Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book March 2022 Entry

Training: Train Like A Caveman

Batoning to the core of the standing deadwood wasn’t promising after a 3-week storm cycle had saturated the terrain. I piled the wood next to the fire site and moved slushy snow away to increase my odds. Laying down wood for the base, I began building a small log cabin with the pencil-sized kindling. I lit the pre-fab tinder and placed it in the cabin’s center.

Slowly adding kindling, the fire licked at the wood, but the assuring pop and crackle weren’t present. Instead, a hissing sound indicated the moisture inside the wood was beginning to boil and steam. Blowing air at the fire’s base invigorated its intensity but was short-lived. This fire would demand constant attention, and I doubled my effort.

For the next three hours, I tended the fire with unsatisfying results. Coastal Alaska is a difficult place to build a campfire. It mostly smoked and steamed, and I could never get enough heat to dry the wood to produce a satisfying fire. The most warmth I got was from the physical effort of building it.

Often the default answer to any crisis in the wilderness is “I’ll build a fire,” but a fire is a luxury in the backcountry and not something you should rely on to save your life. Things never go wrong when the weather is fair and the animals plentiful. The environmental conditions where you’ll probably want or need a fire are usually the most difficult. Mild temperatures when the humidity is low, and wood is dry are not a test of your fire-making ability.

The fires we build in favorable conditions are often for psychological warmth, and training in easy conditions only creates a false sense of security. Fire training in permissive conditions does little to prepare us for a dire backcountry situation.

I’ve witnessed thousands of guys making fires during my time as a survival instructor. These guys were hungry and motivated to make a fire and boil a liter of water. The incentive, if successful, was a dehydrated meal, their first food in four days. 

These students had the best gear and instruction, yet depending on the conditions, could not ignite a fire capable of boiling 16 ounces of water. 

There are many environmental conditions where it’s impossible or impractical to ignite the available fuel for combustion, and if ignited, it will not generate the heat required. The realization that a fire is not possible in all conditions provides a sobering truth that informs future planning decisions.  

Fire taps into our caveman DNA and has helped homo sapiens survive and thrive for millions of years, but it should not be your default survival protocol. Prehistoric tribes didn’t have technical clothing systems and other gear to stay warm and dry, limiting their options. 

To have the best chance at consistent success, you must understand the principles and chemistry involved with combustion then practice in real-world situations to get proficient. Even then, a fire shouldn’t be your only plan for warmth. It’s essential to establish a shelter, get out of the elements, assess your situation, and plan your course of action. 

Head out for the day with the intent of building a fire to cook lunch or boil water for a hot drink. Add incentive by not bringing a stove for backup. Learn how to acquire standing deadwood and baton to the dry core of large pieces in even the wettest conditions. Understand how damp wood, cold ground, and high dew point conspire against one’s best intentions. 

Spring is the perfect time to take advantage of the environment and train our fire craft. This season is usually still cold, the ground saturated and the wood soaked from winter snow. This season is also the one time of year when state and federal regulations may support building fires without fear of burning down our forests. 

The desire for the comfort and companionship of a fire can cloud good judgment. Before striking a match, have a plan. Fight the urge to rush the process and build a proper fire you can maintain over time. A hasty fire to ride out an afternoon storm is different from creating a fire to heat you and a partner in a makeshift shelter all night. Sharpen fire skills this month or next in a challenging environment before the snow flies again during late season hunts this fall. 

Check out a more in-depth video on fire making at the Knowledge From Storms Youtube channel: Fire Building & How Geometry Could Save Your Life

Gear Locker: Tension Makes You a Better Archer

Years ago, I suffered from target panic. It sucked and ruined my enjoyment of archery. It was challenging to work through, and at the time, I felt like I was the only one in the world suffering from the issue. Information on this topic was not prevalent, and nobody from friends to archery shop owners wanted to talk about it, although later, I learned that many suffered from the affliction. Over 15 arduous months, I worked through my issues, regaining my love of archery and becoming a more deadly bowhunter.  

The two things that got me through this tough time were the awareness and acceptance of what I suffered and finding an archery release that forced me to execute a good shot every time, no matter the situation. I’d heard hinge releases referenced as a cure and the words back tension, but at the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Quality releases were scarce. Everyone shot a standard wrist rocket with an unadjustable hair-trigger that made you feel like you were diffusing a bomb.

Today there are many quality choices of tension-activated releases. These releases generally feature a set screw that the archer dials in a few pounds heavier than the bow’s holding weight. There is no trigger to punch, only a safety catch. After coming to full draw and settling into the shot, the archer lets off the safety. The bow cannot fire until the archer pulls into the back wall and overcomes the holding weight. 

When used from the beginning of an archer’s journey, these releases teach proper shot execution, avoiding bad habits and future setbacks. I feel the single biggest hurdle to the growth and enjoyment of archery is the continued peddling of shitty index finger releases with poor “triggers,” which set the stage for target anticipation.

I’ve been shooting a Silverback hand-held release since they launched about six years ago and have never looked back. I prefer the Silverback for its fit and consistent reliability in the most extreme weather conditions. Since switching to a Silverback, I’ve taken over 60 animals with no issues, and I’ve not lost one opportunity shooting a tension-activated release. On the contrary, the Silverback has allowed me to make nothing but calm, precise, and deadly shots on many species of animals during spot and stalk and treestand encounters. 

The Back Strap is an excellent tension-activated index finger release alternative if a hand release is too giant a leap. This traditionally styled index finger release allows you to shoot a familiar release and anchor while providing the option to train with it in tension-activated mode to ingrain good habits and shot routine. With the turn of a set screw, you can hunt with the same release you’ve trained with all year in tension mode in the more common trigger activated mode providing the best of both worlds.

When deciding to move to a back tension release, be sure and have patience with yourself and the process. A standard comment from people starting is about the inconsistency of the shot. Some shots will break quickly, others after holding too long, and some won’t break at all. This inconsistency is common and highlights unequal holding weight or back wall pressure. Over time your shots will smooth out and become consistent. Give yourself three months to train with these tension-activated releases before heading afield.

A back tension release won’t allow you to cheat the shot in high-pressure scenarios and punch the trigger. Tension-activated releases like the Silverback and Back Strap create a consistent and controlled shot process to deliver precise shots in high-pressure hunting situations and competitions.
Silverback Plus Tension Release: $219.00
Back Strap Tension Activated Release: $219.00

The Closet: Battle of the Lightweights: Treated Down vs. Synthetic Insulation

Puffy insulations are intended for static activities like glassing, sitting around camp, and sleeping. This layer does not breathe particularly well due to the tight-knit fabrics that keep the insulation stable and help maintain body heat within the garment. Puffy insulation works by trapping body heat in the loft of the insulation as it moves through the clothing system. The effectiveness of static insulation declines significantly if compression or moisture compromise the loft.

The puffy jacket and sleeping bag are the two classic pieces most associated with lofted static insulation. A puffy jacket is a mandatory piece of kit, no matter the time of year, helping to not only keep you warm but also dry out the layers underneath. A sleeping bag is your last line of defense from the cold and should be given care in its selection. Choosing which static lofted insulation is suitable for each piece of equipment and trip will factor into how warm and enjoyable you’ll be in the backcountry.

There are three options for lofted static insulation; down, treated down, and synthetic. For this discussion, I’ll talk about only two as traditional down, in my opinion, has no place in the pack of most wilderness travelers because any moisture can compromise its loft. Traditional down is best for arid or frigid climates like the desert, the North country, and high altitude regions.

Treated Down
Treated down insulation is light, compressible, and warm for its weight. This high-performance insulation is best in drier and colder climates, where the possibility of wetting out the insulation is minimal. The durable water repellent treatment (DWR) that coats each feather effectively sheds water, limiting the chance of the down insulation clumping when wet.

Treated down insulations comprise small individual feathers contained in baffles within the garment. This construction gives down products their classic look. Attention must be paid while in the field to limit exposure to moisture to prevent the down from clumping.

In wet climates like the Pacific Northwest and float hunts or pack raft adventures, Treated down insulation can become a liability. Once damp and compressed, say from sitting or laying down, treated down clumps the same as traditional down, minimizing its effectiveness to trap body heat.

A damp puffy jacket or sleeping bag that utilizes treated down won’t dry as quickly as synthetic insulation and requires time to dry on a good weather day when you’d rather be out hunting. Treated down garments are fantastic in the proper climate, and I use them when appropriate, but they’re not the go-to solution for all trips or experience levels.

Synthetic insulation, on average, weighs a little more than treated down and is not as compressible. If you’re an ounce counter, the scale will prove this out. However, synthetic insulation is a workhorse, performing in the worst climates no matter the weather. Synthetic insulation is a solid choice if you’re new to the backcountry or are unsure about an environment.

A puffy jacket with synthetic insulation can be soaked and still provide adequate warmth. This performance is due to the stable nature of most synthetic insulations. This insulation is generally made of long-staple fibers making it much more stable than treated down and won’t clump when wet or under compression.

I’ve been on many miserable trips where the weather conspired against me, making it impossible to keep myself or my gear completely dry. Base layers, sleeping bags, and socks were routinely wet, only drying at night through body heat. The synthetic insulated puffy jacket and the sleeping bag never had a chance to dry during the day but had to keep performing their critical role of keeping me warm at night. 

Synthetic insulation is suitable for any weather or season, and I default to it probably 85% of the time. Sleeping bags and puffy jackets are essential pieces of a backcountry clothing system, and I consider these pieces part of my survival gear. 

Spending an unplanned night out trapped in the rain or having your pack take a swim down the river are all real possibilities. A puffy jacket or sleeping bag with the proper insulation can be the difference between a good story and a ruined trip. I don’t want to spend time in the mountains thinking about my gear and having to pamper it. I rely on my equipment, clothing, and sleep systems to perform and factor them into the risk mitigation protocols for the trip. 

There’s a place for both treated down and synthetic insulation in the pack. Often one or the other is better when considering the climate and activity. While trip planning, consider the weather and environment, choosing the lofted static insulation best suited for a safe outing.  

The Word: Failing Towards Success

I’ve failed a lot in the mountains. A lack of skills, poor fitness, a weak mind, mismatched partners, poor luck, and overzealous ambitions have all stacked against me. I’ve pouted, bitched, complained, and blamed others. I’ve pretended I was better than I was and hoped no one would notice. I’ve blamed others for my failures or some random piece of gear never turning the lens inward. This attitude is natural, I suppose, for aggressive individuals but also wastes valuable time and opportunity.

Learning from failure is a life-saving skill for those who ply the wilderness. There are too many unknowns and situations out of our control to not fail occasionally. Our perspective towards failure and how we manage it is the unlock to future success. Assessing our capabilities, kit, and partnerships in an impartial way can be difficult. Exposing weakness or inadequacy never feels good, but the learnings from this exercise can pay huge dividends. 

I’ve hunted 24 days on three separate trips for moose with no success. After 12 days of riding and living in the bush, I never saw a moose because I dismissed the late-season dates. I’ve had Giardia because I didn’t manage my health, relying on others to perform basic field tasks I should own. I’ve had an enormous horse I was riding fall out from under me in the dark, pinning me against a boulder at night because I wasn’t a competent enough rider. 

No one wants to admit they have limitations, lack skills, or the mindset required, but ignoring facts can have dire consequences in the mountains. Our ambition can often get ahead of our capabilities and experience, setting the stage for mishaps. Our reactions to these failures separate the Student of the Game from the rest of the herd. 

I stood alone five miles from the trailhead at the top of a steep, snow-filled couloir in the Sierras many years ago. Clicking into ski’s I took a deep breath and dropped into the chute. Six turns down, I picked up unwanted speed and caught an edge, landing hard on my side, knocking the wind out of me. Accelerating downwards, trying to suppress panic, I fought to self-arrest with my Whippet ski poles. 

Sliding over a boulder spun me around headfirst and added additional urgency on my rocket ride to the bottom. Clawing hard into the snow, I began to slow myself as the terrain narrowed and rock walls loomed. Five hundred feet from the summit, I came to a stop with the helmet on my head less than a foot from a large rock. 

I’d done everything correctly to reach the summit that day until I decided to descend a line I wasn’t capable of safely navigating. My fitness, route planning, and hydration were on point, but my skill, experience, and judgment did not match my ambitions.

I went home humbled and bruised, determined to seek out experts and do the work required to achieve my goals. A decade later, I’d completed several ski mountaineering trips to the big glaciated peaks in Alaska, skied first descents, and guided on skis through gnarly storms as a professional instructor. 

Failure in the backcountry is inevitable but what we do with it is within our control. Review each trip with a critical eye. Don’t use the gear as a default excuse for poor performance. Assess your physical conditioning, mental strength, fieldcraft, and the dynamic with your partners. 

I write the lessons learned in my Wheel Book and use these notes to build a yearly action plan. I hold myself accountable to the plan as I dream of the next adventures. This process becomes a never-ending cycle of self-assessment and introspection.

When doing difficult things, setbacks, challenges, and the opportunity for failure are ever-present. Patience, developing a plan, and a yeoman-like approach are good actions towards success. Plus, let’s be honest, epic stories of failure are always the most engaging and entertaining to tell around the fire, more than ones where everything went smooth, and we crushed it.