Archive for February, 2014

Knives

Posted: February 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

A good knife is a really great piece of camping equipment.  Having a nice knife instead of a crappy one is like having a smartphone instead of a flip-phone: you were surviving OK without it, but once you have one you’d never consider going back.  If you have a pocket knife, Swiss army knife, or hunting knife around the house, use that and see how it treats you.  If you don’t, and are interested in getting something better specifically for camping, read on.

tl;dr: If you want a folding knife, get an Ontario Knifeworks Joe Pardue folder, or an Ontario RAT1 folder, both about $25.  If you want a fixed blade, the Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival model is a good bargain at $40, among currently available full-tang knives made from decent materials.  Know that these are very different from most normal home kitchen knives, and are razor sharp when delivered- never cut toward your hands or toward yourself with one of these knives.

What to look for in a good knife.

SAFETY.  The most important feature that a nice camping knife should have for me might not even be on the list for some people: it should make it hard for me to cut myself.  Having a tiny, slightly lighter, razor sharp knife in my cold or wet hands, possibly far from medical attention, is just a great way to potentially have to end a camping trip early for someone to go get stitches, or worse, in my mind.   Even among larger, less-clumsy knives, the designs often omit the forefinger groove (a little dent on the handle’s underside, for your pointer finger to sit in securely, so it doesn’t slip forward toward the blade), or the thumb rise (same deal on the top of the handle, to keep your thumb from sliding forward), or the jimping (a series of tiny dents in both of these spots to give some texture and improve your grip even more).  If possible, I’d like a knife that keeps my paws well-separated from the pointy bits, even under crappy (icy, wet, cold) conditions.  This also means that for folding knives, I need to know it won’t fold up until I tell it to.

Durability.  I also like a knife I can baton with.  Batoning is when you use a stick to whack across the back of your knife, typically on the back of the blade just ahead of where it meets the handle, so you can split wood.  It’s a very useful skill to know, and best learned in person, although I’m sure there’s no shortage of youtube videos.  For fixed-blade knives, you want a full-tang knife, for batoning, and really for any use.  The tang of a knife is basically the bit of the blade than extends into the handle- on a full-tang fixed blade knife, the entire handle has a delicious center of blade, all the way to the back end.  If they haven’t made the handle so that you can see the metal center all the way back, it’s very unlikely to be a full-tang knife, regardless of what anyone claims in the fine print.

Perhaps surprisingly, many good folding knives with metal frames can also be used for batoning if you keep in mind that they need a bit more TLC.  The equivalent of full-tang for folding knives is an all-metal frame.  The frame is the bit of a folding knife that the blade folds into- although there may be plastic or wood “scales” to give the grip its shape, the center layers of a good folding knife frame should be steel or titanium.  Most folding knives have an all-metal frame, but a few discount models now have a polymer-only frame.  Avoid these.  While folding knives are inherently less sturdy than  fixed-blade knives, I almost always camp with a good folding knife, and I’ve never had one let me down while batoning.  I would definitely Google a review for any particular model you’re considering, to see if they tested batoning with it hands-on.  (Trust me, someone has).

As just mentioned, I (slightly) prefer a folding knife.  That’s because the best knife is the one you always have with you in your pocket, not the huge Rambo knife that you left back in the tent or car.  For much longer trips, or more extreme use conditions, the scales might tip toward the additional durability of a fixed blade.  Your mileage may vary.

Steels.  There is a lot of ink (electrons?) spilled online about the type of steel a knife’s blade is made of.  Most often, the type of steel is stamped or engraved directly onto the blade of the knife.  Here’s a primer.  Long story short, there are three rough categories in non-flea market knives: 1- old-school (some of which are outstanding), 2- new and nice but but not super-overpriced, and 3- new, slightly nicer knife-nerd steels that are only used in knives that cost an arm and a leg (ATS-34, 154CM among others).  You’ve probably already guessed that the blades of the knives recommended here are all made of steels from the middle category- mostly AUS8 / AUS8A or 8Cr13MoV, to be specific.  These are both stainless steels.  I’ve seen a few knives sold in two identically named versions that are either AUS6 or AUS8; keep an eye out to be sure that if you’re looking at a knife like this, you get the AUS8 version.

Serrations.  Many knives that meet the requirements laid out here come in two versions- one with a smooth blade all the way to the hilt (handle), and one with the back part of the blade serrated with small indentations.  Although many people imagine the serrations are for sawing, they’re not- a better tool for that is an actual saw.  Serrations also need to be sharpened using a special tool, when they finally become dull.  Nevertheless, after using many knives with and without them, I slightly prefer partially serrated blades.  Here’s one example of the subtle things you can use them for when you get used to them: often you are trying to cut something spherical or cylindrical, that may also be slippery or wet.  Starting at the serrated part lets the little points hold things for you, to get your cut started more safely.  These blades are also all large enough that there is plenty of edge left ahead of the serrations.  Although I lean toward the partially serrated option, almost all knives that offer a partially serrated edge also have an identical model with a smooth edge, if you prefer.

Tip for the people who spend a lot of time on the web.  Many knives that meet the requirements above are custom designs from knifemakers who are in high demand.  These are out of our price range.  Often, some well-known knife makers will agree to a limited mass-production run with a big knife company, which effectively makes their top-of-the-line designs available for cheap.   These types of knives always go out of stock quickly.  However, if you do a lot of web-surfing, you can get an amazing knife for around $30 by keeping an eye out for one of these.  Recent past examples include the outstanding Timberland Kelley Worden, the CRKT Crawford Kasper, and the CRKT Jim Hammond Desert Cruiser.  Basically, if the knife model has some dude’s name in it, that’s probably a good sign that it’s a decent knife, and also that it won’t be around in stock forever.

If obsessively Googling custom knife designer names isn’t your idea of a good time, there are a few great production knives that more than meet our requirements without breaking the bank.  Read on.

Recommendation: For a good bargain on a great folding knife that’s in production, I would first pick the Ontario Knifeworks Joe Pardue Utilitac II model, with the partially serrated blade, for $25.  Because it has some dude’s name in it, it may not be around forever!  A very similar non-signature model is the Ontario RAT1 partially serrated.  The RAT1 is also available with a black-coated blade, if that’s your thing (enjoy looking for it at night if you drop it!).  Both of these knives have an AUS8 stainless steel blade and a metal frame, with a nice grip design.  If you prefer a more sturdy but bulkier fixed-blade knife, there are fewer bargain options out there that have a full tang and decent steel, but the Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival for $40 stands out among currently available models.  It has a full tang 8Cr13MoV blade, and a great grip design.  There isn’t a comparable Schrade model without the black “ninja” coating of the SCHF10, so you’ll have to go full-ninja if you want to rock this excellent bargain camping knife.

joepardue

Ontario Knives Joe Pardue Utilitac II

SCHF10

Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival

First knives.   Although I think the larger knives described here are actually much safer in an adult’s hands than something tiny, for kids the opposite may be true, and this is certainly most people’s perception.  If you have a smaller-handed young knife user who has thoroughly learned knife safety , a nice starting tool is the Victorinox Huntsman Swiss-Army knife.  Although you can save $10 or so by getting one at Amazon or on ebay, a place like Swiss Knives Express or Swiss Knife Shop will offer handle engraving for free, and kids love things with their names on them.  The steel in Swiss army knives is much softer than in the other knives recommended here.  This means it’s much easier to bend or break these by treating them too harshly, and it also means that they’ll need to be sharpened more often.  The Huntsman is also a great adult backup knife for camping, because in addition to a small but very usable knife, it has excellent sharp scissors, a can opener, small saw, corkscrew, awl, bottle opener, and tweezers.

huntsman2

Victorinox Huntsman

Sharpening.  Sharpening camping knives may be new to you if you’ve only honed kitchen knives on a metal rod until now.  There’s more than one school of thought on the best way, but here is one place to start: the Smith’s TRI6 Sharpening Stone system is meant for  beginning knife sharpeners, and contains  an angle guide.  It comes with everything you need, for $27.  Is it the best of all possible sharpeners?  No.  Is it great for beginners, close to as cheap as you can get, and good enough to put a razor edge onto a camping knife quickly?  Yes.  Depending on which edition you get, the stand that comes with this sharpening set may have a slick bottom- if you find it slipping around on the table during use, set it on a towel.

smiths-tri6

Smith’s TRI6 Sharpening Kit

First Aid

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

Lights

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

For camping and backpacking, it’s really nice to have a couple of good light sources at night.  If you’re a weekend camper, you will often hit a patch of traffic and make it to your campsite on Friday night when it’s already getting dark. Although your eyes will adjust if there’s some light available, pitching a tent and starting a fire for dinner in the dark can still get old quickly.

tl;dr: Get an Energizer Pro 7 LED headlamp for $16 from Amazon, or about $20 at Home Depot in person. It’s brighter, more water resistant, and cheaper than most better-known outdoor brand headlamps.  It runs off of 3 AAA batteries, and has three brightness settings as well as a red LED mode for preserving your night vision, which comes in handy more than you might think.

In terms of technology, LED is the only thing you should be thinking of at this point.  In fact, I won’t talk about any other light technologies here.

For getting started, any lights you already have around the house will work in a pinch- just make sure they have fresh batteries, and go camping!  If you go with experienced buddies, you will immediately envy their hands-free headlamps if you only have a hand-held flashlight.  The LED headlamp is the PB&J of camping lights, and if you only have one light, it should probably be one of these.  These lights are very cheap to manufacture, and have been around for a while, so some companies add a lot of anti-features, like USB recharging and light sensor auto-adjusting, in order to justify higher prices year after year.  I think of all of these features as new and exciting ways for my light to break, or for it to freak out and go into “disco” mode, right when I’m trying to set up my tent.  My recommendation is to strenuously avoid this type of gadget-y light, and further, to take any zealous salesperson’s stance on these goofball lights as evidence of how (un)trustworthy their other gear recommendations might be.

The granddaddy of modern camping headlamps is the 4-led, 3 mode model best exemplified by the original Petzl Tikka, currently still available as the stripped-down Petzl Tikka 2 for about $30.  You can walk out of any big outdoor gear store like REI with one of these, and be good to go- there are many copycats that you can spend more on, but nothing that’s worth it.  You can also find no-name Chinese clones of the Tikka on ebay for as little as $2 shipped!  Take it from me, the $2 clones aren’t worth it either- I’ve thrown away a half-dozen of them that had to be held together with rubber bands and tape after only a couple of weekends, and the switches on them are very sensitive, so that they turn themselves on in your pack constantly, which runs out their batteries.

Recommendation: Although the no-name clones stink, we can still find a better bargain than the standard Petzl Tikka 2, in my opinion.  I have an Energizer Pro 7 LED Headlamp that cost me $16 from Amazon, with the first set of 3 AAA batteries thrown in for free.  I’ve seen a hard-hat branded version of the same light at Home Depot for about $20, if you want one and can’t wait for it to be delivered.  The Energizer Pro 7 LED is bright (58 lumens max), and has three brightness modes, and a red LED mode that won’t blind you or wake your tent-mates if you just want to go to the bathroom during the night.  It’s more water resistant than a lot of more expensive headlamps, including the Tikka 2: the Energizer is IPX7, submersible to 1M, vs. the Tikka 2’s IPX4, splashable.  Nevertheless, I don’t recommend pushing your luck just to see what will happen if you dunk it.

energizerpro7

Energizer Pro 7 LED

One is none, two is one.  For myself, I like to have one other hand-held light besides my headlamp, as a backup, and to be able to point my light without pointing my head, for certain things.  Realistically, you’ll do fine for short trips with just the one headlamp, especially if you’re camping with someone else where your buddy’s light can be your backup.  A budget conscious hand-held backup would be any AA or AAA powered LED light; they’re between $1-$5 at checkout stand impulse-buy sections everywhere, from Home Depot to 7-Eleven.  For the superlight ounce-counters, you might be tempted to get a tiny keychain LED light as your second light.  Although there are fancier variations available, decent versions of these can be had 10 for $6, and they’re great to give out to kids or Scouts, in an inexpensive “Altoids Tin Emergency Kit” gift, alongside a tiny liquid filled compass, a P38 can opener, and whatever other small, inexpensive, and useful items you want to throw in.  These tiny guys use replaceable little watch-style batteries that are easy to find online for next to nothing.

Getting carried away with flashlights, on a budget.  If saving money as much as possible is driving all of your gear decisions, you can pretty much skip this next bit.  It turns out that flashlights are kind of a thing for some people.  There are whole forums and websites, with downloadable spreadsheets and tons of youtube video reviews, dedicated to getting carried away with the humble hand-held LED light.  The one company that makes the actual guts of these lights, Cree, pretty much drives developments.  Each time Cree puts out a new generation of LEDs, dozens of small manufacturers put out new, unimaginably bright hand-held flashlights based on the latest new Cree LED.  Unfortunately, many of these models are to flashlights what a Rolex is to watches: very nice, but they cost about 100-1000 times more than they need to, on the off chance that someone who gives a crap will notice which kind you have.

Maybe this intrigues you, and now you want a ridiculously bright backup light based on all this latest-thing technology, for scaring bears, or for potentially angering your neighbors at car-camping campgrounds if you’re not careful.  Kidding aside, there are lots of times when a very bright light comes in very handy, and these lights always have a great “low” and “medium” setting as well.  Of course, you don’t want to get fleeced (think Casio G-Shock, instead of Rolex).  If this is you, I recommend the Cree XP-G2 based ThruNite Archer1A, for $27 at Amazon.  Although Amazon was the cheapest I could find it, you might double-check, as it’s widely available online from lots of places.  The ThruNite Archer 1A runs off of 1AA battery, and has a max intensity of 178 lumens!  That’s BRIGHT.  It’s built like you could drive a truck over it (side note, do not drive a truck over it).   It still only weighs a few ounces though, depending on the battery.  It’s also IPX8 water resistant (immersible up to 3m or ~10 feet, indefinitely).  As before, I don’t recommend testing this unnecessarily yourself, only to find out you didn’t screw the cap on tight enough.  You can definitely live without this light, and get by with a single headlamp, or with a $1 backup light.  However, if you do want a very well built, super bright backup light, it’s currently impossible to beat ThruNite lights on price / performance.  I use a ThruNite Archer 1A as my backup light, when I have one.

thrunite-archer-1a

A brief bit about batteries.  The easiest battery to use in you camping lights is a normal alkaline battery- they’re cheap and you can buy them anywhere. However, non-rechargeable lithium batteries have a lot to offer in a very bright light like the Archer1A.  Although lithium battery specs will show the same number of mAh (the amount of energy stored) as alkaline batteries, non-rechargeable lithium batteries last up to 3 times longer than alkalines when used under high loads.  Energizer makes a widely available line of lithium batteries that you can find at many supermarkets and drugstores.  Although you can get the Energizer brand lithiums from Amazon for about half the cost of in-store, the off-brand equivalent Tenergy is cheaper still, and gets good reviews.  The most reliable source for Tenergy AA and AAA lithiums online is Newegg. If Newegg is ever out of stock, you can check a box to have them send you an email alert when they get more in.  I use a Tenergy lithium AA in my Archer 1A Backup light.

tenergyAA

Tenergy Lithium AA

One last tip for nighttime gear.  There’s no question of whether you will drop your flashlight, headlamp, lighter, etc. in the snow / leaves / dirt at night.  There’s only a question of when, and how often, and how cold and rainy it will inevitably be that one time you really, really wish you could find the thing that you just dropped.  As long as there’s one person left around who has a flashlight, you can find dropped things a LOT easier if you wrap a bit of 3M Scotchlite tape around them.  This is made out of the same stuff as the lettering on stop signs and interstate signs, so it lights up if any light hits it, even a dim light.  A small roll is about $6.50 and will wrap a family’s worth of flashlights, lighters / matches cases, and other droppable nighttime doodads.

Reflectivetape

3M Scotchlite Reflective Tape.

Cookware

Posted: February 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Camping cookware  is something people almost always have way more of than they need.  We’re not making aspic, we’re just scrambling some eggs.

tl;dr: For car camping, you can probably get by with a skillet from home, or from the dollar store, and use plastic utensils nabbed from a fast food place for free.  If you want to upgrade from there, or for backpacking, for 2-3 people, cooking actual food, get a GSI Extreme Cookset ($30, light but strong aluminum, durable non-stick, non-slip), and eat directly out of the pans using a couple of Light My Fire XM sporks ($8 each).   Drink right from your re-cycled 32 oz. Powerade bottle, or your $7 HDPE Nalgene.  If you start to really put some miles on your Nalgene, consider the $6 CapCap upgrade!

Longer version: If you’re car camping, use a skillet with a metal handle from home, and you’re all set.  Boom done.  I’d go with something non-stick: scrubbing dishes while camping is a sign that you’re a serious masochist, or a tenderfoot.  If your home pans are fancy-pantsy, just get a crappy non-stick skillet from the dollar store, or if you don’t have a dollar store, get a GSI Bugaboo campfire skillet in whatever size you like.

For backpacking or more regular camping use, there are two types of pan sets: one more for normal cooking over a campfire (or stove), and one more for boiling water to make rehydrated meals.  I favor the first type, because that’s the kind of cooking I mostly do.

Recommendation: For this style, I love the GSI Extreme Cookset ($30).  Throw away the little plastic cup and bowl that come with it, which are pretty so-so.  The actual pans and handle are AWESOME!  Lightweight, very slippery and durable non-stick coating, non-slip bottoms, and sturdy.  You can cook a meal for two in this set no problem.  I also got weird with it and drilled a lot of tiny holes in the soft aluminum pot grabber / handle of mine, to lighten it even further.  This worked great, and was probably still not at all worth the time it took, but there you go.  I keep the handle in a ziploc bag when it’s inside the kit, so it won’t scratch up the nonstick coating.  There are fancy titanium cooksets that will shave a tiiiiiiiiny amount of weight off of your pack if you choose carefully, but (a) it’s really not much weight for the money, and (b) they’re rarely offered with non-stick coatings, because they’re tailored more for the ‘boiling water to rehydrate meals’ style of camp cooking.

gsi-extreme

GSI Extreme Cookset

Eat directly from the pans with non-scratching plastic utensils- either free ones scrounged from fast food places, or the super sweet, much sturdier $8 Light My Fire Sporks . I like the full-size “XM” sporks over the mini ones, and I recommend going with a bright color so you can spot them when you drop them.  If eating from the pan doesn’t do it for you, grab a couple of disposable plastic bowls from the supermarket or dollar store.  Drink right from your water bottle, whether it’s a re-used Gatorade or Powerade bottle, or a for reals HDPE Nalgene (lighter than the more common transparent Tritan Nalgenes, but just as awesome).  Nalgenes can handle hot liquids like coffee if you like.  If you’re like me and can’t drink from your wide-mouth Nalgene without getting half of it on your shirt, give up a couple of extra ounces of weight for a $6 Humangear CapCap.

light my fire xm

Light My Fire XM Spork

nalgene

Nalgene HDPE Water Bottle

capcap

Humangear CapCap

If, unlike me, you’ll mostly be boiling water for re-hydrating meals, and want to conserve fuel, a taller pot with a heat exchanger, possibly insulated, is more your speed.  If you have a JetBoil, or the Chinese knockoff version, the pot’s built in.  Otherwise, there are several great options for about $30 for this type of efficient boiling pot, that you can combine with a cheap isobutane stove.

Tip: If you get really into this style of camp cooking and have an uninsulated pot for boiling your water, and want a little “pot cozy” for it like the JetBoil pots have, lots of people make their own custom pot cozies using a bit of Reflectix insulating material and some foil tape.