Wednesday, September 2, 2009



Any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who ever did Ranger school, Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS), or Recon, or has any light infantry background, knows these words.


We’ve wrapped up in poncho liners and garbage bags and huddled with Ranger buddies in subfreezing temps rather than pack overweight government-issue sleeping bags. Remain overnight (RON) doesn’t necessarily mean you get to sleep, and better to have room in the ruck for extra beans and bullets. Things are better now. Patrick Smith of Kifaru International makes ultra light gear that will keep you warmer than you ever thought possible. Military operators, search and rescue (SAR) personnel, backcountry law enforcement officers, high country hunters, and bush pilots flying in cold climates should take a hard look at Smith’s Kifaru line.


More than just another lightweight sleeping bag, the Modular Over Bag (MOB) sleeping bag system and related components will also take the place of the overweight parka you are probably packing, at roughly the weight of a field jacket liner.



“Kifaru” is Swahili for Rhinoceros, and this gear honors its namesake. Why name modern high-tech field kit after this ancient heavyweight bruiser? Patrick Smith believes in lightweight gear, but not so light as to compromise survival. No fat but plenty of muscle. It’s hard to think of anything much tougher than the African rhino, and the Kifaru gear—while incredibly light—is also far tougher than any recreational cold weather equipment. As Patrick puts it, “These are not recreational bags. They’re for LIVING in, for the duration, no matter the circumstances.”


I first met Patrick Smith in the late 1980s, while evaluating cold weather equipment for mountain Special Forces teams. Patrick invited me for a weekend backpack hunting trip in the Colorado high country. We dined on marmot and pica stew—Patrick got a nice marmot with a custom Thomas Center .22 Win Mag carbine and I got real lucky and hit a pica with a scoped M1A. Probably killed it with stone chips from the boulder it was sitting on, or there would have been zero to eat.



Patrick questioned me at length as to our mission needs and quickly produced gear for us that performed well, at a reasonable price. But his ‘day job’ was designing for the civilian backpacking and mountaineering market, so there were limits to what he could do for the military user, with far different needs. That changed when Patrick sold his company Mountainsmith and was free to produce no-compromise equipment for those of us who are out there “for the duration.” Thus was Kifaru born.



Jump ahead about 20 years to January 2009. Robert K. Brown asked me to evaluate the Kifaru gear, knowing that I live outside—tent or snow shelter—most of the winter, at right around 10,000 feet. It gets cold. We hit 20 below zero (–30 Celsius) a couple of times that winter.


By February it gets warmer, maybe 10 below at coldest. Patrick

felt I would be OK with his lightest system, the 40-degree MOB. It might not work for everyone, but as Patrick put it, I’m a lot like him—pretty used to the high, cold country.


Plus the 40 degree MOB is wider than a standard mummy bag, so you can get into it with your winter clothes on and even boots and body armor. This is very important for a military operator. I told him I would prefer to go light, and he agreed, suggesting a Woobie to wrap up in just in case. It was a good choice.


I’ve packed a GI poncho liner with me for going on 30 years. It’s now honorably retired. I’m packing a Woobie G2, a 21st century poncho liner. It’s light, warm, and multifunctional, like the Vietnam-era original, the Woobie G2 will tie into your issue poncho’s grommets, giving you a waterproof blanket. It weighs 1.5 pounds, a little less than a GI poncho liner, and is easily twice as warm. The color is OD on one side and a low-key sage green on the other.



I hope those in power to make it happen see that a Woobie is issued to every troop in Afghanistan before this winter. It could save lives. Teamed with a GI poncho, the Woobie is all the sleeping gear one should need for spring and summer in most of the continental USA (CONUS) and southern Eurasia, high elevations exempted. Kifaru even makes a double Woobie, the Doobie. I want to be the fly on the wall the first time some troop tells his first sergeant he is taking a Doobie to the field.



Dogs get cold too. If you’re a K9 operator, check out the Woobie, a go-anywhere item that fits in your bug-out bag or even a battle-dress uniform (BDU) cargo pocket. Patrick sent an extra Woobie for my dog, a 2-year-old German Shepherd training with me for wilderness SAR work. It came with a “Pup Woobie” tag attached. She approved. “Woof!”


Both MOB and Woobie are insulated with Climashield Combat (CSCombat), a US-manufactured continuous-filament synthetic insulation with excellent stability, high thermal efficiency and water resistance. Developed in 2005, this is a leading edge product designed for military use.


Manufactured as a continuous blanket of material, sheets of CSCombat are cut to the shape needed to insulate the final Kifaru product. Thus the insulation will not clump or shift and its natural stretch prevent tearing inside the garment, unlike lesser materials. No quilting or complex baffles are needed to contain the insulation. CS-Combat will take repeated compression without degrading.


Speaking of compressibility, Kifaru products have built-in compression sacks in the form of reversible pockets, so you do not have the weight and hassle of a lot of stuff sacks. Or worries about losing them. Nice.



The MOB is constructed in three zip-together sections—each connection baffled to prevent heat loss—the MOB functions in multiple roles. Zip the top section off in mild weather, utilizing the lower two sections as a torso-length footsack.


By itself, the upper section is a warm and windproof anorak, with a deep chest zip for easy on–off, useful chest pocket and outstanding hood. In fact, the Kifaru hood, tailored to cover your nose, is the best hood by far I have ever experienced on any winter garment. This is based on the PackLock Parka, part of the Kifaru 24/7 line of clothing. It serves as a full-length insulated cagoule (windbreaker), the classic mountaineering garment. There is plenty of room to tuck up your feet and close the bottom drawstring for an emergency bivouac sack.


The MOB upper’s sleeves are especially useful for the military operator: like the classic Wehrmacht sniper bag, you shoot a lot more accurately if you are not shivering. Add a ghillie suit or overwhites and you are set for cold weather target interdiction. You arms and hands can be free to shoot, to adjust a camp stove, make coffee or whatever, and still be warm.


The Kifaru shell fabric RhinoSkin is proprietary ultra-light, highly tear-resistant rip-stop material Patrick has adapted to military use. RhinoSkin outperforms anything I have ever experienced: absolutely windproof, and while Patrick does not claim it to be as waterproof as material like GoreTex or similar polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) material, it is highly water repellant.


RhinoSkin seems a lot more confortable than the crinkly, fragile PTFE to me. That said, I did not test it in rain—it does not rain a lot in Colorado in February. It is not designed as rain gear and one would probably want specialized rain protection in a wet-cold environment.


I did not do a lot of bushwhacking, but the RhinoSkin seemed rugged enough to me, especially given the weight, bearing in mind that anything can be ripped if you try hard enough.


Keep in mind the CS-Combat insulation will keep you warm even if it gets damp, so I do not feel the shell material needs to be completely waterproof.



Dog and I slept in a marginal 3-season tent most of February, at 10,000-feet elevations in the central Rockies. This included three nights bivouacking in snow shelters (one night just in a snow trench) near Tennessee Pass, close to Camp Hale, Colorado. This site is best known as the training area of the 10th Mountain Division during WW II, prior to deployment to Italy and Riva Ridge.


Less well known is Camp Hale’s use by CIA and Special Forces operators to train Tibetan guerrillas in the early 1960s—the cold weather and high altitude approximated conditions back home. All in all it’s an ideal place to test the MOB and Woobie (MOB for me, Woobie for Dog).


The lowest temperatures in the area of operations during this period were right around zero F (–18 Celsius) up to about 20 above (roughly –6 Celsius). I slept just fine in the 40-degree MOB, with a Woobie on colder nights. I wore a wool Austrian Army sweater along with Kifaru 24/7 parka and pants most nights, along with long johns and Kifaru Combat insulated booties with overboots. There is plenty of room in MOB for winter clothes. My feet get cold thanks to frostbite years ago, so the insulated boots were a huge help, along with the German Shepherd sleeping beside me. Dog wrapped up in the “pup Woobie” and slept just fine.


So the MOB did have some help, but keep in mind this is a sleeping system—and also a high-mobility clothing system—that only claims comfortable sleep to 40 F. I was sleeping in far colder temps. I did get cold the one night in the snow trench near Tennessee Pass, but not until the wee hours. I woke up about 0400 that morning and decided to get up and make coffee. It was a good time to start moving anyway, beginning morning nautical twilight (BMNT), just before dawn.


Not tested but worth mentioning are several other Kifaru products. Patrick Smith has updated his original lightweight tipi design (I first slept in one of these on that hunting trip ~25 years ago) with 21st century materials, simply called the Kifaru Tipi. These sleep from four to twelve depending on size. He also offers the ultralight 1-man ParaHootch, made of paraglider material, and a ParaTipi of the same material which will sleep two easily, three or four tight.



There are not a lot of bells and whistles in the protective, lightweight MOB, which is fine by me—simplicity is good. There is not a lot for Murphy to make go wrong here. The zippers are way over-engineered, workmanship and sewing are bulletproof, quality all the way. Materials are all first rate.

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