Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What Has Wood Trekker Been Up To?

Hey guys. I know I haven’t posted in a while. Nothing to worry about. I’ve just been very busy with work. I still go out on my usual trips, I just haven’t had time to write about them. It is a very time consuming process.

This past month I have mostly been focusing on trout fishing. I’ve been hitting the local spots with some friends.


Lower end of the Neversink River:






The Ramapo River:



West branch of the Croton River:







Even though water levels have been low, fishing has been half decent. I hope to get some more free time soon, so I can start writing posts again. Unfortunately, they are more time consuming than the trips themselves.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Stoves

The issue of stoves when it comes to Classic Backpacking can be a bit complex. The reason is that we have to look not only at the options available at the time, but also at how and if they were used.

In this post I want to discuss the use of small stoves which would be portable in a backpack by a single person. The sources are very limited with respect to such devices. While stoves are indeed discussed at length, the discussions are almost exclusively regarding large wood burning stoves designed to heat tents, and which would be transported by pack train. There are however some small segments, and some peripheral sources which can give us usable information.

It appears that in the early parts of the classic backpacking period, the preferred backpacking stove was an alcohol burner. In the source materials they are typically referred to as spirit burners or spirit lamps. The below advertisement for a Gogau alcohol stove was featured in the 1904 Hardware Dealers' Magazine, Volume 22. The J. Picard & Co Spirit Burner circa 1873 and the W.J.D. Mast Alcohol Lamp circa 1896 are also good examples of small, portable alcohol stoves. Officer mess kits containing a similar alcohol stove were popular during WWI.


While open burner designs like the ones we see most often today, as well as pressurized versions like the one seen above were available in one form or another, the preferred configuration appears to have been ones using a wick. I’ve reached this conclusion based on the limited descriptions provided by Edward Whymper, Fridrjof Nansen, and Warren Miller. It is possible that other models were in wide spread use, but I have not been able to find any references.

The spirit-lamp was lighted, and the remaining spirits of wine, the brandy and some snow were heated by it. It made a strong liquor, but we only wished for more of it. When that was over, Macdonald endeavored to dry his socks by the lamp, and then the three lay down under my plaid to pretend to sleep.” Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps, 1872 p.26

For fuel there is, no doubt, nothing at all comparable with alcohol, which should be as pure as possible. In addition to other advantages, such as its cleanliness, it has the great merit of yielding more heat than anything else in comparison to its weight… At the bottom is the heating-chamber, containing a spirit-lamp with several wicks. The air enters by a number of holes at the bottom in sufficient quantity to insure complete combustion, and, as it must itself pass through or near the flames, it is either consumed or heated to such an extent that no cold air can enter the apparatus. Should it be necessary, owing to the overheating of the lamp, to let some cold air in, this can be done by holes in the sides of the hot chamber… Experiments made after our return home showed me that our cooker made use of only 52 per cent, of the alcohol consumed. This is, of course, a somewhat extravagant use of fuel, though previous expeditions do not seem to have been much more successful. Yet there is no doubt that further improvements in this direction will lead to a considerable reduction in the consumption of spirit.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.36-38

The above quotes indicate that up to the 1890s, alcohol stoves, and in particular stoves which used a wick to burn the alcohol, were used by climbers as well as polar explorers. The preference for wick based stoves over other burners which rely on vaporizing the fuel, is hinted at by Kephart on a later date: “In this instance it is an alcohol burner of common pad form, which is less likely to get out of order than an alcohol vapor stove.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

In 1892 however, a new stove design entered wide scale use, the Primus Kerosene Stove No.1. While it was not the first kerosene stove, the Primus stoves quickly gained popularity, and quickly started to replace alcohol stoves. The change is exemplified by the writings of Fridtjof Nansen, who in the span of only few years went from using an alcohol stove for his cold weather expeditions, to using a Primus stove. The below advertisement from 1897 references as this being the stove used by “Nansen the Explorer”.


For the heating was used a Swedish gas-petroleum lamp, known as 'the Primus,' in which the heat turns the petroleum into gas before it is consumed. By this means it renders the combustion unusually complete. Numerous experiments made by Professor Torup at his laboratory proved that the cooker in ordinary circumstances yielded 90 to 93 per cent. of the heat which the petroleum consumed should, by combustion, theoretically evolve. A more satisfactory result, I think, it would be difficult to obtain… Together with two tin mugs, two tin spoons, and a tin ladle, it weighed exactly 8lbs. 3ozs., while the lamp, the "Primus," weighed 1lb 12oz.

As fuel, my choice this time fell on petroleum ("snow-flake".) Alcohol, which has generally been used before on Arctic expeditions, has several advantages, and, in particular, is easy to burn. One decided drawback to it, however, is the fact that it does not by any means generate as much heat in comparison with its weight as petroleum when the latter is entirely consumed, as was the case with the lamp used by us. As I was afraid that petroleum might freeze, I had a notion of employing gas-oil, but gave up the idea, as it escapes so easily that it is difficult to preserve, and is, moreover, very explosive. We had no difficulties with our "snowflake" petroleum on account of the cold. Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North Volume II, 1897 p.113

This early use of the Primus stove however was not exactly the backpacking application I am interested in here. The Primus No.1 stove is relatively heavy, and is better suited to group use, in particular when carried by sled as it was by Nansen, Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. Below you see such a stove used circa 1911 together with a “Nansen Cooker”, a pot system designed to maximize the use of the produced heat. 


Portable models started to emerge in the early 1900s. From what I understand, T.H. Holding used a specially modified Primus No.230, which could be carried on a bicycle. He called it the Baby Primus. 


Why I was so slow to take up the "Primus" for Camping purposes, was because of my hatred of paraffin. Experiments, begun fifteen years ago, both at home and Sunbury Camp, showed what a powerful and efficient thing it was, but too big to carry on a cycle. It took me three years to get a smaller size — 5-ins. across — made, and then it had projecting legs. So I devised a second model and had the feet set right underneath, the projecting pump shortened, and changed the valve from the side to the top, christening it the " Baby Primus," which is the best of all the "Primus" models. Still pursuing my Spartan notions re compactness, space and solid packing, I designed the "So-Soon" pans for taking the "Primus" stove inside. This, of course, for cycling… I unhesitatingly say that the "Primus" in its revised form, with these beautiful light pans, is the most efficient and suitable stove in the world for the average camper.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.310-311

However, in my opinion, a truly portable, commercially available, kerosene stove did not come about until circa 1908, with the Primus No.96. It had a half pint capacity, and weighed 1lb 1.2oz (on my scale, without additional items). 

Even so, the use of backpacking stoves remained extremely limited, especially in the US. References in the texts of the time are rare, and the average woodsman had no reason to use a stove rather than a fire. This attitude about backpacking stoves is exemplified by Horace Kephart when writing about the gear of T.H. Holding. “Since the English camper can seldom use wood for fuel, he is obliged to carry a miniature stove and some alcohol or kerosene.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

Until the mid 1950s, with the introduction of the Svea 123 and similar models like the Primus No.71, the use of backpacking stoves was largely reserved for people who traveled to areas where it was impossible to make a fire. In the US that was restricted to climbing above the tree line and arctic exploration, while in Europe stoves appear to have been more widely used, especially when camping in more populated areas. 

So, where does that leave us when it comes to the use of backpacking stoves when trying to do Classic Backpacking? To me, it appears that the use of backpacking stoves was reserved for times when it was not possible to make a fire. It seems the woodsmen of the time would rather use a fire whenever possible, and I imagine the average woodsman of the Classic Backpacking period might have never seen a portable stove of the type discussed here. However, backpacking stoves were available, and they were used when needed. In the US, where fire wood was abundant, the use was reserved for climbing and arctic exploration, while in Europe, where I imagine the use of fire was more restricted in some areas, the stoves had greater popularity. 

As such, I would say that when doing Classic Backpacking, a portable stove does have it’s place. To be period correct, one would want to primarily rely on a fire, but when that is not possible due to restrictions or unavailability of wood, it would be proper to pull out the stove. 

With respect to the actual stove designs, the choices would be either an alcohol stove, with a preference for a wick based design, or a kerosene stove. Warren Miller gives a good summary and description of the options: 

For work above timber-line, the camp-fire takes the form of a spirit or kerosene lamp. Denatured alcohol, or just plain kerosene, costing a tenth as much; both have one-hole and two-hole blue-flame burners available in light, folding explorer's stoves. The kerosene-burners work on the principle of the familiar gasolene plumber's torch, a little raw kerosene first being ignited to heat the burner, after which the affair is self-vaporizing, and the height of the flame is then controllable with a needle-valve. With these burners is supplied a sheet-iron radiating drum for tent-warming, after the cooking is done, and this drum serves as a packing-case for the lamp and its special kerosene-can when on the trail. With denatured alcohol the process is even simpler, the burner simply being lighted, when the hot blue flame of alcohol vapor is at once available, and, of course, it gives many more heat-units per pound of fuel than kerosene.

A rig similar to these which a friend of mine uses on his one-man hikes is nothing in the world but a short, extra-fat candle with a big wick, the only other apparatus besides the candle being a sheet-iron collar or spider, on which the bowl or frying-pan rests, held by it a short distance above the flame. A similar apparatus using solidified alcohol is on the market and gives much more heat for the weight carried.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.93-94


Above you see a picture of what I consider two good examples of backpacking stoves from the Classic Backpacking period. One is a kerosene burning Primus No.96 (left), and the other is a wick based alcohol stove (right).

It may be tempting to just pull out a Trangia Stove, especially since the Trangia Company was established in 1925, within the Classic Backpacking period, but unfortunately, Trangia did not start making alcohol stoves until the 1950s. More accurate designs, either just open burners, or wick based burners can be found on eBay, or made at home.

With respect to kerosene stoves, the choices are tougher. The best approach would be to find an old kerosene stove like a Primus and restore it, like I did with mine. I will do a separate post on doing a basic restoration. The Primus No.96 was produced all the way through the 1960s. While there are small variations between different years, the design was functionally the same. Unfortunately, that is not a project everyone wants to undertake. A decent alternative would be to purchase a new Svea 123 stove. They have some significant differences from the early kerosene stoves, but are the closest I have found on the market today.

I'm certainly not a "stove guy", so this has been just a very brief overview of stoves for Classic Backpacking. I'm sure there are many other options available and approaches you can take.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 2/13/16 - 2/14/16

"Happiness is the struggle towards a summit and, when it is attained, it is happiness to glimpse new summits on the other side." Fridtjof Nansen

Last weeks outing was uneventful, so I decided to skip the trip report, but this past weekend we lucked out with some actual winter weather, so I figured the trip would be worth shearing. I also wanted to test the limits of my current Classic Backpacking sleep system, and I figured this would do it.

I started out early in the morning. The temperature when I left the house was –7F (-22C).


It always sneaks up on you how quickly you can overheat in temperatures this low. Your instinct tends to be to wear as much clothing as possible, but once you start moving, you heat up very quickly. I was wearing my base layer, my wool “vest”, and my crew neck sweater with the anorak on top. It was very windy, so I needed the shell, but had to be move slowly so I wouldn’t overheat. One problem with this clothing system is that it’s annoying to layer up and down.

The temperature gradually went up during the day, reaching –3F (-19C) in the early afternoon. My bushwhacking took me near a small lake. I’ve done some some trapping there in previous years, and sign was all over the place.


Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to do it this year because I’ve been messing around with this Classic Backpacking thing.

I moved away from the lake, and up a small mountain, but not before punching through some thin ice near the edge of the lake. My left leg briefly submerged up to about six inches above my ankle. I quickly blotted it with snow, but my pant leg froze solid, and stayed that way until I got the fire going later in the day.

A I have been doing recently, I stopped early to make camp. With sunset at 5:30pm, I was setting up camp by 3:30. I picked the most sheltered spot I could find, right in the middle of a thicket of pine.

Camp was going to be simple. It’s something I have been trying to work out for the past few week. My goal was to use the blanket as ground insulation, and the comforter as a top quilt. I got the idea from an article I found by Horace Kephart titled Featherweight Camping in England. In the article Kephart describes the sleep system of T.H. Holding. While Kephart dismisses the sleep system as not suited for American campers, the description is worth noting:

The ground-sheet is of light mackintosh. Over it goes a little "groundblanket" of thin cashmere, with eyelets at the corners, so that it can be pegged down. This is not only for the sake of warmth, but also to save wear on the mackintosh, which has to be very thin.

Mr. Holding's eiderdown quilt is only to cover with, not to roll up in. The Wigwam size is 5 feet 10 inches by 4 feet, to which is added a foot of cloth valance all around, which is pegged or weighted down so that the sleeper will not kick off his covering. These quilts are thinner than the domestic ones of down, and roll up into remarkably small compass.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

It is also the earliest depiction I have been able to find of a down sleeping bag in use when camping. 


Anyway, my plan was to duplicate this sleep system, except kick it up a few notches to make it appropriate for the temperature. I haven’t seen any references of T.H. Holding doing much winter backpacking.

I put my oil-cloth tarp on the ground. I left half of it folded up behind my back. My plan was to pull it over me if the wind got bad because the comforter I have is not good at stopping wind. On top I put my blanket, folded over in four It made for a sleeping platform bout a foot wide. On top I put the quilt, folded over in half. I pinned it to the blanket using eight blanket pins. The arrangement was too tight around he shoulders, so I had to stagger the comforter there a bit, leaving a small section on the side that had only one layer of comforter. 


The set up was quick, and the folded over comforter lofted up nicely. I gathered some firewood, and got to the numerous tasks I had to finish before nightfall: make water, fill up my canteen with hot water so I can use it under my comforter, cook food, dry out my pants and gloves, etc. I put on my second sweater, which was warm enough when I was near the fire. 


At this temperature everything takes much longer. Every object that gets even a little warm acquires a coating of ice that you then have to chip off. The pot is impossible to was. The moment you put any water in it, you get a coating of ice that you then can’t remove without heating up the pot. When you then put it down, half the forest floor freezes onto it. You can’t touch your canteen with uncovered hands because it will freeze to them. That’s why I usually don’t like metal canteens, but I don’t have a choice here.


When everything was done, I crawled into my sleep system, and prepared for a miserable night. I had gathered a small amount of wood and was planning on keeping a very small fire going all night long just in case. I had plenty of fire wood within reach.

The sleep system was an unbelievable success. Well, a success in the sense that it kept me alive during the night when the temperature fell to about –20F (-29C). I was supposed to be even colder, but I was in a sheltered spot, which kept the area warm, and more importantly, blocked the wind for most of the night. 

Before I go on, I don’t want to oversell any of this, in case someone else is thinking of doing it. Over the years I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with the difference for my own body between being extremely cold, and being close to death from the cold. When here I say that something worked, I mean that I wasn’t close to death. You shouldn’t interpret that to mean that I had a cozy night. 

On numerous occasions I got very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. It is in part due to the cold, and in part that my body tends to freak out at certain points when it gets cold, and it takes several minutes for it to stabilize. 

Even though I planned to keep the fire going, the sleep system was so “comfortable”, that I fell asleep for too long, and the fire went out. I decided not to restart it because getting out from under the comforter would be counterproductive. 

The main problem was that during the night I would tend to pull up my knees and curl up, which would push the comforter aside and open up gaps near my knees and my butt. Both would immediately get very cold, and I would wake up, straighten out, and then shiver until I warmed up again. The doubled up comforter, provided nearly five inches of loft, which made this surprisingly doable. 

I had some other minor problems. The comforter near my mouth froze due to my breath, even though I was trying not to breath on it. My pant leg apparently wasn’t completely dry, so it felt chill, although the comforter by my feet kept giving excellent insulation despite the moisture build up. In the morning when I opened up the comforter, I had steam coming out from my pant leg. 

Overall though, it was a very successful nigh, and I was very surprised by the effectiveness of the sleep system. The blanket folded over in four provided sufficient insulation from the ground, and the quilt provided excellent insulation on top.

There was only one point during the night where I was worried about making it. I don’t know what time it was, but the wind started coming through, and really cutting through the insulation. As I had planned, I tried to pull the second half of my tarp over me, but the oil-cloth was frozen almost stiff. It was like working with a hard piece of plastic. I’ve noticed it gets stiff in cold weather, but this was nearly unworkable. It was like putting a rectangular piece of plastic over me. Even when I managed to do it, the wind would just push it over. Luckily, the wind died down quickly. I lost a lot of heat because of the wind and because I was trying to mess with the tarp. The fingers on my right hand were completely numb, and it took me what seemed like a very long time to get my body warm enough so that I would not be worried about making it. I contemplated getting up to restart the fire, but I was shaking so much, that I wasn’t sure I would be able to. 

Anyway, I made it through to the morning. 


I gathered some small pieces of fire wood, and using what was left over from the night before, got a small fire going again to warm up.


My feet were in very bad shape. They were fine under the comforter, but after I shoved them into my frozen boots, I lost all feeling in them. I suspect it was a combination of the frozen boots and the socks getting damp from the moisture coming off from my not-so-dry pant leg.

When my hands were warm, I packed up and headed out. I was sure that my tarp was going to snap while I was folding it because it was so stiff, but it worked out fine. 


After about an hour of walking I warmed up and was able to feel my feet again. I had some home made venison jerky on the go.


By the earl afternoon I was out of the forest. I was very happy with the trip. The sleep system performed way better than I expected. If I decided, or had the money to make a winter specific sleep system, i.e. a folded up blanket for ground cover with a properly sized folded over quilt on top sewn to the blanket, I think one could have an excellent winter sleep system. Again, this is relative to 19th and early 20th century sleep system. If I had my regular sleeping bag and pad, this trip wouldn’t even be worth reporting. Considering I’m using 100 year old technology though, I’m happy with the results.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Clothing

The issue of clothing in the context of Classic Backpacking is a tricky one. The reason for the complexity is not the subject matter, but rather giving you any kind of coherent compilation of the recommendations made by each of the authors. All of the authors I’ve read as relating to the period of 1880 through 1930 offer their own preferences for what proper outdoor clothing would be, and the recommendations vary widely. Just about every recommendation is made, and any garment available at the time, from sweaters, to hand made blanket shirts, to three piece suits were in use by woodsmen. Here is just a small sampling of what you can look forward to when reading the texts, together with a few images:


I am no believer in waterproof garments. Once I owned a pantasote outer coat which I used to assume whenever it rained. Ordinarily when it is warm enough to rain, it is warm enough to cause you to perspire under the exertion of walking in a pantasote coat. This I discovered. Shortly I would get wet, and would be quite unable to decide whether the rain had soaked through from the outside or I had soaked through from the inside. After that I gave the coat away to a man who had not tried it, and was happy. If I must walk in the rain I prefer to put on a sweater — the rough wool of which will turn water for some time and the texture of which allows ventilation. Then the chances are that even if I soak through I do not get a reactionary chill from becoming over heated. In camp you will know enough to go in when it rains.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.56

 “It will be best, therefore, to have a pair of good overalls, with a tongue to keep the wet out of the boots… For the body a coat (Mackintosh) is indispensable. A man cannot pitch his tent in a cape with overalls that come to the middle of the thigh and fasten to the brace button with an upward strap. As he stoops they come down, and the cape flies up and his arms so get wet. A loose cover coat, 35 inches long, is best.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.222


A good wool sweater is far preferable (to a coat) and should be included in every individual pack; you won't use it much more than for a warmer at the evening camp.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.22

With nothing over it, a sweater is not serviceable in the woods, as it " picks out," " snags," and catches up burrs as a magnet does iron filings… Personally, I usually discard the sweater in favor of a mackinaw shirt, worn hunting fashion with tail outside. It has all the good points of a sweater, except great elasticity, and has the advantages of shedding rain and snow, keeping out wind, wearing well under hard service, and not picking up so much trash.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol, I1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.147



The selection of the undersuit requires more care than the outer garments. Preferably it should be a loosely fitting union suit of pure soft wool regardless of season. Wool absorbs perspiration and prevents chill. Cotton on the other hand retains perspiration and is a clammy chill producer when the body begins to cool off. Never use thick underwear even in winter: better have an extra undersuit, a size larger than the one ordinarily worn, for doubling up in cold weather. Two thin suits worn together are warmer than a thick one weighing as much as both : this is due to the dead air interspace between the two.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.24

Union Suits are not practical in the wilds. If you wade a stream, or get your legs soaked from wet brush or snow, you can easily take off a pair of drawers to dry them, but if wearing a union suit you must strip from head to foot. Moreover, a union suit is hard to wash, and it is a perfect haven for fleas and ticks — you can't get rid of the brutes without stripping to the buff.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.141


I would rather wear corduroy (coat), but Mackinaw cloth is better than either, especially for cold weather. The Mackinaw coat is light, soft and warm, is not noisy, turns a fair amount of water, and is in all ways the most practical article for the big game hunter. In the northern brush it is worn almost exclusively.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.31

The coat it to be at once eliminated. One never needs it: it is cumbersome, it impedes the swing of the arms and is no protection in inclement weather. It readily soaks up water or if made of waterproof stuff moisture is condensed inside.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.22


With the exception of two tunics of reindeer-skin which the Lapps wore, and a little coat lined with squirrel-skin which I took, but scarcely used, we had no furs, but wore woollen things throughout. Next our skins we had thin woollen shirts and drawers, then thick, rough jerseys, and then our outer garments, which consisted of a short coat, knickerbockers, and gaiters.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.31

As to clothing for the woods, a good deal of nonsense has been written about "strong, coarse woolen clothes." You do not want coarse woolen clothes. Fine woolen cassimere of medium thickness for coat, vest and pantaloons, with no cotton lining. Color, slate gray or dead-leaf (either is good). Two soft, thick woolen shirts; two pairs of fine, but substantial, woolen drawers; two pairs of strong woolen socks or stockings; these are what you need, and all you need in the way of clothing for the woods, excepting hat and boots, or gaiters.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.4-5


Because of the extremely wide variations in style and clothing preferences and recommendations, which were in large part guided by prevailing fashions at the time and place where the author lived, it would be pointless for any of us to try to generate some agreed upon “ideal” for outdoor clothing for the Classic Backpacking period. I suggest you either use your own judgment and experience to select period appropriate clothing, or just replicate the choices of your favorite author. 


I think a good place to start when talking about clothing is to look at the materials available during the period. Once we know what was available, we would be free to imitate the style of dress preferred by our favorite woodsman of the period.

Generally speaking, what was available was wool, cotton, linen, silk, and fur. Starting with those materials, many variations were available. Clearly both cotton and wool came in woven and knitted varieties, but there were also some more specific variations which are named in the texts. A few of them are:
  • Felt is a material made of matted wool. It is neither woven nor knitted, but is made by pressing wool fibers together.
  • Jersey is a knitted fabric. It can typically be made of either cotton or wool.
  • Mackinaw is a woven wool material similar to a blanket.
  • Corduroy is a woven cotton fabric with raised ribs.
  • Flannel is a woven fabric with a brushed surface. If can be made of cotton or wool.
  • Moleskin is a cotton fabric with fuzzy surface.
  • Macintosh is a rubberized cotton material, created in 1823. By 1855, coats made of the material were produced and sold. In many of the sources we see references to the material as ground sheets, coats, or ponchos.
  • Burberry is a tightly woven cotton material. It was invented in 1879 by Thomas Burberry and carries his name. Similar coats of tightly woven cotton started being produced a few years earlier around 1875. Of the material Nansen writes: “In wind, snow, and rain we generally wore outside our other clothes a light suit of some thin, brown, canvas-like stuff. This was reputed completely waterproof, but it turned out to be nothing of the kind. In wind and snow, however, it did excellent service, and we used it often on the "Inland ice," as it protected us well against the fine driven snow, which, being of the nature of dust, forces itself into every pore of a woollen fabric, and then, melting, wets it through and through.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.32 Ventile, a similar fabric available today was not invented until 1941.  
Lastly, towards the end of the Classic Backpacking period, down coats started to be developed. Much like down sleeping bags they were very high end product, and didn’t seem to have been available to the average person. In the image below from the Royal Geographical Society, you can see George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce during the 1922 Everest expedition. Finch in the back is wearing an early version of a down coat. In front, Bruce is wearing a Burberry wind shell.


Even though we see a lot of divergence in opinion when it comes to different authors/woodsmen of the period, there does seem to be a shared understanding of layering, using the above materials. Generally all of them recommend some sort of undergarment which would wick moisture away and provide insulation. Then a mid-layer of insulation, especially for the torso. Lastly, some form of shell to protect either from rain, snow, wind, or abrasion. The exact choices vary based on personal preference and the environment, but the general approach is what we grew up knowing as the layering principle. You can see some clothing lists for extremely cold weather here.

We also see a general preference for wool clothing, in different variations, particularly when it comes to insulation layers. Just about every author recommends that wool undergarments be worn, and despite disagreeing about the exact form of the additional insulation layers, they largely recommend wool for that purpose as well, although Kephart warns against getting carried away: “However, the broad statement that one should wear nothing but wool at all seasons requires modification. It depends upon quality and weave. Some flannels are less absorptive and less permeable (especially after a few washings by the scrub-and- wring-out process) than open-texture cottons and linens.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.140

Unfortunately, at this point in the post we have to make a diversion to discuss an aspect of wool clothing about which more nonsense has been written online in the past decade, than any other. You see, some time in the mid 1990s, a previously unknown property of wool was discovered. This new property is that while a person is at home, writing comments online, wet wool clothing continues to keep him just as warm as when the wool clothing was dry. This phenomenon however is only observed online. When one goes into the woods, it stops doing so. Since the internet did not exist during the Classic Backpacking period the authors at the time were not familiar with this new property.

I joke of course, but the point I am making a serious one. I am writing these posts both for information, but also in case people are interested in actually going into the woods and trying this type of backpacking. If you are one of those people who is interested in actually being in the woods, and facing the conditions nature may unleash upon you, make no mistake, wet clothing will not keep you warm. It doesn’t matter if it is made of wool, cotton, some modern miracle material, or unicorn hair treated with the tears of a bald eagle. If your clothing gets wet, it will lose significant amounts of insulation. Above all else, you need to stay dry.

The old mythology of clothing said that for warmth-when-wet, it had to be wool. The modern mythology says synthetics such as polyester and polypropylene are warm when wet. Both myths are precisely that. Any insulating material which is wet is no longer an insulating material… The heat loss through a wet garment will usually be about three times the heat loss through the same garment when dry. So you need to wear three wet parkas to do the Job of one dry one. Don't rely on magic materials to keep you warm in the wet, stay dry. If you-do get wet, change. If you still insist on getting wet, wear a diving suit.” Technical Note 89-21, Canadian National Defense Research Establishment Ottawa, 1969

The woodsmen during the Classic Backpacking period were fully aware of that fact. While they wrote about wool being a better insulator when wet, or giving less of a chill when wet than the alternatives of cotton or linen that were available at the time, none of them had any delusions about wool keeping them warm when wet. It didn’t back then, and it doesn’t now…well, at least not in the woods.

Wet (wool) clothing is heavy and uncomfortable. It is much less permeable to air than dry clothing; consequently it interferes with evaporation of sweat ; and it is chilly, because water, which is a good conductor of heat, has replaced the air, which is a non-conductor. Air passes through dry cloth more than twice as freely as through wet material.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.148

Carry a change of underwear… Fresh dry underclothes are as warm as an extra blanket would be if one slept in the sweaty garments he wore during the day.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.100

It is quite advisable to waterproof all woolen items in the outfit after the following methods: secure three ounces of anhydrous wool fat and dissolve in chloroform. This is added to one gallon of benzine and the garments soaked therein for three minutes and then hung up to dry in a draft. The volatile benzine evaporates leaving the fibers of the wool encased in the natural oil. This is of particular advantage to the outdoor man since the woolen fibers thus treated do not soak up water and swell but only allow water to fill up the air inter spaces of the fabric from which it can be readily expelled.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.23

Whether the work be hard or not, woollen clothes are far the best, as they give free outlet to the perspiration, whereas cotton, linen, or skins would check it. Above all things, we had to take care that we did not get overheated, because the succeeding chill was so likely to lead to freezing. As we got warm we had, therefore, to gradually abandon one garment after another, and we might often have been seen in fifty and sixty degrees of frost working in our jerseys, and yet perspiring as on an ordinary summers day.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.31

So, if you are planning to go into the woods, forget all claims of magical fabrics, either modern or traditional. Leave that to the marketing executives and the online woodsmen. Stay dry, and you will stay warm. If you do get wet, dry out as soon as you can. Both Claude P. Fordyce and Horace Kephart offer treatment methods for wool which will prevent the fibers from absorbing water, in effect turning the material into modern fleece. The purpose of the treatment is to keep as much water out of the fabric as possible, and to allow for easy removal of the water if it does get wet. Much of the mythology of wool keeping you warm when wet comes not from some magical ability to retain insulation when wet, but rather from wool’s ability to shed water much better than comparable cotton or linen clothing.  

So, all this silliness aside, let me share with you what choices I’ve made.

For base layer, I wear use a 250g SmartWool merino wool top. It works well enough alone in warm weather, and as a base layer the rest of the time. It is a knitted construction, and is not particularly durable. Wool is notoriously non-durable, especially when thin like this. It has a 1/4 zipper, which is not exactly period appropriate. While zippers were developed in the early 1900s, they were not available to the average woodsman. I have not been able to find a similar shirt with buttons instead of a zipper.


I generally do not wear a base layer on my legs. Unless it’s –30F (-34C) I find my legs don’t need the added insulation. Instead, I wear a pair of German Army surplus wool pants. They look to be early WW II. They have a button fly, and the slant of the pockets looks period correct, even though I assume the pants were made in the 1940s. The M51 US Army surplus pants are also a good option even though they are not pure wool. They are more durable than the pure wool alternative, but are not exactly period correct. In warm weather I wear cotton or corduroy pants. On my feet I wear a pair of REI wool blend socks. If you want socks that are going to last more than a season, they have to be some type of blend. Pure wool socks wear out very quickly.


My next layer is another wool shirt. I like the Pendleton 100% wool shirts. They are made of woven wool, and offer a good mix of insulation, durability, and wind protection.



In conditions where I need to layer more clothing, in particular, more than one sweater, I like to replace this shirt with a vest. Otherwise, I find that I get too much material in my sleeves and around my neck. The “vest” is just an old Pendleton wool shirt that I cut up. I removed the sleeves and the fold-down portion of the collar.


The next layer involves several items. The main one is a crew neck Woolrich 100% wool sweater. I have come to prefer sweaters to other forms of insulation like jackets or blanket shirts because they offer more insulation for the weight and bulk. They are warm and pack up much better. That is essential since most of the time when I am backpacking, the sweater stays in my pack. The neck is covered by a SmartWool neck gaiter. Similar articles were available during the period, and it is smaller than a scarf. On my hands I use a pair of army surplus wool gloves, and my head is covered by a wool hat.



On an average trip, with temperatures down to about 20F (-7C) this is all the clothing I carry unless it is snowing or I expect rain.

If it is any colder, I bring an additional layer. It is an Orvis 100% wool turtle neck sweater. I also use a second pair of gloves. They are army surplus fingerless gloves, which I layer on top of the other gloves.



Lastly, if there is snow, or rain, or high wind, I bring a shell layer. It is an Urban Outfitters CPO Anorak. It is made of 65% cotton and 35% nylon. It is woven, so just like the cotton alternative, it is not waterproof, although it will shed a decent amount. The effect of the nylon threads is that it takes a low quality cotton and makes it feel like high quality similar to Burberry or Egyptian cotton. The anorak has a nylon mesh lining, which I cut off. The zipper is obviously not period correct, but the anorak is much cheaper than the available alternatives like those from Empire Canvas. It is also very thin, so it packs up small. The one in the picture is size XL.



I like my clothing to be well fitted and minimal. I know this goes contrary to many of the recommendations you see elsewhere, but I find that those are not made in the context of backpacking.

In most instances where you see any discussion of wool and cotton clothing with respect to the outdoors, it is either in the context of bushcraft where more often than not we are talking about sedentary camping close to a road, or Snow Walker type travel, traveling with the use of a sled along frozen rivers and lakes. In both instances, you can afford to have loose and oversized clothing, and lots of it.

When backpacking however, you need clothing that will allow you to move through difficult terrain, and more importantly, which will be easily transportable in a pack. No matter how cold it is, when you are backpacking, you will overheat. As a result, almost all of your clothing will end up in your pack. For the majority of the day you will be wearing only one or two shirts. The rest of the insulation or shell layers will come out when you stop moving or if you get rain or snow. Therefore, if it can not fit in a pack, it doesn’t come along. Blanket shirts, large canvas anoraks, fur lines mittens, etc, are very nice to have, but you can not afford them when you are backpacking. 

Lastly, since I always get the question, let me give you a brief comparison between this clothing system and the modern one I use when not doing Classic Backpacking. 

When it comes to shell materials, the difference is not as significant from a practical stand point as one might expect. A rubberized cotton coat is not as good as a GoreTex one, but practically the difference is minor in terms of material. If you are overheating while wearing either one, you will get wet from perspiration. Such coats should be carried in the pack and only used when needed. I have not been able to find a suitable coat made from rubberized cotton, so I have chosen to go with a cotton one. It is not waterproof, but it will shed a good amount of water in an emergency. It does a good job at keeping the snow and wind away. 

When it comes to insulation, there are some notable differences. If we leave all of the marketing and hype aside, wool clothing is very similar to its fleece alternative. Wool has the advantage of being more flame resistant, but it has the disadvantage of much slower drying time. If you take the recommendations of Kephart and Fordyce and waterproof the wool fibers, you will have a garment almost identical to fleece from an insulation and bulk stand point. 

While non-compressible insulation like fleece and wool has its place, in particular in very wet environments, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the amount of insulation we get per weight and volume of fill based insulation like Primaloft. To within certain degree, modern clothing can be replaced effectively with wool clothing. When the temperature really starts to drop however, the task becomes harder and harder. If in your regular clothing system you can use fleece for a particular item, then wool will work fine as an alternative. If the item is made of fill based insulation, replacing it with wool while keeping the same bulk and weight will be impossible.

Just as with blankets, you can certainly gather enough wool clothing to keep you warm; as warm as any modern clothing. The problem is transporting that clothing. What you see above is the most I am willing to carry while backpacking. It is a good set of clothing, and will allow me to function in relatively cold weather, but it’s not as easy to transport as my normal clothing choices. That is why in cold weather environments you see fur being substituted for wool, and sleds being used to transport gear. 

For a more scientific comparison between modern and early 20th century cold weather clothing, check out the post here.