Captain’s Journal – by Herschel Smith
Max Velocity, Mountain Guerrilla and American Mercenary all have great posts about gear, rucksacks and living in the field (and MV has a followup article here). These men all know a generous amount about their subject and I won’t try either to repeat their views here or to disagree with any of it. However, I had considered writing about my own experiences in the field (I have spent a copious amount of time in the field) and landed on an option where I simply provide a running list of things I do and don’t like (and do or don’t advocate). The reader can weigh in with his own observations.
I’m a fan of travelling light, although every time I pack I carry too much and my backpack is heavier than it needs to be. When you end up not pulling an item out of your ruck the entire trip, and in fact don’t quite know what you would have used it for anyway, then you probably shouldn’t have packed it. You managed to haul it around in the woods for several days, or worse, up and down elevation changes, for no good reason except to place it back where it came from in the clauset or on the shelf. That’s a sinking feeling when your body is sore and tired.
Speaking of weight, one item I carry and always use is cordage. You can purchase 550 cord in rolled up lengths of 50 feet for just a few dollars just about anywhere now, including Lowes or Home Depot. 550 cord is light and strong, and is one of the better choices for your ruck.
I’m not a fan of primitive fire techniques or seeing just how bad you can make it for yourself and still survive. For example, I carry matches, lighters and ferro rods. What I have also found is that if everything is wet, or if you make camp late and don’t need to spend a lot of time building the fire (and need to focus more on gathering fuel), it helps to carry a piece of charcoal for every night you expect to be in the wilderness. One piece of charcoal can help get the fire going, allow you to do other things, and ensure that a little wind won’t ruin your night. You need to consider stay dry bags for such important things.
I have been backpacking in rain so heavy that nothing would burn regardless of what I did. If I had gotten a fire hot enough to dry the wood as I placed it near the fire so that it could be used as fuel, I could have had heat that night by feeding fuel closer to the fire depending upon its dryness. Unfortunately I didn’t take my charcoal and it was a cold, wet night afer wasting precious energy for two hours nursing a fire that was destined to go out anyway.
Speaking of Biblical downpours, I have been out in them before. In such weather I don’t care what you wear – rain gear, poncho or whatever. You’re going to get wet. Prepare to make camp early enough to get your clothing off and hang it, dry it or simply keep warm by jumping in your bag. Accept that you’re going to get very wet and stay very wet, and work with it and expect it instead of letting it work against you.
If you get a down bag it’s going to lose its loft if it gets wet. That may not be a problem in Western climates, but East of the Mississippi this is always a concern, even in the dead of winter. I have a North Face Polarguard bag that allegedly carries me down to -5 degrees F, and I’ve laid in a puddle of water before (due to bad campsite selection in a driving rain) in that bag and stayed very warm. When I say -5 degrees F, that doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable that low. It’s comfortable down to 10 or 20 degrees F.
I like layering clothing, and I particularly like fleece for cold weather. It doubles as a pillow if I don’t need it to sleep in. I use a wind and rain parka for an overlay on my fleece in the wet, cold or windy weather. Also, layering allows you to strip down to the bare essentials when sweating during the hike, and then put layers back on when the night falls and it gets cold.
I am an advovcate of trekking poles for balance, assitance in carrying your load, and traversing rough or wet terrain (such as rivers or creek beds). I didn’t always use trekking poles, but when they became fairly popular I hiked with one friend who used a single pole. For my next time in the wilderness I purchased one myself and couldn’t decipher what would have come over me that I didn’t purchase two. In my estimation they are now an indispensable part of my wilderness experience.
I always carry a firearm, and I don’t skimp on the gun. I usually carry my .45, but have carried a .40 before (and I would certainly carry my .357 magnum). Carrying a rifle and the ammunition necessary for operations in the wilderness means carrying an awful lot more weight, and truer words were never spoken than to say that this relies on resupply and R&R. You bet it does. Don’t daydream that you could be an operator in the wilderness in perpetuity without aid from others. It won’t work.
Boots are everything to the wilderness experience, and again, I don’t skimp. Good waterproof boots are an indispensable part of survival. Be careful when camping or hiking around water. Snakes are out in the Eastern U.S. (and need to drink like the rest of us), and a bite from a Rattlesnake or Copperhead in the far flung places I go means death. Lay down and wait for the end, because there’s nothing you can do.
I’ll mention one more thing before ending Part 1. Cover. Marines call it cover. I don’t go out of the house without cover for my head regardless of the weather, temperature or conditions. I need it for protection from the sun because of my balding head and close hair cut, and for times when it’s cold I need it to keep me warm. Find yourself something you like and something that suits the function to which you will put it, but make a habit of using cover if you don’t already.
I’ll follow this up with more discussion at a later time.