Wet, Rusty, Dirty

In the real world things get wet. Things get rusty. Things get dirty. And that can have an impact on how those things, and the people using them, perform. Yet, I see pictures all over the internet of bright, fresh, clean gear and tools, and corresponding words of how awesome those tools are and how much better prepared their owner is for having them. Bright. Shiny. Clean. Who knows anything about a piece of gear if it is always bright, shiny and clean? Who knows anything about themselves and what they can do if they never get wet, tired, dirty?
The real world isn’t hard to get into – You don’t have to be a search-and-rescue bad-ass or trapped behind enemy lines or a bushcrafting wildman living in a cave or any such nonsense -You just have to go outside and do something from time to time. Every opportunity for learning, working skills, and getting gear dirty should be leapt upon with vigor.

I went camping with my girlfriend recently, and used the opportunity to break out some skills and get my gear dirtier. Of course, this was not “survival” or anything close: This was camping. We could have quit and gone to warm, dry, solid housing at any point we so desired. We simply chose not to desire.
Being out in the woods in any capacity provides opportunities for testing, learning and growth on many fronts. The opportunity to actually use gear, improve skill, and maybe do it under some (but nowhere near ultimate) pressure is priceless. This gives a confidence and ownership to skill that contributes to using time and energy much more efficiently when those skills are actually needed. Accordingly, I like my camping a little uncomfortable; It should be work: That’s part of the fun.
We got lucky, as the four days we spent out were filled with near constant rain, mist, and cold. The girlfriend has limited experience with the woods and skills there-for, so this was a fun introduction to some of those ideas. I did my best to illustrate things, let her try what she wanted to, and keep it fun; Leaving the heavy lifting to me, and not making her responsible for our success or failure at keeping fires going, getting food cooked, etc. The next trips, I’ll start pulling her more into the work and as her confidence and skill rises, we’ll be able to work as a team (I say team meaning, ideally, her skill will match mine, and we will be able to perform as equals, where one can carry the other if necessary). As we go on, we’ll start making more adventurous trips, seeking more challenge rather than expectable comforts, to really push those skills.

The big thing of the trip was fire (of course): To keep warm, to cook food, and simply for the fundamental boost of having a warm fire blazing in camp. It was validating that on the night of the hardest continuous rain I was able to both start and keep going a good campfire which lasted the night and left hot coals in the morning from which I rebuilt it with minimal effort.

With the rain and constant moisture, the biggest challenge was keeping in dry wood. This necessitated a lot of splitting to expose drier wood, and chopping of wood into sections that could be dried near the fire. The amount of wood-cutting I was able to do, for the small amount of energy I actually expended, is owed very much to the quality of the Gransfors Bruks Forest Axe I use. The balance and edge geometry (very much the edge geometry) allow this small axe to do work more akin to what is expected of a larger axe, without fatiguing the user. The excellent edge geometry also allowed for feathering wood, and other small tasks often placed upon a knife. Being able to do these little chores with the axe made for a smoother work-flow, and produced faster results as I could immediately respond to the needs of the fire without switching tools.

The Truly Superior Geometry of the Gransfors Forest Axe

There are a lot of truly inferior axes and hatchets out there. Almost anything from the average hardware store is a worthless piece of shit, but there are some hatchets/axes from big name cutlers that are atrocious as well. The poor quality of these inferior tools is in the materials (cast steel, or low carbon steel [both stainless and non]), edge geometry (bevels that are too thick, secondary edge bevels [which should never be found on an axe], hollow grinds [also should never be seen on an axe]) and ergonomics (poor handle designs, with isolated contact areas that will cause hot spots and blisters with very little work).
Gransfors Bruks axes are not the only choice, but they epitomize the features to look for in a good hatchet or axe: Forged high-carbon steel, narrow bit (the actual body of the head from eye to edge) with convex bevels (which taper directly to cutting keenness, without a secondary edge bevel), and smooth, contoured hafts which hold the hand, allow for multiple grips, and are free of hot-spots. I’ve known all this for a long time, and this trip simply provided more proof that a good axe makes all the difference. If you’re in the woods to have fun, it’ll keep the work from overwhelming the fun. If you’re in the woods because something went wrong, it’ll leave you energy for other essential tasks (This is true of all quality tools, not just axes).

The Chipped Bit

Although the Gransfors performed admirably, it did suffer some, mostly from encountering a rock in my carelessness (the first time in the four years I’ve had it that I chipped the edge). Cutting the burr with the file on my Leatherman returned the axe to high functionality, even without benefit of a proper sharpening. Further, the rain brought on some minor rust, and it raised the grain in the handle some, but this was minimal due to my habit of waxing the axe head and haft.
These issues were quickly remedied once I was home again. Steel wool cut the raised grain of the handle and took the rust off the head, without removing the protective black fire-scale from its forging. A good waxing of both the haft and the head restored the protective coating. A good sharpening with a sharp file, and an axe stone, cut the burr off the chips and restored the rest of the edge to hair-popping keenness. I do not sharpen out chips in my axes, rather I leave them in place and sharpen over them. Sharpening them out takes away too much of the axe, too fast, and can alter the geometry significantly unless great care is taken. It is better to simply sharpen over them until they are naturally sharpened out: This extends the life of the axe, maintains its geometry better, and does not significantly hurt its cutting ability.

Even though the axe could handle some finer chores, there was still plenty of work for a good knife. I relied primarily on my SurvivalCraft V1-mod Mora, but also took the opportunity to work with one of my own knives as well. Both performed admirably, and only suffered some staining and surface rust which easily cleaned off. My preference for high carbon knives is to keep them fairly highly polished (800 grit or above. I stone the flats, as well as the bevels, of the Mora to a high shine) which resists rust better than a rougher surface. I did nothing other than minor cleaning to either knife over the four days we were in camp, and neither of them suffered for it. The Mora saw use in food prep, which kept some grease and oil on the blade as well; Washing it prior to preparing each meal kept that grease from going rancid as food grease is want to do.

Stained, but Physically Undamaged

The SurvivalCraft is scandi-ground, which some people seem to fear is too thin or weak for heavy work, but the edge did not suffer any damage at all, even though it was used for batoning and a variety of other heavy tasks. It held up, and performed, with aplomb.

Rusty to Brand New in One-Easy Step

The small BFE Labs drop point similarly held up well, and was used for all the same tasks without fail. It’s thicker, conventional grind (with secondary edge bevel) cut well, and held up to even more robust use including light prying without incurring any damage. Neither knife was sharpened over the four days, and both held their edges very well, remaining capable of fine slicing. My preference for a woods knife remains with a scandi-grind knife, rather than one with a secondary edge bevel, but there is a place for the more robust edge qualities of a secondary bevel, particularly one still capable of very fine slicing.

Shiny, Honed and Ready for Adventure or Emergency

As for actually getting things to burn, not just cutting them up to be burned or cooked atop the burning, I mostly cheated. I quickly tired of starting fires with my survival fire-starters and, once I’d shown the girlfriend how to do it, quickly began to cheat like a sleaze using dry paper and butane lighters (which I typically carry in my fire kit anyhow, because if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying). Once I had fires, I tried to never be without a bed of hot coals from which to start subsequent fires. It’s hard to hurt ferro rods and strikers, and no harm came to those I’d brought along from any of the inclimate weather. Similarly, the tinders I’d brought along all performed well, the little I used any of them. BFE Labs has been working for over a year now on a rather comprehensive look at spark-making tools and tinder products that are on the market, and I got some additional material recorded for that project on this trip as well. Other than recording some more data, and showing the girl how to do it, I primarily relied on natural sources of tinder. I found a large section of fatwood, and used my knife to shave off small piles of it for fire starting, and to put between hot coals and kindling to encourage ignition. The rain and moisture made for a fun (mostly) series of tests of my fire skills, and I was glad for the opportunity.

These weren’t truly harsh circumstances, and everything remained pretty much fun despite the wet and cold, but the experience with the gear and skills is always worthwhile. I’m posting this to share some of my ideas on honing and passing along woods skills, and on the use and maintenance of tools, and simply to point out that every opportunity is valuable if you let it be. Every opportunity to work these skills and prove out gear should be embraced fully.

5 responses to “Wet, Rusty, Dirty”

  1. Brill says:

    This is garbage. Camping iis no place for practiving survival method… Those things arent the same at all.
    And buying a knife you’ve used and repolished? Why would I want to buy a used knife for the cost of a new one? Your garbage.

    • BFE Labs says:

      Sir – I’m sorry you’re displeased with our offerings. Since you are, try this: Learn from someone else, buy your knives from someone else. I think this will keep all of us quite happy.
      If you don’t believe in taking advantage of every opportunity to practice, refine, break and rebuild skills and tool-use practices… Well, that is your business.
      As for the “used” knife business: I’m a knifemaker and metal smith. I can take an old, rusted, piece of scrap and make something new out of it. I can most assuredly bring a knife to a “new” state after I’ve used it a bit. Don’t like that? Don’t buy your knives from someone who tests them before they go out the door.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Ian Wendt says:

    Perhaps not very harsh circumstances, but those exact same circumstances have killed people before. Good article, bro.

  3. Kyle says:

    Anyone who thinks that you have to be “like the folks on the teevee” and get lost (or pretend to) in order to “really practice your wilderness skills” are retards or internet experts… but I repeat myself.

    You can practice skills when car camping or on a walk in a greenbelt or in a park in a suburb. You can do it in your backyard. If you haven’t practiced, how well will do you think it’ll work out?

    This reminds me of the kids who get together with their friends with no food and minimal kit and go into the woods to “practice survival skills.” If you have no experience hunting or trapping, how successful do you think you’re going to be relying on non-existent skills when doing this sort of “practice?” Or the guys who have never built a camp fire and try to make the leap to bow drills and such. Incredibly retarded “thinking” at work here. Maybe it’s due to my being from the coastal Pacific Northwest, which is such a wet and nasty place most of the year that even very experienced woodsmen will end up suffering a great deal on a simple camping trip if they don’t bring their own wood and proper fire-starting equipment.

    Whenever I talk to someone who is inexperienced but interested in “practicing bushcraft” in my area, I urge them to learn to make a fire in as many ways as possible, starting with the simplest to the most complex and convoluted (the point being, simple works, simple you can plan for, and always cheat – i.e. carry a torch lighter, magnesium, ferro rod, and a film canister full of cotton balls coated in vaseline. Really doesn’t take up much room). You can go car camping with a bunch of firewood in the summer and spend a day or two practicing different fire building techniques until you are bored stiff and lose interest. Try making a fire bow from found materials AND having it work on the PNW coast when you depend on it – bzzzt – you will fail, period.

    Sorry for the rant, I just can’t stand reading internet experts like “Brill” (cream) bloviate about topics they know nothing about except for watching TV.

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