Bear’s-Eye View

Today’s game was to climb to the summit on hands and knees: For every step, I had either to “bear walk” or lunge. Though that may sound wretched, it was a huge endorphin fest.

The golden recipe for training is to do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible. That’s the closest thing I know to a magical, alchemical formula. Among other benefits (about which more later), it gives you a huge hormonal high.

This is not the face of endorphins. Smile and have fun! If you look like this, you’re working too hard. Slow down.

The trick is to settle in, patiently and quietly, for a slow, long, comfortable session. Think “tortoise,” not “hare.” As soon as your muscles or lungs begin to burn, stop and rest immediately! Let your heart slow down again and get your equanimity back. You’re not in a Rocky training montage. You’re not looking for histrionics, heroism, or anguish here, or even strain. You’re aiming to keep your mood somewhere between “Placid Contemplation” and “Mild Euphoria.”


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The Swedish “Moose Sack”

I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”

Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.

At almost 80 years old and heavily used, this pack is so bomb-proof that you’d think it was Soviet if it weren’t also attractive and comfortable.

As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!

Loopsided

This morning’s game was called “Loopsided”: three mismatched weights all carried off-center, starring the Leaden Loop.

People don’t like one-arm or one-legged lifts very much, including me, because they take more time and tire the core muscles. But you need to work in the transverse (side-to-side) somehow, and you can check that box with weighted carries, or even by lifting mismatched dumbells. You’ll feel challenged and kinesthetically interested, but it won’t suck up a lot of time or smoke your abs so much that it becomes just an elaborate core exercise.

See the unusual indented look of Pat McNamara’s waist. That’s how you tell someone with pro-grade one-arm and rotational strength. Don’t casually challenge such a person to a tug of war or a wrestling match.

The Steel Snake Eats Its Tail

Today’s game was to sew straps onto both ends of the Steel Snake and take it out for a slither.

Over 4 miles (6.4km), the Snake and I agreed on a few things:

  • With straps added on, it slips and flops around less. That way it’s much easier to carry.
  • Since it’s pretty slender, you can stay completely upright.
  • For both those reasons, you can relax under the load and carry it much, much longer. 

However, the Steel Snake gives you too many choices. When I dreamed it up, I thought it would be great that I could carry the snake lots of different ways, including wrapped in various ways around the waist, neck, and shoulders. And although you really can carry in different positions, it’s a pain to shift around and you spend as much time fiddling with it as marching. Furthermore, though lots of carry positions work, only one works spectacularly well, and that’s worn across the body like a sash or a bed roll.

So as my next experiment, I’ll change the Steel Snake into a dummy-proof fixed loop or “steel sash.”

Or maybe it will be called The Awkward Ouroboros.

Field-Testing the Steel Snake

The problem here isn’t so much the weight as the SHAPE of the weight. Good luck resting this above your center of gravity.

In the real world, when we need to lift or haul something challenging, it’s less often because it’s terribly heavy and usually because it’s awkwardly shaped. Stones are bad. A half-filled keg is worse. It is like a stone whose center of gravity sloshes around and wrenches it from whatever tenuous hold you have. It can be an ordeal to shoulder just 50 lbs., much less to move around with it for a few minutes.

Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get a few breaks from the team weight. Like surf torture.

And what if you had to carry that 50 lbs. for 24 hours? What would be the ideal shape? That is the question for the upcoming GORUCK Heavy event, where aside from rucksacks and other evil toys, we also need to devise a 50-lb. “team weight” and carry it for the whole 24 hours.

Again, it is about center of gravity (COG). Theoretically, you want to carry weight directly above your COG. On top of your head is the most efficient, or at least across your shoulders.

But for GORUCK, the problem is that everybody will already be shouldering heavy rucksacks and be a little stooped over.

Sometimes you can rig a shoulder pole or yoke that slings the weight below your center of gravity, for stability, so you aren’t top-heavy and precariously balanced. These would be great if we didn’t need to climb hills and rocky defiles. But at GORUCK we will.

The Army field manual suggests carrying part of your load on your waist. It’s efficient because you can make the load hug your center of gravity. Similarly, a “double pack” divides the load between your front and back, so that you can (more or less) share a common COG with your backpack while standing upright. The Army literature recommends these when practical, but that is rare in military settings. (For one thing, you can’t crawl well.) It also won’t quite work for us at GORUCK–everybody will already be carrying an individual ruck–but it does give me ideas…

So behold [drumroll] the Steel Snake!

With quick and dirty sewing lessons from Lauren the Miraculous, I sewed up 50 lbs. of lead weights and steel chain in a 9′ (2.7m) ripstop chain sleeve and took it out for field tests with a rucksack over a 2.1 mile (3.4km) stretch of country road.

With the Snake, you can re-distribute the weight in the most efficient, comfortable way at any given moment–around your waist, over one or both shoulders, on your chest, on your back, even shared between two people–and you can keep shifting it as you go, from tired muscles to fresh muscles. It’s not exactly a hot soak with essential oil, tea lights, and an Enya album. But for lumbering overland with 100 lbs. (rucksack + team weight), this is actually pretty pleasant. And for extra cool points, people will think you’ve been accosted by a boa constrictor in a clown suit.

Retro in the Snow

When Lars Grebnev at Survival Russia talks, I listen.

First he got me into jackboots, which I like more all the time because they’re weather- and terrain-proof. On slippery rocks, in muck, over a gravelly boulder-scape, in a calf-high stream, the jackboots keep you stable and dry. This time I tried them with snowshoes. My cheapo, old-fashioned 1980s Swedish army snowshoes were not exactly high-performance dynamos, but the $20 East German jackboots kept me warm, dry, and comfortable all day.

Tip for you jackbooted thugs out there: boot grease really works. It’s cheap and takes two minutes to apply, and it makes these things truly waterproof.

Lars was also right about old Scandinavian wool. For cold weather, he’s remarked, you’d do very well to find Scandinavian surplus from the 1960s or before. It dates from a time when armies lived outdoors for long periods of time and they made clothes that were supremely warm and durable, in a way that isn’t true of modern stuff.

Through the awesome Surplus City, I found some old wool trousers that came along with me on the snowshoeing trip, and I think the world of them. Apparently these Nordic folks really know a thing or too about cold. I felt like I had a warm lamb wrapped around each leg.

They’re also very comfortable to wear with a pack because they’re high-waisted. My rucking guru Sgt. Šileika told me to expect this: the extra length of old-fashioned, high-waisted trousers protects you from chafing, and since they use suspenders rather than a belt, you don’t get flesh pinched between the top of your pants and the hip belt of your pack. Much more comfortable!

Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!