Friday, January 31, 2014

18th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications

As I have written before in the context of The Modern Woodsman, I believe woodsmanship to be a continuum, where skills and tools are improved and refined over the generations by successive waves of woodsmen going into the wilderness. For many, bushcraft shares a similar understanding of woodsmanship, seeking to apply skills and equipment from the past, to our modern wilderness travels. To that end, I wanted to take a look at how the 18th century woodsmanship (with 19th and early 20 century to follow in future posts) has developed into, and has effected the modern woodsman.

Looking to the past for knowledge, especially when it comes to living in the wilderness is a valuable tool. We are in a privileged position to be able to look at the experiences of others over centuries of time and pick out what worked and what didn’t, a luxury those men never had. There is however a danger in the fact that if we look at the past out of context and consequently apply any particular skills or equipment from the past out of context, we can easily lose our way and render those skills and equipment less than useful. Too often we look at the past through the eyes of our current woodsmanship experience, and try to force particular aspects of woodsmanship from earlier times into our modern experience and expectations.

I believe that if we are to search the past for information, we have to view it in the context in which it occurs. Pulling individual skills and equipment without seeing how they were used and how they worked together, and then trying to force them into our modern wilderness experience creates more problems than it solves.

The modern outdoorsman tends to be a backpacker. Usually, the gear ends up being carried in a backpack on one’s back. As such, we often assume that when we look at historical accounts and gear lists, those men carried their equipment in a similar way. Even those of us who do not travel on foot but rather prefer methods such as canoeing, when looking at historical examples, we tend to brush over exactly why, how, or in what context certain gear was carried.

So, when one reads about a gear list carried by a favorite Long Hunter, and sees that he carried two blankets, a tent, a bear fur, a flint striker and a pot, too often we get focused on the list, and forget to look at the surrounding circumstances such as how the gear was used, and how it was carried. Did the particular long hunter carry that gear on his back, or did he carry it using his two pack horses? Did he expect that the two blankets he had would keep him warm during the winter months as he slept under a tree, or did he intend them to be used in a permanent camp that was built three years prior? The answers to these questions and others, will make a huge difference as to whether we can now take that same gear list, toss it into our backpack and go into the woods as we would with our modern gear. 

So all that being said, I want to take a look at the 18th century woodsman, the most popular example these days being the Long Hunter. I will not be focusing on any specific piece of gear that they used, but rather on the overall approach they took to the wilderness, in particular their mode of transporting their gear, and the expectations they had once in the woods.

 Squire Boone crossing the mountains with stores for his brother Daniel and brother-in-law John Stewart encamped in the wilds of Kentucky.

The Long Hunts originated in the 18th century whereby men from Virginia and the surrounding areas pushed into Tennessee and other western areas in order to hunt, trade, and trap. Such hunts date back to the 1700s. The expeditions typically lasted about six months, from October through March. Notable long hunters included Daniel Boone, Richard Callaway, James Smith, Joseph Martin, and others.

So, how did the long hunters do it? How did they transport their gear, and how did they use it? What expectations did they have of their gear?

From the little that I know on the subject, the image that we have of the long hunter, as a solitary woodsman, traveling into the wilderness with a bedroll and a rifle slung over his shoulder, living off the land, is not all too accurate. It appears that the standard long hunt involved a sizable group of men, well equipped with supplies, both food and gear, traveling into the wilderness along routes established by Native Americans or prior parties, using large pack trains to transport their equipment. Once the desired area was reached, a permanent camp would be build, and from there smaller parties of two or three men would brake off with their horses and supplies and spread out. Each man had two or three horses with him. 

Emory L. Hamilton in The Mountain Empire Genealogical Quarterly, l984 writes “The long hunters went out together in large parties, built a station camp, then
fanned out in twos and threes to range and hunt over large areas…It is thought his party consisted of eighteen or nineteen men…

In certain cases, like the long hunt lead by James Knox in 1769, there were over forty hunters in the party. After arriving to the hunting or trading grounds, the group would split up.

In a story reported by a long hunter, John Reed of Pittsylvania Co Virginia, he writes “He returned in l775 and established his Station… three men, with two horses each, and with their traps, guns and other necessary equipment for a long hunt, settled down in the bottom above alluded to; built a camp and spent the fall, winter and part of the spring there in hunting.

Hamilton also states that “The long hunters set out with two pack horses each a large supply of powder and lead, a small hand vise and bellows, a screwplate and files for repairing their rifles, and while he makes no mention of it, they also carried a supply of flour and bread. In fact, on the way out they could carry quite a lot of supplies as each hunter had two pack horses.”

In the Life & Times of Col. Daniel Boone, 1775 he writes that “A day was soon appointed for the march of the little cavalcade to the camp. Two or three horses furnished with pack−saddles were loaded with flour, Indian meal, blankets, and every thing else requisite for the use of the hunter.”

While the individual gear would have varied, it is clear that horses for transportation of equipment and supply were seen as a necessity, just as were supplies which were brought along. In Daniel Boone’s Adventures, 1784 he writes “We continued not in a state of indolence, but hunted every day, and prepared a little cottage to defend us from the winter storms. We remained there undisturbed during the winter; and on the first day of May, 1770, my brother returned home to the settlement by himself, for a new recruit of horses and ammunition, leaving me by myself, without bread, salt or sugar, without company of my fellow creatures, or even a horse or dog. I confess I never before was under greater necessity of exercising philosophy and fortitude.”

Once Tennessee was reached, it appears that the men typically built a a main camp, and then dispersed to build smaller camps for their individual sub group, where most of the time was spent. At times numerous, or chains of permanent camps were established, and Daniel Boone speaks several times of moving from one of his camps to another. There are some descriptions of the camps which can be found. 

Emory L. Hamilton in The Mountain Empire Genealogical Quarterly, l984 writes “The first known station camp established in Powell's Valley was that of Elisha Wallen in l76l… Wallen's station camp, set up at the mouth of Wallen's Creek, was probably like other station camps, built of poles, sometime only eight-ten feet, covered with puncheions or bark, walls on three sides the front open, along which a fire was built for warmth. Upright poles were set up---often a forked pole was driven into the ground, with a cross pole on which the bark or pucheons were laid, sloping toward the back in order to drain melting snow or rain away from the fire. This type of shelter was known as ‘Half-faced’”.


John Reed also writes in a letter, "The remains of the camp I saw in Powell Valley were on its north side; and as well as my memory serves me, were within forty or fifty yards of the mouth of Wallen's creek at the ford of Powell/s river. The camp was built beside a large limestone rock which served for the back of the camp. The names of the persons whose bones I saw there I should be unable to accurately distinguish were I to hear them. This may be possibly the camp pitched by Bonne's war party. The bones I saw were not known certainly to be those of the two long hunters having gone on a long hunt in Powell Valley in l773, who had not returned. The camp was eight or ten miles from Martin's Station.”

It appears the procedure was relatively well established, especially in the later years. The groups followed a known route each year into the wilderness, and utilized a network of camps and forts until finally splitting up once the hunting grounds had been reached. At that point individual, semi-permanent camps were established, where most of the time was spent, particularly during winter.

General William Hall, of Lucustland, Tennessee, in 1845 writes “The long hunters principally resided in the upper country of Va., and North Carolina, on the New River and Holston River, and when they intended to make a long hunt, as they called it, they collected near the head of Holston, near where Abingdon now stands. Thence they proceeded a westerly direction passing through Powell's valley crossing the Cumberland mountain where the road now crosses leading to the Crab Orchard in Ky. Then crossing the Cumberland River where the said road now crosses Rockcastle, and leaving the Crab Orchard to the right and continuing nearly the said course, crossing the head of Green River, going on through the Barrens, crossing Big Barren River at the mouth of Drake's Creek; thence up Drake'c Creek to the head, crossing the ridge which divides the waters of the Ohio river from the waters of the Cumberland, and the hunters, after crossing the ridge, either went down Bledsoe's Creek, or Station Camp Creek to the river and then spread out in the Cumberland ready to make their hunt.”

Since the standard procedure, or at least as reflected in the writings I have been able to find, was to travel by pack train, with about three horses per person, and stay in permanent or semi permanent camps, most of the information is not directly relevant to a modern woodsman who carries his gear on his back. The gear list of what a person carried on his two pack horses would not translate very well into gear that could be carried in a backpack. Similarly, gear intended to be used in a permanent shelter for the duration of the trip would be different from gear which has to be moved each day and allow you to sleep without such a shelter. I had a much harder time finding any descriptions of time spent in the woods without the aid of pack horses on established camps. Certainly it was done, especially during warmer weather.

In Daniel Boone’s Adventures, 1784 he describes one such instance “I kindled a fire near a fountain of sweet water, and feasted on the loin of a buck, which a few hours before I had killed. The sullen shades of night soon overspread the whole hemisphere, and the earth seemed to gasp after the hovering moisture. My roving excursion this day had fatigued my body, and diverted my imagination. I laid me down to sleep, and I awoke not until the sun had chased away the night.”

For more of a glimpse into how a person of that time might have spent time in the woods with man-portable gear I had to look beyond descriptions of long hunts. Some military gear lists for infantry provide interesting information. While most armies move with supply train where a lot of the gear is carried, some lists point more to items that were carried by the individual soldier.

The best list I have been able to find is from the papers of Francois Charles de Bourlamaque, 1757, who at the time was commanding Fort Ticonderoga in New York. The corresponding gear list is therefore suited for an environment further north than that of the long hunters, but I imagine there is a lot of overlap.

  • Summer Equipment For the Officer: 1 capot; 1 blanket; 1 woolen cap; 2 cotton shirts; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 1 breech-cloth; 2 skeins of thread; 6 needles; 1 awl; 1 firesteel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 pair of moccasins every month; 1 tomahawk.
  • Winter Equipment For the Officer (in addition to the summer equipment above): 1 bearskin; 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 2 folding knives; 1 pair mittens; 1 vest; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings; 2 pairs of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes.
  • Summer Equipment For the Soldier: 1 blanket; 1 capot; 1 cap; 2 cotton shirts; 1 pair of breeches; 1 pair of underpants; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 2 skeins of thread; six needles; 1 awl; 1 fire steel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 tomahawk; 1 pair of moccasins every month.
  • Winter Equipment For the Soldier (in addition to the summer equipment above): 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 1 pair of mittens; 1 vest; 2 folding knives; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings; 2 pair of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes; 1 bearskin.
  • Summer Equipment For the Militiaman: 1 blanket; 1 capot or bougrine (capot or a loose blouse or cape?); 2 cotton shirts; 1 breech cloth; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 2 skeins of thread; 6 needles; 1 awl; 1 firesteel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 tomahawk; 1 pair moccasins every month.
  • Winter Equipment For the Militiaman (in addition to the summer equipment above): 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 1 pair of mittens; 1 vest; 2 folding knives; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings (mitasses); 2 pair of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes; 1 bearskin.
  • Additional/Group Equipment For Soldiers and Militiamen: 1/2 pound (livre) of gunpowder; 1 pound (livre) of balls; 1 pound (livre) of tobacco; 1 axe for 2 men; 1 tarpaulin and 1 cooking boiler for every 4 men.

Referencing another military campaign from the same year, a letter published in the Boston Gazette, April 18, 1757 (the letter being dated April 12, 1757), describing the French-Canadian army lead by Francois-Pierre Rigaud, Governor of Trois Rivieres against Ft. William Henry, at the time commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Eyre, we are provided a very similar list: "This morning an account was bro't to town, that a large army of French and Indians were seen at a small distance from the German flats, but few here believe it. Sir William Johnson is still in readiness, with 1500 of the militia. Every man in the French army that came against Fort William Henry, was equipped in the following manner, viz. With two pair of Indian shoes, 2 pair of stockings, 1 pair of spatterdashes, 1 pair of breechees, 2 jackets, 1 large over-coat, 2 shirts, 2 caps, 1 hat, 1 pair of mittins, 1 tomahawk, 2 pocket-knives, 1 scalping knife, 1 steel and flint, every two men an ax, and every four a kettle and oyl cloth for a tent, with one blanket and a bearskin, and 12 days provision of pork and bread; all which they drew on little hand-sleighs." From the way the letter is written, it appears that every four men had one oil cloth tarp, one blanket and one bearskin. This may simply be poor wording with respect to the blanket and bearskin. It is more likely that each man had an individual blanket and bearskin, while sharing a tarp. This list refers to a winter gear list, as the gear was pulled on sleighs across the frozen Lake George. This account was re-published in The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783 by Mary Jane Corry, Kate Van Winkle Keller, and Robert M. Keller

Another source from the period, a letter written by George Bouchier Worgan in 1788, he states: “As for my part I shall be obliged soon to make a Virtue of Necessity for I have torn almost all my Cloaths to pieces by going into the Woods; and tho' we do not want for Taylors, We do, Woolen Drapers. Our Excursions, put me in Mind of your going a Steeple Hunting, We sometimes, put a Bit of Salt Beef, or Pork, Bisket, a Bottle of 0 be joyful, in a Snapsack throw it over our Backs, take a Hatchet, a Brace of Pistols, and a Musket, and away we go, scouring the Woods, sometimes East, West, N. S. if Night overtakes us, we light up a rousing Fire, Cut Boughs & make up a Wig-Wam, open our Wallets, and eat as hearty of our Fare as You, of your Dainties, then lie down on a Bed, which tho' not of Roses, yet staying out all Night, accordingly We laid down our Bread an Cheese Wallets, make up a Wig-wam of green Boughs, cut some dry Ferns for a Bed, lit two or three rousing Fires near our Hut, and set down to Dinner. We sung the Evening away, and about 9 O’Clock retired to Rest, taking it by turns to keep watch, and supply the Fires with Fuel.

In his journal in 1744, chronicling his travels from Pennsylvania to Canada, John Bartram gives another example: “the night following it thundred and rained very faft, and took us at a difadvantage, for we had made no fhelter to keep off the rain, neither could we fee it till juft over our heads, and it began to fall. One of our Indians cut 4 fticks 5 feet long, and ftuck both ends into the ground, at 2 foot diftance, one from another ; over thefe he fpread his match coat and crept through them, and then fell to finging : in the mean time we were fetting poles nflantwife in the ground, tying others crofs them, over which we' fpread our blanket and crept clofe under it with a fire before us and fell faft afleep. I waked a little after midnight, and found our fire almoft out, fo I got the hatchet and felled a few faplings which I laid on, and made a roufing fire, tho' it rained ftoutly, and laying down once more, I flept found all night.

There are some interesting things which can be noted from the above lists with respect to the 18th century woodsman who carried his equipment on his back, and expected to stay outdoors during the night rather that in established shelters.

The first thing that struck me is that individuals did not appear to carry their own, personal size tarps. When traveling alone, the expectation seems to have been that a shelter would be built from the surrounding plants and resources or perhaps in times of heavy rain, that the blanket would be used as a tarp. Tarps and tents seem to have been devices reserved for large groups, and they took the form of group shelters. See above lists.

The second is that it doesn’t appear that people carried their own personal pots. Again, the pot seems to have been a communal implement. That is not so surprising, since water purification was not a practice back then, and most food was roasted near the fire. See above lists.

Another noticeable characteristic is that when traveling on foot, only a single blanket seems to have been carried. There appears to have been no expectation that a person would be able to spend the night out in the woods comfortably without the use of a fire simply by using the blanket. In virtually all accounts, fires were kept burning through the night for warmth. In his journal, Rufas Putnam, 1754 writes: “Our custom on this march was to encamp ten men at a fire.” Spending the night without fire was only done in emergencies as David Thompson write in 1798: “…a most terrible Storm came on…we are quite without shelter…passing our Time sitting in the Snow under an Oak with a Blanket wrapped round us.” Also see above lists.

It should also be noted that winter travel was significantly limited. As mentioned further above, most Long Hunters remained in permanent camps during winter. Similarly, in 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark’s men spent the winters in a permanent camps. When travel was necessary, such as during military operations, additional insulation for sleeping was provided not by more wool blankets, but rather by animal furs. Consequently, the weight of a person’s gear would be too much, and modified forms of transportation would be required. In the case of the gear list form Fort Ticonderoga, each man was issued a toboggan for transporting his equipment. As the only main difference in the gear lists between summer and winter was the additional furs, it can be assumed that this was the main source for the need for a toboggan. See above lists.

Please keep in mind that the above observations are just based on my own research, and speak to the larger trends I was able to notice. Certainly there must have been people, as there always are, so did things their own way, and they would have done things differently.

So, what impact does the equipment and approach to the wilderness of the 18th century woodsman have on the modern woodsman?

I think we always see things through our mind’s eye, and I believe we have come up with a skewed image of the 18th century woodsman, and as a result of how that would translate into a modern version of the Long Hunter.

A common approach to recreating the 18th century woodsman, or creating a modern version of the Long Hunter, has been to take a modern woodsman, and simply replace his gear with 18th century inspired gear in a one to one equivalency. The nylon tarp or tent becomes a canvas tarp or tent; the sleeping bag is replaced with enough wool blankets to equal the same warmth, the sleeping pad is replaced by another blanket; the titanium pot is replaced with a steel one; the flashlight with a candle lantern. We then stuff it all into a canvas pack, and go into the woods the same way we have been doing with our modern gear, except that now our kit is ten times heavier and bulkier.

In my opinion that approach does not match up to the wilderness experience and tool use of those 18th century woodsmen.

For one, we are often times looking at gear lists intended to be carried by pack train and used in permanent shelter. Applying those lists to a person carrying their gear on their back is not an easy task, nor does it give us the true 18th century experience.

However, even when we do look at 18th century gear lists designed to be man-portable, we tend to try to force them into the way we do things with our modern gear instead of seeing how a woodsman of the time would have used them.

Both of the above errors lead us to create a hugely heavy and cumbersome kit. The reality is that there have been significant changes in the technology of outdoor gear, which has not only transformed out experience in the wilderness in degree, but also in kind. A modern sleeping bag is not just slightly warmer and lighter than a wool blanket. It is different enough so that it allows us to sleep comfortably in any weather without the use of a fire; a task unthinkable to an 18th century woodsman in anything other then an emergency. Similarly, a nylon tarp is not just a lighter version of a canvas one, it is light enough so that it can be carried by the individual; something that does not appear to have been common practice in the 18th century.  

Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject. I have tried to list a few primary sources above, so you guys can make your own conclusions. If you have any other information, please feel free to share it. This subject seems to be full of speculation, but lean on actual sources.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Trip Report: Wilderness Survival Challenge – The Lost Day Hiker

Lately I’ve been writing a bit about wilderness survival, so I figured I would try to do a trip which would reflect that. So, this month I decided that instead of going for a regular backpacking trip, I would try to turn it into a survival exercise.

The survival scenario I wanted to try out was that of the lost day hiker. The set up was that I would pretend that I went out for a day hike, and brought only the minimum gear I would need for a nice day out in the woods. I would bushwhack for most of the day, thinking that I know where I am going, and that I am almost out of the forest. When the sun was about to go down, I would “realize” that I was lost, and have to spend the night out in the woods only with the gear I had in my day pack. I figured this would be a good trip to film, so I brought the camera with me, and made a video. It is my first time filming a trip, so it is not of any notable quality.

I started out in the late morning. The temperature was about 7F (-14C) and it was snowing. Many of the roads into the mountains were closed, so I drove to the first accessible location I could find, and picked a direction into the woods.

With me, I had a few pieces of gear. First, I had my pocket kit. If you are not sure what that is, check out the post here.


In addition to my pocket kit, I also had my day pack with a few items.


The items were: the Patagonia DAS Parka, a Nalgene water bottle with a Stoic TI 750ml cup, a Bahco Laplander saw, a Ziploc bag with food, an 5’x9’ emergency blanket, and a neck gaiter. In addition to that, I was wearing a t-shirt, a Patagonia R1 fleece pullover, a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket, and an Arcteryx Beta SV GoreTex shell. On the bottom I just had my regular backpacking pants.

My route took me along a lake. I spotted a few people ice fishing in the distance.


I kept walking along the lake, and then continued up the mountain. For a while I had to push through some evergreen bushes, which slowed me down.


When I emerged from the bushes I stopped for a bit to eat lunch, and share some of my musing on camera.


From there I continued walking up the mountain until about 4 pm. Sunset this time of year is around 5 pm, and it is pitch black by 5:30 pm. As it was starting to get darker, I decided that it was time to start thinking about how exactly to spend the night in the woods. Indeed, I could have started preparing much earlier, and shown you guys a nice shelter with a big long fire in front of it, but that wouldn’t be realistic. I was a “lost day hike”, and in such a position one rarely realizes that he is lost before the day is almost over. After all, if you just walk for a bit longer, you will find the trail again, or maybe even the parking lot.

So, with no time to waste, I pulled out my emergency blanket and pitched it as a tarp using some of the artificial sinew I had in my pocket. I had previously reinforced the corners of the blanket with duct tape and had punched holes through it, which made the job much easier.


I found some more of those evergreen bushes I encountered earlier, and gathered some of the tops as bedding. I find that it is important to not just gather leaves, but to take them with the stems when possible. That way they do not compress as much when you lay on them, and preserve more of the dead air space, providing better insulation.


Around 4:30 pm I stopped gathering bedding, and transitioned to collecting fire wood. By the time it got dark, I would have neither enough bedding, nor enough fire wood. Before long it was too dark for me to continue working, so I lit the fire and settled in for the night. I had managed to collect about two dozen wrist thick pieces of oak, each about a foot in length. I also had an assortment of smaller pieces of wood. I knew that wouldn’t be enough.


I had managed to dig up a small rock from under the snow to use as a fire reflector. I had also created a wood platform for the fire. I managed to get it going using my lighter and a few small pieces of birch bark I was able to find. Once the fire was going, I tried to keep it as small as possible so that I don’t use up too much wood. I would burn two pieces at a time, which would give me about an hour of burn time. Simultaneously I would be drying out the next to pieces I was planning on using next to the fire. During those hour long intervals, I would lay down and get some sleep. Each time I would wake up when the fire died down and I got cold. I slept curled up right next to the fire. The flames were not large enough to throw off much heat, so the emergency blanket did not reflect all that much heat.

During the night the temperatures dropped to about 0F (-18C). On a few occasions I let the fire die down too much in an effort to preserve wood, and had a hard time getting it going again. All of the wood was covered with a solid layer of ice, which made it hard to burn. To make things worse, around 2:30 am the wind picked up, and ripped my emergency blanket out from the ground. The earth was frozen, so the tent pegs I had made were not going deep enough to hold. I tried to fix it, but could not. So I took down the blanket, and wrapped it around me. I then took the top corner and pinned it against the fire reflector rock. The funneled a lot of the heat into the blanked and kept me warmer than I was with the shelter. Unfortunately, it also funneled a lot of smoke into my face, making it an unpleasant night. Around 5 am I was down to my last two pieces of wood. I put them flat on the coals and kept the oxygen getting to them to a minimum. That kept them from flaming up and kept them going until the sun came up. The heat from the fire was minimal at this point, but it was enough to cut through the cold.

When it was light enough, I packed up and got going. I went back down the mountain.


Before long I spotted the lake a passed on my way into the woods. I followed it out.


I made good time, and I was out of the woods shortly after noon. Overall the trip was uneventful. There were a few annoying moments like when the blanket got blown away, or when my water bottle froze on my way out of the woods. The worse is the smoke inhalation (I am still coughing), and I got slight frost nip on my right hand-I have no feeling in the tips of three of my fingers, a result of holding the aluminum camera tripod. Other than that, it was pretty standard. If I had had the time to gather about two and a half times more wood than I did, it would have been a very comfortable night because I would have been able to have a fire twice the size and kept it burning all night. Then some of the heat would have been reflected by the blanket, making a nice little shelter. Anyway, I hope you like the video. It is the best I was able to do for my first one.


Since I published the post, I have had some interesting questions from people, so I thought I would write about them here, in the body of the post, in case others want to read them.

Q: Why not use the dead fall around the area? There seems to be plenty of large wood on the ground that could have been pulled onto the fire.

A: There are several parts to the answer. One is that the wood you see behind me in the video was not good. It was too rotten. There was however better wood further out. The pieces of maple I got for the base of the fire were cut from a large fallen tree. Unfortunately, those pieces of wood were too heavy (and in many cases had too many tangled up branches) for me to move them any distance without first processing them. All the smaller wood was covered by the snow. Since I only had a small saw, I was not able to take pieces from them. Also, all that dead fall was wet/frozen through and covered in a layer of ice. Even if I was able to drag a piece to the fire, it would have served to extinguish it rather than keep it going. I was able to dry out the smaller pieces to a degree where they would catch fire, but that would have been much harder with larger logs. It is however a viable strategy, although it is a risky one. It is indeed possible to get large logs, even wet and frozen ones to burn. However, to do that you need to make a very large fire. That would have require that I burn all of the smaller wood I had gathered. The risk is that after doing so, if the large logs had not started burning in a self sustaining manner, I would have been out of usable wood. Similarly, even if the large logs start burning, and then go out in the middle of the night, I have no way of building the fire again. I chose to go for the sure thing, and ration out the smaller wood which I was sure I could keep burning. If I was burning something like pine rather than oak, then maybe I would have made a different call.

Q: Why not continue gathering more firewood even after it was dark? Either use the flashlight, or wait until your eye adjust.

A: Part of it was that I wanted to film the set up while the camera could still pick something up. Besides that however, I wanted to make sure everything was set up before it got pitch black. When the sun goes down, the temperatures drop fast. I wanted to make sure that i got the fire going and that everything was set up, while I still had a small window to make corrections if I needed them. I knew I had close to enough wood to make it through the night, so I decided to do what I did. On a different occasion I might have made a different call. In retrospect I should have spent some more time processing wood.

Q: Now that the trip is over, what would you have done differently?

A: Well, there are of course the answers you always get when people talk about survival: “Don’t get lost”; “Stop early and prepare for the night:, etc. Of course those answers are as true as they are useless. The whole point is that things have not gone right. So, assuming that the set up is identical, what things could have I done differently? One thing is to just carry different tools. If I had an axe and a large saw, I would have had more than enough wood for a comfortable night. Of course, there is no way I am carrying such tools on a day trip, so that is out of the question. If I had to carry an axe, I woul dhave just brough my sleeping bag and been comfortable all night.

The shelter was clearly inadequate for this set up. These emergency blankets are good at reflecting heat, but the fire I had was too small to throw heat far back enough to reflect it off the blanket. The result was that the shelter was not much use past being a wind blocker, which I could have equally gotten from a large rock. Since realistically, with the woods I had I would not have been able to make the fire much larger, I would have used a different shelter set up. I am however not sure exactly what that would have been. I could have brought a more elaborate shelter (I know some people hove made Mors Super Shelters that weight about 2 lb), but I would not be willing to carry much more weight for an emergency shelter than one or two space blankets. So, at this point, other than spending a few more minutes gathering a few more pieces of wood, I am not sure what I would have done differently. Clearly I needed a different shelter set up, but I am not sure what. It would have to be equally light, and set up just as fast. I will think about it and see it I can come up with something.

Q: What were your most valuable tools on the trip?

A: The MVPs were the BIC lighter and the Bahco Laplander saw. Both were game changers. Without the saw I would not have been able to process nearly as much wood, or burn it nearly as efficiently. I would have had to push in whole branches, but even just trimming them with a knife would have taken much more time; time I didn't have. Similarly, having to start a friction fire in these conditions would have been a huge waste of time. It would have translated into having a lot less wood because so much time would have been spent finding and preparing the friction fire materials.

Q: Aren’t worried about wearing so much synthetic material around a fire?

A: No. I have never had a single issue. I think several decades ago, when synthetic fabrics first came out, there were some that were very flammable, or would just melt onto your skin. People from that time got scared, and still think that modern synthetic fabrics will do the same. In my experience, they do not. They do not combust, and they do not melt onto your skin. Even you basic fleece, when exposed to flame will just shrink. The most realistic issue you would have with a synthetic material around fire is getting a little hole the fabric from an ember. I was inches from the fire, wearing a whole bunch of synthetic materials, and I had no issue, nor have I had any issue in all the time I have gone into the woods. On the same subject, the emergency blanket is synthetic. At times, I had it directly on the fire, and when it even wound up in the fire itself. The only result was that the corner exposed to the flames wrinkled and shrunk a bit. I didn't even get any holes in it. I know nothing about the flammability of these blankets, but I had zero issues.

So, these are the questions I have gotten so far. As more come along, I’ll post updates here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ciappa M6 and X-Caliber Survival Rifle/Shotgun Combo First Look

Our friend at Rocky Mountain Bushcraft has brought us some great news from the 2014 SHOT Show. Apparently in April of this year, Chiappa Firearms will be releasing two versions of the popular M6 survival rifle.


In what I consider a great improvement, the rifle/shotgun combo will be offered in .22LR over 20 gauge (Chiappa M6) and .22LR over 12 gauge (X-Caliber) rather than the .22 Hornet over 410 of the original M6.

Apparently the guns will be in the 6 lb range, which is the lightest from which I would like to shoot a 3 inch shell, especially in 12 gauge. Unfortunately, both versions come only with fixed chokes. For full details, please read the post on Rocky Mountain Bushcraft here. I can’t wait until we can see the full review.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Pocket Carry Kit

Well, I finally got a new computer, and can make videos again. I figured that I would test it out by making a short video about the kit which I carry on me when I go into the woods. It’s not really a survival kit or a possibles pouch, so i just call it my pocket carry kit.

This particular set up came bout after many years of playing around with different configurations. I am sure it will change in the future, but for a while not this kit has been working well for me.

The further back in time you go, the more kit you would have seen me carry on my body. I used to have a belt with a canteen and cup, a belt knife, and a good size pouch with emergency and daily use gear. Unfortunately, the kit was too big, and was getting in the way too much. It was good in theory, but in reality it was a nuisance. So, gradually I reduced the number of items I carry, and brought it down to the set up you see in the video, which fits in my pockets.


The knife is kept in my right pocket. It is a Mora #2 custom clone by Mark Hill. You can see more details about it here. The knife weighs 5.0 oz, and I keep it in a sheath that I got from another knife and modified. The sheath weighs 1.7 oz.

In my left pocket I have the actual kit. It is contained in a small pouch, and weighs a total of 4.7 oz.


In the kit I have a mini BIC lighter. It weighs 0.2 oz. It is my main fire lighting tool. I know it is not very “bushcrafty”, but it works, and I like things that work. In well over a decade now of going in the woods, it has never failed me. There are some misconceptions about lighters, which keep many people from using them, but they are not actually true. Some people think that lighters leak out fuel at high elevation, or that they “fail” in cold weather. Truth is, there has been extensive testing done by manufacturers, and lighters do not leak at high elevation unless you press the button. They also work fine in cold weather. The problem is that when the temperature is low, the butane in the lighter doe snot gasify. If you try to use a cold lighter like that, it will “fail”. The solution is a simple one. Just hold it in your hand for several seconds. That will warm it up enough for it to work. Lighters will not work when wet. That is simply because the spark gets cooled down by the evaporating water. To get it to work, just shake the water out. I have found that it takes between 30 and 60 seconds to dry it out by shaking and blowing on it. If you are in a hurry, removing the metal guard will speed up the process.

In the kit I also carry a Fenix E01 flashlight. It weighs 0.4 oz including the AAA battery. The flashlight cost only $10, but it packs some pretty advanced technology. It doesn’t simply feed electricity from the battery to the bulb. It uses a microchip to interrupt the light, but it does it at a rate which our eye can not detect. To us it appears as a solid beam of light, but the beam actually pulsates. This allows the flashlight to put out 10 lumens and do it continuously for 21 hours on a single AAA battery. You can see some more details about it here. I’ve used this flashlight to make my way out of the forest at night. It is not the ideal choice for the task, but for such a small package, it is an amazing tool.

On the pouch itself, I have a small button compass. I have tied it onto the lanyard which clips onto my belt loop. That way it is always visible so that I can quickly check my general direction of travel.

The rest of the kit is divided into tree Altoids Smalls tins.

The first one in the picture is my repair kit. It weighs a total of 0.6 oz. Other than a small multi tool and some rope which I carry in my backpack, this is my whole repair kit. I do not carry a duplicate in my pack. The kit contains a good amount of artificial sinew. It is a very strong material, and I’ve used it for everything from repairing my pack to making a shelter. I also have a small roll of dental floss, which is also strong, and can double as fishing line. In the box also contains some duct tape and a few pieces of Tenacious Tape. Tenacious Tape is a product that was recommended by a friend and appears to be very strong. I’ve seen a punctured inflatable pad being repaired with this tape. On the bottom of the kit I have some needles and fishing hooks.

The second tin contains my fire lighting kit. It weighs 0.5 oz. Together with the lighter, and a second such lighter which I keep in my cooking kit, these are all of the fire lighting devices I carry. All I have in the tin is some waterproof matches and a striker wrapped in a small plastic bag, and some waxed jute twine tinder. You’ve probably noticed that I do not carry a ferro rod. I used to carry one, but I just had no use for it. The lighter is a much more efficient fire starting tool, and wich the waterproof matches as a back up, in over a decade, there never came a time when I actually needed to use a ferro rod. In fact, I have never even had to use the matches yet. Ferro rods are fun to use, but if I was going to start a fire with sparks just for fun, I just bring along my flint and steel kit.

The last tin contains some pills in a small plastic bag, and chlorine dioxide water purification tablets. The pills in the tin are the only ones I carry. While I have some other first aid items in my backpack, I do not carry extra pills. The water purification tablets are just a back up, although I have had to use them several times. They also cone in handy during winter when I can not carry my filter, and do not have enough fuel to boil all of my water. The tin weight 0.5 oz.

I have a few other items, such as my watch, and a bandana, but that’s about it. This is not a survival kit, and it not intended to let you live off of it in the woods. These are simply the items I use most often, so I keep them in an easily accessible place. The items are also loosely packed, so that I can take them out, use them, and put them back without worrying about arranging everything in the right order.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Brief History of the Modern Backpack

The history of the modern backpack is a difficult subject to tackle. The reasons for that are that development has not been linear, having many of the same features popping up in different places at different times, and because defining what constitutes a modern backpack is a tricky thing.

As Nena Kelty stated, “Man has been carrying stuff on his back forever. A backpack is nothing new.”


Looking back in history, people have indeed always carried stuff on their back. One of the ways that has been done, which relates to our discussion of modern backpacks, is to use a bag with attached shoulder straps, i.e. a rucksack. This is the type of pack we see used by people like Nessmuk and Kephart. Another way stuff can, and has historically been carried on the back is with the use of a frame with attached shoulder straps. To the frame people have then tied gear, barrels, boxes, etc. The Alaskan pack frame is a good example, and was inspired by earlier Native American frame design.

While both of the above approaches are related to the modern backpack, and successfully allow for the carrying of equipment, I would not call either of them a modern backpack. Keeping that in mind, in this post I will look at historical occurrences of convergence between these two features. By that I mean, I will be looking at the emergence of a bag with a weight bearing and weight transferring frame, either internal or external. Also, please keep in mind that this is just a few notes I have gathered together because I was curious. This should not be looked at as in any way being a comprehensive work on the subject.

Knowing the inventiveness of man, a backpack which meets the above criteria has probably occurred in history numerous times at different places around the world. In this post I will try to look at more widely spread use of such designs, which have had a more direct influence on the packs we see today. One of the earliest documented instances of a somewhat modern pack design however, dates as far back as 3300BC. It is the pack of Otzi, whose body was found frozen in the Alps. We can not say with certainty exactly what the pack looked like, but one potential reconstruction looks something like this:


If Otzi’s backpack in fact looked similar to the above reconstruction, it would have been a relatively modern design. It features an external frame with cross pieces and a bag attached to it. There is no hip belt, so weight transfer would be minimal. Of course, this is just a guess. For all we know the pieces discovered might have been parts of a snow shoe. It is also not clear if this was the invention of a creative individual, or if it was a common and widely used design at the time. If it was the later, for some reason the use of the design is not readily seen in the millennia to follow.

The first clear, widespread and well preserved occurrences of a framed backpack occur in Norway in the late 1800s. The pack you see below is referred to as sekk med meis, literally meaning “bag with a frame”, and dates to 1880.


Again, it features a frame to which a bag is attached. The bag itself is typical of the frameless rucksacks used at the time. There may be a strap that wraps around the waist, but doesn’t seem to have any load bearing function.

Probably the first patented framed backpack design was that of Colonel Merriam in 1886. It was a modification to the typical military knapsacks carried at the time.


While the frame looks cumbersome, and never saw widespread use, it is the first clear occurrence of an attempt to transfer the weight of the pack off the shoulders and onto the hips. While it does not feature a full hip belt, the design allows for significant weight transfer to the hips, allowing for the carrying of heavier loads.

The next patented backpack design was that by the Norwegian Ole F. Bergans in 1909.


The similarity to the earlier 19th century Norwegian framed backpacks is clear. It utilizes the same rucksack design that was used by people like Nessmuk and Kephart, and adds a metal frame instead of the wooden one we saw in the 1880 sekk med meis. The metal frame was shaped to the body, and while there was no hip belt, the curved shape of the waist piece would allow for at least some weight transfer to the hips.

In 1922, Lloyd F. Nelson patented the Trapper Nelson backpack. It was based on earlier Native American pack frame designs, and clearly evolved separately from the Norwegian pack designs. It much more closely resembles the possible reconstruction of Otzi’s pack.


The pack features a full frame with an attached bag, which could be removed. The curved waist piece that we see on the Bergans design is not present here, nor is any other device which would serve to transfer weight onto the hips. While the frame provides considerable rigidity, the weight of the pack is largely supported on the shoulders. Even though it is a later design, the Trapper Nelson pack seems further removed from the modern backpack than the earlier Bergans design. Even so, it was relatively successful commercially.

The next step in development of the modern backpack occurred in 1952 when Asher “Dick” Kelty and Nena Kelty started to manufacture packs in their garage. Their packs featured an external aluminum frame which ran the whole length of the pack and had a hip belt which allowed for some weight transfer to the hips.


Even though Kelty did not pattern their design, they are widely acknowledged as the ones to first introduce this pack design on the market. While the pack would be recognizable to any modern backpacker as a classical external frame pack, it still lacked a full padded hip belt. On a modern pack, the hip belt design can allow for over 60% of the weigh, and as much as 90% of the weight to be transferred onto the hips. This was still not possible with the thin belt design of the early Kelty packs. The Kelty packs carried by Jim Whittaker and his team on Everest in 1963, still did not have a full wrap around padded hip belt.


Sometime in the late 1960s Kelty started to offer a padded wrap around belt as an option on their packs. I have not been able to find the exact date, or to determine if the belt design originated with any of its competitors.

In 1970 Kelty introduced the quick release hip belt buckle, and by 1972, when the Kelty Tioga was introduced, the familiar external frame backpack had come into being, complete with a bag, a full frame, and a full padded hip belt capable of transferring significant weight to the hips.


The above picture shows a modern Kelty Tioga backpack. It has all of the features of what I would consider a modern backpack.

Once all of the features of a modern backpack came together, soon after, the internal frame backpack was released. There is some debate as to who made the first prototype, but it is generally accepted that in 1973 Kelty released the first commercially available model, the Kelty Tour.


The Kelty Tour you see in the above picture is the first of a line of packs that has come to dominate backpacking, and for most people will constitute the image of the modern backpack. It is based on a large compartment bag, with an internally contained full length frame, which transfers the pack weight to the hips using a full padded hip belt.

There is however another more recent development in evolution of the modern backpack, that is sometimes ignored because of the relatively small market it reaches. It began in 1997 when Patrick Smith founded Kifaru. Kifaru, along with several other companies have pioneered a form of an external frame pack, which would hardly be recognized by most people as such. Similar designs are offered by Stone Glacier, Mystery Ranch, Kuiu, and Paradox Packs.


The above picture shows a Stone Glacier pack, utilizing their Krux frame system. The packs are mostly used by hunters, which require the ability to carry very heavy loads. Whether this type of pack spreads to a wider audience is still to be seen. What is clear is that it is not your regular external frame backpack.

All of the above is just my brief overview of the history and development of the modern backpack. Of course, all along, different designs have co-existed. Frameless packs have remained in existence and are prevalent in ultralight backpacking circles; external frame packs like the Kelty Tioga are still in production and can be seen on the trail, and in some areas, even older methods such as pack boards remain in use.

Some of the above pictures contain hyperlinks to site where I have either gotten the image or contains information on the subject. Make sure to check them out.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Modern Woodsman and Wilderness Survival Gear, Training, and Preparation

So, there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding the issue of being ready for a survival situation. It has gotten me thinking, so I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on the subject and how it relates to the concept of The Modern Woodsman.



The Modern Woodsman: an individual who is able to undertake long term, long distance trips, deep into the wilderness, only with supplies one could carry and what could be gathered from the surrounding environment. The equipment and skills used are guided by their actual practicality and are not restricted by any historical period limitations or aesthetic factors. The trips undertaken occur in the present, within the context of our current society, laws, and regulations.

Wilderness Survival Situation: a situation occurring in the wilderness, where there is immanent danger to one’s life. Circumstances and one’s own actions have conspired to create conditions under which unless one can alter his position, he is likely going to die. That is to be distinguished from nuisance situations where one has all of his backpacking gear and is in good physical condition, i.e. no physical injury, but is stuck in the woods for a few more nights.

From this discussions I am excluding exotic survival scenarios such as being kidnapped and stranded in remote wilderness or a deserted island where you have to build your new life with an assortment of randomly selected tools. As always, the above are just my definitions, and are provided just for purposes of clarity.

Of the realistic survival situations the modern woodsman is likely to encounter, I can think of three categories:

  1. You have sustained some sort of physical injury, i.e. a broken leg. It is unlikely that you will be able to treat such an injury yourself, and either have to wait for rescue, or literally drag yourself out of the forest. For a scenario such as this one, watch the documentary, Touching the Void.
  2. You have lost your gear. You have gone on a backpacking trip. You planned for it to take you five days. Unfortunately, during day two of the trip, you attempt a river crossing, get swept by the current, and watch your pack float away. Or, you are climbing up a mountain, you stop to rest, the ice gives out under you and you start sliding along with your pack. You manage to self arrest, but your pack slides off a cliff. You are now left having to complete your trip, or backtrack for a day or more with just the gear you have on your body.
  3. You have gone out for a day hike. You have only the gear you would need for the day, perhaps in a day pack. You get lost, or bad weather moves in, diminishing the visibility, and you find yourself stuck out in the woods for the night.

From the above three categories, the most realistic one, or at least the one of which I have seen the most accounts, is the third one. It is most often hunters out for the day, or day hikers who get stuck out for the night that have to deal with a survival situation, usually because the weather has turned for the worse.

So, assuming we are talking about realistic survival situations, what do we do and how do we prepare for them? What gear do you carry, and how do we carry it?

My advise, for what it’s worth, is to start by accepting that once you find yourself in a survival situation, something has already gone wrong. There has been a lapse in judgment on your part, or something unexpected has occurred. By definition, it is hard to prepare for the unexpected. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the moment, decisions get made, and things happen which can quickly cause a survival situation.

That is not to say that you should be careless, or that you shouldn’t try to avoid putting yourself in a bad spot. However, know that the reality of being in a survival situation is different from thinking about being in a survival situation, and many of the decisions you think you would make, and the things you think you would do when you are planning at home, will quickly go out the window when the fact washes over you that you are in a survival situation. 

So, what can we do? Is there any point in trying to prepare? Is it a hopeless endeavor, with as left to our faith? Of course not. However, we have to prepare in a practical and realistic manner, and we must practice with gear we are likely to have, not gear we think it would be cool to have in imaginary survival world.


Let’s start with the skills. There are some things for which we can not prepare. There is no way to prepare for a lapse in judgment. It happens to all of us and all we can do is deal with the consequences. Other things such as a broken leg with a compound fracture, there is little we can do. However, with respect to many of the factors we are likely to encounter, there are things we can do to prepare.

How do we gain such skills in order to prepare for a realistic survival situation? We do it by realistically planning and practicing for realistic survival situations. I know the word “realistic” seems redundant, but it’s not. There are two separate aspects in which the preparation and planning has to be realistic.

The first is to accept the reality of a survival situation, and come to terms with the fact that something has gone wrong. Many of the things we hear about survival such as STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan) are great in theory, but more often than not ignore what is actually happening on the ground under such conditions. Not only do conditions often not allow for such actions, but very often, our own mind reacts in ways which make such rules impractical. When planning for a survival situation, be realistic about what would be happening both in the environment and your own mind. It is easy to say in hindsight that once you were lost, you should have stopped and re-evaluated your options. However, did you realize you were lost? Even if you realized there was a chance you were lost, would the likelihood of you being on the right path and getting out in time provide you a better chance of survival than trying to spend the night in the location where you find yourself? It is hard to say. Plan for the reality that you will not make the best choices, that things will go wrong, and that few things will fall into order. After all, that is why it is a survival situation to begin with.

The second aspect is easier to see, in that we should plan for realistic survival situations. We often get carried away when planning and practicing for wilderness survival situations and get wrapped up in romantic notions and elaborate scenarios along the lines of “What would I do if I was dropped of in the wilderness for five years and I could only have five tools?”. They are fun to think about, but much of what would be good preparation for such a journey, has little use in a survival situation in which the modern woodsman is likely to find himself.

For example, take the leanto shelter. There is much literature on the subject, both in books and online, showing amazing feats of construction. With enough practice, anyone can learn to build a cozy waterproof leanto with a raised platform for a bed, and a long fire with a heat reflector in front of it. Ray Mears had a beautiful demonstration of exactly this in one of his Extreme Survival series. And indeed, if I found myself stranded in the untouched wilderness for a month, that may be exactly what one should build, and it would serve them well. However, such a project is of little value in a realistic survival situation as defined above. The construction of such a leanto, and the gathering of enough firewood to keep a long fire burning through the night, takes up the better part of a day, of course working with your trusty axe. Two problems become clear. The first is that when you are actually lost, whether because you were on a backpacking trip and lost your pack, or were on a day hike or hunt and got lost, realistically, you will not have nearly enough time for such a project. Most likely, you will have an hour or so before the sun goes down in which to construct your shelter and gather sufficient firewood to keep you alive through the night. The second problem of course is that you have to do all that only with the tools you have left on you, something which I will discuss a bit later.  

Another example is fire lighting. Being able to construct bow drill sets, or making beautiful feather sticks is great. They are useful tools in the fire lighting process. Similarly, when we know we are practicing for a survival situation, we keep collecting birch bark along the way as we see it. In a realistic survival situation however, how useful are those skills? What if you are hunting? Are you going to gather tinder as you walk along? What if you are out for a day hike? Do you still gather tinder just in case? And, if you are backpacking, do you store the gathered tinder in your pockets or the backpack that you just theoretically lost? This of course takes us back to realistically preparing. It is often when we least expect to end up in a survival situation that we actually do. That is why we usually end up being unprepared. So, how good are you at using your fire lighting skills when things have gone wrong? Can you do it right after you drag yourself out of that river that just swept away your pack? Can you do it when the sun is going down and you are shivering? Can you do it when the place where you are forced to spend the night is less than ideal when it comes to resources? And just like with the prior example, do you have the tools on your body which will allow you to do that under such difficult conditions.

Ultimately, in my opinion, preparation and training with respect to skills which would be utilized in a survival situation, is most useful if practiced under stressful conditions. Knowing how to build the perfect survival shelter is not as important as knowing how to build a functional shelter in 20 minutes. Knowing how to start a fire with two sticks and a rock is less important in a realistic survival situation than knowing how to quickly build a fire with a lighter. I forget who said it, but it goes along the lines of “Knowing how to start a fire by friction is cool, knowing how to make a fire with a match is essential”. Survival in the context of the Modern Woodsman requires that when polishing your survival skills, focus on the practical, not the fanciful; focus on the reality, not the fantasy.   


As we continue onto a discussion of gear, I strongly believe that any gear selection should follow from the above theory and skill sets. By that I mean, it should be gear targeted for realistic survival in a realistic survival situation. Also, if we subscribe to the theory of The Modern Woodsman, the equipment used should also be guided by its actual practicality and should not be restricted by any historical period limitations or aesthetic factors. For a look at The Modern Woodsman and Technology, you can check this post.

Looking at the three likely survival situation that may be encountered by the modern woodsman, gear selection will be more important for some than for others.

The first example, of a physical injury is the hardest to prepare for from a gear standpoint. Realistically, there is very little one can do to himself when confronted with a serious injury. A broken leg can be stabilized, but it is highly unlikely that you will be able to reset the bone, and repair the damage enough to allow you to walk out, regardless of the amount of equipment you have. That is not to say that one should not fight to survive, but from a gear standpoint, we get diminishing returns as the degree of trauma escalades. I believe one should ideally strive to be prepared for injuries that a person in that condition is likely to be able to treat. I would divide that into three categories. The first is minor scrapes and cuts, the ones that we encounter most often. The second is heavy bleeding. The third is medications for conditions we are likely to encounter. I say that we should “ideally” prepare for such occurrences because the reality does not always allow for it or make it practical. If the injury is combined with a loss of your pack, or occurs on a short day trip, you may not have all of the items you ordinarily would if you had your full pack.

The second example is the one where you have lost your gear, i.e. your backpack. Obviously, in such a situation your gear will be severely restricted to items you can carry on your body.

The third example is the one of the lost day hiker, which would leave you with the items on your body and in your day pack.

So, let’s look at some examples of gear for each of the above situations.

For the first example of a physical injury, obviously you would need a first aid kit. Looking at the first aid kit from a modern woodsman perspective, we can eliminate certain aspects of medical treatment from consideration. We don’t have to worry about extreme hypothetical examples of “What if I had to live in the wilderness for five years and needed to treat a bad case of tuberculosis, or extract a bullet from my torso?”. That should eliminate long term treatments and surgical equipment. That would leave us with the three likely areas of treatment, common conditions while in the woods (allergies, diarrhea, muscle pain, heartburn, etc), small cuts and bruises (cuts and blisters), and more serious bleeding injuries (deeper cuts). Below you can see an example of a possible first aid kit which would address those likely injuries. It is not exactly the kit I carry these days, and yours will be specific to you.

First Aid 

In terms of medications, it contains a small box with pills (Imodium, Excedrin, Benadryl, Zantac, etc). For small injuries it contains band aids and mole skin for blisters. For heavier bleeding it contains gauze and a Quik Clot sponge, which uses chemical clotting agents to stop heavy bleeding. It packs up small, and a similar set up comprises the first aid kit which I keep in my backpack.

Now, let’s look at the second example of a realistic survival situation for the modern woodsman, where you have lost your pack. Your gear is now immediately restricted to the items you have on your body. What will those items be? Well, that depends on what you are willing to carry on your body. It will always be a balancing act. On one hand, the more gear you can have strapped onto your belt and in your pockets, the better off you will be in a survival situation. On the other hand, the more gear you have on your body, the more uncomfortable you will be, and the more likely it will be that the gear will eventually get tossed back into your pack. Again, here we are talking about realistic preparation. Theory is fine, and theory will tell you that the more items you have the better, but the reality is that the more gear you have, the less likely it is that you will carry it as you are supposed to. There was a time when I used to carry a lot of stuff on my belt for this very reason. I had a canteen with a canteen cup, a good size pouch with all sorts of gear, a knife, etc. It was very annoying, and gradually, more and more of those items started to get carried in my backpack, or I would remove the belt along with the backpack, which largely defeated the purpose. The right balance will be a personal choice. For me, I only carry what I can fit in my pockets.


In my right pocket I carry the Mora #2 knife you see above (actually these days a Mora #2 custom clone). I keep it in a leather sheath that I got from another knife. The knife together with the sheath weighs 4.0 oz. The Mora #2 is my favorite knife in terms of blade and handle design.

In the other pocket I carry a small pouch in which I keep a Fenix E01 flashlight, a mini BIC lighter, and three Altoids Smalls tins. One of the tins holds my repair kit with a few fishing hooks thrown in on the bottom (duct tape, artificial sinew, dental floss, etc). The second tin holds some medications I commonly use and water purification tablets. The third tin contains tinder (waxed jute twine) and matches. On the pouch itself a have attached a mini compass. The whole pouch weighs 4.5 oz.

For me that is the right amount of gear. I should point out that these items are not in my pockets as a survival kit. These are items I use regularly on most trips, and I need them to be easily accessible. However, if I was forced to survival after losing my pack, that is what I would have with me. If I was to practice for such survival, I would do it with this gear. Obviously, if I had sustained an injury while losing my pack, I would be in trouble because I have only minimal first aid items, i.e. a few pills.

Now, let’s move to the third example where we have a lost day hiker. In this situation, the modern woodsman would have the items on his body from the above example, whatever they may happen to be, as well as whatever gear is carried in the daypack. Here again we face the same balancing problem as above. The more gear you have in your pack, the better off you will be in a survival situation. On the other hand, the more gear you have, the more of a nuisance it will be. We certainly do not want our day pack to be as heavy as our regular pack. I remember years ago, when Survivorman first came out. I think I was in high school or college. I decided that I need to carry a survival kit on my backpacking trips. I started gathering items that I would need when surviving. When I was finished, my survival kit needed a small backpack to fit everything. Of course, it never got taken out into the woods. The balance one strikes, of course is a personal thing. The contents of my daypack is minimal.


In addition to the items I have in my pockets, I have a Nalgene water bottle with a metal cup (Stoic 750ml Ti Kettle), food, extra clothing (puffy jacket for when I am resting and rain gear) and on the advise of a few people, I carry an emergency thermal blanket. I have it not so much for insulation, but as rain protection. In many cases I also have a Bahco Laplander folding saw. That’s it. I could easily carry more, but I don’t want to. I am not willing to carry more gear on every day trip just for the unlikely event of a survival situation. I am fairly confident in my abilities to survive with this gear. There is a wide range of gear choices reasonable people can make here, and mine is certainly not for everyone.

This brings me to a general point about some commonly seen gear items. Too often we see “survival” shelter and fire construction with the use of an axe. This stems from the “What if I had to live in the woods with just three tools?” imaginary scenarios. In such a situation I too would chose an axe. Realistically however, for the modern woodsman, this is not an option. We can certainly come up with some type of scenario where that could happen, but realistically, you are unlikely to have an axe in a survival situation. If you have lost your pack, odds are your axe has suffered the same faith. It is unlikely you will have none of your gear, but still have an axe. Similarly, if you are a lost day hiker, you are unlikely to have an axe. There are much better options for the modern woodsman to carry on a day trip for the same weight, if one chose to do so. For the weight of an axe, one could bring a sleeping bag and bivi.

Another tool that is often seen in survival preparations is the bucksaw blade, which is put inside a belt, or carried in the day pack. The tool itself is quite useful, and easy to carry. The problem with its realistic use is not one of weight or size, but rather goes back to the realistic application of wilderness skills. How long does it take you to construct a sturdy buck saw or bow saw? If you have an hour of daylight left to set up camp, are you going to spend half, or all of it constructing the saw, or are you going to spend the time actually gathering firewood? Maybe you are very fast at making such a saw frame, and for you it is worth the effort. However, make sure you test yourself. The reality is often not as accommodating as the theory.

Another tool I want to mention is the ferro rod. You probably noticed that I do not have any in my kit. The reason is that I do not find them to be as useful as other fire lighting tools. The reason most often given in support of ferro rods is that they can start thousands of fires. That again goes back to the “What if I had to live in the woods for five years?” fantasy survival scenarios. For the survival situation the modern woodsman is likely to encounter, that is hardly a selling point. A few hundred fires should be sufficient for a life time of survival situations. Of course, a ferro rod will work after it has been wet, but it works only in that it makes sparks. A box of waterproof matches will get you further in the survival game if you just dragged yourself out of a frozen river. In terms of speed of starting fires when the sun is going down, nothing beats a lighter. There is nothing wrong with carrying one, but if that is your primary survival fire lighting tool, make sure you are able to start a fire (not just make sparks) under the conditions you are likely to encounter in a survival situation.

Lastly, the modern woodsman has at his disposal devices like cell phones and emergency locators, which can be a life saver in survival situations. I have not discussed them at length here because they serve to remove you from the survival situation, and are slightly outside the skills and gear needed while surviving. That being said, they may very well save your life when your skills and gear prove no match for the conditions you have encountered. Carry whatever device you see as appropriate and is within your means.

So, how can we summarize the issue of wilderness survival in the context of The Modern Woodsman? Well, it is simply to focus on the reality of your wilderness experience rather than a theoretical fantasy, and then use the most practical tools and skills at your disposal to achieve your goal. Much like when it comes to discussion of regular gear for The Modern Woodsman, the focus is on gear that is designed to function in the realistic wilderness outing one is undertaking, rather than in some fantasy where you are transported back to the 1800s and have to make a living only with the gear you have on you; when it comes to survival, the skills and gear for The Modern Woodsman have to focus on reality rather than fantasy survival. Being able to build elaborate shelters with an axe is cool, and so is being able to start a fire by mixing chemicals no one has used for decades, using rocks to ignite charred pieces of your underwear, and having devices which in theory can start thousands of fires. What is essential however is being able to throw together a usable shelter in under half an hour, and to build a fire using the lighter in your pocket in under a minute.

I know, I know, that is all well and good, but what if you were then stranded in the untouched wilderness for a decade or more? Or, you magically find yourself in 19th century America on the frontier? I enjoy a good hypothetical discussion as much as the next person, but The Modern Woodsman is first and foremost connected to the reality of the wilderness. At least that’s my thinking on the subject.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Picture of Chukchi in Russia

The image below is of a Chukchi group near the Bearing Sea in Russia. It was obtained from the book Before They Pass Away.


The Chukchi are an indigenous group originally residing in the northern Eurasian steppe. Currently small groups continue to exist near the Chukchi and Bearing Sea, mostly gathered in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, comprising the northeastern tip of Russia.