Sensible Clothing For the Field

Excerpts below were forwarded from a Montana buddy (the “Lone Ranger”) after taking a good seminar with David Cronenwett, author of this very useful booklet about outdoor winter survival skills.

The comments below might serve as a useful reminder to consider the relative merits of new technology over the older, tried and true, “simple tech” from our past.  Sometimes the choice isn’t perfectly clear.

In this case:  would you rather rely on gore-tex and poly-fleece or wool and waxed cotton clothing?

Here in the PNW, we don’t often face freezing cold temperatures unless deep (or, rather, high) in the mountains.  Still, during winter in the coastal lowlands, you are likely to be facing rather wet conditions that can be just as dangerous as the dryer and colder weather in the mountains.  Why?  Well, being wet makes it all the more difficult to stay warm.

In the mountains, (or anywhere in Montana, perhaps), the challenges are be a bit different.  Getting wet in sub-zero temperatures is still quite dangerous, but more likely to be generated by your own body.  But, whether the “wet” part of the problem is generated externally or internally may not matter all that much when hypothermia threatens.  The real question is whether or not you’re warm, even when wet.

The following excerpt presents this one expert’s opinion on this subject.  (Do check out the full booklet for more great bushcraft.) 

In the meantime, I feel compelled to offer a quick tribute to Filson who has recently provided great service with free repairs (and shipping) on both of our well-used Mackinaw coats.   As you know, Filson gear can be quite expensive, but I’ve never regretted making the sacrifice for specific “essentials” from their catalog.  As they say, “Might as well have the best.”  Hard to argue when they’re right.

For the record, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for more modern (and sometimes MUCH cheaper) equipment.  Clearly, there is.  But, consider the following observations from the above-cited booklet. 



The importance of clothing in survival scenarios and indeed, for all outdoor pursuits, must never be underestimated. Clothes insulate us from cold and protect us from rain, snow and abrasion.

People who otherwise would have perished in the wilderness have been known to squeak by because they were adequately dressed. In winter conditions especially, you must wear or carry enough clothing for the worst conditions to be expected.

The layering system, one that emphasizes several thin layers over fewer heavy ones, is well-known by most people. However, in the past twenty years or so, polypropylene fleece and other synthetic fabrics have supplanted the traditional choice of wool clothing. It is my feeling that many of these newer products are not withstanding the test of time. Recently however, more people are rediscovering the amazing qualities of wool and more companies are manufacturing excellent, high performance products.

First, wool is a natural, renewable fiber that can be sustainably produced and will eventually biodegrade. Compare this to the petroleum intensive nature of fleece products that will last for centuries in the landfill. In my opinion, most synthetic outdoor garments are vastly inferior to their traditional wool or cotton counterparts. When working and living around open fires and woodstoves, having a wardrobe of plastic clothes can be dangerous. I have seen expensive parkas and fleece pullovers riddled with “spark holes”, and witnessed the gruesome melting and outright combustion of gloves, hats, pants and other items made of similar materials.

It seems that most modern backpacking gear, including clothing is designed without long-term repair or maintenance in mind. Wool and canvas are much less flammable and are easier to repair when damaged. Wool lacks the disturbing quality of some synthetics to hold on to body odor forever, no matter how many times you launder them. Companies like Ibex and Smartwool have a line of excellent, durable and non-itchy garments for a wide range of outdoor pursuits including mountaineering and backpacking. In my experience, wool clothing also allows for a greater comfort range; this means that you will not rapidly overheat like you would in synthetic clothing.

Having said all this, we recognize that many people use synthetic clothing and there is a place for it. We would only like to recommend that individuals who spend a lot of time in the wilderness to give wool clothing a try, you may be surprised by the results.

It is often repeated in the outdoor literature that “cotton kills”. That is, when it becomes wet cotton looses most of its insulation value. In this instance, it is true. However there are some exceptions to the rule. First, waxed cotton, sometimes called “oilcloth” or “oilskin” has been used for generations to shed rain. When worn with a good wool layer beneath, it is an excellent combination for wet weather. There are also instances when cotton cannot become saturated, as is the case when the ambient temperature hits 20 degrees or below. This “dry cold” is when canvas outerwear really comes into its own, because it blocks wind and truly breathes to let perspiration escape. Native people in the far north realized this early on and used canvas to make windproof anoraks, uppers for their winter footwear and in other instances when brain tanned moose hides were unavailable or needed to be  conserved.

The so-called waterproof-breathable fabrics that comprise the bulk of raingear today will never live up to its own advertising. Hard, sustained use in the wilderness, as opposed to weekend outings will destroy these products in short order. Though they may technically breathe in a laboratory setting, they cannot do enough of it in real-world conditions to prevent moisture buildup (from perspiration) and eventual saturation of your inner layers, especially when you are working strenuously.

A good wool coat may keep you as dry—or more so—than a Gore-tex parka. In any case all clothing in winter will build up frost within their fibers, which will greatly reduce insulation value. This can be a serious problem in periods of extended cold. The ability to remove this moisture is essential and the only realistic way to achieve it is with a warming fire.


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