Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Clothing Selection for the Wilderness

Don't ever underestimate the importance of your clothing. As much as we may spend on tents, tarps and sleeping bags, your first line of defense against the elements is the clothing on your back.

How do I select clothing?

There are two important things to keep in mind when selecting clothing. The first is that it should be fast drying and be able to retain heat even when wet. Clothing that loses its insulative powers when wet can get you in trouble. Keep in mind, you not only get wet from rain or the occasional clumsy dip in a river, but also from perspiration.

The second thing to keep in mind is that your clothing should be versatile. That is why the standard for outdoorsmen for centuries has been a layering system. It is nearly impossible that one piece of clothing, no matter how good, will get the job done. You can easily find that you can be drenched in sweat while hiking in a t-shirt in the middle of winter. When you get to camp however, the freezing temperature catches up to you. That is why wearing numerous layers of clothing is such an advantage; it allows you to remove items until you get just the right level of heat retention.

So how many layers do I need?

I would say, for the upper body four or five will do the trick. For the lower body two or three. There is no exact science here because a lot of your choices will be determined by comfort as well as heat retention. For example, I hate long thermal underpants and undershirts. I just can’t stand the way they feel, so I don’t use them. Most times that leaves me with just one layer on my lower body. If it is cold enough, I might add a pair of fleece pants under my trousers.

What materials should I chose?

There is a lot of fighting over what materials are good for wilderness clothing. On one hand, you have people who would not wear any fabric that has not been to space; on the other hand, you have people who wear nothing but wool because it is what Jedediah Smith used to wear in the 18th century. Both options tend to lighten your wallet quite a bit. I don’t see any need for it. These days you should have no problem getting good quality clothing at a low price. Here is a look at some of the available materials:


Wool has many advantages; it insulates very well, it retains its insulative value even when wet, and it will not get damages easily by fire. The downside is that it is very slow to dry, and it is very, very heavy. A full layered system of wool clothing can add 25 lb-30 lb on your back. If you get it wet, that weight can exceed the weight of a fully loaded backpack. Wool has been the choice of many outdoorsmen over the years, mostly because it was the high tech option of the time.


Cotton is largely considered to be a bad choice for wilderness clothing. The reason is that it loses almost all insulative properties when wet. It can be used in warmer environment, but great care should be taken.


There is a very wide range of clothing to consider here. There are many miracle fibers that will keep you warm, dry fast, and cook your dinner. The average person can afford few of them. These days however, there are many fairly cheap synthetic fibers that make for great wilderness clothing, namely fleece. Fleece clothing provides great insulation, dries fast, and is very light. The only disadvantage it has when compared to wool is that it will melt if it contacts flames. Keep that in mind when messing around with your fire. I have been wearing fleece clothing for many years, and am yet to damage any of it, but don’t throw it in the fire. Buying such clothing items in regular department stores will keep your costs down, as you will avoid the ridiculous “outdoor clothing” markups in the specialty stores.

For non isulative materials, nylon or any of its cousins will do just fine. Army surplus stored carry many items which are nylon cotton mixes. They all work great, as the nylon will compensate for the cotton’s lack of heat retention. Aim for a mix that is at least 50% nylon, and preferably 65%.

As an example, I will show you what I tend to wear.

For pants, I most often use a pair of army surplus camo pants that are 65% nylon, 35% cotton mix. They are tough and durable. Like I said before, in extreme cold, I will put on a pair of fleece pants under them.

For the upper body, I start with a t-shirt that is 50% nylon, 50% cotton mix. It dries very fast and is comfortable.

My next layer is a long sleeve thin fleece shirt. I got it from an army surplus store, and is probably my most expensive piece on clothing at $40.

On top of that I have a thick fleece jacket, that I got from a department store for about $10.

On top of that (often called a shell) I have a nylon jacket that agin I got at an army surplus store for $30. A Gore Tex jacket would be a better choice because it allows your sweat to evaporate, keeping you drier, but the cost is much higher. This is a very important layer of clothing. Even though it does not retain much heat on its own, it stops the wind from penetrating the insulative layers, keeping you much, much warmer.

On my feet, I have a pair of wool socks which I believe cost $2 a pair.

Of course, I do not wear or carry all of the above items year round. What you should aim for is the coldest temperature you think you might encounter, and bring clothing that will keep you warm. You can always take some off, but if you didn’t bring it with you, you can’t put any on.

The clothing you chose will depend on the environment in your area. You may want to add more layers, use thicker layers, and of course the hat and gloves of your choosing. The above is just an example on one possible layering system that will not require you to take a mortgage to pay off.