Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Maintaining a Positive Attitude

From reading discussion boards and other blogs around the web, it seems to me that far too many survivalists or preparedness-minded individuals place far too much emphasis on acquiring equipment and supplies, rather than developing useful skills and a survival mindset.  Others spend so much time dwelling on doom and gloom negativity to the point where I have to wonder why they would bother to try to survive at all.  If you talk to real survivors who have come through extreme circumstances and lived to tell about it, or if you read the first-person accounts many such individuals have published in books and articles, you will realize most survivors have one thing in common - attitude.  They survive because they have a burning desire to live and to triumph over adversity.

The right attitude often enables those with little in the way of training, experience or equipment to prevail in situations that would defeat most people.  I'm not saying that learned skills and the right equipment are not important - far from it.  But I do think it's extremely important to develop the right attitude early on in your preps and to keep a positive attitude.  Being positive about things is not the same as having your head stuck in the sand and pretending there is nothing to worry about.  It's possible to be a realist and understand the need for self-sufficiency and the survival mindset while still remaining optimistic.  In fact, optimism is essential if you are to attain any goal in life, much less survive an ultimate test such as individual survival in a real SHTF situation.

How do you develop this positive survival attitude or mindset?  I think the best way to do it is to set goals and and make up your mind that you will accomplish them, no matter what.  You can start with small steps, setting easily obtainable goals first to build up your confidence.  Then work on bigger ones.  Once you learn that you can accomplish your goals, you will gradually gain more confidence until you let nothing stand in your way.  This is the key to developing a positive attitude that will see you through a real test.

If it is survival skills that you want to master, start out by setting reasonable goals first and then move on to more difficult ones.  Pack your bug-out bag and head out to the nearest wilderness area to see if you can live out of it for a weekend - or a week.  Want to learn to identify and use local edible plants?  Take a field guide and go locate a new species you haven't used before next time you go on an outing.  Practice building fires in adverse conditions such as rain.  Make the parts for a bow drill and set a goal of learning to build a fire with no matches.  Already a proficient hunter with a rifle?  Learn to hunt with a traditional bow and arrows.  Then learn to make your own bows and arrows.  The accomplishment of each goal will make you a better survivalist and your attitude of confidence will grow stronger until it is unshakable. 

Most importantly, don't listen to those who say you can't do it.  How far would I have gotten on my long-distance sea kayak trips if I had listened to all those who said I couldn't paddle that far?  I ignored them and knew that the key was not thinking about paddling 3,000 miles or even 300 miles, but simply breaking camp each day and paddling my 20 or so miles that I could do before finding another campsite.  Likewise, I would have never bothered to write my first book, much less the five I've written, if I had listened to all those who said it's too hard to get a book published these days.  And what were the chances of getting a new survival book published now with so many excellent titles already out there?  But I did bother and I knew I could make it happen because I set a goal that I was determined to accomplish.  You can too, whatever that goal may be.  But if you don't believe you can do it, then you can't, and if you don't believe you can survive, you won't, and reading about it and collecting gadgets and gear is just an indulgence in fantasy.

For more on what separates the survivors from those who don't make it, check out Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales.  This is an interesting and eye-opening book on the subject of the survival attitude and mindset.  This post is also just the beginning of my thoughts on this and related subjects.  Look for much more here in posts to come as I want to dispel some of the myths and bad information going around that it seems to me does nothing but instill a feeling of hopelessness in many people.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Radio Communications: A Review of Waterproof Handheld VHF Units

I see a lot of discussion on survival forums and blogs about the options available for radio communication among small groups in a post-SHTF situation.  There are many types of radios that can meet some or most of the communication requirements, including FRS (Family Radio Service), GRMS (General Mobile Radio Service), CB (Citizen's Band) and VHF (Very High Frequency) marine-band radios.  Those who live in coastal areas or along major navigable inland waterways who are planning to bug out by boat will already be familiar with VHF radios, as they are standard equipment for most vessels, whether hand-held or fixed-mount units. 

While it is illegal to use channels in the marine VHF band for communication on land in normal times, in any scenario forcing you to bug-out in the first place, this will not likely be something to worry about.  The advantage of marine VHF radios over most of the alternatives is that this band offers a large range of channels and hand-held units have two power levels for the transmitter, usually 1 watt for low power and 5 or 6 watts for high power.  This gives good range, especially on the water or in open country. 

Another advantage of hand-helf VHF units is that they are now more rugged than ever, and several models are available that are not only waterproof, but submersible as well.  I tested a selection of these last year and reported my findings in an article published in Sea Kayaker magazine.  I'm posting the full article below.  Keep in mind that the focus of the piece was directed at recreational sea kayakers, but I think anyone considering hand-held radios for survival preparations could benefit from the analysis of these units and decide if this type of radio could meet their needs.

New Submersible VHF Radios:

A hand-held VHF marine radio transceiver has been on my checklist of essential safety gear since I began venturing out on the ocean in a sea kayak more than twenty years ago. Even then, there was a variety of reliable offerings from different manufacturers at reasonable prices, but today’s technology has vastly improved the hand-held VHF.

It should be noted right away that technology has also introduced many new options for communication, including standard cell phones and more exotic satellite cell phones, but these should be viewed as supplements, and not substitutes for a marine band VHF radio. VHF radios allow direct communication with other vessels of all sizes and description, and provide dedicated and direct channels for contacting the U.S. Coast Guard and other search and rescue agencies. If you make a distress call with a cell phone, only the party you are calling can hear you and you will be hard to locate if you do not know your coordinates. Although the transmission range of hand-held radios is limited by an output power of 5 or 6 watts; on the open water this is sufficient for several miles. In most coastal areas boaters frequent there will likely be other vessels close enough for communication.

Until recently, hand-held VHF radios were somewhat delicate electronic devices that would not survive long in the wet environment of a sea kayak cockpit or PFD pocket without good protection from waterproof bags. In those days, I used purpose-made waterproof radio bags that allowed operation of the controls through the clear plastic. These were satisfactory, but on longer trips the bags usually failed at some point and the radios themselves would eventually succumb to moisture from condensation within the bag, even without a direct splash or inadvertent dunking. Radios in dry bags would survive longer if stuffed into a second layer of protection, like a deck bag or dry bag in the cockpit, but the added barrier from water comes at the expense of quick access, especially in rough conditions.

A new generation of fully waterproof hand-held VHF radios has been available for a few years now. Many of these radios are not only submersible, but also designed to float if dropped overboard. They’re ideal for sea kayaking. I tested submersible hand-held radios from six different manufacturers: Standard Horizon, Cobra Marine, West Marine, ICOM, Humminbird, and Uniden. I compared special features, ease of use, power consumption and general quality, and subjected them to a submersion test to see if they survived as advertised. All of the models tested are rated to at least JIS7 standard, meaning they are supposed to be waterproof for a period of 30 minutes at a depth of one meter. I dropped each radio into the water while it was turned on and receiving a NOAA weather channel station. Then, I put all of them into a deep drum of water. The models that float were weighted down keep them on the bottom. After 30 minutes the radios were retrieved from the water and powered up. After I dried the exterior, I opened the battery cases to check for leaks.

Each of the radios was tested for clear reception of NOAA weather radio channels and for reception and transmission of VHF communication channels. All performed as expected of a hand-held VHF for signal strength and sound quality.

Standard Horizon HX750S

The Standard Horizon HX750S has the most powerful transmitter in the group, rated at 6 watts on the highest setting. All the other units have a maximum output of 5 watts. A low power setting of 1 watt is standard on all VHF radios to minimize interference with other vessel communications farther away when you are in a close range situation where more power is not needed. The HX750S also offers 5 watt and 2.5 watt intermediate settings.

A unique feature of the HX750S that I have not seen before in a hand-held VHF radio is the S.O.S. STOBE that utilizes a high-intensity white LED on the front control panel as a visual distress beacon. When the strobe is enabled, the LED blinks the internationally-recognized Morse Code “S.O.S.” message ( … --- …) 5 times per minute. This could prove especially useful for kayakers after radio contact is made with rescuers, as it would greatly improve the chances of being seen at night.

Another unusual feature is a built-in water temperature sensor. With this thermometer enabled, the face of the radio can be placed in the water for several minutes and the temperature of the water will be displayed on screen.

This radio is floating as well as submersible. When dropped into the water, it floated on its side, still receiving clearly. After the one-meter submersion test, it still performed perfectly and an inspection of the battery case proved it was dry inside.

The HX750S comes with a lithium-ion battery and a charger with both AC and 12-volt DC adapters. Optional, but not included, is an alkaline battery case that fits in place of the rechargeable battery pack. For kayakers on long expeditions in remote areas with no way to recharge the lithium ion battery, the ability to use alkaline batteries for back-ups is essential.

Controls on the HX750S are all push-button and the keys are large enough and spaced far enough apart to use with neoprene paddling gloves. There is no separate on/off, volume control and squelch knob, which I would prefer for ease of operation. You select the button for volume, squelch and band before using the up and down keys to make changes. This system is not as intuitive for me as a manual control knob, but works. The LCD display is large enough and the automatic backlight that comes on when any key is pressed makes it easy to see at night.

The HX750S includes a belt clip and a tether for additional security. All of the radios tested came with some sort of removable belt clip that will not be practical when paddling. Removing the clip might be the best option if the radio is to be carried in a PFD pocket. Without the clip, the HX750S radio case is slim and compact, especially for a floating unit, and will fit into a PFD pocket easily.

Standard Horizon HX 750S, MSRP: $149.99 Found online for $135.77
Standard Horizon
U.S. Headquarters
10900 Walker Street, Cypress, CA 90630

Cobra Marine MR HH425LI VP

Cobra Marine claims its MR HH425LI VP is the first handheld radio to combine VHF and GRMS. It also features Cobra’s “Rewind, Say Again” ability to replay missed calls. GRMS, or General Mobile Radio Service, is a land-based mobile service available for short-distance two-way radio communications in the U.S.A. With a license from the FCC, GRMS users can communicate while on land, something not permitted when using VHF marine frequencies. This may be of interest to some kayakers if their plans involve hiking and other onshore activities, but would require at least two radios with the GRMS capability. GRMS is different from FRS (Family Radio Service) in that the transmitter can be used at 1 watt or 5 watts, while FRS only radios are allowed 0.5 watt maximum power. The Cobra MR HH425LI VP does not operate on FRS only channels. The transmitter power on this radio can be set to 1 watt, 3 watts, or 5 watts for both VHF and GRMS channels.

The rewind, play-back feature could be useful in certain situations. In the owner’s manual description of this feature, one suggested use is to replay messages involving GPS coordinates or vessel identification numbers that might have been missed in the live transmission.

The Cobra MR HH425LI VP is powered by a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and comes with both an AC charger and 12-volt DC charger. A nice bonus is a battery tray that holds 6 AA alkaline batteries that is included in the package and fits in the holder for the rechargeable unit. The battery life estimates given in the manual are based on 90% stand-by mode, 5% transmit, and 5% receive. Times given are 14 hours at 5 watts and 23.5 hours at 1 watt, for the rechargeable battery. The alkaline battery life is estimated at 20 hours at 5 watts and 35 hours at 1 watt.

The on/off, volume, and squelch controls are located on the top of the unit in the form of a dual manual knob, which I find easier to use than the push button only controls on some of the other radios. The band selector key and other controls, however are located in a tight cluster below the display and are fine for bare handed use but too closely spaced and small for use with neoprene gloves. The volume up and down buttons, the scan button, and the Channel 16 button are located on the sides of the display and are easier to get to. The display itself is large and a backlight comes on with the activation of any key.

There is a tether and a secure attachment point for it on the top of the case, as well as belt clip that can be attached to a swivel knob on the back.

The Cobra MR HH425 LI VP is rated as submersible but does not float. When dropped into the drum of water while turned on and receiving, it continued to operate just fine. After 30 minutes on the bottom it powered-up and operated fine. When the battery case was opened, a few drops of water were found inside.

Cobra Marine MR HH425 LI VP, MSRP: $186.95 Found online for $149.95
Cobra Electronics Corporation
6500 West Cortland Street
Chicago, IL 60707

Humminbird VHF 55S

The Humminbird VHF 55S is a no-frills version of a submersible marine VHF radio. It provides all the essential features of the other radios tested, with the exception of an included rechargeable battery pack. The radio operates on 6 AA alkaline batteries and for kayakers who do multi-day trips this is a better solution anyway. For those who do prefer rechargeable batteries an optional Ni-MH battery pack with an AC and 12-volt DC charger is included in the VHF 55S Plus radio package but not in the basic VHF 55S package as tested.

Like the Cobra, this radio does not use all push-button controls and has the knobs that I prefer for on/off, volume, and squelch. These are located on the top of the case like older VHF radios and are easy to use with gloved hands since they are large and one is dedicated to squelch only. The other buttons for channel up and down, band selection, scan, and watch functions are also large enough to operate using gloves and are located below the display. The display itself is adequately large and like all the radios in this class has an automatic backlight that comes on when any key is depressed.

Despite the easy to use controls, the overall feel of this radio is that it is a bit bulky, even though I have large hands. The plastic case is slippery everywhere except for two built-in rubber grip strips on the sides and it seemed like it would be the easiest one to accidentally drop. A wrist tether is included, and using it would help prevent this. The removable belt clip is the swivel type that pivots on a knob.

The Humminbird VHF 55S isn’t built to float, but survived the dunking while turned on and receiving a weather channel, and came out of the 30 minute submersion test operating fine. When opened up afterward, however, more than a few drops of water were found inside the battery case. The leakage was significantly more than in any of the other radios tested but did not cause any immediate failure or damage.

Humminbird VHF 55S, MSRP: $149.95, Found online for $139.95
Get it on Amazon here: Humminbird VHF 55s PLUS Radio
678 Humminbird Lane
Eufaula, AL 36027


The ICOM ICM-34 is a slim, submersible and floating VHF radio that weighs only 10.7 ounces, making it the lightest weight radio of the test group, but just barely lighter than the 10.8 ounce Standard Horizon. Transmitter output power is 5 watts maximum, and there is, of course, the standard 1 watt low power option.
The ICOM ICM-34 comes with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack and an AC charger. The case for 5 AAA alkaline cells is not included but is available as an option. Although it would be nice to have both options in the basic package, I would rather have the alkaline pack than the rechargeable as basic equipment. Since most users of these radios are day trippers or operators of power or sailing vessels with on-board recharging capability, VHF radio manufacturers likely assume the rechargeable battery packs are most desirable.

The ICOM radio lacks the on/off, volume control, and squelch knobs that I prefer, and instead has a single small button on the top of the case for powering on and off. This push button is small and difficult to activate with a gloved finger. All the other controls are large buttons with adequate spacing between them and are located in a grid at the bottom of the front of the case below the LCD display. The other radios tested all have speakers in this bottom section of the case and the display at the top, with controls in the middle section. The speaker in the ICOM is located in the top of the case and the display is in the middle, instead. The only problem I see with putting the control keypad so low on the case is that it makes one-handed operation a bit difficult, as the thumb has to stretch more to reach the buttons.

Other than this variation in the speaker and keypad location, I like the ergonomics of the ICOM case. It has a slimmer mid-section that fits naturally in the hand and will readily go into a pocket. On the back there is a sturdy, low-profile belt clip that can be easily removed. A tether fits through a purpose made recess in the case above this clip.

When dropped into the water the ICOM popped back to the surface in an inverted position, floating upside down with the receiver still working. After the 30-minute immersion, it still functioned fine, but there were a few droplets of water inside the battery case.

ICOM ICM-34, MSRP: $279.00 Found online for $168.94
Icom Inc.
1-1-32 Kamiminami, Hirano-ku
Osaka 547-0003

Uniden MHS550

The first thing that distinguishes the Uniden MHS550 from most of the radios in the test group is its compact size, and the general high quality of its all-aluminum case construction. It is rated to the higher JIS8/IPX8 Immersion Protection Standards (submersible in one and half meters of water for 30 minutes). This radio looks and feels solid and the overall package is attractive. It is loaded with features and the package includes all the accessories that are optional with some of the other brands. The VHF transmitter power range is 1 watt, 2.5 watts, and 5 watts.

There are more bands available on the Uniden MHS550 than any of the other radios tested. In addition to operating on the standard VHF and NOAA weather channels, the radio can also receive and transmit on the FRS (Family Radio Service) channels and can receive AM and FM radio. The ability to receive music and news on AM and FM radio might be a plus to go-light kayakers who can take this one transceiver and leave the separate AM/FM radio receiver at home.

The Lithium Ion rechargeable battery is rated at 12 hours of run time between charges. A charger for AC and 12-volt DC is supplied. Best of all, a battery case for 4 AAA alkaline batteries is also included in the box, so you have both power options without having to buy them separately.

The smaller size of the Uniden MHS550 allows for more carrying options, as it will fit in smaller PFD pockets and other spaces. It has a removable belt clip as well as a tether that attaches to a watchband-style pin in a socket on the side of the case for additional security.

The top-mounted knob that I prefer over push buttons for on/off, volume, and squelch is present on this radio; adding another plus for ease of operation. The other control keys are located in the center front between the display and the speaker and can be operated with gloved or bare fingers.

I really like the display on the Uniden MHS550. It has a feature I have not seen before that will be quite helpful to occasional mariners who do not have a working knowledge of the designated uses for each of the marine VHF channels. As you scroll up and down through the VHF channels, the name that designates permitted use of the channel is displayed right on the screen. This means that if you haven’t memorized which channels are legal for ship to ship conversation with other members of your group you can just look for the ones labeled “Non Commercial” and pick one. You can quickly find “Marine Operator” channels as well as special use channels such as drawbridge operators and lockmasters. Most importantly, it keeps you from inadvertently using prohibited channels such as 23A, which is designated “Coast Guard Only.”

As expected from the appearance of its rugged case and well-engineered door for the battery case, the Uniden MHS550 passed the submersion test with no problems. It is a sinker, rather than a floater. When it was retrieved from the bottom of the barrel after the test, no water was found inside.

The Uniden MHS550, MSRP: $269.40 Found online for $197.47
Get it on Amazon here: Uniden MHS550 Marine VHF Handheld Radio
Uniden America Corporation
4700 Amon Carter Boulevard
Fort Worth, TX 76155

West Marine VHF 150

Looking at the West Marine VHF 150 next to the Uniden MHS550, it is obvious that it is essentially the same radio in a different package – a somewhat plainer, rubber-armored, black aluminum case of the same compact size and weight. The layout of the controls is exactly the same, and the West Marine VHF 150 has most of the features of the Uniden with the exception of the extra FRS transceiver and AM/FM receiver bands. The transmitter power is the same, with 1 watt, 2.5 watt, and 5 watt options.

Like the Uniden, the West Marine VHF 150 uses the top-mounted on/off, volume and squelch control and the same central keypad layout. The display shows the names of the VHF channels in the same way as the Uniden, which is the best feature of the higher-priced unit.

The West Marine VHF 150 comes complete with a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery, an AC and a 12-volt DC charger, and the AA alkaline battery tray for optional power, so despite a lower price point nothing is left out to have to buy later. Battery life is estimated at 12 hours, same as the Uniden.

The belt clip on the back of the case is the same removable type used on the Uniden. The tether and attachment point for it is the same as the Uniden.

The West Marine VHF 150 is submersible, and like the Uniden is rated waterproof to JIS 8/IPX standards. Testing proved it completely reliable and it came up from the bottom dry inside. It does not float, which is really the only negative to an otherwise great design.

All in all, the West Marine VHF 150 packs all the most useful features of the Uniden MHS 550 into slightly plainer package and offers it for a better price. Unless you are the kind of gadget enthusiast that needs all the bells and whistles, this is a great radio for the money.

West Marine VHF 150, MSRP: 169.99, often on sale at West Marine for 139.99
West Marine
Watsonville, CA


The availability of reasonably-priced, waterproof hand-held VHF marine radios is good news for sea kayakers. There is really no excuse to be without one when you venture into coastal waters, as mariners in distress are saved from disaster on a regular basis thanks to VHF radio communication.

Even though none of the three with slight leaks failed, any saltwater intrusion will eventually lead to corrosion of the battery contacts. A little maintenance will extend the life of the radio. At the end of the paddling day after any immersion, open the battery compartment and dry up any water that may have gotten in. Check the seals on the compartment lid and make sure they are clean. I would still take precautions to keep any handheld VHF out of the water whenever it makes sense to do so.

If I could have the one perfect hand-held VHF for kayaking, it would be packaged in the rugged case of the Uniden MHS 550 or the West Marine VHF 150, and utilize their simple controls and handy station identification display. It would float like the ICOM ICM-34 and the Standard Horizon HX 750S, and feature the SOS strobe light of the Standard Horizon. A battery case for alkaline batteries would be included equipment, and it would be completely leak-proof like three out of the six units tested.

I may not get my perfect radio in the real world, but I would happily take along any of these models tested on my next kayak trip and consider all of them a vast improvement over the hand-held VHF units I have used in the past and I think any of them would give good service with reasonable care.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bowfishing: An Effective Means of Food Gathering

Anyone planning to bug out on coastal waters or along rivers or other waterways with reasonably clear water should consider adding a simple bowfishing rig to their gear, as it will take up little room and adds little weight even in the smallest bug-out vessels such as canoes and sea kayaks.

In the photo below (taken a few years back) is a good-sized Sheepshead I shot not far from the beach while camping on a remote barrier island.  These fish tend to congregate around rocks and other structure, and I got into a school of them by wading out an old wreck after setting up my camp ashore. There's nothing like fresh fillets cooked in the skillet on the beach as the sun goes down. The bow is a Hoyt take-down recurve drawing 60 lbs.  This is a versatile hunting weapon, but if you are choosing a bow just for bowfishing, you can get by with something much simpler, and of lower draw weight, since the shooting is done at close range. 

Shooting a bow from a kayak is difficult, if not impossible in most conditions, but it is feasible to bowfish while standing in a canoe, dinghy or John boat.  I've had great success with this method of fishing when cruising on my larger sailboat, especially when anchored in mangrove areas, where I rowed the dinghy up into narrow creeks among the flooded roots and waited for schools of mangrove snapper to swim by. It takes practice to get good at hitting small, often fast-moving targets under the water, but it's well worth the effort if you're in an environment where you can see beneath the surface.

In addition to a suitable bow, you will need at least one fishing arrow and some sort of bowfishing reel.  Modern, manufactured bowfishing arrows are usually made of solid fiberglass so they will be heavy enough to penetrate a few feet of water and still have enough energy to impale a fish.  They are tipped with a barbed point that can be unscrewed from the shaft since the barbs prevent pulling the arrow backwards out of the fish.  Fletching is not even needed at the typical close ranges at which bowfishing is done, but most fishing arrows are fletched with heavy-duty, waterproof plastic vanes for flight stabilization.  For the reel, I prefer the simple, open-faced design that looks like a handreel and screws directly to the front of the bow in the threaded receiver most modern bows come with for adding stabilizers.  Here is an example of one of these I found on Amazon for just $11.85 Bohning Bowfishing Reel With Line  You can get a complete kit with an arrow for less than 30 bucks: Sting-A-Ree II Bowfishing Kit. Tape-on reels are also available that work well for longbows and primitive self-bows lacking threaded inserts:  Beginner Bowfishing Package, Tape On Mount.

Fancier designs are available with reels that are more similar to those used for angling, but for this kind of fishing I like the simplicity of the hand reel.  There's nothing to break or get tangled and it packs away easily when not in use.  I will be posting more on bowfishing, and archery in general in future posts, including details on primitive equipment that can be self-made and can be just as effective.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More on Everyday Carry Knives/Multitools

In a recent post here I listed the three knives (including multitools) that I find most useful and essential for everyday tasks and therefore keep close by if not on my person at all times.   They are: the Victorinox Tinker (Swiss Army Knife), Leatherman Wave Multitool, and Cold Steel Voyager XL folder. The latter is in a different class, as it's a big folding blade designed more for knife fighting than for use as a tool.  I'll post more on that later.

It may seem redundant to include both the Swiss Army Knife and the Leatherman Multitool, but they are configured differently and the size and weight of the Leatherman makes it less of a pocket item and more suited to carry on the belt pouch.  As a result, the Swiss Army Knife is the one that's in my pocket right along with the change and the truck keys every time I leave the house, while the Leatherman may stay in the fanny pack on the truck seat where I keep my Glock, Surefire flashlight, Firesteel and other gear close by.

A recent forum thread here debates the question of which of these two tools you should have:

There are some good points made there, but I see no reason not to have both.  Here is the Victorinox Tinker:


I picked this model because it is slim and lightweight enough when closed that you hardly feel its presence in your pocket, yet it has what I consider the most essential basic tools: two different knife blades, a can opener, a bottle opener/flathead screwdriver, a Philips screwdriver, and a reamer/awl tool (as well as the plastic toothpick and tiny tweezers that come with practically all these knives).  With this knife on me at all times I can do most light cutting tasks as well as some assembly/disassembly of things held together with screws, like for example removing the butt stock from my Winchester Trapper carbine so it will fit inside the bug-out bag.  I like having two knife blades as I can spare the edge on the larger one for cutting things that won't dull it and use the smaller one for other work that is more abusive.  Both are sharp though, and just yesterday I sliced open my index finger with the small blade while opening a box.  

The Leatherman Wave offers a lot more in terms of both cutting blades and other tools.  In this first photo we have the two knive blades, a saw blade, and a file/rasp combination.  The plain-edge knife blade is longer and sturdier than the largest blade on the Swiss Army Knife.  It also comes to a sharp point and features a thumb-hole that allows for one-handed opening.  The serrated blade can also be opened one-handed, and is useful for jobs like quickly severing big ropes, cutting away seat belts or other emergency tasks.  The saw is more effective and useful than you would think at first glance, and I've actually used it quite often in boatbuilding jobs where I didn't want to go get a larger handsaw or power tool.  The file and rasp provide all sorts of utility for things ranging from shaping and smoothing wood to sharpening machetes and other tools.


With the blades folded up, the Wave can be reversed to reveal an excellent pair of needle-nose pliers with wire-cutters built in.  The middle part also features a large opening with more aggressive serrations for turning bolts and other big-pliers jobs.   At the other end of the handles, additional fold-out tools include a can opener, a reversible Philips and flathead screwdriver combo, a sturdier single flathead screwdriver, a reversible jeweler's sized flathead and Philips combo, and a pair of small but sharp scissors. 


Of course with all these features, I could get by fine with just the Leatherman Wave, and it's certainly worth the trouble to strap it on your belt in the included belt pouch if you're heading out to the woods or off to do a day of outdoor work.  But having both is no trouble at all and the cost is reasonable.  You can get the Victorinox Tinker for just $15.00 on Amazon, and the Leatherman Wave can be had for $60.36 on Amazon (at least that's today's price -which you will see if you add it to your cart).  I received both of these fine tools as gifts, so that's even better, but for a $75.00 investment, I wouldn't hesitate to replace them if I lost them.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter Storm, Southern Style

This winter has certainly been the coldest I can remember here in south Mississippi in a long time. Tonight the forecast calls for snow - up to 8 or 9 inches along the U.S. Highway 84 corridor where I'm writing from tonight.

If that much does fall as predicted, tomorrow morning will be a rare opportunity for some Deep South winter photography, and I'll probably head out in the woods somewhere with my camera gear.

Meanwhile, panic has set in among the unprepared, fueled by the local media warning people to stock up on supplies, including food, water and yes, even survival kits.  Come on people....  It will snow, the sun will come out, and there will be a slushy mess for a day or two.  Granted, most folks here don't know how to drive on snow and ice, so schools will be closed and people are advised to stay off the roads, with good reason.  But a disaster in the making?  I don't think so, other than the fact that the stores are probably sold out of beer by now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Today's Bug-Out Photo: Sometimes You Need a Boat

A Bug Out Bag (BOB) is a great thing to have, but in many parts of the Lower 48, especially the eastern half and outside of mountain regions - rivers, streams and swamps are the key to finding remote, uninhabited areas. A simple boat like a canoe, pirouge or John boat opens up a lot of options that are otherwise unpleasant to travel on foot.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Few Photos from Homochitto National Forest

As I mentioned in my last post, I was heading over to the Homochitto National Forest on Saturday to spend the day hiking.  It was a perfect day to do so, with the high only in the low forties and the sky overcast and gray - which meant we had it all to ourselves and didn't see anyone else on the trails in several hours of walking.

This part of southwest Mississippi has a lot of surprises, mainly the fact that it is so hilly when so much of the state is relatively flat.  Hiking in the Homochitto is series of ups and downs, making it a great workout.  The woods are also different than most parts of Mississippi, in that throughout most of this 189,000-acre national forest, there is an open feeling of spaciousness that encourages off-trail bushwhacking.

Below: Ernest Herndon pauses on a ridge overlooking one of the many deep hollows alongside the trail we hiked.

These areas of hollows usually have more hardwoods, but this national forest does not have the extensive swampy hardwood bottoms found in most parts of Mississippi.

Many of the hollows have small streams, so finding water is never a problem here. 

As clear as it looks, it still should be treated before drinking, of course.  But exploring these small streams among the clay banks, you can sometimes find the springs that are the source as well, and these are safe to drink from as is.

The higher parts of the Homochitto have vast areas of open pine forests as shown below.  It's the kind of place that beckons to be explored by taking a compass heading and just hiking cross-country. 

But if you're more inclined to explore by vehicle, whether four-wheel drive, ATV, dual-sport motorcycle, or mountain bike, the Homochitto, like most national forests, also contains a network of hundreds of miles of lonely, unpaved forest service roads like this:

We were walking fast and talking most of the time as well, so looking for wildlife was not a priority, but even so we walked right up on a young whitetail doe that didn't seem particularly alarmed to see us.  Deer tracks were evident everywhere, especially in the wet bottom areas along the creeks.  The Homochitto offers good hunting for deer, turkey, squirrel and rabbit.  There are also populations of wild hogs, a few black bear and plenty of big eastern diamondback rattlesnakes.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Looking Forward to a Day in the Woods

I've been spending far too much time at a desk lately, wrapping up the final revisions of my book, writing a couple of magazine articles, posting here, editing photos and doing online research. Today I'm breaking free to hike a few miles in the Homochitto National Forest, Mississippi's second largest tract of U.S. Forest Service land, at roughly 190,000 acres.

Below: The Homochitto National Forest covers a big chunk of southwest Mississippi between the Mississippi River (at the left of this image) and the town of Bude (at the right of this image along Hwy. 84).

The Homochitto contains a mix of pine and hardwoods, in a region of surprisingly rugged sandy hills and deep ravines, where countless clear streams wind their way to the river for which the forest is named. Though it contains no federally-designated wilderness areas, and is cut by forest service roads and areas of clear-cuts and new pine plantations, there are still many isolated hollows tucked away in this corner of southwest Mississippi. You can walk for miles in many areas and hear nothing but the sound of the wind in the pines, and that's exactly what I need about now. I'm meeting my friend and long-time camping buddy Ernest Herndon there today, to hike one of the mountain bike trails that loop through the forest in the Clear Springs Lake vicinity. Ernest lives closer to the Homochitto than I do - this big tract of federally land practically his backyard.

Below: A closer view of the Clear Springs Lake area.  This part of the national forest is full of deep ravines and the trails here are a favorite with mountain bikers because of the steep climbs and winding descents through thick forest.

This is a good time to go hiking there. It's been raining for two days, so there won't likely be any mountain bikers attempting the muddy trails, and deer season just closed with the end of January, so it's unlikely we'll see anyone. I'm taking my camera gear, so I'll post some photos of what it's like on the ground there sometime after I get back. The Homochitto National Forest is one of the bug-out locations described in my new book (in Chapter Five - The Gulf Coast Southeast Region), as it is rich with game, well-watered, and big enough to have some good hideouts, especially if you bushwhack off trail.  But regardless of its potential as a BOL, like most wild places it's a great place to go to restore one's sanity after too much time at the keyboard.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Edible Plants: The Inner Bark of Pine Trees

Pine trees of one variety or another are plentiful in most parts of North America:

I just ran across an excellent article over at Survival Topics on how to harvest and prepare a widely available edible plant food that is overlooked by most foragers and survivalists - the inner bark of pine trees.  Yeah, I know, if you haven't tried it I know what you're most likely thinking.  But this is something I have tried, and like the author of this article, found it to be not only palatable, but quite tasty when prepared in a similar manner to how he does it.    

My first attempt at eating pine trees came at a time between two of my longest kayak trips, when I was out of money for more travel, but too used to living outdoors to adjust easily to any other lifestyle.  I went to the woods to think about what I was going to do next, launching my kayak on one of my favorite streams in my home state: Black Creek.  After paddling downstream a couple of days to one of the most remote stretches of this creek that winds through the Desoto National Forest, I pulled the kayak up a steep bank near a place where a spring poured into the main creek and set up a hidden camp in a stand of tall pines.

It was an awesome place to do what I had come to do, which was to get away from all people to think and to spend a few weeks practicing my hunting and gathering skills.  I had some fishing gear and my Marlin Model 60 .22 rifle, and very little in the way of food, mainly just some rice to fall back on if all else failed.

At the tail end of winter, it was not the best time of year for foraging for edible plant foods, but with several hardwood hollows within a short walk of my camp, the squirrel hunting was exceptionally good and I was able to take two or three each time I went on a on a short morning hunt as needed.  It was too early in the year for much in the way of fresh greens, but I did utilize things like palmetto hearts that I found in one area and every day I made pine needle tea and sassafras tea (more on those in future posts), while trying to stay warm as a cold, drizzly rain fell for much of the time I was there.  I had long planned to experiment with edible inner bark, and this was the perfect time to do so.

I found a medium-sized Longleaf pine felled at the creek's edge by erosion of the banks, but still green and fresh, and went to work with my machete, chopping away the rough outer bark, then using it like a drawknife to peel off strips of the white inner bark.  This inner bark is soft and flexible, and separates nicely from the trunk into strips about an eighth inch thick.  Back at camp, I sprinkled these strips liberally with my essential survival seasoning, Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, which renders practically anything not only edible, but delicious.  I don't go anywhere without it, and will have as large a supply as I can carry in any bug out bag or bug out vehicle I have to leave in.  I know I would eventually run out in if the situation turns long term, but like coffee and other vices, it will sure make things nicer in the beginning.

The way to prepare this inner bark is to roast it until the strips become dry and crispy, with much the same texture as potato chips.  I used a rack I built near the fire to hang the strips much the same way you would hang meat to make jerky. Believe it or not, roasted inner pine bark prepared this way is not only edible, but pretty tasty as well, the only thing disagreeable being the slight flavor of tannin.  For the rest of that three week trip I kept a supply of it, roasting it every evening while sitting by the fire.

It's well-documented that many Native American tribes utilized the inner bark from a variety of trees as a staple of their diet.  The reason is simple: it is found everywhere, is available year round, and is easy to obtain and prepare.  You can harvest it from living trees as well, as they often did, and can do so without killing the tree as long as you only remove a small section from one side of the trunk and not all the way around.

For much more on the topic and for photographs of harvesting and preparing pine bark, both by roasting and frying, read the full article on Survival Topics:

Although this piece is specifically focused on  the Eastern White Pine, many other varieties of pines and other trees as well yield edible inner bark.  If you're serious about learning how to survive in a bug out situation, especially while on the move,  it pays to experiment with these kinds of plant foods that can be found most anywhere, regardless of the season.  Just don't forget to bring the Tony's.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kel-Tec PMR-30: I Kinda Want One

I might have mentioned here before that I like guns.  If not, I'll say it now.  Not all of them have to be about bugging out or even about survival.  Some are just fun to shoot.  This new ultralight .22 Magnum pistol by Kel-Tec potentially fits the fun-to-shoot category well, but could have some practical applications too.  

With double-stack magazines containing 30 rounds fitting entirely within the grip, how could it not be fun for plinking or a day at the range?  And although more expensive to shoot than .22 LR, the .22 Magnum will cost a lot less when you dump those 30-rounders than your typical centerfire weapon.  This caliber also shoots flatter and has more punch than the .22 LR, and many outdoorsmen like it for hunting and as a general-purpose woods gun.  I could see it filling the role of a kit gun to put in the pack or dry bag for day hikes or day paddling, or maybe some camping trips.  In a defensive role, even though not ideal, it could get you out of trouble and solve a lot of problems with 30 rounds on tap as fast as you can pull the trigger. 

Kel-Tec is known for it's innovative weapons, especially it's range of ultralight pistols and compact, lightweight, folding carbines such as the SU-16 and Sub-2000.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to come across a deal on a Kel-Tec Sub-9 carbine, which is the older, more expensive but somewhat better-made version of the Sub-2000.  I'll be posting about my experiences with it here. I also have a Kel-Tec P-32 pistol, which is one of the lightest and most compact pocket pistols you can get, decent for a back-up or in situations when you just can't conceal anything larger.

The new PMR-30 is lightweight as well, only 19oz (loaded) in a full-sized frame.  That light weight, along with the light weight and small size of the ammunition, means you can carry a lot of rounds.  For some people who are competent with handgun hunting, this pistol could serve as a general purpose bug-out hunting weapon.  When it's been around awhile, time will tell if it proves to be reliable and accurate enough for such a task. Meanwhile, Kel-Tec is really pushing this idea of high-capacity, and light weight:

From the Kel-Tec Website:

The PMR-30 is a light weight, full size pistol chambered for the flat-shooting .22Magnum cartridge (.22WMR). The PMR-30 operates on a unique hybrid blowback/locked-breech system. This operation system allows for the use of a wide variety of ammunition as it seamlessly adjusts between locked breach and blowback operation, depending on the pressure of the cartridge. It uses a double stack magazine of a new design that holds 30 rounds and fits completely in the grip of the pistol. The trigger is a crisp single action with an over-travel stop. The manual safety is a thumb activated ambidextrous safety lever (up for SAFE, down for FIRE). The slide locks back after the last shot and a manual slide lock lever is also provided. The light, crisp trigger pull and fiber optic sights make the PMR-30 ideal for target shooting and hunting small game.


Calibers: .22 Magnum (.22WMR)
Weight unloaded: 13.6oz. 186g
Loaded Magazine: 6oz. 170g
Length: 7.9" 129mm
Height: 5.8" 89mm
Width: 1.3" 19mm
Barrel length: 4.3" 66mm
Sight radius: 6.9" 175.26mm
Energy (40gr): 138ft-lbs 187J
Capacity: 30 rounds
Trigger pull: 3.5-5 lbs 23N

So do I need this pistol or will I actually buy one? I don't know yet, but I'll be keeping an eye on it as becomes available. In the meantime, my Glock 19, at 21oz empty and 30oz loaded, is not excessively heavy either, and though the standard magazines "only" hold 15 rounds, I can always put in a 33-round Glock "happy stick"  if I want extra capacity in 9mm.  For survival hunting, all around prinking, and accuracy, I'm sure the PMR-30 would clearly be a better choice.  But I've owned a lot of rimfire auto-pistols, and I've always experienced more failures with them than with centerfire pistols, so without extensive testing, I wouldn't bet my life on it for defensive purposes.  The Glock, however, has gone "bang" every time I pulled the trigger, and I have every reason to believe it will the next time too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Obsession with Checklists

I've been making detailed checklists since I first began taking simple, overnight canoe trips on nearby creeks and rivers.  The list-making habit has served me well, especially when these trips expanded to hiking, sea kayaking and sailing trips that lasted for weeks and in some cases, months.  Most how-to books on various types of wilderness travel include gear and supply lists of varying degrees of detail, as do many of the recent books on prepping for survival.

When I first got serious about wilderness travel and especially backpacking, one book that had a good example of such a checklist in the appendix was Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker (now in it's 4th edition).  Fletcher has done extensive, long-distance solo hikes such as the ones he wrote about in his narratives: The Thousand-Mile Summer, and The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon.  In The Complete Walker, he did a great job of breaking down the essential equipment for such endeavors into easy to understand categories.

Many items are universal and carried by almost everyone, but the details of these items are highly individual, and every experienced outdoorsman has preferences on the types and the manufacture of everything from backpacks to fire starters, boots, knives, hats, firearms and on and on. But you have to start somewhere, and that's what I did years ago after first reading The Complete Walker.  Working from Fletcher's lists, I crafted my own personalized wilderness checklist and after every trip added items I wished I'd brought along or deleted those I found unnecessary.  I created sub-lists or completely separate lists for each means of travel, whether on foot, by canoe or by sea kayak.  At first I did these by hand, then later on a word processor so that I could easily print a fresh copy and check it off as I loaded my pack or dry bags.

When I started sailing, the lists became ever more extensive, as the greater capacity of a larger boat meant more provisions, more essential equipment, more complexity of systems and more things to break or otherwise fail.  And of course, each voyage generated a brand new "to-do" list for repairs or improvements to the vessel before heading out again.

Today's prepper, whether planning to bug-out or bug-in has it easier when it comes to finding checklists.  There are many excellent books on the subject that include a variety of lists, such James Wesley Rawles' How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times. Online survival-related forums are full of member posts that include personal checklists, and many blogs on the subject include these as well.  Although people often debate the validity of published lists and criticize some for leaving this or that out or bringing something that may seem unnecessary, such debate is as pointless as arguing over which is the best handgun for self-defense or which rifle is best for hunting.  The answer is whichever is best for the user, related to their particular experience and situation.

Naturally my new book on the subject of bugging out would not be complete without some sort of checklist in the appendix.  I put one in with some hesitation and with a disclaimer that it is what I consider the minimum essentials to take if I had to bug-out on foot with nothing but what I could carry on my back.  I don't expect it to ever come to that, but it's a good exercise to make such a list and and an even better one to load up such a pack and go try to live out of it for a few days to see what it's like.  (See this basic list from the Bug Out Checklist button in the navigation bar).

Since my book addresses not only bugging out on foot, but also utilizing such transportation as full-sized motor vehicles, ATVs, dual-sport motorcycles, bicycles, canoes, kayaks, larger boats, and even horses and pack animals, it would not be practical to include complete checklists for every means of travel.  There are also other game-changing factors, such as climate, terrain, season of the year, and whether you are traveling alone or with your family or other group.  As a result, I've decided to stick with the basics and then add sub-lists of "extras" or "nice-to-haves" that I would include if I had a way of carrying it besides on my back.  There is also the option of caching supplies and equipment if you have done your advance scouting and have a plan about where you will go - whether in some uninhabited wilderness or on you own private retreat land. 

I'm always interested in knowing what other folks consider essential in their checklists of gear, and just about every time I've taken a trip with someone else, whether in the woods, mountains or on the high seas, I've come away with some new insight that leads to yet another modification of the old checklist.  These lists have become a way of life and I have no doubt that they will constantly evolve for as long as I am able to go outside.


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