Footwear for the northern woods

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get out to the woods lately due to family obligations and mild illness. It really is a shame, because the daytime temperatures sporadically touch +10*C/+50*F and some days have been really sunny (by the way, this might still sound cold to some of you, but I can assure you that after many months of northern winter, it feels almost like a hot summer day). Most of the snow cover is gone now, and what’s left is melting very quickly. Thanks to the much longer spring days, it is now feasible for me to take afternoon/evening trips to the forest after work, which I just don’t do in the winter because it gets dark so early.

So I thought I’d talk to you today about a very important aspect of outdoor clothing: Footwear. The more you travel on foot, the more important boots/shoes become. Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking or walking in uncomfortable boots or shoes is likely to still curse them to this day. I go to the forest pretty frequently, all year round, so my footwear has to be capable of handling terrain ranging from ice and snow in winter, rocks and underbrush in summer and slush and mud in the spring and autumn. Obviously, no single item is going to cover all these conditions, so I have settled on three pair of boots which I alternate between as the seasons change. I will also wear camp shoes, gaiters and snowshoes as appropriate. Let me say at this point that these are just my personal preferences, and not the way that it “should” or “must” be done. I have my own reasons for doing things my way (personal experience and preference), which probably differs from plenty of other people out there.

(Linked image, not my photo)

I’ll start with the boots I wear roughly from May through September, i.e. my “summer boots”. For the past 3 years or so, I have been wearing a pair of Swedish military surplus combat boots on my regular trips to the forest. I realize that this might make some of you scratch your heads, but believe me, they work (and work well). I wore them while covering some pretty rocky and uneven terrain on my trip to Lapland last year, and they worked flawlessly, so they have more than proven themselves to me. I got them from a military-surplus store which was just giving them away for free. The old-school leather boots are marked 1968 and were not previously used, as far as I can tell. They are very rugged and provide great heel support and toe protection. After fitting them with insoles and breaking them in, I was surprised to find that they are as comfortable and effective as “modern” hiking boots. Being leather, they breathe and flex well, and are quite water-resistant if regularly shined or waterproofed. In my experience, they are more than enough for traversing rocky, shrubby, sandy etc. ground in the drier summer months.

(Linked image, not my photo)

When I’m taking a break during a longer hiking trip or just hanging around camp, I will usually take off my boots to give both them and my feet a chance to rest and air out. This is when I will slip on a pair of lightweight, breathable camp shoes similar to those shown above. After a day of hiking, these things feel great. :) I believe they were under 5 Euros.

(Linked image, not my photo)

In the spring and autumn, my boot of choice is a waterproof fabric-lined rubber boot with a high top (my “wet-weather boots”). Mine also happen to be Swedish military surplus (fireman’s boots in this case), but were made in Canada. I bought them from the same military surplus shop for 35 Euros. They provide protection against the mud, slush and generally wetter conditions of these seasons, which is critical for keeping feet dry and comfortable. There is enough room inside to wear several pair of socks, depending on how cold it is, and they are also fitted with removable insoles which provide insulation on the bottom (the linked picture above shows felt liners, which I did not get when I purchased my boots). Another nice feature of these boots is that they feature laces which allow the top of the boot to be closed off snugly against my leg, preventing snow and other stuff from falling inside. With the right combination of socks, they can be comfortably worn down to about freezing or a little below.

I have recently also taken to wearing Swiss military surplus gaiters over these boots (as well as over my winter boots discussed below), because they provide me with extra water-resistance almost up to my knees and help to keep my pants legs from coming out. These gaiters cost 5 Euros here in Finland.

(Linked image, not my photo)

From roughly November to March (basically, in below-freezing temperatures), I like to wear a good solid pair of Nokian winter boots made in Finland (no, it’s not the same company that made your telephone ;) ). They cost about 45 – 50 Euros and were purchased from a department store. I have worn these thickly lined boots down to -30*C/-22*F with two pair of socks. So far, this is the coldest temperature I have experienced when doing outdoor activities (though I have taken hour-long walks around the neighborhood at -40*C/-40*F). The boots were warm enough while being active and only slightly cool while stationary for a longer period at -30*C/-22*F. For use in snowy and icy environments, they’re great. I don’t anticipate needing boots capable of handling temperatures lower than this, as they aren’t all that frequent here (maybe only a week or two in February). If I do ever feel possessed to head out to Siberia or northern Canada, however, I’ll probably pick up a pair of boot liners. :)

(Linked image, not my photo)

The last, but definitely not least, type of footwear I use here in the north woods is the snowshoe. Mine happen to be US military surplus, made in Canada in 1979. I bought them for about 70 Euros. They have a painted magnesium frame with plastic-coated steel wire webbing and are styled after Native American snowshoes (Michigan pattern?). These shoes are tremendously important for mobility in deep snow, especially in dense forests. Regardless of the depth of the snow, I only sink in about 15 cm/6 inches. Skis might be faster, but in my opinion snowshoes are more versatile.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of alternatives to my choices and way of doing things. My methods have evolved organically over time as I gained experience in different seasons and conditions.

Stay tuned to The Weekend Woodsman! Coming up: more thoughts on bushcraft, trip reports, gear lists and a little teaser on my upcoming trip to Lapland.

Disclaimers and such…

My buddy Ross over at Wood Trekker recently brought up the topic of Internet disclaimers in a recent post (disclaimer: linking to the Wood Trekker website in no way implies my “choosing of sides” in any battle, real or imagined, between any two parties whatsoever in perpetuity).

Although I think that disclaimers on Internet blogs like mine should be thoroughly unnecessary, we live in a world where common sense isn’t common (no longer exists?), and a lot of people do a lot of strange and ridiculous things, like blaming other people for things in an attempt to defer responsibility (disclaimer: For precise definitions of “strange”, “ridiculous”, “responsibility”, “this”, “a”, “in”, “of” and “the”, please refer to Black’s Law Dictionary. I shall not be held liable for any misconstrued interpretations of “a”, “in”, “the” etc.).

I truly feel bad for anyone who does anything carelessly (especially when it comes to things involving a higher potential for danger, like fire lighting, wild edibles etc.) and then turns around and takes the “natural course of action” of pointing fingers and suing. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I guess that concept is dead. (disclaimer: By using the word “dead” in the previous sentence, I do not intend to suggest that you or anyone you know change the condition of any living thing to that of “dead”).

Several months ago, I wrote a set of disclaimers for this blog, thinking all the while that it was silly and unnecessary, but I must make it known that I will not be held liable for the irresponsible, foolish or careless actions of others. (disclaimer: By “months”, I refer to the conventional grouping of days into blocks of approximately 30. Any other meanings or interpretations are not intended and should not be construed as such).

“The Weekend Woodsman blog” disclaimers can be read here: http://weekendwoodsman.wordpress.com/about/  (disclaimer: My “disclaimers” may or may not be disclaimers, and may or may not be intended as such).

Closing disclaimer: I shall not be held liable if you or third persons are injured or in any other way harmed due to excessive laughter, mind numbing, nausea or boredom which could result from this blog post. ;)

“Two is one, one is none”

I’ve been hearing and reading this quote a lot recently. As far as I can tell, it originated in the US military (marine corps?). It stresses the idea that it’s good to have some redundancy to your gear, especially when it comes to items which are frequently used or required for safety/survival. If you have a knife on your belt and one in your pack, for example, you’d still have one knife should you somehow lose either your pack or belt. If you only have one knife, and it gets separated from you, you’re out of luck. I decided to take a look at my gear to see how it measures up (by the way, a review of what I carry in my backpack is coming soon…promise!).

I identified the following redundancies in my gear (only important or semi-important items taken into account here). I carry:

  • 2 knives (one fixed blade and one small SAK)
  • 4 fire-starting tools (matches in two places and ferro rod and flint and steel kit in other places)
  • 2 map compasses (almost identical)
  • 2 bundles of cord and twine (twine and paracord in one place, just twine in another place)
  • 2 flashlights (one LED headlamp and one bright LED keychain flashlight)
  • 2 canteens (second is brought on longer trips)
  • 3 pots/kettles (cooking pot and kettle in backpack, canteen cup in shoulder bag)
  • 2 basic shelters (2 poncho tent halves) (3 shelters if you include the Mylar space blanket)
  • 2 soaps
  • 2 small rolls of toilet paper

As I said above, this list is not exhaustive, but I don’t think there are too many other items which are doubled up (or tripled etc.). As you can see, my backup items are often smaller/lighter than the main item, and almost as functional, so they don’t add a huge amount of bulk or weight. The backup items are not always exactly the same the original, nor do they always need to be (i.e. I don’t feel the need to carry two fixed-blade knives etc.).

While doing this check, I noticed one glaring redundancy omission: first-aid kits. I have one in my shoulder bag, which is almost always with me, but I think it would make a lot of sense to have a second first-aid kit in my backpack as well, in case I lose my shoulder bag somehow. So before my next outing, I will put together another first-aid kit and include it in a small dry bag in my backpack which already contains a few other items. Another change will be to move my Swiss army knife from my belt pouch to my shoulder bag so that both my knives are not attached to my belt.

Do you have redundancies built into your kit? I highly recommend making sure that you do!

EDIT: Please check out the comments and my responses below, as they provide some more insight into why I think some gear redundancy can be crucial.

An Easter visit to the farm

Let me start off by saying that this post is somewhat of an afterthought. Only afterward did I realize that I should have taken a lot more pictures of a lot more things, but I was enjoying myself too much and just didn’t think about it. :)

We drove to the Woodwife’s grandparents’ house on Saturday morning. They live on a small working farm of about 120 acres/48 hectares, of which maybe 25 acres/10 hectares (just a guess) are cleared for farming, yard etc. and the rest are wooded. After visiting for a bit, we headed down to the frozen stream at the edge of the property. My grandfather-in-law recently built an aspen-log “savusauna” or smoke sauna in the same spot as the one he was born in long ago. Nearby, he erected a “hulju” or “palju”, which is an outdoor bathtub heated by a wood-burning stove.

They asked me to build a fire in a filled-up well shaft so we could roast some sausages, so I brought some wood over from the barn with a small toboggan and started splitting some of the smaller stuff with my knife. The Woodsboy supervised and lent a hand.

When my grandfather-in-law saw me splitting wood with my knife, he went to the barn and then brought back a hatchet for me. I’m sure when he saw me batoning the wood, he was thinking to himself, “Why the heck is he banging on his knife like that?” When he handed me the hatchet, I said thanks, and then he looked behind me and saw that the fire was already fully blazing by that point. :D

My father-in-law cleared some snow away from the well shaft and laid down a long pad to sit on while we roasted the sausages.

Meanwhile, my grandfather-in-law uncovered, filled and fired up the bathtub.

My grandmother-in-law started heating the smoke sauna at this time. A smoke sauna is different from a standard sauna in an important way. Standard saunas have a “kiuas”, which is a wood-burning stove with what is essentially an open metal bin of rocks on top of it. Smoke saunas, on the other hand, have a brick or stone structure which holds rocks on top and allows a wood fire to be built underneath. This structure kind of looks like a dog house, with rocks where the roof would be and a “doorway” where the wood is loaded. A fire is kept burning under the rocks for a long period. While the fire is burning, the smoke is allowed to fill the sauna, which blackens the walls over time. This gives it an interesting smell and look. A small opening toward the top of the sauna lets the smoke out. When the rocks are sufficiently hot, the fire is allowed to die down. To use the sauna, you simply sit around on the benches and throw water on the heated rocks with a straight-handled ladle/dipper/water scoop type thing. The water is converted instantly into steam and believe me, it feels great on the skin. Apparently, the smoke sauna is the original way that saunas were made in Finland, which actually makes sense. The more modern saunas with metal wood-burning stoves came later.

While waiting for the bathtub and sauna to heat up, we ate the sausages, sandwiches, cake, “riisipiirakka” (a small pastry with a rye shell and rice filling) and a few other tasty treats and also drank coffee. It was a nice family affair.

While the first round of sauna-goers were enjoying a steam bath (and then relaxing in the bathtub, and then back to the sauna, and so on), the Woodswife and I decided it was time for me to try skiing again. I tried skiing once before, about 7 years ago, and let’s just say I didn’t fall in love with it. Now that I have two winters’ worth of snowshoeing experience under my belt and am familiar with long/bulky things attached to my feet, I thought it might be easier to ski at this point, and I was right. I used a pair of vintage forest skis and old poles, and I’m “happy” to say I only fell about three or four times, and the soreness is mostly gone now. :) I wish I had taken a picture of the old wooden skis, but I didn’t think about it at the time. Here’s the Woodswife on this beautiful afternoon.

And a few more shots of the areas we went skiing and snowmobiling in.

After skiing, going to the sauna and showering, we ate a delicious Easter dinner and sat around and relaxed for the rest of the evening. Not a bad way to spend part of the Easter weekend!

By the way, in case anyone is wondering, the snow is still about knee-deep out in the country. I expect most of it to be gone in 2 – 3 weeks.

A second (and third, and fourth….) opinion on the medium camp knife

In November of last year, I wrote about my thoughts on the medium camp knife here. In a nutshell, my limited experience over the past 4 years and fuzzy recollections from days gone by have suggested to me that a well-balanced woods knife with a 6″/15 cm blade might possibly be more versatile than a more standard 4″/10 cm blade, yet still do the same jobs as well or nearly as well. Let me say right off the bat that just because I like a larger knife does not mean that I have a “Rambo complex”, nor does it have anything to do with “surviving in the woods with nothing but a knife” or anything else like that. What I’m talking about is real field use for a variety of bushcraft, camping and similar tasks. After doing a little Internet research, I was both pleased and surprised to find that several very experienced woodsmen, various native groups and some historical types also tend to favor medium camp knives.

In an early Ray Mears’ survival manual published in 1990, he expressed a preference for the Wilkinson Sword “type D” survival knife, a version of the British MOD survival knife similar to the one shown below (incidentally, Mears designed the type D). This beefy knife has a thick blade a bit over 7″/18 cm long. Not exactly a Woodlore! Mears went on to say how versatile this knife is for a wide variety of tasks and recommended pairing it with an Opinel knife for smaller tasks. I wonder if his later switch to the Woodlore had more to do with knife taboo in the UK than a true preference for a 4″/10 cm blade.

(Linked image, not my photo)

Now let’s consider one of Ray’s good buddies from Sweden, Lars Fält. Apparently, back in the 90s he designed a knife similar to the Finnish M95 Ranger knife (Sissipuukko) from Fiskars designed by J-P Peltonen. According to a recent issue of Finnish outdoor magazine “Retki”, Lars has been spotted with this very knife on his belt. The Sissipuukko M95 sports a 6″/15 cm blade with a sturdy spine. Not exactly a Mora No. 1.

(Linked image, not my photo)

Let’s ask Tor Helge, an experienced bushcrafter and woodsman from northern Norway. According to his website, the knife he has been using most of all recently is the discontinued Storhallingen from Brusletto. This knife sports a 6″/15 cm blade. According to Tor, “…I think that makes it a good all-round knife. It is long enough for slicing bread and bleeding out big game, but not so big it can’t be used for more delicate cutting tasks. (It is also) strong enough for batoning wood”. Sounds good to me.

(Linked image, not my photo)

How about respected British bushcraft instructor Gary Wale at Survivall/Nordmarken Canoe UK – Weiss? He has been a fan of the camp knife for some time (also having designed one at one point), and has recently revealed that he is dumping almost all of his knives in favor of (once again) the Sissipuukko M95. Not a Swiss army knife. Not a khukri. Not a Woodlore. A medium camp knife.

Popular wilderness survivalist Les Stroud aka Survivorman has announced that he will soon be coming out with a line of “survival knives” (I’m not crazy about this term, but that’s what he calls them), which are larger and more robust than his Temagami bushcraft knife and which are intended for rougher use at a wider range of tasks. He’s said he prefers this type of knife over the typical bushcraft knife.

EDIT: Thanks go out to Finnman for reminding me that Tom Brown and Dave Canterbury also like camp knives generally in this size range.

It’s not only well-known contemporary outdoorsmen who share this preference, however. Time and again I see bushcraft/outdoor shows where medium camp knives are being used by natives from Africa to the Arctic for tasks from carving to skinning to chopping. And what about American and Canadian frontiersmen of the past? They seemed to prefer larger kitchen/cooking knives for use as outdoors knives thanks to their versatility.

These are all real outdoorsmen with real experience. Not Rambo wannabes, not youngsters mesmerized by big knives and not show-offs. They appreciate the usefulness, versatility and ruggedness of the medium camp knife. They know what it’s capable of. After having independently done my own testing and experimenting over the past few years, I can’t help but agree with them (only after coming to prefer this type of knife did I find out about our similar preference). Now, my level of knowledge and skill is nowhere near that of these gentlemen, but I have to say I’m pleased to share a knife preference with them. :) As some of you know, my preferred medium camp knife is a modified version of the BushProwler from Ilkka Seikku. It features a 6″/15 cm blade.

As usual, I’m not trying to make an argument for what’s “best”. That’s up to each individual to decide for themselves based on many different factors, including geographic location, season, tasks to be done, preference etc. I’m just sharing my findings and personal viewpoint. In addition, I’m not suggesting that the medium camp knife is “one knife for everything” and appropriate for all tasks. I highly value axes, saws and smaller knives for their respective uses. I like to pair my camp knife with a larger chopping/splitting tool and a small SAK for heavy and fine work, respectively (though honestly the SAK doesn’t come out too often).

If I’ll be sitting down at home for a longer carving project, I’ll grab my small whittling puukko. If I’ll be clearing lots of brush for a while, I’ll grab a khukri or machete. If I’ll be splitting lots of wood at the cabin, I’ll use a splitting axe. These tasks are best done with more specialized tools. When it comes to hiking into the forest, though, there is a limit to how many tools I want to carry with me, so the ones I choose have to be very versatile. As it turns out, the tool I reach for most often while in the bush, for tasks like carving, food preparation, chopping, limbing, brush clearing, splitting, prying, striking a ferrocerium rod and many general cutting tasks, is the versatile medium camp knife. And while it’s true that almost any blade can be pressed into service to do many different things, I tend to think that some would be more ideal than others when it comes to versatility.

Remember, this is just an opinion. Take it with a grain of salt. :)

EDIT: I hesitate to write articles like this, because I don’t want to put people off or create an “us versus them” situation. Truth be told, I could certainly get on with a good 3″, 4″ or 5″ knife and have used plenty of them before. They are capable of doing a LOT, and most people swear by them. I really feel like talking about this is nit-picking at this point. No more blade-size posts, I promise. :D

Birch polypore

A little over a month ago, the Woodswife and I collected some birch polypore mushrooms (piptoporus betulinus) from a small dead birch tree in the forest. This mushroom grows on dead or weakened birch trees and features a whitish or brownish cap and a yellowish pore surface.

I let the mushrooms dry out for a few weeks and then shaved off the outer “skin” on the top and cut off the tissue where the spores grow on the underside. This revealed the “meat” of the mushroom, which exhibits some very interesting properties. It feels kind of like velvety cork or some kind of high-strength, lightweight material conjured up in a NASA laboratory.

I cut off a small piece and lit it with a match to see how it would burn. Rather than burning with a flame, the mushroom burned with more of a “jet” effect, as though some gases were being released and burned. I found this very interesting. It also burned somewhat slowly, so I think there’s good fire-lighting potential there. Speaking of fire-lighting, I have read that if it is charred in the same way that charcloth is made, birch polypore will take a spark from a flint and steel pretty easily. I’ll have to try it!

A little Internet research has turned up some other interesting uses of this mushroom. A strip of the inner flesh can be cut out and used as a blade strop (hence the nickname “razor strop fungus”). A strip of this flesh can also be effectively used as a band-aid/plaster for external wounds thanks to the fungus’ antiseptic properties. This fungus is also said to be anti-parasitic, especially against intestinal parasites (when boiled in water, and the water drunk when cool). Just like chaga, birch polypore contains betulinic acid, which is claimed to be a cancer-fighting agent (Note: This information is NOT being provided as medical advice. It is for educational purposes only. As always, be sure to research wild foods and medicines on your own and be 100% sure of what you are doing.).

I never get tired of learning about little gems of nature like this. If you know of any other uses for this mushroom, I’d be interested to hear them!