One summer I led a wilderness canoe trip on the Nisutlin River in the Yukon Territory. While being outfitted in Whitehorse, a friend informed me of a guy he knew living on the river, a true backwoodsman who lived off the land. A week into the trip, we stopped to camp not far from where the woodsman’s cabin was supposed to be. My son Zach and I took the opportunity to seek him out.
After a few dead ends, we discovered the cabin and found Peter home and delighted to have the company. We spoke for a few hours and it was fascinating to hear his story and gain insight into his life as a homme du nord, or man of the north. One thing that I noticed was his gear. Here was a man who truly lived a backwoods life, and from what I could see, he probably paid less for all the gear that sustained him than I paid for the knife on my belt.
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It is late September as I sit and write this article. Each day I go to the mailbox and another outdoor gear catalog is awaiting me. They are filled with stuff I can’t live without; I want it all. And then I think of Peter with the sharpened-down, bare bones folding knife on his belt, his homemade oil barrel woodstove, his threadbare wool sweaters and patched canvas pants and all the rest. I put my credit card back in my wallet and challenged myself. I will completely equip myself for my fall pursuits in the Pennsylvania woods for $160, the average daily wage for an American worker. From shelter to sleeping bag, to cutting tools, to cook set, to firearm, I will haunt the flea markets, yard sales and swap meets and I will set up camp for $160.
A word of disclosure is necessary before we begin our quest. My home state of Pennsylvania may be the best place in the world to do such shopping. Pennsylvania is an old rust-belt state with Philly in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and in between is farmland, forest and mountains. If you know where to shop, what comes out of grandpa’s barn may be a treasure trove for the low-budget backwoodsman.
SCAVENGER HUNTING TIPS
What follows are a few tips for any other penny pincher who wants to sidestep the malls, catalogs or mega-stores to make their own budget-friendly survival kit.
➤ Pick and choose your flea markets. What is a rare and precious antique at one market is old stuff out of the barn at another. Typically the more rural the market, the better the prices.
➤ Learn the art of respectful dickering. Never pay the asking price. If the price on the item is $20, a gentle negotiation down to $12 to $15 would be reasonable.
➤ Don’t get into a project that winds up being a money pit. If the item is so beat that it requires hard-to-find replacement parts and lots of time, it’s not worth it.
➤ Look for items that, in their day, were top of the line. An older Case knife in need of some love is probably a better buy than a cleaner knife from unknown origins.
➤ Try to get to the markets early. When the sun comes up is when the bargains come up.
➤ Bring more money than you think you need. You never know what you will turn up.
Let The Scavenging Begin
The most basic of the woodsman’s tools is his knife. The mountain men who spent years at a time leading a “life wild and perilous” got by with a common butcher knife on their belt. As stainless steel cutlery has replaced simple carbon steel, old carbon steel knives turn up at every flea market I visit. When it comes to taking and holding an edge, it is the old carbon steel knives that I look for. If it rusts, it works for me. I picked up a pair of full-bladed butcher knives for $3.
With game and food processing chores spoken for, I went in search of an all-purpose belt knife. At a trapper’s swap meet, I scored big with a cut-down World War II Ka-Bar in a heavy, homemade sheath for $15. I could have gone the Mora knife route. These excellent knives from Sweden go for about the same money as the old Ka-Bar and are first-rate tools. However, in the spirit of scrounging, I opted for the Ka-Bar.
The next challenge was acquiring wood cutting tools for shelter building and gathering firewood. Conventional woods wisdom says that it is the axe that is the key to life in the wild. Who am I to argue? But I would rather saw than chop any day. I pack the axe primarily for splitting firewood. The good news is that both cast off bow saws and used-and-abused axes abound at flea markets and can be had for a song. I picked up a 30-inch Disston bow saw for $2. Yep, two bucks. With a new $8 Bahco replacement blade, I have $10 invested. I am very fond of bow saws, also called Swede saws. They are light, safe to use and cut like crazy. At a recent weekend camp, the Disston blew through oak logs, providing a pile of firewood in no time.
The axe I picked up cost me $8. I replaced the broken handle, and some time with a file and stone put the axe back in business. The total cost, with the new handle, was $19. When buying an older axe, check the poll for mushrooming. This distorts the eye and indicates the axe was used to drive steel splitting wedges. Leave that one on the table.
My choice of a firearm came down to deciding between a .22 and a shotgun. Since my camp was to see me through small game and deer season, I opted for the shotgun. From #6 shot to 00 buck, I had my bases covered with the rock-solid Iver Johnson single-shot 12 gauge I scored for $65, with a background check thrown in.
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It’s lucky for the penny-pinching woods runner that a simple tarp has it all over a tent in the Pennsylvanian woods. I’ve spent time in the north woods where nightly rituals revolve around hunting down and eliminat- ing any and all insects that may have invaded one’s tent. The penalty for missing one surviving mosquito may be a lost night of sleep. As long as you don’t camp by a marsh, the woodsman in the Pennsylvania forest is spared the need to zip himself up in the confines of a tent. On a warm night, a tarp secured over a ridgepole A-frame style can keep a camper dry in a downpour. In cooler conditions, a lasting fire between a reflective back wall and the mouth of a lean-to keeps the woodsman warm.
Those plastic tarps that you see everywhere can be a lot of shelter for the money. However, they are stiff, noisy and just don’t seem to be in the spirit of serious woods loafing. I was searching for a piece of canvas. I didn’t find my canvas, but I did find a well-used 8-by-10-foot nylon tarp that was a reasonable compromise with my backcountry sensibilities. The vender threw it in with some tools I bought for my son’s tree care business. The tarp had a few holes that I patched with 100-mph tape. I had my shelter. Let’s call it $5 in gas money.
With a discarded shower curtain for my ground cloth and an old sheet sewn to hold dry leaves as a mattress, I was on the hunt for a sleeping bag. At a yard sale I found a bag that was very familiar to me. The 1960s-era military-issue bag brought me back to Fort Leonard Wood circa 1968 when I was issued one to accompany me on my journey through basic training. The price tag was $15. Add a wool military surplus blanket for $17 and I can look forward to some warm and cozy nights afield.
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When we think of wilderness gear it is knives, guns and the tough-guy stuff that first come to mind. Talk to any experienced woodsman and containers will be near the top of the list. My choice was the surplus German military mess kit. There must be a lot of hungry German soldiers as these kits are all over the place. The kits are under $10 everywhere, and they’re perfect for their assigned task and are a watertight, secure container for survival gear. I stuff my kits with matches, tinder, water-purification tablets, packets of oatmeal and 550 cord. Add a $2 thrift shop fry pan to the kit and you are ready to heat it, boil it up or fry it. Dinner is served!
There you have it. A grand total of $161 brings me amazingly close to my target budget. Who needs the high-end stuff? A guy can hit the backcountry in comfort for the price of a good day’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of assembling the kit. It took me about a month of Sunday morning shopping excursions.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.