Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Hey! Its almost spring again!

Spring time is an exciting time for those of us who enjoy RVing, camping, and off road activities.  After several months of having our equipment in winter storage, most of us are at least beginning to feel the effects of cabin fever, itching to hit the roads and the trails.  Yes, I know, this isn't my first post on spring cleaning, but hey!  spring comes every year and getting ready for another fun season of camping and riding is something we all need to do every year.

To make the most of a new season of camping and riding we need to make proper preparations.  If you live in a climate with freezing winter weather you will have to de-winterize your vehicle(s) and equipment.  If you are lucky enough to live in the sun belt you might have been able to avoid putting your stuff into storage for the winter, but it is still a good time to inspect all your equipment to make sure it is in good condition and ready for another season of fun.

RVs, OHVs, and water craft should be properly serviced and inspected for any damage that might have occurred over the winter.  If water systems in RVs have been winterized you will want to wait until you no longer expect freezing overnight temperatures before de-winterizing them.   Be sure to check the manufacturer's recommendations for regular maintenance.  Pay special attention to rubber items, like belts, tires, and hoses, as they are often adversely affected by winter temperature changes.  Check fluid levels and check and test batteries. Don't forget the batteries in flashlights, lanterns, smoke detectors, and remote controls.

Other camping equipment and riding gear should be gotten out and inspected.  Things should generally be OK if they were properly stored at the end of the last season but sometimes insect or rodents can infest stuff and do a lot of damage.  Make sure everything is clean and in good repair.

Go through your tool boxes, spare parts, RV galleys, and camp kits to confirm that all necessary items are there and are clean and in good repair.  Check to be sure cutting tools, such as knives, axes, hatchets, and saws are sharp and free from rust.  Make sure handles are secure and smooth.  See to it that wrench sets, screwdrivers, and socket sets have all their pieces.  Replace missing or damage items.

Review all your on board medical supplies, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and non-persishable ingredients to make sure you have everything you might need and that all is serviceable.  Winter temperatures can have a dramatic affect on many products, especially those in liquid form.  Bulging or leaking canned goods can be a health hazard.  Discard and replace any suspect items.

Review your personal readiness to resume recreational activities.  Illness or injuries during the off season may have taken their toll on your physical and/or mental status.  If you've been somewhat lax in physical activity over the winter, it would be a good idea to begin a moderate exercise program to regain the strength and mobility you will need to be able to safely enjoy your summer fun.

Begin making plans for your first outing.  I recommend the first trip be to a familiar destination fairly close to home in case anything pops up that needs special attention.  Save the more adventurous outings for later in the season when both you and your equipment have both once again been proven up to the task.  It isn't unusual for it to take a trip or two before you get back into the swing of things and feel completely comfortable.

Spring ahead!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

UTVs or Side-by-sides

UTV stands for Utililty Task Vehicle.   As the name indicates, they were originally designed for utility work.  They are also known as side-by-sides because of the seating configuration.  The Kawaski Mule and the Yamha Rhino  were two of the first.  They were small 4-wheel drive vehicles, usually equipped with bucket seats and a steering wheel so they drive like a car.  The origihal Mules and Rhinos looked a little like a Jeep or a small pickup truck.  Their potential for sport use was quickly recognized and soon there were models that looked more like a custom Baja racer than a utility vehicle.

They are designed for high performance off road use,  often having as much a 13" of wheel travel to absorb some pretty big bumps.  Driver and passenger are secured by seat belts or harnesses.   3-point harness are the norm but for racing and other high impact activities a better 5-point harness is recommended.  They usually have roll bars and a small cargo bed at the rear.  Most if not all are equipped with 4-wheel drive, giving them a "go anywhere" capability, as long as the road or trail is wide enough for them.  There are many trails designed for dirt bikes and ATVs where UTVs are prohibited.  

Most UTVs carry 2-5 passengers, but some, like the Ranger, can carry up to 6 passengers.  That makes them popular for family outings, especially when you have children too young or other family members who don't ride.  And the cargo space means you have plenty of room to bring along a well-stocked picnic basket and cooler for lunch out on the trail.

There are many optional accessories available to customize UTVs to an owner's individual needs and wants, including off road lights and elaborate sound systems.  You can even purchase body kits that fully enclose the passenger space and add a heater for winter riding.

I've seen a number of  UTVs equipped with snow plows for clearing winter driveways and small parking lots.  And, of course, they are capable of towing any off-road trailer.  The cargo area makes them useful for hauling a variety of things, ranging from a cooler full of your favorite summer beverages to firewood, medical supplies, and tools

UTVs are usually too wide to be driven on regular ATV trails and definitely too big for single track dirt bike trails.  They are very much at home on fire roads and other dirt roads and the  wide puffy tires, together with 4-wheel drive, provide excellent traction in sand,  mud, and snow.

Because of their larger size and more complex design, they are more expensive than dirt bikes or ATVs, but being able to carry 4-6 people may make the "cost per passenger" more within reach.

In some cases UTVs might be modified to be street legal, but most are intended and purchased strictly for off road use.  Off road tires won't last long on pavement and can contribute to dangerous  problems in handling.  This might be mitigated by changing the tires but in doing so you usually sacrifice some the off road capability for better on road manners.

UTVs may offer hard core off road enthusiasts a way to continue to enjoy their sport even after age, illness, or injury prevents them from straddling a dirt bike or ATV.  Riding in the cushy seats of a UTV for many hours is always going to be more comfortable than sitting in the saddle of dirt bike or ATV and the strain on the driver's arms from the steering wheel will be much less than that from  wrestling with handlebars.   The tires, suspension, and body weight absorb a lot of the jarring impact that is transmitted directly to the riders of dirt bikes and ATVs.

UTVs are smooth!

ATVs

ATV stands for All Terrain Vehicle.  They are also sometimes know as "quads" or  "4-wheelers".  These fun and versatile off highway vehicles are sort of like a 4-wheeled dirt bike.   Like dirt bikes you straddle the seat and use handlebars to control the steering.  Because they have 4 wheels they are more stable than dirt bikes, but their extra  width limits which trails they can be ridden on.  It also makes them somewhat unstable when crossing hillsides.  I've personally seen several  4-wheelers come tumbling down the hill when their operators tried to ride across or make a  u-turn while climbing a steep hill.  Many ATVs are equipped with a "dead man switch" so the engine shuts off if the rider falls off.  If a rider falls off a dirt bike, the dirt bike falls down.  But without a dead man switch, an  ATV could keep going for miles without its rider.

Some the first ATVs  were initially designed to be ranch or farm vehicles.   Owners quickly saw the recreational potential and manufacturers weren't far behind in catering to the recreational market.  ATVs are often used by search and rescue organizations for both conducting searches and transporting injured victims.  Hunters use ATVs to haul their big game trophies.  Their basic stability and heavy load capacity make them ideal vehicles for these jobs.

ATVs, because of their wide, soft tires, are particularly well suited to riding on soft surfaces like sand, mud, and snow.  4-wheel drive versions deliver especially good performance in these situations.  ATVs can be be equipped with at snow plows for plowing driveways and other small areas.  Most ATVs are capable of towing small trailers.  Dump trailers, like the garden carts designed for lawn tractors are popular for hauling camping equipment and firewood.  You can even buy tent trailers designed to be pulled by ATVs, allowing you considerable camping comforts far off the beaten path.

Racing of ATVs isn't as popular as racing dirt bikes.  For a while there were regular "quad" heats between regular races at Supercross races, but they didn't really catch on.  ATVs are much heavier and somewhat less nimble than dirt bikes, so the quad  races couldn't compete successfully for excitement against the extreme stunts in a Supercross race.

Many ATVs come from the factory or can be adapted to carry a second passenger.   That makes them somewhat popular with families who have members who can't or don't want to ride dirt bikes.  Non-riders can still participate as passengers on trail rides. 

ATVs are often popular win rural areas where they can serve as utility vehicles as well as off road toys.  The same machine folks use for trail riding can also be used to round up and deliver feed to livestock, haul firewood, and for a host of other tasks around the farm or ranch. 

A predecessor to the ATV was the ATC -- All Terrain Cycle.  These were 3-wheeled machines, a sort of tricycle on steroids.  Because they were more stable and easier to keep upright than dirt bikes they quickly became popular with novice riders.  But they also developed a reputation as being dangerous, so much so that eventually the manufacturers agreed to a moratorium to avoid an outright ban in the United States.  Part of the problem was that the ease of use often gave new riders a premature sense of confidence that frequently caused them to get themselves into trouble.  There were some issues inherent in the design also.  For example, it was fairly common for a rider to run over his own foot with one of the back wheels, something I NEVER did on my dirt bike.   Another anomaly  had to due with turning.  On a bicycle or motorcycle you lean into the turn.  If you want to turn right, you lean right.   If you want to turn left,  you lean left.  With an ATC, when you lean right it puts extra weight on the right rear wheel, giving it more traction and causing it to outrun the left rear wheel, making the ATC turn left!   Although they were never formally banned, ATCs are no longer manufactured but you can still find some used machines around if you have an urgent desire to try one out.

ATVs go just about anywhere!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dirt Bikes

Dirt bikes are off road motorcycles.  They come in all sizes, from little 50 cc machines with training wheels for little kids to giant 650cc dual sport motorcycles for big kids of all ages.

The very first motorcycles were, in a very real way, off road motorcycles.  For one thing, they had to be.  There weren't that many roads!  As roads became more prevalent, motorcycles designed for street use became the order of the day.

Modern dirt bikes evolved from custom racing machines usually built by the racers themselves, from Triumph and Rickman street bikes.  As off road racing and trials competition became more popular, international motorcycle companies began taking an interest in manufacturing motorcycles specifically designed for off highway recreation.  One of my riding buddies bought the very second Yamaha IT400 off the boat from Japan in the early 1970s and some years later we bought it from him.

Beginner bikes, like the little 50 and 60 cc motorcycles made for small children often use a centrifugal clutch so there is no clutch lever for little novice hands to master.  The clutch engages automatically as the RPMs increase.  Bigger bikes for more sophisticated riders have manual clutches and multi-speed transmissions.  Gear ratios vary depending on the intended purpose for the bike.  Some variations you will see are motocross bikes (designed for racing on motocross tracks), trail bikes (designed for trail riding), and Enduro bikes (designed for specialized off road Enduro races).  Trials bikes are breed all their own, focusing on light weight and maneuverability.  They typically have very narrow, low cut seats, high ground clearance, and fairly low gear ratios.  They are made for crawling over rocks and other obstacles.  A Trials rider is penalized if his foot touches the ground.  Motocross and Enduro bikes, on the other hand, are designed for speed and good handling over rough terrain.

Some beginner bikes come with an exhaust restriction device to limit power until the rider becomes skilled enough to manage a stronger engine.  Removing the exhaust restriction makes a significant difference in the acceleration, power, and top speed of these little bikes.   Bikes with engines as small as 80cc's can be surprisingly powerful.  One of my riding buddies, a former desert racer, bought a Yamaha YZ-80 for his pre-teen son.  He took it out for a spin and was quite pleased with its modest performance.  Then, on his way back he opened it up "to blow it out" and at somewhere around 11,000 rpm the little bike lurched into its power band, delivering an unexpected wheelie!  You definitely want to make sure any rider undesrtands and respects its power and knows how to ride it safely.  Just because is is only 80ccs doesn't mean you can put a complete novice on it and turn them loose.

I have mixed feelings about using training wheels on little motorcycles for little riders.  Certainly they can be an aid to keeping the bike right side up, but they also affect handling and if used off road can get caught on obstacles along the trail.  My solution was to get my kids to master their pedal bikes until they could ride them well without training wheels and then let them try the motorcycle without training wheels.  My youngest son was chomping at the bit to ride during a Spring Break outing when he was only 3 years old.  I diplomatically counseled him that he needed to learn to ride his bike without training wheels before  he could ride a motorcycle.  When we got home from that trip he ran into the house, brought his bicycle out, laid it down on the parking strip as we were still unloading, and demanded "Take 'em off!".  He was one very determined little boy.  I took off the training wheels and he immediately went to work on learning to ride without them.  By our next outing on Memorial Day weekend, he rode 13 miles on a poker run on a little 50cc motorcycle.

These days you have a number of alternate OHV options in addition to dirt bikes, including ATVs and UTVs (side-by-sides) but for many years dirt bikes were the only option for personalized off highway motorized travel.  My family still prefers dirt bikes.  Personally I find them more maneuverable and agile than ATVs.  They are certainly safer riding across hillsides where ATVs have a tendency to roll over and they require a path only a few inches wide.  ATVs are a little more stable and are sometimes easier for novice riders to master quickly.  They are also more capable of hauling cargo and are even sometimes used to transport injured riders or hikers out of remote areas.  However, I fear that the ease of use often lulls new riders into a premature sense of over confidence that I believe is one of the reasons for many ATV accidents among young or novice riders.

Motocross bikes are very popular among recreational off road riders.   No doubt part of the appeal is mimicking favorite professional riders, who make riding look easy and beautiful.  However,
a motocross bike is not necessarily the best choice for recreational riding.  The gearing of a motocross bike is designed to deliver good performance on groomed tracks.  Trail riding often requires more low end power and better performance at lower speeds.  Some bikes are considered "wide ratio" bikes, meaning there is a wide range of gear ratios available across the several shift positions.  These can be very good in a variety of circumstances and adapt very well to trail riding, since trail riding, by its very nature, consists of many different types of terrain.  Some times  you need a high gear for speed across open spaces.  At other times you a need a low gear for tackling steep grades or tricky, highly technical trails.   A properly designed wide ratio bike will provide a smooth transition from the lowest to the highest gear.

Motocross is a stylized from of dirt biking on a groomed course.  The ultimate motocross race is the Supercross.  You can find amateur motocross races all across the country with many riders of different skill levels.  Supercross is a major, professional level sport where only the best of the best are able to compete.  Supercross tracks often include double and triple jumps where riders and bikes are literally flying hundreds of feet.  Supercross races are extremely exciting to watch, with jumps, sharp turns, whoop-dee-doos, and fast straightaways.  Riders are often competing "bar to bar" in tight packs where a single mistake by just one rider can cause many bikes to crash.  It is definitely not a place for the timid and only the most skilled riders can ever dream of racing Supercross.

That being said, Supercross is still the inspiration for hundreds of recreational riders.  Even if they can't begin to match the extreme stunts by their professional  heroes, dirt bikers still enjoy trying to approximate their behavior as much as they can.  Most of us will never ride a professional Supercross track, but we can have a lot of fun riding trails, which usually include fast straightaways, hill climbs, downhills, whoop-dee-doos, and sometimes even jumps.  Many amateurs can learn to master the art of riding wheelies.  We had a guy in our Desert Rat group in California who rode a custom-made bike that included a very large rear sprocket.  He didn't have a lot of top speed in the open desert, but  he could ride wheelies just about anywhere. I used to tease him that he had an unfair advantage on the trails because he only hit half as many bumps as the the rest of us did -- because he only hit them with one wheel!

To me a dirt bike is the perfect way to ride off road trails.  It is nimble, light weight, goes anywhere, and is pretty much something you have do without any help.

Dirt bikes rock!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Choosing the Ideal Camp Site

No doubt we'd all like to experience the "ideal camp site".  So how do you find one?  First of all, there is no "ideal camp site.  What is ideal is going to be different for different people and different for anyone at different times.

If you have an RV and prefer the convenience of hookups, your ideal camp site will necessarily be in a comfortable RV park.  But are you looking for an overnight stop long the way to your destination or is the site itself  your destination?   If ;you're looking for an overnight stop the ideal place will be near your route and easy to get in and out of.  If the site is your destination,  you'll be more concerned about its ambiance and amenities.  If  your outing is geared toward special outdoor recreational activities, the ideal site is going to be one that gives you convenient access to those activities.  OHV riders will need a place with access to trails or open riding areas.  Fishermen will need well-stocked lakes or rivers. Boaters will need launch facilities for their watercraft.

If you prefer boondocking or are at least willing to explore off-grid camping, you will find many more options.  Factors to consider may include how remote you want to be, how long you are prepared to stay, and how far you are willing to drive to reach your goal. If you're seeking peace and quiet you will want to avoid primitive camping areas that serve as staging areas for OHV activity.

Tent campers will want to choose camp sites that are suitable to their style and expectations.  If you enjoy hiking and backpacking, your ideal camp may be miles off the beaten track, but if you bring a lot of equipment with you you're going to want a site you can drive right into.

Time of year may color your selection as well.  In hot summer months you will probably want a shady site to give you some relief from the glare of that hydrogen fusion furnace 93 million miles away we call Sol.  In cooler times you may enjoy a sunny sight that will warm your tent or RV.  Desert camping is usually uncomfortably hot in the summer, so mountain, forest, or beach destinations are more ideal in hot weather.  Conversely, mountains and forest areas may experience harsh weather in cooler months when desert areas will be moderate and attractive.

The composition of your camping group will also affect your choice of an ideal camp site.  A couple seeking some quiet time together will have different needs than a family with young children who will require access to playgrounds or other sources of entertainment.

If you are seeking peace and quiet you will probably want to avoid popular state and federal parks, especially on holiday weekends or during the summer vacation time.  Look for smaller venues, such as local or county parks.  Activity can vary a lot at private parks.  Some are fairly remote and quiet, some are highly used and foster a lot of social interaction.  If you enjoy a lot of social interaction, by all means get reservations at a popular location during a busy time.

Finding the right site within an established campground might take a little exploring.   In most cases, not all sites are equal.  Some might be downwind of the restrooms or near a high traffic road or adjacent to a noisy group area.  You might be able to choose a camp site from a map when you make your reservations.  If not, you might have to physically explore the available options when you get on site.  Some common criteria for choosing the best site are level and adequate parking, clean, level space for tents, minimum traffic, close proximity to resources you want to use, not too close to restrooms or dumpsters, convenient access to water faucets, shady (especially in the summer!), proper fire pit, picnic table(s), pavilion or shelter.

Finding the right site when boondocking will either require familiarity with the area or doing some exploring.  You will need a spot that is accessible to your vehicle(s), reasonably level, away from traffic (roads, trails, etc), shady, large enough for your group, and fire safe.  In rainy weather or if there is an chance of rain, avoid depressions or washes that may be subject to flooding.

The bottom line is, only YOU can determine what is the ideal camp site for any given outing and it will very likely be different from trip to trip depending on many factors.  You may feel like returning to a spot you previously enjoyed, but consider whether there are mitigating circumstances that might change your experience.  Some things to consider are the time of year and the size and make up of your camping entourage.  If  you really loved the fall foliage you might be disappointed in visiting at a different time of year.  A nice little camp site that was perfect for you and your significant other might not work when you bring another family with children.  A site that offered great camaraderie and companionship during the active season might be less rewarding in the off season unless you bring enough companions with you.  If you realize that finding the ideal site means matching YOUR current needs rather than adopting some external definition, you should be able to select the right place very time.

Get it right!



Thursday, May 26, 2016

Camping Axe/Hatchet

One of the most iconic and useful tools in camp is a good axe or hatchet.  It doesn't matter whether you're camping in a luxury RV or roughing it in a tent.  Both lifestyles enjoy campfires and a good axe or hatchet is a valuable tool for cutting and splitting firewood, preparing kindling, and driving tent pegs.  Which you choose will depend on personal preferences and available space for transporting or carrying it.  Physical limitations might also impose size/weight limits on the tools you can use safely and comfortably.

Axes come in many sizes.  They may have a single or double bitted blade.  The larger the axe, the heavier it will be making it both harder to swing and capable of making larger, deeper cuts.  I like a fairly small axe for camping, one with about a 30" handle and a single blade.  It is kind of like a long-handled hatchet.  It isn't too heavy and it fits well in RV outside compartments.  For tent camping I prefer a hatchet or a roofers hammer, which fits easily in my camping bins.  A large, double-bitted, "Paul Bunyan" style axe is useful if you're doing any heavy felling or cutting, but they are big and heavy and in some ways the extra blade seems to be more dangerous.  For normal campfire activities such an axe would be excessive,  take more energy to use than it might be worth, and be cumbersome to store in RV compartments and camping bins.  Since most of the firewood we buy is already cut to length, most of the axe work will be converting it to kindling by splitting it.  A 30" single blade axe or a splitting wedge is perfect for this task.

A hatchet is small axe, often used with one hand where the larger axe takes two hands.  One of the most versatile hatchet configurations in my opinion is a roofers hammer, which has a hatchet blade on one side of the head and a hammer on the other.  The back of a regular hatchet or axe can be used for driving splitting or tent pegs, but the hammer head is more precise and is easy to use as a hammer.  A hatchet may be a better choice than an axe for someone with physical disabilities or limited strength.  It is also more convenience for splitting kindling than a larger axe.  As mentioned above, a versatile alternative for a hatchet is a roofers hammer, with a hammer head on one side and a hatchet blade on the other.  They are about the same size and weight as a typical hatchet and make a good mallet for drive tent or awning pegs too.  The hammer head seems to be more effective on tent pegs than the back side of an axe or hatchet.

No matter what size axe or hatchet you choose, you will need to keep it sharp.  Sharp tools are not only easier to use, they are safer.   To some people that is conterintuitive.  They think sharp tools would be more dangerous, but dull tools are more likely to result in injury.   It is a good idea to put an edge protector on the blade to keep it from being dulled by rubbing against things in transit.  Axes and hatchets can usually be sharpened on an electric grinder.  Just be careful not to spend too much time in one spot because that can overheat the metal and ruin the temper.  Hold the tool so the blade is tangent with just a slight angle to the grinding wheel and move it back and forth smoothly and fairly quickly to shape a neat taper on each side.  If the edge is severely damaged (chipped or dented) you may need to use a coarse grinding wheel for initial reshaping.  Grinding using a medium or fine wheel is usually sufficient for sharpening most axes but you could finish it with a file or even a sharpening stone if  you want an especially fine edge.

Handles should always fit tightly in the head.  Loose handles are dangerous.  The head could fly off at any time and inflict serious injuries on anyone it hits.  A loose head also messes up the precision of your cutting strokes, reduces the efficiency of each blow, and may cause bounces.  Wooden handles can usually be tightened by driving wedges into the end of the handle at the head so it expands the wood to fit tightly in the hole in the head.  In a pinch you might be able to drive a few heavy nails into the handle.  Sometimes a slightly loose head can be tightened by soaking it in water to swell the wood.  Be sure to coat the iron head with oil or grease so it doesn't rust.  Metal or fiberglass handles usually don't come loose and may need replacement or servicing by a qualified expert if they do begin to fail.  Metal handles are usually molded along with the head so the tool is all one piece. 

Handles should be clean and smooth.  Some hatchets have rubber or leather wrapped  handles for a better grip and to cushion the impact somewhat.  Any damage to the rubber or leather should be repaired if possible.  If it can't be repaired, the tool should be replaced.  Wooden handles should be checked for cracks, rough spots, and splinters.  Cracked handles should be replaced although you can sometimes tape them up as  temporary repair.  Rough spots should be sanded down, splinters trimmed and sanded, and the entire handle treated with linseed oil or a good quality furniture oil.  Don't over oil the handle!  You don't want it to be slick.  The oil should penetrate the wood, not create a slick, glossy coating.  When oiling the handle, use a soft cloth to rub the oil well into the wood.  You might also rub a light coating of oil on the iron head as well to prevent rust, especially if you're putting the tool into storage for a while, like at the end of an outing.

Swinging your axe.   Using a hatchet you will most likely use just one  hand in a  hacking motion, but swinging axe usually requires both hands, giving you more leverage and allowing you to strike harder.  If you are right handed you will probably swing  your axe right handed, but not necessarily.  My dad was right  handed but always swung his axe left  handed.  Whether you swing right or left  handed is determine by the position of your hands on the axe handle.   A right handed swing will start with the left hand near the butt of the handle and  the right hand a couple of inches from the head.  The right hand slides back until it is nearly against the left hand has you swing the axe.  A left handed swing is just the opposite.  Regardless of whether you are normally right or left handed you might want to try swinging your axe both ways and find out which way is most comfortable for you.  You may find it useful to be able to swing either way since you can achieve different angles each way.

Here's a handy tip for splitting kindling:  hold the target piece of wood with a stick instead of your fingers.  If your aim is off and you chop off the stick, no big deal but if you hold it with your finger and strike your finger it is going to spoil your whole evening and possibly the appetite of your fellow campers!

Chop, chop!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Camping and Survival Knives

"A knifeless man is a lifeless man".  This old saying may be especially true in a survival situation.  A knife may be the single most useful tool you could have -- other than your brain and your hands.  That being said, the question may arise "what is the best knife?".  There are many different sizes and styles of knives and each one has its own special niche.  In recent years there have been a proliferation of "Rambo" style survival knives promoted on the Internet and marketed through outdoor stores -- huge knives with mini survival kits stored in the hollow handles.  No doubt these have a certain appeal but how well would they work in a real world survival situation?  The tiny plastic compass is probably better than nothing, but  how well does it work and how long will it last?  And what will you really do with a couple feet of fishing line and a few safety pins?

The best consensus I've found for a good survival knife is that is should be a bit more modest than these monster combat blades -- a 3-4" fixed blade is usually recommended as best for survival.  The reasoning is that in a camping or survival situation you will do a whole lot more carving than you will hacking.  Sure, having a big, heavy knife may be useful for hacking when building a shelter from tree limbs, but how often is that going to happen?  And, even when you do need to build such a shelter, you probably will only do it once per event.  On the other hand, there will be an ongoing need for carving. Even notching limbs to secure cordage in building a shelter will require more finesse than hacking power.  Any kind of medical applications will need a fairly delicate blade.  Skinning and butchering animals for food or other uses will be well served by a modest blade.  You will also need a modest blade to carve wooden tools and implements.  A good hunting knife should be adequate.  If you choose a folding knife, make sure it has a locking blade.

Multi-tools are often touted for camping and survival use.  One cannot deny the versatility of these items or the convenience offered by the multiple functions they are capable of performing.  About the only downside to a multi-tool is that it has folding blades, and folding blades are not as sturdy nor as safe or as durable as fixed blades.  Locking blades will mitigate this problem to some extent, but the ideal blade for camping and survival will remain a fixed, 3-4" knife like a hunting knife.  Having both a proper knife and a multi-tool would be a particularly good combination.  Having both for camping should not be a problem for most people.  They need not be especially expensive and they take up a little room in your pocket or pack or on your belt.  More expensive tools will usually be more durable and offer more precision, but you will have to decide how much you are willing or able to spend.  Unless you lose your knife you will probably never regret investing in a good one.  Carrying both a knife and a multitool on your person at all times so you have them in a survival situation may not be as convenient as tucking them in your pack so you may have to make a choice.  If you're comfortable with a multitool with a locking blade it will offer you more versatility but a sturdy hunting knife may be more durable and safer.  I have recently seen a specialized knife that includes a built in flint and steel fire starter, which strikes me as a really good starting point for any survival situation. 

Having a knife -- the right knife -- is only the first step.   For it to be really useful (and safe to use) it must be sharp.  Yes, a sharp knife is actually safer to use than a dull one.  It is worth learning how to hone a knife edge to keep it sharp.  The most common and traditional way is using a sharpening stone but there are other types of knife sharpeners, like the drag through manual kitchen knife sharpeners and electric models that use internal grinding wheels.  You may be able to improve sharpness using one of these but to get a truly fine edge requires a practiced touch on a sharpening stone.  There are several tricks used by those who know how to do this well.  Using a combination of wet and dry sharpening is one.  Another is to push the knife toward the stone as if you were shaving it instead of dragging the edge backwards on the stone.  To get a good edge you need to hold the knife at the right angle to the stone.  The angle will depend on the thickness of the blade and the basic shape of the taper so you will need practice to find the right angle for each blade.  It is rather tedious endeavor but well worth the effort. Here is a link to a really good article from Buck Knives on How To Sharpen Your Knife.

Even a sharp knife will be of little help if you don't know how to use it.   The best way to learn how to use a knife is to have some with experience show you then practice.  Every camping trip should an opportunity to practice your knife skills.  Whittling can be a fun thing to do sitting around the campfire and it can be a very handy skill in a survival situation where there is no end to the opportunities for carving and slicing.  Knowing how to clean a fish or prepare a rabbit for cooking could mean the difference between dinner and going hungry in a survival situation.

The bottom line:  my personal recommendation is to carry a 3-4" fixed blade knife as the basic tool in my camping and survival kit.  And then supplement it with a multi-tool and a flint and steel fire starter -- and a sharpening stone.  These items take up little space and will repay your efforts again and again when you need them.

Look sharp!