Friday, March 23, 2012

Bushcraft and Camping Cold Weather Clothing

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the clothing I have been wearing, so I thought I would use this opportunity to go through some of it. In particular, I’ll go over the clothing I was wearing on my 2/18/12 through 2/20/12 trip, since I’ve already described it in a previous post, here. I only call it “cold weather” clothing because I use it during winter in my area. It is certainly not appropriate for all cold weather environments.

I want to once again stress that we are free to chose whatever equipment we want, but we should be honest about the reasons for which we chose it. In that spirit, I want to make it very clear that this is in no way the best clothing out there. I wear what you see in this post because I like the way it looks and I like the way it fits. It performs well enough for the environment in which I camp, but it should in no way be considered the end all and be all of clothing options. On top of that, I picked this clothing because it was very affordable, along with some additional motivations which I will discuss further down.

For an alternative selection of affordable clothing, have a look at this post.

Base Layer

The first part of the base layer is a synthetic (polyester) T-shirt and synthetic underwear. There is nothing special about them. I just picked them up at Target for a few dollars each.

034 (2)

The second part of the base layer is a US Army surplus synthetic base layer shirt. I bought it as a combination with a pair of base layer underpants. Together they cost about $10. I don’t wear the bottoms because I hate having anything close fitting on my legs, but that is an option as the two come together as a package.


You may ask why I don’t wear Merino wool as a base layer. The answer is simple. It is the same reason why I am not wearing a high end synthetic top like the Arcteryx Phase SV - cost. Something like the SmartWool Midweight Funnel will cost about $75. That would cost more than most of my other clothing combined.

Mid Layer

The first part of the mid layer consists of a shirt and a pair of trousers.

The shirt is a Pendleton wool shirt. I got it on sale for $40. This is the most expensive part of my clothing. The largest problem I have with wool is the cost. For example, when not on sale, this shirt goes for more than $80. This is in the range of high end modern gear like the Patagonia R1 or the RAB Exodus. I am wearing a size M in the picture.


The pants are a pair of M51 US Army surplus wool pants. I got them new for $25. I think they are a great value for the money. They are actually a blend of 80% wool and 20% synthetic material, which gives them good durability. The pants you see in the picture are size S.

The second part of the mid layer is a M51 US Army surplus cold weather wool shirt. It is made from the same blend as the pants, and I got it new for $10.


It is a size S, but fits well over the Pendleton shirt. It is somewhat bulky. It is certainly much larger in volume than a modern alternative like the RAB Xenon or the Patagonia Nano Puff, but you can’t beat that price.

A wool sweater will also do well as this layer. I have not been able to find one at good cost, but it should offer better insulation, even though it will not be as wind resistant.

Shell Layer

The M51 shirt is a fairly tight weave, so I don’t need much additional protection from the wind, but I do need rain protection. The jacket I had on this trip was a simple nylon jacket that I bought many years ago. I think it cost me about $30.


This is not an item I wear much. I mostly pull it out when there is rain. If I am wearing clothing like untreated fleece, I wear it more often if there is wind, but most of the time it stays in my bag. Because of that, I will at some point have to get something smaller and lighter. I’m thinking something like the Marmot Super Mica. I also need a pair of rain pants, but again, they would have to be very light and compact, as they are not something I use much of the time.

Other Items

The belt I am wearing is the same one I have had for many years. It is a thin nylon belt with a very small buckle. I like it precisely because it is no minimal. It does not get in the way when you are wearing a backpack with a hip belt, nor do you have to take it off while sleeping. I have found leather belts and other more robust belts to be extremely uncomfortable in both those situations.

On this trip I also wore a thinsulate cap, a fleece scarf and a pair of US Army surplus fingerless wool liner gloves.


The cap is identical to a wool watch cap, but I find it much more comfortable, especially to sleep in.

I wore the same wool socks that I always wear.


I find the above clothing to be sufficient for temperatures down to 20F while stationary. That of course means that when working and moving, I am not wearing all of the clothing (usually just up to the Pendleton shirt). If your trip just involves moving between different heated shelters, then this clothing can be used effectively at much lower temperatures.


Since I don’t use heated shelters however, the clothing has to be good enough to keep me warm when stationary, especially in the evenings. Because of that, if I expect the temperature to get any lower, I add some other items to the above set up.

The first item is a pair of liners for the M51 pants. They are the standard M51 liners for the pants. They are made of 60% wool/40% cotton batting with a synthetic liner. They cost about $10, and button into the M51 pants. The liners provide excellent insulation. I have never encountered temperatures in my area that have been low enough to make me feel cold with the liners. I have gone down to about 0F with them without feeling cold in any way. I am sure they will go even lower. The downside is the weight and bulk. They are very heavy, and hard to pack if you chose to remove them.


For the upper body I add a synthetic fill jacket. It is nothing special. I got it at Target for $50. It is warm, and more importantly, it packs to a fairly small size.


The last addition, and something I wish I had brought on this trip is a pair of wool mittens that go over the liner gloves.


Evaluation and Other Considerations

First, for those interested, let me give you the weights of each of the items:

ITEM Weights
T-shirt (C9 by Champion) 4.3 oz
Underwear (C9 by Champion) 2.8 oz
Base Layer (Army surplus top) 8.2 oz
Pendleton Wool Shirt 13.8 oz
M1951 Wool Shirt 1 lb 5.5 oz
M1951 Wool Pants 1 lb 12.6 oz
M1951 Pant Liners 1 lb 14.1 oz
Thinsulate Cap 2.3 oz
Fleece Scarf 3.1 oz
Gloves (Army surplus liner gloves) 1.6 oz
Wool Socks 3.4 oz
Belt 3.0 oz
Rain Coat 1 lb 1.1 oz
Wool Mittens 5.6 oz
Jacket (C9 by Champion) 2 lb 11.7 oz

I mentioned earlier that I had some other reasons for choosing this clothing. The reason why I started wearing it is because I used to read on all of the forums that wool is this type of almost magical material that was better than anything else. I figured that I would give it a try and see what all the hype is about. That is why this fall and winter I wore only the above set up. Based on that I have reached a few conclusions.

One of them is that which every reasonable person knows: wool is no magical fabric. Like anything else, it has advantages, and it has flaws.

Some of the advantages are that it provides fairly good insulation, it is breathable, it is flame resistant, and is fairly durable, especially when compared to some of the lighter weight materials. Of course it is not as durable as cordura or cotton. These particular items of clothing also provide good wind protection when compared to basic fleece clothing, eliminating the need for a separate wind shirt.

The disadvantages are that it is heavy, bulky, and it dries very slowly. Many people say that the fact it dries slowly does not matter because the wool will keep you warm when wet, but from my experience, it is absolutely false. If you get wet, you will be cold. There are many other materials on the market like simple fleece, which will keep you just as warm when wet, but will dry out much more quickly.

So, how significant are the disadvantages? Well, they are clearly not bad enough to keep me from wearing the clothing, but they should be a significant consideration for you.

If you are in a wet environment, the ability to dry your clothing will make the difference between being warm and being cold. A fleece heavy set up like the one in the article to which I linked in the beginning of this post will perform somewhat better in a wet environment.

Weight and bulk are also significant factors because this is a layering system designed to allow you to remove clothing. All the items you take off have to be stored somewhere for the remainder of the trip. If they are bulky, you may end up needing a pack twice the volume, just so you can store them. This problem becomes much more pronounced as wool clothing gets thicker. A wool base layer is not significantly bulkier than a synthetic one. However, a wool outer coat may be more than ten times bulkier and heavier than a synthetic fill one.

This bulk issue is why I decided to go with a synthetic shell layer, even in this more “traditional” outfit. You have probably seen many people on forums advocating Ventile, Gaberdine, or some other form of shell layer comprised of tightly woven cotton. If you have ever tried to pack such a coat , you quickly realize that you need a second backpack just to carry it. Considering that this is a shell layer, designed to be removed and stored for most of the trip, this is a huge problem. On top of that of course we have the problem that it is not waterproof, nor was it designed to be waterproof. Remember, this is the exact same material from which Milbank bags are made, and they are designed to filter water. A simple nylon jacket will offer significant advantages in terms of performance, and can be stored in your backpack with ease. I find that the above shirts resist wind well enough to not require a separate dedicated wind shirt, whether it be cotton or anything else. 

I have had some issue with moisture management with this clothing. In particular, when walking through snow or other wet areas, I have gotten the pants wet. Unlike the top layers, it is hard to just remove the top layer of the pants. It is an issue because in my experience, the surest way to be cold at night is to get into the sleeping bag damp or wet. I have been thinking or replacing the liners with a set of fleece pants, which will allow me to remove the outer wool pants when they get wet.

Something else to keep in mind is that not everyone will be comfortable in button down shirts and wool dress pants. I wear similar clothing most other days of the week, so it feels right to me, but most people will probably find it uncomfortable. There are many designs for wool clothing out these days, and you can find something that works for you, but this brings me to the next point:

The only reason why I wear the above outfit is because I was able to find the components for very low cost as they are mostly surplus. If I had to pay market value for new wool items ($100+ per piece of clothing), I would certainly go with the equivalent modern clothing, as it costs about the same and performs better under most conditions in terms of insulation, weight, and compressibility, not to mention rain resistance. 

I consider the above set up similar to the one which I discussed here earlier. While each outfit has advantages and disadvantages, I find that they even out. They are also identical in terms of cost. For cheap clothing, either outfit will work well. You can of course mix and match items based on what you already have at home. Be aware of the limitations of each material and try to compensate for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment