Posts made in September 2018

Suwannee River State Park (Withlacoochee River)

Choosing the right Knife for Backpacking

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

Going into a wilderness area without a knife is like backpacking barefoot.  It can be done with undue hardships and risks.  Some backpackers are weight conscious about their gear and they down size what they bring into a wilderness area.  A knife should not be that piece of gear.  A knife provides you the ability to cut and process various items and it will also provide you protection from dangers in a wilderness area.

There are many knife manufacturers who produce quality knives. Choosing one can be overwhelming if you are not sure what to look for.  This article will focus on what type of knife you should bring with you and not so much the manufacturer.

I will discuss the following types of knives and which one I recommend for your next adventure.

  • Folding Knife 
  • Fixed Blade Knife 
  • Serrated Blade
  • Straight Blade
  • The Metal Composition of the Knife

Folding Knife:

Folding knives are excellent EDC (Every Day Carry) knives.  They are compact lightweight and can be easily carried in or attached to your pocket, (with clip).  Folding knives have their place but not in a wilderness area.  What makes them portable also makes them weak.  The hinge/pin that allows them to open and close can fail.  This limits their use and durability in the field.  An example would be if you use them to baton or chop wood.  The impact on the hinge will eventually cause them to weaken and break over time.

Fixed Blade Knife:

A fixed blade knife is a solid one piece knife that has no moving parts.  These knives are heavier than a folding knife but they are more versatile and resilient.  Fixed blade knives come in a full tang or partial tang configuration.

A full tang knife is where the knife is one solid piece that extends through the handle.  A partial tang knife is where the metal portion of the knife is partially pushed into a handle.  The metal portion does not extend through the entire handle like the full tang knife.  A full tang knife is much stronger and better to have in the wilderness.

Serrated Blade

A serrated knife is a blade that has the same type of characteristics you see on a saw.  A serrated knife is also called a sawtooth knife.  Most field knives that have a serrated blade on them also have a portion of the knife that has a smooth blade, (the knife is half serrated and half smooth).  This type of blade is good for sawing but they are difficult to sharpen.  They are also not designed for work that requires precision cuts.  Even though they are difficult to sharpen they do stay sharper then a smooth blade knife.  I have used these knives and they have their uses in the wilderness.

Gerber LMF II Fixed Blade Serrated Knife
Gerber LMF II Fixed Blade Serrated Knife (Full Tang)

Straight Blade

A straight blade knife is a blade that has a smooth edge like that of a razor used for shaving.  These knives can be easily sharpened and they have more surface contact with the objects you are cutting.  Having a small Sharpener with you in the wilderness is a good idea if you carry a straight blade knife.  In an emergency, depending on the wilderness area,  you may be able to sharpen a straight blade knife with rocks or stones you find especially those in creeks or streams.

Knife Sharpener
Worksharp (Knife Sharpener)

A straight edge knife unlike a serrated can be sharpened to either a polished or coarse edge depending on the sharpening stone you use.  This type of sharpening allows you to acclimate the blade to a specific use. An example would be if you are cutting thick rope.  You can sharpen the knife with a more coarse sharpening stone causing the blade to have micro serrations.  This edge will cut through rope better than one with a polished blade.  

US Army M7 Bayonet Knife
Vietnam M7 Knife with M8A1 Scabbard

The Metal Composition of the Knife

So what type of metal composition should a wilderness knife have?  There is much debate on this.  I prefer a carbon steel knife, (1095 carbon), over a stainless steel knife.  Carbon steel knives hold a better edge, easier to sharpen, and stronger.  The down side is that a carbon steel knife will rust if you do not take care of it.

Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest (Esee 6 Knife)

Conclusion

I prefer using a fixed blade full tang knife with a smooth blade.  I like using the Esee series of knives made by Randall’s Adventure and Training.  I like the cutting edge of the blade to be 4 to 6 inches in length.  I may use a larger blade knife if I am clearing vegetation, (jungle terrain), with it.  In this situation I use the Esee Junglas or machete with a 10 inch or longer blade.  My preference in the knifes metal composition is carbon steel, (1095 carbon steel).  I find it easier to sharpen and they hold a good edge in the field.

There are many manufacturers out there who produce high quality knives.  Do your research and select one who will stand by their knives no matter what.  I have never had a problem with the quality of my Esee knives and they have a life time warranty on their knives if they break, no questions asked.

Esee Knives
My (3) choices of knives that I use on my wilderness adventures

Wilderness Tip:  click on this link for a tip on how to carry your knife more. easily in a wilderness area.


Hells Canyon Wilderness

Choosing a Solar Panel for Backpacking

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

When it comes to choosing a solar panel for backpacking there are a variety of choices to choose from. There are many top name brand solar panels in the market.  I have used Goal Zero, Sun Tactics and Anker.  If you are going to be in the wilderness for an extended period of time, (more than 2 days) a solar panel is an important piece of gear to have with you.  If you are just going for an overnight trip bringing a battery pack by itself  will probably be sufficient to charge your gear.

Solar panels are used to charge your electronic gear.  You can charge your gear directly or you can choose to charge a separate lithium battery pack.  I find that charging a battery pack using a solar panel is the most efficient way to keep your electronic gear charged and operational.   

So which solar panel is the right one for you?  I will discuss (5) features you should look for when choosing the right solar panel for your wilderness adventures.

Features to have in a Solar Panel


Lightweight and Portable

Solar panels are either rigid or semi-rigid.  Semi-rigid solar panels allow you to roll them or fold them up. Semi-rigid panels that fold up allow them to be more compact and lightweight.  They can be easily packed, strapped to your backpack, or attached to your tent.  The flexibility of a semi-rigid solar panel allows it to be set up in different configurations. Foldable solar panels are fairly durable and provide better protection for its panels when they are being transported.

Solar Panel
Solar Panel attached to my Backpack


Solar Panels
Anker and Goal Zero Foldable Solar Panel


Connection Points

Make sure that you get a solar panel that has connection points on its outer edges.  These connection points can be a grommet or a rope loop.  Having these connection points allows you to strap it to various things such as your backpack or tent.  These connection points also allow you to secure a solar panel in other configurations.

Power

Solar panels come in a variety of power outputs that are rated in watts.  A watt is how much power a solar panel can produce in full sunlight.  The higher the solar panels wattage the more powerful it is, (i.e. a 24 watt solar panel is more powerful then a 15 watt solar panel).  The next thing to look at is how many amps will a solar panel produce.  The larger the amps the more it will put out especially for electronic equipment requiring high flow rates.   I recommend having at least a 15 watt solar panel with a minimum of a 2.0 amp output.  These specifications allow you to power most of your gear to include a lithium battery pack if you choose to charge your gear that way.

USB Ports

When you look at a solar panel make sure that you have at least (2) USB ports on it .  Having 2 USB ports allow you to charge multiple devices which can save you down time over those having only 1 USB port.  

Weatherproof 

There are very few solar panels that you can actual submerse in water.  I am very cautious about manufactures advertising that a their solar panel is 100 percent waterproof because their definition varies from the actual IP rating, (International Protection Rating).  IP ratings set the standard of protection for electronic equipment from solids, (such as dust, and accidental contact) and water entering electrical enclosures.  I recommend having a solar panel rated at a minimum IPX4 level (Protects from splashing water no matter the direction).  The highest level is IPX7 which means that is is submersiable in water.

I have found that the IPX4 rating for a solar panel has worked well for me. Even if you have a panel that is 100 percent waterproof it does not mean that the electronic equipment you have attached to it is waterproof.  If I need to cross a stream or if heavy rains are coming I will properly protect my electronic gear that is not IPX7 rated. 

Conclusion

Selecting a solar panel does not have to be difficult or expensive.  There are many solar panels that have the above features priced between $40 to $80 dollars.  Paying anymore than $80.00 dollars does not necessarily get you a better solar panel.  I highly recommend that when you have chosen the solar panel right for you that you test it out in your backyard before heading into a wilderness area.

Pemigewasset Wilderness (New Hampshire)

Signaling for Help in an Emergency

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

When an emergency arises in the wilderness how will you signal for help?   This article will discuss some methods you can use if an emergency arises.  In an emergency the first thing you need to do is to stay calm.  Staying in the right frame of mind will be crucial for you to clearly think and act. The realization that you are in trouble can be overwhelming and you need to accept what has happened and make a plan for rescue. Keeping your mind focused on getting help will keep out those doom and gloom thoughts that can make your situation worse.   

Next, you need to stay where you are unless your environment or situation will worsen if you stay.  If your emergency is that you are lost I have written an article on what to do if you get lost, Lost in the Wilderness.  Establish a makeshift basecamp in an open area with a clear view of the sky. Your physical condition will dictate how detailed your basecamp will be.  If you are injured a makeshift shelter can be as simple as using a poncho.  If you or someone else is injured make sure that you apply the necessary first aid to stabilize the injury.

Once you have done all of the above it is time to set up and deploy your signaling method for rescue. I have categorized these methods into (3) categories.  The first is using an Electronic Communicating Device, the second is using a Visual Signal and the third is using an Audible Device.

Electronic Communicating Devices

Electronic communicating devices are by far the quickest way to notify rescue personnel.  Technology has advanced tremendously in the last quarter century.  Electronic communicating devices are available to backpackers and they have reasonably priced subscription plans.  There are a variety of devices you can choose to take with you on your wilderness adventures.

Types of Electronic Communicating Devices

Cell Phone:  Most wilderness backpackers have cell phones.  It should be  charged and with you during your adventure. Cell phone coverage will vary in a wilderness area.   I have found that using them in high elevations such as Hill-tops work the best. There have been documented rescue stories where a backpacker used their cell phone to call for help.  Most cell phones have GPS capabilities and you should make yourself familiar on how to acquire them.  You can also download navigational apps to help you navigate and pinpoint your location.  

Cell Phone
 A Cell Phone should always be carried by Wilderness Backpackers

GPS Communicating Devices:  There are a variety of GPS communicating devices.  These devices include satellite communicators, (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, Spot, etc.), PLB’s such as ACR or a Satellite phone.  A satellite communicator has its limitations.  The signal can be blocked if you are embedded deeply in a canyon or heavily covered forest.  GPS devices may also have some lag time in receiving and transmitting a signal based on the orbital position of the satellites.  Having one of these GPS communicators with you is by far the best way to call for help in an emergency.  I carry the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, and my cell phone.

Garmin inReach Explorer Plus
GPS Satellite Communicator (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus)

If you bring an electronic device with you make sure you either have a solar panel or battery pack to charge it.

Visual Signals

A visual signal has the ability to be seen at great distances, depending on the type of signal.  It is especially useful for aircrafts that are searching for you, (Helicopters, Planes, Drones). One of the main benefits of using a visual signal is that it can be deployed for an extended or indefinite period of time.    Once it is deployed it will continue to be seen without you worrying about the battery running dead.  You also do not have to physically manipulate it like an audible device which can make you physically tired.  

Types of Visual Signals

Fire:  In a rescue situation fire is a very good visual signal.  Having a fire also gives you comfort during an emergency.  The best way to use fire is to set it up in a triangle configuration.  You should set up the fires in an open area.  This triangle configuration is known as a sign for international distress signal.  Managing (3) fires may be very difficult.   If you cannot do this use one fire.  Enhance the smoke on your single fire by putting green vegetation on the fire.  This will cause more smoke.

Flares:  Hand flares or parachute flares are limited in use.  They are effective when rescue personnel are nearby and can see the flare.  Hand flares do provide you another use which is to help you light a fire.

Mirrors:  Signaling mirrors are small and lightweight and can be easily carried in your pocket.  They can be used to signal aircraft or other people that you can visually see on the ground.  The mirror on a compass will work  as well.

Flash Light:  Use your flashlight, headlamp, or another device with a light, to signal others.  Some of these devices have a built in SOS feature.  My Petzl Reactik + headlamp has this feature which you can program with your cell phone via bluetooth.

Petzl Reactik + Headlamp
Petzl Reactik + Headlamp (With a built in SOS signal)

Other Visual Signaling Devices:  Items you have in your backpack can be used as a visual signaling device.  This can be your bright colored air mat or tent.  A foldable panel like the ones used on boats will work.  You can also use items in your environment such as rocks or deadwood to set up signs or signals on the ground that can be seen by aircraft.  If you use rocks or dead wood set it up in an X configuration.  The X configuration is also the sign for  medical assistance needed.

Bright colored Air mats can be used as a visual signaling device

Audible Signals

Audible signals utilize sound to get the attention of others who are nearby.  An audible signal has its limitations based on where you are and what signal you are using.  If you are in a densely packed wooded area the trees will dampen or reduce your signals ability to travel an extended distance. If you are on top of a mountain or hill that same audible signal will travel much farther reaching many more people.  Utilizing an audible signal is the most physically exerting signaling method.  You physical condition may limit your use of this method.

Types of Audible Signals

Voice:   Yelling, singing, talking may help rescuers that are nearby to spot you.

Whistle:  A whistle is the best audible signal you can use.  A whistle is

  • lightweight
  • easy to carry
  • Inexpensive
  • Can penetrate densely wooded wilderness areas
  • It is less exhausting then yelling

A whistle can be easily carried on a lanyard on the outside of your backpack.

Firearm:  If you carry a firearm you can discharge it to signal for help.  If you decide to use this method discharge your firearm safely so as not to hit rescue personnel or to have it ricochet back toward you.  A firearm has its limitations based on how much ammo you carry.  

Smith and Wesson
Smith and Wesson .44 Mag

Impact Noises:  Using audible signals are endless when you want t transmit an audible signal.  Banging your cookware together or taking a large stick and hitting the trunk of a tree will work.

Conclusion:

The best signaling method for emergencies is combining all three of the above methods based on your situation.  The GPS communicator is the best of the (3) methods.  The cost of having one with you is well worth your safety or that of others in your party.  Deploying all of the above methods will give you the best chance of being seen or heard.  The deployment of these methods will depend on the following:

1.  Your physical health and mental state of mind at the time of your emergency.  

You must overcome physically injuries and vanquish your fears.   

2.  Having the signaling gear with you or using what Mother Nature has provided around you.

Have the necessary emergency signaling gear with you on your adventures.  If you find yourself without the necessary signaling gear use what Mother Nature has provided.  Your imagination is endless.  It is also very important that you give family and friends pertinent information outlining your adventure, Pre-planning your Wilderness Adventure.  Giving this information to family and friend should include your starting and ending points, routes, and time of departure and return..

Your will to survive can overcome many obstacles.  My training in the military has taught me to always be prepared before heading into the field (Preplan your Wilderness Adventure).  My training has also taught me to improvise, adapt and overcome, difficult situations when an emergency arises.

Christian Von Bargen (Garmin inReach Explorer)

A Rescue Story

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

I am solo backpacker who understands the dangers of traveling into a wilderness area alone or with others.  I always carry a GPS satellite communicator with me.  My choice is the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus.  A satellite communicator allows you to communicate with others using the network of satellites circling the earth.   There are three different types of satellite communicators available for you to use.  They is a voice, (sat phone), text (Garmin inReach spot), or a PLB, (Personal Locating Beacon) such as ACR.

This article is about a friend of mine, Christian VonBargen, who used his satellite communicator (inReach Explorer) to rescue someone in a remote section of Idaho.  This is his rescue story

Christian VonBargen’s Rescue Story 

On August 2, 2018, I flew into Boise, Idaho for a backpacking trip into the White Clouds Wilderness, located within the Sawtooth National Forest.  After purchasing a few supplies from REI, I started the 4.5 hour drive to the trailhead.  I was on a very remote and rugged stretch of Idaho State Highway 21 when I noticed a motorcycle parked on the side of the road.  I quickly realized there was a second motorcycle that had run off of the run and crashed into a steep ravine.  The motorcycle parked on the side of the road belonged to an adult male.  The motorcycle in the ravine belonged to the man’s wife.  Unfortunately, she became pinned under the large motorcycle when she crashed into the ravine.

I could see help was needed and I immediately rented aid.  I began climbing into the ravine to help the husband lift the motorcycle off of his wife.  By this time several other people began stopping.  As I climbed into the ravine, I asked other people to call 911, as it was obvious the female was severely injured.  Unfortunately, there was no cell signal and no one was able to call 911 for help.  I immediately remembered I had my Delorme inReach Explorer in my vehicle.  I climbed out of the ravine and retrieved the inReach Explorer.  

Christian Von Bargen (Garmin inReach Explorer)
Picture By: Christian Von Bargen (Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho)

I activated the SOS button on my inReach.  I was unsure of what to expect, as I had never utilized the SOS function before.  Thankfully, the SOS function worked flawlessly.  Within minutes, I was in contact with personnel with the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC).  First aid was rendered to the victim as I relayed that vital information to the IERCC.  I maintained contact with the IERCC providing updates on the victim’s condition.  Rescue personnel arrived on scene approximately 45 minutes after I hit the SOS button.  

After arriving on scene, rescue personnel determined the female needed to be airlifted by helicopter.  Due to the remote/rugged, mountainous terrain, rescue personnel were unable to utilize their radios to request the helicopter.  The rescue personnel were not equipped with a satellite communication device and they asked me to request the helicopter utilizing my inReach Explorer.  I requested the helicopter, which arrived approximately 30 minutes later.  The victim was airlifted to a hospital in Boise and she survived.

Conclusion

This story is a good example of why you should have some type of satellite communicator with you on your wilderness adventure.  There are many types of satellite communicators available for you to choose, (Sat phone, Text, PLB).  I use the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus as my choice for various reasons and I have posted an article on this unit here on my website.  I am not payed or endorsed by Garmin nor do I get free products from them. Your choice of which type to use will be what works best for you.

Having a GPS communicator not only can save your life but it may save the life of another as you read above.  The cost of purchasing a satellite communicator has come down in recent years and there are various plans that are also very affordable.  No matter what device you choose have one with you on your next adventure.  It could save your life or the life of another.

Juniper Prairie Wilderness

Wilderness Tip: Easy Method for Starting a Fire

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

When I am on my wilderness adventures I enjoy having a nice basecamp fire in the evening.  Having a fire gives you warmth and comfort.  A fire will also boost your spirits especially if it is a cold evening.  Starting a fire does not have to be difficult and there are many ways to start a basecamp fire. Wilderness backpackers should bring the necessary gear into the field and your pre-planning should definitely cover having the right fire starting gear with you.

When you get to your basecamp or after a long day exploring the area around your basecamp most backpackers are tired and they do not necessarily want to use a bow drill to start a fire.  The method I use is simple and easy to use.   I bring a lighter, magnesium rod, and some cotton balls that have been treated with Petroleum Jelly.

Cotton dipped in petroleum will ignite in the harshest environments.  The petroleum acts as an accelerant allowing it to burn for an extended period of time.  I carry the treated cotton in a zip lock bag.  I use the lighter to ignite the cotton.  If I use my magnesium rod I take the cotton and pull it apart to get the finer strains exposed making it easier to light.


Fire Starting Kit
Fire Starting Kit (Lighter, Magnesium, Cotton dipped in petroleum jelly)
Lighting the cotton with a lighter
When using a Magnesium Rod spread out the cotton fibers to make it easier to light.
Lighting the cotton with a Magnesium Rod.

Conclusion

Being prepared is important for a safe and enjoyable backpacking adventure.  I am a practical backpacker who uses the K.I.S.S. Method, (Keep It Super Simple). This method for starting a fire is simple, inexpensive and reliable. You probably already have these items, (cotton, and petroleum jelly), in your house now.   Try it on your next trip.  It may become your go to fire starting kit for your wilderness adventures.