Living In The Field

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 1 month ago

Max Velocity, Mountain Guerrilla and American Mercenary all have great posts about gear, rucksacks and living in the field (and MV has a followup article here).  These men all know a generous amount about their subject and I won’t try either to repeat their views here or to disagree with any of it.  However, I had considered writing about my own experiences in the field (I have spent a copious amount of time in the field) and landed on an option where I simply provide a running list of things I do and don’t like (and do or don’t advocate).  The reader can weigh in with his own observations.

I’m a fan of travelling light, although every time I pack I carry too much and my backpack is heavier than it needs to be.  When you end up not pulling an item out of your ruck the entire trip, and in fact don’t quite know what you would have used it for anyway, then you probably shouldn’t have packed it.  You managed to haul it around in the woods for several days, or worse, up and down elevation changes, for no good reason except to place it back where it came from in the clauset or on the shelf.  That’s a sinking feeling when your body is sore and tired.

Speaking of weight, one item I carry and always use is cordage.  You can purchase 550 cord in rolled up lengths of 50 feet for just a few dollars just about anywhere now, including Lowes or Home Depot.  550 cord is light and strong, and is one of the better choices for your ruck.

I’m not a fan of primitive fire techniques or seeing just how bad you can make it for yourself and still survive.  For example, I carry matches, lighters and ferro rods.  What I have also found is that if everything is wet, or if you make camp late and don’t need to spend a lot of time building the fire (and need to focus more on gathering fuel), it helps to carry a piece of charcoal for every night you expect to be in the wilderness.  One piece of charcoal can help get the fire going, allow you to do other things, and ensure that a little wind won’t ruin your night.  You need to consider stay dry bags for such important things.

I have been backpacking in rain so heavy that nothing would burn regardless of what I did.  If I had gotten a fire hot enough to dry the wood as I placed it near the fire so that it could be used as fuel, I could have had heat that night by feeding fuel closer to the fire depending upon its dryness.  Unfortunately I didn’t take my charcoal and it was a cold, wet night afer wasting precious energy for two hours nursing a fire that was destined to go out anyway.

Speaking of Biblical downpours, I have been out in them before.  In such weather I don’t care what you wear – rain gear, poncho or whatever.  You’re going to get wet.  Prepare to make camp early enough to get your clothing off and hang it, dry it or simply keep warm by jumping in your bag.  Accept that you’re going to get very wet and stay very wet, and work with it and expect it instead of letting it work against you.

If you get a down bag it’s going to lose its loft if it gets wet.  That may not be a problem in Western climates, but East of the Mississippi this is always a concern, even in the dead of winter.  I have a North Face Polarguard bag that allegedly carries me down to -5 degrees F, and I’ve laid in a puddle of water before (due to bad campsite selection in a driving rain) in that bag and stayed very warm.  When I say -5 degrees F, that doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable that low.  It’s comfortable down to 10 or 20 degrees F.

I like layering clothing, and I particularly like fleece for cold weather.  It doubles as a pillow if I don’t need it to sleep in.  I use a wind and rain parka for an overlay on my fleece in the wet, cold or windy weather.  Also, layering allows you to strip down to the bare essentials when sweating during the hike, and then put layers back on when the night falls and it gets cold.

I am an advovcate of trekking poles for balance, assitance in carrying your load, and traversing rough or wet terrain (such as rivers or creek beds).  I didn’t always use trekking poles, but when they became fairly popular I hiked with one friend who used a single pole.  For my next time in the wilderness I purchased one myself and couldn’t decipher what would have come over me that I didn’t purchase two.  In my estimation they are now an indispensable part of my wilderness experience.

I always carry a firearm, and I don’t skimp on the gun.  I usually carry my .45, but have carried a .40 before (and I would certainly carry my .357 magnum).  Carrying a rifle and the ammunition necessary for operations in the wilderness means carrying an awful lot more weight, and truer words were never spoken than to say that this relies on resupply and R&R.  You bet it does.  Don’t daydream that you could be an operator in the wilderness in perpetuity without aid from others.  It won’t work.

Boots are everything to the wilderness experience, and again, I don’t skimp.  Good waterproof boots are an indispensable part of survival.  Be careful when camping or hiking around water.  Snakes are out in the Eastern U.S. (and need to drink like the rest of us), and a bite from a Rattlesnake or Copperhead in the far flung places I go means death.  Lay down and wait for the end, because there’s nothing you can do.

I’ll mention one more thing before ending Part 1.  Cover.  Marines call it cover.  I don’t go out of the house without cover for my head regardless of the weather, temperature or conditions.  I need it for protection from the sun because of my balding head and close hair cut, and for times when it’s cold I need it to keep me warm.  Find yourself something you like and something that suits the function to which you will put it, but make a habit of using cover if you don’t already.

I’ll follow this up with more discussion at a later time.

  • Semper Fi, 0321

    Always carried a 12 ga. with slugs for grizzly bears here in the Wind River Mtn’s. Then 2 years ago my hiking buddy showed me all about trekking poles. Bought some last year and the shotgun stays home, a Glock 20 10mm rides my belt instead (my custom Ruger Bisley .45 Colt is almost a lb. heavier, and 6 vs 15 rds).
    Poles are fantastic gravity disruptors; xtra balance, great for crossing streams and logs, and tent poles at night. Help pump your lungs for better breathing too. Won’t go anywhere with out them now.
    G.I. Thermarest for sleeping, with a roll of Tenacious Tape for all kinds of repairs.
    Hang a small ‘biner on your pack, clip your ballcap to it and wear a brimmed hat when sunny, ball cap for severe wind. Keep my Tevas clipped to the pack too, use them for camp shoes and stream crossings.

  • PSYOP Soldier

    Hello from a fellow Queen City resident…

    Great article, just because one can suffer, does not mean one should….

    I look forward to reading the rest of your blogs, as well as future ones…PSYOP

  • Jake

    Good sound advice, non-pretentious, and highly informative. Gave me some things to consider, especially about sleeping bags and getting a fire going when wet. I had never considered carrying charcoal briquettes. I would assume the instant lighting ones that require no fluid to get burning would be what to carry. Thanks.

  • Herschel Smith

    Cotton balls soaked in Petroleum Jelly can serve a similar function (and are small and light), but they are fast burning as opposed to charcoal which will give you much needed time.


    I’ve taken to wearing a fleece beanie. Any time I feel a chill, I put it on and the immediate warmth I feel across my entire body is amazing.

    Great article and information. Thanks.

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  • bubba

    Most of my experience comes from over thirty-five years of climbing above tree-line in Alpine terrain on rock and ice mostly in the Cascades of WA. Our terrain may not translate to yours so you should adjust accordingly. Survival, not comfort, is intrinsically related to wearing the proper clothing and keeping your clothing dry. We can get soaked from extreme weather and from exercise; both can have deleterious effects on our body temperature. Soaked clothing worn in a wind will quickly suck the heat out of your body even in forty degree temperatures. Your head and hands are big radiators of heat because of all the capillaries there. If you are cold cover your extremities first by wearing light gloves and a light hat.

    I carry finger-less wool gloves and a light fleece cap for this purpose, in colder weather I carry additional over gloves and a heavier hat. I sometimes wear a set of light poly-pro top and bottoms worn under a pair of running shorts on my trips. I also have a pair of light surplus wool pants (Marine or Army) made into knickers. The advantage of the knickers are they’re easier to put on and take off over climbing boots and if you wear long knicker-socks you can roll the socks down to give a little more ventilation. In snow country don’t forget your gaiters.

    I like a medium thick pile, not fleece, jacket – my favorite for years has been made by Patagonia. The pile is more breathable and less wind resistant than fleece but it dries quicker. Worn under a full Gore-tex type mountain parka it can keep you warm well below freezing. The mountain parka should be hooded, the whole parka unlined and it should have zippers for ventilation. I’ve found the three-layer parkas are more abrasion resistant than the two-layer versions.

    I’ve bivouacked many nights in the above mentioned clothing in below freezing temperatures. If we plan on a bivouac I’ll take along a light bivy sack and a down jacket but on the un-planned bivys I’ll simply use my parka and stuff my boot-less feet into my climbing pack. The small pad in the back of your pack can be used for insulation under your butt. Clothing keeps what heat you produce regulated but in order to keep warm you need to treat your body like a machine by feeding and watering it properly.

    Food is the fuel for your body and everyone has their own preferences. Sugars, proteins and fats in the proper quantities (and varieties) will feed your furnace and keep it running well, they also provide an emotional comfort. Running water is an important asset but above tree-line and on hard snow or ice it isn’t always available. In that case you’ve got to plan on bringing enough fuel to melt snow into a sufficient quantity of water – this can take over an hour a day. I like white gas stoves and find they produce the most heat to weight of fuel carried. I normally take along wide mouth Lexan water bottles; 2-1 liter and 1-1 pint work for me. You can pour boiling water into the Lexan bottles and they won’t deform or collapse. The pint bottle works as a coffee or cocoa cup, the lid helps keep the liquid warm for long time and it acts as a hand warmer, the sugar in the cocoa is a quck boost for your furnace at night. The 1 liter bottles work well for drinking and at night you can use them as bed warmers.

    Shelter is important in nasty weather, when the bugs are out and is a convenience on longer trips. In nasty weather I take a light bivy sack along with the group tent. The bivy sack will help keep your sleeping gear dry from the condensation inside the tent. In cold weather it’s important to not breathe inside your sleeping gear because the moisture in your breathe will collect in the insulation and matt it down and reduce its effectiveness. Try to air out your sleeping gear for thirty minutes every day.

  • Daniel K Day

    I have a few rank newbie questions. I just went to the Home Depot and Lowes sites and typed “550 cord” in the search field. Search result at HD: A Christmas tree. Nothing at Lowes. Zip for searches with “parachute cord”. What do non-military types call “550 cord”? I’d rather buy locally (Demokratik Republik of Multnomah County) if possible.

    I found “550 cord” at Amazon. I remember a discussion among ex-mil members on a site several months back in which they were agreeing that some of the products out there that the makers call “550 cord” are actually none of the kind. Were they making a mountain out of a molehill, or does it really matter?

  • Herschel Smith

    Daniel, don’t order online. Walk into your local Lowes and look in the ropes and chains area. Bubba, what specific three-layer parka do you like? Give link please.

  • Chuck


    550 Cord AKA paracord

    550 (as in 550 lb test) cord is used for the suspension lines on a parachute, hence “paracord.” You can order every color of the rainbow paracord on Amazon.

  • bubba

    Herschel, my current parka is a Mountain Hardwear brand. It’s one I bought cheap off ebay at the end of the season four years ago. I don’t see one like it but I haven’t looked too hard yet, I’ll get back to you on that later. I’ll describe what I look for in a parka below. My first parkas were oil-finish cotton and worked pretty well except in torrential downpours. I switched over to gore-tex in the eighties and believe they kept me drier even with the first generation membrane.

    I need a loose fit so I can wear it over my pile coat or a down jacket. I like a couple of big pockets for my gloves and hat and a couple of smaller pockets for extras, it doesn’t hurt to have an inside pocket at the chest for sun glasses . I need a big enough hood to fit over a helmet. Underarm zips help ventilate my steam as I’m stormin’ up hill. I like a two-way front zipper so I can stay roped up and wear the parka at the same time. I like the 3 layer gore-tex, or whatever name the manufacturer calls it, it has a more flexible feel and doesn’t tear as easily.

    My shell mountain parkas seem to last about three or four years before I hole ‘em and then, with some repairs, I can get a couple more years before I need to replace them.

    I’m still using a Lowe Expedition inside frame pack I bought in ’76, I’ve repaired it many times but the fabric and straps are holding up well. I have smaller backpacks for day and over night use in milder weather. My canvas Sacs Millets are holey and mostly worn out.

  • Lynn Unrath

    Great article. 550 cord has came in handy for me on many occasions while being out in the field. I look forward to your next article. You were very informative with things to use while roughing it.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Camping,Mountains and was published April 21st, 2013 by Herschel Smith.

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