Sunday, January 29, 2012

Survival Kits Part 2: The Tiered Approach

My experience, training and mindset have led me to prefer a tiered approach to survival kits. This means that I have several levels of kits with some important redundancies integrated into the system. Portions of my kit are purely for emergencies and therefore do not regularly get used, while other pieces are what I consider woodland every day carry (EDC).

My kit for a typical outing in my local eastern woodlands forest would be quite different than what I'd carry in the desert, jungle, mountains, etc. Similarly, my kit for a week-long backpacking trip would be different than what I carry on a daytrip. The tiered approach allows me to quickly and easily choose the appropriate kit(s) to equip myself in any season in my area... I can easily up-kit or down-kit for most any circumstance.

I carry four tiers of equipment. The scope of Tier 1 and Tier 2 kits is limited to extracting myself from an emergency situation as quickly as possible and/or surviving overnight if needed and is carried on my person every time I am out. Tier 3 items are not truly survival items, but rather they are multi use items that would be greatly enhance my probability or survival and rescue. Tier 4 consists of a self-contained survival kit that would allow me to survive for a  long period of time and will be covered in a different post.

Tier 1

Tier 1 consists of the EDC items that I carry on my person every time I go out into the woods. This tier consists of three basic items: a good fixed-blade knife, a ferro rod and a compass. The knife is carried securely in a sheath on my belt and the ferro rod and compass are generally carried in my pockets on "dummy cord" lanyards attached to my belt. All three of these items are not only important survival items, they are also valuable tools that I use on nearly every outing. I feel that these three items are the most important tools for survival and rescue and therefore should be of good quality. It is imperative that these items be carried securely and returned to their sheath/pocket immediately and habitually after each use. The tether cords are brightly colored in case an item gets dropped while being used and I use a small non-ferrous carabiners to facilitate easy attachment and detachment to my belt.

Tier 1 Kit

Tier 2

My second tier items are purely emergency use items that I also carry on my person every time I go out into the woods. This kit supplements tier one by adding items to be used for shelter, water and signalling. It also adds redundencies for fire and navigation. I carry these items in a waterproof plastic bag which always resides in my left cargo pocket. By keeping this kit in the same pocket every time I have developed the habit of checking that pocket before I leave the parking lot every trip out. The packed Tier 2 kit is aprox. 7" x 3" by 3/8" in size.

This kit contents are:
Tier 2 kit unpacked
  •     emergency mylar blanket
  •     whistle
  •     button compass
  •     emergency matches
  •     petroleum jelly cotton balls and strips of inner tube
  •     small signal mirror
  •     36 oz 4mil plastic bag
  •     4 water purification tablets

Tier Three

Tier 3 items are carried in shoulder bags or backpacks. These items vary from trip to trip and season to season. These items are not truly survival items, but rather they are multi use items that would be greatly enhance my probability or survival and rescue. Think bushcraft and backpacking here.

 Typical Tier 3 items for me include:

  •     modern fire kit (PJ cotton balls, ferro rod, lighter, matches, etc.)
  •     traditional fire kit (flint and steel, magnifying lens, jute tinder, candle, etc.)
  •     primitive fire kit (bowdrill set, cedar tinder bundle, birch bark, etc.)
  •     axe or hatchet
  •     bow saw or folding saw
  •     cordage
  •     flashlight
  •     poncho/tarp
  •     water bottles
  •     nesting lightweight cup
  •     water filter

Test your kit

Your kit may (and probably should) continuously evolve. Even your Tier 1 and 2 items will change as you are able to buy better gear, as you situation changes, or as you gain new knowledge and skills, or as you work out your preferred method of carry. Almost as important as having your kit(s) is knowing how to best use the items in them. You should test an item before including it in your kit to make sure it will do what you expect it to do. Understand its capabilities and limitations. It is important to occasionally return to an item to re-familiarize yourself with it and to inspect it for serviceability. Mylar blankets are easily ripped, matches eventually crumble, etc.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Survival Kits Part 1: The Best Kit

There is much debate, often very heated, about survival kits. Most every bushcrafter has opinions about the "best" size and contents of the kits, and there are several different philosophies regarding kit design . Some folks are minimalists while others prefer to kit-up to survive indefinitely in the wilderness. Some are enamored with the "Altoids tins"  while others prefer surplus pouches.

I will not be so presumptuous as to say one kit or philosophy is right or wrong or that my kit is the best. However, I will say that the kit that you choose must suit your specific needs. This means that your kit(s) should be influenced by your: knowledge and experience, location and environment, and the typical circumstances in which you enter the woods.

A survival kit, like any emergency tool, is only useful if it is always available. Basic items should be carried on your person every time you are in the woods. Every time, without fail. It is absolutely imperative that basic survival items be on your person so they are always available. I carry my basic survival items -the bare minimum kit to get me through a 24 hour situation- on me in the same manner, in the same place every time I'm out. I choose to carry them on my belt and in my pants pockets because I can envision many scenarios in which I could be separated from my pack or other gear, but very few in which I would loose my pants. Having said that, you could just as easily carry them around your neck or in a belt pouch... the important thing is to alway carry them on you.

You are much more likely to carry a small item that is comfortable than a larger item that causes discomfort, no matter how important that item may be or how much more preferable the largre item may be. I liken this to concealed pistol carry: when shit goes down a smaller gun on you is better than a bigger gun left at home. For me the  ubiquitous Altoids tin is too small, too rigid and not comfortable to I have packaged my kits in simple bags. But that's my preference, and many people carry tins comfortably. It comes down this: the more comfortable it is to carry, the more likely you will be to carry it. The key here is to find what works for you and always carry it.

Ultimately, the best kit is the one that you have when you need it. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wild Edible - Wintergreen

Winter in Michigan, even one as mild as the current season, is a tough time of year to find wild edibles. However, one edible that can easily be found in abundance throughout the frozen months is Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens, also called eastern teaberry).


Always refer to a reputable printed reference guide before consuming wild edibles and be absolutely sure of what you are eating.

I identify wintergreen by it's dark green (occasionally brownish), shiny and waxy, obovate shaped leaves. The leaves are generally about 1" wide by 2" long. The stem and petiole is redish. The berries are red with a star shape on the bottom and will often persist on the plant through the winter. The crushed leaves and berries have an unmistakable wintergreen scent and taste.

Wintergreen seems to prefer loamy, peaty and wet mixed forests. In my usual areas I often find wintergreen in soggy oak and hemlock forests in areas that receive a medium amount of sunlight.

Preperation and Use
Wintergreen is best when fresh. The leaves seem to dry out quickly in my experience and loose that characteristic wintergreen "freshness". The leaves , although somewhat tough and waxy, can be eaten raw for a trailside treat, or used to compliment a salad. In the winter I prefer to crush the freshly picked leaves and steep them in hot water (with or without tea) for a refreshing hot drink. 

 Additional info on Gaultheria procumbens can be found on this USDA website.

The information in this blog is for entertainment purposes only. The author assumes no responsibility whatsoever for any adverse effects encountered by the individual. Again, always refer to a reputable printed reference guide before consuming wild edibles and be absolutely sure of what you are eating. Please harvest wild edibles at your own risk.

Monday, January 2, 2012

First outing of 2012

Well, deer season is finally over, which means it's safe to be in the woods again. I took advantage of this first day of forest sanity to do some hiking and to try out some new clothing. The weather was brisk (mid to upper 20s) and blustery. I had the woods to myself today and its amazing how quiet the forest is during the fall and winter, especially around hunting season when all the critters are still in hiding. There was a dusting of fresh snow on the ground which was great for tracking squirrels, which was really my only distraction from hiking today. I did notice this wasp hive about ten feet from the trail... oddly enough I walked past it 6 or 8 times this summer and fall without noticing it and without the inhabitants attacking me.

Review: Blackhawk! Cyclone Pack

     Over the years I have continuously searched for the perfect all- season day pack. I have tried everything from basic school bags to military surplus rucksacks to modern shoulder bags.  I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as the perfect pack. But, for the last year or so, the Blackhawk! Cyclone has consistently been my go to pack.

Materials and Construction

Exterior front
     The Cyclone is designed for tactical/military use so it has a typical tactical 3 day pack look to it. It is covered… and I mean covered… in MOLLE webbing. Blackhawk! boasts “Over 100 external S.T.R.I.K.E.® webbing attachment points”  on this pack. It has a large main compartment, two smaller external compartments arranged one above the other, a sleeve for the hydration bladder, and several internal mesh zippered compartments. The lower external compartment is lined with loop material and has an accompanying hook-backed organizer. There is also ALICE-like webbing inside to secure help items in that lower compartment.

    The pack is well-constructed and heavy duty. The materials throughout are high-quality, from the nylon base material, to the heavy mesh inner pockets, to the strong zippers and rubberized pull tabs and grab handle. The shoulder straps are made from a rubberized material that does not absorb moisture and tends to be non-slip on one’s shoulders. The finish of the pack is quite good, with quality stitching throughout and no tearing, loose stitches, or any other issues noted.

• Dimensions (main comp.): 19”L x 11”W x 5.5”D
• Dimensions (front-top comp.): 9.5”L x 7”W x 3”D
• Dimensions (front-bottom comp.): 11”L x 11.5”W x 3.5”D
• Cubes: 1800 cu. in. / 32 L
• Capacity: 100 oz. / 3 L

Exterior rear- note IVS panel
 Field Use

     As I stated earlier, the Cyclone has been my go to daypack for about a year now. I’ve flirted with others, but always ended up going back the Blackhawk! for the next excursion. The tall, slender shape of the pack fits me well, carries loads well, and is narrow enough to not get snagged when breaking trails. The IVS (Integrated Ventilation System) back panel is comfortably shaped and adequately padded, provides support for the pack, and allows for ventilation. The padded hip belt is removable, adjustable and has plenty of MOLLE webbing which I use for pouches for my water bottle, GPS/camera, and compass. The relative tallness of the pack fits me (at 5'11") better than most packs with the hip belt riding just above my pelvis, where it belongs.

Main compartment

      The bag is easily large enough to hold the basics for a long day in the woods in the spring, summer and fall. While I haven’t yet used it for an overnight excursion, the pack is certainly large enough for a minimalist summer load out, especially if one wanted to strap items to the outside. It is large enough to hold my extra clothes, socks and gloves for winter day excursions, but I’d turn to a larger pack for a multiday trip or an overnighter in the colder months. Of course the extensive MOLLE webbing allows for adding tons of pouches to the exterior of the pack. 

     The organization of the pack is good overall. The loop panel in the lower exterior compartment offers numerous options with after market Velcro pouches, organizers and holsters. The zippered mesh pockets and mesh dividers in the other compartments are well-sized and intelligently placed. I do not lose any of my gear in this pack in hidden, forgotten compartments, and everything is pretty much easily accessible.
Top exterior pocket
     The hydration bladder that comes with the pack is excellent. It has a antimicrobial design and quick connect hose attachments. The hydration sleeve, which is located between the IVS panel and main compartment, is awkward to access and the 100oz bladder is a tight fit. I find that the hydration sleeve design, with its difficult access and numerous Velcro components, is the weakest part of the pack. I understand the tactical benefit to being able to swap out the bladder quickly, but I just find the design lacking. Perhaps a zippered sleeve and a traditional plastic hook for the bladder would be better, but that’s neither here nor there. I find myself rarely using the bladder in the Cyclone, instead I use a standard Nalgene bottle in a pouch on the hip belt with a second bottle or canteen inside the main compartment.
Bottom exterior pocket


   The Blackhawk! Cyclone is a tough, well made, and well fitting daypack. It holds all my gear well, keeps it protected and organized, and the pack easily holds up to the rigors of regular woods use. If one can live with the “tactical” look of this pack it will be an excellent all season day pack and an adequate summertime overnight pack.

Size and shape
Strong and durable
Quality materials and construction
Great fit
Excellent straps and belt

“Tactical” looking
Hydration sleeve is awkward