The Total outdoorsman Skills & tools camping


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EVERYTHING WE NEED We make quite a scene at the airport: two adults, two teenagers, four carry-ons, and eight pieces of checked baggage, each of which weighs within ounces of the 50-pound-per-bag maximum. It’s all there: everything a family of four will need for a week-long camping trip in the big American West. We’ve done it enough times now to have it down to a science. A 48-quart cooler is packed with a stove, a lantern, and cookware. Every man, woman, and child has his or her own duffel of clothes and personal gear, fishing rods, and summer reading. There are two backpacks loaded with tents, sleeping bags, and pads, and my beloved canoe barrel packed with breakables. Once on the ground, we rent a van and buy cheap camp chairs and a square of indoor/ outdoor carpet. We hit a grocery store. And just like that we’re off for a week of camping and fishing and hiking. Two adults, two teenagers, and pushing 400 pounds of gear.


Every year we make the trip, I spend the night before we leave cinching straps and triple-checking gear lists and wondering if it’s worth all the work and hassle. And every year, as we pack up camp the night before we fly home, I know the answer. Yes. A thousand times, yes. There is simply not a more American pastime than camping. And despite the fact that we’ve upgraded from birch bark canoes and Conestoga wagons to jetliners and $ 40,000 pickup trucks, the spirit is still there, still true: pack up a semblance of home, move it to some distant riverbank or mountain ridge, and reassemble. Raise the tent, hang the grub, lay the fire. Set up camp. Pair a camping trip with a rod or gun, and the fun factor rockets. Now there’s fresh trout on the fire, and elk quarters hanging in the dark timber. Of course, having the right gear is a big part of the difference between a string of miserable nights in the woods and an unforgettable week in the wild. And the right stuff doesn’t necessarily mean the newest stuff or the most expensive gear. It can mean knowing how to get the most of some of the most basic tools you own. Consider the tent guyline, the cord that attaches the rain fly to the tent stakes. It’s a piece of cord, really, so what else is there to know? Plenty, which is the point of this book. Learn to tie a taut-line hitch at the end of the guyline and you can cinch the rain fly tight in front of a storm. Replace all your old manufacturer-supplied guyline cord with reflective cord and you’ll never again trip on those dark midnight trips to the groover. Learn how to rig a guyline picket stake and your tent fly will never again loosen when the winds start to howl. Those are three examples of how you can rig and modify one overlooked piece of gear. I’m an unapologetic gear hog, and I admit that I have a hoarder’s tendency to keep just about everything. My basement is crammed with camping gear that spans a half-century, from my dad’s old lensatic compass to a set of GPS-enabled two-way radios. Even in the woods, I’m the guy who brings it all. I was never one to drill holes in my toothbrush to shave a few ounces from my backpack’s weight. I’d rather sweat a bit more up the ridge so I can kick back with real coffee than make do with instant swill. I’d rather have two headlamps because you never know. Most likely, I’ll be the guy with the gun-cleaning kit stashed in the boat bag, and you’ll come looking for me when your canoe turns over. But we can’t forget attitude and aptitude. Good gear and know-how have a hard time trumping a whiny disposition when the trail turns tough. A positive frame of mind invites on-the-fly innovation and makes the most of every situation. A gracious spirit is thankful for every night spent under the stars— no matter how rocky and rooty the ground under your back. Your brain and your heart are your most important tools. Once, during an 8-day paddling and fishing trip down Ontario’s remote Palisade and Allanwater rivers, my buddy Scott Wood and I had to put in a monstrous day. We broke camp early and paddled 22 miles, with a 3-mile lake crossing and mucky overgrown portages. We were still on the go at 11 P.M., with no food for eight hours and daylight fading fast, yet we had our largest rapid to run. At the base of Black Beaver Rapids, we dragged the boat to shore as an orange moon rose through spectral fire-blackened forest, too exhausted to cook supper. We stamped down a rough bivvy 10 feet from the water, running tent guylines to blueberry shrubs, and collapsed in the sleeping bags as northern lights arced overhead, wholly unappreciated. We had a few more days on the river, and I spent the few fitful minutes before sleep triple-checking the map and wondering if it was worth all the hassle. In the morning we limped out of the tents to find the blueberry plains sheathed in frost, a world so glittery and serene, I half-expected unicorns to come prancing through the valley. We caught a breakfast walleye, cleaned it on the bottom of an overturned canoe, fried it hot and fast and washed the fish down with pure, cold water from the river and handfuls of blueberries. And just like that— I was ready to do it all again. Worth it every time.


Growing up we slept under the stars, sans tent or tarp, to prove how tough we were, but now I sleep in the Big Scary Open because I get a huge kick out of nodding off to shooting stars and waking to the first rays of the sun. And it’s super cool to sleep with frost sheathing your sleeping bag. If you’re squeamish about dozing off without the protection of a nylon cocoon, try it my way: Spread out a space blanket first, then a super-comfy sleeping pad. Having a spread of ground cloth between you and the bare ground is a mental comfort, and it also means you can spread your arms and thrash around a bit without actually wallowing in the dirt. I wear a toboggan to hold in extra body heat and keep a flashlight tucked in a boot near my head so I can find it quickly. If it makes you feel better, the other boot can hold a knife, handgun, pepper spray, or ninja death stars.


In 30 minutes you can replace all your old tent guylines with reflective cord, and never again trip over them while stumbling around during a middle-of-the-night pee, during which you stub your right big toe so badly that the nail splits and the toe swells and you can’t wear wading boots for two days. Listen to me.


This supercharged guyout plan kicks in when the wind cranks up to 25 mph. Picket stakes boost the holding power of tent stakes, so use them on the guylines attached to the side of the tent that faces the wind.

STEP 1 Drive the first stake into the ground at the desired location, and attach it to the tent guyline. To make a picket-stake line, tie an overhand loop in one end of a 16-inch length of parachute cord. Attach the p-cord to the first stake by threading the running end through the overhand loop and cinching it tight against the stake.


STEP 2 Drive a second stake— this will be the picket stake— into the ground 8 to 12 inches from the first stake so that it’s in a straight line with the guyline. Wrap the running end of the p-cord around the picket stake twice, then tie it off with two half hitches.


It ranks among the most humiliating of outdoor snafus: When you pull the tent poles from the stuff sack, where they have been lovingly stored since portable CD players were all the rage, the pole sections fall to your feet like pick-up-sticks, the shock cord holding them together slack and limp. It’s always best to replace old shock cord as it starts to lose its elasticity, not when it is gone forever. In most cases, elastic bungee cord is threaded through the pole sections and held in place with a stopper knot that jams against a washer or some other stop inside each terminal pole section. A few tent models require a kit if the shock cord goes south, but most can be handled with nothing more than new bungee. First, remember to keep the pole sections in their original order throughout this process. Access the cord by prying off a pole tip. Remove the old cord. Tie an overhand knot in one end of the new cord. Thread the cord through the poles one section at a time, joining the sections together as you make progress. If the bungee bunches up while being pushed, cut a straight length of coat hanger wire, attach to the end of the bungee, and feed the wire through the poles. When finished, pull the bungee cord fairly tight, but leave some slack. Tie another stopper knot, but don’t cut off the excess yet. You may need to experiment with the cord length to get the tension right. You want enough to hold the poles together, but not so much that the cord is stretched too tightly when you decouple the sections.


It’s always been a challenge to anchor a tent or tarp on beaches, river sandbars, and other places where tent stakes won’t hold. The solution: bag it. Fill garbage bags or empty stuff sacks with sand, tie a knot in the opening, then tie the tent’s stake loops and rain fly guylines to them. For high winds, burying the bags will provide a rock-solid stake point. And stuffing sand bags along the inside tent edge will help batten down the hatches.


It’s taken me decades of tinkering to perfect this system, but I’ve cut my number of tick and chigger bites by 90 percent or better with a tactical approach to applying bug dope and modifying clothing. The advent of roll-top and sponge-top insect repellents also helps keep the required dosage to a minimum. Here’s the drill. Start with the strategic placement of high-percentage DEET bug dope. I rarely use anything less than 30 percent, and when the chigger infestations are at their worst, I use 100-percent DEET without hesitation. The idea is not to slather your entire body with the strong stuff, but to minimize use by drawing hard chemical lines to turn back the insect hordes. Run a stripe of dope around each leg on the upper thighs, below the bottom edge of your underwear, and another one below the knee. Now lift up your shirt, pull the pants waistband down an inch or two, and apply another stripe of bug dope around your waist an inch above the top of where your pants ride. The idea is to prevent a tick and chigger recon squad from crawling up or down. Now tuck pant hems into socks and run a band of duct tape around the seam. Apply more DEET to boots, socks, and pants legs below the knees. Exposed areas around your neck need bug dope, as do wrists. A double stripe below and above the elbow will keep creepies from crawling up your arms. Designate a hat as your bug-dope-friendly brim. Apply dope to the crown. Last, run a stripe of repellent along the edge of the hat brim. This helps produce a vapor barrier of bug dope in front of your face, but keeps the chemicals out of your eyes.


Having a properly sealed mosquito net can spell the difference between a healthy safari and a bout of malaria— or at least, a good night’s sleep and one full of itches and welts.

For straight tears less than 2 inches long, thread a needle and stitch the rip closed. If you have extra netting in a repair kit, reinforce with a netting patch cut ½ inch larger than the tear. In the field, any makeshift thread will work: dental floss, fishing line, or even plant fibers. You can always pretty it up with nylon sewing thread back home. For jagged, Frankenstein rips large enough for bats to fly through, heavier lifting is required. First, pull the edges of the tear together and tape with masking tape (A). (Duct tape is too sticky.) Then tape a strip of paper over the tape to serve as extra backing (B). On the other side, brush on a layer of silicone-based repair adhesive (C). Give it two days to cure, then remove the paper backing. Dust the patch with body powder (D) to knock back the stickiness and prevent it from picking up dirt or sticking to the rest of the tent.


Duct tape makes a fine insect blotter. Wrap a few strips around your hand and blot the bugs trapped inside the tent. Better than smashing them into the tent fabric.


There are lots of snappy sayings to help you remember lightning safety: When the thunder roars, get indoors! If you can see it, flee it! But what do you do when you’re caught outdoors with almost nowhere to hide? The National Outdoor Leadership Schools, or NOLS, and other experts, recommend the following.

IF YOU ARE CLOSE TO YOUR VEHICLE OR AN ENCLOSED STRUCTURE Get inside something— your car, a house, a barn. Open shelters such as picnic shelters provide little to no protection.

IF YOU ARE CAMPING Avoid open fields and ridge tops during seasons when thunderstorms are prevalent. Stay away from fence lines, metal and tall, isolated trees. Tents provide no protection. If you are in dangerous open terrain during a thunderstorm, leave the tent and assume the “lightning crunch” (described in the last paragraph).

IF YOU ARE IN OPEN COUNTRY Avoid the high ground and contact with dissimilar objects, such as water and land, boulders and land, or single trees and land. Head for ditches, gullies, or low ground. Spread out at least 50 feet apart and assume the “lightning crunch.”

IF YOU ARE ON THE WATER Head inside a boat cabin, which offers a safer environment. Stay off the radio unless it is an emergency. Drop anchor and get as low in the boat as possible. If you’re in a canoe on open water, get as low in the canoe as possible and as far as possible from any metal object. If shore only offers rocky crags and tall isolated trees, stay in the boat.

IF YOU CANNOT FIND SHELTER Some experts believe that the “lightning crunch” provides little to no protection for a direct or close strike, but at this point, some action is better than nothing. Stand on an insulated pad or bag of clothes. Do not stand on packs; the metal in frames and zippers could increase chances of a lightning strike.


Put your feet together and balance on the balls of your feet. Squat low, wrap your arms around your legs, tuck your head, close your eyes and cover your ears. Maintain the position until danger passes.



Most of us bring along a smartphone on our camping trips. When it’s cold, however, the device is impossible to use with gloves, which block the transfer of electrical energy from your skin to the capacitive touchscreen. You can buy touchscreen-compatible gloves, outfitted with small, conductive fingertip dots. Or you can save 40 bucks and take pride in being a postmodern mountain man by sewing a few stitches of conductive thread to the tips of your own mitts. All you need is a pair of old-school gloves, a sewing needle, and a couple feet of conductive thread.

STEP 1 Thread a sewing needle with 18 inches of conductive thread. Double the thread, and tie an overhand knot in the end.

STEP 2 If possible, turn the glove finger inside out to start the stitching. (If your glove is too thick to turn it inside out, trim the excess thread as close as possible to the knot, and start from the outside.) Make 4 to 5 parallel stitches, keeping the threads as close as possible. You want enough exposed thread to conduct the electricity from your skin, but not so much as to make the active touchscreen dot too large. On the inside of the glove, create a half-inch bird’s nest of thread to help transfer the electric charge.

STEP 3 Tie the thread off by slipping the needle through the last two stitch loops and snugging down with a knot. Trim the thread with a 3-inch tail on the inside of the glove. This will serve as a kind of antenna to help pick up electricity. Turn the glove right-side-out and you are smartphone-app ready. Now you can text your pal about the bruiser buck headed his way. The one you could have shot had you not been playing Fruit Ninja.


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