Learn these eight tarp and equipment tips for emergency snow shelter camping

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A tarp shelter can provide very comfortable sleeping quarters in deep snow. Here’s some gear tips to help you build that shelter.

by Leon Pantenburg

This was my shelter. It took about half an hour to construct.

The original plan was to build an igloo to sleep in. Recently, Eagle Scout Sean Jacox and I were at the annual Fremont District Boy Scouts Freezoree, a winter camping event in the deep snow of the Oregon Cascades. Between us, Sean and I have built a couple dozen igloos, and we’re very proficient at throwing up a shelter.

There was about three to four feet of accumulation on the ground, but the snow was too dry for igloo making. The top crust went down for about a foot, then got grainy. It was like shoveling sand, and there was no way to cut blocks.

Plan B was to make trench shelters. The directions are simple: Dig a trench in the snow and cover it with a tarp.

The shelters worked great. Though the temperatures were in the low teens, both of us were very comfortable. But the shelters wouldn’t have worked as well without the correct tarps, equipment and techniques.

Here are some tips and gear for making snow trench shelters.

Get a big enough tarp: When it comes to tarps and ropes, I learn from Bob Patterson. (Check out his creds below.)

A basic tenant, according to Bob, is that people always choose a tarp that is too small.  Remember, the area around the edge is a splash/blow-in (or wet) zone, he says, that is always wet in a rain storm and even worse in a high wind. This also applies to snow and sleet.

“I have two “go-to” tarps.  Both are taffeta nylon, which is heavier than rip-stop but stronger,” he writes.  “One is 12’x12’ and the other is 12’x16’ – I use the 12’x16’ the most.  I’m looking for a larger one, but I’m not going to pay $400 for it.” (Here is a good  go-to tarp.)

In a trench shelter, you need a large enough tarp so you can shovel snow up on the edges. This becomes important if there is wind and blowing snow. Also, the size of the tarp limits the size of the trench.

My 8’x 10′ tarp, which I carry for warmer weather hunting and camping, was barely adequate for my trench shelter. I would have been able to squeeze another person in, but the quarters would have been cramped. I’m upgrading to a 10′ by 12′ for snow camping.

Troop 18 Scoutmater Phil Brummett made a great tree well shelter, which I was happy to inspect!

Phil Brummett made a great tree well shelter, which I was happy to inspect! 

Carry a good shovel: I consider a lightweight backpacking snow shovel to be an essential part of my winter Ten Essentials. Get a good one. Otherwise, that storm will blow in and you’ll be forced to dig with a snowshoe or ski. That doesn’t work all that well, and it isn’t efficient.

Another good choice, recommended by survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt, is the Snow Claw. This is a backcountry snow shovel that fits in a backpack, and works well on a variety of snow conditions.

I helped make a tree well shelter with a snowshoe, and it was a lot of work. You’re better off taking the tools designed for the job.

Know how to use snow anchors: Snow anchors, or dead heads, are nothing more than a stick buried in deep snow. Anchor each corner of the tarp, then shovel snow on the edges. (Here’s how to rig deadheads.)

Cross members: Put your skis and ski poles across the trench to support the ceiling. If a lot of snow is falling, you don’t want the roof to collapse.

That means, you should probably also carry a saw or something to cut branches for roof supports. I like the Swen Saw. I used one in the Boundary Waters several years ago, and friends of mine in Search and Rescue include them in their gear. I’ve carried a folding saw in my hunting daypack for years, for survival and meat processing.

Aluminum tent stakes weigh virtually nothing. Combined with a tarp, and about 25 feet of paracord, the items can be made into an effective emergency shelter.

Aluminum tent stakes weigh virtually nothing. Combined with a tarp, and about 25 feet of paracord, the items can be made into an effective emergency shelter.

Carry paracord: I always carry paracord, in every daypack under every circumstance. Take a minimum of 50 feet. You will use the paracord for tying down tarp ends, making “rafters” for the trench and a multitude of other things. Get the good stuff with seven individual strands.

Take along a candle: A candle can supply a surprising amount of heat in a snow shelter. I lit two in mine, and went off to eat dinner. When I came back in about 25 minutes, the candles had knocked the edge off the chill. It was still cool inside the shelter, but there was a noticeable improvement.

Probably more important is the morale factor. It gets dark early in the winter, and night may last 14 hours. A candle can light the interior very well, allowing you to read or play cards. It will help you pass the time, and stay focused on surviving.

Include a closed cell foam pad: The cold from underneath can suck the heat right out of your body. While you can rely on cutting tree boughs, and lining the floor of the trench, it’s going to take a lot of extra cutting and chopping.

The safest choice is to take a closed cell foam pad, because it is the least affected, and cheapest  material for a sleeping pad.

A quality  inflatable mattress may work, but make sure you get an insulated one. I’ve used an Exped Downmat 7 for about ten years now, and it has performed magnificently. It has kept me warm, even in below zero temperatures when it was the only barrier between me and the ice underneath.

Carry a space blanket: I’m talking about the sturdy, quilted blankets, with one reflector side. This will be the vapor barrier on the floor, and the reflector side will direct heat back into the pad and bag. DON’T get those flimsy mylar blankets that retail for about $2. They are fragile and tear easily.

Knowledge: This doesn’t weight anything, and you can take it with you anywhere. Before you go into the backcountry, anticipate a worst case scenario, then think about how you might deal with it. Consider what tools you need and what techniques you might need to learn.

Then practice. And prepare to enjoy yourself in the wilderness!

Robert Patterson is on my short list of people to go into the wilderness with. Bob is a skilled outdoorsman, an avid deer hunter, and for more than two decades,  has done an annual solo, two-week canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

His career choices make Bob a great guy to review gear. A retired firefighter and first responder, Bob was also an EMT,  and his job required he be out in all sorts of nasty, cold Minnesota weather. (Bob knows his foul weather gear and is my go-to guy for questions about winter camping, rain gear or other survival clothing!)

Bob is also a retired member of the National Ski Patrol, and a certified rope rescue instructor.

 

Another look at the Bark River Trakker Companion

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One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to knives.

by Leon Pantenburg

What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to hunting knives – different handles are for different-sized hands. If the handle doesn’t fit you, it may be uncomfortable to use, and worst case scenario, potentially dangerous.

The Bark River Trakker Companion is designed for the smaller bushcrafting tasks.

The Bark River Trakker Companion is designed for the smaller bushcrafting tasks.

That was my situation when I did the initial review of the Bark River Trakker Companion. I have large hands, and must have at least a four-inch handle on a knife to use it comfortably.

I tried and tried, but the Trakker Companion just didn’t work for me. So I sent the knife off to another experienced gear tester, my old college roommate Robert Patterson, of Mankato, Minnesota. (Incidentally, Bob has smaller hands than I do!)

Bob is on my short list of people to go into the wilderness with. Bob is a skilled outdoorsman, an avid deer hunter, and for two decades,  did an annual solo, two-week canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

His career choices make Bob a great guy to review gear. A retired firefighter and first responder, Bob was also an EMT,  and his job required he be out in all sorts of nasty, cold Minnesota weather. (He knows his foul weather gear!) Bob is also a retired member of the National Ski Patrol, and a certified rope rescue instructor.  He’s my go-to guy when I have questions about winter camping, rain gear or other survival clothing.

I sent Bob the Trakker Companion with no instructions other than “Use it, and tell me what you think.” Here’s Bob’s comments:

By Robert Patterson 

I recently had the opportunity to try out the Bark River, Trakker Companion fixed blade knife.  The name, Companion, is very fitting as this is a great utility knife that a person would carry with them every day.  Its shape, size, and sturdy blade, easily make it your “go-to” knife to do the multitude of cutting chores on a daily basis.

The Bark River Trakker Companion comes in a variety of handle materials. This is black and green micarta. (KnivesShipFree.com photo)

The Bark River Trakker Companion comes in a variety of handle materials. This is black and green micarta. (KnivesShipFree.com photo)

The Companion felt very nimble with a balance point between the first and second fingers, making it easy to use especially in fine work like carving sticks for a figure-four trap and food preparation.  The blade is stout enough to easily split kindling.

Bark River obviously takes pride in manufacturing this knife.  The handle has good symmetry but also shows attention to hand crafting.  The metal and wood interface is extremely precise, giving it a smooth feel.  It’s also very sturdy with a four-millimeter spine, full tang, and solid rivet construction.

The blade has a good utility shape that works well from whittling to skinning.  The taper from spine to edge gives it strength and an edge that is easy to keep sharp.  The square corners on the spine are sharp making it very effective for use with a ferrocerium rod in creating a good spark for starting a fire.

The model I received has a dark curly maple handle, which is really beautiful wood with a tiger stripe appearance that serves pretty well for camouflage too.

The handle is grooved for the first two fingers.  It does not have a finger guard, but the Companion’s contoured shape gives it secure control even when slimy.  The size of the handle is for small hands, which I have.  It fits me very well, but will give the person with large hands some serious manipulation control issues. (Editor’s note: Like Leon!)

The Companion comes with a unique ambidextrous sheath.  It is a full-length sheath with a friction fit.

Bob Patterson in gear-testing mode.

Bob Patterson in gear-testing mode.

I love it.  The knife can be left with the butt exposed for convenient access, or shoved farther in for extra security.  With the straps on the back of the sheath, it can be worn either vertically or horizontally.  The sheath is stitched with heavy nylon and riveted.  The rivets are hollow which allows it to be lashed to pack straps for easy access where it won’t interfere when wearing a pack waist belt.

The sheath is not waterproof treated and quickly absorbs any liquid leaving water stains – or worse.  I would suggest treating the sheath before taking it out in the field.

Overall, the Companion is a utilitarian workhorse that should provide the user with a long life of service.  Just keep in mind the size of the handle is best suited for smaller hands.

(Editor’s note: I talked to Bob on the phone recently, and he mentioned that there is a 10-point buck hanging around an area he hunts. Blackpowder season starts soon, and the Trakker Companion will hopefully get used for field dressing!

The bottom line – for any outdoor equipment – is ALWAYS: It has to work for you!)

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Venison recipe |Try Bob’s Minnesota Venison Jerky for a tasty, quick energy snack

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I hear from my hunting buddies after successful hunts, and we swap recipes, stories and lies. Here’s a jerky recipe from a successful Minnesota hunter.

by Bob Patterson

Bob and I were  college roommates at Iowa State University, and have done many, many camping, backpacking, climbing, canoeing and hunting trips together. Bob retired after a career as a fire fighter/emergency response professional. Currently a resident of Mankato, Minnesota, Bob  is a regular at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. For many years, he’s been on my short list of people to hang out with outdoors.

Bob Patterson at waterfall on Blue Earth River, Minnesota.

Bob Patterson kayaking near a waterfall on the Blue Earth River, Minnesota.

Leon,
Here’s a really simple recipe for a jerky marinade that I’ve been using for the last 40 years and it tastes just as good as the stuff that comes in the plastic bags. It will work within a dehydrator or in the oven.

It makes enough to soak meat in a large mixing bowl and is pretty concentrated so a couple of hours will do it. I used to soak the meat over night, but that was too much.

If you are making jerky in the oven, you can soak the next batch while the first one is drying. Stirring the contents of the bowl a few times ensures even taste throughout.

Editor’s note: I named this recipe, because Bob regularly harvests deer from northern Minnesota.

Bob’s Minnesota Venison Jerky

Basic ingredients:
Soy sauce – 3 bottles
Liquid smoke – 1 bottle
Brown sugar – 1 cup – stir until dissolved

Flavor additives:
Garlic cloves – frappe’
Onion – frappe’
Teriyaki sauce
Pepper
Worcestershire sauce

The basic ingredients make a good jerky all by themselves. If you make a lot of jerky, it’s fun to have some flavor variations using the other additives.

I like to mush up the garlic cloves and onion, or frappe’ them in a blender so the meat is basically soaking in the juice. If you use the blender method, it WILL affect the flavor of your next margarita.

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Choose the best sleeping pad for camping or backpacking

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Getting a good night’s sleep in the wilderness depends on a lot of variables. Don’t forget the sleeping pad!

by Leon Pantenburg

Several years ago, my wife bought me an insulated air mattress for backpacking. It was the Exped Downmat 7 and cost about $150. I thought the price exorbitant until the first use. I was at a January campout in Oregon’s Cascades Mountains and my tent was pitched on ice. All that was between me and the cold was the tent floor, the downmat and my sleeping bag. I slept like a baby.

I love sleeping out under the stars. While I will not use my tarp or tent, I won't forgo my Downmat 7!

I love sleeping under the stars, like on this summer backpack trip in Oregon’s Ochocco Mountains. While I will sometimes forgo my tarp or tent, I won’t leave my Downmat 7 behind! (Scott Langton photo)

A vital part of your wilderness or camping experience is what you sleep on. Too thin, and your bed is hard and unyielding. An uninsulated standard air mattress can let the cold ground suck the heat right out of you.

Too large, and the sleeping pad becomes difficult to carry and use.

To write this, I got some sleeping pad advice from Bob Patterson, an old friend and camping gear expert. (Check out his creds below!)

“The older one gets the more one gets into comfort,” Patterson said. “I usually use a self-inflating air mattress.  It cuts down on the need to call a wrecker to get me out of the bag in the morning!”

According to Patterson, some questions need to be answered before you invest in a sleeping pad. These might include:

What activities will you be doing?  Climbing, canoeing, winter camping, car camping?

What is your main concern?  Comfort, insulation, weight, bulk?

Once you establish your priorities,  consider these aspects of  buying a pad:

Where will I be using this?  An air mattress that would be very comfortable on a Louisiana summer night will chill you to the bone winter camping in the mountains. And, a hard, non-yielding pad that insulates well may be like sleeping on a board.

How bulky and heavy is it? Anymore, I go light when  backpacking. That means the lightest, most effective pad. My Down7 is used in all weather conditions, and it does very well here in Central Oregon. But it might not be the best choice in hot, desert regions.

Here are some choices, according to Patterson:

The closed cell ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!

The closed cell Ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!

Ensulite is light weight and insulates pretty well, but doesn’t roll very small and isn’t that comfortable by itself. Patterson reports problems with condensation collecting in corrugated and egg crate type of closed cell foam mattresses during winter camping.

Self-inflating mattresses are comfortable and convenient, and roll fairly tightly, but don’t insulate that well, and are kind of heavy.

Stay away from vinyl air mattresses for camping, they are for the pool or lake.

Air mattresses in general have one important built in defect: potential leakage.

“Any mattress that blows up needs a repair kit to accompany it,” Patterson said. ” An air mattress with a hole isn’t any good.  If you blow up your air mattress by mouth,  you can end up with icing problems in cold weather.”

Here is what Patterson uses:

Car camping or in a hunting base camp: “I use my self-inflating four-incher when there are no weight or bulk considerations,” he said. “I hate rolling off, or having my arms fall off, of the side of 20-inch wide mattresses, so mine are 25 or 30 inches wide and full length.  They are a little heavier, but the comfort for a good night’s sleep is worth it. ”

The 1” or 1.5” thick usually provide enough padding for comfort, he added.

“During the (2007) Boundary Waters Canoe Area  Honeymoon Lake Fire evacuation, (To read the story, click on Honeymoon Lake evacuation) we ended up sleeping on only our self-inflating pads, on a granite slab by the shore of Lake Superior,” Patterson said. ” They were OK, but that’s probably the extreme test.”

Winter camping in cold weather: “I have used a three-inch thick self-inflating pad, but it’s heavy and bulky,” Patterson said. “It only works when pulling equipment on a sled.”

The best winter system Patterson calls the “best of two worlds”  is a regular one-inch or  or 1.5-inch self-inflating mattress coupled with an Ensulite pad on the bottom.

My Downmat 7 has had extensive use and has always worked well. But any air mattress should always have a repair kit with it.

My Downmat 7 is about the size of a loaf of bread, and has had extensive use. Any air mattress should have a repair kit with it.

” In winter,  it takes longer for self-inflating mattresses to blow up.  Be careful about topping them off by blowing on the valve in subfreezing temperatures,” Patterson said.  “Breath moisture can result in valve freezing and internal freezing, making them difficult to roll up. The ice may prevent proper inflation the next time.”

Use these suggestions to decide what is going to work the best for you in your particular circumstances. No matter what your final  sleeping pad choice is, though, make sure it will work for you most of the time.

“My main advice for all gear is: If you can only have one, buy one for the conditions you will use it in 90 percent of the time,” Patterson said.  “An ounce of technique is worth a pound of technology. Learn and develop techniques to cope with occasional extreme conditions.  If you can afford to get specialized equipment for extremes, go for it.”

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson is a retired firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, and as part of his job, was outdoors in all kinds of weather year-round. A skilled outdoorsman, Patterson is a regular in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year, and is a former member of the National Ski Patrol. He does a lot of  northern Minnesota COLD camping.

Before he went to work as a firefighter, Bob sold sporting goods and outdoor equipment for several years in Ames, Iowa. Bob is my former Iowa State University roomate and a long-time family friend. We have hunted, fished, canoed, backpacked, camped and climbed together for decades. Bob’s on my short list of people to hang out with outdoors.

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