When my brother and I were kids, we used to go on spur-of-the-moment impromptu camping trips, usually in association with deer season or some other noteworthy excuse to be back in the woods.
These trips involved very little planning or forethought, and mostly involved grabbing the perpetually ready backpacks (bug out bags? Not at the time), some cans from the pantry, a can of coffee and a couple of canteens. We had a blast every time, even though we seldom remembered everything we needed.
This past Christmas, my brother was up visiting from Mississippi. Usually on Christmas, there is at least one new gun in the family that needs a thorough breaking in, but this was a Christmas a little on the lean side. So, with no new weapons to try out we were forced to come up with alternatives.
Both my brother and I are avid preppers, and 72 hour kits and long-distance “get home bags” are high on our list of “prepper gear.” So, we decided it was time to put the packs to the test on an old-style overnighter with the two of us and my 13-year-old son.
The point of the exercise was not to plan too carefully, just grab up the packs and go. No substitute for the real thing, I know, but the best test we could come up with. The weather forecast wasn’t too bad: clear sky, low in the mid-20s, and balmy compared to some of the nights we had just been through.
What Worked And What Didn’t
As in a real emergency, things didn’t go as planned.
My wife was late getting home from work, so I had to hang back and make sure that the four kids that weren’t going got dinner and all that good stuff. By the time I followed on, it was a little past dark. After getting everyone squared away, I grabbed up my gear and my AK and headed out into the night. My walk-home kit is based on old school ALICE gear, Y-suspenders, pistol belt, butt pack, and a pair of canteen covers loaded with canteens and cups. The web gear also holds a holster for my PT92, two spare mags for the pistol, and a Glock field knife. A poncho and liner roll up under the flap of the butt pack, and in winter my modular sleep system straps on above that. The pack holds essentials for purifying water, light cooking and fire starting and also includes TP and enough calories (notice I said calories, not food!) to see me through a few days on the trail. The Machete that is often part of my gear was in my son’s care on this occasion. Four spare 20-round magazines for the AK ride in the pockets of my M-65, and two 30s go in the cargo pockets of my BDU (battle dress uniform) pants.
The first thing I was reminded of as I approached camp that night was just how far you can see even a small campfire in a hollow at night. I spotted camp from better than 150 yards, and smelled the fire at about 100. Not great operational security. I crept to within 15 yards before announcing myself and entering camp. The next thing I noticed was that my brother had set camp in a gully that is the drainage for one of our farm ponds. The spot had seemed great to him when he got there and the ground was frozen, but by the time a fire was going and some guys had trampled around setting up camp and having dinner for an hour or so it was returning to its natural state — MUD!
Turns out they had had some fire difficulties as well. My brother’s saber cut chainsaw had functioned at a level a bit shy of expectations while cutting firewood. While my machete had done its job, it was uncomfortable to use for heavy chopping, having only a cord-wrapped handle. The next issue was that the Esbit fuel they tried to use in place of wetfire tinder would not light with a blast match. This one surprised me since I have never had a problem lighting Esbit fuel or trioxane fuel tabs with a blast match. The same fuel also refused to boil water when used in an Esbit stove with a stainless canteen cup, so maybe they have a shelf life? The camp fire was finally ignited with a bit of dryer lint and a Bic lighter, and water for the Mountain House was boiled over the fire.
I had a few gear issues of my own. First up, when I took off my web gear I realized that my handgun stayed with it, a situation I saw as sub-prime under survival conditions. Actually, I am rethinking the ALICE gear altogether; it is fine for a fighting load but comes up a bit short as a bug-out-bag. Next up, although I have always sworn by my poncho and liner, I realized I had a choice of either a ground sheet or an overhead shelter, no hope of both. Fortunately it didn’t rain or snow, although my AK and all the rest of my gear were quite frosty by morning! My brother had brought a tarp and a Thermarest pad, and was protected from top and bottom, which may explain the mud hole he chose as a camp site! Even the dog that came with us was smart enough to sleep under the tarp curled up next to my brother, which makes me wonder why he complained about the cold when he had the same bag as me and I stayed comfortable through the night without a dog!
My son is exempted from the critique to a certain extent. The trip was a total surprise to him, sprung about five minutes before he and my brother went out the door. I remind myself that he is a 13-year-old boy, and that that particular critter can’t even be counted on to brush its teeth each night, let alone with maintain gear in a field-ready state at all times. He made it out to camp with all his gear, but half of it was tucked under his arms and dragging by the time he got there. I hope that it was a lesson in readiness for him, a reminder that things happen quickly and there isn’t always time to pack.
Grading Our Effort
Wake up came early. We were all getting a bit cold by this time and were ready to stoke up the morning fire, operational security be darned. We managed to brew coffee and make oatmeal in our canteen cups without incident, and I must say that the stainless steel GI canteen cup remains one of my favorite pieces of field gear. We broke camp and packed up, thawed the rifles by the fire for a while, and headed back to the homestead by early afternoon.
For my gear, I am more convinced than ever that something along the lines of a three-day assault pack would serve me better than the ALICE gear in this capacity, and would leave my sidearm at my side even when my pack was off my back. I am also convinced that having multiple methods to start a fire is the best philosophy going; you don’t want to get caught up short in this area. Finally, I plan on adding a backpacker’s tarp in a small stuff sack to my gear. I will keep the poncho and liner as well, and I may invest in a better quality machete with a more comfortable grip.
Overall, however, I think that most of our gear choices were valid, and I am confident in my bag’s ability (even in its current configuration) to get me home in a pinch.