By Chris Engle, contributor
It’s January now and prime time for cabin fever to kick in. I’ve been fiddling with the idea of a camping outing in February – my first winter camp in a few years – but until then I thought I’d share some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head lately.
Over the years I’ve read lots of magazine articles teaching really intensive skills for really intensive adventures. The thing is, each time one of those articles is published, I worry another person is scared off from getting outside and trying something new because they don’t have the time or tools they’re convinced they need.
Northern Michigan doesn’t have mountains. Aside from the Pictured Rocks we have no sheer cliffs. Venomous insects and snakes are almost nonexistent.
What we do have are lots of lakes, pretty extreme temperatures and some vast wilderness, so a little preparation, basic items, and know-how goes a long way for local explorers.
Here they are, in no particular order of importance, my suggestions men and women can use to improve themselves outdoors.
Learn to sew. I’ll lead this list with one skill that far too many people reserve for the ladies: sewing. Remember your guy friend from high school who took home economics as a way to meet girls? Well, he learned how to bake a killer pie, balance a checkbook down to the cent, and sew an awesome flannel shirt from scratch – not to mention he probably scored a few phone numbers in the process.
My mom taught me how to sew when I was a teenager. My first project was to mend a tear in my bedskirt. I still have that bedding set stashed away. It’s Realtree camo, by the way.
Since then I’ve sewn up tears in my hiking pack, repaired jackets, replaced buttons, stitched stuffed trout shut for the frying pan and fixed countless shirts for my wife and daughter. There’s definitely a sense of pride that comes from making old things new again with a simple needle and thread. It also saves a lot of money you would’ve otherwise spent on new gear.
Buy a glue gun and use it everywhere. Whatever a needle and thread can’t close up, a glue gun definitely will. A $3 glue gun bought me a couple more seasons with my old neoprene waders when their rubber boots began to dry and crack. Glue guns make great gifts for Valentine’s Day.
Buy a knife sharpener or whetstone and learn how to use it. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because you have to force the blade through whatever you’re cutting. Once it’s through, the blade will keep going, sometimes into your other hand. A sharp knife makes for light work and cleaner cuts. There are videos online that teach sharpening skills.
Get some waterproofing spray. When my older brother bought his first pair of Airwalk sneakers, he applied five or six coats of waterproofing spray over the course of a week, letting each coat dry for about a day. They looked brand new for five years and even now, 18 years later, they still look pretty good. Imagine what the stuff can do for your boots.
Don’t worry about knots. I was never a Boy Scout or sailor so I don’t know many knots. Even so, I’ve gotten through life outdoors just fine with square knots and fisherman’s knots. If not knowing knots is the thing holding you back, don’t let it.
Whittle things. Seriously, the way to a woman’s heart is with a well-whittled marshmallow stick for s’mores by the campfire. And ladies, present your man with a handcrafted weenie roaster and you will send his heart racing — and not just because of the cholesterol.
When my dad was a kid he whittled a giant fork and spoon for my grandma. To this day the utensils hang on her kitchen wall and she counts them among her most prized possessions. Remember that come Mothers Day.
Own two tarps. Use one for dirty work like hauling leaves and covering your wood pile at home. Keep the other one clean for camping and tie some ropes to the corners in case you’ll need it for emergency shelter or shade.
Forage things. Mushrooms can be scary if you don’t know what you’re doing. So can berries, but if you stick to recognizable ones like raspberries, blackberries and blueberries you’ll be ok. Even dandelions are edible, goldenrod can be brewed into tea, and wild mint makes a great backcountry breath freshener once you’ve wooed your lady friend with your whittling skills.
Learning to forage means learning to recognize good plants from bad, and that should definitely come in handy next time you go to the bathroom in the woods, if you know what I mean.
Build a fire. Start small with kindling of dry twigs, pine needles and thin strips of birch bark. Once that’s going, add larger twigs and pine branches. Add a log once you’ve got some coals going. Don’t be afraid to crouch down and blow on the embers – it’s amazing how much hotter they’ll burn with a little infusion of oxygen. Get good at these things before you get into the teepee-versus-log cabin-style campfire construction debate that’s been raging for millennia.
Assemble a super simple first aid/survival kit. When it comes to kits, the smaller the better. I’m talking fit-in-your-pocket small so you’re more apt to bring it along. Things to include: A CD or small mirror and whistle for signaling (blasts of three means distress), waterproof matches, large and small bandages, cotton balls or gauze, medical tape, Motrin or Tylenol, and burn ointment. That’s it. Put it all in a 1-quart Ziploc bag.
Knowing basic first aid is just as important as having a kit, so bring that know-how along too.
Have a sense of direction. A compass is only good if you have one – duh – and know how to use it. Will Phillips, tweeting @TheThryll, posted this on Twitter: “If you get lost in the woods, a compass can help you get lost more north.” So true.
You can hone your sense of direction while driving by quizzing yourself on what direction you’re headed. Learn how to read the sun and shadows while walking in the woods. If you get lost, stop, relax and listen for road noise or a creek to get your bearings. Panicking will only make things worse.
Buy a headlamp. The headlamp is the greatest invention since the discovery of fire. A lightweight LED headlamp leaves your hands free for other tasks – fishing, gathering wood, cooking or whatever. $30 goes a long way in the headlamp department and the investment is worth every cent.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to add your own in the comments section or email me your thoughts, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County.