During the Advanced Wilderness Survival Course I used to teach at the Wilderness Learning Center, I would ask my students to keep track of the items they used daily. Over a week of training in the northern woods, students were exposed to many skills-based challenges and environmental issues. Prior to the end of the course, the students would sit around the fire, do an after action with my boss Marty and me, and review what they found useful and what they realized they could leave behind. What many students discovered was that some items carried in their “ten essentials” kit or emergency pouch, were never touched as they were never truly in an emergency situation. For long-term survival in the great outdoors, sometimes referred to as “wilderness living”, students discovered they fell back on some gear more regularly than other items. These were often carried in a single pouch or cargo pocket. What follows are the common items students and I carried and used repeatedly and everyday in the great north woods. Everything you read about here fits neatly into a small belt pouch like that from the Hidden Woodsmen. Check it out.
Fire Starter and Scraper
Rounded spines. You won’t find a sharp spine on a Fiddleback Forge knife. Years ago, a sharp spine on a knife indicated an unfinished blade. In recent history, the sharp 90-degree spine on some popular bushcraft blades for ferro rod sparking has become quite the norm. It seems like almost every survival celebrity and internet sensation has a video showing how the back of a “good” bushcraft knife can be used for scraping a ferro rod. I sort of agree. I tend to carry an “emergency” firestarter on my bushcraft blades but my primary fire starter rides elsewhere. I own some non-Fiddleback forge blades with the sharp 90-degree spine and plenty of Andy’s blades without it. To me, a ferro rod carried on a sheath can be exposed to the environment and potentially be compromised by rain, sweat, or other moisture. When I wear my Fiddleback blades on my belt or around my neck, my ferro rod rides somewhere else. It rides in my frequent-use pouch. If there is spare room, home-made tinder is carried to start fires in the wettest of conditions.
At some point in the evening, daytime disappears and darkness falls. Without fail, when the sun sets, I reach for my Streamlight Sidewinder headlamp. Around camp, I prefer to be hands-free when lighting my way and although I can bite the end of my flashlight in my teeth, I’d rather spare myself the pain and aggravation of bumping the other end of the light on something and chipping a tooth. A good headlamp is a logical addition to a frequent-use pouch as darkness is part of the daily cycle. The reason why I like the Streamlight Sidewinder is the fact it can be removed from the elastic strap worn around the head and can be clipped elsewhere. It also can stand upright and it features a couple light filters for different coloring at night. Since this item requires battery power, it isn’t a bad idea to make a spares carrier part of the frequent-use pouch too.
Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool
A Swiss Army Knife and/or a multi-tool makes a terrible knife. Compared to a fixed blade, it really isn’t as capable. Then again, the flip side of the same coin is makes the multi-function pocket knife better as a saw and screwdriver than your high end KE Bushie. It seems like on a daily basis, one of the tools from either of these folding knives is used in the field. Whether that tool is the saw, the awl, the can opener, or the scissors, the SAK and/or Leatherman are like having a tool box in your pocket. This item is a no-brainer in a frequent use pouch and a small hone or sharpening steel should ride with it too.
Note Pad and Pen
I don’t go anywhere without a note pad and a pen. I’m old fashioned and like to take notes on paper and not on my phone. I like having the ability to quickly sketch something or write a note, rip it out of the book, and hand it to someone. I also like knowing my notepad and pen will never require batteries, will always work in the extreme cold, and I can stomp on the book without fear of breaking a screen. Students on the WLC Advanced Course carried a small notepad to document pearls of wisdom and I carried one when I wanted to critique them after a skills-based assessment or field test. To this day, I recommend people carry a note pad and pen or pencil. Pens will work most of the time and pencils will work when the pen runs out of ink or when the gel ink freezes. One of the most honest things you can say you do with your blade is sharpen your pencil. Again, try doing that to your phone.
Shit happens. Can we move on? Enough about this one.
Around chow time, canteens and canteen cups are placed near the fire. Freeze-dried foods are opened up and boiling water is used to turn packets of powder and “food croutons” into stews, chilis, and noodle dishes. This process repeats itself at least 3 times per day and sometimes when extra chow is found (hunted, fished or foraged) sometimes you find yourself eating more frequently. You can either carve a spoon or a small shovel out of wood or you can just pack a lightweight titanium or stainless steel spoon in your frequent-use pouch or pocket. I’d recommend something metal over plastic as it can be used to stir food in boiling water and it can also be cleaned by boiling it in water safer than can be done with a plastic/Lexan spoon. Make sure to put a bright lanyard on your spoon when it isn’t in use. You would be amazed how personal an item as simple as a spoon becomes. When you have nothing in the great outdoors, well, almost nothing, the little things add up.
A combination of 550 cordage and jute twine was carried by students and used for everything from setting ridgelines for shelters, building tripods and making projects. When the 550 cord was too much or simply overkill, jute twine was used. The jute served as a backup source of tinder and of course, cordage. Jute is extremely inexpensive and very lightweight. It can be left in the great outdoors to biodegrade and it can be braided into stronger cordage if necessary.
The contents of the frequent-use pouch or pocket vary as everyone is an individual with different needs. Those with corrective lenses will likely carry a spare set of glasses there. If medications are needed, they go into the frequent-use pouch or pocket. Those who have a particular favorite spice may carry a small vial if it’s liquid or pouch if it’s dry. The contents of this kit will be different than your emergency kit. Those emergency items are only broken out in an emergency and don’t become worn-down as much as those you use frequently. Think about it, do you want to have a factory fresh ferro rod in your emergency kit or one that has been worn down in half? If the words in this blog make sense, next time you head out, keep track of the items you dig through your pack for on a daily basis. Carry them in a single place and spend more time enjoying the great outdoors and less time looking for what you need.
It seems the first fixed blade to be discovered and actually appreciated, presumably via an injury to the discoverer, was quite the revolutionary incident in human history. It's clearly evidenced by how much we have developed all sorts of cutting tools since then. Not only knives in many specialized applications over the last 50 thousand or so years, but cutting tools for all sorts of materials, and with far more of them being developed for utilitarian applications than combative ones. With a good quality multi-tool perhaps being the pinnacle of overall usefulness versus the various materials in an urbanized environment so far. Though obviously with the weaponization of anything it can profitably be applied to being pretty common, as some living in quarantine may currently be suspecting, blades made for war have certainly earned their way into our revolutionary history as well.
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