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Fundamentals of Fieldcraft for UW, Part Two

September 12, 2012

One of the big complaints I hear from people is that I place too much emphasis on gear, when we don’t have the logistics train of Big Green. While I do carry more than some supposed experts claim they need, this is because I’ve done this shit for real, and I understand the leverage that high-quality, well-chosen and selected gear provides. I’ve done the ultra-light thing, both in a military context and a recreational context. While I’m all for minimizing load weights as much as tactically feasible (Pretty sure I’ve beat the shit outta that one too), I also recognize that at some level, certain gear is simply indispensable to survival, mission-effectiveness, or both.

Foot movement with a load, in a tactical environment exists solely for one reason. It’s a method of commuting to work; nothing more, nothing less. The point of reducing the weight of your load has only one purpose: to get where you are going, with the equipment needed to accomplish the mission, and still possessing the energy to actually accomplish the mission. It’s not about winning cool-guy points with your buddies for being harder than woodpecker lips. There are no bonus points awarded for carrying more gear than you need, but there are no points awarded for not carrying enough gear either. Arriving at the objective mission-ineffective (or not arriving at all….) because you’re an environmental casualty, is stupid. At the same time however, packing twice the necessary weight in subsistence gear simply to ensure you’re more comfortable only limits the amount of ammunition and other casualty-producing equipment you can carry.

The balance is found by going as light as FEASIBLE, rather than as light as possible. This can be accomplished by conducting an accurate environmental analysis (see Part One), and determining what gear is necessary, based on the mission and environmental analysis, and carrying the lightest version of that gear as is practicably efficient.

One method of analyzing your gear is to look at critical factors:

  • Functionality: Can the piece of gear accomplish the intended purpose? Is it the most efficient piece of gear to accomplish the intended purpose? Can it accomplish other tasks as well? (A poncho hooch can certainly provide protection from the elements, albeit perhaps not quite as efficiently as a tent. On the other hand, the poncho can be used for the same protection in places where a tent simply cannot be pitched, and has multiple other functions as well). Ultimately, training is going to be the determining factor in the functionality requirement of any specific piece of gear you look at. What can you make work in a given situation. How good are YOUR field craft skills, really?
  • Reliability: Will the selected piece of gear perform its intended function under extreme conditions? Will it fail when you need it most? Most outdoor writers laud the benefits of down versus synthetic filled sleeping bags and other gear, but most outdoor writers aren’t stuck using their gear even when it’s wet and miserable, and they have the option of sheltering up for a drying out period (while synthetics are heavier than down, and can be noisier than natural fibers, their benefits for underlayers in outdoor clothing is pretty much irrefutable, and contemporary synthetics have pretty much put the weight advantage of down to rest. Some synthetics such as heavyweight fleeces even manage to stay quiet in the bush). These are advantages the war-fighter doesn’t always enjoy, especially in evasion scenarios. You HAVE to consider the tactical implications of METT-TC before you can determine which piece of gear is right for you.

    Fleece clothing gets bad-mouthed by ultralight backpackers because down or synthetic-filled ‘puffball’ clothing is warmer for the weight. This is true, but fleece can maintain it’s warmth better than the puffball stuff when wet, making it more efficient in wet-weather conditions, although the puffball stuff can be more reliably warm than fleece in dry-cold weather environments. Ultimately, the environmental considerations plays an absolutely critical role (I am a HUGE fan of the old, quilted field-jacket liner, but recognize that it sucks in the rain. While it will dry in about two seconds flat in the slightest breeze, it’s a cunt to keep dry in the rain. So, I switch to my fleeces).

  • Durability: One of the great advantages of military surplus gear in the past has been the sheer robustness of it. Of course, the corollary to that is that more durability equals more weight. While there is some purported benefit to grabbing the latest, ultralight backpack from REI, the reality is, packs engineered and built to withstand the abuses of combat operations are slightly heavier, but far more robust. It may be an issue of trying to find a less-conspicuous looking pack, but with the increasing popularity of military-type load-bearing packs for every day carry amongst even non-military, I tend to think this is far less of a concern than some guys make it out to be.

    A lot of guys swear by their issue desert boots or the older jungle boots (I had one pair of jungle boots that I was issued from CIF when I arrived at the Ranger Regiment as a private. I still had that same pair–seven or eight re-soles later–for a year after I ETS’d). They are robust as hell. I also manage to find lots of brand-new, still-in-the-tags, issued desert boots in both my own and HH6’s sizes at thrift stores all the time, and I stockpile them religiously. Participants in some classes may have noticed I wear them. I wear them to break them in, then stash them away for when I need them and can’t get my preferred boots. The reality is, however is that the advances made in boot technology in the outdoor recreation industry and the military have left the standard-issue Belleville and other boot brands in the dust. There are so many different brands and models of effective, ergonomic, comfortable boots that will not leave your feet crippled up that it’s not even funny. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Asolo and Vasques, but any brand will work. It all depends on the environmental considerations. Here in the northern Rockies, sometimes the winter gets cold enough that only a good pair of felt-lined pac boots will suffice. In rainy weather, or the muddy springtime environments we face, a pair of gaiters is seldom a bad idea. On the other hand, wearing running shoes, like some guys I’ve known have tried, has seldom worked out well in the long-term, simply because they are not made for durability in extreme conditions. A JSOC shooter can get away with it, based on the short-duration and specific nature of his missions. Guerrillas have historically been photographed wearing sneakers, simply because it was all they could get. Having spent lengthy periods of time in conversation with SF guys who spent time in Central America in the 1980s though, all of them noted that, as supplies came in, donated by Americans, the Gs were always in a hurry to change out the wore out sneakers for more robust boots.

  • Ease of Use: The simpler and easier it is to use your gear, the less energy you will expend fighting with it to make it work. This means there is more opportunity to rest during patrol base operations (remember the whole idea of getting where you’re going with the energy to actually accomplish the mission when you get there?). Back in the day, we used our ponchos to build hooches, with copious amounts of 550 cord. Someone, at some point, came up with the utterly brilliant idea of using bungees and tent stakes instead. It reduced the amount of energy and time required to set up an effective hooch exponentially, without significantly increasing the weight of the system. Additionally, it offered the benefit of being MORE functional than the old-school method.
  • Efficient: How long does it take to accomplish what you need to do? It takes significantly longer to set up a tent than it does to construct even a complex poncho hooch. It’s also more weight to carry. A sleeping bag takes less time to unroll and crawl into, but it weighs more and is harder to get out of in a hurry than a Ranger Taco. Again, your level of field craft training/experience will be the determining factor in how efficient any particular piece of gear is (a poncho hooch is far more efficient for me than a tent. HH6 on the other hand, having more experience setting up tents than poncho hooches, would probably have an easier time setting up a tent in a hurry, especially if we selected an easily erected model).

    At a recent SUT class, one participant decided to try the Ranger Taco (poncho, poncho liner, and casualty blanket). I told him if he got too cold, to wake me up and I’d pull out an extra sleeping bag for him (Of course, when he woke up, freezing his ass off, he couldn’t find me, but that’s beside the point…..sort of…). The reality is, the Ranger Taco IS adequate for sleeping down to freezing temperatures, and well below it if set-up properly. If it’s not set up properly, you’ll freeze your ass off.

    In order to really understand how to put together a sleep system together, based on your environmental conditions, it’s imperative to understand the tactical application of field sleep systems, as well as some of the science behind sleeping outdoors comfortably. To understand the tactical application of the sleep system, we have to internalize the old military adage that you should sleep whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. Forcing yourself to stay awake, or even allowing yourself to stay awake when the opportunity to sleep arises is flat stupid. I can guarantee you that, in real-world tactical scenarios, and even in realistic training, you will have ample opportunity to practice sleep deprivation. When you get the chance to sleep, you need to jump on it. A two-minute combat nap, or a solid two-hour sleep break, the recuperation available in even a little bit of quality sleep can save your life and the lives of those around you.

    Of course, in order to fully leverage the advantages of that sleep, you need to be as comfortable as possible while you rest. This means being warm in the cold.

    From a strict efficiency point-of-view, this means that if a Ranger Taco doesn’t work for you, you need to look into a lightweight but adequate sleeping bag, and/or ways to construct field-expedient shelters or ways to keep yourself warmer (there’s that damned old training beast raising its ugly head again…..bastard that it is).

    A sleep pad should be considered a necessity in shitty weather. I can throw down my ruck, wrap up in a woobie (poncho liner), and pass out in 4 seconds flat as well as the next guy, when the weather is nice. When it’s pissing bucket loads, or the ground is frozen solid and colder than the ambient air temperature, I’m a huge fan of Therma-Rest, and consider the benefit of actually getting some quality sleep when the opportunity rises to far outweigh the cost of the light weight. Some guys prefer the older closed-cell “iso-mat” types. I don’t know anyone who would seriously consider carrying an old-style rubberized air mattress.

    A lot of people are distinctly uncomfortable sleeping outdoors, outside of a tent. The false sense of security offered by the thin cloth walls of a tent against the “bogeymen” of the big, scary outdoors is important to them. That’s fine. A tent can be more weatherproof than even the best-constructed poncho hooch, and if you feel more confident against the lions, and tigers, and bears (“Oh my!”), you’ll sleep better when you do get to sleep. Unfortunately, there are some significant disadvantages to tents as shelters in tactical situations. First, and presumably most obvious is the inability to maintain situational awareness. It’s pretty hard to see what’s making that noise outside the tent through opaque walls. Is it a deer sneaking past that you should be happy to hear, since it indicates your concealment is balls-on? Or, is it a hostile scout sneaking up to slit your throat in your sleep, so he can steal your gear, and rape and kill the rest of your tribe? Secondly, if it does turn out to be a hostile, you’re stuck in a trap that there is no way to get out of quickly and surreptitiously (Hell, even if it’s a pissed-off moose who doesn’t like the fact that your bivvy shelter is in the middle of her normal path…ask me how I know…). Finally, it takes more effort and more time to set up a tent than it does to string up a well-constructed hooch, especially in the close, nasty spots you should be choosing for evasion hide sites. Tents, from a tactical point-of-view, are just horrendously inefficient.

    Even in winter conditions of deep snow and extreme cold, a snow trench or a hole in the snow burrowed under a spruce tree is more efficient at both trapping the body heat of inhabitants and the heat of a small survival fire, while concealing the whole mess from enemy observation than a tent. Learn how to build expedient shelters, from poncho hooches to snow trenches and brush lean-tos (although I have a LOT of trouble seeing the tactical value of brush lean-tos, considering the inherent inefficiency of something that you’ll either have to tear down in the morning and spread the evidence of, or risk being located by enemy forces and used to key in on your location).

The idea of minimizing weight just to minimize weight, without consideration for what you are sacrificing in return, is as stupid as packing the living room, bedroom, and kitchen. When it comes to minimizing weight, THINK about what you are doing, and why. Consider the weight, robustness, and applicability of every piece of gear you select, based on your level of training and field craft knowledge.

Nous Defions!

John Mosby

Somewhere in the mountains


(Postscript: I’m morally certain that someone reading this, somewhere–probably on the east coast–is going, “Fucking Mosby, always talking about some fantasy rural-based guerrilla resistance! Doesn’t that idiot know most Americans live in urban environments?” Yeah, I do. I also know the same fundamental considerations of fieldcraft apply in urban environments as apply in rural environments. You still need to be able to find shelter that will get you out of the elements. Even if you are thinking about hide sites in buildings, you’re going to need to be able to improvise expedient shelters within those rooms for holding heat more efficiently in cold-weather conditions when the power is out. If you think the power isn’t going to out–intentionally or not–you’re delusional. I’ve “camped” out in urban areas as well as rural areas, both OCONUS and CONUS. The same skills apply, I can assure you.)


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