It's the little things that make life good. Like hot springs. And insulin.

Return to Main Gear Page.
Return to Beyond Spec Home.

Space Blanket
The Space Blanket, silvered on one side and solid color on another, is a wilderness standby, useful in a variety of roles. The silvered side is intended to reflect infrared light (a.k.a. radiant heat), increasing the blanket's warmth when it's wrapped around you with the silver side in. Space blankets comes in two basic weights: lightweight emergency blankets, and full-weight personal tarps.

The space blanket hooch in it's simplest incarnation: Snoozing out the
passage of thunder cells on a wildfire near Livengood, Alaska.

SHELTER BASICS: A tarp-weight space blanket can be used to construct a number of personal shelter options. The most useful addition for this is lengths of cord attached at multiple corners. Space blankets also come in square and rectangular shapes. The larger, symetrical shape of the square blankets makes them more versatile, but rectangular blankets are lighter-weight options when your only concern is a sleeping arrangement. Be forewarned: space blankets are not made for durability, and they will eventually fray, tear, or delaminate after repeated heavy use.

Return to top.

Water Bottles
Many are the high-tech wonder bottles out there. We aren't going to look at any of them.

Syrup Bottles. Plastic syrup bottles often have a slim profile, an integrated handle, and an unscrewable squeeze-nozzle. As a result, they're easy to stuff in pack, you can hook them on the exterior without modification, and you can either squirt water in your mouth or - where water is scarce - actually suction up shallow water sources. They're durable, too. We like'em!

Sports Drink Bottles (Gatorade etc.) Sports drink bottles often have a large volume, a wide mouth, and grippy, ridged sides. The wide mouth is nice for both filling and drinking, but these bottles have never really caught on with us. The squat shape just doesn't pack gracefully.

Bottled Water & Soda Plastic Bottles. These bottles lack tje large mouths and bizarre styling of sports drink bottles. For us, the big selling point is that you can get bottled water bottles in the 500ml size, which makes them very small and handy to stick just about anywhere in your stuff, or in a pocket. In a very wet climate, 2 500ml bottles is more than adequate for us.

The Big Jugs. 1-gallon Milk jugs, juice jugs, and large soda bottles all have their charms. For ease, we definitely prefer those with handles, and if you want to know exactly how much water you have, opt for a clear or semi-transparent jug. You can also use these big jugs to settle particulates out of your water, for which purpose you'll want some transparency, as well.

Franzia Winebags. Franzia, the Wine-in-a-Box, comes in various sizes (up to 7 liters?), all of which make excellent waterbags. I found them reasonably puncture-resistant. If you drink rotgut and want a large-volume collabsable waterbag for hiking, consider Franzia. If you don’t drink rotgut, convince your friends to do so. The resulting receptacle is larger than many off-the-shelf hydration bags and rolls up smaller, at a slight loss in durability. For on-the-Road Waterbag Protection, simply store your full waterbag inside a stuff sack. If you wish, you can cut a small hole in the bottom of a stuff sack, and then reinforce its edges, either by heat-sealing, sewing, or taping around the hole. The stuff sack will still function, and it will also have a spigot-hole. Franzia makes all its winesacks with silvered exterior, which reflects sunlight. This is nice if you want a cold drink in the desert, but not good for setting your water out sunbathing if its chilly out. Write to Franzia and demand they make black winebags, too.

Plastic Bags. We kid you not. In a pinch, you can put a plastic bag inside a stronger bag - a stuff sack, for instance - fill it up with water, and tie it off. The British SAS pioneered a striking version of this: fill an unlubricated condom with water, tie it off, put it in a sock, and hang the sock from your belt.

Return to top.

Water Purification
We do not always purify our water. If you want to drink unpurified water, familiarize yourself with which water environments harmful microbes survive in, then make your own choices.

When we do purify, we use one of the following solutions to biological contamination:

None of the preceding methods, except filtering, addresses the problem of suspended particulates, like clay and silt. To manage this problem, we generally select our water source with care. When we do have to draw water from, say, a mud puddle, we try to find one where most of the mud has settled. Then we carefully extract water, stirring up as little mud as possible.

You can also settle the water in a large jug or plastic bag, or filter it with home-made contraption. The simplest home-filter is a bandana or other cloth item. To make a more elaborate filter, layer over your cloth filter with non-toxic grass, charcoal, and sand, then pour the water through this device. Stuffing the latter three in a cut-off 500ml bottled water bottle is a great way to make a quick-and-dirty funnel-filter.

Charcoal possesses some chemical-filtering properties, but the best defense against chemical toxins is careful selection of your water source. Be alert to oily surface sheen, strange coloration, or unusual odor. If a water source gives a rash or other skin irritation, treat it as suspect. Consider what's upstream of you: mining country? Heavy industry? Agribusiness?

Return to top.

Light sources are great, but we try to use them as little as possible. There are several dangers in becoming too reliant on artificial light:
  1. Electrial lights all break, eventually.
  2. If they don't break, they run out batteries.
  3. Or we drop them at inopportune times.
  4. Lights ruin our nightvision. Lights ruin our ability to gather visual information from beyond their scope of illumination. Note that red & blue lights seem to do a much better job of preserving our nightvision, and we recommend them.
  5. They diminish our awareness horizon. The effects of a light are psychological as well as optical. With a light on, it's easy to get tunnel vision. You stop scanning your environment with multiple senses, at multiple ranges.
  6. Nocturnal travel is a skill. Navigating through darkness may sometime be a life-preserving skill for any of us, and it takes practice.
Keeping that bias in mind, here's our flashlight reviews:

The Cop Light. A 4 or 6 D-Cell Mag Light is a great expedient spotlight. Although we don't recommend it for foot travel, it can be real handy on river or road trips. Incandescent Headlamps. We've mainly used petzl and black diamond incandescent headlamps, and we've never been stunned by their waterpoofing, but they seem to handle rain well enough. Although LED lights have a longer life, the spotlight powers of an incandescent are sometimes very valuable, especially if you need to assess hazards or judge distances at night.

The Petzl Tika (LED). We like it: 50+ hours of light on 3 AAA batteries. One of the most awkward parts of Tika is that AAA bats seem to always come in 4-packs, which means there's one odd battery we always lose, since nothing else we own runs on AAA. We've seen a Tika survive a full roll in a kayak, and stay functional. Ove 2 years, one of ours has, however, developed an ongoing flicker.

Pocket LED Lights. (Photon brand, etc.) These things are definitely nice, and they're very lightweight. It's good to have a couple: one white for serious illumination, and one red to preserve your nightvision. They can clip onto knife lanyards, zippers, key rings, and so forth, and their lifespan is long. They are not, however, all that waterproof, and we haven't found a way to solve this problem satisfactorily. You can coat one's seams with sealant, but the seal is broken when you depress the light-button the first time. Possbile solutions include coating the inner workings with grease, beeswax, or silicone, but we haven't gotten around to these hair-brained experiments yet.

Mini Mag Light. Smaller Mag Light flashlights have a charm that sometimes outshines headlamps for us. There are no wires or straps to run afoul of, and the whole package is sleek, high-impact, and easy to carry. You can attach a lanyard, or wrap the base in duct tape so you can hold the light in your teeth. You can also get - or make - a head strap so you can wear your flashlight on the side of your head, like a headlamp.

Mag Light Solitaire. We've also used the single AAA size Mag Light, which is fairly small and light.

Return to top.

Tape most useful for repair and securing items, but sometiemes has other uses, such as firestarter, protectant, and grip-surface.

Duct Tape Duct tape is the most versatile tape we've found. Its width, adhesion, flexibility, tearability, and waterproof surface all make it desirable. We've used it as waterproofing, repair, fabrication, and first aid. You can also used it as a firestarter, but it smells horrible and probably releases all sorts of hideous chemicals in the air. Not that we've looked, but there are probably whole websites dedicated to duct tape endevours.

Athletic/Medical Tape Cloth athletic-style tape has many of the perks of duct tape, but it's less adhesive, it's not waterproof and isn't a useful firestarter. It's narrower, making it less uesful for fabrication. This tape is, however, our favorite for first aid applications, which it's made for.

Electrical Tape Electrical tape is composed of an elastic, unfiorm synthetic that is slick on one side and coated with adhesive on the other. It is also very narrow, and generally requires a knife or scissors, since it doesn't rip. We haven't found electrical tape very useful in the field, but it works well for wrapping knife handles.

Fiberglass Tape Fiberglass tape is composed of long fiberglass strands in a plastic sheet of tape. Fiberglass tape's primary merit is that it is EXTREMELY strong. If your main application is heavy lashing, consider 1" fiberglass tape. You will need a sharp edge or heat source to cut it.

Return to top.

Inflatable Mattress
Over the years, we've used and abused numerous inflatable mattresses, all of the Therm-a-Rest brand. We've also found some great unintended uses for them. Air mattresses are lightweight and provide excellant insulation, but they're more vulnerable than foam pads. They are most useful on snow, rock, and bare earth. Thick dry tundra, long-grass prairie, and deciduous forests in autumn are some environments where nature provides plenty of ground insulation.

Most air mattress failures come in the form of punctures. Beware of getting your air mattress too close to fire or other heat source: the glue holding the mattress layers together can melt, leading to huge blisters that make for an uncomfortable night.


Return to top.

Close Cell Foam Pad
The closed cell foam pad is a cheap alternative to the air mattress. While it compares unfavorably to the air mattress in some respects, it makes up for these deficiencies in other areas. The big differences that make the foam pad stand out in our mind are: Foam pads also have a few conspicuous downsides:

Return to top.

Bag Balm
Bag Balm is a petroleum jelly & lanolin product manufactured for use on cow's udders. It has a higher viscosity than Vaseline, and its wilderness uses are sundry. We've found it INVALUABLE on both raft trips and in arid environments.

Alternatives to Bag Balm. Beyond Spec’s Staff Cosmetologist has been looking for a all-natural alternative to petroleum products. Currently, he’s experimenting with Obenauf’s Boot Grease. Manufactured for wildland firefighters, Obenauf’s is a blend of beeswax and propolis. Preliminary results look good. You can also try Sno-Seal.

Return to top.

Parachute Cord

Parachute cord is cheap, strong nylon cord. Constructed of an external sheath around a number of interior strands, P-cord was originaly designed to make the suspension lines of parachutes, for which it is still often used. P-cord has a breaking strength of approximately 400 lbs. In a pinch, you can pull out the interior strands, and use them as thread. Gutted, the sheath as serves well as replacement shoelaces. After cutting the ends of P-cord, consider melting explosed fibers on each end, as a way to prevent fraying.

P-cord can withstand great abrasion and stress, but is still easily cut with a knife. It's an excellant all-around cord, and it's cheap.

Return to top.

Zaphod the Cat

Zaphod the Cat lives a vision: to make himself into a sphere. Adhering to strict regimen of competitive eating, swallowing rubber bands, and snoring, Zaphod – at top fighting trim – tipped the scales at approximately 18 pounds, clearly exceeding his design specifications. To further realize this dream, he has two extra toes.

Return to top.