The Cutting Edge
The Little Big Blade That Could By Tamia Nelson
November 26, 2013
The pioneer era of backcountry camping may be over, but paddlers can still find plenty of uses for edged tools, from pocket knives to axes. And while few categories of tool are as versatile — flaked stone cutters, scrapers, and choppers are among the earliest items in the human toolkit — individual blades are each crafted with a particular task in mind. If you've ever tried to split an elm billet with a felling ax, or attempted to open a can of ham and lima beans (and no, they weren't like your mother used to make) with a bayonet, you'll know what I mean. Which probably explains why most of us accumulate a good‑sized inventory of edged tools.
I'm no exception. That said, it's been years since I bothered bringing my little Hudson's Bay ax along on a trip. I no longer build big fires, for one thing. On many trips, I don't build any fires at all, and when I do, there's a good likelihood that the blaze will be confined to the firepan of a portable samovar. In that case, twigs and shavings are all the fuel I need. Moreover, most of my backcountry excursions these days are "amphibious." I'll travel to the put‑in on my bike, towing a boat in a bag behind me in a trailer. And like as not, the first evening's camp will serve as a jumping‑off point for several climbs (or a bushwhack to a remote pond) on the following day. All of which means that I have to make every ounce of gear earn its keep.
So the Hudson's Bay ax was pensioned off, and a Woodman's Pal — a curious, if efficient, hybrid of machete and billhook — took its place. But even this proved to be too much blade. I'd occasionally use it to clear a tangle of blowdown from a trail or reduce a windfall limb to firepan size, but most of the time it was just dead weight in my pack. The upshot? I started looking around for something lighter and easier to carry. And eventually I found it, lurking under an assumed name in, of all the unlikely places, Walmart.
What was this serendipitous discovery? The …
Gerber Compact Parang
Actually, to give my find its full and proper title, it's the Gerber Bear Grylls Compact Parang. Since I don't watch much television, it was some time before I learned that Edward "Bear" Grylls is — for want of any better description — a celebrity survivalist, as well as Chief Scout, head of the Scouting Association in the UK and heir to the mantle of Baden‑Powell, albeit at several generations' remove. But it wasn't his celebrity endorsement that turned my head. It was the blade. The Compact Parang is just a short (the working edge is seven and one‑half inches long) machete with a rubbery grip. As such, it's a pretty fair reproduction of a golok, the ubiquitous blade of all work found throughout Southeast Asia, and latterly the issue machete in the British Army. Why Gerber chose to call it a parang is anyone's guess. (The parang is a longish, machete‑like knife used in Malaysia and Indonesia.) Perhaps Gerber's marketing people found that parang had more focus group appeal than the guttural golok. Or maybe golok is too close to Gollum, and thereby likely to engender confusion in the minds of Tolkien's legions of fans. Who knows?
In any event, here's what the Gerber golok looks like:
Having done my bit for truth in labeling, however, I'll henceforth defer to Gerber's fancy: They've chosen to call their blade a Compact Parang, and so shall I. Now let's see how it stacks up against some other biggish blades, beginning with this lineup of likely suspects:
The white bar at the left is about seven inches long. And from left to right we have my Gerber River Runner knife (A) — though an outlier in this edgy collage, I've included it for scale — alongside the Gerber Compact Parang (B), the Woodman's Pal (C), and a nondescript bolo machete (D). (The last is a relic from my stones‑and‑bones days.)
Every picture tells a story. We have Rod Stewart's word on that. But it's seldom the whole story. A case in point: Extracting the Parang from its blister‑pack store display in order to take this first picture proved to be quite a challenge. Perhaps Bear Grylls intended it as a survival exercise, requiring that you adapt and improvise before you can hope to overcome. If so, it was an unqualified success. By the time I'd accomplished the mission, I'd had to resort to a box‑cutter, EMT shears, and a pair of pliers. Even then, it was a close‑run thing. And since the blade is packaged naked — the better to display its seductive contours, no doubt — I proceeded with caution, counting my fingers at the conclusion of the struggle, just to make sure I'd lost none along the way. I'd advise any purchaser to exercise similar care.
Once I'd prised the Parang from its adamantine overcoat, however, I was happy to find that the shaped grip felt great in my hands. While the grip is narrow enough for folks who, like me, have stubby fingers — and a good thing, too, since I don't think I'd have gotten very far whittling the rubbery material down to size — it's also long enough for large hands. I did, however, alter the grip in one respect, by slipping a length of bicycle inner tube over it, …
… in order to keep the dangling lanyard from snagging stray branches as I walk (or cycle) along. And this yielded a bonus: The inner tube made the already grippy grip even grippier. I'm sure Bear would approve.
Of course, a sharp knife needs a sturdy sheath, and Gerber has done the Compact Parang proud here. A hard‑plastic liner protects the webbing sheath (and you) from the blade's edge, while a hook‑and‑loop choker keeps the knife from slipping away without leave. Here's the sheathed blade from both sides:
It makes a pretty picture, don't you think? But this is yet another time when the picture fails to tell the whole story. The contoured sheath, though it does a good job keeping the blade firmly in its place, also makes the business of inserting and removing it a bit tricky. Some practice is needed if the operation is to go smoothly, and two points warrant special attention. First, follow the curve of the blade when drawing the knife, and again when returning it to its sheath:
The second point? Compress the inner liner with your fingers to ease the blade's passage in and out. Do this by gripping the sheath firmly, with the rivets resting in the web of your hand between fingers and thumb. (Contrary to usual practice, the rivets run along the edge of the sheath opposite the sharpened edge of the blade.) Now pinch the liner between thumb and fingers. Hard. You'll find that the blade slips in and out much more easily.
By the way, if you're wondering what that bit of orange bling on the back of the sheath is, it's a sewn‑on guide to ground‑to‑air emergency codes and hand signals:
If you don't need it, you can always cut it off. I did. The Compact Parang also comes with a sheet of survival tips printed on plasticized paper. Among other things, this reminds you that "fire will provide you with heat, light, comfort, and protection." It then shows you how to coax a flame into life using a car battery. You may not have a car battery in your canoe, of course. I don't, as it happens. But the advice will be useful to someone, somewhere, I'm sure.
So much for incendiary preliminaries. It's time we …
Put the Compact Parang to the Test
First things first. I find a long bolo machete a nuisance to carry in the field, and at two pounds, the Woodman's Pal is a considerable burden. The Compact Parang, on the other hand, is easy to stow in one of the ski slots located behind the pockets of my rucksack. (I keep the Parang from falling out by threading a short strap through the sheath's belt loop and buckling it to a leather tab stitched above the rucksack pocket.) The sheathed blade also slips neatly into a pannier on my bike:
Freed from its sheath and taken in hand, the Compact Parang balances well, and the contoured, molded grip ensures that the blade is properly oriented. But beware: Like the humble hatchet, which has claimed many victims among the ranks of careless campers over the years, a short machete facilitates self‑mutilation. If it glances off its intended target, or if you miss your target altogether, the blade can easily end up burying itself in your thigh, knee, or calf. The Compact Parang doesn't belong in the hands of children — or foolhardy adults. As Edmund Burke famously observed, "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." My advice? Be afraid of the blade and keep your blood on the inside, where it belongs.
Now for the acid test. How does it cut? My first subject was a downed birch sapling from a grove felled (needlessly, I might add) by a utility company contractor. Such dead, downed wood is the only wood I'd turn to for fuel in camp, even if no regulatory prohibition against taking standing trees existed, as it does in many parks and public lands, I'm happy to say. For my part, I've always thought that a reverence for life should extend to living trees — and to standing dead trees, for that matter. Trees must be felled, of course, and I've felled my share, but I've never done so without good cause, and putting a new blade through its paces doesn't come close to satisfying this necessary precondition.
Here, then, is my testing ground:
The trial went well, despite my decision to use the Parang just as it came out of the blister pack, before retouching. I found the blade's sweet spot forward of the center of the sharpened edge, and I had no trouble slicing fuzz‑stick‑like divots from the felled birch sapling. Further experimentation showed that I could use the blade for finer work, too, a task made much easier by the extended ricasso (the unsharpened portion of the blade forward of the grip). But the Parang is also equal to big jobs. On a subsequent trial, I had no difficulty in chopping through a three‑inch diameter black locust, another victim of the utility contractor's felling spree. And I brought that severed limb home with me, where it now serves as a bird feeder.
The Bottom Line
The Compact Parang does everything that I want a big blade to do, and it does these things deftly and efficiently. Let me enumerate its virtues:
- The blade is easy to sharpen, and it retains its edge throughout a long working session.
- The tang is said to extend all the way to the end of the molded grip, and this appears to be the case.
- That grip is comfortable and secure.
- The blade balances nicely in the hand.
- Parang and sheath together weigh in at 18 ounces. That's only a little more than half the weight of the Woodman's Pal. Heavy enough to do any job I'm likely to ask it to do, in other words, but still light enough not to weigh me down.
- The sheath is sturdy and well designed: the blade is secure, yet accessible.
- At USD30 (or less), the price is right.
Downsides? A few. Quality control is apparently a problem. The sheath on Farwell's Compact Parang — as Dr. Lecter once remarked to Agent Starling, "We begin by coveting what we see," and Farwell saw my Parang — is almost too snug. The factory edge requires some touching up, as well, if it's to do its best. (That's true of almost any new blade, of course, and of every blade after it sees some use.) And I'd happily do without the Bear Grylls logos on blade, grip, and sheath. I expect they added a few bucks to the price, into the bargain.
But these are all minor complaints. On balance, I'm happy with the blade. My Hudson's Bay ax can slumber undisturbed.
The pioneer age of backcountry camping may be over, but from time to time most paddlers will still find themselves wishing they had a bigger blade than the one on a Swiss Army knife. The trick is to lay your hands on a big blade that won't prove a burden to carry. I've been looking for just that kind of edge since I pensioned off my Hudson's Bay ax, and now I've found it. Gerber's Bear Grylls Compact Parang fills the bill. It's the little big blade that could.
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