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Now Thrive the Armourers…
The New Look of "War Surplus"

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

October 7, 2003

Back when I bought my first canvas rucksack, "war surplus" was a neglected backwater far removed from the mainstream of commerce. Surplus stores were — typically, at any rate — dark, hole-in-the wall places. A trip to the Army-Navy was a voyage of discovery. You never knew what you'd find. Often, even the owner of the store didn't know what he had in stock. "Just look around," he'd say in answer to any question, waving his hands to encompass tottering stacks of unsorted GI underwear and shelves sagging beneath the weight of crates of (hopefully) deactivated WWII-era "pineapple" hand grenades. "What you see is what I got."

So you looked around. Sometimes you found treasure. Sometimes only trash. But it was always an adventure.

That's all changed. Nowadays, surplus is big business. True, there isn't as much real "surplus" to be had as there was even five years ago, but mil-spec merchandise is proliferating. And the hole-in-the-wall corner shop is a thing of the past. Today's Army-Navys are high-volume catalog retailers. And what catalogs they are! Hard-wearing gear at dirt-cheap prices. True, there are a lot of things that most paddlers can live without. Few of us feel the need for body armor or collapsible batons on weekend trips, and I've never suffered because I forgot to pack my "disposable nylon restraints." (OK. Maybe I lead a dull life.) Still, even the most unlikely items can find a place in paddlers' gear bags. Night-vision goggles and "bionic ears" are great tools for birders and other amateur naturalists, for instance. And everybody needs to eat. If camp cooking isn't your thing, you might fancy a "Meal, Ready to Eat" (MRE) for dinner, particularly now that Ham and Lima Beans — GIs from the C-Ration era will know this all-time favorite by another name — has been consigned to culinary history.

There's a lot of more or less conventional stuff, as well. Waterproof cases of all sizes and types. Climbing gear. Parachute cord. Pith helmets. (Just the thing for your next trip up the Limpopo.) Vests with more pockets than a magician's cloak. Hammocks that fold up into a package the size of a softball. The world's best duct tape. Signal mirrors and whistles, sturdy compasses, and GPS units for almost any budget. And that's not all. You'll also find packs of every sort, enough knives to outfit an abattoir, and "hydration systems" of every conceivable shape and description.

You get the idea. Most canoeists and kayakers would run out of ink making a wish-list from such a range of offerings. Still, it's easy to overlook items you may never have considered before. Like…

BDUs, for example. That's short for Battle Dress Uniform. Older vets will know them as fatigues or utilities ("utes"). Civilians will recognize them as cargo pants. Whatever name they go by, I'm a fan. BDU trousers are inexpensive, long-lasting, and versatile. They're cool enough for sticky summer days, but the tight weave still takes the sting out of arctic gales. I even wear a pair over (surplus) wool long-johns on sub-zero snowshoe outings.

Of course, all I have to battle with on most paddling trips are biting flies, blisters, and headwinds. No matter. The ripstop cotton (or cotton-blend) BDUs are up to the job. Most have a button fly, though zippers are available for quick-draw artists and for anyone else who prefers the peace of mind that comes with not having to fumble when nature calls. Other BDU pluses? How about adjustable waist tabs, double seats and knees, enough pockets for a pack-rat, and drawstring cuffs? And all this for only US$24, in your choice of colors, including both woodland and desert camouflage.

You prefer shorts? You can get BDU shorts, too. Then, when the inevitable rains start to fall, you can reach for your…

Poncho. The Gore-Tex® revolution nearly killed off the poncho. What a pity! There's no more versatile garment: it's a rain-jacket, a pack-cover, a tarp, a ground-cloth, even (with an insulated liner) a summer-weight sleeping bag. I always bring one along, even if I'm also carrying other foul-weather gear. A word of warning is in order, however. A poncho makes a great sail. If the wind's behind you, this is good, but when it shifts round, it's time to don something a little less sail-like. If you don't, you'll soon find yourself sailing backwards. And swimming with a poncho is no cinch, either. So take it off when running rapids. Some ponchos have waist ties. These help tame the beast. Yours doesn't have one? No problem. Just use a length of cord.

Once you're off the water for the day, you'll want to dig in and settle down, and what better tool for digging in than an…

Entrenching Tool? It now sports a D-handle and a new name — the "tri-fold shovel" — but it's still pretty much the same old E-tool. And it's just the ticket when you have to do what bears do in the woods. The new E-tool packs smaller than its wooden-handled predecessor, but you can still (in one catalog's words) "dig, hoe, hammer, and chop" with it. Nor is that all. A real E-tool fan recently pointed out that it can also double as a one-point-of-support toilet seat. Lock the blade at a 90-degree angle to the shaft and rest the butt end of the grip on the ground. (I leave the rest to your imagination. Be sure you cover any sharpened or serrated edges before you settle back, however, and unless you really want to take a dump, make certain the locking collar is screwed tight!)

Sometimes, of course, you need a sharp edge at the sharp end. That's when you want a…

Machete. Got chopping to do? This is the nonpareil. More versatile than an ax for most camp chores, in practiced hands the machete is much less dangerous than a hatchet. It's perfect for shaving tinder and splitting off kindling from small dead-and-down limbs, as well as clearing windfalls from portage trails. In an emergency — with trip's end still four weeks away, say — it can even be used as a drawknife to carve a paddle or thwart from "the closet of the woods." It's cheap. It's light. It's easy to carry in your pack. (But cover that sharp edge first! The plastic military scabbard is good.)

Then, when you're underway again, you may want to know if the next portage is really as long as it seems on the map. That's when you reach for your…

Pace Counter. Pace counter? Maybe "pace aide-mémoire" would be a better name. Or call it Thoreau's GPS, if you want. Designed to help patrols find their objectives in darkness or under conditions of restricted visibility, the pace counter is nothing much to look at, I admit. A few beads strung on a bit of boot lace. But appearances often deceive. It's really a simple and elegant tool for land navigation. (Batteries not included. Or needed.)

Here's how it works. Most adults, walking on reasonably level ground, cover about 60 inches (5 feet) with every two steps they take. Call these two steps a pace. A reader recently reminded me that this is a direct descendent of the Roman military pace, the basis of the Roman mile. And that ancient measure, the mille passus, is the distant ancestor of the familiar English — now the American — mile. Talk about living history!

But let's get back to the here and now. Every time your left heel hits the ground, you've taken one pace. Walk 30 paces, and you've gone 150 feet. Walk 60 paces, and you've put 300 feet (or 100 yards) behind you. That's the secret of the pace counter.

To be sure, both the terrain and the length of a person's legs will influence her pace length. Most folks shorten their stride when going up or down hill, and short folks (usually) take shorter strides. Still, 60 inches is a reasonable first approximation for many adults and most trails. (If you want to take the measure of your pace, lay out a 100-yard course on level ground and count how many paces it takes you to cover the distance. Repeat a few times and average the result. Than move the course to the side of a hill and repeat the exercise, going both ways. You'll soon know what your particular pace is under a variety of conditions.)

Now let's take a closer look.

Pace Yourself!

Simple, yes? Step off with your right foot. Then, each time your left foot hits the ground, count one pace. One … two … three.… When you get to 60 (or whatever number you've arrived at for your pace), you've walked 100 yards. Pull down one bead from the nine-bead group.

Keep counting. And continue pulling down one more bead from the group of nine for every 60 paces. When you slide the ninth bead down, you've gone 900 yards. The next time your count reaches 60, you'll have traveled 1000 yards. That's when you pull down the first bead from the group of four and return all of the nine beads back to their starting position. Then continue counting.

Carry on like this until you reach the end of the trail, or until you've gone 5,000 yards, at which point you'll need to restore the beads from both groups to their starting positions and begin all over again. (I hope you don't have to make too many 5,000-yard portages!)

But what if the trail ends when you're only part of the way to 60 paces? Just tally the beads you've already pulled down and then add the proper proportional fraction of 100 yards: 15 paces equals 25 yards; 30 paces, 50 yards; and so on.

A little practice makes it obvious. Give it a try. With the beads keeping track of the total for you, the drill quickly becomes almost automatic, demanding only a small part of your attention. If you're like me, you'll soon be a compulsive counter of paces, and before you know it, you'll have a much better feel for the difference between "map miles" and miles on the ground. That can't help but make you a better navigator.

*

The armorers are thriving these days, and there's a lot in their arsenal that paddlers can find good uses for, too. Check out a few catalogs and see what's happened to war surplus in the years since the Berlin Wall came down. And happy shopping!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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