(German army) poncho as a bivy bag, and some news

I like rugged gear. I really like rugged and multi-purpose gear. And I really, really like rugged, multi-purpose and cheap gear. Anyone familiar with the German military surplus poncho will know that this item fits all these criteria and more. One use that I have found for this versatile piece of kit is as a bivy bag around my sleeping bag and sleeping pad. I image this trick would work with any poncho that has double-sided snaps. Here’s the poncho in its normal configuration.

To use the poncho as a bivy bag, first lay it out with the “inside” facing up.

Then lay your sleeping pad and sleeping bag on one side of the poncho.

Fold the poncho over the sleeping bag and fasten the snaps, making sure to overlap the top over the bottom, and not the other way around.

Finally, bunch up the poncho at the foot end and tie it off with some cord, making sure it’s nice and (water-)tight. I always keep a short length of paracord attached to the poncho for this purpose.

And here’s how it looks when finished. The sleeping bag I used for this demonstration (EDIT: Swiss army surplus) is extra long because of the hood attached to it. I normally pull this hood into the sleeping bag, so no parts of the bag extend outside the bivy.

I admit that this setup does not provide quite as much protection as a made-for-purpose bivy bag, but it does work quite well. I’ve used it in a variety of conditions and have not gotten wet. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes, this setup works so well to keep moisture out that it also keeps moisture in (evaporation from the body). This is easy to remedy. Instead of snapping all the snaps, snap every second one or even fewer. This will allow the moisture to escape, but will still keep the poncho wrapped around you.

 And now for the news. I don’t usually talk about personal issues here at TWW, but over the past few months, I’ve been dealing with a difficult one. In a significant way, my life has been turned upside down. This is one of the reasons why long stretches have gone by without any posts. Until things settle down a bit more, I can’t promise that I’ll be able to put out new blog posts regularly, but I will do what I can. I will be continuing with the permanent bushcraft camp series and also have some other exciting things in the works. Thanks for reading and being patient. ;) In the mean time, check out my friend Alex’s continuing adventures at 62nd parallel north.

Cook kit revamp and Swedish mess kit testing

Like many outdoors enthusiasts, I experience the “accumulate, shed, accumulate, shed” cycle when it comes to gear. You buy, make, fix up or receive as a gift a nifty item and then add it to your regular gear loadout. Then it happens again…and again. Before you know it, your pack has grown heavy and bulky and it’s once again time to scrutinize your gear choices and get back to basics. After realizing that I was deep into an accumulation phase last autumn, I started working to reduce, lighten and de-bulk-ify my pack. I’ve now gotten to a point where I’m very happy with my reduced (thought not minimalist) kit, and I will be covering it in its entirety in an upcoming post. In today’s post, though, I’ll focus on the category of my kit which has experienced the most dramatic, and almost complete, change: my cook kit.

As of last autumn, my cook kit contained:

  • Basic cook pot
  • Kettle
  • Non-stick frying pan
  • Spatula
  • Spoon
  • Buddy burner and accessories
  • Folding fire grill
  • Kuksa cup
  • Scrub brush
  • Dish soap
  • Sausage roaster
  • Ikea hobo stove
  • Alcohol stove
  • Consumables (olive oil, honey, salt/pepper)

It’s a pretty versatile kit. It’s also a heavy and bulky one. On occasion I used all the different items, but not frequently enough to justify taking it all with me on every trip. After finally coming to my senses, I decided to pare down my every-trip cook kit to a reasonable minimum based on the foods I cook and how I cook them (crazy idea, I know…). The remaining items were either put into the “infrequent or special use” category or cut out entirely.

My new basic cook kit:

Spoon, mess kit pot, mess kit lid/pan, kuksa cup, honey, olive oil, salt/pepper, scrub pad

Conveniently, it all fits inside the pot and lid:

Lots of changes! You’ll notice that I haven’t listed any stoves at all. This is because I use fire for cooking nearly 100% of the time. I have used my various stoves over the years, but in most cases, it wasn’t necessary. I used them just to use them! You’ll also notice that I included the Swedish mess kit I purchased a few weeks back (more on that later).

Infrequent- or special-use items:

Grill, frying pan, spatula, IKEA hobo stove, alcohol stove, alcohol

Items from this kit will come along if the situation requires it, e.g. if I won’t be able to make a fire for some reason (hot and dry conditions in the summer, for example), if I’ll be cooking for a group etc.

I mentioned above that I shed some items entirely. This included a dedicated water kettle (the mess kit lid now handles this), dish soap (I always end up using ashes or sand instead) and the buddy burner and its accessories (just didn’t need it).

Regular readers will know that I bought a Swedish mess kit pot and lid a few weeks ago to try out. I picked this up because I thought it would have a few advantages over the set I was using. First off, the lid can be used as, well, a lid for the pot, allowing for faster boil times and cooking (my other pot doesn’t have a lid). The lid itself can also be used as a second smaller pot or frying pan. The lid and pot lock together pretty solidly, protecting the contents I can stow inside. The overall package is also a more convenient shape and size for stowage in my pack. Now, these are great reasons to make the change, but I wasn’t about to replace my tried-and-tested pot, kettle and frying pan with this mess kit without testing it in the field beforehand. My recent trip to the old farm woods provided the opportunity to do just that.

One of the most basic functions of any cook kit is boiling water, so that’s what I did first. In preparation for making instant oatmeal for breakfast, I threw some water in the pot and hung it over the fire. The water boiled in no time. No surprises there.

When lunchtime rolled around, I used the lid/pan to fry up a nice big chicken breast which I had prepared at home.

I stuck a piece of wood through the D-rings, which made for a nice long handle. After heating up some olive oil, I placed the chicken breast in the pan, flipped it over to make sure both sides were coated with oil and then held it over the fire, flipping it over after a few minutes to do the other side as well.

Test number two was a resounding success! The chicken fried up nicely and did not stick to the pan at all.

In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe for Weekend Woodsman fried chicken:

  • Mix some breadcrumbs with some salt, pepper, garlic powder, basil and a little chili powder on a large plate.
  • Whisk an egg and some milk in a bowl.
  • Dip tenderized chicken (or other meat) in the milk and egg mixture, lift out and let drip off.
  • Thoroughly coat the chicken with the breadcrumb/seasoning mixture.
  • Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of your pan (to medium-high if cooking on a stove) and fry the chicken, flipping it over after the bottom has turned golden brown.

My final test for the day would be baking. I brought my regular bannock mix with me and made the dough as usual. Beforehand, I sprinkled some of the dry mixture on the bottom of the mess kit pot to keep the bread from sticking to it. The raw dough was then placed in the pot and hung over the fire. It was flipped occasionally to ensure even baking. This shape of container isn’t ideal for baking, but it gets the job done.

All this testing isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it was convincing enough to me. I’ll continue using the Swedish mess kit as part of my regular kit and see how things go!

In case you’re interested to know, here’s how I cleaned the mess kit after cooking. To clean the pot after making the oatmeal, I simply used snow to scrub the inside.

To clean the lid/pan, I wiped out as much oil as I could using snow and then added some ashes from the fire and a little snow. Then I used some spruce sprigs to scrub it clean. Worked nicely!

As always, let me know what you think!

Building a permanent bushcraft camp – Part 1

Something that I’ve wanted to do for the past few years is to build a permanent bushcraft camp. For one reason or another, be it due to other plans or a lack of time, I never got around to it. The general idea was to create a long-lasting permanent camp, including a shelter, fire pit area, cooking facilities, storage/firewood area, crafting area and more using a minimum of tools and modern materials and getting most of what I need from the forest around me. Last weekend, I headed out to the country property I’ve been visiting so I could finally get started with the project. As it progresses, I hope not only to create a “woods home away from home”, but also to improve my skills and knowledge in the process!

First off, a picture of the site I picked for the camp. Nothing special, just a little opening surrounded mostly by spruces.

The most labor- and material-intensive structure at my new camp would be the shelter. I did a lot of thinking about just what kind of structure I wanted to build and ultimately decided on something that combines elements of several shelter types I’ve seen. Over the course of this series of posts, you’ll see what I came up with, but I won’t be divulging all my plans now. ;) For my shelter, I was going to need a good number of strong straight poles, so I was in luck that the forest nearby was in desperate need of thinning. It was so clogged with young spruce trees (some of which had already died due to a lack of sunlight) that it was difficult to walk through.

Now, as most of you know, I purchased a Swedish military surplus axe recently for work just like this, among other things. It was in such great condition that I didn’t have to do much more than scrub off the surface rust and marks from the handle. I spent about 1 minute with a sharpening stone getting it into shape and also impregnated the leather sheath with wax. Some before and after pics:

I was very eager to try this axe out in the woods. Of course, I brought my regular axe with me as well, because you never know how well a tool is going to perform (or fail) until you use it. As you can see, it was wet that day.

I decided to look for three solid poles on the thicker side to serve as a base tripod for my shelter, so I searched the area and felled them with my axe. I made sure to pick out trees which were being crowded out by or competing with other trees for sunlight. After just a few chops, I could detect a tiny bit of movement in the head. I decided to continue using the axe cautiously to see how things went. After being sunken in wet snow repeatedly, the handle absorbed some water and the head tightened right up. It didn’t budge in the slightest after that. I’ll be sure to soak it in linseed oil to rectify this situation properly. Here are the tripod poles I cut:

I don’t know what this particular type of lashing is called, but I have used it several times. First, you wrap the cord tightly around your poles four or five times and tie it off. Then, you tightly wrap the cord around itself between the poles several times and tie it off each time here as well. This gives you a solid tripod.

Following this, I spent several hours using the axe to fell and limb more spruce saplings and cut them to size. I was happy to find that the axe was not fatiguing to use one-handed for long periods of time, despite its overall weight of 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs). It bit deeply into the wood, was accurate and retained a sharp edge. It took very little for me to become accustomed to using the axe, as I’ve been using a 3/4 axe regularly for several years now. The main difference is the greater weight of the new axe, which I didn’t notice most of the time.

After the first round of trees had been processed, the shelter started to take shape:

I realized that the entire shelter project was going to take longer than I thought, and knowing it would get dark soon, I called it quits in order to look for firewood for cooking and heating that evening. I found a dead standing pine on a rocky hill nearby and felled it with the axe in no time. It had a base diameter of about 11 cm (4.25 inches), so nothing huge. I bucked it into three logs and carried them all back to my camp, where I cut them to length and split a few of them to get a fire going.

For kindling, I split some some of the smaller pieces of wood and made some feather sticks with the Marttiini Kaamosjätkä knife I modified years ago and showed here recently. I found that I enjoyed using a smaller knife like this for a change. :)

By the end of the first day, I had made good headway on the shelter, procured myself some firewood and made myself a spruce-bough bed from all the limbs I had cut off the poles. The camp was starting to take shape.

Before I called it a day, I threw my new tarp on the pole frame, tied it down in a few places, and then put my sleeping bag and bivy on top of the bough bed. I didn’t even bother to get out my self-inflating sleeping pad, which I ended up not needing, as the spruce boughs provided plenty of insulation.

As the sun began to set and bathe the trees around me in a beautiful golden glow, I felt I had received some kind of reward for the day’s work, but it was only the first one. After nightfall, the clear sky provided a beautiful view of a bright moon and countless twinkling stars. The moon lit up the snowy forest so brightly that I didn’t need a headlamp or flashlight to see. I arose bright and early in the morning, looking forward to breakfast. First, though, I’d have to put together a rig to hang my pot from. I cut three suitable spruce poles to length and tied them together in a similar fashion to the shelter tripod, except that I only wrapped the cord around all three one time.

From the hinge, I hung a length of cord to hold a notched stick, which would in turn hold my cooking pot. Doing it this way keeps the cord from getting too close to the fire.

Although I had not done as much as I had hoped that weekend, I was pleased with what I had accomplished. The shelter was coming along nicely, and the cooking area was shaping up, too. Here’s the current status of my permanent bushcraft camp:

Before I went home, I stopped by the old farm house to take another look at the old knives I had found there, as I wanted to see if any of them were worth restoring. I was in luck! The vintage KJ Eriksson Mora knife, although a bit worn and rusty, was still very solid.

The following day, I spent my lunch break getting the knife into usable shape. Rather than completely refurbishing the knife and making it look like new, I decided to go a different route and let the vintage-ness of the knife come through. I scrubbed the blade and bolster with a plastic scouring pad and lemon juice to get the rust off and create a nice patina. Next, I scrubbed and then scraped the handle to remove as much of the red paint as possible. Finally, I slowly ran the handle over a candle flame several times to darken the wood and then soaked some wax into it to waterproof it. I’m pretty happy with the results and am planning on making a simple belt sheath for it after I procure some leather. By the way,  I think this is the only Mora knife I’ve personally seen that has a leather washer between the handle and bolster. It’s a nice touch!

Hope you enjoyed this first look at my permanent camp!

Recent outdoor gear purchases – February 2014

Needing (and wanting) some new gear, I splurged a little and treated myself to a few items from a local consignment shop and the Varusteleka outdoors/military surplus shop. FYI, this blog post was not solicited in any way, and I paid for all the gear you see here.

One needed item was a factory-new 2.2 x 3 m (7.5′ x 10′) Mil-Tec tarp (€40/$55) from Varusteleka. Having come to prefer a tarp for shelter after experimenting with a cheap one for 4 – 5 months, but noticing that it was starting to wear out, I decided to buy a better quality one that would last a lot longer. At 1.1 kg (2.4 lbs), this polyester tarp is not exactly lightweight, but it does seem to be very durable, and that’s what I’m after. Since getting the tarp, I have made a few modifications to it. They’ll be covered in another post.

The other needed item was a sternum strap for a backpack (€3.75/$5), also from Varusteleka. I love my Swedish army LK-70 pack, but it lacks a sternum strap of its own. The new strap will help bring the shoulder straps closer together, making it more comfortable to wear.

The third item, once again from Varusteleka, was admittedly more in the “want” column than the “need” column. Having been thoroughly convinced of the superiority (in my opinion) of the boy’s axe or 3/4 axe for bushcraft and camping, I decided to pick up a “backup axe” (that is, backup to my vintage Gränsfors Bruks. I always like to have a spare backup knife, axe and saw at the ready at home).

If you’ve been following bushcraft blogs and forums for a while, you may be familiar with the Swedish military surplus axes which have been available for the past few years. Most of these axes are painted green from top to bottom, but I managed to get one that wasn’t painted like this (thanks for listening to my request, Varusteleka!). I found that the axe is significantly heavier than my current boy’s axe, which isn’t surprising, considering that the head is a full 350 g (0.75 lbs) heavier (quick specs on the new axe – head weight: 1.2 kg (2.75 lbs), overall weight: 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs), overall length: 68 cm (27 in)). Although this axe and my old Gränsfors are almost exactly the same length, the head weight is right in the middle between my Gränsfors and my honkin’ Council Tool Jersey Classic. Just by the weight and feel of this axe, I can tell it will outperform the vintage Gränsfors, so after trying it out, I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes my new favorite. Aside from some surface rust and marks on the handle (which I have since removed), the axe is in great shape, with no hints whatsoever of cracks in the handle or any dings in the blade edge. Needless to say, I’m very happy about getting a classic Hults Bruks axe in such good shape for only €15/$20! By the way, it came with the standard olive green leather sheath all the others are supplied with. If anyone out there has an idea of when this axe could have been made, please let me know! I know that it’s pre-1988 because there are no Hultafors markings, but I don’t know anything other than that.

Last, but not least (well, it is the least in terms of cost), is a Swedish army mess kit (€2.50/$3.50). I picked this item up from a local consignment shop in town. Normally, the Swedish mess kit is comprised of a pot, a lid for the pot which doubles as a smaller pot or frying pan, an alcohol stove, a windscreen and a fuel bottle. The set I bought was missing the burner, windscreen and fuel bottle, but that’s fine with me, because I don’t need those items anyway. Over the years, I had seen this kit many times online, in use by friends and in shops, but I never bought one. Seeing the advantages in this set over my current pot and kettle, I figured I’d buy it and see if it met my needs better. The one thing I’m not crazy about is the fact that it’s aluminum, but I don’t cook with my camping cook set on a daily basis, so I don’t think there’s any need for concern.

You can expect to see more of this gear in the near future as I test it and put it through its paces. Stay tuned!

Cleaning up the Marttiini Kaamosjätkä puukko knife

Back in 2009, a local outdoor store was having a sale on the Kaamosjätkä puukko knife from the Marttiini company of Finland. They were selling a whole mess of them for 15 Euros each (about $20 USD). The normal price was about 25 Euros, so I picked up two of them just for the heck of it. This particular model is the cheapest and least-refined of the wood-handled knives made by Marttiini, but the blades are good quality. If nothing else, I thought it’d make for an interesting “lipstick on a pig”/”turd polishing” project. :)

Here’s the knife as it comes:

From the factory, the knife has a roughly finished, lightly stained wood handle. The wood isn’t flush with the bolster (which itself needed work). Not being a fan of the fish-tail thing on Scandi sheathes, I knew it would have to go. Also, I didn’t like the silver-colored labeling on the sheath. These critiques aren’t intended as criticism of the knife as it comes, because it is a very low-budget, mass-produced knife, after all. These are just some of the things I wanted to modify to make it more attractive and to my liking.

After reshaping the handle with another knife, including making the wood flush with the bolster, I sanded it down and then applied some walnut stain. This was followed by a coat or two of teak oil. While I was working on the wood part of the handle, I also sanded down the bolster with a fine-grit sandpaper to refine it a bit. As for the sheath, I cut off the flap at the bottom and then carefully rubbed off the somewhat sloppy silver lettering. The last step was to apply wax to the edges of the leather belt loop and the back of the sheath (and then heat it so the wax soaked in) to darken and smooth out the leather there. As I mentioned, this was a project I did some years ago. I think I would do it slightly differently now, but I’m still happy with the results.

My version of the knife:

Over the past few years, I’ve restored or modified several knives, but to be honest they don’t see much use. I think I’ll rectify this situation on my next trip and bring out my prettied-up Marttiini Kaamosjätkä to see what it can do!

Kampin’ in a kota

Hey dudes and dudettes! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here at The Weekend Woodsman, but it’s not because of a lack of interest. First we had the holidays, then I got swamped with work and then soon after that the Woodsboy got the chicken pox and our whole family came down with a nasty drawn-out flu (possibly swine flu) right after that. The unseasonably warm winter we’ve been experiencing is another reason why I haven’t been getting out much. While some of you were (and are again) experiencing a polar vortex, we’ve had more of a “tropical vortex” up here in Finland. So far this winter, we’ve only had about 3 weeks of real winter temperatures (and of course it had to be during the time when I was busy/sick). As I write this in mid-February, the temperature is about 1°C/34°F. During a normal winter, it would not be unusual at all to be seeing temperatures around -40°C/-40°F right now. Anyhoo, the warm temperatures, coupled with being busy, sick and occupied with a few other things had not been very conducive to doing anything outdoors-related.

For most of the winter, though, mi amigo Alejandro from Spain and I had been looking forward to a winter campout, but because of the reasons mentioned above, it just wasn’t happening. When the second weekend of February rolled around, everything fell into place and we were able to get out for a “winter” (and I use that term loosely) overnighter.  After a little planning the week prior, I picked Alex up on Saturday morning and then drove out to my mother-in-law’s country property. We took the car as far as we could without getting stuck in the snow and then hiked to our destination. Here’s a back road along the way:

Because of the melt/thaw/melt/thaw cycles we’ve experienced this winter, there was a lot more standing water/ice than years past.

Moose tracks along the way:

Once we reached the site, we started getting our shelter materials together. I had slept in a kota (tipi-like shelter) a few years ago and figured it would be a good experience for Alex. This kind of shelter is a lot different from a typical camping tent, as it allows you to have a full campfire inside. The poles and tarp for the shelter were located nearby where I had left them. We first set up a tripod upon which we’d lean the remaining shelter poles.

Remaining poles in place:

Then the real battle started. In order to put the 6 m x 8 m tarp on the frame, we had to get it unstuck from the ground, and itself. After smashing lots of ice and carefully peeling the tarp from the forest floor, we managed to get it set up on the frame. It may not qualify as a dictionary-definition kota, but precise historical accuracy is not what we were aiming for. ;)

Now that our house was up, we could make it a home. Alex cut a bunch of spruce branches to use as bedding material and laid them out on the left side of the kota (and yes, that is a small spruce tree inside our shelter).

I set up my stuff on the right-hand side. For this trip, I used the Swedish SK-70 rucksack because its large capacity makes carrying extra winter gear easier.

Next on the agenda was making a fire for heating and cooking, as we were both getting hungry. We spent time gathering up and preparing materials for our fire and tried to get it started, but to no avail. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get a self-sustaining fire going, and ended up burning up all our fire prep. The reason? I had forgotten an important lesson from several years earlier. In order to have a fire burn properly in a shelter like this, there has to be sufficient intake of air from around the bottom and outlet of air and smoke at the top. There simply wasn’t enough open space at the bottom, and the hole at the top was too small as well. I kicked myself for letting this happen, because it was something that I had already experienced (and solved) before. Anyway, here’s hoping I remember for the next time around. ;) We took the tarp off the poles and then hiked away from the campsite to get some dry birch wood and bark which had been laid up in a different location. After returning to the campsite and refitting the shelter cover for better air flow, we got a nice hot fire started. It was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the evening.

The temperature overnight probably didn’t even drop below freezing, and I distinctly remember rain or freezing rain pitter-pattering on the shelter during the night. In the morning, we got to work preparing a fire for our breakfast. Alex used my Skrama knife to split some birch wood into kindling, and I used my BushProwler. Then we both made a mess of shavings.

We shuffled around the remnants from the previous night’s fire in the fire pit and then set up our fire lay.

Breakfast for both of us would be oatmeal/porridge. I brought instant stuff, while Alex went traditional. He started by melting some snow in his pot.

By the time his snow was melted, I was almost ready to eat. :)

Having used up all my water during breakfast, I went to collect some more. The method I used was to squeeze snow into long pellets and then slip them into my metal water bottle. After I fit in as many as I could, I’d put it near the fire until the snow melted.

A few shots of our temporary abode:

A while later we made ourselves some lunch, let our fire die down and then started to pack up. We took the tarp off the shelter and placed it nearby after folding it up. We left the poles standing for next time. Come spring, I’ll cut that tarp to size so it fits perfectly on the frame, which will also prevent the ventilation issues we experienced. Speaking of spring, the way things are going, it’ll be here before we know it. I’m really hoping that we somehow get a nice cold spell for a while before the usual start of spring so I can get out there and do some more winter bushcrafting! We’ll see what happens. I’ll leave you with a picture of the dim winter sun as Alex and I hiked back to the car.

Quick winter-weather gear tip: Lip balm

Here in the north country, winter is the driest time of the year. As the temperature drops, so too does the amount of moisture in the air. Cold, dry and windy air tends to draw moisture from the body, which is why it’s especially important to drink lots of water in these kinds of conditions, but there are also other things you can do to counteract this effect. One of them is to use lip balm…on your skin!

Obviously, lip balm was intended to be used on chapped lips, but I’ve found that it also works very well to moisturize dry, rough skin, especially in certain spots on my hands. I simply apply it to small affected areas and rub it in a little. The moisturizing effect lasts for a long time, and it helps to prevent skin from becoming so dry that it cracks, especially on my knuckles and between my fingers. Why not just use moisturizing cream, you ask? Well, lip balm is already part of my kit, and it serves the purpose just fine!

But that’s not all! Besides being good for keeping your skin in good shape, lip balm also has other uses in the field. How about making dry, cracked leather items supple again? They are made of skin, after all. Wax- and petroleum-based lip balms are flammable, making them a potential fire-lighting aid in tough conditions. These ingredients could also make them good for things like small waterproofing tasks, metal joint lubrication etc.

Anybody have any other uses for lip balm? :)