The tactical training and survival corners of the internet tend to intersect at the retail counter, where a lot of the same gear you already have in your drawers at home gets painted tri-color camouflage and marketed to you as something you never realized you needed in your go-bag, bug-out-bag, get-home-bag, or pack lunch for cheerleader day camp. I’m not immune to the clarion call of simplicity, weight reduction, or field comfort. Admittedly, I sleep on my side at home (often on the couch because my wife is a light sleeper) with a pillow tucked between my metal pin- and screw-enabled knees, and almost every other couch cushion I can find placed strategically to support my bad shoulder, the slipped discs in my back, and whatever injury I managed to subject myself to this week simply by being a high-mileage model with an owner too busy to conduct regular maintenance (like sleeping, or eating a vegetable once in a while).
I pretend I’m hard when it comes to field time, but the reality of that matter is, once everybody settles down to get some well-earned rest, I find myself in my tent wishing I’d packed a dozen pillows and a queen-sized bed instead of that pesky canteen I’ve been drinking out of. I used to chastise myself for wishing I didn’t have to sleep on the ground, as though it meant that I was somehow less of a man than my tough-guy hiking buddies, but the best by-product of getting older is how little you start to care about looking “tough” anymore. Sure, I still sleep on the ground all the time, but I’ll tell you what: As soon as they start selling an expandable pillow-top that only weighs a pound and fits in my cargo pocket, I’ll be the first in line to buy two—I don’t even care if they only come in pink with “Ed Hardy” glitter on the sides. You can make fun of me while I’m snoring.
With that said, I’m also fiercely critical of adding weight to my pack, and even more critical of budget-busting field amenities that don’t have real value. A trip down the camping aisle at your local Wal-Mart can give you a sense of what I mean. Do we need a five-gallon field shower? Not unless you plan on going on a date while we’re out there. Do we need this 30-pound tactical ax/machete with a picture of Bear Grylls laser engraved into the handle? Probably not, but it does look sorta cool.
This past weekend, I set out on my first field excursion of the year. As I’ve discussed in the past, I divide my recreational time in the great outdoors into two separate categories: camping, and field excursions. Camping usually includes folks like my wife who aren’t down to hike with a pack on or get dirt under their fingernails, so we find a spot accessible by vehicle, set up our tents, and play Mario Kart under the stars with all the creature comforts we can fit into our trunk. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of camping if it’s what you’re into, and it gives us all a great chance to unwind with our friends in a wooded setting.
The field, however, is more like training. Training for what? I’m not really all that sure. Somewhere around mile seven on this most recent trip, my hiking buddy and I started wondering exactly that. I think we’re still hoping for a “Red Dawn”-style invasion or the zombie apocalypse, but it might just be about proving to ourselves that we’re still capable in the field. Although both Marines in a past life, I now live the cushy life of a writer, and he works for GE Aerospace—points of pride for us both, but not lifestyles that lend themselves to keeping an edge on our survival skills. Because of that, we like to put ourselves to the test from time to time.
I armed myself with a bag I’ve assembled out of stuff I had lying around the house (to be fair, my line of work tends to mean I’ve got some pretty good stuff lying around the house). Then, we each drove three hours to meet in the middle of the woods of Tennessee. From there, we set out on a brisk seven-or-so-mile hike up into the hills to a campsite we reserved with the local park rangers, because in 2017, even the woods require a reservation.
Although I have a few hydration packs, I wanted to treat this trip like an emergency, which means I’d wear the boots I had by the door and, aside from my dome tent, I wouldn’t add anything to my pack that wouldn’t normally be strapped to it. That meant using water purification tablets and an old canteen for water, which was a serious priority with miles to cover in 90-degree heat. That brings me to one of those “frivolous” expenses I’ve avoided out of ignorance because I’m a field luddite: LifeStraws and similar purifiers.
I can see the real benefit of a LifeStraw—always have—but in the back of my head, I’ve always thought, “But for five dollars I can fill my pack with enough potable water tablets to keep a football team hydrated for the season!” That may be true, but because I normally just keep those tablets in their pouch and drink water I’ve brought with me, I’d forgotten about the god-awful taste with which water purified by tablet greets you. It works when you need it, but it certainly doesn’t make stopping for a swig out of the canteen something you look forward to doing. My buddy’s purified water sure did taste a lot better than mine, and the purifier he brought didn’t take up any more room than my tablets. Call me a converted believer, because I’m going to add a few LifeStraws to my kit. The tough guys will still be too busy laughing at my glitter bed to notice, anyway.
So sure, although I will always be the first guy to make fun of the Bluetooth speaker you bought at Cabela’s for our hike, and I still think I can get “field clean” using nothing but baby wipes and a bit of privacy, there are some creature comforts I’m not ashamed to admit I’m warming up to in my thirties. The solar-powered cell phone charger I gave my buddy for Christmas came in handy so we could retain an emergency means of communication with the outside world if one of us were to fall off the bluffs we came to see; his water purifier may not have worked better than mine, but it sure as hell tasted better; and let’s be honest, despite carrying a magnesium flint for my survival knife, the new high-speed storm matches that light and stay lit like a freakin’ Fourth of July sparkler made starting a fire even after the thunderstorm we rucked through a breeze. Sometimes, the silly novelties they try to saddle your pack with are worth their weight in gold (or beer, which we also smuggled in our packs as a survival necessity).
So thanks to my first field outing of the year, I think I’m going to dedicate a few subsequent trips to trying out some stuff I’ve been laughing at for the past few years. No longer will I dismiss things simply because “guys have been doing it my way for years without a problem.” I hated that mentality in the work environment (“because it’s how we’ve always done it” almost invariably means you’re wrong), so why have I come to accept it in my own field preparations?
Maybe because I’m not as old as I thought, and I’ve still got some lessons to learn. The field bed of my dreams may never come, and I may be destined to toss and turn on the cold, hard ground forever, but that doesn’t mean I can’t let the 21st century improve my field ops a bit without turning in my man card forever.
Or so I’ll keep telling myself.