All of the authors I have read, covering the time period between 1880 and 1930, understood that wool blankets, while good, were severely limited due to their poor insulation to weight/bulk ratio. As long as a single blanket would suffice, they were content to carry it, but for colder temperatures, they all looked for better alternatives.
For warm weather, either listed as down to freezing, 32F(0C) or a bit above that, depending on the author, all of them seem to have preferred a single wool blanket, weighing about 5lb.
“Next in the order of necessities is a woollen blanket,— a good stout one, rather than the light or flimsy one that you may think of taking… A lining of cotton drilling will perhaps make a thin blanket serviceable.” John Mead Gould, How to Camp Out
George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) preferred a blanket bag, i.e. a single blanket folded over and sewn along the edges, not to be confused with a sleeping bag of the time, which wasn’t all that different, but involved several layers of wool covered by canvas. “A soft, warm blanket-bag, open at the ends, and just long enough to cover the sleeper, with an oblong square of waterproofed cotton cloth 6x8 feet, will give warmth and shelter by night and will weigh together five or six pounds. This, with the extra clothing, will make about eight pounds of dry goods to pack over carries, which is enough. Probably, also, it will be found little enough for comfort.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.6
A similarly used blanket bag is illustrated in Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, 1872.
“A six or seven pound blanket of the best quality is heavy enough. The gray army blanket, to be purchased sometimes at the military stores, is good, as is also the "three- point" blanket issued by the Hudson's Bay Company…You will find that another suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket, and much easier to carry. Sleeping bags I do not care for. They cannot be drawn closely to the body, and the resulting air space is difficult to warm up. A blanket you can hug close to you, thus retaining all the animal heat. Beside which a sleeping bag is heavier and more of a bother to keep well aired. If you like the thing occasionally, a few horse blanket pins will make one of your blanket.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail , 1911, p.87
“They (blankets) should be of generous size, for a white man cannot sleep comfortably if he must draw his knees up against his chin. What is more, the blankets should cover his head as well as his feet, so they should be a foot and a half longer than the user's height. They should also be wide — six feet will do, but nothing less. With such blankets a man can lie on one-half and pull the other half over him, and by suddenly elevating his pedal extremities he can drop the lower edge of the blankets under them, while the upper part can be drawn tightly around his head and shoulders...The Hudson's Bay blankets are excellent, being heavy and of large size. Then there are many camp blankets of less note, most of which are good. Really good, heavy, all-wool blankets of a size 72x84 inches will cost from $ 5.00 to $ 10.00 each for single blankets, and twice that much for the double kind, if you can get them. These single blankets should weigh from four and a half to five pounds each.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.49
“In all likelihood you will depend for warmth upon blankets. Their use is so universal that we need no discussion other than in regard to their quality and shape… The thicker and looser the texture of woolen goods the greater will be the warmth.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.102
Not all blankets however are made equal, not even the woolen ones. The above authors make it very clear that the blanket should not only be large enough to wrap around yourself, but the wool should be loosely woven in order to maximize the warmth provided for the weight. Using the same amount of wool, if it is loosely woven, will trap more air and provide better insulation. The downsize is less durability and it renders the blanket more permeable to wind.
“The warmest blanket for its weight is not a close-woven one but one that is loose-woven and fluffy. An army blanket is made for hard service, and so must be of firm weave, but a third of its weight is added for that purpose only, not for warmth.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918, p.127
“Also see to it that the weight is in the thickness and not in the size. In this country the regulation Army blanket is to be depended upon. However, if they can be secured, a person will certainly make no mistake in getting a genuine Hudson Bay or Mackinaw. The proper weight is about five pounds per blanket and size seventy-two by seventy-eight is about right. If you get it too narrow you cannot then roll it up so snugly for packing nor wrap it so closely about the body at night.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.104
“It has always been my belief that wool loosely woven, so that it forms a soft, thick cloth, is a better heat retainer than the same quantity of wool tightly woven, so that it makes a thinner, tighter and harder material. Anyway, I think the surface should be as woolly as it is possible to make it.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.45
You may get a good idea of what a loosely woven blanket would approximate in volume from the description given by Warren Miller: “Take the army blanket, single thickness, 84 inches by 66 inches, weight 5 pounds. You may roll it into a sort of sausage, 7 feet long and 9 inches in diameter.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.42
A blanket weighing 5lb for bedding that will take you down to 32F (0C) with proper bedding, is not great my modern standards, where equivalent insulation would weigh as little as 1lb, but is still portable, and will function well for a person traveling on foot.
The problem comes when the temperatures dip below that. All of the authors I have read seemed to agree that a blankets were insufficient, and would problematic if one attempted to carry enough of them on one’s back. The problem was nothing new. 18th and early 19th century explorers struggled with the same problem. Their solution most often was to use fur robes, and travel by pack train or canoe. As in Nansen’s case below, he used sleds to move his fur sleeping bags across the ice and snow.
“The sleeping-bag is, of course, a most important article of equipment for all Arctic expeditions. In our case, the nature of the material of which the bag should be made needed our best consideration, as it was necessary that it should be at the same time light and sufficiently warm. On previous expeditions sometimes wool and sometimes skins have been used. Wool, of course, lets the perspiration through much more readily, and there is not so much condensation of moisture inside as in the case of skin ; but, on the other hand, wool has the disadvantage of being very heavy in comparison with the amount of warmth which it affords. For a time I thought of trying woollen bags, but I came to the conclusion that they would not be warm enough, and I now think that if we had taken them we should have scarcely reached the west coast of Greenland alive. After several experiments I determined to use reindeer-skin, as the best material which I could procure in the circumstances. Reindeer-skin is, in comparison with its weight, the warmest of all similar materials known to me, and the skin of the calf, in its winter-coat especially, combines the qualities of warmth and lightness in quite an unusual degree.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.29-30
A similar sleep system was used by Scott and Amundsen during their race to the South Pole.
In weather a bit below 32F (0C), the answer might have been as simple as bringing an extra blanket.
“Usually they beginner weights himself with a considerable number of blankets. It is found that during a good part of the night that one blanket is not sufficient, even in Summer. He therefore takes two.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.162
“At the time of writing, although it is well on in the Winter, we have been sleeping under two blankets, with the front of the tent wide open, and my eldest son, who occupies a tent hard by, sleeps under a single blanket.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.385
“But this is only one side of the story: arrange the blanket as you will, there is but one thickness around you, and this is not enough — not nearly enough — for comfortable sleeping with the night temperature even as high as 40 degrees. Below that you positively must have two thicknesses of blanket. So we get the red Hudson Bay blanket (with the four black bars!), 72 inches by 84 inches, weight 10 pounds, which can be doubled around one in a pinch; also the double mackinaw, 72 inches by twice 90 inches, weight 10 pounds, and the various gray doubles, usually twice 82 inches long by 72 inches wide. These all require a whole tump-bag to pack in, with precious little space to spare, and every thing else you take must go in the other bag. Now, in the summer, early fall, and late spring one can go as Nessmuk did, with a light knapsack and a single blanket, total weight, including canoe, not over 30 pounds; but I notice he usually denned up about the time the first snows fell. If he had stayed out later he would either have had to change his rig or increase his weight, and as soon as he got blankets enough his bulk would run out of hand for lone-wilderness tramping. As I try to get out at least once a month every month in the year, some sort of a winter pack that would be warm yet total under 35 pounds, including provisions, tent, duffel, and ammunition, had to be devised.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.43-44
“Now, a man with one thickness of blanket has no chance at all against zero temperatures or even freezing (32 degrees). If he doubles the blanket it is not wide enough to stay on him, as he has no lacing holding it to the browse-bag. If he takes two blankets there is 10 pounds of weight, and 2 cubic feet of baggage to load on a man's back… And at that, the blanket toter will not be really warm. There are yards of useless extra material around his feet, which he would give much to have transferred up to his hips and shoulders, where the cold is biting in ! And his load ! Well, it might answer on a canoe trip, where a portage of a few miles is the longest back-pack trip, or on a toboggan jaunt, where the snow carries the load — but not for a free and independent tramp over mountains and down brooks, such as the trout angler takes in spring or the hunter in the fall.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.56-57
“The number of blankets needed depends somewhat upon the time of year and the locality of use and whether or not the all night fire is to be used. In ordinary summer weather one blanket is enough especially if combined with the proper browse bag and wind break and is enough even for frosty autumn temperatures up to stream freezing time, excepting in the higher altitudes. With the temperature under thirty-two degrees two Army blankets will be needed...Many mountaineers to whom strenuous pedestrianism and cold nights of the higher altitudes necessitate the lightest form of bedding prefer wool quilts which are folded and sewed on one end and half up one side in the form of a sleeping bag which is protected from the damp ground by a waterproof balloon silk cover.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.105
The downside of the extra blanket is clearly the added weight and bulk, as mentioned above. While carrying 5lb worth of blankets is not an issue, 10lb starts to become problematic. Some of the authors suggest foregoing the second blanket and instead relaying on extra clothing for the added warmth.
“Where the transportation is inadequate as on a hike trip, the wearing of an extra suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket. One then gets the dead air space between the wool and the warmth is thereby intensified because the number of layers of covering retains the heat longer than one thick layer of the same weight.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.105
“You will find that another suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket, and much easier to carry.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.87
These strategies however seem to have been completely abandoned when the weather really got cold. Each author seems to have struggled with what to do for insulation in cold weather, and each had his attempted solutions. As seem from Nansen above, when transportation was not an issue, i.e. one had access to pack horses, sleds, etc, fur sleeping bags were the answer. Caribou or Reindeer fur appears to have been preferred, although it was too heavy of an option for backpacking.
Some resorted to using the sleeping bags available at the time. These were noting more than several layers of loosely woven wool, covered by some type of shell layer. They were heavy and bulky, but not nearly as much as the equivalent amount of blankets.
“Bedding is the problem; a man carrying his all upon his back, in cold weather, must study compactness as well as lightness of outfit. Here the points are in favor of sleeping-bag vs. blankets, because, for a given insulation against cold and draughts, it may be so made as to save bulk as well as weight. For a pedestrian it need not be so roomy as the standard ones, especially at the foot end. Better design one to suit yourself, and have an outfitter make it up to order, if you have no skill with the needle. An inner bag of woolen blanketing, an outer one of knotted wool batting, and a separate cover of cravenetted khaki or Tanalite — the weight need not be over 8 pounds complete. Your camp- fire will do the rest. A browse bag is dispensed with, for you will carry an axe and can cut small logs to hold in place a deep layer of such soft stuff as the location affords.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918, p.144
“There is a good deal of waste material in blankets and comforters, especially at the foot end. Suppose we cut them into a sort of coffin shape, to conform to the outlines of the body, sew up a side and an end and the lower third of the other side, then attach buttons or laces or clasps to close the bag after one has got into it. A good deal of weight and bulk are saved.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918, p.129
Some like Warren Miller went to great lengths to design their own sleeping bags, dedicating a whole chapter of Camp Craft, titled “Eliminating the Blanket” to describing its construction. The final product can be seen below.
Thomas Holding similarly designed his own, stating: “The proper sleeping bag should fit a man like a coat, only a good deal less.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.170
Others resorted to using different types of fur. E.H. Kreps goes into great length about rabbit fur blankets in both of his books, Camp and Train Methods, 1910, and Woodcraft, 1919.
“Now it is not difficult to get together a quantity of blankets that will keep a man warm on the coldest night, but the trouble will come when he wants to transport them. I have slept out on nights when it would have required a half-dozen or more of the heaviest woolen blankets made to keep me near-comfortable, but a bed of this kind would have made a pack that would discourage a bush Indian. No, you can't carry with you enough woolen blankets to keep you comfortably warm when traveling the northern trails in midwinter. Now think it over and it will become obvious that either a man cannot be comfortable in the woods during zero weather unless he has a way of transporting his camp duffle other than by back-packing, or he must find a lighter, warmer blanket than can be made of wool. The latter is the solution. Woolen blankets are good, in fact the best thing made, for camping in spring, summer and fall. As long as the spirits do not go lower than 10 or 20 degrees above zero and a fire may be kept burning all night a pair of Hudson Bay blankets are hard to beat. But when the temperature falls lower the shivering spells preceding each "fire-fixing" become too frequent and the cat-naps too short… But when zero weather is to be contended with woolen blankets must take a back seat for the Indian's kind, woven from strips of rabbit fur… One such blanket, weighing eight or ten pounds, is all that a man requires for sleeping out of doors in a temperature of 40 below zero… It appears bulky, for with fur on both sides it is quite thick, but it can be tied up into a fairly small package. I used to roll mine into a package measuring about 10 inches in diameter by 20 inches in length, and this could be placed in the bottom of a common packsack.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.48-49
Many of the authors mention llama wool as a great insulator, twice as good as sheep’s wool, but they all speak about it as something they have heard of, but never used themselves.
Of course, there was always the option of last resort, continuing to carry only a singly blanket, and keeping a large fire burning all night. Such an option would have been extremely difficult to maintain over a longer period of time.
“The northern or western trapper frequently finds it necessary to make long trips in terribly cold weather, camping out night after night. Since the entire camp outfit and food supply must be carried on these journeys the outfit taken must of necessity be meager. Only a single blanket and a small, light canvas shelter can be taken and to sleep without a fire under such conditions is out of the question. A good hot fire must be kept going and such a fire will consume nearly half a cord of wood during the long northern night. This must be cut into lengths that can be handled and what would become of the camper if his ax were to break before the night's wood was cut; he far from the home camp, darkness at hand, and the temperature far below the zero mark. Freezing to death could be the only possible outcome, unless he could retrace his steps in the dark and travel all the long night.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.54
So, where does that leave us with respect to sleep insulation when attempting to do Classic Backpacking? All of the authors seem to agree that a loosely woven blanket, weighing about 5lb is sufficient to keep you warm down to just above freezing, 32F (0C).
For colder temperatures, they all seem to have their own preferences, and at times outright disagree. Some prefer sleeping bags, others hate them; some prefer furs, others do not. As a last resort one might just try to tough it out with a blanket and a large fire.
Ultimately, I haven’t been able to reach any conclusion on what would be a good solution, especially for someone trying to do Classic Backpacking. I would be interested in trying out a rabbit fur blanket, but one is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, I am reluctant to try designing a sleeping bag, because with the knowledge we have today it would be too easy to come up with a fully modern down sleeping bag, utilizing silk as a shell rather than nylon. In fact, some people at the time had that same idea: “Then, as another example, Doctor Loughren, of the Camp Fire Club, showed me an excellent scheme, a sort of quilt bag, made of fine, green, paraffined muslin, and lined with live-goose feathers. It is water-proof and light — 4 pounds, if I remember correctly.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.58
And thanks to Steve Watts for a reminder, The Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe was introduced around 1898, and featured a cotton shell, lined with duck down and wool. It was advertised as being six times warmer than wool. Despite its heavy weight of 16lb, it was utilized on a number of cold weather expeditions.
So, clearly, the idea of using down in the form of some type of sleeping bag was floating around during the time period I am considering. It wouldn't be particularly innacurate to use a cotton lined down quilt. However, for me, the above is dangerously close to a modern sleeping bag, and it is tempting for me to try to construct exactly that using period correct materials. After all, in the 1924 summit attempt on Everest, Mallory and Irvine used similar down sleeping bags. However, I can’t help but feel like that would be cheating. For one, it would make it too easy, and eliminate the challenge I have been seeking. Besides, such technology was really at the cutting edge of innovation at the time, in particular towards the tail end of the time period in which I am interested. It doesn't seem to have been regularly utilized by the average woodsman. As such, I want to avoid it.
Well, that leaves me in an interesting position. While all of the woodsmen between 1880 and 1930 were trying to innovate and move beyond their wool blankets, I will intentionally refrain from doing so because of the unfair advantage I would have in such an endeavor. I don’t have access to potentially portable furs like rabbit fur blankets, so i can’t put them to use.
What I am left with are wool blankets. Since I am determined to carry all of my gear on my back while traveling on foot, using period correct packs, that presents quite a problem. The wool blanket that you saw me carry on my last trip takes up good 70% of my pack. Carrying a second one would be impossible without getting a pack twice the size. Unfortunately, that leaves me with only one option: “Only a single blanket and a small, light canvas shelter can be taken and to sleep without a fire under such conditions is out of the question. A good hot fire must be kept going and such a fire will consume nearly half a cord of wood during the long northern night.” For anyone who finds this an appealing option, I recommend that you try gathering enough wood to keep a good size fire burning during a long winter night, and then waking up every two hours to feed the fire. From experience, I don’t look forward to it. None the less, it is the course I have chosen to take.
My blanket of choice for the task is an old wool blanket I bought about fourteen years ago. In fact, it is the first sleep insulation I used on my early backpacking trips. It was promptly replaced by a sleeping bag, but it’s an excellent blanket, so I’ve been using it around the house. Ordinarily, when selecting gear I like to use commercially available options, in order to make it easier for you guys, but here unfortunately I can’t do that. I haven’t been able to find a reasonably priced blanket that matches this one in terms of warmth for the weight. I bought it at a regular department store, so you may want to try your luck as well.
To illustrate what I mean when I say that the blanket provides more warmth for the weight than any other reasonably priced blanket I have been able to find, here is a comparison picture between the popular Italian Army wool blanket (the Rothco 90% wool replica), and the blanket I am using.
My wool blanket (right) weights 5lb 8.9oz. The Italian Army blanket (left) weighs 4lb 8.7oz. My blanket weighs only 1lb more, but is about two and a half times the size. The reason is that it is much more loosely woven. The Italian Army blankets are about as bad as you can get in terms of insulation you can get from a wool blanket. They are so tightly woven that they are better suited for work as a tarp than as a blanket. They do have the advantage of packing much more easily because of their compact size, but the insulation they provide for the weight leaves a lot to be desired.
Because of its loose weave, the blanket is very large. As I mentioned above, it takes up about 70% of my pack.
I have to stuff it in my pack, then open up a space between the folds, and then stuff the rest of my gear in there. It provides good rigidity to the pack, but it significantly limits what I can carry.
The blanket, of course, can should not be used without proper bedding. Typically you want about five inches of compressed insulation between the blanket and the ground. That is easier said than done considering that we do not have the luxury some of our predecessors had of falling as many trees as we want for the bedding material.
A stick bed might offer a possible solution. The goal is to create loft and dead air space. The problem is that insulation like spruce boughs, let alone leafs, compress significantly once weight is put on them. You may need two feet of boughs so that you get five inches of compressed insulation, even more with leafs. The solution is to use layers of other, less compressible materials, leaving the boughs only for the top layer. That way you have to harvest less resources from living trees.
I start with larger sticks, covered with a layer of finer brush, and covered with a top layer of spruce of leafs. The lower layers compress much less, so you get more compressed loft than you would otherwise from a similar thickness of boughs alone. It is not as comfortable, but it can be made to work.
Lastly, there is the issue of how to wrap the blanket about you. The method which I was taught, doesn’t seem to have been used by any of the authors I’ve read. So, let me give you a few quotes describing how they did it.
“I have never seen described the woods men's method of using a blanket, however. Lie flat on your back. Spread the blanket over you. Now raise your legs rigid from the hip, the blanket of course draping over them. In two swift motions tuck first one edge under your legs from right to left, then the second edge under from left to right, and over the first edge. Lower your legs, wrap up your shoulders, and go to sleep. If you roll over, one edge will unwind but the other will tighten.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.88
“Lying flat on your back on the browse bag cover yourself with the blanket, kick up your feet rigid from the hips so as to bring the blanket foot end draping over and under the feet, returning the feet to the tick roll the body to the left side and tuck the blanket edge under your right side, reverse the turn and do the same under your left side. Lower the feet, wrap up the shoulders and go to sleep. The blanket is now drawn about you snugly above and below and there is no exposed side to let in the cold air and in rolling over the blanket will tighten about you.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.113
I tend to do the opposite. I start out on top of the blanket, and then fold it over on top of me. First, I position the blanket at a diagonal. Since the blanket is not square, one of the side corners will be higher than the other. I make sure that corner is away from the direction in which I will be turned, in my case, the fire.
When I am on top of the blanket, I want the top corner to be just at the top of my head. I then fold the lower corner over my feet.
Then I take the corner pointing in the direction which I will be facing during the night ,i.e. the fire, and wrap it around me. This should be the corner that is slightly lower, so it should cover my hips and torso. I wrap is all the way around.
I then wrap the other corner around me, which should cover the shoulders. I find to easier to have this higher corner coming over my back, than across my chest. It is less likely to unravel.
Lastly, I take the upper corner that is under my head, and pull it under my shoulder and around my neck.
I’ve started using two large blanket pins to secure the blanket together; one at the feet, and another one around my shoulders. That way the whole thing doesn’t come apart of I turn in the middle of the night. “…horse blanket pins will make one (sleeping bag) of your blanket.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.87
The above wrap has served me well, and allows for a relatively small blanket to be used without wasting any material.
Let’s have no delusions though. Blankets are a miserable affair. Getting up when nature calls in the middle of the night is miserable, requiring you to undo the bundle you have created. Even if pee bottles were a thing back then (they weren’t), I still don’t see a way of doing it without unfolding the blanket.
I’ve even seen people these days recommend blankets over sleeping bags for various reasons, the main being that they are safer to use around a fire. That is as true at it is ridiculous. It is the same as me deciding to walk the 50 miles to work each day instead of taking the train, so that I would avoid train delays. True, I’ll avoid the delays, but it will take me two days to get to work, making the delays irrelevant. Similarly, considering that for the weight of a single blanket which will struggle to keep you warm at 32F (0C), I can get a sleeping bag which will keep we warm at –40F (-40C) without the need for a fire, the blanket is a poor choice. I want to stress that the only reason I am using a blanket here is that I am trying to do what I am calling Classic Backpacking, focusing on the time period of 1880 through 1930. Even by the 1950s, when On Your Own in the Wilderness by Col Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier (1958) was published, the blanket was discussed only as a relic from the past.
Similarly, don’t buy into myths about how your wool insulation will keep you warm even when wet. It will not. Take off all of your wet or damp clothing, and keep the blanket as dry as possible. A wet blanket, no matter if made of cotton, wool, or fibers spun by magical woodland elves, will get you in trouble when it really counts. A dry pair of socks to sleep in will avoid a lot of discomfort.
I say all this for those who wish to try camping in the same manner. Please know that it is no joke. A single blanket, or even two of them are a really poor form of insulation compared to what we are used to these days. You will have to adjust your approach accordingly. Anyone can go to their local campsite or backyard where they have a precut pile of wood, and then show you how they sleep with a blanket along a large long fire. Similarly, it is an easy enough task in the middle of summer, when one can spend the night out with no blankets at all. Doing the same thing in the woods after a long day of backpacking, in winter, is a completely different story, and you will have to manage your time and your energy well. Lastly, you have to have realistic expectations and be prepared to have a hard night if things don’t go as planner, or even if they do.
The sleep insulation has been my biggest concern, and will continue to be so. I will see how well I can manage when the temperatures drop lower, and I’ll keep you updated.