Archive for August, 2014

The truth about survival knives – should you carry one?

| August 13, 2014 | 0 Comments

knivesThumbnailSmallThere are many misconceptions about survival knives. In this article, we’ll take a hard look at what they’re really for and whether it’s worth carrying the extra weight when you’re out enjoying nature.

If you ask experts in primitive survival techniques what one thing they would take with them if they had to survive in the woods for an extended time, most would tell you it would be their knife. With just a knife and the natural materials around you, you can:

  • Make tools
  • Make weapons and traps for hunting
  • Prepare your kill for the pot
  • Create sparks for starting a fire by hitting the blade with a stone
  • Cut branches and saplings for building a basic shelter

A survival knife is therefore an amazing tool. The catch is that it takes training and a lot of practice to be able to survive for an extended time with just a knife. Most people are simply not going to see the return on investment for such a large time commitment because the chance of being in this type of survival situation is very slim. Now, there’s no harm in learning primitive survival techniques, or course, and it can be a fun hobby interest that can enhance appreciation of the outdoors. It’s just that if your main interest is using the outdoors to pursue fitness activities, learning primitive survival is tangential to your goals.

For most of us who are pondering whether to carry a knife in the outdoors, we are thinking about a combination of non-survival general utility uses and whether it could possibly help us in a survival situation. If we had a knife we might use it for:

  • General trail duties
  • Wood carving
  • Preparing wood to make a shelter
  • Preparing firewood
  • Self-defense

Let’s look at each one of these in turn.

General trail duties

Performing basic trail duties such as opening food containers, and cutting paracord, duct tape, and blister padding are the most common uses for a knife outdoors. However, these tasks don’t need a fixed-blade survival knife as they can be performed with a small utility knife, razor, or pair of scissors.

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The tools in the photo above are small to carry and only weigh 8 grams and 3 grams.

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These tools weigh 9 grams and 11 grams. The razor blade in the photo is reversed in its holder and sticks out just enough to be able to perform small cutting tasks. It can be turned around the right way and be used for slightly bigger tasks.

If there is a task that can be performed with one of these tools, it’s better to use it to avoid the risk of injury from a tool that can more easily and deeply penetrate your body in a careless moment.

Scissors on small folding knives and utility tools also work well for these types of tasks. For example, the scissors on the pictured Swiss Army Knife work better than you might imagine.

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Multi-tools with snips are also great, although they are relatively heavy to carry. If you’re unlikely to need all of the features of a multi-tool, you’re losing weight efficiency. The knife only weighs 16 grams, but even this lightweight multi-tool weighs more than twice as much at 42 grams.

Wood carving

Wood carving may be the second most common use for a survival knife. I do admit to having performed the essential survival task of sharpening marshmallow sticks more than once. I’ve also had to make the odd spoon and tent peg, such as the one below, when somehow my kit came up short.

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A sturdy, medium-sized locking folding knife works well enough for whittling wood. We shouldn’t ignore the fact, though, that the more sharp steel we carry, the greater is the risk of injury. Being injured when we’re two days walk and then three hours drive from the nearest emergency room is very different from being injured at home. My worst trail incident happened when I reached behind me into a pocket on my backpack and slid my thumb down the blade of a folding knife that had partially opened. I didn’t have anywhere near enough gauze and bandage to absorb the bleeding and it was eventually closed up in the emergency room.

Our best option for this type of task is, of course, to save the weight and make sure we have all of our gear before we go.

Preparing wood for a shelter

We should be carrying our own emergency shelter if there’s a chance of difficult conditions when we’re out. But, things don’t always go according to plan and having some help to make a temporary shelter, or add an extra layer on top of our carried emergency shelter, is a not a bad idea. A survival knife can definitely be of help here.

It’s possible to chop down a small tree with an average survival knife, but it’s not quick. When you really need a shelter to get you out of the elements, quick is important.

An axe is much faster and less work for these cutting tasks, but I don’t know any hiker who’s going to carry an axe because the weight versus utility trade-off is just not reasonable. There are, however, some reasonably lightweight folding saws available that are effective and could be justifiably carried if you’re heading out into cold weather, especially if you’re sharing some gear with friends.

A related option is a flexible emergency saw. These come in two kinds, the ultralight wire saw and the heavier chain saw.

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I’ve not had the best success with wire saws as even the better quality ones tend to get hot, and then stick in the wood and break. The chain saws are robust and work quickly, but weigh several times more. The wire saw pictured above weighs 19g and the chain saw weighs 75g.

Preparing firewood

Now we come to the real reason for this article’s existence — preparing firewood in an emergency.

I’ve been cold often enough outdoors to know how important fire is for survival. It’s even possible that my life was saved once because of it. When we’re sitting at home in the warm, imagining our upcoming adventure, fire may not seem that important. But the irony of fire is that the more you need it, the harder it is to make it. And when you really do need a fire, you need to be able to make it fast and before your fingers get too numb to use. If you’ve never experienced bitter cold, Jack London’s short story about a hunter desperately trying to build a fire will help you understand.

With a chemical fire starter, it’s relatively easy to start a fire and keep it going in a coniferous forest, even when it’s damp and cold, because of an abundance of dead, resinous branches and cones. But, starting and maintaining a fire in the wet and cold when you only have hardwood around can be a serious matter.

A survival knife can be used to split wet wood to expose its dry interior and make pieces small enough to catch a flame and grow the fire. Practicing quick fire building with wet wood and just the fire starting materials that we will carry is an essential outdoor skill. Batoning, which is the technique of splitting wood using another piece of wood to hit the back of the knife, is one part of this essential skill.

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Self-defense

I’ll be the first to admit that a survival knife can provide a little comfort if you’re alone in mountain lion country, hiking in the dark, and you’re starting to imagine the big kitties waiting for you behind every large tree. There have been a few times when I’ve moved my knife from the bottom of my pack to my hip to make me feel better. If I were to one day find myself with a mountain lion attached to my head, I think I’d be glad of an easily accessible survival knife. However, with only around 10 recorded fatal attacks on adults ever in the US, this scenario is extremely unlikely. Fatal attacks by bears are more likely, but irrelevant for this discussion as a survival knife will just be used by the bear afterwards to floss his teeth. In reality, we may think that we’re carrying a survival knife for self-defense, but in this context we’re really carrying it for self-comfort.

Conclusions

When deciding whether to carry a survival knife in the outdoors, you need to consider whether the extra weight is worth the extra security for you. I’ve made my mind up and the following is the strategy that I choose when trying to sensibly balance risk and weight.

First, I don’t carry any more knife than I think I might reasonably need and I use the smallest blade for each job. This lowers my weight as well as my risk of injury.

Second, I carry the small Swiss Army Knife shown above in my pants pocket, attached to a belt loop with a length of paracord. It’s readily accessible, I won’t lose it, and it will cover most of my cutting needs.

Third, during the summer, if there’s any chance of rain or if the conditions at night mean I would be cold if a mishap resulted in an unplanned overnight stay, I carry a small, lightweight fixed-bladed knife with a skeletonized handle. I can use this for splitting wood to make a fire for warmth or a rescue signal. In a pinch, it can even be used to cut branches and saplings for help in making a shelter.

Fourth, during the winter, I replace my summer knife with a medium-sized survival knife, which I know can make short work of preparing wood for a fire.

The two survival knives I currently carry are shown here:
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The Fallkniven F1 with its standard sheath weighs 175g, and the Bark River Bravo Necker with its standard sheath weighs 51g.

If I’m going to be in snow or freezing rain, I’ll also carry a pocket chain saw in case I really need to prepare a lot of wood for an overnight fire or make an extra layer of shelter.

Final notes

If you do decide to pack a survival knife, be aware that others on the trail don’t want to know about it. I once joined a couple of hikers who were sheltering under an old barn roof in a cold sleet storm and we decided to build a small fire to keep warm during lunch. I saw a very nervous look on both their faces when I brought out my survival knife to help open a food package, and they didn’t stay around for long.

Also, make sure you’re familiar with the knife laws in your area. It’s probably illegal for you to carry a fixed-blade survival knife in your pocket. If it’s on your person, your only legal option may be for you to have it clearly visible in a sheath on your waist belt.

To read more about survival on the trail, read The 3P modular survival kit: Part 2 – the pocket kit.

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Top 10 navigation principles you need to know

| August 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

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Here are 10 things you should know about navigation before heading out into the woods.

1. Your map, compass, and GPS receiver are complimentary tools

You can navigate with just a map, you can navigate with just a compass, and you can navigate with just a GPS receiver. However, each  has its strengths and weaknesses, and when you learn how to use them together you will increase your confidence in being outdoors.

At the most basic level, a map gives you route-finding information, a GPS receiver gives location information, and a compass gives you direction information. How they are used together will be covered in future articles on Urban Outdoor Warrior.

2. A paper map is still essential

Our smartphones, tablets, and phablets have almost become essential tools for navigating around our urban environments. They can display maps at a moment’s notice, and you can’t beat their convenience for finding that restaurant before your date gives up waiting for you. For fun, there are also countless GPS and compass apps to play with.

When you’re planning an outdoor adventure that will take you out of sight of familiar concrete, however, you’re playing a different game. If you get too away from populated areas, or you’re in a canyon, you’ll have no cell phone coverage and that means you won’t be able to download a map. Your smartphone’s GPS receiver will still give you your location, but that’s not much good without a map on which to display it.

If you’ve thought ahead, you may have downloaded a GPS app and some maps onto your phone before you set out. This puts you in a better position, and in a pinch they’ll help, but looking at a map on a phone is like looking at the world through a keyhole. That tiny piece of map that you see is going to limit your route-finding abilities and make your progress slow. And don’t even try to take a bearing off it with a compass!

3. There are two styles of navigation.

There are two main styles of land navigation and it will give you the most flexibility if you learn them both.

The first style assumes that your GPS receiver will always work, so you can forget about navigating while you’re on the move. You can go anywhere you want as long as you don’t move off the edge of your map. Your GPS receiver will give you your location whenever you need it and you can pinpoint your position on the map. This method is more casual and will almost always be sufficient.

The second style is for you if you:

  • Are more risk averse, as it assumes that your GPS receiver may not work
  • Don’t own a GPS receiver
  • Want to learn the traditional art of navigation and be the best that you can be in the outdoors

With this style, you track your location on the map at frequent intervals while you’re moving and familiarize yourself with the features around you. You know where you are at all times and only use your GPS receiver if you mess up and aren’t quite sure where you are.

4. The sun is a useful quick compass

You don’t need to be a boy scout and make a shadow stick to be able to use the sun for direction. You are your own shadow stick. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the southern sky. As your shadow falls opposite the sun, your own shadow will always point towards the northern half of the sky.

Everyone knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This means that in the morning the sun is south of due east, around noon it is around south, and in the evening it is south of due west. As your shadow is opposite, in the morning it points north of due west, around noon it points around north, and in the evening it points north of due east. It’s not the most accurate compass, but if you only need to make sure you’re heading in the right direction on a trail, it doesn’t need to be. For example, if you need to be hiking roughly north and your shadow is falling behind you, you’re going the wrong way.

5. Basic compasses and GPS receivers are enough

It’s more important to have a basic compass and basic GPS receiver that you know how to use than it is to have the latest fancy gear that does everything including confuse you. If you’re new to navigation start with the simplest (and cheaper) quality tools and learn the fundamentals of navigation. When you’ve got it covered and can no longer resist those cool additional features that will impress your friends, don’t hesitate to upgrade if your wallet can handle it.

6. The only thing you really need a GPS receiver for is…

The only thing you really need a GPS receiver for is to give you your grid location so you can find where you are on your map.

If you don’t have a map (please don’t let this be you), you’ll need to mark a waypoint at your car, or turn on the tracking feature. Then when you’re ready to head back to your car, use your GPS receiver to tell you how far away it is and in which direction you need to go. A GPS receiver with track recording turned on will always allow you to re-trace your steps and get back to where you started. This is great, but it may not always be as great as it sounds. It may be a 5-mile uphill climb to the water in your car but it may only be a five-minute hike to a creek with cold, delicious, running water. And remember that if you took a waypoint at your car, your GPS receiver will give you an accurate straight line direction back to your car. However, it won’t tell you about that cliff you’ll fall off if you follow that straight line. You’d better remember that map after all!

7. A baseplate compass is a compass and a protractor

If you don’t understand this you will never progress beyond rote memorization of the steps needed to use it.

To really understand how navigation with a compass works, it’s best to start with a non-baseplate compass for measuring and sighting bearings in the field and a separate protractor for measuring and drawing bearings on a map. Before long you’ll be saying, “Oh, that’s why you do that” as you go through the steps of using your baseplate compass.

8. Nearby magnetic objects will make your compass readings inaccurate

We all forget this from time to time, especially when we’re tired. Often we are just getting a rough bearing to make sure we’re not traveling the wrong way down a trail, but when accuracy counts this can make a difference.

It’s worth checking your gear before you head out to see which items affect your compass. It’s easy to do by putting your compass on a table and one-by-one moving metallic objects towards it noting at what point the needle starts to deflect. Start with your watch (one of the biggest culprits), and include glasses, pocket knives, phone, stove, etc. If that Rambo knife in the top of your pack is going to throw off your compass consider leaving it at home (in fact consider that even if it isn’t!). To be sure, you can always put your pack down and walk away a few yards before taking a reading, but if you’re in bear country don’t be surprised to find that it’s not there anymore after taking that reading.

Also, make sure you’re not taking a reading anywhere near your car or electrical pylons.

9. You have to choose the right map datum

Map datums are one of modern navigation’s little technical annoyances, but you can’t ignore them. We don’t need to get into the theory here, you just need to know that if you don’t choose the datum on your GPS receiver to match your map, your position on the map may be off by  hundreds of meters, enough to confuse you and send you up the wrong hill.

You can learn more here about how your GPS can get you lost because of the wrong map datum.

10. Yes, you do need to understand declination

Declination, also known as magnetic variation, is the hardest concept in navigation but, unless you live in an area where true north and magnetic north point in the same direction, or if you’re sure you’re going to be staying on major trails and only need a rough direction from your compass, you do need to understand it. This is not the time to teach declination, we’ll just leave it by saying it’s worth investing some time to understand it.

That’s it. There are sure to be different opinions about the 10 most important things to know about navigation. Leave us a comment to tell us what you think.

For more awesome articles about navigation, see:

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Boost your next adventure with our pre-trail summer smoothie

| August 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Berry smoothies are a perfect, nutritious light summer meal for after a workout or before heading out on the trail. If you’re really in multi-tasking mode, you can drink your smoothie in the car while you drive. As an added health benefit, this will help you keep your hands off your phone.

Here’s what you’ll need:

A handful each of strawberries and blueberries will form the nutritional base and add natural sweetness. A banana will add thickness and a good dose of carbohydrate.

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A scoop of protein powder will help to keep your hunger at bay and make it easier to resist that office doughnut before your next meal. Personally, I like chocolate flavored protein powder because what’s not to like about strawberries and chocolate.

A heaped spoonful of flax meal will add a boost of essential fatty acids, but don’t let it stop you if this isn’t in your cupboard. For milk, I like vanilla almond milk for its clean taste, but you could use cow’s milk or soy milk if you prefer.

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If you have a nice countertop blender by all means use it for your smoothie. If you don’t have a lot of kitchen space or don’t want to spend the money, a cheap plastic container and a hand blender is all you need.  A hand blender is also faster to set up and clean-up than a countertop version, making it more likely that smoothies will become a regular part of your nutritional strategy. I use a Cusinart Smart Stick Hand Blender, which is a nice combination of price, quality, and small size.

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Here’s how to make your smoothie step by step:

Step one

Rinse the berries and get everything into the container. I think you can handle the details yourself.

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Step two

If it fits into your schedule, put the container in the freezer for a couple of hours while you go and workout. Or, if this is breakfast, plan further ahead and prepare the night before so it’s all frozen by the time you jump up out of bed at 5am all bright-eyed and ready to go (ha ha).  If you freeze the fruit, you’ll be rewarded with a colder, tastier smoothie.

Step three

Add the remaining ingredients to the container and get your kitchen kit ready.

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Step four

Blend until smooth.

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If you’re a frozen yogurt kind of person more than an ice-cream kind of person and you want your smoothie to be a little thicker, you can add some plain yogurt at this stage. And if you didn’t have time to freeze your fruit, you can throw in a handful of ice and crush it with the blender. I like to add ice anyway because those mini ice chips melting on your tongue are special treat.

Step five

Do yourself a favor and clean up your blender now by “blending” some warm soapy water. If like most people you’d prefer to spend your hard-earned cash on outdoor gear rather than emergency room bills, unplug your blender before carefully cleaning around the blade with a sponge.

Either pour it into a fancy glass and enjoy while relaxing to some funny cat videos, or put the lid on the container and make it a to-go smoothie.

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