Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Esbit CS985HA Cookset - Heaxmine vs. Alcohol Fuel

Last year I got an Esbit CS985HA cookset which includes two anodized aluminum pots, a pot stand, a Trangia-style spirit burner with snuffer lid, and a stand for burning solid fuel tablets. It also comes with a mesh storage sack. Overall, it's a lightweight and well-made little cooker which can be used with hexamine fuel tablets or alcohol.

In the picture below I've taken out the stove stand which nests inside the cookpot. In the stand I have the spirit burner and lid, the solid fuel stand, a bandana, matches in a Ziploc bag, and a bandana. I generally keep this all inside a plastic bag nested in the pot.

I've used it several times with the spirit burner, burning denatured alchohol and I've been happy with fuel consumption and boil times. However, I had not yet tried it with Esbit 14 gram hexamine fuel tablets, until yesterday.

I was especially curious to see how the hexamine compared with denatured alcohol, since hexamine can generate 13,300 BTUs per pound of fuel, compared with denatured alky's 11,570 BTUs/pound. (See: http://zenstoves.net/Fuels.htm) If the stove is equally efficient with both fuels, you'd expect the boil times to be reduced with hexamine.

However, everything is not equal. When using the spirit burner to boil water, it's more or less set-and-forget, until it's boiled. In the interest of science, I got out my Harbor Freight multimeter which can be used to measure temperatures with a thermocouple. (It also displays ambient temperature and relative humidity.) Hence the picture below, with a wire sticking out of the cookset:

I should note that I tried a couple methods to light the first hexamine tablet. I wanted to see how viable it would be to light it with sparks from a ferro rod, so I used my knife to scrape some of the fuel to create a little pile of powder on top of the tablet. No dice. I then added some dryer lint on top, which easily took a spark but failed to ignite the hexamine. Next I tried sitting the tablet on top of a wad of dryer lint, which again failed to ignite it.

At that point I abandoned the ferro rod and lit the tablet with a match.

The ambient temp was about 70*F and the 16 oz. of water started at 68*. When the first Esbit tablet burned out after about 11 minutes, the water temperature was 172*. That's hot enough for coffee or tea, but I wanted to make ramen for lunch, and in any event, you need to cook the noodles for three minutes after the water boils. So, I lit another tablet and put the pot back on.

It only took a couple more minutes to bring the water to a boil. I dumped in the seasoning packet and noodles, and replaced the lid. A couple minutes later I had to remove the lid as the soup began to boil over.

One reason I hadn't tried this cookset with the Esbit tablets is that based on past experience with hexamine, it leaves a sticky soot on your cookware. However, it appears that this stove burns the hexamine more efficiently than the older style folding Esbit cooker. Here's a pic of the stove on the left with the residue of two tablets and some dryer lint. On the right is the bottom of the pot. The residue on the pot wasn't sticky and later washed off with hot tap water.

A complaint many have about hexamine is the smell. The unburnt fuel smells like fish, and in an inefficient stove the stink is magnified. When I tried out this stove there wasn't much smell, indicates to me that it's burning efficiently. In contrast, the folding Esbit stoves stink.

To quantify any difference in performance between hexamine and alcohol fuel, today I repeated the experiment but used the spirit burner. Today both the ambient temp and water from the tap were a couple degrees warmer. Both ambient and water temp started at about 73*

The spirit burner lights easily with a ferro rod; today it lit with one spark. The stove then takes a couple minutes to heat the fuel to the point where it vaporizes and comes out the holes around the rim.

One big disadvantage in my opinion is that even after the stove reaches full bloom, the alcohol flame is nearly invisible in daylight, unlike the flame from burning hexamine. In this picture the stove is lit and giving off noticeable heat:

The alky burner took about 9 minutes to bring 16 oz. of water to a rolling boil. Even though the ambient and water temps started off a few degrees warmer today, that wouldn't account for the several minute shorter boil time. Even though hexamine packs more BTUs per pound than denatured alcohol, given this particular design, the spirit burner is more efficient.

I should note that boil times for both fuels would have been reduced had I used a windscreen to reduce convection loss and help reflect some heat back to the pot.

Based on this comparison I'm going to stick with denatured alcohol for most of my use. Esbit tablets are handy and will warm water enough for a cup of tea or coffee, and should work OK for heating a can of Vienna sausages in the small pan. However, the spirit burner is easier to light and snuff out, and appears to heat water more quickly.

Friday, February 24, 2017

New Order From Varusteleka

Varusteleka is a military surplus store in Helsinki, Finland. I've ordered a few items from them, most notably a Jerven bag. Service from them has always been fast but over the holiday season getting my package through Customs at JFK has taken a week or more. It looks like the Customs backlog is finally speeding up. This shipment cleared customs in only a couple days.

This order came in a cool bag.

Finns channeling Rhodesians, huh?

Inside, two of the hard to get in the US Bundewehr sleeping mats, and one 10-pack each of SCHO-KA-KOLA milk (blue) and dark (red) chocolates.

The chocolates are very good. They are fortified with caffeine and have been used by the German military as iron rations. The dark is somewhat bitter but I like it.

The Bundeswehr mats measure 74" long by 21" wide, and aren't very thick, maybe 3/8". That's pretty thin so they don't doesn't provide a lot of padding or insulation. I could have used one of these by itself back when I was in my early 20s, but I need a lot more padding nowadays. However, they appear to be well made of closed cell foam that would provide a good layer underneath an air mattress to protect it from things that might cause a puncture.

I do think that the BW mats could make decent shooting mats. With a 16" AR-15 for scale:

The two mats I received were made in 1990.

They appear to be new old stock. One had a bit of dirt on it and a small partial puncture, but nothing that would affect its function.

When folded up, they are 15" long  x 10.5" wide by 1-3/8" thick. They'd make a good sitting pad. Likewise, partially unfolded it would be good for kneeling on when doing fire prep, e.g to catch wood shavings for tinder to keep them off moist ground.

Finally, the other use for the BW mats is as an internal frame for the German surplus mountain rucksacks. The rucks are easily available in the US (e.g., at Keepshooting) but unfortunately the matching mats are not, hence my order from overseas. The slot pocket inside the ruck is designed to accept this mat, to give the pack some rigidity and keep contents from poking you in the back.

I have no connection with Varusteleka other than as a satisfied customer. They are a good source of some items of interest to preppers and bushcrafters. Shipping from Finland to the US is only $9.99, on par with most domestic suppliers.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Basic Buyer's Guide for Kalashnikov Rifles

Rob Ski of the AK Operator's Union did this video at the end of 2015 with guidance on what to look for when buying an AK rifle. If you're looking to pick up an AK it's worth watching.

The rest of his videos are worth checking out, as well.

Monday, January 30, 2017

USMC Grid Fleece Pullover

I got one of these USMC surplus grid fleece pullovers last month from the Sportsman's Guide and have worn it a lot since then.  SPG has the best price I've seen on them in unissued condition.

I use it as an insulating layer under a windproof shell, either my First Spear Windcheater or German surplus flecktarn parka. I've also worn it as extra insulation under my Arc'Teryx Atom LT and SV hoodies on really cold days.

It's a light weight, half zip pullover that can be used as a base layer or on top of other layers. It is remarkably warm for its thickness and weight. The outside is pretty smooth but the inside is a polar fleece with a grid pattern in it that traps a warm air layer near your body. I just took a walk wearing it over a t-shirt and button down shirt, under the flecktarn parka on a walk around my neighborhood. It's 27 degrees and I was plenty warm.

The one I ordered is an XL. It runs a little big based on my sample of one. That's OK because as a pullover, it's more difficult to put on or take off compared with a full zip sweater, and the extra room helps.

Two big thumbs up.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Silky Bigboy 360 Folding Saw

Some kind of wood processing tool is handy to have when camping and may be a necessity in a survival situation. Many woodsmen likes axes, hatchets, or large choppers, but a folding saw is a great alternative. Saws often weigh less, are more energy efficient, and safer to use.

For several years I've had a Gerber folding saw which was improved by using a saw set to increase the kerf and reduce drag when cutting. It's pocket sized and very easy to pack.

However, I wanted a longer saw that could still fit in a pack. Everything else being equal, the longer the cutting stroke the more efficient the saw. So, last month I got a Silky Bigboy 360 folding saw with large teeth. With a 360mm (14.1" blade) it's significantly longer than the Gerber. The rubber handle is easily grasped with both hands.

I finally got to try it out today on a branch I had in my firewood pile, and to trim a couple branches from a dogwood in my yard.

The branch from my firewood pile was of an unknown type of wood, possibly elm. It was well seasoned and hard. The Silky chewed through it like a hungry beaver. This took only a few strokes:

Dogwood is very hard and a good test of any blade. Although it required more effort to cut than the elm (?) branch, the Silky went through it very well. I'd like to test it on some softwood but don't have any. Based on Survival Russia's videos, I'd expect it to work damn near like a power tool.

The Gerber cuts on both the push and pull strokes. Silky saws, in contrast, cut only on the pull stroke. This allows the blade to be thinner and more flexible and doesn't really make it less efficient.

The Silky feels more robust than the Gerber. If I was in the market for a smaller folding saw I'd go with a Silky Pocketboy.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Russian Surplus Veshmeshok Pack

For some reason I recently got the hankering to try out a Russian veshmeshok ("kit bag") as a daypack. The veshmeshok is a very basic 30L (~1800 cubic inch) pack made from canvas, first adopted by the Imperial Russian army during the 19th Century. During the Inter-War period the Soviet Army adopted a more modern design, but placed the veshmeshok back into production during WW2, since it is so simple to produce. Production continued into the 90s, but I found one Russian web store which sells a "modern" version made of a Cordura-like nylon in camoflauge.

The veshmeshok is not much more than a canvas sack with a single outside pocket and four web straps that allow you to carry a rolled up greatcoat or bedroll. The top has a drawstring closure, probably made from hemp. But the single most distinguishing feature of the veshmeshok is the suspension, such as it is. There is one continuous shoulder strap which is also used as the closure for the top of the bag. The strap is 1.5" wide and lightly padded. It is attached at the bottom corners of the pack.

Lars of the Survival Russia YouTube channel uses a veshmeshok as his scouting pack and has a good video about it, here, in which he demonstrates how to rig the bag for carrying.  (Check out the rest of his videos, too. They're awesome.)

If you're in the US, veshmeshoks are easily available on eBay from sellers in the former USSR, but they're also available on Amazon Prime, which is the route I went.

My veshmeshok came neatly folded inside a surprisingly small box, complete with Soviet Surplus Smell. The date stamp inside the bag is faded but I think it says 1977. It's in unissued condition. The canvas is thinner than I thought it would be but it should be more than durable enough for my needs.

Because the veshmeshok is basically a 45cm x 67cm sack, you need to be careful loading it so that it doesn't turn into a ball, or you have things poking you in the back. So, the first thing I put in mine when I transferred the contents of my Hill People Gear Tarahumara over to the vesh was my Z-Lite seat pad. I unfolded the Z-Lite and used it as a back pad inside the pack.

Heavier items went in next, including an Esbit cookset and two Nalgene Oasis 1 quart canteens, one in a USGI cup. Then I put in my first aid kit, cordage kit, brew kit, TP with hand sanitizer and a trowel, a pair of gloves, and my BCUSA MEST poncho. Some disposable hand and toe warmers went into the outside pocket, along with a fleece beanie. My puukko got attached to one of the bedroll straps. Weight of the pack thus loaded was about 16 pounds.

I tried out the veshmeshok on a short hike yesterday. It was surprisingly comfortable with this load, since it's not much more than a string bag.

Adding a day's rations, another quart of water, and some kind of blanket or shelter would bump this up to around 25 pounds. It wouldn't be so comfortable at that weight, but the Russian Army has never been overly concerned with the comfort of its soldiers.

The short length of the shoulder straps was surprising. I am not a big guy although I have broad shoulders for my 5'4" height. With the shoulder straps set to their longest length they're just long enough for me to wear with a winter coat on. To make it a little more comfortable to carry, I added a loop of paracord at the midpoint of the strap and used that to close the sack, and put the pack into carry mode. I got that idea from this thread on BCUSA.

Additionally, the sternum strap is too short for me to make any use of it. It would need to be at least another 8" longer to be really useful. I may sew on some webbing to lengthen it.

You can fit a surprising amount of gear into a veshmeshok. For example, see this page at Operation Eastwind which shows the loadout for a Soviet reenactor.

The veshmeshok won't replace any of my modern packs but it may see use when I feel like going retro. One project I may try is pairing the veshmeshok with a Roycroft pack frame.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

December 2016 Camping Trip Report

(I wrote this up over a week ago and forgot to post it.)

December 9th and 10th I went deer hunting in Tioga County, PA, just south of the New York State line. Temperatures while we were there topped out at about 32*F/0*C, and dropped down to about 21*F/-6*C at night. There's usually a breeze blowing as well. We slept under a pavilion with two walls built but the ends open, temporarily covered with canvas tarps. At night we had a propane-fired patio heater to take the edge off the cold. In this post I want to offer some observations on how some of our gear worked.


Don't trust old equipment, even if it's been tested recently, unless maintenance has been performed on it. My Coleman 425 camp stove made in 1979 was tested the previous weekend but failed on this trip. A seal blew so it wouldn't hold pressure, and leaked fuel.

One of my friends used an MSR Pocket Rocket canister stove with no problems. I keep a folding Esbit stove in my daypack for brewing tea or coffee when out in the field, but it didn't see any use on this trip. I've used it on past trips, however.

The Lixada wood gasifer stove I got in November worked OK for warming water. This is primarily a twig stove that is sold under various brand names on Amazon and eBay. Like all twig stoves it needs constant feeding to keep going. I wanted to try it this weekend with charcoal briquettes, since we always keep two or three bags up at our campsite.

Using briquettes, the Lixada stove was able to get water up to near-boiling but never to a full, rolling boil. This temp was good enough for filling the canteen I put in the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep warm, but not hot enough for oatmeal or coffee. Briquettes would work if you needed to simmer something in a pot or fry something in a pan. They burned for a long time.

I also tried the Lixada stove using fire starters made by filling a cardboard egg carton with oak shavings and paraffin wax. One of these would bring my MSR kettle to a rolling boil in only a few minutes. The main downside to these is that they'll leave your pot covered in so much soot it'll be darker than Spinal Tap's Black Album. These fire starters also burn out in about five minutes.

In one of his "longhouse" videos on YouTube, Evan Hill of Hill People Gear discusses your energy envelope. This pertinent because if you're backpacking, it may actually cost you less in energy to pack in a canister stove and fuel than a twig stove that you have to gather and prepare fuel for.

On future winter trips I'll make sure to have a functional Coleman stove and bring my Kovea Spider as a backup.


SmartWool merino wool base layers are warm, help you manage moisture, and don't itch.

Windproof pants make a huge difference in staying warm. I continue to be pleased with my ORC Industries Level 5 PCU softshell trousers. I've had these for several years and they've been one of my best purchases, always keeping my legs warm and dry in snow, when worn over insulation.

When sleeping on a cot in drafty weather you cannot have too much insulation beneath you. I used a MidwayUSA shooting mat, a blue foam pad, a Thermarest Ridge Rest, and then two military surplus wool blankets folded in half lengthwise on top of my cot. This gave me a firm but warm and comfortable bed.

The old trick of putting a hot water bottle in the bottom of your sleeping bag works. I filled a Nalgene Oasis canteen with hot water, wrapped it in a shemagh, and put it in the footbox of my sleeping bag. It warmed the bag up nicely. It was still lukewarm in the morning. Being already warm, it boiled faster when it came time for breakfast, too.

Two or three disposable hand warmers activated and tossed into you bag before bed also help. I had a package of these coming up on their expiration date so I wanted to use them up, and this was a good way to do so.

The disposable hand warmers and toe warmers came in very handy while sitting out on my deer stand. If you're moving around in the temps we experienced keeping your hands and feet warm isn't a problem but once you're sitting still, you need either more insulation or an external heat source. The disposables worked well for me.

Some guys like to use an empty Gatorade or Nalgene bottle to pee in so that they don't have to get out of their bag in the middle of the night. Frankly, I don't think I could do that without pissing all over my sleeping bag, but YMMV.

The Hill People Gear Mountain Serape is an awesome piece of gear. I used it two ways last weekend. First, after being out for a few hours hunting, I used it in greatcoat mode over my Arc'Teryx LEAF Atom SV hoodie while hanging out back at camp before bed. It allowed me to shed the hooded sweatshirt I'd been wearing under the Atom SV, and also my ORC PCU Level 5 softshell trousers. As a greatcoat, the Mountain Serape provided a warm layer of insulation and blocked the wind when out around the campfire, and inside our drafty shelter.

If I hunted out west where you can do so without wearing blaze orange, I'd pack a Mountain Serape with me to my stand and put it on while glassing/waiting for game. Not only is it warm but it also helps to break up your outline, so you don't look like a human. If HPG made one in blaze orange or blaze camo, I'd order one for sure.

Later, I used the Mountain Serape in sleeping bag mode as an overbag around the footbox of my sleeping bag.

A Snugpak poncho liner may be a viable, less expensive alternative to the HPG Mountain Serape if you're on a budget, especially if you added snaps or bungies to hold it closed around yourself.

For use around a campfire something made from natural fibers would be better than the nylon shell of the Mountain Serape or Snugpak poncho liner. E.g., a wool blanket poncho or a South American alpaca poncho. OTH, they probably aren't as windproof as the modern insulated ponchos.

If you're car camping, having a vacuum flask of hot tea or coffee filled ahead of time is a great morale booster. It's really nice being able to immediately pour yourself a hot cup of tea when you come in from the cold, instead of having to wait for it to brew.

Canteen Cup Accessories

Many hikers and preppers like the old USGI canteen cup for use as a cooking vessel. I've had this old, L-handle style cup since the '80s, and it's seen a lot of use. It's so black on the outside I should call it "Ol' Crusty."

Sentiment aside, canteen cups have two drawbacks which can be remedied with products now on the market.

Nothing like hot chocolate from your canteen cup.

First is a lid. The US military never issued one. If you're heating something by putting your canteen cup in a campfire you don't really care too much about minimizing fuel consumption, but it's nice to reduce heating time and keep debris out of your meal. Previously I've used a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil but this needs to be periodically replaced, and it's prone to blowing away. Heavy Cover, Inc. sells a nice stainless steel boil lid, shown in the above pic. HC also sells one for the Crusader cup.

I've used the Heavy Cover lid a couple times now and it definitely reduces the time to boil water for a hot drink by a few minutes. If I have any criticism is that it's heavy. It could be made from a thinner gauge of stainless steel to reduce weight. Or better yet, make it from aluminum or titanium. E.g., Four Dog Stoves sells Ti lids for a variety of pot/cups, for $4 less than the HC stainless steel lid.

Second is something to prevent burning your lips on the hot rim of the cup. Snow Peak Hotlips happen to snap right onto the USGI cup like they were made for it.  The yellow thing on the rim of my cup above is one. This is a major usability improvement when making coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.