Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Winterizing Your Gear- Tips and tricks.

It's that time of the year for me. Time to pull out all the gear while my wife is traveling for work and lay it out all over the house so I can put the heavier clothing and sleeping bags in it. This process requires a great deal of self control for me, mainly because I'm itching to purchase a high dollar lightweight down bag for my recreational kit and put my current 20 degree Browning bag into the Minuteman Cache.

Winter brings with it many issues that can compromise your gear and your body. You'll need to have solid and warm footwear as well as warm, layered clothing to suit many temperatures. Rain becomes a critical issue as well. Even the warmest clothing can sap your body temp when soaked with cold rain and wet snow. Your gear should also leave room for body armor. Without a doubt, I've seen body armor left behind during training due to the inability to fit clothing under or over it. This is not an acceptable practice. Test your kit every chance you get. You may look funny hiking with your armor and pack, but don't worry, embarrassment or funny looks won't kill you, it's the bullets that you must look out for. In recent months I've witnessed several people out jogging and rucking with a PC and plates. None of it was military issue and only one was police issue. The local Crossfit gym that I used to belong to had armor days, but not that often.

Water filters are prone to freeze and once frozen with water in the system, can allow bacteria to pass through the membrane due to the swelled pores from frozen water. Imagine that when you actually need to use the gear, your water filter doesn't work. One way to counter this is to purchase new units for unused kit and replace a worn out filter with a new one from a Cache or bag you don't use regularly. It's similar to setting up your kit for a car. Once used, your filter should be on your person to keep it from freezing in cold temperatures and in your sleeping bag overnight, along with some water to keep it from freezing. A little hack I learned from a friend is to heat up some water on a cold night before bed and climb into bead with some nice warm water bottles. Being able to hydrate a meal with water that's not frozen is far more expedient than thawing ice with your stove before eating. It would also use less fuel and not boil off as much water as otherwise. He also taught me to heat up rocks and put them in your boots to help dry them out at night in your tent or sleeping bag. Worked like a champ the one time I tried it.

My trailer equipment is also getting the winter treatment. I'm putting all the military sleep systems back together and making sure the fuel situation is in good order by checking to see how the diesel looks and smells. My generator is also getting the fuel cycled out of it. The one time I needed it 2 years ago, the fuel lines were frozen solid. Never again!

I'm adding a tent or means of making a tent to each kit as well as upgrading the tarps I rely on in a pinch. I've learned that the light to medium use tarps don't hold up well to a good NorEaster in sub zero temperatures. Another little trick I've learned from some survivalist was to purchase some bubble wrap that's made of tinfoil that's backed on both sides with tinfoil for an extra layer of lightweight insulation when you desperately need it. It can be rolled into your normal bedroll or use it to line your pack, but it's a very cheap and easy hack to extend the ability of your sleeping bag or sleeping mat. Some people cut it to fit inside their sleeping bag and put it between the bag and a liner of some type for additional insulation when on frozen ground or in a hammock. It's used quite a bit for pot cozys and such. Very economical solution for many issues where you need a thin layer of insulation. I will put some in the knee pad slots in my pants when it's cold out to protect my knees when kneeling on cold or wet ground. Tape the edges though, they can get loud when moving. Gorilla tape works better than the silver tape you would use for cozys and such.

Remember to relube your firearms with cold friendly lube such as EWL or a commensurate product of similar consistency. Adding a plastic birdcage cover will also keep your bore clear in heavy snow or boggy conditions. Your glove choice will need to be firearm friendly as well. I wear liners and overgloves with an extra right glove with the fingers cut down to the second knuckle. The liner keeps the wind off and the thicker glove keeps the hand warm. Military mitts with removable finger covers work well too.

Winter also means your food intake will increase if you are out in the elements at all. Pack accordingly. I tend to drop some ammo and add some extra Knorr sides into the pack for extra calories. Soft water bottles or bags are easier to keep inside your coat than steel bottles. Grab a couple for 10 bucks, they weight nothing when empty and are a great winter addition to your gear. I like Platypus brand for expense/durability trade off.

In my Caches, I put a white sheet from goodwill in the bin for easy snow camo in a pinch. Cut a head hole and wear it like a poncho "Rambo style" for hillbilly snow camo. Winter time is a prime time for thermal imaging equipment to function at it's best. The disparity in temperatures between the environment and your person shows as a glaring contrast by anyone with an entry level thermal scope.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gear Review: Portable Backpacking/Emergency Survival Stoves

This one has been in the works for a long time. I've been striving to find the easiest way to heat meals and water for years. The idea is very simple, by the subjectivity of the requirements makes the issue a hard one to crack. Modern Survivalists and recreational backpackers alike have some of the same needs, but the sustainability issue is many order of magnitudes greater for the preparedness minded. We also have to consider the usage for more than one person. In order to properly evaluate stoves for these uses, we must first consider the criteria to be used.

1. Heating ability- This is how quickly it heats and/or how much heat the stove is able to produce.

2. Flexibility- Does the stove offer options to make it more useful?

3. Economy -Is the stove efficient and inexpensive?

4. Fuel availability- Does the fuel store well and/or easily acquired?

5. User friendly- Is it too heavy, too dirty, too hard to use, easily stored, etc?

Using this index, we should be able to get a better picture of what types of stoves are best and adequate for each need. I have every main type of stove available. I'm sure there are different models that do better or worse than the models I'm using, but for this purpose, it will work just fine. I'm not going to be ultra scientific, but I will be working the units as well as possible. Different fuels require different methods and measurements as well.

My first real camp stove was the Primus Omnifuel. This is a monster of a stove. You can use just about any combustible out there to run it. You may need to change nozzles (provided) and take some time to warm it up, but once it gets going, it puts out a ton of flame and even more noise. This is by far the heaviest and most powerful stove I own. If you purchase extra adapters, you can use old Coleman style propane cylinders or even an LP tank like on a gas grill. This is the most flexible stove as well with it's fuel usage and with accessories, you can even hang it from a ridge line or tree. When I say combustible fuels, I mean anything that *might* burn if coaxed properly. I've even had success with vegetable oil, but it required significant heating in order to get it to atomize in the heating block. The listed fuels are gasoline and white gasoline, diesel fuel, isobutane, butane, and kerosene. Kerosene and home heating oil are very similar, so you can use either. For a grid down scenario, this one would be my choice for the best stove you could hope to own. Heating ability 4/5, it by far puts out the most heat, but it needs constant tinkering to keep the flame regulated. The flame can be uneven as well. Flexibility 5/5, This thing is as flexible as a stove can possibly be. Economy 3/5, The unit retails at 150 bucks, and if you add in all the accessories, you are up over 200. Also, fuel costs money. Initial investment is the biggest holdback on this item. Fuel Availability 4/5, As long as you have a liquid that burns or a propane/isobutane cylinder with fuel, you are good to go. User Friendly 3/5, It's a very good, useful unit, but the flexibility comes with the price of cleaning and maintaining the unit. It can be messy and it stinks if you are burning heavy fuels. It's loud as all get out. You can barely speak to someone next to you if you are cooking with a liquid fuel. Another issue is that the manufacturer recommends not using commercial auto fuel due to issues with additives being toxic.
Total score 19. Total Time to heat 2 cups of tap water to a rolling boil- 3:16 minutes using White Gas.

The MSR Pocket Rocket is a very sturdy stainless backpacking stove. This unit puts out the best flame of any backpacking stove I've used. It beats the jetboil and classic stoves I've used in the past. It is extremely rugged and has good regulation ability for multiple cooking uses. It's very nice for keeping water of coffee warm without having to turn it off and back on all the time. The flame can be set very low and still burn true. It's not the lightest unit I own, and it requires a manual start, but other than that it's a good unit. Heating ability 4/5, it heats well and is big enough to fry large pans and not worry about the outside edges not getting done. Decently even flame. Flexibility 2/5, These are only made to work with Isobutane backpacking fuel cells. You can convert it to LP, but it's not as hot is you do. Economy 3/5, it's not expensive and the fuel cells are 6 bucks or so a pop. Not a huge investment unless you plan to use it long term and need 100's of fuel cells. Fuel availability 2/5, these fuel cells are by far the hardest to find at a non specialized retail outlet. User Friendly 5/5, This is the easiest, most reliable way to cook.
Total score 16. Time to heat 2 cups of tap water to a rolling boil- 3:05 on full blast with a waning cylinder. Might go faster with a full cylinder.

Trangia Spirit Stove's have been around a long time. These are used in Europe by some military forces. They are a durable alcohol stove that allows you to keep unused fuel inside the unit. Most alcohol stoves must be left to burn the excess off and then stored. It's an easier but heavier alcohol than some of the bigger names, but this one is a bit more reliable and user friendly. It heats slower than the pressurized stoves in the comparison, but it's reliable unless you are in a significant wind. The best fuel is denatured alcohol. It's not as stinky as Methyl alcohol (yellow HEET) and burns just as well. There are other alcohols you can use but you must be careful, many are toxic if you happen to spill them into your food. Grain alcohol is a non toxic alternative. Heating ability 2/5, depending on the fuel used, it can do a great job heating your food or water. It's not the best flame dispersion, but more than adequate for most duties if you're not in a time pinch. It is non adjustable. Flexibility 3/5, It requires a stable flat (ish) surface to work correctly. A few fuels are available. Economy 4/5, These things are super cheap, as is the fuel. They use very little fuel at a time. Fuel availability 3/5, In a grid down situation you can find some type of fuel left behind when all the gas and diesel or LP is all gone. You can even make your own Grain alcohol if you want to be really wasteful. User Friendly 2/5, This type of stove has a narrow use that works well for backpackers, but is relegated to emergency use for survivalists. It's slow to start and messy until you get good with it. It really needs a pot holder and wind guard to be viable under most conditions.
Total score 15. Time to boil 2 cups of tap water to a rolling boil- 13:41 minutes using denatured alcohol. Heet brand Methyl Alcohol heats slightly faster but stinks horribly.

Esbit Hexamine solid fuel stoves have been used in one form or another for decades in the US military. The fuel is solid blocks of stable burning cubes that look like salt. They are easy to light and can be blown out so you can partially burn the cube if desired. The knockoff brands usually use oval or round shapes. Genuine Esbit is square and has score marks on the larger blocks if you choose to cut them up for a smaller or shorter burn. These stoves are made in many configurations by many manufacturers, but the folding Esbit seems to be the favored by most people. This type of stove is great for long term storage and needs very little coaxing to get it lit. The biggest draw back is, they stink to high heaven. They also leave an oily caked on residue on your pots or pans. The cubes are as reliable as a rock. It takes a serious rain to put them out! My favorite use is to throw one in the kindling to start a fire. It's a sure thing! Heating ability 3/5, They put out an extremely reliable amount of heat. They are not adjustable once lit, but you can make them smaller for less heat or add cubes for more heat. Flexibility 2/5, They only work with Hexamine tablets by a few manufacturers. Not many stores carry them unless they have a significant camping department. Once you're out of tablets, it's a smelly coaster to rest your drink on. Economy 5/5, These things are cheap. You can even make one out of a tin can if you want. The fuel cubes are cheap as well. I can heat 24 meals for 4 bucks worth of tablets and have a few left over for coffee. Fuel availability 2/5, You can get them at Wally world, but they often run out and I have to get them from Amazon. A few different manufacturers make them, like 4 total, so it's a crap shoot when you find them at a retail store. User Friendly 2/5, The biggest issue I have is the smell and the stinky residue. Once I'm done cooking, I'm not all that hungry.  They light easily and work well, but have significant draw back for regular use.
Total score 14. Time to boil 2 cups of tap water to a rolling boil- 8:46 minutes using Esbit tabs. Coghlan tabs take longer and will use 2 tabs for the same duration.

Wood gasifier stoves have been around for centuries. They can be readily made out of a few tin cans and a pocket knife. They work on the principle that injecting heated air into the smoke of a flame will cause a hotter and more useful flame with less waste. Smoke is wasted fuel from the combustion process. You can test this by holding a lighter in the smoke near a fire to see it in action. There are a few different models as well. My favorite model being the TOAKS titanium wood gas stove. There are cheaper commercial options all the way down to 24 bucks, but that TOAKS is light weight and small when broken down. The combustion process is the same with all these top load units. They have an inner burn tray with holes at the bottom to allow an updraft into the base of the stove and an outside liner that traps hot air between the inner and outer walls of the stove. Air is super heated inside the walls and is pushed into the burn chamber at the top to allow extra oxygen into the burn chamber for a cleaner and hotter burn. This makes for a low smoke fire once you get it going. It's obvious when it's operating properly, the air flowing into the chamber from inside the walls looks similar to a gas grill flame minus the blue tint. The main drawback to this type of stove is the constant stoking and feeding you must keep up with in order for the unit to operate at a constant temperature. The cheaper 24 dollar stainless option from Amazon is quite hard to feed. If you use a larger pan, you must remove the pan to feed it. You can use just about anything that will burn in this stove. dry weeds, grass, nuts, bark, cardboard, esbit cubes, paper, etc. Once lit, it will burn hot for a while. If you get a good coal bed going, you can use it as a warmer to keep your food warm for literally hours. It was still warm when I picked it up after 3 hours of smouldering. I used it to warm up some applewood chips for the smoker. I like to boil them if I can't soak them overnight. It kept them warm enough I had to use a scoop to put them in the smoker even after 2 hours post boil. Heating ability 4/5, You can adjust the flame easily by blowing or stoking the flame and well as relying on wood choice for heat quality. Flexibility 4/5, You can use it for many different uses and have similar results. Economy 5/5, The cheapo units sell at 24 dollars with the high end Titanium units going for 100. The big draw here is you can reliably fire it with dead fallen branches for no cost. You can baton firewood and really get it going hot for an extended period. Fuel availability 5/5, you can use anything that burns, for free. Even dried animal poop will fire right up. User friendly 2/5, this is the big drawback for this unit. It takes time to get running, requires the greatest amount of time to get lit, and needs constant attention. You must use care where you set it to keep embers from starting fires as they fall through the bottom and it's not very stealthy due to the smoke it gives off unit it's hot.

Total Score 21. Time to boil 2 cups of tap water to a rolling boil- 6:28 minutes. I used dry sycamore and lit the wood with some small strips of cardboard. It took approximately 5 minutes to get the wood burning before setting the pot on the stove.

In conclusion, you must choose wisely based on your needs and the stove's strengths. There are a few I didn't go over, but they are fringe items that require too much space in a pack or require direct sunlight like with a solar oven. These systems are fairly useless when you consider the drawbacks. Small rocket stoves work almost identically to the top load wood gas stoves. I see no reason to cover them considering the duplicity.

The plan I have chosen is to keep my Omnifuel with my long term food storage, complete with several gallons of White gas. It's a very good option for off the grid use once the grill tanks I've stored give out. It's small size and flexibility are well suited to mobile camping or a shelter in place ordeal. The wood gas stove will go into the emergency evacuation bag. It's well suited to long term sustainability without a resupply. The Isobutane or Alcohol stoves sit in my recreational packs, they are perfectly suited for such use. The Esbit stoves are spread out in Cache's, assault packs and travel packs. Their light weight and long term storage ability are perfect for such use.