Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The evolution of a non-expert

I spent a good part of my professional career cleaning up after so-called 'experts' and quickly learned to take what they had to say with a great deal of skepticism.

Me, I'm not an expert, at anything. Never have been and don't plan on starting now. What I am is someone that understands that learning is an ongoing process and you're never knowledgeable enough to justify stopping that process. In fact, halting the learning process is, in my opinion, an indicator of just how much a person doesn't know and understand.

So I think of myself as an evolving non-expert.

Which is why, after decades of hiking and taking care of myself on, - well I don't know how many solo miles of trail, I just made one addition and one change to my hiking gear the other day.

It started while I was looking to replace some of the para-cord that I carry in my backpack.

Over time little bits of it had been used here, and a couple feet over there, and even more to replace some bootlaces, (Para cord makes great, long-lasting boot laces!) until I was far short of what I consider enough to have along, which is at least 50' and I usually like to have more than that.

That might sound like a lot, but when I pick a random spot and practice-build a shelter with my poncho and para-cord I find that 50' goes fast. (I'm not the only one that does that am I?? Practice building emergency shelters????)

What I stumbled on during my quest into the dangerous wilds of the department store aisles, dodging large ladies crash-piloting lethal carts, confused old men wandering aimlessly and unpredictably into my path and, the worst of them all, the recently freed little humans between the age of 'I just learned to run and I don't care if I'm endangering your eardrums with my unchecked shrieks' and 'I'm under 25 with the latest smartphone and attitude', was flat braided shoelace that was labeled as para cord but had no specifications on the packaging.

This is very dangerous in my opinion because, though there are several classifications of para cord, all with varying specifications, common usage of the term has focused on type 3, nicknamed 550 cord, so when most people say para-cord that's the one they think they're talking about/buying/using.

550 Para-cord

In fact I bought some of that generic and under-labeled product just to show the latest, potentially dangerous, scam being perpetrated on the unsuspecting. (Plus I can use it around the shop. It should be great for wrapping around oddly shaped pieces to clamp them while the glue dries.)
Not 550 para-cord

 The product in the left-hand photo was clearly labeled as 550 para-cord with further clarification of it's minimum strength in the small print. As you can see it has a tightly woven nylon sheath wrapped around several nylon yarns. This particular cord, which is the most common and is what most people think of as para-cord, is a utility version of mil-spec type 3. It has 7 yarns, each made of two twisted fibers and is rated, you guessed it, for 550 lbs. A true mil-spec equivalent would be labeled as type 3, not 550, and  have 7 to 9 yarns made up of three twisted fibers, but is still rated at 550 lbs.

It can be used as is but can also be deconstructed to provide small, supple strings that can be used for things like fishing line, small snares, small bindings, and whatever else your imagination can come up with.

The product in the right photo, which was labeled as para-cord but not marked with any other specifications might be either type 1A or type 2A para-cord which have no inner yarns and a 100 lbs. or 225 lbs. breaking strength, respectively, but without proper labeling this stuff is actually nothing but tubular webbing. I have no idea how far to trust it so won't, but some out there might figure para-cord is para-cord and that could be a problem for them.

Anyway, once again I digress.

To get back to the original intended content of this post, finding that cord masquerading as para-cord got me to thinking about the other stuff I carry in my pack and that got me to 'what-if'ing'.

I had everything from my pack laid out on the bench in front of me and I started imagining various scenarios where I might need to use the stuff.

In one scenario I realized that if I were to get myself stuck out there somewhere, and if it was longer than a few days, and if I managed to forage some eatables, I was limited to processing them dry on the end of stick or a slab of bark since I had no container with me that could withstand heating liquids over a fire. (Now admittedly, I have spent a whole lot of time in some pretty remote places and nothing like this has ever happened to me before, but chanting 'this has never happened before' is actually a pretty piss poor survival strategy. . .)

My solution was to add this to my pack.

I could have gone with a high end titanium version, but this anodized aluminum version still weighs less than a pack of gum and costs a lot less. The insignificant weight thing is also why I decided to go for the 20 oz version rather than the slightly lighter 12 oz.

The sales pitch says that the folding handles stay comfortably cool while the rest of the cup is heated and, after testing that statement by heating the cup with a torch while holding it by the handles, I'd say they're right, but I would still probably wrap my hand in a sock before lifting it out of a fire.

I tried to find one of these cups that was more in tune with the .785 liter water bottle I carry as my backup supply in case I drain the 3 liter bladder, but found that they were all designed to fit the typical 32 oz Nalgene bottle or equivalent. For now the setup you see in the photo fits in my pack just fine but I just might have to pick up one of the Nalgene bottles. The wide-mouth version since it could prove to be more versatile than the narrow-mouth versions.

So that was the addition to my pack.

The change I made came about because I finally took a rational rather than emotional look at the knife I have been carrying.

I spent a good part of my career as, what I called, a screw-driver twirler, with my head buried inside main-frame computers and their largely electro-mechanical peripherals. Even as I moved on to management positions I still maintained my roots and always carried a multi-tool on my belt and wasn't shy about using it for simple fixes, specifically I carried the Leatherman Wave pictured above along with it's original and still functioning case.

In fact it was so much a part of me that when I retired, instead of a watch (Which I never wore anyway because I started my career working on vacuum tube equipment which has several hundreds of volts of electricity running around it it just looking for a watch or ring to grab onto. Rather than bother with constantly removing and then re-donning this sort of thing I just never wore it in the first place and that became habit. In fact to this day my wedding ring is a gold hoop in my ear.) they gave me a specially engraved multi-tool.

But rationally speaking, just how many screws am I going to have to unscrew out in the wilderness?? Nuts to tighten with the pliers? Or paper dolls to cut out with those tiny little scissors? And just where am I going to find a can of beans out there to open with my dandy little can-opener?? And how important will it be that I can file my toenails?

Of course that still leaves the knife blade and that tiny little saw, But the hard truth is that when one thing tries to be many it's a compromise for all. In reality that blade, more specifically it's mounting, is pretty weak and won't stand up to a lot of twisting or batoning (Pounding on the back of the blade with something to drive it deeper.) and the saw is far too short to be useful. Anything small enough to cut with it is small enough to just break in the first place.

So, with some regret and proper ceremony, I retired my multitool to a spot alongside the photo of my father over the workbench and replaced it with a proper wilderness knife.

There are more expensive, hand made knives I could have gone for, but in my personal reality, I'm not going to stress my knife to the max with near constant and abusive use, so I chose this more affordable yet adequate one; despite it's flamboyant branding. (I tried to find the same knife without the branding but couldn't.)

It has a full tang for maximum batoning strength as well as a very sturdy pommel (The base of the handle.) that isn't going to break when I pommel something. such as when driving sharpened sticks into the ground to act as tent, or rather shelter, stakes.

As a bonus it comes with a ferrocerium stick and a flat-grind on the back of the blade for striking sparks from it.

 And the clincher was this sharpener built right into the sheath. True, you can always get a better edge with proper stones, but this sharpener will always be right there and will create a good-enough edge whenever needed.

The down-side is the size of my new knife. You see, though the knife will be stored in my pack between hikes, it will be carried on my person during hikes.  That way if I ever get separated from my pack I won't be completely naked out there. (For instance when fording water I always undo the waist and sternum belts and carry the pack loosely on my shoulders in case I go down and need to shed the weight to keep from drowning.) I always carried the Leatherman in one of my leg pockets. I've done some experimenting and the new knife fits, barely, into the same pocket but only time and some miles will tell if that's a workable solution.

So there you have it, one more step in the evolutionarily growth of a non-expert.

Oh, and by the way, sometimes I feel a little ridiculous carrying my well-stocked pack on short, easy hikes, but the other day I was watching a travel show and saw the host, in jeans and T-shirt, being escorted by a ranger up a trail to a cave. The trail was a bit of a scramble but the cave was actually within sight of the trail-head, yet the ranger, a professional outdoorsman, was wearing a well stocked pack non-the-less


  1. Great information. That para-cord used to be a popular item in Naval Aviation. You now have me thinking about my Leatherman and asking myself when was the last time I used it?

    1. Unless I had an alternative, the new knife in my case, I'd personally think twice about leaving the Leatherman behind. Sometimes it's not so much about how often you use something but how it might be used in extraordinary, even unlikely, but possible situations. I've never used that little window-breaking, seat belt cutting hammer I keep in the car, but I'm not about to take it out either.

      By the way, those eye-level photos of the hounds really popped and showed their personalities.

    2. Thanks. I was amazing to see what those photos looked at ground level. I guess I've been to lazy to consider that. Something to think about the Leatherman.