Over the past few years, April has become a special time for me, and for good reason. Eight years ago, the annual Practice What You Preach outdoors gathering began with just three individuals. Now, people come from all over the country to the foothills of North Carolina to share in comraderie, learning, and great food. This year was particularly fun because there were a few changes. First, we had Doug Ritter of Equipped To Survive attend the whole event and give a talk on outdoors gear including Personal Locator Beacons, and the guys from Blind Horse Knives offered up a new instructional offering about the various modes of carry for knives. Second, it seemed that everyone was out to best each other with the outstanding food offerings for the attendees. Cakes, banana pudding, pecan pie, cowboy potatoes, Buffalo chicken dip, peanut butter covered brownies, spaghetti, roast chicken, and various stews and sausages were made available to anyone that wanted a sample—and plenty of folks did. Finally, this was the first year that the location of the campsite has been changed. Instead of being on top of a knoll, the campers settled into a lakeside area with a great view, plenty of trees and lots of shade.
Practice What You Preach had its roots in folks hitting the woods with a smattering of gear to improve upon their skills and learn how to sleep on the cold hard ground. Over the years, the event has evolved into something quite different. Rather than just an event to learn how to “rough it” in the woods, it has become a time to shake out gear for whatever method each person chooses to make it in the outdoors. For example, Joe Flowers set up a true cowboy camp with a simple canvas shelter and honest-to-God cast iron cookware. Mike and Care Brown backed up their nifty little pull-along trailer to get a better night’s sleep. Scooter (of Scott’s Knots) made it with just a AMK Heat Sheat set up as a simple shelter. There were small tents, large tents, and everything in between. Me, I tried to marry both extremes. I used a simple Sil-Tarp 2 in a lean-to fashion for my shelter, but also had a double thick air mattress to get my beauty rest in the wee hours of the night. I’ve already slept on the ground, so I think I know how to do that.
Aside from the various camping methods, there was a common affection of all things steel. Everywhere you looked, somebody was holding, using, or playing with either a knife or a gun. I guess this isn’t too much of a surprise since the majority of folks that attend the event are regular participants over at Knife Forums. Just like each person’s way of living, there were just as many, if not more, types of steel available for use and trade. Jocularity threads its way through the debates over Moras versus 1/4 inch thick choppers or SAK’s versus multi-tools. But, no matter the user’s preference, just about any type of bladeware was represented at this event including folders, axes, machetes, bush knives, slip-joints, and hatchets. There were inexpensive knives available for $8.00 and there were knives in the $400-$1800 range. You name it, and it was there.
PWYP VIII also provided several of us an opportunity to try out and test new gear for various reviews being written either for magazines or the web. For example, one new piece of gear that we tried out was the Platypus CleanStream gravity water filtration system. It’s a filtering system that can scrub 4 liters of water in about two minutes. We will be doing a more in-depth review on it later, but we enjoyed using it, and it proved its usefulness in camp. There was gear provided by MSR, Snow Peak, Browning, Brunton, Leatherman, Gerber, Spyderco, and others. This was an ideal way to test out new products whether they were stoves, cookware, gear bags or knives. It was also a great venue to get comments from folks on the various pieces of gear for future write-ups as well. All of the attendees were a great resource for media folks since each person has their own specialty or area of expertise with regard to the outdoors. That large diversity of interests provides more depth of knowledge and skills than just one person on their own.
But, it wasn’t just all about toys and gear. There were classes given on a variety of topics including navigation, dutch oven cooking, plant identification and usage, first aid, and other outdoor topics. In fact, before the official PWYP event started, Marty and Aggie Simon of The Wilderness Learning Center held one of their own survival courses for a class of about ten people. Marty and Aggie are out of Chateaugay, New York and their course covers a number of different skills areas to help you survive in the outdoors. But, even during those times when there wasn’t a class going on, there were still plenty of opportunities to learn. Just having conversation with different campers provided a wealth of information if you took the time to listen. Each person had their own way of sharpening a knife, starting a fire, packing a kit, catching their fish, and so forth. It paid big dividends to listen closely to those practies that were successful for others.
As educational as the conversations were, they also provided great entertainment value as well. Ethan Becker of Becker Knife and Tool was always good for a story, and Steve Baum always had the witty offering or comeback. One evening found a circle of friends reclining by a fire and doing nothing but telling jokes. Doug Ritter was like a kid at Christmas when he was playing with the thermite firestarters, and everyone ooohed and aahhhed at the appropriate times. There were stories about great adventures, good friends, and other times long past. There was a real sense of community about the event. People shared with each other, offered aid, and gave trust. I am quite paranoid about losing gear whether it’s camera equipment or just one of my blades. But, I never have any apprehension about having my gear out for others to look at, and I never worry about it when I walk away to do something else. The people that attend this event are some of the very best that I’ve ever met. There’s honor, respect, and a true measure of trustworthiness in the folks that are there. I know I’m not alone in that thought because I’ve heard it from others and I’ve seen other people be just as trusting as I. I often wonder what it is about the folks at PWYP and other such events that evoke such trust in me. Maybe it’s because we share common views and ideals. We can all relate to each other on one level as far as outdoors activities and our love of outdoors gear.
But, I think it goes deeper than that. No matter how diverse our population is, there are some common core values that reside within the heart of each person. The attendees are resourceful, believe in personal responsibility and accountability, and there seems to be that longing within each of us for that time in the good old days where folks told the truth, stood by their word, and finalized a deal with just a handshake. That’s all it used to take. I’ve seen people at PWYP make a deal with someone and then realize they made a mistake on value, price, or what an actual item was, however, I’ve never seen any of them back out on a deal once it’s been struck. In fact, I saw a lot of people going out of their way to help each other.
I saw someone make a comment about a nice sheath or water bottle rig and the owner give it to them on the spot. I’ve noticed two parties make a deal, and one of them throw something extra in just because. You want supper? Not a problem. There’s plenty of nice folks there that will welcome you to their table. An example of that courtesy and generosity can be found in the host of the event, Terrill Hoffman. Though he can be a bit testy before his third cup of coffee in the morning, he doesn’t mind if you want to show up a day or two early to enjoy a couple of extra days of fun and relaxation. He also might let you stay an extra day if you’re just looking for a little solitude. He knows the spirit of people who like the outdoors…he’s one of them. And, just the fact that he has hosted this event for eight years to complete strangers demonstrates his hospitality.
That same generosity was also found in others as well. Near the end of our weekend, a lot of gear was given away to those that attended. Whether you won the chopping contest or just had your name picked out in a drawing, everyone walked away with more than they started with when they got there. Dan and L.T. of Blind Horse Knives donated gifts for the drawing as did the guys at JRE Industries. Other companies donated great prizes like knives from KA-BAR, Becker Knife and Tool, Bark River Knives, and Equipped to Survive. Additionally there were other products like first aid kits from Adventure Medical Kits, tarps and bivvies from MSR, wine reservoirs from Platypus, and various fire-starters, flashlights from E-gear, and leatherwork from different vendors. Though I would like to mention them all, there were just too many prizes to keep track of and list here for the article. Needless to say, I think everyone enjoyed themselves and had a nice pile of booty at the end of the week.
Some of that booty was obtained at the trade blanket event as well. This is probably the most anticipated event each year. What was once an occasional trade between parties here and there has turned into a full-fledged barter fair where you’ve got to be on your toes in order not to miss that piece of gear you’ve been looking for or that once in a lifetime deal. There was a lot of sniffing and poking around before the official trade time. Everyone tried to get others to show off their wares a little early so they could have the advantage when it came trade time. If you kept your eyes open, you might have even seen a deal struck here and there before it was time. There was a bit of hair bristling going on at the thought of missing out on a good trade, but everyone was in good humor about it all even though they attacked the trade blanket like a pack of hyenas on a wounded calf.
After the clawing and clambering for deals occurred the first half hour, you began to hear the grunts of satisfaction and the sighs of contentment begin as the pack gradually disengaged from the skeletal remains of what used to be fully stocked trade area. Murmurs of appreciation then began to resonate throughout the crowd as each person showed off the trophies of their exchange endeavors to those around them. Just about everything you could think of was there. There were old knives, used knives, new knives, multi-tools, sheaths, parkas, tents, pouches, packs, fire steels, canteens, mess kits, and various other pieces of outdoors paraphenalia. Indeed, it was an true extravaganza. The icing on the cake was all the new stuff available from Doug Ritter, Blind Horse Knives, Becker Knife and Tool, and JRE Industries. Between the four of them, they had just about everything you needed to round out your kit or pack.
When you’ve got nice folks like Ed and Carol that take the time and effort to give everyone an ice cream bar for break after the chopping constest, it very tough to say that Practice What You Preach is all about roughing it. When it comes down to it, the essence of PWYP is about finding what works for you. Each of us are individuals, so we’re going to like different things and we’re going to have different approches to our enjoyment of the outdoors. PWYP is all about honing your approach and finding out what works and what doesn’t. From that learning experience, you can refine your skills, increase your knowledge, and put together the right assortment of tools that’s best for you.
One thing that I notice on different forums that I don’t see at Practice What You Preach is that air of superiority or the disparaging remarks about certain gear someone uses or about a person’s approch to outdoors recreation. I think there’s a few reasons for that. First, most people aren’t brave enough to do in person what they do online. Second, I think that the folks that do attend are always open to more knowledge and information and appreciate the differences in others because they, themselves, have their own way of doing things. Finally, the people that attend PWYP and other events like it are (as I mentioned earlier) cut from a different cloth. They have a true love of the outdoors, a thirst for knowledge, and they enjoy true friendships base on common beliefs and core values. We need a little more of that in this world today.
So, was this the best Practice What You Preach event that I’ve attended? That’s hard to answer. I’ve been to all eight of them, and in some ways, I would say that it was the best. For a few of the reasons listed above, this year’s iteration was a nice refresh of the idea. But, since I’ve been to all of them and am a bit nostalgic, I might linger on the first one as the best simply because of its novelty, the beginning of new friendships, and just the thought that it was the first one that brought us to where we are today. But, as with all things, the event has evolved. While it has branched out in philosophies and approaches, it has also brought many of us closer and closer together as friends…as an extended family. Each year, I learn something new and meet new people that hold the potential to be lifelong friends. We share time together under the sky and our common experiences travel with each of us back to our homes until the next year comes. What can be better than that?