Friday, March 28, 2014

Are You Roughing it or Smoothing it?

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home.” Woodcraft, George Washington Sears

The above quote by George Washington Sear a/k/a Nessmuk has become one of the most popular catch phrases in the current bushcraft/woodcraft/wilderness living community. It is used almost as much as “Thriving in the wilderness”. In recent months it has come to a point where you can hardly talk to a person, or watch a YouTube video without having the phrase repeated over and over.


There are two observations about the phrase that I want to mention. One is regarding its current use, and the other is regarding the way it was used by Nessmuk.

So to start with, let’s look at how Nessmuk used the phrase in context, at least as I read it. Nessmuk, and several authors writing shortly after him seem to use the phrase “to smooth it” in order to counter what they perceived at the time as an escalating use of the phrase “to rough it”. It appears, at least as seen by Nessmuk and others at the time, that too many people were trying to prove their manhood, or appear tougher than everyone else by making their experience in the woods harder than it had to be. The best description I have seen of this approach is by Stewart Edward White: “We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones—and does so at the edge of yellow pines with their long needles. He eats badly cooked food. He stands—or perhaps I should say poses—indifferent to a downpour when every one else has sought shelter. In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: "This is good enough for me!" with the unspoken conclusion, "if it isn't good enough for you fellows, you're pretty soft."’ Camp and Trail, Stewart Edward White

That being said, my first observation is that these days the phrase seems to have taken a completely different meaning. Very often it is used to justify carrying copious amounts of gear into the woods, from lawn chairs to barbeque grills, because “Nessmuk said to smooth it and not to rough it”. I think this interpretation completely misses the point Nessmuk was trying to make. The way I read it, his point was that all things being equal, one should not suffer unnecessarily just to make a point, or due to lack of skill. Making yourself uncomfortable on purpose or because you don’t know any better, doesn’t prove you are more of a man. That being said, I don’t think Nessmuk intended this statement to be used to justify staying in the parking lot rather than going into the woods, or carrying more gear to make up for lack of skill. After all, his goal was “to smooth it” with the minimal gear possible through the use of skills and smart gear selection.

Another strange use of the term that seems to be occurring these days is that it gets tossed around in perplexing situations where you are not sure exactly how the person is “smoothing it”. Someone goes into the woods, shoots a squirrel, and goes “Now I’m smoothing it.” What does that mean? Does that mean that you have secured sufficient food for yourself for the day and now you can relax? Does that mean that carrying a 7lb shotgun and shells was a better gear choice than bringing a 6oz Mountain House meal? Or, did you bring the Mountain House meal together with the shotgun and now you have a squirrel to add to it? Were you not “smoothing it” with the food you already had with you? Would you be “smoothing it” more if you didn’t have to drag the shotgun around but rather just ate the food you brought anyway? The uses of the phrase seem rampant and unclear. It seems to have become just a catch phrase for people who want to say they know what they are doing in the woods, whether it makes any sense or not.

The other observation is about the way Nessmuk himself used the phrase: “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.” When did he become the one who decided why we go into the woods? Maybe he goes into the woods to “make it as smooth, as restful and pleasurable as [he] can”, but not all of us do.

For example, under Nessmuk’s use of the phrase, there would be no reason for a person to go into the woods these days with a wool blanket. Why rough it by having to maintain a fire all night in order to stay warm when you can just get a sleeping bag for the same weight that will keep you toasty warm all night without having to get up every two hours to feed a fire, not to mention all of the work you would save by not having to gather so much fire wood. Well, the answer is that there are people who do not go into the woods with the only purpose of making it as smooth, restful and pleasurable as possible. There are people who like to experience the ways of the past, or to simply test themselves. Even though according to Nessmuk those people are roughing it unnecessarily, there is great value in what they do, and their woodsmanship and efforts are in no way improper, or unnecessary. It is precisely those people who go beyond their comfort levels, and push the boundaries of our abilities as woodsmen that make the greatest contributions to development of woodsmanship as a whole.

Nessmuk seems like one of those guys who would look at George Mallory and ask “Why climb Everest?'” Mallory would of course give his famous answer “Because it’s there”; an answer that someone who has to ask that type of question will never understand. Woodsmen rough it all the time. They do it by choice. They do it to recreate history, to test themselves, to develop better techniques, to explore places previously unreached. They do it because they see something in the wilderness that goes beyond relaxation and comfort.

So I say, woodsmanship does not begin and end with making your experience as smooth, restful and pleasurable as possible. Go ahead and rough it; push the boundaries; achieve goals previously unimaginable; test your limits; and come back with a better understanding of yourself and what you are made of, teaching the rest of us in the process. “Smoothing it” is as devoid of value as “roughing it”.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trip Report: Round Top Mountain 3/22/14 – 3/23/14

Spring is finally here. I figured I would use the first weekend of spring to go out into the woods. My plan was to go to the Catskills and search for the remnants of an old Revolutionary War fort which are supposed to be located in a col between Round Top mountain and Kaaterskill High Peak. My hope was that enough of the snow had melted so that it would allow me to see the remaining foundation. I also wanted to reach the ruins using an approach from west of the mountain. From what I’ve read, that was the way the fort was historically reached. This access however was abandoned in the early 1900s, so I would have to bushwhack the whole way.

My hopes of success were dashed as soon as I reached the forest. While at lower elevations, most of the snow is gone, here there was still between two and three feet of snow covering the forest. The warmer weather we have had over the past week had created an icy crust on top of the snow. That made it very slippery, but unfortunately was not strong enough to keep me from post-holing. I really needed my snowshoes, but I hadn’t brought them. I just wasn’t expecting this much snow. 


For this trip I had also decided to bring my dog, Rhea. I knew she would limit the approach I could take up the mountain, as she can’t climb up the same routes that I can, but for some reason I find this area of the forest particularly lonely, so I wanted to have her with me. I don’t think she understood why I was moving so slowly.


It was definitely too cold for her. The temperature was about 13F (-11C), and the winds were very strong at 55 mph. She was fine while moving, but I knew that eventually she would get tired, slow down, and get very cold. Even so, we kept pushing along. Progress was slow, and it was becoming more clear that we wouldn’t be able to reach the area at all. The realization was made even more clear when it unexpectedly started snowing.


I knew Rhea wasn’t going to do too well in these conditions, so I made the call to stop and set up camp. I was again using the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent.


Rhea quickly found her way in.


I took out the sleeping pad and sleeping bag, closed up the tent, and started trying to dry out and warm up Rhea.


She was very cold, so I got into the sleeping bag with her so she could warm up. Since there was nothing else to do, we took a nap and waited for the storm to pass. The tent was very warm, and held up well in the wind. There wasn’t any condensation, which surprised me. When it stopped snowing, a quick shake of the tent removed all of the snow.

I woke up after a while, and snow had stopped. The sun had actually come out for the first time that day. I took the opportunity to melt some snow and prepare dinner.


I once again made a stupid mistake, which I have made several times before. I wasn’t careful when removing the fuel canister from the stove. Some of the fuel sprayed out onto my finger, and immediately froze on contact. It was very painful, although it didn’t cause any frost bite.


After that, there was nothing left to do but wait for the sun to go down and then go to sleep.

The next day we woke up pretty late. It was cold, which made me not want to get up. It had gone down to about 0F (-18C) during the night. Eventually though, I got up, and ate breakfast.


After that I packed up and post-holed my way out.


I didn’t come anywhere near my goal, but I just couldn’t make the speed I needed to reach the area. It also would have been pointless as the ruins would have been buried under three feet of snow. At least I figured out the approach, so I can try it when the snow is gone.


Instead of the challenging trip I was preparing for, this one ended up being nice and relaxing; just a bit of fun with the dog. I can’t say I was too disappointed.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Greenland Crossing to Be Used to Compare Modern vs. Traditional Gear

In an extremely interesting and challenging expedition, twin brothers Ross and Hugo Turner will attempt a crossing of Greenland. The expedition will begin on April 26, 2014 and last approximately 30 days, covering 340 miles (547 km).


Now, this is certainly not the first crossing of Greenland. What makes it exceptionally interesting is that it is done for research purposes as much as pure adventure. The brothers will have to perform tests along the journey, measuring how their bodies are functioning. On top of that, Ross Turner will use vintage gear, clothing and food from the early 1900s in order to compare its effectiveness to the modern equipment used by his brother.

Hopefully, if the tests are performed carefully enough, they will offer great insight into the struggles endured both by modern as well as early 20th century explorers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

19th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications

Not too long ago I did a post titled 18th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications. You can see it here. In that post I examined some primary sources we have about 18th century woodsmen, in particular the now famous, Long Hunters, and tried to see how their approach to the woods related to what I have called the Modern Woodsman. In particular, I wanted to see if, and how they approached long distance travel through the wilderness with man portable gear.

In this post I want to do the same thing regarding 19th century woodsmanship. More specifically, I would like to take a closer look at another well known group, the Mountain Men.


Our sources for this period are much better than for the 18th century, although the same danger of applying what we read still lurks. Once again we face the danger of looking at equipment lists and skills and trying to apply them in our context of a person who carries all of his gear on his back without that ever being the original intent or use of that gear and skills.

My very basic reading of the sources, gives me the impression that the 19th century mountain men more or less mirror the long hunters of the 18th century. They simply took the same approach to the wilderness with them to the west. The result is that much of what we see describes gear and techniques which relate to travel by horse or boat, rather than we are are searching for here, gear for the man traveling on foot.

Washington Irving provides a good description of a mountain man’s gear and his travel method in the book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, circa 1834: “The outfit of a trapper is generally a rifle, a pound of powder, and four pounds of lead, with a bullet mould, seven traps, an axe, a hatchet, a knife, and awl, a camp kettle, two blankets, and, where supplies are plenty, seven pounds of flour.  He has, generally, two or three horses, to carry himself, and his baggage and peltries.” Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1834

Just like with the long hunters, the mountain men a century later traveled under a similar organization. They were not as many imagined lone trappers and hunters, exploring the wilderness on their own. Like the long hunters, they traveled in large groups of anywhere between 30 and 100 men, and split up only when they reached their final destination and began trapping. “It had been the intention of Captain Bonneville, in descending along Snake River, to scatter his trappers upon the smaller streams.  In this way, a range of country is trapped by small detachements from a main body.... .. Two trappers commonly go together, for the purposes of mutual assistance and support; a larger party could not easily escape the eyes of the Indians.” Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1834.

In 1841 Rufus Sage writes: "Before leaving, we were further increased by the accession of two Canadian voyageurs-French of course. Our force now numbered some twenty-four - one sufficiently formidable for all the dangers of the route." Rufus Sage, Rocky Mountain Life, or Startling Scenes and Perilous Adventures in the Far West, During an Expedition of Three Years, 1846

Many times, the trappers were accompanied by family members. In 1824 for example, Peter Skene Ogden, on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company headed an expedition of 131 people, including women and children. Specialized roles were not uncommon. Even though Jedediah Smith accompanied the Ogden expedition as a trapper, two years earlier, in 1822, he was hired as a hunter on the William Ashley and Andrew Henry expedition into the upper Missouri.

As wilderness travel during that time was generally done by pack train and in relatively large groups, it is hard to find references to individual camp kit designed to be man portable. There are good description of equipment and camp life, but it appears to be based on an outfit carried by pack train. Even so, the gear and skills used are worth a look because they at least give us a reference point for what such pack train portable outfit would look like.

During his journey to Fort Platte with a pack train under the leadership of Lancaster Lupton, Rufus Sage writes: "The Bed of a mountaineer is an article neither complex in its nature nor difficult in its adjustment.  A single buffalo robe folded double and spread upon the ground, with a rock, or knoll, or some like substitute for a pillow, furnishes the sole base-work upon which the sleeper reclines, and, enveloped in an additional blanket or robe, contentedly enjoys his rest." Rufus Sage, Rocky Mountain Life, or Startling Scenes and Perilous Adventures in the Far West, During an Expedition of Three Years, 1846

Writing of his travel by pack train lead by William Sublette and Robert Campbell in 1833, Charles Larpenteur writes: “As to our bedding, it was not very soft, for we were not allowed to carry more than one pair of 3-pound blankets." Charles Larpenteur, Forty Years a Fur Trader, 1898

John Ball, when traveling with the Nathaniel Wyeth's party in 1832 states: "I had for bed purposes, the half of a buffalo robe, an old camlet cloak with a large cape, and a blanket.  I spread the robe on the ground, wrapped the blanket about my feet and the cloak around me, throwing the cape loosely over my head to break off the moonshine, and a saddle for my pillow.  And oh!  I always slept most profoundly.  We had tents, but it never raining and but little dew, we did not use them." John Ball, The Autobiography of John Ball - Across the Plains to Oregon, 1832, 1925

It appears that when traveling in the customary manner, using a pack train, each man slept with several blankets or fur robes. Some clearly found the arrangements comfortable, while others did not. Tents are also referred to, and were probably carried in group outfits, and most likely each tent housed several people. Axes, hatchets, flint and steel strikers, and kettles rounded out the camping outfit. I have not found any good primary sources as to how these tools were distributed. It is likely that each man had a hatchet and certainly a flint and steel striker with a tinder pouch, while the kettles and axes were used as group tools. To that basic camp outfit, technical trapping and hunting gear was added. The gear list provided above by Washington Irving is the most concise I have been able to find.

Even with the supplies carried by pack train, when winter came, spending the night out in the woods became difficult. Often the winters were spent in camp, but when travel in winter was necessary, the men had to improvise.

Lewis Garrand describes a night out during the winter of 1846 as follows: "We awoke on the morning of the 16th with a Norther penetrating our blankets.  The river Arkansas, almost dry, and on whose north bank we were encamped, was covered with floating particles of thin ice.  Drinker had but two blankets, and on awakening we found him lying near the remains of the bois de vache fire, the light ashes of which, on his clothing, gave the appearance of snow.  We wore extra clothing during the morning’s ride, and Drinker looked bad from the effects of last night’s wakefulness.  We rode in silence for a time, somewhat in advance of the party, in vain attempts to encourage conversation.  At length, after a long pause, he said, “St. Vrain and Folger sleep together;  Chad and Bransford do too.  Hadn’t we better?”  I acquiesced with pleasure.  With saddles and over coats, we had good pillows-the other clothing remained on us. Wherever camp was made, a place was selected by each couple for sleeping before dismounting (mountaineer custom); and, ere dark, the pallet of robes was always spread.  We huddled around the miserable “cow wood” fires, chilled by the cold winds." Lewis Garrand, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, 1850

Rudolph Freiderich Kurtz writes in 1846 writes: "We spread our apischimos on the ground out on the open prairie and covered ourselves with riding cloaks and buffalo robes.... We called to our dogs to lie on top of us, as usual, for the purposes of keeping guard and also of imparting warmth.  But those canines were every instant scenting nearby wolves, bounding off with great outcry to fight the beasts or drive them away, then lying down on top of us again, scratching themselves and contesting one another's places.  Under such restless, disquieting conditions, especially in our overexcited state, we were unable to sleep at all."  Rudolph Freiderich Kurtz, The Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz, 1970

In a more of an emergency winter setting, in 1840 Charles Larpenteur writes: "The mules were soon harnessed up, and into the hard storm we started, with but one Indian, who was my guide.  It was an awful day; we could see no distance in any direction, floundered in deep snowdrifts, and knew not where to go for timber.  But our guide was a good one, who brought us to a small cluster of scrubby elms. The snow had drifted so deep that we could find no dry wood and had to go to bed without a fire. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could by digging holes in the snow for shelter." Charles Larpenteur, Forty Years a Fur Trader, 1898

So, where does that leave us? Well, speaking very generally, there is quite a bit of difficulty is looking at gear and skills from this time period and applying them directly to a more modern approach to travel in the woods. It is hard to directly create a one to one substitution of gear and skills because most of the sources we have deal with a set up designed for travel with a pack train, most often in large groups. Taking that same gear and trying to use it for a single person traveling alone on foot, is very challenging.

I have not been able to find any primary sources of what gear would have been carried by a lone person traveling on foot. I imagine it was done, and there are probably sources on the subject out there, I just haven’t been able to find them.

At this point however, we have to look at an interesting transformation, which offers a different perspective and approach to the wilderness, and has been much more impactful on our current approach to the wilderness, than the exploits of the mountain men.

In the later part of the 19th century, a new group of outdoorsmen emerges. Up until that point, most writing regarding the wilderness, and therefore the expeditions and the related gear and skills involved, were directly related to work. The Long Hunters, the Mountain Men, loggers, trappers, hunters, etc, all went into the woods to make a living. Being in the woods was work. Certainly people must have enjoyed the woods, and gone there recreationally, but the main focus was a commercial one. As a result, what primary sources we can find, are not directed at educating the average person about the wilderness, but were created either as personal journals, or as commercial propaganda.

In the later part of the 19th century however, we start to get a large and dedicated group of recreational outdoorsmen, who are a lot more interested in providing instructional information on how a single person can go into the woods on foot, and stay there. Much of the information we find in these sources is based on what those commercial woodsmen of previous decades had learned, but was much more tailored to how we currently relate to the wilderness.

Good examples from this time period are John Muir and George Washington Sears (Nessmuk). In 1879, John Muir writes Travels in Alaska, and in 1884 George Washington Sears writes Woodcraft. The approach taken by these woodsmen in the later part of the 19th century is quite different from that of prior decades. The difference is not a technological one. Pretty much the same gear was available in 1832 as was in 1884. However, the way that gear was used and prioritized, changed. The focus shifted from how to equip a large group of men so that profit from an expedition can be maximized, to how to allow a single person to travel through the woods while carrying his own gear in the most comfortable way possible. This shift, combined with innovations in technology, will eventually lead to our modern approach to the wilderness.

This transition was not easy, and required a lot of trial and error and at times suffering. We often assume that people like Nessmuk were well versed woodsmen, but we shouldn’t forget that he was making things up as he went along. He was taking gear and skills from woodsmen for whom the wilderness was a commercial enterprise, and was attempting to apply it to his own woodsmanship. That is why he is so often critical of those who came before him.

These authors, still have one foot in the past. Even going into the early 20th century, most books related to the outdoors, still had extensive discussions on travel by pack train or canoe. Travel on foot, alone, was still a tricky subject, filled with risk.

Even though John Muir’s writings are not instructional in nature, we can get a glimpse of that in a few places.

“It was now near dark, and I made haste to make up my flimsy little tent. The ground was desperately rocky. I made out, however, to level down a strip large enough to lie on, and by means of slim alder stems bent over it and tied together soon had a home. While thus busily engaged I was startled by a thundering roar across the lake. Running to the top of the moraine, I discovered that the tremendous noise was only the outcry of a newborn berg about fifty or sixty feet in diameter, rocking and wallowing in the waves it had raised as if enjoying its freedom after its long grinding work as part of the glacier. After this fine last lesson I managed to make a small fire out of wet twigs, got a cup of tea, stripped off my dripping clothing, wrapped myself in a blanket and lay brooding on the gains of the day and plans for the morrow, glad, rich, and almost comfortable.” John Muir Travels in Alaska 1879

“That was a wild, stormy, rainy night. How the rain soaked us in our tents! Our Indian neighbors were, if possible, still wetter. Their hut had been blown down several times during the night. Our tent leaked badly, and we were lying in a mossy bog, but around the big camp-fire we were soon warm and half dry.” John Muir Travels in Alaska 1879.

“My general plan was to trace the terminal moraine to its extreme north end, pitch my little tent, leave the blanket and most of the hardtack, and from this main camp go and come as hunger required or allowed.” John Muir Travels in Alaska 1879.

When George Washington Sears wrote Woodcraft in 1884, he considered his seven day trip alone through the woods significant enough that he dedicated a whole chapter of his book to it. The rest of the time, he continued to travel by canoe, so gear used on those trips probably more closely resembles that of earlier decades, even though tailored for a single person. The items he took on this seven day solo trip were: rifle, hatchet, compass, blanket-bag, knapsack, knife, one loaf of bread, two quarts of meal, two pounds of pork, one pound of sugar, with tea, salt, etc. and a supply of jerked venison. One tin dish, twelve rounds of ammunition and bullet mold. For more information, see the gear list here.

The personal camp outfit was starting to resemble what we are accustomed to today: a backpack, a small tent/tarp, a blanket, small pot, hatchet, knife, fire starting devises, compass, etc.

This trend and development in gear and skills, continued into the early 20th century. In 1906 Horace Kephart published Camping and Woodcraft, and in 1919 E.H. Kreps published Woodcraft. Both books provide great detail on the necessary skills and equipment for the solo person traveling on foot through the woods. You can get more detail on Kephart’s gear here, and on Kreps’ gear here

Due to the technological limitations however, those authors still remained connected to the skills and methods used by the woodsmen from earlier decades. The blanket was still to best form of insulation available, dictating much of the remaining kit list. The weight of wool blankets made it impossible for the person carrying his gear on foot to carry sufficient insulation to stay warm in colder temperatures. Buffalo robes and furs were out of the question with minor exceptions. Wood processing tools were still of primary importance because of the reliance on fire created by the available insulation.

Much like in earlier dacades, winter camping was considered undoable without keeping a fire going through the night. In Woodcraft Nessmuk writes “Of course nobody could stay in an open winter camp without an axe.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1884

In the later part of the 19th century, outdoorsmen were sitting at the cusp of a transition, which would take us from the skills and equipment familiar for decades and centuries before, and push us into the methods and equipment to which we are accustomed today. It began with the transformation with gear and skills so that they would better accommodate the solo traveler, whether he be on foot or a small canoe. The next step was to transition to skills and equipment which allowed that solo traveler to sever his reliance on the fire for survival.

This first stage of the transformation is exemplified by people like George Washington Sears, Horace Kephart, and E.H. Kreps. Even though Kephart and Kreps are writing a bit later, they are describing tools and techniques in existence during earlier decades. Those men used kit which was man-portable, fit in a backpack, and allowed a single person to travel unimpeded through the wilderness. All of them however, remained connected to the old methods of camping. Spending the night out without a fire was still not a reality. Sizable tents and sleep systems were still the norm. The best description of this for of wilderness travel and living I have found is summarized by E.H Kreps:  “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.” E.H. Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919


The above picture shows a camp set up by Horace Kephart.

Changes however were beginning to occur, which would directly lead to our modern way of interacting with the wilderness and allow for the second step of the transformation. Speaking of technology already in existence prior to 1906, Horace Kephart writes: “Bedding is the problem; a man carrying his all upon his back, in cold weather, must study compactness as well as lightness of outfit. Here the points are in favor of sleeping bag vs. blankets, because, for a given insulation against cold and draughts, it may be so made as to save bulk as well as weight.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906

Even though Kephart wrote about and appreciated the technological changes taking place around him, he still remained determined to incorporate them into the familiar methods of camping known from past decades. Even when recognizing the benefit of the sleeping bag in the above quote, he writes right after: “…the weight need not be over 8 pounds complete. Your camp fire will do the rest.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906

Kephart however, gives us a glimpse into the second step of the changes which would eventually lead to our current approach to the wilderness. According to him, this phase began in 1865 in England, with what he calls the Scotchman Mcgregor. The gear and corresponding skills that emerged across the Atlantic during that time would complete the transformation into our modern approach to the wilderness. Kephart writes of numerous set ups created in that fashion, which were small, lightweight, and self contained, such as the ones made by Owen G. Williams of J. Langdon & Son, which weighed only 7 lb total, including a tent and sleeping bag. The significance of this new equipment however, is not so much the weight or lack of bulk; it is the approach they allowed one to take to the wilderness.


The above picture is from The Camper’s Handbook by T.H. Holding, 1908

Most significantly, they allowed a person to stay in the wilderness without being reliant on a fire. With this new gear and techniques, one could now spend a winter night out in the woods without having to rely on a fire. Small enclosed tents, and down sleeping bags of compact design (described as having small foot boxes like a mummy sleeping bag) made that possible, and with the use of a portable stove, one could cook within the shelter as well. One of course could still make a fire each evening, but survival was no longer linked to it. “I am assured that this midget shelter will stand up in a hurricane that overthrows wall tents, marquees, and the army bell tent. Enthusiastic campers use it even in winter, sleeping out without a fire when the tent sags heavy with snow. Since the English camper seldom could get wood for fuel, he was obliged to carry a miniature stove and some alcohol or kerosene.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906

It would be quite some time before these fully modern way of camping reached America. The delay seems to have been the result of cultural differences and the fact that those camping methods were developed for areas that were considered relatively civilized. Kephart rejects these outfits as inadequate for camping in America, but his reasons seem more like excuses. He states: “The bedding here described would not suit us at all. The down sleeping-bag would be too stuffy. In England, I suppose, it is taken for granted that the camper will procure, for each night, a bedding of straw and hay; but in our country, there are many places… where the camper would have to chance it on bare ground.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906 The “stuffy” sleeping bag is nothing more than a personal preference, not a limitation in the woods, and  his assertion that there is no ground cover is interesting in light of him carrying a browse bag exactly for that purpose. I imagine many woodsmen accustomed to the older methods remained similarly resistant for quite a while.

So, as a brief overview, the 19th century brought very interesting changes with respect to your approach to the wilderness. In the early 19th century, the methods and equipment were very similar to those used in the 18th century, and show clear continuation. In the later part of the 19th century however, people began using those same methods and equipment developed in earlier decades, and applying them to individual travel through the woods on foot, for recreational purposes. At the same time, in Europe, and later in America, those developments were further pushed to create not only new gear designed for a person traveling through the woods on foot, but also to allow that person to do so without a direct reliance on the old methods. Small tents and down sleeping bags, along with portable stoves, allowed a person to sleep through the night without reliance on a fire. Not only the equipment, but also the methods involved had shifted, and gave us what we see today.

Anyway, those are my observations based on the limited research I have done. Hopefully it has been entertaining.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trip Report: Bear Mountain 3/8/14 – 3/9/14

We had some wonderful weather this weekend so I decided to get out for a bit. Because the weather was so nice, there were a lot of people on Bear Mountain, which is a popular destination. However, further north on the mountain, some of the access roads have been closed. So, if you are willing to ditch the car and go on foot, you can reach some very secluded locations. That exactly what I did.

I picked a random direction through the mountains and got going. I was the only person anywhere near the area, which is exactly how I like it.


The area was covered in deer sign. I was a bit surprised because it was really steep terrain, but there were tracks and scat everywhere.



I wasn’t headed anywhere in particular. I just wanted to spend some time heading up the mountain, picking entertaining routes.


The pack you see on my back in the Black Diamond Speed 40. I’ve used it on a few trips so far. The reason I got it was that my gear keeps getting smaller, and my 62L pack was starting to be too big, even for my winter gear. I’ve been managing to comfortably fit all my winter gear into the new 40L pack. It’s by no means a perfect pack, and I’ve made quite a few modifications to it, but the size is right.


I also wanted to use the opportunity to test out a new tent that was given to me for testing purposes. The tent is the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2. At first I was reluctant to accept it because I don’t typically use fully enclosed tents, but I have been looking at free standing designs recently, and decided to give it a try.


It required quite a bit of readjustment to use this tent. It’s been over a decade since I have used a fully enclosed shelter like this. It has a very different set of advantages and disadvantages when compared to a tarp-tent shelter like the Shangri-La 3. It is not better or worse, just different. After figuring out what I’m doing, I quite enjoyed using the tent. It is a very comfortable size for one person, and I had a good night. I’ll have more details on the tent later.

I woke up early because I had to get back home. I ate breakfast and headed back.


And that’s it. I quickly made my way down the mountain. The new gear looks promising, but only time will tell how well it will perform under different conditions.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ultralight Makeover by Backpacking North

Over the past year, a fellow blogger and writer of Backpacking North has been putting together an excellent and fairly detailed tutorial on reducing the weight of your gear. He has gone through great effort to provide the necessary resources and details. I think it is a great read, no matter if you are looking to go ultralight, or simply looking to streamline your gear. I found the advise to be reasonable and well measured, without any ridiculous recommendations or excesses. I don’t necessarily agree with all the recommendations, or find them to be for me, but I think everyone can benefit from reading it.


The tutorial is divided into different sections dealing with specific types of gear. I will provide the links here so you can read them on the Backpacking North website:

As with any tutorial on these subjects, you will find some of the information useful, other not so much. None the less, I think it is definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Trip Report: Working on the Ice Climbing Skills 3/2/14

Well, not much of a trip report. I figure we have another month/month and a half of winter left, so I should do some work on my horribly deficient ice climbing skills. There is some easily accessible ice in the Catskills, which made is easy.






I definitely need to get a second harness. Right now I use the BD Couloir harness, which is great for the type of terrain I usually do, with only short vertical section. It is light and packs down small. However, it is not nearly as comfortable for hanging around on vertical ice as a more robust harness. I put on one of the Arcteryx harnesses for a while, and it was much more comfortable and fit better over the clothing.  

I also need to stop bumming ice tools from people. I just can’t decide exactly what I want. I’ve climbed with the Fusions, the Cobras, the Quarks, the Trango Raptors, and a few others. I’m not sure if I should go with a more or less technical tool. I’ll probably end up with the Quarks at the end. I just keep going back to them for some reason. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Snow Walker's Companion: Winter Camping Skills for the North Review

As you guys have probably noticed, I try to do book reviews primarily for books that can be obtained for free online, so that you can easily get them. A Snow Walker's Companion: Winter Camping Skills for the North by Garrett Conover and Alexandra Conover Bennett is not in the public domain, and as such is not freely available. Even so, I thought it was worth a mention.


The book is currently in it’s third publication. It was originally released in 1995 with subsequent publication in 2001 and 2005. I have purchased two different publications of the book over the years, and have read it several times.

I first read the book years ago when I was developing an interest in more complex winter travel in the woods. Last year, I was again reminded of the book and re-read it. A Snow Walker's Companion has developed a cult following and is often sited as one of the best guides to winter travel. The book focuses on traditional methods for winter travel, which according to the authors are more efficient and reliable than modern methods that are overly focused on technology.

I must admit, I have refrained from writing anything about the book here because each time I read it, I was sure that I had missed or misunderstood something. The methods described seemed highly inefficient and unnecessarily burdensome for winter travel. Recently however, a fellow blogger provided a link to a video of a trip structured after the manner outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, and even included Garrett Conover as one of the members. After watching the video with great interest, I felt secure enough that I had understood the book as it was intended and finally decided to write a review here.

As I mentioned above, A Snow Walker's Companion focuses on traditional methods for winter travel. According to the authors, those methods are the most reliable and efficient means for winter travel. As portrayed in the video, those methods culminate in a team of wool and canvas clad men, pulling heavily loaded toboggans containing large canvas tents with wood stoves, along frozen river beds and lakes.


Each time I read the book it struck me as rather condescending and dismissive of any other means of winter travel. Now, I am the last person to talk about being dismissive and condescending, so I will not begrudge the authors their attitude. However, it did strike me as strange that they would insist that this is the most efficient and reliable means of winter travel. I would certainly understand it if the authors simple like such traditional means of transportation during winter, or if they were doing it to recreate for educational purposes winter travel in the age of Shackelton and Nansen. I do find it perplexing however that they would insist that in light of all of the techniques and equipment we have developed over the last century, that this is still the best form of winter travel.

The most glaring reason why I found such an assertion to be a strange one is that the scope of travel afforded by the methods outlined in the book is so very limited. In effect, if you chose to travel in the manner outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, you immediately restrict yourself to terrain that is limited to frozen river beds and lakes. Anything more than a ten degree incline, and travel is transformed into a heroic struggle, or outright impossible. That is not to mention travel up mountains, through densely forested areas, etc. It hardly seems like the “ultimate” travel method.

Leaving aside the absurdly limited terrain option left to us with this traditional form of winter travel, let’s look at the above video for more specific examples. I use the video because it was designed as an educational class developed based on the book, and had one of the authors as a member of the trip.

The video features a team traveling 62 miles (100 km) over a 10 day period. Each team member is pulling a sled loaded with an average of 150 lb (68 kg) of gear. Now, for any modern woodsman who is familiar with winter travel, those statistics will seem ridiculous. They will be even more shocking if one watches the video and sees the struggle endured by the team over these 62 miles. The short trip featured in the video is very similar in its factors to that completed by the authors of the book. They traveled 350 miles (563 km) across Labrador along frozen rivers in the manner outlined in the book. The trip took (if memory serves me right), about 60 days.

I say it would be shocking to a modern woodsman because for anyone familiar with modern techniques and equipment, traveling 62 miles over 10 days on level and clear terrain like that necessitated by the methods of travel outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion and seen in the video, would be considered a leisurely, relaxing trip. In fact, even at moderate pace, such trip can be completed without any effort in half the time. More so, a modern team can complete the same trip with a quarter of the gear. It would not cross the mind of any modern woodsman to go on a 10 day winter trip with 150 lb of gear. Counting food and water, a modern woodsman would have a pack at the beginning of the trip under the same conditions of no more than 40 lb (about 15 lb of gear, 20 lb of food at 2lb per day, and about 4 lb of water).

Now, let me make it very clear, when I say “a modern woodsman using modern techniques and gear” I do not mean any fancy electronics or motorized transportation. I mean a person on snowshoes with a tent a sleeping bag, a backpack, etc. Using modern techniques and equipment, a woodsman can take that 150 lb of weight that was used for a 10 day trip with the methods outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, and can stretch them out for a 65 day trip. The difference is staggering.

Just for rough comparison purposes, Paolo Rabbia just completed a 435 mile (700 km) traverse across the Pyrenees, with an elevation gain of 10,499 ft (3200 m). He completed it in 29 days, carrying a 44 lb pack (20 kg). All of this was done on some of the toughest terrain imaginable. Now, I know Paolo Rabbia is not an average person, but an average person would have certainly been able to duplicate the results if traveling on frozen river beds and lakes.


I know some of you were not happy with the above comparison, so I figured I would toss in another one. Ray Zahab, Ryan Grant, Stefano Gregoretti and Ferg Hawke just completed a 100 km (62 mile) crossing of Baffin island. They did it in 48 hours, pulling 50lb sleds. The crossing was entirely unsupported. Again, an extreme example, but one showing what is possible using modern techniques.


Considering all of the above, I continue to find it strange that the authors of A Snow Walker's Companion insist that the form of winter travel they have outlined is somehow superior to other forms of winter travel.

Perhaps one could insist that the form of travel outlined in the book is more comfortable than modern forms of travel, with a nice large tent and a fired up stove. Sounds good in theory, but as the video shows, almost every day, from dusk till dawn, the team is struggling pulling heavy sleds, over lakes that can not support the weight, hacking paths through trees, etc. Hardly seems like a relaxing trip. A modern woodsman can complete each day’s travel in half the time, leaving plenty of time for a nice fire, a cooked meal, and relaxation.

And let’s not forget, the modern woodsman can go wherever he pleases. He is not locked to frozen rivers and lakes. If he so chooses, he can go over a mountain, through a valley, into a dense forest, etc.

Now, all that being said, A Snow Walker's Companion is a good book. If you are interested in traditional winter travel, or are a historical recreationist, the book is a wonderful resource, as long as you can ignore the perplexing assertions about how that form of travel is the best. The book does a good job describing the methods required for such traditional winter travel, and even provides resources where such traditional gear can be obtained. Within the scope of the type of winter travel it describes, it is an excellent guide. So, if you are interested in traditional forms of winter travel, this book is for you. If you are interested in historical recreation, then this book is for you. If you thought Shackelton was the man, and you want all of your winter trips to resemble his attempt at the South Pole, then this book is for you.

The downside of the book, of course is that it is so limited in scope. If you are interested in any other type of winter travel, which does not involve teams of men pulling heavy sleds along frozen rivers, then the book offers very little. Not only that, it is outright dismissive of any such forms of travel. So, if you don’t want to pull a 150 lb sled for a 10 day trip, this book is not for you. If you want to carry all of your gear in a backpack, this book is not for you. If you want to go anywhere where the terrain is not 100% level and clear of any vegetation, then this book is not for you. If you want to travel in an area where trees are not abundant, then this book is not for you. If you think that we might have learnt something about winter travel in the last century, and you want to take advantage of that knowledge, then this book is certainly not for you.  

P.S. since my last purchase of the book, it seems like the publisher has run out of copies, and the price has skyrocketed. Hopefully this review would serve you as a decent guide as to whether you want to fork over the current $150 price.