumably the canvas shelter he has in mind closely resembles a small tarp, which can be used together with a fire.

Blanket: “Woolen blankets are good, in fact the best thing made, for camping in spring, summer and fall…It has always been my belief that wool loosely woven, so that it forms a soft, thick cloth, is better heat retainer than the same quantity of wool tightly woven…” According to Kreps, two Hudson Bay wool blankets will be sufficient for three season camping as long as a fire can be maintained during the night. It seems that Kreps’ shelter system was largely dependant on the ability to maintain a fire through the night. The components mentioned here should be viewed in that light. “Since the entire camp outfit and food supply must be carried on these journeys, the outfit taken must of necessity be meager. Only a single blanket and a small, light canvas shelter can be taken and to sleep without a fire under such conditions is out of the question. A good hot fire must be kept going and such a fire will consume nearly half a cord of wood during the long northern night.”

Blankets for winter use are a different story. “Now, it is not difficult to get together a quantity of blankets that will keep a man warm in the coldest night, but the trouble will come when he wants to transport them. No, you can’t carry with you enough woolen blankets to keep you comfortably warm when traveling the northern trails in midwinter.”  Kreps’ statements seem consistent with those of Kephart, who also stated in his writings that wool blankets do not offer sufficient insulation for the weight to make them practical in winter. Kephart’s solution was a sleeping bag, but Kreps offers what he believes to be a better option-the rabbit fur blanket. “But when zero weather is to be contended with woolen blankets must take a back seat for the Indian’s kind, woven from strips of rabbit fur.” Kreps estimates that such a blanket would weigh between 8 to10 lb and rolls up into a package of about 10 inches in diameter and 20 inches in length.

Cooking Utensils:

Kreps doesn’t spend much time on his cook kit. When operating from a stationary camp he speaks of different pots and pans, but when traveling, he makes only the following statement: “The bushman always carries a small tea pail with him, if only a tin can fitted with a wire bail.” The primary use appears to be not to cook food, but rather just to make tea.

Cutting Tools:

Again, it should be noted that Kreps discusses two different types of gear. One is the items one may bring when establishing a camp, where the equipment will be carried by horses, and the second, the one which interests me, is that carried by a woodsman, traveling alone and carrying the equipment on his back.

Knife: Thanks to one of my readers, who directed me to another book by E.H. Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, I was able to get a description of the type of knife preferred by Kreps. The one he carries is made by Joseph Rogers & Son of England. It is 9 inches long overall, has a 4 /1/2 inch blade with a 4 inch cutting surface, 5/32 thickness, and with what he calls a “straight bevel”. The sheath is one which covers not only the blade, but also most of the handle. Another knife he recommends, which is similar to the one he uses is the Expert model by Marble Safety Axe Co.


Axe: Kreps considers the axe of primary importance, and dedicates significant portions of his book to describing it in detail. Above all tools required for traveling through the woods, Kreps values the axe the most. That is probably the result of his shelter arrangements discussed above, which necessitated the use of a fire during the night. “When making a hard trip he (the woodsman) may leave his gun in camp, and may even travel and camp without blankets, shelter or cooking utensils, but the ax must go with him on every trip.”

Kreps goes on to give a description of his ideal axe. “Perhaps the most useful pattern for the wilderness trapper is that having a long narrow blade, but this should not be carried to the extreme… The butt of the ax …would be more convenient for the trapper is it had a claw for drawing trap staples. For the northern forest and the western mountain districts the ax that I would recommend would weigh only about two pounds, handle not included in the weight… To make a light axe effective, however, it must have a long handle. An ax like this should have a handle of from thirty to thirty0four inches over all… The handle should be fastened into the ax with a wedge, which in turn is held in place by a screw.”


There are also some interesting statements about axes and axe use that Kreps makes in his writings, which seem to contradict what some modern writers have asserted based on alleged conversations with “old timers”. For one, he asserts that the S-shaped handle is superior when it comes to performance than the straight handle. “It is made to fit the hands of the user without strain on the arms or wrists, and this curved shape enables him to hold the ax more solidly when striking a blow that could be done with a straight handle.” He also recommends that “when splitting wood strike straight and don’t try to spring the split open by prying with the ax, for that is the easiest way I know to break an ax handle.” This piece of advise seems contrary to assertions by people such as Ray Mears who recommend that you impart a twist to the axe when it contacts the wood, to pry it apart more easily.

Fire Lighting Tools:

Kreps strongly recommends the use of strike anywhere matches for fire lighting. He recommends that a small amount be carried carried in a bottle or other waterproof container at all time. He warns against reliance on friction fire making. “This way of making fire (friction fire) has been exploited by writers on woodcraft subjects; but the reader should not be deceived into the belief that if he becomes lost in the woods and night coming on finds himself without matches, he can build a fire by this means. While any boy scout can demonstrate the method and can produce fire in a very few minutes, he can do so only by having prepared the necessary materials long in advance.”


Kreps offers an in debt discussion of the food that should be carried when traveling through the wilderness. He seems to take a very systematic and scientific approach to the subject, very similar to what a modern backpacker would do. “Not only does the woodsman have to consider cooking and eating in camp but he must think as well of the many days that he will spend on the trail and there his food must be of the most condensed, light, nutritious and otherwise perfect form”

He begins by stating that one should bring appropriate food for the duration of time he expects to be in the woods, and not rely on hunting alone. “A man can depend to some extent on game and fish, but if he is going far back into the wilderness where he cannot retreat in a day or two to civilization and a source of food supply he should be very sure that the game and fish are actually found in the place where he is going, that such game and fish will be available at all seasons, and that, and that there will be no uncommon difficulty in securing it… Moreover, the man who elects to live on game and fish alone must necessarily go hungry for long periods, in fact may be forced to face starvation when game is scarce and for one reason or another difficult to secure. Therefore the woodsman should not attempt to live wholly on fresh meat or to make so much allowance for game that he will suffer from hunger if the game is not procurable.”

Kreps provides several food lists which he believes would be sufficient for one man for one month in the wilderness. I will quote one of them here: “Eighteen pounds of wheat flour and five pounds cornmeal; two pounds crackers or soda biscuits; one pound of best baking powder; three pounds table salt; six pounds bacon and four pounds salt pork; three and a half pounds creamery or canned butter; seven pounds beans; three pounds split peas; five pounds evaporated fruits, assorted as desired; four pounds prunes; eight pounds sugar; two pounds tea or three pounds coffee, grounds and in airtight tins; two-pound bottle sour pickles; five pounds evaporated milk in small tins; four pounds rice; one pound seeded raisins; two ounces cinnamon; one ounce black pepper; two pounds cheese; five pounds Bermuda onions.” The total weight is about 90 lb. The weight is about a third heavier than what a normal backpacker would carry. Usually when traveling under normal conditions, two pounds of food per day is considered more than adequate. The figures provided above would make the weight carried by Kreps about three pounds per day.

That being said, Kreps specifies that the above food list is for when he expects to make a stationary camp in the woods. Otherwise, the food he recommends when traveling on foot is much more simple: “When making long tramps away from my cabin and camping out by the side of a fire, I like to travel lightly equipped… This necessitates the use of very simple, easily prepared dishes. Ordinarily I carry only the following foods: Flour mixed with the proper amount of baking powder and salt; bacon; sliced and with the rind removed; oatmeal, sugar, butter, tea, and a small sack containing a few ounces of salt.” 

Other Items:

There are some other items worth mentioning, some of them precisely because they are not mentioned in the book.

Kreps speaks of the need for a map and compass, and the skill necessary to use them. He states that while travel is possible without them if you are familiar with your local woods, they are necessary for travel in unknown areas.


He also spends significant amount of time discussing snowshoes and their construction methods, as travel through the winter in the north is almost impossible without them. You can refer to the book for more details.

Like most other authors of the time, he doe snot mention the use of any water storage device. I’m not sure that is because it was so common that it was not worth mentioning, or because one was not carried.

I have certainly missed material from the book, but this has been my attempt to summarize his gear choices and their use. In my opinion his advice and evaluation is some of the most valuable I have been able to find. His statements speak of experience in the actual backwoods, and they resonate with me much more than the writings of Nessmuk and Kephart, who I see more as recreational campers in their time. Again, I encourage everyone to read the book for themselves. If interested, E.H. Kreps is also the author of Science of Trapping

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