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    Poor Tom Sheppard. Every time he’s sure he’s revised his seminal Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide and the more tightly focused Four-by-four Driving for the last time, existing stocks run out and a waiting list of pleading would-be buyers grows too long to ignore (and, in the case of VDEG, profit mongers take advantage and eBay prices go through the roof). Just a year and a half ago I reviewed the second edition of Four-by-four Driving HERE, and I’ve just received the third edition. 

    Virtually all my comments regarding edition two hold for edition three. If you’re new to four wheel drive and just want to know how to engage the front wheels, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want to know why engaging the front wheels does what it does, you’ll find the answers here—and you’ll become a better driver for knowing them.

    Tom could have simply printed more copies of the second edition, but that would satisfy no one with his level of solo-explorer and ex-test-pilot attention to detail, so relevant sections have been revised to address new technologies in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

    Simply put, if you’re reading this post, and you don’t have it, you should. It’s available directly from the author (with very reasonable cross-Atlantic postal charges) here: Desert Winds Publishing.

    P.S. A new edition of Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide will be available this summer, also direct from Desert Winds. Put your name on the list now

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  • 05/31/13--13:27: The Audience Phenomenon

    I was chatting with someone after one of my tool kit demonstrations at the 2013 Overland Expo, and he asked if I ever experienced the “audience phenomenon.” After he explained I laughed and said I certainly did—but not the same way most home mechanics do. 

    If you work on your own vehicles, you’re probably familiar with the cosmic rule that makes visitors show up out of nowhere to watch and comment or, more often, chat about subjects completely unrelated to the task, usually at just the moment when your frustration with some obstinate part or inaccessible fitting has reached a crescendo. Concentration goes out the window and progress grinds to a halt. Even if it’s someone whose company you normally enjoy, it’s a maddening interruption—and if it’s that neighbor across the street who uses binoculars to determine when he can show up and continue his theories about how the U.N. is secretly taking over the curriculum of our public schools, you’d be forgiven for musing on alternate uses for your 18-inch breaker bar.

    However, Roseann and I live 40 miles from Tucson, in a spot so difficult to find that Google Maps will give you the wrong directions. Needless to say I’m not often interrupted by casual visitors.

    At least, not human visitors.

    We’re surrounded by fine Sonoran Desert habitat, keep several troughs filled with water around the yard, and regularly toss out generous handfulls of black oil sunflower seed. In response, the local wildlife has decided that our presence is to be considered no more troublesome than that of the lower servants in Downton Abbey. Even the resident zebra-tailed-lizards—normally skittish—don’t move out of our way, and if we happen to sleep past murky pre-dawn, we’ll awake with deer looking impatiently through the windows wanting a drink, cardinals and quail on the porch pecking forlornly at the clear plastic bin that holds the sunflower seed, and a Harris’s ground squirrel that’s learned to climb one of the porch chairs to check for movement in the cottage. 

    A few years ago I started collecting snapshots taken while I worked on various vehicles. The Clark's spiny lizard in the lead photo was a resident for four years. She got so used to being fed crickets that any time we came out of the house she'd run full-tilt at us, a trick that once got her underfoot of Roseann and cost her the end of a tail. It got so that if I sat on the floor to work on something she'd climb up my leg and I'd have to toss her off in order to get anything accomplished:

    We live at 3,800 feet elevation, which is habitat for both the diminutive Coue's whitetailed deer and the larger mule deer. Ninety percent of our deer visitors are the whitetail, and multiple generations of does have taught their fawns to ignore the human fiddling about with the big shiny contraption and enjoy the water:

    (Parenthetical remark: Only while compiling these photos did I notice how many were taken while I was fiddling with the British/Indian motorcycle. Just sayin' . . .)

    Bucks - especially mule deer bucks - tend to be much more wary than does, at least at our place. However, one day while working on my bicycle I looked up to see a beautiful mule deer drinking from the bird bath:

    Another day while I was tracking down an electrical fault on the, uh, yeah . . . British/Indian motorcycle, I looked up to see a juvenile tortoise heading across the porch toward me. With scant regard, it continued an unerringly straight path through my tools, past me, and out the other side:

    It's good that I like to start early on vehicle projects, because sleeping in is not an option around here if you're the slightest bit sensitive to that feeling of being watched:

    On the other hand, once you're up you need to watch where you step while doing your servant duties. Notice anything unusual in this photo?:

    If you missed it, look closely in the bottom left corner:

    I moved this one off a few hundred yards, but rattlesnakes are welcome residents, since they eat rodents that might otherwise wreak havoc on wiring and hoses in our vehicles. For two years I was stumped by how mice were gaining access to the trunk area of our old Porsche and setting up housekeeping:

    I seriously considered dropping a diamondback into the trunk and leaving it for a week or so, but the thought of how exciting driving the car would be if I couldn't find it again dissuaded me. I finally found the mouse access point under the steering rack, and sealed it with expanding foam (don't tell the Porsche purists).

    I usually try to finish up work before dark, since burning bright work lights wastes the electricity we produce through solar and wind energy, but occasionally a project will run late. Visitation drops off markedly then - at least it seems to. Some time ago our driveway security camera caught this image just a few yards from the carport:


    Hey - as long as they keep quiet, the mountain lions are welcome to observe.


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  • 06/04/13--08:04: A proper camp breakfast
  • GSI Pinnacle griddle on the Snow Peak large Pack and Carry Fireplace with bridge attachment.

    Hickory-smoked bacon sizzles on a griddle. The fat pools, spreads, and infuses eggs scambling in butter nearby.

    Did your salivary glands just twitch? Of course they did. Any vegans reading this—you had the same reaction. Oh, you might suppress it, pretend it didn’t happen, but somewhere deep down your atavistic omnivore is beseeching you to reject dietary self-flagellation and embrace your rightful place in the food chain.

    We all know that eating bacon and eggs on a daily basis is probably not a wise habit—and besides, it wouldn’t be a treat then. But there’s no harm in indulging on a camping trip. Imagine: Dawn breaks over distant peaks, a breeze stirs pine trees overhead, blue jays greet the new day with a raucous chorus, and you stand over a fire with a cup of coffee, inhaling the scent of . . . frying tofu? C’mon.

    To do bacon and eggs—and many other proper camping dishes—correctly it’s nice to have a griddle. At home we use cast iron, but that’s a bit heavy for a mobile kitchen when you consider its specialized niche. So we recently tried the Pinnacle Griddle from GSI Outdoors. It’s aluminum and just a bit over two pounds, yet offers a generous 10 by 18-inch cooking area surrounded by a grease moat. The surface is some non-stick space-age stuff—which we eschew at home but which is nice for cleaning up with a limited water supply. The back is hard-anodized (GSI offers a non-anodized version called the Bugaboo)

    That one and a quarter square foot size is perfect because, a) when we do eat bacon and eggs we eat a lot, and, b) because it fits nicely over our large Snow Peak Pack and Carry fireplace. (Snow Peak makes a cast iron griddle insert for their fireplace bridge, but it's ridged, and suitable only for cooking meat; we also use our griddle for pancakes and flatbreads.)

    The grease moat keeps excess grease off the main cooking area. On the Snow Peak fireplace bridge, you can carefully slide the griddle to the side and pour off excess into a container.

    Cooking over mesquite coals accomplishes two things. First, it adds to the atmosphere of the experience; second, it keeps that atmosphere out of the camper, where too much bacon grease and smoke too often would not be good for the canopy and upholstery. The griddle also fits in the fireplace’s (insanely obtuse) carrying case.

    The Pinnacle Griddle’s aluminum is fairly thin, which means low heat will suffice, but not so thin that there were hotspots—it heated and cooked evenly for both bacon and pancakes. However, the surface of ours also came slightly convexly warped, so that an egg cracked in the middle would sort of elongate toward the edge until corraled with a spatula. I plan to see if it will flatten, using some heavy boards and judicious pressure.

    Cooking eggs and tortillas in the bacon grease. Can life get any better?

    In the meantime, it’s working just fine—and we’ve successfully subverted several vegans at group camps.


    Visit GSI here

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  • 06/06/13--14:33: The analog iPhone
  • Ready for the bio-apocalypse: a steel-framed handgun and the amazing Pocket Ref

    In the speculative-fiction novel Directive 51, author John Barnes postulates an alarmingly plausible near-future in which all plastics, synthetic rubbers, and oil-based fuels have been destroyed by maliciously created self-replicating nanobots and bioengineered microorganisms. All modern communication, transportation, and just about everything else is brought to a halt, and the world is plunged into chaos. The most advanced technology possible peaks at steam engines and vacuum tubes. The book is so believable that Roseann, normally a both-feet-on-the-ground skeptic, mentioned casually after reading it, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few cases of canned vegetables stored here . . .”

    Given our remote home site, dependable well, and abundant wildlife (not to mention free-ranging cattle), we’d be in better shape to survive a bio-apocalypse than 99 percent of the U.S. population. And I feel about 99 percent better equipped to do so since my friend Bruce handed me a copy of Thomas Glover’s Pocket Ref.

    I’ve used various one-subject pocket references before (wiring, plumbing), but this tiny 864-page book covers an array of subjects that is simply stunning. Look through the index and pick an uncommon letter—say, W. Now pick one entry out of the 31 listed under W—say, weather. Glover’s Pocket Ref will tell you the following things about weather: Beaufort wind scale; cloud types; cold water survival time; dew points; Fujita-Pearson tornado intensity scale; heat/humidity factors; hurricane intensity scale; ice thickness safety; weather map symbols, and wind chill factors. Over in the Fs, under formulas, you’ll find a staggering 105 entries, from Ohm’s law to antenna length to load on a wire rope or sling to sound intensity to voltage drop vs. wire length, diameter, and current.

    Knots will still work - but better stock up on sisal rope.Other entries: knots—lots of them—treatment for a sucking chest wound; steel tubing specifications; maximum floor joist spans; simple and compound interest factors; area formulas, solvent types; and I could go on for another 863 pages. Need to calculate how much water is left in a cylindrical tank of known diameter and length? No problem. Need to know the rank of the uniformed military personnel who show up after the apocalypse to declare martial law? No problem. Do you have a hard time remembering the geologic time scale (did the Miocene or the Pliocene come first?)—no problem. I can now quickly figure the BTUs available in a cord of Douglas fir, or the clamping force possible with a 15mm 8.8 bolt, or the proper hand signals for a crane and hoist operator. Amazing. 

    A reference book such as this shouldn’t be entertaining—its mission is to promulgate information. But it’s fascinating to simply browse through the Pocket Ref and see what you can learn. Take my advice: Buy one and just toss it in your glove box—if you come out one morning and find your tires have melted into blobs of bio-slime, you’ll be ready to face the future.

    If someone in the New World wants to sell you a firkin of home-brew, you'll want to know just how much that is.

    Available on Amazon—as long as Amazon still operates . . .

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    A pair of Wolf Packs holds tools for a Defender 110 in Tanzania.I have yet to meet the perfect overlanding cargo box. Pelican cases are nearly perfect when contents absolutely, positively must be kept dry and dust-free, thus they are the box of choice for, say, photo and video equipment. But Pelican cases are quite heavy for their volume, and pretty expensive for everyday cargo. Zarges (or the similar Alu-Box) aluminum cases are strong, lightweight, and boast excellent interior to exterior volume, but are even more expensive (although you can consider the expense an investment as they last forever with reasonable care).

    But more economical alternatives always have some fatal flaw. The affordable Rubbermaid Action Packers are excellent for home storage, but their volumetric efficiency is abysmal and they leak if rained on, so you can’t leave them outside the vehicle when camped unless they’re under cover. If strapped down too tightly (i.e., properly . . .), they collapse. Lower-priced alternatives are even worse.

    Several years ago in Tanzania I discovered the plastic ammunition cases used by the South African military, now commercially produced and known widely as Wolf Packs. They’re moderately sized and so easy to arrange in a cargo bay, completely rainproof and reasonably dustproof, and vertical-sided to avoid wasted space (except for hollow corner pieces). They stack securely for convenient storage at home. The Wolf Packs suffer from poorly designed latches—those familiar with them will call that a hilarious understatement— and the lids flex more than I’d like when called upon to do duty as a step, but otherwise they are sturdy, versatile, and sport a certain exotic flair given their origins. Front Runner Vehicle Outfitters is now a U.S. distributor, and for $40 each you can justify several—trust me, you’ll find uses for all you get. We have six, and just glancing around the shop I can see uses for another six. Or ten.

    We found that a pair of Wolf Packs stacks and straps down perfectly in the shower grate of the JATAC, under the dinette table. Another rides near the door, and holds all the items we use for pitching camp: drain hose for the galley sink, leveling blocks, guylines and stakes for the awning, etc. I sourced some 1/4-inch thick aluminum diamondplate and fabricated steps for the lids of two of them, attached with small stainless bolts; the three now form a perfect staircase to access the camper when we’re parked.

    I also keep two in the back of my FJ40. One holds recovery gear; the other contains a small stove and cook kit, water, and other odds and ends to make an emergency camp or an impromptu picnic.

    Front Runner's website is here. They also sell improved steel latches.  

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  • 06/28/13--08:11: New VDEG imminent . . .
  • I just received this cryptic note from an unnamed source somewhere in the U.K.:

    "Desert Winds Publishing (i.e. Tom Sheppard) is pleased (relieved) to announce to its patient, faithful customers and enquirers – some of whom started the list last July – that VDEG3 (otherwise known as the new, third edition of the 500-page Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide), has been proofed and should soon be available. At the same price as before (36 GB pounds) – and not through Amazon, or ‘used’ at four times that figure. (Postage: UK £5.85; EU £9.50, elsewhere, inc US, £16.00) 

    ‘Relieved’ because the techno-gremlins chose the 11th hour to attack the layout software, calling on the true spirit, tenacity and ingenuity of overlanders  to get things back on track. Desert Winds Customer Service Department (i.e. Tom Sheppard) quotes their Chief Proof Checker (i.e. Tom Sheppard) as saying, ‘Yes, quite a few of the pictures are now the right way up and most of the text has been back-translated from the Indo-Iranian zabani-tadjik calligraphy’. 

     On stage, smartly dressed in a black turtle-neck, Desert Winds’ CEO (yes … ) thanked the small distinguished army of back-order e-mailers for their patience and asked them to keep an eye on the  website which Desert Winds Webmaster (you guessed it … ) will be updating very soon."

    A Desert Winds spokesman, questioned by a lady with a clip-board, said, "No, the actual book won't be as large as the sheets on the table in the foreground."Just in case you've been living under a rock in the Sahara (or are new to the overlanding world, in which case you're forgiven), Tom's Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide is the bible of overlanding, and a copy should be in the library of anyone remotely interested in vehicle-dependent travel. It is, quite simply, superb in its authority, scope, and humor (i.e. humour), and is the standard by which all other books on the subject are and always will be judged. The fact that it can (and can only) be purchased directly from the writer/publisher/proof checker/customer-service representative is a lovely bonus in this day of facelessness. Of all the high-quality and/or indispensable items I try to discover and recommend on OT&T, you'll thank me for none more than this one. In case you missed the link in the text, it's available HERE

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  • 06/28/13--17:28: Accessible wonders

    Many years ago, while on an assignment for Outside magazine, I was graced with the incomparable experience of viewing Victoria Falls for the first time by walking up to the edge of the drop on Livingstone Island, right in the middle of the mile-wide cascade, after arriving by canoe, just as David Livingstone had almost exactly 150 years before. The breath literally left me; I gasped and very nearly wept at the sight. Only the terror of totally losing my cool in front of my guide kept me halfway composed.

    Much more recently—last week in fact—I was graced with another first: driving out of the tunnel on California State Highway 41, the Wawona Road, and seeing Yosemite Valley spread out before me below sweeping clouds and mist. El Capitan rose on the left in an impossible vertical wall; Bridalveil Fall plunged in a gossamer thread on the right.

    To paraphrase: The breath literally left me; I gasped and very nearly wept at the sight. Only the terror of totally losing my cool in front of my wife kept me halfway composed.

    It was a good lesson in something many of us tend to forget: You don’t necessarily need to travel to Zambia (or fill in the blank) to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were two easy day’s drive from home, and the sum total of our off-pavement excursions to that point had been about 500 yards of dirt road to reach a Forest Service dispersed campsite. Yet that view of Yosemite Valley will forever live in my memory directly alongside that first vertiginous peek over Victoria Falls.

    The two natural wonders share more than you might think. Both were “discovered”—i.e. sighted for the first time by a person of European stock—in the mid-1800s, after of course being well-known to the locals for ages. In both cases, the “discoverers” were on profit-driven missions: Joseph Walker was looking for furs when he stumbled on Yosemite Valley, and Livingstone hoped to find a water route into the heart of the African continent. Both sites are now overrun with tourists pursuing, at times, tangent activities that seem utterly superfluous to me: I’ve said frequently that if you view Victoria Falls for the first time and think, Okay, cool—now I need to go bungee jumping off the bridge, then there’s something seriously wrong with your sense of wonder.

    Yet the grandeur of both places effortlessly transcends the swarms of humans buzzing around them. Even at Yosemite, we found a trail along the Merced River, under El Capitan, on which in four miles we met two other people. And at Victoria Falls I spent a night camped on Livingstone Island (alone except for an askari), and got up at midnight to see the “moonbow”—a rainbow caused by moonlight shining through the mist of the falling water. Later I was awakened by the sound of foraging elephants, which wade to the island at night to feed.

    So maybe I shouldn’t complain that everyone else was off bungee jumping.

    The author, alone at dusk on Livingstone Island. The bungee jumpers are off toasting their adventure somewhere.

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    A few years ago on a long road trip, Roseann and I opted for convenience over our usual preference for solitude, and stopped for the night in a developed campground: picnic tables, barbecues, flat sites, perfectly symmetrical pine trees—actually quite nice as such places go. That evening an enormous motorhome inched carefully into a nearby slot. The driver emerged just long enough to open a side panel and pull out a remarkably colon-like corrugated hose, which he plugged into his deluxe site’s sewage receptacle. Another umbilical fed electricity to the behemoth. The man then scurried back inside, and soon I heard the sound of some TV program on what I assumed had to be at least a 40-inch flatscreen. And that was the last we saw of either him or his wife. 

    I try not to judge fellow travelers on the size or splendor of their vehicles. After all, to someone in a CJ5 with a Eureka A-frame tent our Four Wheel Camper must seem pretty posh. But, while the camper provides us a cozy, stormproof home away from home, holing up inside is not the goal when we’re traveling—even in Jellystone Park. In good weather we like to be outside as much as possible. With the camper’s excellent Fiamma awning deployed, and a table and chairs set up, we can lay out snacks and drinks, then tackle some weighty biological issue like seeing how many bird species we can document while sitting down. “Nine species in one martini!” Roseann is likely to announce (although identification skills wane somewhat after the second, and we're likely to record birds never seen in this hemisphere . . .).

    Where was I? Right: Until recently we relied for our outdoor table on one of those ubiquitous roll-up blue-vinyl-covered things with the screw-in aluminum legs. It was ugly and wobbly, but perversely durable despite my best attempts to “accidentally” destroy it. A Maasai shuka used as a tablecloth improved its looks immeasurably, but I still knew what was underneath . . .

    Then, a few months ago, Roseann emailed me (from across the room) a link to the Front Runner camp table, designed to slot under the company’s roof rack. We'd used a version of it in Tanzania and Kenya several times and had been very impressed. Here was a proper outdoor table: welded and braced aluminum legs that folded flat under a top formed and welded from a single sheet of stainless steel. At 29 by 45 inches, the table was large enough for food prep, eating (it seats four snugly), or work, and it weighed a reasonable 23 pounds. She also linked to the Z brackets designed to attach to the Front Runner rack—and then asked, “Could we mount this under the front overhang of the camper?”

    I emailed back, “Great idea,” then did some measuring on the camper—plenty of room. Tom at FWC said no problem drilling the composite sheet that forms the bed area of the camper as long as I sealed it well, and certainly no problem with the extra weight: the FWC’s overhang is tested to 1,100 pounds (or, as he and I quipped at the exact same time, “Two average Americans.”).

    The table's top is formed, welded at the corners, and riveted to the aluminum frame.

    When the table arrived it met my expectations and then some. Compared to its cheesy roll-up predecessor it was the Rock of Gibraltor. All the hardware was cadmium-plated and secured with nylocks. The stainless top would be impervious to spills or heat. True, at $285 such features should be taken for granted. Nevertheless it was a relief to consign the blue vinyl table to the Cemetery of Obsolete but Kept Around Forever Camping Gear down in the storeroom.

    Exercising due measure-thrice-cut-once caution, I marked and drilled, then veeery carefully countersunk (so the bed’s top section could slide over the bolt heads) three holes for each of the Front Runner Z-brackets from inside the camper. They are designed to hold the table on its narrow ends, but I needed them to hold it on the longer sides, meaning the table would protrude about a half a foot each way.

    The bolt heads are countersunk just enough to allow the bed extender to slide over them.

    The latch mechanism included with the brackets wouldn’t work in our application, so I used a 24-inch-long piece of 1.25-inch aluminum angle iron as an end stop on the passenger side of the truck. I drilled two holes sideways through the frame and top of the table, and inserted a pair of two-inch-long 1/4-inch-diameter clevis pins through them. A pair of hairpin clips holds the pins to the table:

    The pins extend through two holes in the end bracket and are secured with two more hairpin clips backed by a rubber washer and a metal washer. I also glued a couple of furniture bumpers on the back of the end bracket, and two flat pieces of rubber gasket on the insides of the Z brackets where the table slides in from the driver’s side of the truck.

    The Z brackets came with carpet strips glued along the bottom, so I hoped all the rubber and carpet would minimize any rattling directly over our heads. My last step was to install a backup latch at the other end, using two of the cunning little Expeditionware Transport Loops sold by Expedition Exchange, plus a Quicklink. (My plan is to try to find a small padlock that will fit through these loops.)

    Twelve hours after I finished up, the installation got a good test when we left for a biological survey in the Sierra Aconchi in Mexico, which involved a 230-mile paved approach, then a rough ten-mile climb up a four-wheel-drive trail. On the highway the table created no noise at all. On rough slow pavement with the windows open we could very infrequently hear a barely perceptible oilcan effect over sharp bumps as the table top flexed. On the trail there was zero sound from the table or mount, at least none we could hear over the tire and drivetrain noise.

    The completed bracket assembly.

    Once in camp the table proved just about perfect. There was plenty of room to spread out plant samples, notebooks, bird guides, and binoculars; at a group dinner we covered it with chips and salsa and vegetables, then served the outstanding pizzas Roseann somehow managed to make on the camper’s stove top. One night delivered a torrential rain which bothered the table’s aluminum and stainless steel not at all. Total time to set it up on the first day and stow it on our last morning: about two minutes each. 

    So, not only did we gain a big upgrade in the quality of our outdoor table, we also gained storage space inside the truck. If you have an overhead camper—or a roof rack—I can recommend the Front Runner approach.

    On the other hand, if you have a fondness for blue vinyl, email me.

    Addendum: A forum member on Wander the West suggested that the Front Runner brackets could be set up to carry a solar panel in the same spot. Brilliant.

     Front Runner Outfitters is here.

    The Transport Loops are available here.

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    by Bret Tkacs, for Adventure Motorcycle Magazine 

    In early 2012, Kenda released the Big Block Adventure tire to compete in the emerging big-bike knobby market. ADVMoto put a set of Big Blocks to the test on the back trails of Baja, Mexico, and then continued north up the west coast to Washington state. Back then, the Big Blocks were good performers, and on par with the competition, but lacked mileage and shed their skins faster than other big-bike knobbies we’re accustomed to, such as the TKC80 and Metzler Karroo. Kenda took note of this and their engineers worked over the Big Block with a revised tread pattern and new compound.

    The casual eye won’t see the difference, as the tread pattern looks very similar. The only way we could tell they were the new tires was by measuring the space between the tread blocks. The newer tires have a block pattern slightly tighter, which puts more rubber to the road/trail. 

    We recently mounted up our fresh set of tires and headed off to Moab to put them to the test. After riding 800 miles of jeep trails and gravel roads, as well as over 2,000 miles of pavement on our loaded test bike, the Big Blocks were still holding out.

    The bottom line is that Kenda has a winner with good off-road performance, good street manners, and mileage that equals the competition. Highly recommended. 


    •  Still a top performer off-road
    •  Performs well for a knobby on the street
    •  Improved mileage over earlier version
    • Price point winner 


    • Less prestige than big name brands (ego)
    • Like all big bike knobbies it has a short life span (equal to other knobbies, though)

    Bret Tkacs works for PSSOR Training

    For more adventure motorcycle equipment reviews, interviews, and adventure stories, visit Adventure Motorcycle Magazine , available in print and digital formats.

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  • 07/18/13--07:07: Friction . . .

    Have you ever tried to slide a cardboard box full of books or other weighty contents across a floor? Did you notice that the box was difficult to get moving, but that once sliding it became easier to push?

    If so, you’ve experienced the difference between static and kinetic friction. 

    While it might seem counterintuitive, friction between two surfaces is greater when there is no movement between them. Once that initial bond is broken with an applied force, friction is reduced. That force can be a push or pull, as when you moved the box of books, or another force such as gravity. Put that same box of books on one end of a table and lift that end. The box will stay put until gravity overcomes the static friction, at which point it will slide right off the other end.

    What does this have to do with us? The differences between static and kinetic friction explain many of the interactions between a vehicle’s tires and the road. Again counterintuitively, when your tires are rolling along in a straight line there is essentially no movement between the contact patch and the road aside from slight hysteresis in the tread. When you apply force to the tire, during acceleration, braking, or cornering, you’re still dealing mostly with static friction—right up to the point when the tire loses traction and begins slipping, when kinetic friction takes over. That’s why locking up the tires during a panic stop increases braking distance, why an early Porsche 911 whose rookie owner lifts off the gas pedal in a decreasing-radius turn is likely to wind up backwards in the bushes, and why a four-wheel-drive vehicle or motorcycle climbing a steep slope suddenly stops climbing when the wheels start spinning. 

    Rubber generates friction essentially three ways: though adhesion, deformation, and wear. Adhesion refers to the simple stickiness of the material. Adhesion friction is thought to be created by transient molecular bonding between the adjacent materials. Deformation occurs when the rubber in the tire molds to minute imperfections in the surface and creates a momentary mechanical bond (also called keying). Tearing is just that: if the tire’s tread material is stressed beyond its tensile strength, it sheds microscopic particles of material, and that process absorbs energy, which increases friction.

    These principles apply to a tire turning on a loose surface as well, but in varying degrees. Frequently when a tire loses traction, it has not lost traction against the substrate directly under it; rather that layer of substrate directly against the tire is shearing against the material beneath it. You get an exaggerated example of this when a tire fills with mud and spins. A whole bunch of mud is sticking to the tire quite happily, but it’s slipping against the mud below.

    Awareness of that frequently thin line between static and kinetic friction can help make you a better driver or rider. The trick is to balance the throttle (when climbing) or brakes (when stopping or descending) to keep the tires just this side of that edge. Of course, most modern four-wheel-drive vehicles incorporate computer-controlled devices that do some or all of it for you. I recently experienced Jeep’s Hill Descent Control (HDC) on a steep, bouldery downhill trail. Even though I was aware of the capabilities of the sytem, it was unnerving in an automatic-transmission vehicle to simply select low, push a button on the dash, and then head over the edge, foot off the brake pedal. I could hear the ABS engage the brakes on individual wheels to keep the speed down to a comfortable crawl. In my FJ40, even though it has a manual transmission and a very low first gear in low range, engine braking would not have been sufficient to control the speed on a descent this steep, and I would have been actively cadence-braking—intermittently pumping the brake pedal until the wheels almost locked—to approximate what the Jeep did on its own (except, of course, I could not have engaged the brakes individually). It was an impressive performance, if completely reliant on software.

    Anti-lock braking systems are becoming prevalent on motorcyles as well—in fact the EU has mandated ABS on all bikes larger than 125cc beginning in 2016.

    Likewise, modern traction-control systems such as Land Rover’s Terrain Response can detect when the static/kinetic line has been crossed, using speed sensors at each wheel, and will reduce torque to or brake a wheel that has lost traction on a climb or cross-axle ditch, sending power to the opposite wheel. I had equivalent terrain-conquering capability in the long-term 2008 (pre HDC) Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I drove for two years, but the software part of the equation was in my head, as I chose when to disengage the Jeep’s front sway bar to increase suspension compliance, and when to engage the front and rear differential lockers to prevent wheelspin. The single real-world advantage there was the fact that, unlike Terrain Response, I could tell when a difficult section was coming up several feet before I actually reached it, and take the appropriate actions proactively. Terrain Response (and its cousins) can only respond when its sensors detect that a wheel has lost traction, a second or two after the static/kinetic line has been crossed. Nevertheless, these automatic systems make child’s play of situations that used to require considerable finesse and experience.

    Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You decide—but, just as when navigating with GPS versus map and compass, it’s a wise thing to have backup skills. If someone with a new Range Rover were to ask me the best way to become proficient at off-pavement driving, I’d say, “Buy a Series III 88 and start with that.” If you can master a manual-transmission, straight-axle, leaf-sprung, open-diff Land Rover—and the concept of static versus kinetic friction—you’ll be able to climb back in the Range Rover and soon have that computerized wizardry doing your bidding, instead of just being along for the ride.

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  • 07/26/13--06:50: The amazing ClampTite
  • I know, I know—I’m starting to sound like Ron Popeil. But it’s been some time since I used a tool as cunning as this little device, which can do everything from replacing a broken hose clamp on a fuel line or seizing a rope end to repairing a stress-fractured luggage rack on a motorcycle or splinting a broken tie rod on a Land Rover. 

    But wait, there’s more! The ClampTite uses ordinary safety wire you can buy with the tool, or almost any on-hand substitute in a pinch, including fence wire and even coat hanger wire, to securely wrap just about anything that needs to be fastened or immobilized. And the size range it will handle is essentially limited only by the length of the wire. 

    You might think you could approximate what the ClampTite does with a pair of pliers and some twisting, but trust me, you wouldn’t be able to apply the amount of tension available through the tool’s threaded collar. Look at this sample of both a single and double wrap on a length of rigid PVC pipe. I tried and failed completely to get that much compression with an ordinary hose clamp.

    The ClampTite can make either a single-wire or double-wire clamp (see above). With a single wire you can use as many wraps as necessary, although, depending on the material, friction will start to overcome the ability of the tool to adequately tighten the wire if you overdo it. On a radiator hose like I used for the test, a single wrap of doubled wire is more than stout enough; if you were repairing, say, a split axe handle you could use several wraps of a single wire, then repeat in several places along the split to completely secure it. The same procedure could secure a Hi-Lift jack handle along a broken tie rod, or . . . you name it. The potential applications are endless.

    Begin a hose clamp by doubling a length of wire and wrapping it like so.Wrap it again and through the loop.

    Attach the ClampTite, secure the ends of the wire, and screw in the bronze nut to tension the clamp.Flip the tool to lock the wire.Release the tension on the tool, clip the wires, and . . . . . . you're finished.

    I found the ClampTite easy to use. My biggest challenge was keeping the wire lined up correctly while installing a double-wrap clamp, to keep it from overlapping—although that probably wouldn't affect the seal on a radiator hose.

    While it’s impressively compact (a larger model is also available), there will be places you simply can’t use the ClampTite. You need to be able to access the trouble spot to wrap it with wire, attach the tool at the spot, and have room to flip it (double wire) or twist it (single wire) 180 degrees to anchor the clamp once you’ve tightened it. But with ingenuity you can overcome many obstacles. Looking around our vehicles, I found a fuel line fitting on a carburetor that would be inaccessible if its hose clamp broke. However, by removing the fitting from the carburetor first and taking off the other end of the fuel line, one could clamp the line to the fitting, screw the fitting back in with the line attached, then re-attach the other end. 

    I think the ClampTite would be at least as useful on a motorcycle as in a four-wheeled vehicle, if not more so. I’ve seen many more parts fail on bikes due to the higher intrinsic vibrations and necessarily harsher ride. We had Tiffany Coates’s legendary BMW R80GS, Thelma, parked at our place for nearly a year some time ago. Thelma has seen long (200,000 miles), hard use and it shows. Thinking back, I’m sure I could have used up at least a hundred yards of safety wire reattaching various dangling bits on that bike.

    ClampTite tools start at just $30 for a plated steel and aluminum model, which would be ideal for a motorcycle. The stainless and bronze unit I tested is $70.

    Final note: Unlike the Ronco 25-piece Six Star knife set, ClampTite tools are made in the U.S. And you won’t get a free Pocket Fisherman with your purchase. Sorry.


    ClampTite tools are here. Thanks to Duncan Barbour for the tip!


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    by Carla King,

    My last helmet squeezed my jawbone, giving me a headache after about an hour. The previous one pressed on my left temple. Another rattled, another fell forward over my eyebrows, and yet another let a constant stream of air up the back of my neck. Helmets have made me itchy and sweaty, the visors have popped off, and the air flow controls have never quite worked properly. I've worn half-helmets, full helmets, modular helmets, dual-sport helmets, otfher people’s helmets, cheap helmets, medium-priced helmets, and expensive helmets. But in Spring of 2012 I started wearing a Schuberth C3, and since then I have stopped to look at a view, to ask directions, to fill up my gas tank, to buy snacks at a convenience store, to make phone calls and to take photos, all with my helmet still strapped on.


    I’ve always liked the idea of a modular helmet. I travel a lot and interact with people on the road, and it’s nice to be able to slide up the chin bar so people can see my face when I’m talking with them, especially when attempting a foreign language. But helmets have always been so uncomfortable that I've removed them every opportunity, sighing "aaahhhh" in relief from pressure-points, itching, and sweating. The Schuberth C3 is the first helmet I've owned that I don’t rip off my head as soon as the wheels stop turning, and that’s saying something, because I have been riding since I was a teenager.

    Continue reading the full review here

    We will be running more motorcycle and equipment reviews from Carla, a longtime Overland Expo instructor and one of the most accomplished riders we know. Carla's been riding motorcycles since she was 14, and has ridden every kind of bike on most continents.

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    by Roseann Hanson (co-director, Overland Expo; camp cook; and pyro)

    In camp, one achieves happiness through superior firepower. And the best source of firepower, hands-down, is the Snow Peak GigaPower 2Way Torch.

    I first saw this little 5.5-inch wonder put to use on a beach in Mexico. In preparation for our customary evening campfire gathering, a couple of guys had piled the fire pit high with a combination of wood brought from home, brush, and slightly damp driftwood. I thought, Oh wow, that's not going to light; it will just smoke and sputter.

    Then Pasquale appeared on scene carrying a curiously small torch, which he casually ignited with a pocket lighter. The roar of 14,000 BTUs drowned out our stunned gasps as he inverted the torch, turned up the gas to an even greater roar, and applied it to the wood. About 30 seconds later our campfire was happily and healthily flickering away. 

    That was how I met the GigaPower 2Way Torch, which Pasquale also said was great for putting the final golden touch on camp pizza cheese and crust, and for putting the brûlée in créme brûlée.

    I had to have one.

    As soon as we were home I rushed down to our excellent outdoor store, Summit Hut, which has carried Snow Peak since their U.S. debut. But they didn't carry the torch. We were headed out for another trip for which I wanted a torch, so in desperation I bought a plumber's torch with a high-output head, which the Ace Hardware ace said could be used inverted ("how else could plumbers access pipes and such" he said with assurance but apparently no actual experience). Long story short, the flame cut out if you turned the canister anywhere beyond 15 degrees. Fail.

    Happily, last week Nate and Joey at Snow Peak USA sent me one to test.

    The torch did not disappoint. Stove-top pizza and perfect créme brûlée were simple achievements. The torch head has a generator that allows the torch to be operated inverted, which is essential for browning cheese or melting sugar. I used the torch on a small standard GigaPower canister; an adapter allows it to be used with a Snow Peak CB canister as well.

    I have yet to personally try lighting a campfire or charcoal with it, but plan to do so next trip. 

    It should be noted that the packaging for the torch expressly warns against using the torch for food preparation. Warning noted, thank you.

    Below is a recipe adapted for making great stove-top pizza painlessly in camp.

    Your camp mates will be amazed and you will help prove another axiom: more friends through superior firepower. 

    Stove-top Pizza 

    Recipe adapted from Chef's Toolbox (original here)

    You will need a good-quality lidded sauté pan or the special Chef's Toolbox pizza pan described in the original recipe (see above); I say good quality because it must be relatively heavy and distribute heat well. I use a Calphalon sauté pan that I bought at a thrift store for $5 because someone over-heated it and its bottom had bulged out (a solid plank of wood and heavy hammer fixed that). A well-seasoned cast iron or enameled iron dutch oven or pan with lid would also work but your heat choices and possibly cooking time will differ from the recipe below.

    The original recipe called for mixing self-rising flour with regular flour, yeast, olive oil and water in the pan itself—since I don't buy self-rising flour, I haven't done it this way. I just used regular flour and yeast and for convenience mixed the dough ahead of time at home, covered it in olive oil, and put it in a ziplock bag in the fridge. It will keep like that for several days, and develop good flavor. It will grow, and you can punch it back. Just remember to take it out of the fridge about an hour before you want to cook.

    For dough made ahead:

    Add 1 teaspoon yeast and 1 teaspoon honey or sugar to 1 cup warm water, let sit for about 5 minutes to dissolve and become active. Mix together 2 cups flour and a big pinch of salt, then add the water/yeast and a tablespoon of olive oil. Combine until a nice dough forms (you may have to add extra flour to keep it from being too sticky), then knead a little until it's smooth and slightly elastic. Rub with olive oil and put into a ziplock bag in the fridge.

    For dough made in the pan:

    In the pan mix together 1 cup self-rising flour, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon honey or sugar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1 cup warm water. Mix well with spatula until dough forms.

    Note: This recipe makes a big-crusted deep pizza, good for lots of topping. If thinner is desired, try splitting it in half. Freeze other half (oiled and wrapped in plastic).

    Once dough forms or is brought to room temperature, oil your fingers and pat the dough around the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides.

    When camping, I use jarred sauce as the base, about 1/3 to 1/2 cup. We like any of Newman's Own.

    Toppings ideas: 

    Pepperoni or summer sausage (which is a staple in our camp larder), green peppers, olives, and mushrooms.

    Pre-cooked chorizo (chile-spiced crumbly sausage) and green chiles.

    Smoked ham, chipotle peppers, and red peppers.

    Don't forget the cheese: for convenience, we splurge on pre-grated bags of mozzarela.


    Cook on the stove-top over medium heat with the lid on for 10 minutes (I find that a heat-diffuser greatly reduces the risk of scorched crust on the bottom).

    Open the lid just a crack and cook an additional 10 minutes. Check the bottom (slide a spatula under and lift gently) for doneness. It should be golden.

    Now for the fun part:

    Place the pizza pan on a metal table or rock away from anything flammable (needless to say, outside any tent or camper). Light your torch, adjust for medium output, and wave back and forth across the cheese and crust until the cheese is browned on the peaks and the crust is golden brown.

    Voilá—perfect deep-dish pizza in 30 minutes on the stovetop, lovingly finished with a Snow Peak GigaPower Torch.

    We've whipped up pizzas now on several trips, including outputting three in a row for a party of 8. It's pretty foolproof: the crust is always cooked-through with just the right amount of crunch on the bottom, while the toppings are nicely bubbly.

    Next up: créme brûlée

    Snow Peak's website is here. The GigaPower 2Way Torch is $40.

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  • 08/12/13--17:44: Outdoor Retailer 2013
  • This was tucked in a far back corner of the main hall. I didn't ask.

    For anyone remotely interested in outdoor gear, the annual Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah, is an exciting event, overwhelming in the scope and sheer volume of products. If you’re as fascinated by equipment as I am, you’re likely to find yourself humming the tune to Babes in Toyland as you enter the main hall and inhale the scents of Gore-Tex, carbon fiber, nylon, and titanium. Okay, none of those materials really has a scent, but you get my meaning. 

    I’ve been attending OR since the early 1990s, when it was still held in Reno, Nevada. (Persistent legend holds that the show was simply not invited back there one year when Reno officials belatedly realized that the attendees weren’t gambling or buying tickets to Englebert Humperdinck concerts.) Over the years, the show has had its minor ups and downs, but the 2009 and 2010 SLC post-Great-Recession ORs were scary in their dearth of both exhibitors and new products. Like the automotive industry after WWII, most companies simply recycled products with new colors rather than invest in development, while they waited to see in which direction the economy would go.

    In 2012 the tide seemed to have turned. The Salt Palace Convention Center was packed with both exhibitors and attendees, the mood was buoyant, and I fully expected the 2013 show to be full speed ahead.

    What I found was, to sum up a complex situation in one word . . . ennui. What can I say about a show in which one of the most interesting products I noticed was a tent stake?

    The main hall of the center is where all the big guns in the outdoor equipment world hold court: Patagonia, Cascade Designs, Arc-teryx, The North Face, Marmot, etc. While there were a few highlights here (to be highlighted in a bit), the overall impression was of an industry either dangerously complacent or suffering from renewed pessimism. A worse prognosis came from a cynical friend in the community who dismissed the entire event with, “It used to be about people getting out and doing cool things. Now it’s about the lifestyle—people looking like they get out and do cool things.” 

    That might be too harsh, but not much I saw belied the viewpoint. For years the centerpiece of the south hall area was some form of climbing wall, open to anyone who cared to give it a try and always busy. Gone. Move north along the main aisle and you’d hit the big indoor pool where kayak manufacturers demonstrated their new models. Gone. Versions of both have been banished to the “Pavilions”—county-fair-sized tents north of the convention center, where new and/or underfunded companies hope to strike gold. The only “outdoor sport” in evidence in the main building was a slackline manufacturer’s demonstration area. Indoors and 12 inches off the floor, a slackline (basically a tightrope employing a strap rather than a rope) strikes me as something pinched from a county fair booth where you might win a stuffed animal if you can stay on it for ten feet (those who practice it over 2,000-foot chasms are, of course, in a different league). Yet, indeed, there seemed to be no shortage of clothing manufacturers—even Carhartt, traditionally a blue-collar supplier to construction workers and cowboys, was getting in on the craze, and touting their seniority to effete upstarts such as Mountain Khakis. Is this clothing/lifestyle thing really a trend, or did I employ motivated reasoning to reinforce unfair first impressions? Perhaps next year will tell.

    Anyway, enough expostulating. Three days at OR were enough to ferret out a few products of note. Some were brand new and intriguing, some I had dismissed previously as unlikely to survive, but re-evaluated on their second or third appearance.

    A traveling coffee pot one inch high . . .

    Coffee being uppermost in my mind each morning, I should start with the brew-in-bag product from Nature’s Coffee Kettle. It comprises a two-compartment foil pouch, in the top of which is a hermetically sealed packet of ground coffee of various flavors. You zip off the top, slowly pour in 32 ounces of boiling water, and the brewed coffee collects in the bottom section, from where it can be poured out through a screw cap. The sealed packet can be folded to take up a space no larger than six by eight inches by an inch thick. Although the product has been around a while, I never paid attention since the bag appeared to be a one-time-use-then-it’s-trash product. However, this time I stopped and spoke to the inventor, Matt Hustedt, who assured me the packet of grounds can be replaced, so the foil “kettle” could be used a half-dozen times or more.

    I brought a couple samples home and tried the organic Columbian. After opening the top and eyeing the packet of coffee, I cut the amount of water I poured in to 24 ounces, and in addition, as Matt had suggested to enhance the boldness, upended the kettle several times to recycle the water through the grounds (be sure to rezip the top if you do this!). The verdict from this fan of strong, high-quality coffee, was . . . bravo. The flavor and strength were surprisingly good, although I’m glad I cut the water. I suspect the brew would have been even better if I’d poured in the water more slowly at the start. 

    While some (especially motorcyclists) might use the Nature’s Coffee Kettle as a primary travel brewing device; given its sealed nature (Matt claims to have brewed good coffee with two-year-old pouches) and nearly flat dimensions, I’m thinking one or two of them would be good backups to keep stashed somewhere in case you ran out of your Tanzanian Peaberry beans in the backcountry, or your hand-cranked burr grinder explodes and you can’t find a metate

    While on the subject of beverages, let’s move later in the day and talk about freeze-dried beer.

    Backcountry soda and . . . beer?

    No, I’m not kidding, although “freeze-dried” is a deliberate misnomer. Like many of us, Patrick Tatera often wished for a way to enjoy good beer far in the backcountry, without the exertion of carrying it there. Rather than try to brew beer and then dehydrate it, he invented a method of brewing the “beer” parts of beer—i.e. the malt, hops, alcohol, etc.—into a concentrate. He then invented a bottle called a carbonator, which infuses that concentrate into the ice-cold mountain spring water you’ve collected 15 miles into your backpacking trip, and carbonates the lot. The result? Well, I’m not sure what the result is, as I haven’t yet tasted the finished product. But Patrick claims to be a devotee of high-quality beer, and none of the available brews claims to replicate PBR, so I plan to follow up and report. Pat’s Backcountry Beverages, as the company is known, also produces concentrates for soft drinks. I’ll try those too.

    About that tent stake: It’s from UCO, a division of Industrial Revolution. It looks like an ordinary V-shaped aluminum tent stake, except for the cunning little LED light that slips over the top once you’ve pounded in the stake. Powered by a single AAA cell, it can be set to a 17-lumen constant glow, or a strobe. Besides obviating those headlong trips over tent stakes we’ve all accomplished, it will locate your tent for after-hours hikes. Neither the 10-hour burn time on constant nor the 24-hour life on strobe strike me as particularly efficient; I think they could halve the lumens and still effectively light the stake.

    No more nighttime faceplants over tent stakes

    At the Industrial Revolution booth I also picked up some of their stormproof matches. These aren’t your ordinary stormproof matches: Strike one, and when its orange secondary material is burning fiercely, dunk it in a glass of water. Pull it out, give it a shake—and it will keep right on burning. Impressive. To go with them in my survival kit I added some Flame Sticks from Ace Camp. These green plastic sticks look like flashing from some molded product; you’d toss them in the trash if you didn’t know better. But once lit they’re reported to burn powerfully for five minutes, which is exactly what I got out of one in a light breeze. The sticks are too long to fit in the waterproof case the matches came in, so I clipped the ends off a half-dozen. There should be few circumstances in which I couldn’t get a fire going with this combination, except at the bottom of a pond.

    If you can't light a fire with these, turn in your merit badge.

    Over the years I’ve tried several brands of cargo nets to secure those awkward loads in the cargo bay of Land Cruiser wagons, Wranglers, and Defenders, or on roof racks. I’ve hated all of them. It’s nothing to do with the products, really, it’s just that to wrap a variety of objects in a variety of vehicles, they wind up being huge, tangle-prone, and awkward, and more often than not snug nicely around half the contents while leaving the rest bouncing. But frequently ratchet straps just can’t encompass everything that should be secured. So I’m cautiously excited by the Lynxhooks interlocking tiedown system, a completely modular and infinitely expandable product comprising individual straps with adjustable buckles, a short length of natural rubber bungee, and a pair of hooks. The hooks are the clever part, as they can either connect to a tiedown point or snap to another hook—or five or ten other hooks—to create a custom-sized and custom-shaped spider of straps (or, of course, each strap can be used as . . . a strap). I got a sample, but plan to ask for more to create a net for the back of my FJ40. I’ll report in full then, but I don’t see how they wouldn’t work as advertised.

    The Lynxhooks snap together to form custom cargo nets.

    Finally, on to more advanced equipment. I walked past a booth in one of the pavilion tents and spotted a bunch of little square bricks perched here and there, each proclaiming “Text Anywhere.” I thought they were just cute displays, but it turns out they’re the actual device: Connected by wi-fi to any smart phone, they utilize the worldwide Iridium satellite system to allow two-way text messaging from pretty much anywhere on the planet. The device is $399, a subscription including 100 texts is $30 per month, you can idle the account for $5 per month, and it’s compatible with Apple, Microsoft, Android, Linux, or Blackberry operating systems. I wheedled the sales manager, Garry Harder, into sending one home with me then and there. I’ll review it soon, then we plan to take it to Kenya this fall where we’ll be working on another project with the Maasai and will be in the proper area for a real test. If it works as promised, it will be a huge step up from the typical one-way SPOT-type device.

    TextAnywhere plus a smartphone = global texting.

    More as I sift through 20 pounds of dealer catalogs, scribbled notes, and iPhone photos.

    See our Flickr set Outdoor Retailer 2013 for more images of interesting products not covered here.

    Nature's Coffee Kettle is here.

    Pat's Backcountry Beverages is here.

    Industrial Revolution is here.

    Lynxhooks is here.

    TextAnywhere is here.

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    by Roseann Hanson (co-director, Overland Expo)

    There's a lot I love about having a stove, sink, and fridge inside a truck camper—all-weather cooking, protection from mosquitoes, and the convenience of a full kitchen (see this article, about our "Just a Tacoma and Camper" setup). But I miss cooking outside. It's more social, and enjoying the views is why we explore and camp. Nothing like sipping a cool drink, tending some thick pork chops, and gazing out over the Grand Canyon while a condor soars overhead . . .

    To facilitate outdoor cooking, we sorted out a camp table and awning. Jonathan rigged us a sleek and easy mount for the sturdy stainless steel table from Frontrunner Outfitters (see story here). And although it was initially a tough decision ($800), we invested in a high-quality, quick-deploying Fiamma awning for the starboard side. Importantly, this is also the side for access to the Four Wheel Camper's dual 10-pound propane tanks, since I settled on a propane grill, for convenience and when local fire restrictions or wood availability obviates our Snow Peak portable fireplace grill. My idea was to leave one tank hooked up to the inside stove and hot water heater, and the second tank rigged with a portable grill hose so all we had to do was hook it up and start cooking.

    Now all I needed was a portable propane grill that was powerful, not too bulky, high-quality, and functional.

    Easier said than done. I looked at many name brands, including Coleman, Char-Broil, Weber, and NexGrill (a sister brand of Jenn-Air). Some had great BTU ratings (the NexGrill boasts 20,000 and has 2 burners with separate controls). Some were clever (the Coleman Road Trip has an integrated stand that scissors down, so you don't need to use up valuable table space). Some were cheap (the Char-Broil at $30 via Amazon—with the savings you could buy a lot of top sirloin . . .). Some were compact (the Fuego Element closes like a sleek clamshell and is just 9x12).

    But in the end my eye was caught by the Napoleon PTSS165P portable grill ($189 MSRP), built for the demanding marine environment (you can order very pricey sailboat cockpit mounts for it). Runner up was the NexGrill (model 820-0015, $180 at Home Depot) but reviews on Amazon indicated the finish quality was poor, with some users claiming not all parts are stainless, or were flimsy with sharp edges. The quality of the Napoleon looked so good, I decided to take a gamble on its 9,000 BTUs (compared to twice that for the NexGrill) and single burner control.

    The finish quality of the Napoleon is beyond reproach: folded and riveted corners, smoothly finished vent holes, and sturdy (not at all "tinny") 304 stainless throughout.

    Details like the high-quality latch and rivets won me over.

    The four-inch legs are anchored with stainless bolts, and pivot flush to the bottom for storage. Only complaint: they do scratch the tabletop, so we're going to coat the bases in Plasti-Dip.

    The handle stays cool even after long periods of cooking. However, it's on the wrong side for a right-handed person (when grilling, you usually hold a utensil in your right hand and would use your left to open the grill to check cooking progress). The pietzo-igniter stopped working after the first night. The propane regulator is also on this side. The Napoleon only comes with a mount for small 1-pound canisters; we had to buy a 5-foot hose to connect it to our 10-pound tank.

    Cooking area is 17.25 x 9.25 and just about perfect for two people. For more food than that, cooking in shifts would be recommended. To get searing temperatures, the instructions recommend lighting the grill and pre-heating for 10 minutes. This did produce temperatueres just right for searing the pork chops. I do wish it had two burners so I could turn one off to create a cooler location for finishing things like vegetables.

    The slightly domed lid is vented but very windproof (we cooked two dinners in 10-15 MPH gusts), and its height would allow cooking a small whole chicken or something in a deep-dish pan; you could even bake a cake or low-top bread. There is a slide-out grease trap tray on the bottom, which made clean-up super easy.

    The carrying case fits well but its quality is not commensurate to the grill: the fabric is thin Cordura and is poorly sewn (on ours, the inside pocket for the gas regulator pulled out at the bottom), so I'm not expecting it to last as long as the high-quality grill.

    We've now used the Napoleon half a dozen times on a 2,800 mile trip, and are overall extremely pleased with the quality. It's also transformed our camping by doubling our "living area" to include a spacious, convenient, shaded outdoor kitchen where we can easily grill salmon steaks, cook lasagna, bake a cake, or turn out bacon and pancakes on a griddle for a small group.

    (Awning:; table:

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     . . . unless you don't get the (separate) O-ring gasket lined up properly on the canister filter cartridge on your 300D. The O-ring is at the top of the filter housing, so I didn't realize it wasn't in correctly until I fired up the engine. It had in fact slipped completely down around the filter, leaving no seal whatsoever.

    So this was the sight that greeted me through the windshield as I backed up the slope thinking I was finished. My own little Exxon Valdez. Pulled it back down, re-installed the O-ring properly. Now for some Simple Green and absorbent compound.

    Just goes to show that a brilliantly conceived one-case tool kit does no good if you don't use the tools contained therein properly.

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     The JATAC with Four Wheel Camper mounted; LT235/85 R16 BFG All-Terrain tires, Boss air bags on stock rear springs, Icon shocks at all four corners.

    At the Overland Expo this May, Roseann gave a walkaround of the JATAC to a crowd of about 40 attendees, and throughout the weekend we were frequently approached by individuals and couples who’d seen it displayed or had read about it here, and who had various questions. Most were of the general general how-do-you-like-the-combination sort; many got into specifics of our modifications. But two questions about what we hadn’t done cropped up with interesting frequency: 

    1. “Why didn’t you install a suspension lift?”
    2. “Why didn’t you install larger tires?”

    The short answer to both questions is, “Physics.” The long answer follows.

    Our goal in mating a Toyota Tacoma with a Four Wheel Camper was to strike a balance between reliability, durability, capability, comfort, and convenience. The camper provides comfort and convenience; it’s up to the truck to contribute reliability, durability, and capability. Part of the balance is realizing that roughly 1,000 pounds of comfort and convenience has potentially significant effects on the other three.

    Reliability of the Tacoma should be a given. The Identifix rating for the current generation Tacoma shows five stars for every year since 2006. Our 2000 Tacoma was the single most reliable vehicle I have ever owned: In 160,000 miles we did nothing to it except scheduled maintenance. Not one repair. Even my faithful 1973 FJ40 couldn’t match that record at that mileage (burned exhaust valve at 150,000). It’s still too early to pass judgement on the new truck, but statistically we should be able to look forward to a similar experience.

    Durability should be a given as well, certainly in terms of the drivetrain. Engines in general are lasting longer these days (200,000 miles really is the new 100,000), thanks to better materials and more precise machining capabilities—and Toyota engines, transmissions, and differentials stand out even among these higher standards. I’m still not completely sold on the composite bed or the open-channel back half of the chassis, but my master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee keeps telling me to stop fretting.

    That leaves capability, which is what most people are attempting to augment with suspension lifts and larger tires (unless they’re strictly after the looks).

    The Tacoma as we got it, with stock P245/75R16 all-season tires (30.5" diameter). It’s true that a mild suspension lift will increase chassis ground clearance and—if properly specced for the vehicle—improve suspension travel and compliance, enhancing both ride comfort and the ability of the truck to keep all four wheels on the ground for better traction when traversing rough terrain. Larger-diameter tires also increase ground clearance, and provide a fractionally longer footprint that can enhance traction.

    But there is a price to be paid for those gains. Let’s look at tires first.

    A larger tire weighs more than a smaller tire—common sense, obviously, but the range of effects of that weight are not all obvious. As an example, let’s compare a couple of BFG All-Terrains. The LT235/85 R16 ATs we recently installed on the Tacoma are 31.7 inches in diameter, and weigh 46.4 pounds each. If we decided to go up in diameter a very modest 1.5 inches, to a 295/75 R16 AT at 33.2 inches diameter, that tire weighs 57 pounds. That’s ten pounds of unsprung weight (a term that refers to weight not supported by the suspension, including wheels and tires, brake components, bearings, axles, etc.—think of everything that goes up and down under the vehicle when you hit a bump) to gain 3/4-inch of ground clearance. Adding ten pounds to a vehicle’s unsprung weight has a far more dramatic effect on ride and handling than adding the same amount to the sprung mass. The springs and shock absorbers have to react to that weight over every imperfection in the road.

    But that’s not the only effect. The mass of a larger tire (and, if fitted, a wider wheel) places additional stress on the braking system and retards acceleration—and the tire’s rotational moment of inertia, which increases with the square of diameter if I’m remembering my physics correctly, affects both as well. A 2003 study of the effects of suspension lifts and larger tires showed that going from a 32-inch tire to a 35-inch tire resulted in a ten percent loss in brake efficiency. That’s a significant effect on your ability to stop quickly.

    Finally, a larger-diameter tire affects gearing. For example, at a constant 65 mph, the engine in a vehicle equipped with 4.11 differentials, a 1:1 top gear in the transmission, and 31-inch tires will be turning approximately 2900 rpm. With 33-inch tires the same vehicle will be turning 2720 rpm. That might sound like a good thing—after all, lower engine speeds should equate to better fuel economy, right? Unfortunately, it’s rarely so. You’re messing with a torque curve that the factory knows inside and out, and you can bet they’ve calculated the final drive ratio to optimize that curve. The losses associated with the extra mass and rotational inertia will almost certainly cancel out any possible gains in highway mileage with increased city consumption, as shown by numerous controlled studies. 

    Going up in tire diameter will also hurt your low-range performance, since the vehicle will be traveling faster at any given engine speed. That will reduce your control in low-speed situations. Few vehicles these days come with low-range transfer-case gears I consider low enough anyway (although the now nearly ubiquitous automatic transmission helps), so compromising what’s there makes little sense.

    Why not simply regear the differentials to compensate, as dedicated rock crawlers do when they install those big 40-inch-plus tires? In terms of correcting the overall final drive ratio, it works—but at the expense of differential strength. The problem lies in the pinion gear, the only gear of the two major pieces in the differential one can change in size to alter the gearing (the ring gear is limited by the size of the differential case itself). So when one goes from, say, a 4:1 differential to, say, a 5:1, the pinion gear is essentially reduced in size from one fourth the size of the ring gear to one fifth its size. Additionally, the smaller pinion gear means that fewer teeth will be in contact between the two gears at any one time. And you still face the inescapable physics of  accelerating and decelerating a larger, heavier tire. Breaking a diff on a local rock-crawling trail would be a pain. Breaking a diff on the Dempster Highway—or on the Dhakla Escarpment—would be a major pain.

    What about suspension lifts? Done correctly (i.e., with properly rated springs and shocks; no eight-inch shackles or lift blocks), and kept within reasonable limits (two to four inches on most vehicles, especially those with independent front suspension), the biggest disadvantage you’re likely to encounter is increased drag and reduced fuel economy. True, your center of gravity will be fractionally higher, but the increased ground clearance for approach, breakover, and departure angles is probably a fair tradeoff.  However, on a truck with a cabover camper, overhead clearance becomes an issue. On some of the biological surveys we do in Mexico, trees hang low enough over the approach trails to be a concern even with a stock suspension.   

    All this might sound like I’m dead set against straying at all from factory suspension heights and tire sizes. Not at all—but doing so does involve compromise, and the further one strays from stock tire sizes and suspension heights, the more compromises involved. As long as you’re aware of the issues, consider the cost/benefit ratio, and don’t go all monster truck, your approach might well be different than ours yet still effective for you. Consider my FJ40, which has both a mild (two-inch) Old Man Emu suspension lift and tires (255/85R16 BFG Mud-Terrains) that are at 33 inches significantly larger than the teeny factory-supplied 29-inch tall Dunlops. I settled on the combination after years of driving the vehicle stock, and with careful consideration of the drivetrain. The FJ40’s rear axle shafts are the same diameter as those in a Dana 60 (which is installed on 3/4-ton pickups), and its ring and pinion gear are nearly as stout—I’m on my original differentials at 320,000 miles. The front Birfield joints are not as bulletproof, but very few FJ40 owners have problems with them unless they’re running 35-inch or taller tires with power steering (my steering is powered by how hard I can turn the wheel). Mechanic-friend Bill once said that if I ever broke a Birfield with my setup he’d drive out and replace it for free. He hasn’t yet had to pay up on that offer. Also, significantly, the 1973 FJ40 came from the factory with drum brakes on all four wheels. I’ve installed discs all around, so my braking system is far superior to the factory setup even with the larger tires.

    With a two-inch OME suspension, 255/85/16 tires are a good fit on the FJ40. Rear tires tuck into fender well without rubbing when springs are fully compressed.

    Given our intended use of the JATAC, which will combine long trips on pavement, extended mileage on dirt roads (we drive seven miles of dirt road just to get home), frequent use on four-wheel-drive trails, but little or no intensive rock crawling/mud surfing unless we find ourselves in a situation that requires it, we elected to stay with a very moderate size increase on the tires (to those 235/85/16 BFG All-Terrains), and stock suspension height. I leveled the back end of the truck with a set of excellent Boss air bags over the stock springs, and the shocks at all four corners are adjustable Icons with remote reservoirs.

    Boss air bags augment the Tacoma's stock springs to maintain a level stance with varying loads.

    We still plan to augment the JATAC’s off-pavement capabilities in other ways. First, we’ll be adding a locker for the rear differential—after tires (maybe even before) the absolute best way to enhance traction in difficult situations. Second, we’re working with Pronghorn Overland Gear on a prototype aluminum winch bumper. Pronghorn has just introduced an extremely high-quality modular bumper system for the Jeep Wrangler; the Tacoma is next on their list, and if the result is as good as the Wrangler version it will be good indeed—improbably light yet strong enough to take the the most demanding stresses of winching without complaint*. The Pronghorn bumper will also be compatible with the Hi-Lift jack already mounted to the Four Wheel Camper (see here). With a winch mounted up front we’ll have a backup plan if our tires and locker (and piloting) can’t get us out of a sticky situation. Finally, Pronghorn will also be developing a full aluminum skid-plate system for the Tacoma, so if our moderate ground clearance proves inadequate now and then, the underside of the truck will be fully protected.

    As with many trucks employing independent front suspension, the lowest spot on the JATAC's undercarriage is the rear differential, visible here beneath the front factory "skid plate." The diff's placement in the center of the axle means it's more likely to drag on high-crowned trails. Larger-diameter tires would increase this clearance fractionally; a suspension lift would not.

    This reminds me: I keep meaning to add a set of MaxTrax as well. We were recently on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim after a heavy rain, and the washes in the House Rock Valley had flowed energetically. The first one we came to had subsided to a trickle, but the substrate was still treacherous. The odds were nearly certain we could have crossed with no trouble, but we were a single vehicle with no winch. A stuck truck could have meant hours of digging out, with more rain and flash floods likely. Additionally, beyond this first wash were several larger ones between us and our goal on the rim. So we turned around. A simple set of MaxTrax (or any of several other suitable brands of sand track) would have given us the confidence to take the slight risk.

    The JATAC on its modest tires and stock-height suspension might not have the brawny look of a taller sister truck on meatier tires, but we’re convinced it was the right approach for us and our intended uses. But I’ll be honest—if we change our minds, I’ll let you know. 

    Boss Global is here. Icon Vehicle Dynamics is here. Pronghorn Overland Gear is here. Maxtrax is here.


    *Full disclosure: I consulted with Pronghorn on some final design details and proof of concept of their Wrangler bumper system.


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  • 09/05/13--13:25: Tire pressure

    The load index 109, on the right, is used with the load range to calculate optimum pressure.

    A reader, Christian, sent in this comment to my recent post The physics of tires and lifts:

    I have a related question that might warrant its own post. Is there a formula for finding your optimum tire pressure? Sounds simple enough. Most “experts” just say to check the owner’s manual. I’m skeptical because my new F150 has a front/rear weight ratio of 60/40, yet Ford recommends a higher pressure in the rear (60 rear, 55 front). I'm assuming this is in anticipation of a full payload but it seems to me that the correct pressures should be based on actual axle loads and tire volumes (i.e. a larger, wider tire will need lower pressures but the front/rear ratio should remain the same). Off-road pressures will be much lower (and highly variable) but again should utilize the same front/rear ratio. Does this sound right?

    Christian, common sense is leading you in the right direction.

    Tire pressures recommended by vehicle (and tire) manufacturers have varied significantly over time, often depending more on what they perceived as their customers’ priorities than on efficiency or even safety. In the days of Ford Galaxies and Buick Rivieras (and 32 cents-per-gallon gas), it was all about ride comfort, and recommended tire pressures hovered in the 20s. Today, fuel efficiency is the name of the game, and pressures are much higher, as you found on your F150. However, as you noted, the manufacturer invariably lists only a single figure. Especially in the case of a pickup, loads are likely to vary tremendously. Proper pressure for a light load will be inadequate for a heavy load, and proper pressure for a heavy load will be excessive for a light load and will cause premature tread wear in addition to a bouncy ride.

    There are a couple of good ways to determine proper tire pressures for your vehicle to compensate for varying loads. First is an inflation/load chart. Why these aren’t front and center on all tire company websites I have no idea—most specification charts list only maximum load—but if you search deeply enough you can find them. We’ve posted one used by Discount Tire HERE.

    An inflation/load chart uses the load index listed on the tire’s sidewall (after the sizing information), and the load range (C, D, E, etc.) to determine an optimum pressure. Much better than a single figure, obviously. To exploit this information fully, however, you need to know how much weight is on each tire. You can calculate that closely by finding a commercial scale the weighing each end of your vehicle, then dividing each by two. If you have a slide-in camper you remove for commuting in between trips, you can either make two trips to the scale or calculate the added mass of the camper if you know its dry weight. With that information in hand, you can cross-reference the chart to arrive at a very useful figure.

    A simpler way to determine optimum tire pressure (as well as to double-check the chart method) is by “chalking.” Use a piece of bright chalk to mark a thick line directly across the tread of each tire. Drive a few hundred yards on pavement (preferably in a straight line) and look at the line. If it is wearing off evenly, your tires are correctly inflated, as the tread is bearing the load uniformly across its width. If the center of the line wears off more quickly the tire is overinflated, and if the edges wear off first it is underinflated. You might have to use paint rather than chalk to ensure the line doesn’t wear off too quickly. 

    Both these methods are designed to calculate road pressures. Once you have them figured, you can use them to arrive at starting points for airing down on off-pavement routes. A 30 to 40-percent reduction in pressure is usually enough to lengthen the tire’s footprint effectively, increasing traction and reducing impact on the trail as well as attenuating bounce over washboard and rocks. For deep sand one would drop quite a bit more than that, of course. 

    This might seem like more trouble than it’s worth to some. But you only need to do the weighing once per vehicle, and then recalculate if you buy different tires. But maintaining ideal tire pressures—as opposed even to just adequate—will significantly increase tread life, in addition to enhancing every aspect of tire performance.

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  • 09/16/13--16:57: A proper knife
  • The knife was almost certainly mankind’s first manufactured tool into which we put not just craftsmanship, but artistry. First (after poking around that funny black monolith) we simply grabbed handy tree limbs for clubs, or rocks suitable for smashing things. Then, about 2.5 million years ago, a perceptive hominid noticed a river rock with a naturally chipped edge that proved much superior for cracking open bones or the skull of a rival. Jump ahead a million years, and his Homo erectus descendants had learned how to flake quartzite and basalt into sophisticated and sharp bifaced hand axes. Next came flint and obsidian spear points and arrowheads, with finer and finer workmanship. Somewhere along the line a smart craftsman lashed a bone or antler handle to his skinning blade—and from that point forward the design of the knife strayed not a bit except for the steady evolution of material and the eventual innovation of folding blades. The knife became our single most indispensable personal-carry tool, and stayed that way right up to the advent of the iPhone. 

    When I was younger, if you went outdoors, whether for hiking, backpacking, canoeing, car camping, hunting—whatever—you carried a fixed-blade sheath knife, the direct descendant of that flint-and-bone progenitor. It was axiomatic that the knife would be your primary tool for dozens of tasks: cutting rope and webbing, field-dressing fish or game, cooking and eating, carving, you name it. It was also axiomatic that a fixed-blade knife would be the best choice for those tasks, given its superior strength and control over a folding knife, and easy one-hand accessibility right there at your belt. I got my first sheath knife when I was seven, as did my best friend, and neither we nor neighbors who saw us carrying them around our rural community thought a thing of it.

    Not any more. With the exception of increasingly rarified circumstances and company, wearing a sheath knife today—even if you’re an adult—seems to be considered, at best, ostentatious, and at worst an aggressive “statement” that indicates you might also support private ownership of tactical nuclear weapons. I’ve related before the story of an acquaintance who wore one into a West Coast coffee shop and was accosted by a woman demanding to know what he was doing “with that weapon in here.” He swears he replied, “Lady, you should hear what the voices in my head are telling me to do with it.” A seven-year-old carrying a sheath knife today? He would probably be remanded to Social Services and his parents jailed.

    I say we fight back—figuratively speaking, of course. If you own a fixed-blade knife and have ever felt too self-conscious to carry it, and then had to perform some task with a pocket knife clearly too small for the job, strap that thing on next time. Don’t own a fixed-blade knife? Go get one, learn how to sharpen it properly, and carry it proudly. 

    There are undoubtedly thousands of fixed-blade knife (let’s say FBK from now on) models marketed as suitable for general field work, but you can broadly divide their design philosophy in two: handy designs with plain (i.e. non-serrated) edges and blades between three and five inches in length, and much larger, heavier tools with six, eight, even ten-inch blades (often nearly 1/4-inch thick at the spine), that supposedly can also be used for chopping, hammering, and, if you believe some of the ads, hacking your way out of your downed F16’s cockpit, spearing caribou after securing the handle to a stick with your unraveled paracord bracelet—and, of course, fighting off zombie hordes.

    Gee, I guess my prejudice is showing already.

    For decades, my FBKs were all the former style, from that first blade in second grade to the Buck Personal that was the first knife I bought myself, to the dream knife I couldn’t afford then but purchased at a usurious collector price decades later: the near-mythical (well, among knife wonks anyway) Puma Trapper’s Companion—$32 in 1970; $400 30 years on.

    A classic Puma Hunter's Friend, above, and the even more classic Trapper's Companion, below. (Sadly, Puma knives aren't what they used to be; those made prior to 1995 or so are the best) Along the way I discovered perhaps the most versatile style of all: the so-called bushcraft knife, defined by the Woodlore, which was designed by Ray Mears in 1990 and is now copied by knifemakers everywhere. Like Ray himself, the Woodlore is an unassuming thing with a 4.25-inch, spear-point blade. It employs what’s known as a Scandinavian (“Scandi”) grind: The blade holds its thickness from the top (spine) most of the way toward the edge, which has a single bevel extending quite high up each side.

    Knife edge grinds. Courtesy Off the Map custom knives.

    The Scandi grind is immensely robust—bushcrafters use these knives to split two-inch-thick limbs lengthwise by “batoning,” that is, holding the edge of the blade against the end of the limb, and using another length of limb to hammer the knife straight down. The technique even works across the grain. Yet the Scandi grind can be given a razor edge; that broad bevel makes it easy to index the blade on a simple sharpening stone if you don’t have a sophisticated system such as the Edge Pro. If the grind has a weakness, it is for exceptionally fine slicing—that broad bevel acts as a wedge rather than a scalpel. Scandi blades make lousy cheese cutters.

    The current Ray Mears knife has a durable English oak handle.

    The genuine Woodlore knife rightfully carries a substantial premium given its provenance; high-quality copies are available for less for those who don’t need or can’t afford the Woodlore signature. I have a bushcraft knife nearly as well-known in the community: a stout design called a Skookum Bush Tool, made in Whitefish, Montana by Rod Garcia. Rod enhanced the Woodlore pattern by adding a flat steel back on the handle, which is welded to the full-tang blade and enables the user to hammer this thing point-first into, well, anything that needs a knife hammered into it.

    Many other knives parallel the bushcraft style, from the astoundingly underpriced ($18) and overperforming Mora Clipper to custom models made with exotic steels and even more exotic hardwood scales (handles), which can easily top $500. As an all-around field knife the bushcraft design is hard to beat, although flat-ground and hollow-ground blades also work very well for most tasks, and better for some.

    Top to bottom: Mora Clipper, Helle Eggen, Wood Bear, Skookum Bush Tool, Helle Temagami.

    In the last few years an entirely different style of FBK has become increasingly popular, especially among the survival community (by which I mean people interested in survival skills, not the guys who hole up in the Idaho mountains with “Bo Gritz for President” posters tacked up in the fallout shelter). The style is frequently referred to even among its proponents as a “sharpened pry bar.” Forget handiness—these knives are massive, and built to withstand laughable abuse—one popular demonstration involves chopping through a concrete block, another, repeatedly stabbing though a car door. The fact that they have a cutting edge seems secondary to the astounding breadth of ancillary destructive purposes to which one is assured they can be directed. The names of these things echo their marketing: Compare the quasi-Elvish “Woodlore” with the “Swamp Rat,” the “Black Legion,” or the “Extreme Survival Bowie.” And, yes, there is an official “Zombie Killer,” with a, not making this up, “Toxic Green” handle.

    I picked up one of the early examples of this genre, the Gerber LMF-2, at a trade show some years ago, and immediately put it down. The knife was heavy and unbalanced, and its “tactical” sheath, complete with de rigueur mid-thigh mounting straps, weighed more than the knife. Similar models from other makers impressed me no more, and I dismissed the entire concept as a short-lived fad.

    Wrong. The LMF-2 is still around, and has been challenged by even more bloated competitors. So I decided to give the concept a fair chance, and procured an LMF-2 as well as a Ka-Bar/Becker BK-2. I used each for several days around our place and in the surrounding desert, on tasks for which I’ve been using much smaller knives for tens of years.

    Top: the Becker/Ka-Bar BK-2; bottom, the Gerber LMF-2.

    And . . . I still don’t get it.

    The LMF-2 has that most worthless of blade styles, half plain and half serrated—which leaves neither enough room to do its job. The (reasonably sharp) plain edge is out at the end, is mostly curved, and is barely three inches long despite this knife’s 10.5-inch overall length and three-quarter-pound weight (LMF, perversely, stands for “Lightweight Multi-Function”). The blade on my Swiss Army knife is only a half-inch shorter. The Gerber’s serrated section, as with all such edges, is virtually impossibly to sharpen in the field—although the nifty sharpening slot in the LMF-2’s plastic sheath is okay for touching up the plain edge. By way of comparison, one of the best field knives I own, a Helle Temagami, weighs just 5.4 ounces despite 4.5 inches of usable blade.

    The knife is undeniably stout. The pointed pommel, I’m sure, could “egress through the plexiglass of a chopper” as Gerber claims. In fact, as kit for a combat pilot, the LMF-2 might not be a bad tool at all. But for any kind of regular use in the field—including survival—the LMF-2 has all the wrong answers to the questions that are most asked in such situations. It even touts the ultimate lunacy for a survival knife: three holes in the handle so you can “lash it to a stick and make a spear.” Lord spare us from such nonsense.

    However. If I thought the Gerber was unwieldy, the Ka-Bar/Becker BK-2 makes it look like a surgeon’s scalpel from Porsche Design.

    I’m convinced the designer of the Becker had an LMF-2 for comparison, and simply decided that whatever it had, the BK-2 was going to have more. So the Gerber weighs 12 ounces? This knife is going to weigh a pound. The Gerber’s blade is a fifth of an inch thick? Ha!—we’ll make ours a quarter of an inch thick. And then add a bit.

    The result is one of the most cartoonishly overbuilt and comically awkward knives I’ve ever owned.

    Seriously? The monstrous BK-2 next to the far more practical Temagami.

    The makers tout the Becker’s chopping ability—the supposed payoff for the weight and bulk—but in fact it’s a lousy chopper. Despite the massive blade, it’s still handle-heavy, and the edge is not long enough to gain the speed and momentum even a lightweight machete can achieve. There is no reason—not one—to make a knife blade a quarter of an inch thick, except to one-up someone else’s blade. No user could ever put enough leverage on this knife to bend, much less break it. It is simply dead weight. Its sole positive feature is that it blessedly dispenses with serrations (or, worse, saw teeth), but the spine is so thick and the knife so heavy that normal cutting operations—the kind you need to do 99 percent of the time even if you are a combat pilot—become ham-fisted struggles, like tapping in finish nails with a three-pound sledge.

    The Becker dwarfs a lovely model from knifemaker Lynn Dawson, with a hollow-ground blade just three inches long. Yet I field-dressed a whitetail deer with the Lynn knife . . .

    . . . and the Lynn sports some nice file work on the spine. Tough doesn't have to be ugly.

    Believe it or not, the LMF-2 and BK-2, with mere five-inch blades, are on the small end of their phylum. The ESEE Junglas (pronounced hoonglas) sports a 9.75-inch blade—actually almost long enough to be credible as a chopping tool, but with a concurrent reduction in practicality to near zero for any normal cutting tasks (To be fair, ESEE makes some entirely practical smaller models as well).

    Let’s put together some numbers here. For the weight of a BK-2 one could carry a Helle Temagami, or a Woodlore clone, or any number of other fine, compact, well-balanced—and, dare I say, beautiful—cutting instruments, plus a Gerber folding saw, plus a lightweight sharpener. You’d have a vastly superior knife and a better, safer way to cut through larger limbs than hacking away with that “sharpened prybar.”

    Ah, but what about the scenario the armchair experts like to debate ad nauseum: You’ve somehow been stupid enough to be caught out in the wilderness with nothing but a single knife. No saw, no machete, no matches, no tent, no iPhone. You need to survive with that one tool.

    Give me the bushcraft knife any day. 

    Most of the tasks you’ll need to do to stay alive in such situations—building a shelter, making fire, perhaps constructing snares or deadfalls—are far more easily accomplished with a modestly sized blade. You won’t need branches larger than two inches in diameter for a lean-to, and those are easily cut with a bushcraft knife and, if needed, a baton. (Batoning is also infinitely safer than chopping; need I mention that severing a major artery would be inconvenient at this point?)

    The rest—hearths and drills for a friction fire, snares, field-dressing game—require a deft touch with a blade. You’ll operate more quickly, surely, and with less energy expenditure if you have a knife as deft as the task.

    And back in the real world? No contest. I got annoyed just carrying the BK-2, much less using it.   It was a major relief to get back to my normal knives.

    If you’re traveling by 4WD vehicle, or even by motorcycle where weight is much more of a concern, there’s simply no reason to consider dragging along an awkward, heavy knife that tries to take the place of two or three tools, even if the concept worked. Buy a good, sensibly sized FBK, and carry a folding saw, hatchet, or small axe for larger cutting tasks (for a really nice combination look HERE). You’ll be more effective and safer. 

    Besides, I hear axes work better on zombies anyway.

    Edit: Found an old ad. The Trapper's Companion originally listed for $28. I should have got a second job and bought 20 of them then.


    Woodlore, Helle, Mora, Wood Bear, Skookum Bush Tool, Off the Map, Ka-Bar, Gerber

    For interesting Puma lore, and occasional knives for sale, go HERE

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    Last year, during a crossing one of Egypt’s great sand seas, I wanted to get some video footage of the Land Cruisers from a camera mounted on the hood and, if possible, the side of the truck. I had a massive Manfrotto suction clamp to secure our Canon 5D MkII, but there was no way I was going to trust $3,500 worth of camera and L lens to a glorified bathroom plunger. So I rigged up a pair of safety lines to the camera’s strap with some 550 paracord, secured with my best bowlines to the roof rack and the base of the windshield wipers.

    As it happened, the suction mount performed flawlessly, even on its side with gravity working against it over some firm sand corrugations (sorry about the bathroom plunger remark, Manfrotto). But the camera strap flapped around while the vehicle was in motion, and the paracord lines seemed a bit jury-rigged. I was happy to have them, but mused about fabricating something that would be more readily accessible and a little more elegant as well.

    Fast forward to this summer’s Outdoor Retailer show, where Roseann and I had coffee with William Egbert of Vulture Equipment Works. VEW is best known for making the strongest camera straps in the world, designed for rigging systems when the photographer is, say, hanging out of a helicopter door (review to come). But I was intrigued when William produced a couple of lengths of cord no thicker than dress shoelaces, with a loop at each end. And he really got my attention when he said, “You could hang a motorcycle from one of these.” I raised an eyebrow, and he added, “Seven hundred pound load limit.”

    The Vulture Safety Loops, William told us, are made from “a proprietary weave of aerospace fibers.” Hmm . . . After being subjected to a short waterboarding session, he admitted the actual material was a para-aramid (Kevlar is the brand name of one such fiber). Kevlar is produced from the reaction of para-phenylenediamine and molten terephthaloyl chloride—and despite having been discovered in the 1960s, chemists are still not certain exactly why it displays such an astounding strength-to-weight ratio. It’s expensive stuff, in part because, I’m told by someone who knows these things, “Manufacturing the para-phenylenediamine component is difficult due to the diazotization and coupling of aniline.” So now you know why too.

    Safety Loop (bottom) compared to 550 paracord

    The VEW Safety Loops come two to a package; one 24 inches long and one 38. A woven sheath protects the fiber within from abrasion, but they’re still so slender it’s hard to believe the strength. I didn’t hang any of our motorcycles from one, but I did hang myself from one, and it laughed off my 150 pounds. They display virtually zero stretch, and the material is extremely cut- and flame-resistant.

    I can foresee a bunch of uses for these elegant but brutish cords. They’d be perfect as insurance on duffels or Pelican cases strapped to a roof rack, or gear bungeed on the back of a motorcycle. For photography they’d clearly be an excellent replacement for my paracord bodge jobs, or one could use them to secure a tripod in windy conditions, or to keep a camera on a strap from flopping. Beyond that? You could probably employ one in a motorcycle recovery operation.

    At $29 a pair they might not seem cheap at first, until you consider both the strength-to-weight ratio and the strength-to-cost ratio. One of them weighs three grams—that’s undoubtedly the lightest insurance you can buy for $3,500 worth of camera and L lens . . .

    Vulture Equipment Works will be at Overland Expo 2014. In the meantime you can find them HERE

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