Rain can most certainly — and literally — dampen the warmth and dry coziness of a campsite. It’s a tolerable nuisance grudgingly dealt with using a few techniques and skills. It can also be used to your advantage in more self-reliant situations.There are two big things that rain during a camp outing can bring: 1) concerns over how to stay dry and comfortable; and 2) the opportunity to collect rainwater to augment your drinking supply. Think of it as one being a pain and one being a gain.
Rain clothing/gear provides mobile shelter from the rain. It’s your basic front line of defense, a protective layering system that starts with a moisture-wicking base that lets your clothing “breathe” and expel body moisture through a mid, insulating layer. Choose breathable fabric (Gore-Tex, etc.) or pick waterproof outerwear with ample vents to help circulate air between the layers.
Uninsulated waterproof footwear dries faster than those with built-in insulation. Removable liners can be exchanged for dry ones or removed and quickly dried. Wool socks are a foot’s best friend in boot-soaked, rainy weather. Also consider gaiters for post rain walking through grasses, brush, etc.
Choosing a campsite requires common sense: Higher ground means no pooling of water under your tent or in your campsite. Select a site above any indications of a high water mark from flooding or swelling of nearby bodies of water. A rain storm miles away can send torrents of water towards your campsite.
Avoid camping under trees with limbs that could become heavy and break due to wet foliage. Also consider steep slopes that could become saturated and slip, forming landslides threatening your campsite.
Rain-resistant tent: Check the quality of stitching on a tent and even if new, apply waterproofing seam-sealer to all seams. Know how to properly pitch a tent/rain fly so exterior ground tarp edges do not extend beyond sides of the tent. Use a tarp inside the tent that is slightly larger than the floor. The turned-up edges keep any seepage from below from contact with campers and gear.
Set up a new or long-stored tent in your yard before camping and test for leaks with a garden hose.
Graphic by ©Tom Watson
Rain tarp: Protection from rain, sun and wind make camp tarps indispensable campsite gear. Used over kitchen and eating areas as well as for lounging near the campfire, a good tarp is essential for providing a degree of shelter from the elements.
When choosing a tarp, consider its use as an emergency/signal — multiple color schemes and patterns are more easily seen from above or afar. Using “Y” sticks to change the angle and shorten guy lines gives you more options when setting up tarps, too.
Graphic by ©Tom Watson
Other helpful tips include: Keep smaller gear dry by stowing it in an empty cooler; a camp umbrella can block rain and wind for lighting campfire and can also be kept near your tent door for rainy, late-night calls of nature; dead wood on branches is usually drier than wood lying on the ground; consider bringing fire-starter products (like a lighter or magnesium stick and dryer lint).
The rain gain
An obvious advantage of rain is as a source of fresh, clean and safe drinking water. Even if you have a natural source nearby (that could become muddy or otherwise contaminated due to flooding), collecting rain in camp is just good insurance.
Rain can be collected in depressions in the ground or within frames (logs, stones) lined with plastic — forming catch basins that become rain reservoirs.
Graphic by ©Tom Watson
The sloping side of a tarp can be loosened to form a crease that acts like a funnel, channeling rain on the tarp surface down to a spout-like point on the rim of the tarp and into a pan, bucket or other type of collecting basin.
Tying a rock to a piece of small line and suspending it from the tip of the spout created on the edge of the tarp down into the collection basin/bucket will cause the water to flow directly into the container without wasteful spattering or errant flowage.
While rain would seem like an unpolluted source of water, airborne micro-particles could contaminate the rainwater so filtering/boiling may be a prudent option in some situations.
Check the weather and listen to forecasts so you are not caught off guard by a rainy campsite. Friend or foe, rain is part of the overall camping experience.
Be Safe; Be Smart; Have Fun!
File a Footprint: This technique works for all footwear, but especially if your child has a particular pair of boots or shoes s/he wears while outdoors hiking, camping, etc.
To make your footprint unique (and recorded on the sheet of foil on file), Create or make note of a particular blemish or marking on the sole of the footwear. It will help distinguish the footprint from all others making impressions.
Signal Whistle: Stress that this is not a toy and should be blown only when in trouble. Assure them that people trying to find them will be listening for a special signal: three loud blasts followed by a pause and then three blasts again: 3 loud blows – stop & listen / 3 loud blows – stop & listen / and so on…
Special Secret Word: Younger children are taught NOT to talk to strangers and often will hide when they hear a “stranger” (a searcher) calling out their name. With your child, pick a special name or a secret word that only you and a special friend will know and that it means it’s OK to answer. It needs to be simple but it needs to be very special and used only when it’s important that they answer back.
Hug a Tree™: Encourage your children to stay put; to find a tree or special place that seems safe and to stay there until help comes. It may be hard to convey what a “safe” place may be, but whenever you are outdoors, perhaps teach your child to recognize good types of sheltering places where they could “hug a tree”. [The “Hug-A-Tree” program offers a range of teaching aids and recommendations – check out their website: http://www.isrch.org/pdfs/hugatree.pdf%5D
Safety Colors: Sure it’s cute to dress little Billy in a camo’ jacket like dad wears, but woudn’t a bright-colored outer shell be better for being seen? Think about clothing when outdoors and perhaps encourage your child to wear his/her special “camping” cloths when outside.
Rite of Passage: Create steps of responsibility for each child as they gain more experience. “You’ve become a really good hiker, here’s your very own Safety Whistle…” Similar stages of understanding can be used to reward them with their first pocket knife, etc. – all of which builds confidence, trust, self-reliance…and joy of being outdoors.
Not a “bad” thing: Children are afraid of being punished for wandering off so will hide from those trying to find them. Let your children know that sometimes people don’t know where they are, and even adults get lost. Reassure them they need to be careful and you want them to be safe and have fun!
A good stick can be a great camp kitchen tool. From creating a twig racket for grilling a steak over the open coals, or whipping up some eggs with a make-shift whisk, a creative camp chef has plenty of opportunities to use a simple stick (especially a “Y” stick) for myriad camp kitchen cooking chores:
Campfire “Tongs” – A “Y” stick and a straight stick, pivoted at the base of the “Y” creates a convenient “grabber” for holding some meats over the fire. This method can also be used to pull hot rocks from the fire for emergency boiling of water processes.
Stick Grill – By weaving green wood slats with a “Y” stick you can create a grill-like frame for securing meats to for easy flip-over cooking over a fire.
Barbed Skewer – A regular sharp stick skewer oftentimes allows the meat to hang down because it slips while you turn the stick. A small barb near the point can be inserted into the meat, holding it in place for even, all-around cooking.
Handle prop-up – Pretty simple, use a stick to keep the handle of a pot up and away from the heat of the fire.
Stick Whisk – Sure a fork will work, but a twig whisk can be more effective – and fun
Adjustable pot hanger – While a rock can work as a counter weight when using a “Y” stick for hanging a pot over a fire, a second stick with branch hooks, secured in the ground, can enable you to easily adjust the height of the pot above the fire.
Whether it’s a modest, finger-nail-cleaning, fold-up blade dangling from your key chain or an imposing Bowie-like beast with all the heft of a leaf spring from a pick-up truck, a knife is the second most important tool (after your brain) a self reliant person has. Regardless of the kind of knife you choose, keeping it in top working order – sharp! – is of critical importance.
There’s truth to the old saying: “A sharp knife is a safe knife”. Dull knives tend to slip, sometimes slashing the hand or jabbing the thigh of its user. Assuming you know how to use it properly, you are much safer to yourself if what you are cutting with is as sharp as it can be.
Knowing when a blade needs sharpening is pretty straightforward. When it stops cutting as keenly as it should; when you can literally feel a burr or see a nick (look down the edge of a suspect knife blade, irregularities along its edge will reflect light whereas an even, smooth edge will not), it’s time to re-establish a sharp, cutting edge.
Different knives are going to be employed for myriad uses in the backcountry – not so much for the routine campsite (cooking, prepping tinder for a fire, cutting lines to lengths, etc. ) but especially in emergency/survival situations: shelter building, make-shift tools, weapons, food gathering, more concentrated fire starting. Again, the knife’s sharpness will affect it effectiveness as an emergency tool.
There are three general types of sharpening kits on the market: the flat whetstone style, the vertical sharpening rods units and the Pull-through sharpeners. All three are convenient for carrying in the back country, the first two offering the most variety of sharpening options.
How sharp you can make your blade’s edge and how long it will stay sharp with normal use are initially determined by the kind of steel from which the blade is forged.
Knives are typically made out of either carbon steel or stainless steel. Each has it’s own attributes as well as limitations:
Carbon steel – Containing up to 2% carbon, such blades are strong and durable. They are easy to sharpen, and to a finer edge than stainless. However, they do tend to corrode faster and more severely than stainless. Carbon blades therefore tend to require more maintenance than do blades made of stainless steel.
Stainless steel – Different types/grades of “stainless” contain different amounts of chromium in the steel. They do still rusts and corrode, just over a longer period of time than carbon. Stainless blades are stronger than carbon and are thus harder to sharpen, but hold that sharpness longer. Each one’s pros/cons could become critical factors in extended field use in emergency situations.
Five Steps to Sharpening a Knife –
Keeping the blade of your knife sharp is a critical part of knife maintenance that directly affects its efficiency and safety as a tool. Working a knife causes its fine edge to break down, becomes nicked and otherwise degraded.
Sharpening a blade is a sequence of three processes: Grinding, honing and stropping, and is accomplished in five steps that bring a rough cutting, jagged-edged blade down to a keen, razor-like sharpness:
Step #1 – A coarse grinding down of the irregularities along the edge is what Buck Knives refers to as a “rough cut”. A dull blade has a “U”-shaped cross-section, this grinding step removes major irregularities and begins shaping the blade back to a “V” profile.
Step #2 – Can be either a medium, refining grind or a final touch-up sharpening depending upon the tool and the condition of its blade. It further reduces the size of the “teeth” and scratches created in the step above.
Step #3 – This produces an even finer edge with only minute serrations. It’s basically a refinement of the processes in Step #2 in preparation for honing in the next step.
Step #4 – Honing is a process that removes any lingering irregularities, and creates a razor blade finish to the edge. When pulled carefully across the surface of your fingernail, the edge should glide smoothly without catching. Use the ceramic stone/rod for the finest honing.
Step #5 – Stropping provides the final, and most necessary touch to the sharpening process, by removing the super thin edge bending over to form a burr. Running that edge along a strip of leather removes this minute curl and ensures a longer lasting razor edge.
The sharpening process requires specific, disciplined steps to better ensure a lasting, efficient edge to your knife. It’s a learned skill that requires particular techniques throughout the process. Here are a few tips that will give you a sharper blade:
– You must maintain the same appropriate angle with every sharpening stroke;
– Circular strokes on a round stone helps maintain constant, correct angle;
– Always lead with the edge, never the spine (top) of the blade, use a slicing motion; pulling the edge back along the grinding surface creates a rounding of the edge;
– Water or oil should be used to help flush blade steel from the stone; water stones can be rinsed or can be converted to oil but once oiled a stone cannot be used with water;
– Water-based stones are easier to wet when in the field;
– When stropping, lead with the spine, not the edge, along the leather surface (like wiping the blade clean);
– Cover the full length of the blade with each stroke on the sharpening stone;
– Sharpen blades at home with first two steps to save time re-sharpening in field with just honing rod and strop (can use your belt or fiberglass webbing);
– Pulling the tip away beyond the edge of a circular sharpening stone can round the point;
Always use a sheath to prolong sharpness, but don’t store a knife in its sheath over a long-period as that can cause corrosion along the blade; and dull the edge from that prolonged confined exposure alone; Too much pressure on a diamond sharpener can damage/dislodge the grit and create excessive grooving on the blade;
Applying excessive pressure on blade during sharpening will not help the process;
Different blades require different processes. Serrated edges are typically sharpened one serration at a time using a special ceramic rod. Spiderco’s Tri-Angle Sharpmaker’s vertical sharpening rods can be used on the entire serrated edge with one continuous stroke of the entire blade. Spiderco’s all inclusive kit that can be used to sharpen axes, shearing tools, fish hooks and more can easily be taken afield.SPYDERCO TRI-ANGLE SHARPMAKER
With summer here, many of us eagerly await that first weekend under the stars, sharing our favorite campfire meals with special friends. Sometimes, however, it’s the uninvited guests that we have to worry about.
When it comes to marauding critters in camp, we as campers are our own worst enemy. We’re the ones that bring the food into an environment where the quest for same is an instinctive part of each animal’s struggle for existence.
Frequenting popular camping spots, such as in designated campgrounds, we have conditioned animals into knowing that this area produces food whenever those weird upright creatures are around. They leave their food out, smeared on their clothing, and spread about the grounds like the leaves of autumn. We have educated many animals into knowing right where the food will be as we set up camp.
Keep Camp, Self Clean
Camp kitchen etiquette typically demands that your kitchen and food prep area be kept clean and at least 50 yards from your site. Utensils, prep area, extra food — everything involved in meal prep’ — should be thoroughly cleaned before being put away. You might think that tiny smudge of food on the thigh of your jeans is nothing, but with animals whose smelling is 100 times better than ours, you might as well be grilling a juicy steak over a bed of mesquite coals!
Children repeatedly wipe their hands on their clothing. Those items should be stored in odor-proof containers. Tossing them in the dirty clothes pile in the corner of your tent invites a late night visit.
Bear barrels and other bear/critter-proof containers are a good idea, especially when used in conjunction with other clean camp practices. Hanging your food in a bag high above the forest floor may make you look and feel like a backwoods jock, but in reality they are not that effective. Bears know what’s in the bag from too many prior experiences. They can push over trees, rip off branches to which the rope is applied, even untie knots in some cases (more a point of poor knot tying than clever bears I would guess).
Be Careful With Salt
Besides food, the salt residue from you body sweat is like a dinner bell to many mammals as well. Small rodents to huge porcupines are attracted to the salt on canoe paddles, backpacks, even the gunwales on a canoe. Smaller gear can be brought inside the tent or cabin, but anywhere a critter can climb is fair territory.
Boats can be anchored off shore with special retrieval systems that allow you to push the boat back out onto deeper water, yank a line that drops a rock anchor and enables you to still retrieve the boat later.
Friends of mine had porcupines gnawing at the wood on their canoe so they hoisted the boat up onto the roof of the cabin they had rented. The porkies climbed the walls and attacked the canoe. The canoe had to be stowed inside the cabin (from lower to upper corner) in order to protect it from being chewed by the critters outside).
Some choose to pile their gear onto the picnic table and then string or lay out pots and pans around the cache so anything attempting a heist will rattle a pot and signal an alarm. This could work, but there are cases where bears have pulled out food packs without even touching the outer line of defense at all.
Use common sense and keep your campsite tidy — after all it’s you who is the guest in the woods.
You’re huddled in your tent, barely able to withstand the onslaught of a summer storm raging around your campsite. A serious medical emergency has arisen and your only means of calling for help is through the weakening signal of your cell phone.
“Help! We need a doctor! We are on Lime Lake!”, you bark, trying to stay calm as you struggle to enunciate each vital word. Garbled and infested with static, your call is picked up by a park ranger office. Fortunately the name of the lake comes across loud and clear on a few of the transmissions. That at least will make it easier to find you – or will it?
Turns out there are two lakes in the region with the same sounding name: “Lime” (L-eye-M) and “Lyme”, also sounding out as (L-eye-M). They are eighty miles apart: The Lime Lake you are summoning help from is 65 miles from the nearest rescue unit. Lyme lake, however, is just over 20 miles away. So which “L-eye-M” Lake is it?
Emergency locator beacons, satellite positioning units, automated rescue transmitters have truly turned telephones and radios into museum relics when it comes to calling for help in an emergency. Still there are many scenarios in which vocal communication may be vital. Knowing the phonetic alphabet could be a real life saver.
Veterans, pilots, law enforcement officers and others are usually familiar with phonetic letter sounds. The public has heard it spoken in every action film out there – “Roger That, Charlie Alpha!”. And although it’s closely associated with military jargon, the international alphabet was actually created in the late 1800s as an educational tool for learning languages across the globe.
In our example above, two lakes with the same sounding names need to be differentiated. The problem remains with “I” in Lime, and “Y” in Lyme still sounding very much alike, especially when cloaked in the buzzing static of a failing signal.
However, if you could quickly say you were on Lima-Indigo–Mike-Echo (Lime) Lake, a SAR radio person would quickly know not to send a team out to Lyme Lake which is Lima-Yankee–Mike-Echo! Each word has been selected so it can be discerned even if it comes across partly garbled or missing: “Yank-____” or “____ankee”.
Like gestures used for ground-to-air signals, rescue staff and law enforcement know and use this phonetic alphabet. If memorization doesn’t work for you, perhaps writing it down and pasting a copy on or near your phone or other voice communication device for a handy reference just might provide you with a life-saving “cheat sheet.”
Campfires can be constructed to direct flames upward or outward, and either provide quick heat or a slow-burning bed of coals for cooking or extended warmth. Hardwoods produce better coals (ash, birch oak, elm, sugar maples, etc.) while softwoods aspen, silver maple, etc. burn quickly producing little long-term heat or coals.
Whether you need to overnight due to an emergency or other incident or are simply enjoying a casual weekend in the backcountry, a safe, comfort bed is important and perhaps critical to your well-being.
Typically the purpose of building a shelter is to create an area in which you can protect yourself from the elements. Most emergency shelters consist of bedding made with natural materials with a roof and walls covered in similar materials or perhaps by the luxury of having a tarp, plastic sheet or other waterproof covering.
A framework of logs, larger branches or even built-up soil can serve to define the bed space into which heaps of leaves, grasses and/or evergreen boughs can be stacked to form an insulating/comfort layer upon which you can catch a few needed Z-Z-Zs. Basically then, your “bed” is any structure/platform that provides insulation from the ground and offers as comfortable as possible, a healthy, body-refreshing sleep.
For the recreational camper, you have several options for optimizing those same basic needs, even if you are snuggled up and cozy – all cocooned inside your down bag under the weatherproof roof of your tent. Even if you are using a cot, there are ways to give yourself the best night’s rest possible.
Ground sleepers need to protect themselves from the coldness of the ground and air, the moisture from below and the unevenness/hardness of the surface upon which they are sleeping. There are three basic bedding layers beneath your sleeping bag that can determine your warm, dryness and comfort:
Ground cloth – Your tent floor or a sleeping tarp not only blocks moisture but also keeps your pads/sleeping bag clean and less prone to abrasion.
Comfort layer – This can be an air mattress or even a second sleeping bag. It’s job is to provide cushioning from the ground, and provide a bit of insulation as well. The air in a standard inflatable mattress will gradually cool to the surrounding temperature creating a colder layer below you as you sleep. Note, too, that sleeping on a cot above the ground means there’s a layer of open, colder air beneath you – you should insulate yourself against that air as well.
Insulation layer – Close-cell pads, popular with back-packers and other minimal gear adventurers aren’t known for their comfort nearly as much as they are for their insulating ability. Placing even a 3/4 length insulation pad on top of your air mattress will provide you the extra insulation you need that will complement the cushioning of the mattress next to the ground. It will also keep you from losing heat from your body as you lie on a colder surface.
Types of pads:
There are four basic types of ground mattress/pads: The inflatable series of air chambers commonly known as the standard air mattress. These come in a variety of construction styles from one large chamber to several tube or baffled segments. Some have a “rail” along the outer edge to help cradle the sleeper on the mattress.
The self-inflating mattresses are typically thinner than the standard airs, and are filled with a spongy core that adds to the comfort and insulation factor. A hybrid of these two are those air mattresses that have chambers filled with a synthetic filler that raises the insulation factor of the mattress while providing the loft and support of the standard air mattress.
The Close-Cell pad is a thinner, dense foam sheet that resists compression more than an air-filled pad thereby providing more protection against protrusions and ridges in the ground. The material used for the pad consists of minute air spaces making it a good insulator as well.
The “R” Value –
Like insulation for your house, sleeping pads are often rated by the R-Value used in the construction industry. It’s a measure of resistance to heat flow and obviously, the higher the value the more it retains heat. In mattresses and pads, this value ranges from 1 to 11 and often includes the temperatures for a particular R value indicated on the product.
Most summer season pads should be rated at 3-5; incrementally higher for colder conditions, and typically women prefer R values a few points higher than men at the same temperature exposures.
The key to any back country bedding is that it protects you from the surrounding elements (above, along the sides, and below) and it affords you a re-energizing sleep. Combining the crude frame and filling of an emergency bed with a tarp and a pad/mattress and a quality, adequately-rated sleeping bag can add a few degrees of comfort and warmth to even a casual outdoor camp using only a lean-to.
Like any outdoor experience, staying dry, and consequently warm, is a fundamental necessity for sustaining yourself in the natural environment – making that part of your sleeping arrangements is a most important aspect of enjoying our great outdoors. Be safe; Have fun!
Getting loft or height by using a guideline from a tent or tarp usually requires a nearby tree to tie off to or else a long length of guideline secured to a stake (and creating a long, ground or neck level “trip zone”.
Using a “Y” stick or pole enables you to keep tension on a tent flap or tarp line without that lengthy extension. Like the old time grooved clothesline pole, the Y stick enables you to elevate the line to a useful pulling angle without extending it far from the tent or tarp.
I often tell friends that the only difference between cooking at home versus during a camping trip is the height of your cooking source. Basically, a well laid out campfire presents a few different challenges than your home stove, but that just makes the experience even more enjoyable.
Searing a steak over a bed of hot coals is one thing, but building and blending flavors in a one-pot meal requires more than that. It requires care and temperature control. Likewise, some foods may not need the intense heat but merely a prolonged snuggle up to the warmth to bring them up to temp. Creating a large, well laid-out campfire means it can work for both a roaring bonfire as well as a suitable cooking station for your early morning breakfasts.
The fundamental key to good campfire cooking is sustainable, controllable heat. Choosing hardwoods that produce hot, long-lasting coals means you can have a steady supply of heat throughout your cooking routine.
Your actual fireside cooking area should be away from the main body of the campfire. You want to rake over those glowing pieces of charcoal to create a bed of hot embers (this is going to be your stove-top burner element) upon which you can cook without excessive, rapid-cooking heat.
This is the part of the campfire where you position your grill so you have both a cooking and a “keeping-it-warm” space. If your grill is too small, or to avoid knocking over side-lined pots or that open can of beans, create a space away from the main fire, against the side of the fire ring where you can keep foods warm until dinnertime.
I believe having a pot of hot water handy at all times is an essential part of any campsite. It’s handy for thinning down a soup, it’s already on it’s way to boiling for a cup of java, and it may already be hot enough to be used for clean-up afterwards. Even if there’s no room along the edge of the fire ring, keep it as close to the heat of the fire as you can.
Even after your cooking fire has long burned down, you can still make use of residual heat in the dying embers. One breakfast treat that I enjoy is fried onions and potatoes. The problem is that fresh potatoes take too long to cook. So normally during dinner, I wrap a few potatoes in foil and set them aside.
Later that evening when the fire dies down to a shimmering glow, I’ll place the wrapped spuds at the inside edge of the fire ring, rake some warm/hot ashes over them and hit the sack. Those foil-wrapped potatoes have all night to slowly bake. Come morning, the spuds are at least partially cooked, and ready to be finished off along with the onions and other pot additives.
A couple of other cooking tips, especially in colder weather:
Campfire cooking is one of the fundamental pleasures of camping…and cooking a hearty meal over hot coals should be a memorable part of your overall backcountry cuisine experience.
Nothing is a more classic example of campfire cooking than a cauldron of steaming stew or a mess of biscuits baking over the fire. Nothing brings that experience home more than the classic Dutch Oven!
Typically made of cast iron, but also available in thick-sided aluminum, the Dutch Oven is perfect for one-pot meal recipes such as stews, soups, some casseroles – and especially for baked goods such as biscuits and some desserts.
The key to successful Dutch Oven cooking is producing and sustaining proper temperatures throughout the cooking process. You can guess-timate proper baking temperatures fairly accurately by using this simple formula based on the size of the pot:
1 – Preheat oven to 325°F.
2 – Prep the cast iron by washing it with warm, soapy water and a sponge or stiff brush.
3 – Rinse and thoroughly dry the skillet with a clean, dry cloth or paper towels. (can place in oven for about 10 minutes to thoroughly dry.
4 – Pour a little vegetable-based oil into the skillet (some prefer bacon grease)
5 – Use a new cloth or paper towel to rub the coat of oil around the entire skillet.
6 – Coat the outside — and bottom — of the skillet. You want a thin coat of oil around the entire piece.
7 – Place the skillet upside down on the oven’s center rack. Place a sheet of aluminum foil below the rack to catch any drips. Once oven is up to temperature, bake for an hour.
8 – Turn off the heat and allow to the skillet to cool completely (1-2 hours) before removing from oven.
NOTE: Do not use soap to clean after cooking, simply rinse with water or wipe surface clean. Periodic seasoning will maintain the cooking surface.
(L) Snow melts in water, no need for external heat source; (C) Water in bottle freezes from top down, nozzle in an inverted bottle doesn’t freeze shut; (R) Duct tape around cold metal bottles protects fingers.
Our skin is our body’s largest organ, the ultimate “base” layer of protection. It only makes sense then to protect it from the elements, and to do so without interfering with its external functions in the process. Ideally anything covering nature’s layer of protection should at least, in some form or another, either enhance that performance or limit it in the least way possible.
Base layer clothing attempts to do both. As one’s first underlayer of clothing, a base layer should allow the skin to do its work, sometimes even enhancing a basic function in the process – while not critically preventing that process from working most effectively.
Base layer clothing is part of the overall layering process we humans have learned to use to keep us protectively warm (or cool) and dry against the elements of the environments in which we are actively (or sometimes passively) engaged. We wear clothing in a series of layers, from undies to overcoats, dressing up or down depending upon the conditions of the moment.
Layering works on the concept that we help regulate our body’s thermal and perspiration functions by adjusting our clothing appropriately to augment what our body, via our skin, is doing as it performs its functions. A good layering system beginning with the proper combination of fabrics that are then used to make well-designed, functional clothing, is the key to staying healthy and comfortable in extreme outdoor situations.
First and foremost, a base layer functions by managing moisture against your skin. Moisture management is key to regulating your body temperature by moving the perspiration you generate up and away from your skin, through a layer of fabric that then wicks away moisture, dispersing it through outer layers and ultimately to the outside air where it can evaporate. This process keeps you, and your mid/outer layers, drier.
Layering also describes the way in which clothing is combined to achieve and maintain this ongoing process. When you are too hot, remove or ventilate a layer; too cold, add a layer. By wearing a series of garments all designed to effectively manage layers that can be added or removed as needed, we become a garment-based de-humidifer and thermostat of our own body.
Because it is clothing, the base layer should be comfortable, good-fitting, and since it is a protective shell over your skin, provide a bit of insulation as well. Layering garments are available for your entire body, from head to toe: lightweight balaclavas for sleeping or cap liners, short and long-sleeve shirts (regular and turtlenecks), briefs and full pants, glove liners and socks.
Developing an effective base layering collection of clothing will depend upon your physique, the level of activities you’ll be engaged in, as well as the conditions/elements you’ll encounter while doing so. A skinny, stationary ice fishing angler and a stout cross-country snowshoer can both utilize layering procedures, but using different “weights” of clothing, and even different fabrics for those layers.
As the foundation of an effective layering system, base layer clothing is categorized by progressive “weight” classes:
• Ultralight/microweight – Milder conditions; typically used more for moisture wicking and comfort rather than insulation properties
• Lightweight – Cool to moderately colder; wicking and some insulation
• Midweight – Moderately cold to cold; wicking and more insulation; a good choice for alternating activity and rest/casual interludes
• Heavyweight – More extreme cold. Sometimes referred to as expedition weight. It’s best used in sub-freezing temperatures and stationary activities.
The challenge in many outdoor scenarios is the transition between milder, warmer weather and colder, more challenging weather (drops in temperature, increased wind, rain, etc.). Looser layers are more comfortable in warmer weather, while snugger fitting layers retain insulating qualities better as temperatures decrease. The level and type of activity also determines the most effective “weight” of layering to wear – thinner base layers will do a better job of wicking away moisture during heightened activity.
Two natural fibers and an array of synthetic fibers are the primary materials used to make the preferred fabrics that are then made into base layer clothing:
Wool – traditionally known to keep you exceptionally warm, “even when wet”, today’s standard quality wool comes from the merino sheep. It’s softness, comfort, and the fact that it isn’t itchy, makes it universally popular as a premier wool. Merino wool is naturally odor-free. Dual functioning, it both traps air for heat insulation in cold weather, and its breathable fibers offer skin buffering relief from air heated by the sun. It offers more insulation than synthetic fibers of the same thickness, but will take longer to dry. Wool is often blended with synthetic fibers to enhance it with key properties of the synthetic fiber such as better wicking, stretch and durability.
Silk – although it’s considered a natural insulator, it is usually selected for its softness and comfort without the bulk. It’s most effective as a wicking fabric (though not as fast as synthetic fabrics) when worn during moderate cold weather activities. It’s downsides include it being less durable, expense and the special care it may need for cleaning (must be washed after every use to avoid odors).
Synthetics – a variety of chemically created fibers including polypropylene, polyester, nylon, rayon and spandex. Often used in combination with each other or wool to create blends of the most desirable characteristics of each particular fiber: ease of care, softness and lightness, abrasion and wrinkle resistance and comfortable stretch. Synthetics are prone to odor build-up.
Polypropylene has been the standard underlayer fabric of choice for decades (quick drying, breathability). More recently polyester, alone or in blends, is most often used in base layer clothing; nylon is often selected to add durability while spandex enhances stretch.
One of the more recent innovations in base layering are garments designed and constructed based on the technology of thermo-regulation through a process called “comfort mapping”. Simply put, it’s based upon our body’s control mechanisms triggered by cold/heat that are set into motion at varying degrees throughout different regions of our bodies (for example:- different levels of sweat production in different areas).
Comfort mapping can be applied to the design/fabrication process: a windproof textile material can be designed to cover the chest and back area to prevent wind from penetrating the clothing while a particularly breathable and moisture-wicking textile panel would be used to keep the underarms dry.
Another technology applied to base layer is fabric that literally warms up when it comes into contact with the skin. WSI Sports, a leading producer of cold weather clothing for the professional sports industry (as well as outdoor recreation) integrates their proprietary HEATR® process into the fibers – it won’t wash out, yet retains its moisture wicking and warming characteristics. WSI incorporates body mapping technology by applying their warming material onto a piece of clothing wherever extra warmth is needed most.
Personally, I consider socks to be one of the most critical components of base layering. There is nothing worse than cold, clammy feet! By function, socks play two distinct, interconnected roles as an under-layering garment: as a thin liner for heavier socks, and as a single insulating layer inside footwear. Socks typically incorporate synthetic blends to enhance the wicking capability of the sock.
In addition to moisture wicking and insulation, socks also provide cushioning for the feet. Cushioning is achieved by selectively increasing the density of the weave or adding specific materials into specific areas of the sock. To help the sock hug the foot better, spandex and stretch nylon are typically added.
Again, because of its properties, merino wool is the material of choice, either alone or in combination with synthetics, for most quality socks on the market. And, like other under-layering clothing, socks come in a variety of “weights” and fabric combinations to provide the best layering possible. Moisture wicking is the primary function of thinner socks; insulation and cushioning capabilities increase as the socks get heavier; thicker.
The marketplace for socks is as broad and diverse as any segment of the undergarment clothing industry. Many offer proprietary fabrics, unique cushioning patterns and other special features. For example: Wigwam’s lightweight Portland Pro features a seamless toe in a sock that combines polyester, nylon, merino wool and spandex together; its Ultimax Base Camp Fusion is a heavyweight merino sock and liner, featuring an inner wicking layer of Olefin with a 55% merino wool outer layer.
Terramar “Hiker” series uses several combinations of merino wool and synthetics to fine-tune its weights in socks, some of which are thin/light enough to serve as either the main stocking or as a liner for thicker socks in extreme cold conditions.
Thorlo has taken its footwear to a new level by emphasizing key padding and cushioning concerns to create what could be called a therapeutic outdoor sock. Their clinically-tested padded socks are designed and targeted specifically at wearers who are prone to suffering from blisters, foot pain, pressure and moisture issues.
Being next to your skin, your base layer can set the tone for comfort and safety that your entire layering system will provide. Some base layers function as the outermost garment during leisure time. A separate set of underlaying clothing can be stuffed into sleeping bags and used as camp ‘pajamas’.
Base layers are just that, a base upon which all other clothing is added as part of a complete body moisture/heat regulating layering system. Clearly high-tech under-layers and liners have come a long way since the days of ineffective cotton long-johns and scratchy wooly underwear.
Field guides are an indispensable asset when trying to identify flora and fauna out in their natural environment. Typically the images in these resources are either full color photographs (Above/Right) or color illustrations (Above/Left) – in this example, both attempting to show the bird’s plumage and markings in their true field hues and tones.
Unfortunately, photos sometimes accent shadows and mis-present the true color of the subject due to lighting and other influencing factors (sun glare, for example). And while the illustrations have the advantage of controlling the representation of a critter’s actual natural colors, that spectrum doesn’t always reveal itself in real-life lighting.
The compromise in deciding whether to buy a photo guide or one with illustrations is to buy both. Besides having the two color presentations, you also have a backup to help confirm the identification of an unknown sighting. Sometimes the photo is more revealing as it most closely resembles the image you are seeing in the photograph.
Is many cases, two different photo guide books may present the subject in very different light or settings. Floral guides are notorious for offering sub-standard photos sometimes so having a second source can help narrow down identifying characteristics of most floral subject.
The best way to select a good guide is to ask other field observers what they prefer as well as simply scan through a guide book you are considering. It’s easier to ID something using the description that usually always help define the particular characteristics of a species. With birds, for example, you might observe a red band across the head, but does it intersect the eye or cross under/over it? A bird with questionable coloration might have other definitive markings to help ID it. Audubon and Peterson are renowned for publishing excellent guide books on birding.
Another excellent resource with a unique approach to identifying birds are those by David Allen Sibley. It’s a definitive bird ID book for one’s nature library. SIBLEY’S 2ND EDITION