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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Survival Bracelet! Compass, cord, light, kitchen sink!

One of the joys of being a writer is that I get to try a lot of new stuff. Some products are genuinely useful; others are simply silly. Still, one man's trash is another's treasure, and admittedly, I judge them from the view of a wilderness paddler where everything must earn it's weight, bulk and utility. Here are some things that I consider silly. Please feel free to sling barbs at my choices:


These are woven from parachute cord. The idea is that if you're lost in the wilderness you can unravel the cord and use it to rig a shelter etc. When I was in my twenties I was lost for three days in the western Oregon woods. I had a water bottle, knife, matches, compass, salami sandwich and a mental map of the area, but no cord. It was the compass and mental map that saved the day. Parachute cord is useful to a lost camper who is highly skilled. But it's a non-starter for an armchair survivalist who doesn't know what he's doing.

2. COMMERCIAL SURVIVAL KIT: These contain basic items like waterproof matches, a cheap compass (that barely works), fish line and hooks, single-edge razor blade, cord, barely useful space blanket etc. The ruse is that if bad stuff happens the kit will save the day--unlikely unless you know what you're doing and have practiced skills. Most people who buy these kits don't! In an earlier life I taught outdoor skills for the Minnesota DNR Hunter-Education program. Participants were (supposedly) skilled hunters. I began the class by holding up a knife and two matches and asking this question: "How many of you would bet your life against one million dollars that you could start a fire with just a knife and two matches?" Every hand went up. Then we went outside and built fires. Everyone was issued two matches and a knife (if they needed one). If the day was dead calm, the success rate was around 25 percent. If the wind was blowing, it was frequently zero!

Experienced wilderness travelers don't carry "survival kits". Instead, they have the most important survival items on their body. At a minimum this includes a sharp knife, full-frame compass, a paper (or mental) map of the area, two ways to make fire (lighters, matches, ferrocerium rod, etc.), rain jacket/sweater, water and a snack. Treks longer than a few hours (or in transitional weather) include a day pack filled with enough stuff for an emergency overnight stay.

3. WOOD BURNING STOVE THAT CHARGES PHONES: This twig-burning stove uses heat energy to charge small items like cell phones and iPods. If you've ever used a high capacity solar charger, you know that it can take hours to fully charge a device. Constantly feeding a small stove with twigs gets old fast. I see that there's a new cooking pot that doubles as a solar charger. My, what will the engineers who don't camp out think up next?

4. HALF A SLEEPING BAG : The top of the bag is insulated; the bottom, which has a pocket to accept a foam sleeping pad, isn't. This saves some weight and bulk. But to reap the benefits one must sleep inside the bag-- it can't be opened wide and used as a simple cover (quilt) on hot nights.

5. CAMPING QUILTS: This is simply a rectangular sleeping bag without a side closure (zipper). Quilts are lighter and more compact than sleeping bags. Combined with a foam pad, they're warm to about 45 degrees. Below that, you'd best put on more clothes. Most campers own just one sleeping bag--usually a three season model that (if down) works from about 50 degrees F. to 20 or so. On warm nights, they just open the bag and use it as a cover (quilt). If they get cold, they climb inside and zip up. Yes, you can save a few ounces and a bit of bulk by substituting a quilt for a sleeping bag, but when the night gets cold, you'll wish you had a real sleeping bag that seals up tight.

6. POTS WITH HEAT-EFFICIENT BOTTOMS These have a steel, sponge-like metal "ring/grill" on the bottom. The "grill" distributes the heat more efficiently than a bare pot bottom. It works, but the ring adds weight and bulk and it makes the pot hard to pack--it doesn't nest well with other pots. . If you wash the pot then set it on the ground, dirt and debris sticks to the tiny openings. And be careful, the ring edges on some models can be sharp! The insulated cozy system I suggest in my books better conserves heat, and unlike a metal ring, it keeps food hot long enough for seconds. Sometimes, old ideas remain "good ideas".


Half spoon, half fork; it doesn't work for me. When I want a spoon I want a spoon; when I want a fork I want a fork. Putting them together in one utensil makes eating awkward and saves maybe half-an-ounce. The Princess and the pea might feel the weight difference on a long portage, but not me!

8. CAMPING SKILLETS WITH FOLD-IN HANDLES: Nice until you fold (close) the handle and pack the pan away. The folded handle will jiggle against the pan and in time, the plastic handle coating will wear off (or burn) and the exposed metal will damage the Teflon coating. Of course, you can pad the handle with fabric or plastic--another thing to do. The folded handle may also make it difficult to nest the skillet with your other cookware. A universal, removeable spring-wire handle that works with all your pots and pans is better. My book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS shows how to make one.

9. FOLDING KNIFE WITH BUILT-IN KNIFE, FORK AND SPOON: One of the dumbest things I've seen. You can use the knife, spoon or fork, but not two or more at the same time. So how do you cut food when you can't hold it in place with a fork? Or dip soup with the spoon then cut some meat? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

10. KNIVES WITH SERRATED EDGES: These are terrific for cutting through car doors and rope. But how do they slice salami and pine? Or split wood with the aid of a baton? Not well! I don't know one experienced camper who likes serrated blades.

11. THICK-BLADED HUNTING KNIFE: Camping IS NOT hunting. Campers won't split the pelvis of an elk or cut through a rib cage. They WILL slice salami and cheese, spread peanut butter and jam, open plastic bags and whittle kindling. Thin-bladed (no thicker than one-eighth inch at the spine) knives work best for these chores. Try slicing a tomato thin with a thick-bladed hunting knife and you'll know why you don't want one for camping.

12. KNIFE AND TOOL SHEATHS WITH VELCRO CLOSURES: Velcro closures can be compromised by debris (vegetative matter, seeds, soil etc.) and freezing weather. I can recount two occasions where friends lost a knife or multitool because the Velcro closure on the sheath popped open. Snaps are much more reliable than Velcro, especially in transitional weather where the Velcro can get wet and freeze.

13. TENT FOOTPRINT: This is a waterproof nylon copy of your tent floor. It attaches with Velcro, clips or whatever to the outside floor of your tent. Supposedly, it saves wear on the tent floor. Yeah--and in a heavy rain, flowing groundwater can become trapped between the footprint and floor and be pressure wicked by body weight into the sleeping compartment. You'll really have a sponge party! An interior groundcloth that keeps trapped groundwater away from you, is a better plan! Those who disagree need to camp on the rocky Canadian shield in a blistering week long rain!

14. COLORED BUG NETTING (for tents, tarps and insect headnets): Black is the only "color" that doesn't reflect light into your eyes. The view through a colored screen is "milky," and the lighter the screen the more milky it looks. The view through a black screen is like looking through glass. That's why screen doors, car steering wheels and dashboards are black. Try this experiment: paint a small portion of your headnet or tent bug-netting black with a Magic Marker. Look through the blackened and unblackened sections. BIG surprise!


*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, is the premier text for canoeing wilderness rivers.

*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

*My classic book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, details a wealth of proven camping procedures and comfort tips that only the experts know.

My book, BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, 3rd Edition, details everything you need to know to safely and enjoyably canoe the BWCA.

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