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Michael Spenser: Camping in Wilderness (interview)


Michael Spenser

Michael Spenser

I went to college for Engineering, while also heavily focused in advanced Mathematics & Physics. There were also 3 occupational schools that I attended for automotive repair, electronic theory, & computer and electronics repair & Network troubleshooting.

I am what someone would call a “Jack of All Trades” kind of guy. These skills were primarily taught to me by my grandfather, Gramps. Through his teachings, I had learned household plumbing, home electrical wiring & code, construction, furniture building, fencing, roofing, welding, & concrete mixing and pouring. He was a very hand’s on teacher and a perfectionist, at least when it came to my work. I think his goal was to make sure I could always get a job, so he taught me all these skills.

I was introduced to the wilderness at the age of 6, when my family brought me to my grandparent’s log cabin in the woods, built on stilts, in the Catskills Mountains. The cabin was built by hand by the entire family, along with some family friends. This place was totally off grid, no electricity nor running water. It used a cast iron hand water pump that ran down to a large sealed water container below, which connected to the stream down the mountain via PVC tubing. Slightly up the hill was the outhouse, and during winter months, let’s just say it was brutal.

For illumination, we had several kerosene lamps, and a couple of Coleman fuel Lanterns w/mantles. The cabin was heated by a cast iron wood burning heater/stove top and by a fireplace. It was filled with books on Nature, edible plant identification, First Aid, & a variety of “How to” & DIY books. Hanging on the walls of this place were vintage and antique hand tools, the same tools that were used to construct this log cabin. As with many log cabins in the area, there was a hanging bear’s rug, a Deer and even a Jackolope head. Just to get to this place, one had to drive a couple of miles on a dirt path alongside the mountain and then park and schlep all of their gear halfway down the mountain until they reached the cabin.

It was here that I was introduced to archery, hunting, foraging, cutting trees down, log splitting, axe sharpening, Bushcraft, & wilderness survival. During the evenings, as the years progressed, I spent my time reading all of the books there, furthering my knowledge of the great outdoors. During the days, I would practice what I had learned the evening before from reading those books.

It was several years later that I joined the Boy Scouts and it was at this point, the wilderness became my obsession. As with everyone in life, after experiencing the adventures at the Log Cabin, I started going campsite camping. This is the Camping 101 introduction to the outdoors for 1st time campers. The Boy Scouts introduced me to backpack camping, which is a huge reduction of camp gear that one brings. As my wilderness & Bushcraft skills became more honed, I began a more minimalist approach to camping, and started more off the trail style adventures.

Unlike most backpackers, I am into more extreme backpack camping. I choose to venture into the wilderness during harsh weather conditions; intense torrential downpours, extreme wind, snow storms, any of these to me were a golden opportunity to go out into the wilderness. The only time I do not go camping is in the summer months, as I am not a fan of intense heat.

Both of my parents were English majors in college, my mother ended up teaching High School English, while my father went on to get his Doctorate in English Literature. It was of no surprise to anyone in my family that writing was in my blood, and one usually writes about what they love, and for me, that passion was the great outdoors.

It was for this love of animals & the wilderness that I decided to focus on wilderness survival writing. This all began after I started doing Freelance gear reviews from a variety of online magazines, and E-commerce sites which eventually led to professional article writing.

My camping destinations have changed over the years, though in the beginning I chose to go to areas that were near Drive-In Movie theatres. It was a way to have modern entertainment but yet still being outside. After a few days of camping, I would drive and watch a double feature movie then return to my campsite later in the evening. I think this tradition started due to my father, that after a day or two at the cabin, he needed some of the luxuries of home, this being, watching a movie, so he would drive us to Kingston area where I went to my 1st Drive-in movie experience.

I am going to go on a tangent for a minute; back in college, my mathematics professor let us have 1 page worth of formulas to bring with us for the final exam. I typed the formulas on two pages and using a copy machine, reduced the size of both of them to fit a single page. When the professor came to my desk and saw what he did, he simply smiled and patted me on the shoulder and moved on. The reason why I mentioned this is that I was asked what 5 items I cannot imagine not having with me when I go hiking/camping.

A person’s ability to endure the outdoors solely resides in his or her outdoor knowledge. The more skilled the person is in wilderness survival, the less he or she technically needs to bring. Someone like myself really only needs the clothing on their back, but there is a difference between enduring the wilderness, and enjoying. To endure, one would need to make primitive tools, knives, cordage, water containers, shelter, fire, to name a few.

Personally I can do all the above, but why reinvent the wheel when the technology is within reach. I always carry with me a ‘bundled knife setup’. It is a SAK (Swiss Army Knife) the SwissChamp multi-tool by Victorinox, that attaches to one of my ~4 inch Fixed blade knive’s sheath, i.e., my TOPS mil Spie 3. Between the two I have numerous camp chores that I can accomplish from cutting off dead branches for firewood, and then splitting them in half, to starting a fire with the SAK’s magnifying glass. One could write a whole chapter of a book just writing about all the things one can do with this SAK.

Next I have my Sleep System, which is an ENO hammock & rain-fly w/Mylar Solar blanket under-quilt, which is stuffed into my Marmot sleeping bag’s compression sack. My particular hammock model has the advantage of including a mosquito net top.

One always needs a mean to procure water and then purify it, & to cook food, so I always will have in my pack in the very least my Canteen Mess Kit. This is a GI style Aluminum canteen, a canteen cup & lid, all of which bundles into the canteen stove w/ESBIT backup stove which is housed in a military canteen soft case with M.O.L.L.E attachments. I can purify water in either the canteen or canteen cup, or I could use the canteen cup to cook food over the ESBIT stove.

I always carry with me my Survival Key Chain. This key chain has my LED flashlight, emergency whistle, small magnifying glass, Ferro rod, & Magnesium fire starter w/flint.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a difference between enduring and enjoying the outdoors. So, the last item that I just have to have is Musical, either my Solar crank World radio w/weather alert & USB charger, or my sectional Recorder Flute. It just so happens that my love of the wilderness is only surpassed by my love of music, and it turns out, wildlife seems to enjoy Gustav Mahler’s symphony #1, and anything from the Rolling Stones.

For outdoorsmen, & women, we tend to have pre-packed bundled kits. We count this as “one” gear component that we bring. So although technically my key chain has multiple items, combined they are my “Survival key chain”, just like one has left & right shoes, gloves, socks, etc., they are “bundled” into a single “pair”, or in this case, a single key chain.

Some readers may be wondering about why no compass, GPS, and what-have-you. In the technological era we live in, our cell phones have numerous apps that are able to do these functions, and although in a long outing I would also bring my Garmin GPS, or Military compass & topo map, but to be honest, for most of my adventures, I just rather shed the weight of the extra gear.

All of my adventures have one thing in common, advanced preparation. This is where the internet becomes an integral part of my upcoming adventures. I always visit the website and get the location’s 10 day weather forecast. I then go to Google’s Driving Directions as a backup to my Trucks GPS. If going to a National Park area, I visit the parks ‘ .Gov’ website for information of wildlife, venomous insects & reptiles, area closures, & points of interest.

Last I pick up the phone & call the police precinct/ rangers office to find out the areas knife & weapon laws, speed limits, and information such as whether or not fires are allowed, or if tire chains are required for certain areas that I will be going to. I should note that on my Truck’s GPS, I set it up to show me where all gas stations and hospitals are on the map/routes that I will be taking.

My adventures over the decades include the Redwood Forest, Yosemite National Park, Roger Williams state park, Bear Mountain, canoed down the Brazos River in Texas (11th longest river in the USA) Indian reservations in Albuquerque, NM, Mayan Pyramids of Chichen Itza, & the Mountains of Zurich, Switzerland to name a few. This year I would like to do a solo kayak river camping adventure in upstate NY.

[For those that are sticklers for rules, the 5 must have items would always be a metal canteen, SAK, compass, topo map, & either a Ferro rod or a Flint & steel, although since technically Flint and Steel are two pieces, the SAK could spark the flint. These are the basic survival items needed to collect water, make a fire, and purify water, build a shelter and food procurement]

Have there been moments in your life when you risked your life? An encounter with wild animals or incidents that required you to act bravely? What helped you cope in that moment?

I guess it boils down to a guy, fool heartedly, trying to impress a gal. It was almost 30 years ago in Hunter Mountain, NY. I was with my college sweetheart venturing Hunter Mountain Ski resort, and did the cardinal sin of going off trail; a means to impress the woman I love. It was a novice mistake that I would never be able to forget.

We were scaling down the mountain side, and reached a point where I had to lower her down 4 feet to the next level in order to continue our decent. Within a few minutes I realized my grave mistake, as we were now on the edge of the mountain, a cliff, with over a 100 foot drop, straight down. I did not have a climber’s rope, carabineers, or a figure 8 with me. The only means to get back up that mountain, was to scale up it on a 40 degree incline full with slates of rock.

If it was only just me, I would have been able to climb back up to the area I had lowered my girlfriend down from, and although I could have done that and gone for help, I was terrified that she may have tried to scale the side of the mountain while I was gone, and the chances of her causing a rock slide and falling off the cliff was just too great.

Not once, did I show fear, nor concern for our predicament, as I knew that she may of panicked, if not become hysterical. On the inside on the other hand, I was terrified. I realized that no one knew where we were, and rescuers would have never even bothered to think about searching for us off trail, and that high angle incline with piled up slats of rocks was an avalanche rock slide just waiting to happen.

I gave her my gloves to protect her form the sharp edges of the rocks, and told her to lie on her stomach and informed her to slowly crawl on all fours up this incline. I was going to follow behind her so that I could monitor her progression, and be situated to grab hold of her if she accidentally caused a rock slide.

It was about ¾ the way of the mountain that she had lost footing, and began to slide down the mountain side. Without hesitation, I lunged over and was able to grab her jacket and stopper her decent. To lighten the moment I made a joke about enjoying Rock n Roll, then said “See, life is never boring with me around”, and told her to continue up the hill.

It was just starting to get dark when we finally reached the top where a fence was separating this mountainside from the trail. I grabbed my Swiss Army knife’s pliers, and removed several of the fence’s mounting wires so that we could slide under the fence. Within a few minutes we were on the other side of the fence, on the straight path back to the Ski lift. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later after she told her friends of our experience that she realized just how dangerous our situation really was.

If not for my training, keeping a cool head, and downplaying our circumstances, this would have been a story of how two hikers plummeted to their death on Hunter Mountain. And if not for my ego, and willingness to be fool in love, we would have never been in that situation to begin with. The only thing that got us through the day was my love for her, and her love for me.

Moral of this story, don’t be a fool, stay on the marked trail, and live another day.

Which continent, country do you think is the most saturated by hiking trails? Can you recommend a few places on the Earth that allow beginners to enjoy the wilderness?

Although I have never had the opportunity to venture to this continent, I believe Australia has by far the most hiking trails then any other country. Australia has 685 National Parks, which is about 4 times more than any other country possesses.

Personally, when I reminisce of all the amazing wilderness areas that I have traveled, the one that stands out the most to me is Yosemite National Park. I remember walking out of our log cabin in the morning only to be greeted my deer walking over to me, and eating out of my hand. As the deer left, I glanced upwards to see the beautiful sunrise creating a rainbow over the waterfall in the distance.

Some people only end up going camping once, due to either an unforeseen situation that left them with a bad experience, or from a non stop Murphy’s Law scenario, that just gets worse as the trip progresses. I think that Yosemite is the way to go for a 1st time camper. You will be inside a Log Cabin, with running water, heat & electricity, only to walk 10 feet to the front door and you are in a whole new world filled with wildlife and beautiful sceneries.

About the author

Michael Spenser

Michael Spenser, aka Mac, (his Trail name, short for MacGyver), is a Survivalist and outdoor enthusiast with over 40 years of experience in the great outdoors. His background is in engineering, physics & mathematics, and he brings this knowledge into his gear inventions and outdoor experiences. Now Michael aka Mac, when he is not in the wilderness, spends his free time as a Freelance gear reviewer of outdoor gear & gadgets, an outdoor Blogger, professional outdoor survival writer, and teacher of outdoor non combat survival skills.