“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.