Gear Review – Load-Bearing Equipment

Anyone that works all day in the wilderness knows the importance of having a quality piece of Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) that accommodates all the odds and ends that are required of your profession, while being comfortable enough to wear for prolonged periods. LBE comes in a variety of styles, from the standard Cruise Vest, to the more tacticool modular equipment based off military style plate carries and H-harnesses that employ MOLLE attachment systems. Archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. have tried and tested a whole gambit of systems over the years, and everyone but a few outliers (Reid loves his cruise vest), have adopted the True North Aero Vest – Wildland as our LBE of choice.

Before I start the review section, there is one important aspect of our job that influences what type of LBE we prefer. We need to carry more gear than can be accommodated by LBE alone, so that a good backpack (30-50 Litre) is a necessity. Even though some people have tried to fit all the required equipment in their cruise vest, you can only fit the bare minimum of what we need to bring, and have to abandon some items that aren’t necessarily required, but are extremely valuable in certain situations. Things like rain gear, extra thermal layers, extra socks, survival kits, extra food and extra water will not easily fit in a cruise vest when it is filled with all the items that are required for archaeological survey in the boreal forest. Also, if you do try to fit all those things in your cruise vest, you will no longer be able to work effectively while wearing it. Furthermore, attaching your screen to your backpack with a bungie cord is arguably the best way to carry your screen for long hikes, and allows you to stow things such as a hoodie or jacket between the screen and backpack. For these reasons, almost every archaeologist at TTSI uses a combination of some type of LBE and a backpack.

The Cruise Vest

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Cruise vests have been around for a long time, are widely available, and come in a variety of colour and materials. In my opinion, they are fine if your profession requires you to be mobile in the field and your profession does not require much equipment. Reid uses a cruise vest made from a plastic mesh and considers this to the best vest as it is durable and breathable. Cruise vests can be expensive ($100+), and even more so if they have an internal frame. Yet they still don’t accommodate all the extra gear needed for adverse conditions. Teresa and Tim have both used the cruise vest with internal backpack frame, but Teresa has since switched to the True North Aero and hasn’t looked back.

  • Pros
    • Comfortable if not carrying much equipment
    • Variety of colours and fabrics
    • Widely available
  • Cons (With no backpack feature)
    • Not enough storage space
    • Very uncomfortable when overloaded
    • Very uncomfortable while riding ATV
    • Cannot wear while digging
    • Secondary HiVis still needed
    • Bad screen attachment
  • Cons (With backpack feature)
    • Less gear retention
    • Uncomfortable with backpack
    • Full pockets impede pack waist straps
    • Not adjustable for winter layers
    • Flimsy and wear out quickly
    • Non-breathable and hot

The Modular Vest

Modular vests have been around since the 1990’s and have generally replaced what was typically referred to as “web gear” by many Armed Forces groups around the world. They employ a Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS), also referred to as MOLLE, which allows the user to change what types of pouches they use based on personal needs without changing the base vest. Most modular vests also act as plate carriers (body armour) and allow the user to change their load-out while still utilizing their body armour as a base. Although modular vests are widely available, most are in neutral colours or camoflage and are therefore not suited to working with a HiVis requirement. With hunters in mind, a few companies have produced modular vests that are blaze orange, and thus work as HiVis provided the rules concerning HiVis clothing are not super strict (some companies would not consider any of these options to be sufficient HiVis clothing). Kurt used a modular vest for a couple field seasons, but has since switched to the True North Aero. He provided the following list of pros and cons:

  • Pros
    • Modular and adaptable
    • Very durable
    • Equipment-specific pockets
    • Can wear while digging
    • Very adjustable and can fit winter layers
    • No zippers
    • Super Tacticool!
  • Cons
    • Expensive
    • Most are not HiVis
    • Non-breathable and hot
    • Heavy
    • Bulky
    • Not comfortable with backpacks

True North Aero – Wildland

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True North is a company that primarily produces gear for Wildland Fire Fighters and First Responders. The True North Aero was designed as a primary piece of LBE that could be worn comfortably with a backpack. Although True North makes specific products that compliment the Aero, we at TTSI have found that this particular LBE to work with a variety of backpacks. The Aero has a specific spot for radios, GPS, flagging, tape measure and has a fleece lined pocket that fits a iPad Mini perfectly. Essentially, the Aero can accommodate all the equipment need while actually working, and in conjunction with a 30-50 L backpack, provides all the space you will ever need. A further benefit of using the Aero in conjunction with a backpack is that since all your survey equipment fits in the vest, one does not have to unpack their backpack to survey a target. Kurt was able to obtain several Aero vest in blaze orange, but unfortunately they seem to have discontinued so only the black version is widely available. While wearing the black version, TTSI employees usually opt to wear a HiVis work shirt.

  • Pros
    • Very durable
    • Lightweight
    • Comfortable to wear with backpacks
    • Breathable and cool
    • Fits all survey equipment
    • Holds gear secure
    • Can wear while digging
    • Protected inner fleece pockets
    • Few zippers, but high quality
    • Sheds water and dries out fast
    • Very adjustable and can fit over winter layers
  • Cons
    • Not true HighVis
    • Zippers can get clogged with mud

There are many options when it comes to LBE and like most things, not everyone will agree on what is the best. Reid stands fast as a die hard proponent of the mesh style cruise vest as it is durable, breathable and works well with his system. Similarly, Tim continues to use the internal frame cruise vest even though he has had the option to switch. However, the rest of us archaeologists at TTSI have chosen the True North – Aero as our LBE champion and never looked back. I personally think it will be a very sad day when my blaze orange version finally wears out and I am unable to get a replacement. On that day, I will regrettably don a HiVis undershirt, strap on a black True North – Aero and head off into the boreal wilderness.

Gear Review – Bulldog Spades

As a CRM archaeologist, my shovel is one of my most utilized pieces of equipment. Delicate excavation requires the fine touch that a trowel provides and archaeologists that do a great deal of this type of work are generally very picky about their trowels. Similarly, those of us that spend their days digging test pits in the wilderness, usually have strong feeling concerning our primary excavation tool, the spade.

What people value in a spade changes from person to person, so Tree Time Services Inc. actually has quite a few different types of spades on hand. The TTSI archaeologists that place the highest value on durability tend to gravitate towards the “King of Spades”. While the King’s all steel construction makes it extremely durable. I feel that it is unnecessarily heavy and because it is all steel, there is none of the shock absorption that is provided by a wooden handle. Alternatively, people that don’t feel like carrying a 4 kg shovel around all day usually choose what we at TTSI refer to as “the Grizzly”. Although these shovels are made by a variety of companies, the name typically refers to what people consider a normal garden spade, but are a little more robust than what you will generally get from Home Depot. They are definitely lighter than the King, however, they suffer in the durability department. If too much leverage is applied to the handle they tend to break where the shaft meets the tang, and I personally have “taco’d” (when the blade bends while trying to stomp through a root) more Grizzlies than I can count. Being the gear snob that I am, I went looking for a spade that combines the durability of the King, with the portability and comfort offered by the Grizzly.

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Everyone has a preference: Madeline with the Grizzly on the left, Elenore with the King on the right!

My search for the perfect blend of durability and portability ended when I came across the Boys Irish Bulldog! The Bulldog line of garden tools are produced by Clarington Forge (founded in 1780), which is the only forge in England that still makes garden tools. Their tools are hand forged from a single piece of steel, have American ash handles, are powder coated (not painted) and come with a lifetime warranty. In my opinion they are a very good compromise between the durability of the King of Spades and the portability/ergonomics of the Grizzly. While they are not common in Canada, some varieties can be found at Lee Valley Tools, and they have an American distributor that will ship to Canada. Be prepared to phone them though, as their website is not set up to take Canadian orders.

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The Boys Irish Bulldog

I purchased my first Bulldog from Lee Valley Tools, and opted to try the standard Garden Spade. I likely would have opted for the Border Spade since it is lighter weight with a smaller head, but I am a taller individual and the border spade has a shorter handle. The Garden Spade is honestly a little heavy for packing around all day long. Although it is not as heavy as the King of Spades, the forged blade and handle are both quite thick. Despite it being a little heavier than I would like, I was still impressed by the craftsmanship and durability of the spade. In my opinion the Garden Spade is far superior to both the King of Spades and the Grizzly.

I was not planning on ever getting another shovel, however I ended up breaking the handle of my prized shovel while Corey and I were trying to scare away two grizzly bears that we crossed paths with. We were making noise by smashing our shovels against trees as hard as we could, and this became the true test of durability. While Corey’s King of Spades had not a scratch or dent, the handle of my shovel broke where it meets the tang. I contacted Lee Valley Tools to try to obtain a replacement handle, however I found out that they don’t even carry them since no one had ever broken one. The lady on the phone was flabbergasted that I had accomplished this seemingly impossible task and was able to put me in contact with the American distributor. After recounting the bear story to the very kind lady on the other end of the phone, and her father, they offered to send me a new handle for free! They also suggested that I try the Boys Irish Spade that they had on sale, as they believed it would be very well suited to my profession. Boy were they right!

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Boys Irish Spade

Unfortunately the Boys Irish spade was on sale because it was discontinued, but I was able to get the replacement handle and the Boys shipped from San Francisco for under $90. Although I was skeptical of the traditional “ T ” handle and narrow blade on the Boys Irish Bulldog, I soon fell in love with both of these features. Following the design of an old fashion trenching spade, the Boys Irish is very lightweight and maneuverable while digging small holes like test pits. The long handle makes the shovel very ergonomic for a taller person, however Teresa used the Boys for a shift and she also considered it to be better than both the King and the Grizzly. The “ T ” handle fits well in the hand and adds a historical appearance to the spade. As an archaeologist I find the historical look of the Boys Irish very pleasing. Although the forged blade and ash-wood handle are extremely durable, I don’t think I want to put the Boys up against the King in a tree bashing competition any time soon. In my opinion, tree bashing is the only realm where the King has the upper hand on the Bulldog!

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Brian in action!

King of Spades – https://www.gemplers.com/product/W419/King-of-Spades

Grizzly – http://www.fransyl.com/1-83-79-Garden_Spade_Short_Handle_-_GRIZZLY_productCatalogue.html

Garden Bulldog – https://www.claringtonforge.com/spades/border-spade

Boys Irish Bulldog – https://www.amazon.ca/Bulldog-Premier-Irish-Treaded-Spade/dp/B004NT050O

The King of Spades vs. the Grizzly

Over the years archaeologists have adopted technological advances from other disciplines. In the office, using programs such as QGIS along with LIDAR and other data sets we can create models to predict sites. In the field, we use a GPS for navigation and iPads to take our notes. Artifact processing has also seen many advances helping us to date and source artifacts.

For all of these advances that have been made in the field, certain tools remain the same. One of the most essential tools that we use in the field is a shovel. I know many people associate trowels and fedoras with archaeologists, however these are most commonly used in academic excavations. While in the world of CRM the trowel will be used for certain situations, the shovel reigns, specifically at Tree Time it is the King of Spades.

The reigning king

The advantages to the King of Spades are its durability and its ability to cut through roots. The all metal shovel has never been broken by a staff member at Tree Time. Maybe lost forever in a deep stream when accidentally dropped… but never broken. In addition, the sheer weight of the shovel can help pound through roots. Other shovels are not as durable, the blades may warp, and they are more prone to breaking at the shaft break. Not the king though.20160519_153950

The Grizzly Challenger

Most shovels are not made of all metal but incorporate bits of wood. There can be a wide variety in quality so we highly recommend the Grizzly. These shovels are much lighter and easier to sharpen. The durability of the King of Spades comes at a cost, it is by far the heaviest and the most difficult to sharpen due to its thick blade. The ability to sharpen the Grizzly easily due to the thinner blade helps us maintain a sharp edge in the field to cut through roots. The light weight also makes them a lot easier to hike a long distance with, making for a much more pleasant hike.20160519_153703

In the end the durability of the King of Spades wins the favor of most of us at Tree Time. In fact five out of seven archaeologists, well at least at Tree Time, agree that the King of Spades shovel is the preferred tool. Long live the king.

This would not have happened if Madeline had the King of Spades!

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