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.  

Monday, February 8, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Small Items

In this gear post I want to go over all the remaining small items I use as part of my Classic Backpacking equipment. The literature of this time period is filled with a wide assortment of items that were carried. I’ve tried to minimize what I use as much as possible, and my selections are in part based on the items I am accustomed to using in my regular backpacking.

In the picture below you can see two pouches containing all the remaining items I carry. I have them next to my Mora #2 for size comparisons. The pouches are made from Egyptian cotton that has been treated with boiled linseed oil. The reason for the treatment is not to keep the items inside dry, but to keep the pouches from absorbing water and getting covered with snow when I put them on the ground.

The small pouch contains toilet paper and a cut down toothbrush. The second pouch contains all the remaining items.

On top you have a flint and steel fire kit in a brass box. It is just a back up fire lighting method for me. I carry it more for fun than anything else. By this period in time, 1880 through 1930, the preferred method for fire lighting was matches, not flint and steel.

Wherever one goes matches, knife, and axe should always accompany him.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot. 1916 p.89

As a rule you need three supplies of matches, the main store in a friction-top, air-tight; the daily supply for pipe-smoking, etc., usually an ordinary match-safe or some of the papers of waxed paste board matches; and, finally, the emergency matches, always on your person and carried in a special water-proof shell with the matches wrapped in a few folds of birch-bark tinder.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.150

Matches, knife, and a compass are the three indispensables.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.63

Lighters utilizing a wick were also available. However it appears they were only used as back up to the matches. “A very convenient and cheap emergency contrivance is the flint and steel pocket cigar lighter to be had at most cigar stores. With it as a reserve you are sure of a fire no matter how wet the catastrophe.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.65 

Next to the flint and steel kit I have a DC4 sharpening stone. I use it both for my knife and my hatchet or axe. 

On the top right are several coils of cotton string that I use to pitch my tarp and any other chores for which I need string.

On the bottom you have four blanket pins. They are the 4 inch type, and are more period accurate than the round blanket pins you often see, which date from earlier periods. A good example can be seen on p.69 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog. When I carry the down comforter with me, I bring four extra pins along with it. 

Next to the pins is a small glass bottle with a metal top, which holds all of my pills. The bottle is from a Potable Aqua Iodine water purification kit. It is the one that holds the taste neutralizing tablets.

In the middle is my compass. It is a cheap replica I found on Amazon. It is made of brass and is not liquid filled.

Lastly, I have three Marble’s waterproof containers. They are cheap modern versions, but in design and construction they are period correct.

Matches are carried in a Marble's waterproof case. I also carry a small file and sharpening stone for the axe and some pieces of strong cord.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.223

In two of the cases I carry strike anywhere matches. One container stays in my pack, the other goes in my pocket along with the compass. The third container holds my sewing kit. 

Inside each of the cases holding the matches, I have some waxed jute twine, which serves both as kindling as well as to keep the matches from moving around.

In the sewing kit I have a few needles, some cotton string, and some artificial sinew. The match box that I keep in my pocket has a string tied to it so that I can recognize it.

The weights of the items are as follows:
  • Flint and Steel Kit …………………………………………………….... 5.3oz
  • Match Safe (Full) x 2 ………………………………………………....... 1.3oz each
  • Sewing Kit ……………………………………………………………... 1.1oz
  • Sharpening Stone ………………………………………………………. 2.7oz
  • Pill Bottle (Full) ………………………………………………………... 1.0oz
  • Compass ………………………………………………………………... 2.3oz
  • Rope ……………………………………………………………………. 2.8oz
  • Pins x 4 …………………………………………………………………. 0.3oz each
  • Toothbrush and Toilet Paper …………………………………………… 2.7oz
This wraps up the gear that I have been carrying so far on my Classic Backpacking trips. There is a lot more gear that was available at the time, and will write posts about it as I use it. The above items however, together with the gear I have covered in my previous posts, has been sufficient for the trips I have undertaken so far. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Pots, Cups, and Canteens

The next set of gear I would like to discuss in the context of Classic Backpacking is the cooking and water carrying system. Some of the items are very similar to what we use today, others are not. Just like with the cutting tools, the exact pieces of gear are a matter of personal choice, so I will focus on what items were actually available and used during the time period rather than on what any particular author used.

Cups and Cooking Pots

The first thing that must be noted is that you will see a significant difference in the sources between cooking pots and utensils used for non-movable camp as opposed to those used for traveling on foot through the woods. It appears that just like today, numerous kits were available, and one could find anything from cast iron pots to reflector ovens. When traveling on foot however, most of that was dispensed with, much as we do today.

I take a small frying pan, No. 0 size, which has a square socket for using a wood handle. It is Very light and takes up very little space. I also take a small tinned pail or a quart can fitted with a hay wire bail. If I wish to have a boiled meal occasionally I take a small tin kettle also, but when I wish to go very light, I leave this article behind. Knife, fork and spoon are also dispensed with. A flattened stick answers for a spoon, a pointed one makes a good fork, and the sheath knife answers for cutting everything from slicing bacon to whittling shavings to kindle a fire with.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.222

Of course, everyone had their own idea of what comprised “minimal” gear: “It is easy to make up a good light weight set of utensils for two or more men (see Vol. I. pp. 118-123), but a satisfactory one-man kit is another matter. The Boy Scout sets do fairly well for a short outing when baked bread is carried, but are inadequate for baking on the journey. A reflector is too cumbersome for a lone woods-cruiser. Let him bake his bread and cakes in a frying-pan (see Vol. I, pp. 344-345). This, calls for an 8 or 9-inch pan. Get one with folding handle (detach able ones are easily lost), or take a common one, cut off all of the handle but about inches, and rivet on this stub a semi-circular socket into which you fit your stick for a handle when you go to cooking. For general use I do not like aluminum frying pans, but when traveling afoot they are satisfactory. A deep aluminum plate fits inside the pan in my kit, along with an aluminum fork, white- metal dessert spoon, and a dish towel. When tied up tightly in a light bag they do not rattle around. You want two little kettles for cereals, dried fruit, tea or coffee, to mix dough in, and the like. A pot that is broad and shallow boils water much sooner than one that is deep and narrow, and it is easier to clean. The kettles must not be too big to stow in the knapsack. Anyway, when one is going afoot he does not want to bother with food that takes long boiling, and so has no use for a large kettle. I choose two 1 -quart aluminum buckets, which can be bought through any dealer in kitchen ware, fill them with part of my foodstuffs, set them bottom to bottom, and tie them tightly in a bag so that the covers will not come off. So there is no waste space, for the food must go somewhere, anyway. The kettles are good protection for perishables. Thus no sooty vessel goes inside another, and you have a package of small diameter. A seamless tin cup is carried wherever convenient, generally outside the pack, where it can be got at when one is thirsty. Aluminum is much too hot for cup and spoon. The complete kit weighs just 2 lbs. 2 oz. including bags. No table knife is carried, as I wear a sheath knife.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p. 103

A wide range of materials was available when it came to pots, from tin to steel, to aluminum, to enamel ware. Each woodsman had his preferences.

Of materials tin and iron are the cheapest and they may be light enough. Here their merits end. Iron will rust and neither iron nor tin will stand rough handling. Utensils of such material are hard to clean when greasy and if the joints be soldered one is kept in mortal fear of their early destruction… Enamel ware is the easiest to keep clean and its poor heat conducting properties makes it for some things preferable. It has a tendency to chip and flake under rough handling or in cold weather… Aluminum alloy is a boon to the camper, it being the ideal material for certain outdoor utensils. It stands up in all climates — tropical, frigid north, in use on horseback trips, in canoe work, sledging or on the hike. It is much the lightest material we have… Aluminum alloy has few merits beyond lightness: it is a quick heat conductor, hence the cup had better be of some other material such as enamel ware so as to save the lips from blistering. Also under the application of dry heat to an aluminum fry pan the food sticks and burns so the fry pan is preferably of light stamped steel. However, where lightness is the great desideratum all parts of the cooking kit should be made of aluminum alloy.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.119-120

One big difference which can be noted between what was carried by writers during the Classic Backpacking period and today is the use of a frying pan. Virtually all of the authors at the time speak of the frying pan as an essential item. In contrast, the item will rarely be seen in the outfit of a modern backpacker. The reason appears to be that a century ago, woodsmen loved to bake bread. They all speak about it at great lengths, and the frying pan was an essential tool even for those traveling light. These days most backpackers have figured out that bread can be replaced with rice or mashed potatoes, and the frying pan has gone out of use.

In the picture below you can see an assortment of pots, cups, and pans available from the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog on p.51.

In summary, cooking kits back in the Classic Backpacking period were as numerous, as diverse, and as attractive to woodsmen as they are today. They could be selected from a wide range of materials including tin, steel, enamel ware, and aluminum. The pot, kettle, frying pan, and cup were popular items, and the size of the kit depended on how light one needed to travel. The preferred material appears to have been aluminum, except for cups, where less conductive materials were a better choice.


The issue of canteens is a tricky one. In this respect, the authors in the 1880 through 1930 period seem to differ significantly from our current accepted practices. Specifically, water storage was not a significant consideration for them. Some carried no canteen at all, and those who did usually settled for only one. 

I have not included a water bottle, but, although I have never carried one, there are a few places, such as the New Forest, where it would be most advisable to take one.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.374

Canteens are nearly always a necessity in mountainous regions where your work carries you on the ridges high above the valleys where the streams are. In the desert a special water supply must be planned for. In ordinary hunting or tramping trips the smaller Army canteen supplies the more urgent needs. Where the water supply is contaminated it is necessary to boil and filter the water for drinking. This can be done at mealtimes and then cooled and carried in the canteen for use on the march. The purpose of the felt covering of the canteen is to keep the contents cool by the evaporation from the wetted felt.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.122

One may travel where water is hard to find, though this seldom is the case in a timbered region. The best canteen is one of aluminum, which neither leaks nor rusts like the old-fashioned tin affairs. It should have a canvas cover with felt lining. When the felt is wet its moisture cools the water in the canteen by evaporation. The canvas cover prevents too rapid evaporation, and keeps the canteen from wetting one's clothing. At night, or in case of illness, the thing can be used as a hot-water bottle, the insulation keeping the water hot for a considerable time. The best pattern is the present regulation army canteen, which is shaped like a flat flask, but with one side rounded a little and the other concaved to fit the body. It has a flat bottom, so you can stand it up. The aluminum screw-cap, held by a chain, cannot jolt out like the corks of common canteens.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.134

The only reference I have found to needing to carry more water, and specifically how to do it, is a paragraph written by Kephart: “In mountaineering it often happens that one plans to camp on or near the summit, and wants to carry water with him from some head spring, to save a long climb down after it. A large canteen would be cumbersome. A half-gallon rubber water-bottle solves the problem. It weighs less than a pound, and takes up little room in the pack. In cold weather, such a bottle, filled with hot water, may save packing the weight and bulk of an extra blanket.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.135

From reading through the texts, I have extrapolated several theories. One is that woodsmen at the time primarily stayed to areas where water was readily available. That would allow for the use of a single canteen or no canteen at all. While Fordyce mentions boiling one’s water when in camp and then carrying it in a canteen, doing that with just a single canteen when traveling for a full day is not exactly practical unless more, untreated water can be found and used along the way. Two, there is a notable lack of discussion about water storage and winter travel. While Kephart talks about using the bottle as a hot water bottle in cold weather, it seems very academic, with little discussion about the issue that come up with such canteens in cold weather. As someone who has used canteens from this time period, I can tell you that there is a lot of information left out with respect to cold weather use. 

Now, let’s look at some more specific examples of available canteens. Let’s start with the one used by Kephart himself. 

It is a complete kit. The exact same kit can be seen on p.58 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

From a functional standpoint there are two types of canteens that were available and widely used during the Classic Backpacking period of 1880 through 1930. During the earlier period the most widely available canteens would have been Civil War surplus similar to the one in the picture below, belonging to Kephart.

These canteens were made of tined or enamel steel and later aluminum. They featured a cork stopper.

In 1903 the British Mark VI canteens entered the market, and were widely available especially in Europe. They were made of blue enamel steel and had a cork stopper. Just like the above Civil War canteens, they had a felt lining designed to cool the canteen through evaporation in hot weather.

In 1910 the US Army adopted the M1910 canteen. It is the one referred to by Kephart in the above quote. Unlike its predecessors, it utilized a threaded screw-on aluminum cap. Similar German canteens were also available in Europe during this time. 

In the 1940s the US Army transitioned to a plastic screw-on cap for the M1910 bottles. 

In the above pictures you see examples of two period correct canteens (left and center) and the one I am currently using (right).

The one on the left is a Mark VII canteen. It is a later production run than the Mark VI, but for all practical purposes is nearly identical to the 1903 versions. These are widely available on the market. As you can see, it has a cork stopped. Overall it is a good bottle, but I’ve resisted using it because it is horrible to use in cold weather. The felt lining inevitably gets wet and then turns into ice. The narrow opening freezes very quickly, and the cork stopper absorbs water and freezes in place. If you are planning on using such bottle in cold weather, replace the cork stopper with a solid wood one. It will not hold as well, but it will be less likely to freeze shut. 

The middle bottle is a M1910 model. It is a version produced in 1916. The original 1910 versions had a cap that had a flat top. As mentioned by Kephart, the screw-on top is an improvement over the cork one. If you can find such a bottle in good condition, it would be a great choice. 

The bottle on the right is a Laken Clasica 34 oz Water Bottle. They are currently in production and will cost you about $15. I’ve discarded the cover that comes with the canteen. In most respects it is functionally similar to the M1910 bottles. It is good quality and I think it is much better than the replica army aluminum bottles that you see elsewhere. The shape is also reminiscent of designs during this period. It is not period correct in that it uses a plastic cap, which would not have been in use until the 1940s. The reason why I decided to use the Laken canteen instead of my M1910 bottle is that I know that for most people who maybe interested in doing this, it is very hard to find a M1910 bottle with aluminum cap in good condition, and certainly not for an affordable price.So, I wanted to give another, readily available option. While the plastic cap is an improvement, it is not large enough to significantly alter the experience. 

My Choices

I’ve already mentioned why I chose the Laken canteen in my discussion above. It holds a quart of water and weight 6.5oz.

My pot is an Open Country 2 quart aluminum pot. It is cheap, readily available, and weighs 7.7oz. It also has the added benefit of being virtually identical to the ports in the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

For the cup I went with a GSI enamel ware cup. It weighs 3.8oz. It is heavier than the aluminum equivalent, but it reminds me of a cup I used to use when I was young, so I like it. 

The spoon is just a regular tea spoon. It weighs 0.9oz. 

Unlike many most of the authors in the Classic Backpacking period, I have not included a frying pan in my kit. For many years now I have managed without one, and I don’t see a need for it now. I’m not interested in baking bread, and if I was to try it, I’m sure I can come up with different methods. 

Water Purification

While I am on the topic of canteens and pots, I might as well touch on the subject of water purification. 

As I have noted previously, water purification was not a major topic of conversation during this period. Fordyce mentions boiling one’s water when in camp, but that’s about it, and only when the water source was “polluted”. 

There seems to have been some thought given to removing turbidity from the water. In one of the above pictures, next to the early model canteen, there seems to be something like a Milbank bag, and in catalogs there were more elaborate filtration contraptions. On p.73 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog you can see the following contraption:

The idea is similar to modern filter bottles, but it was only designed to filter out turbidity. It did not purify the water or filter out bacteria or protozoa. 

While chemicals like iodine and chlorine existed at the time, they were not used in water purification. Iodine was developed as a purification method in the 1940s by the Army.

So, the only period correct method for actually purifying one’s water is through boiling. For those of us who are trying to do this these days, and are not willing to risk drinking unpurified water, this creates a serious challenge. For people on the move, it is not practical to stop and boil water whenever you need it and wherever you find it. Carrying a single canteen adds to the problem because it makes it hard to boil all of your water at night and carry enough of it for a full day until you set up your next camp. It is a tricky issue and I have not been able to find a good solution. So far I have managed fine, where the days are only 10 hours long, and the temperatures are cool. I’m not sure how well that will do in the summer. I could just get a rubber bladder like Kephart recommends, although I might just end up with a second canteen if the pack can fit it. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 1/30/16 - 1/31/16

"Surely, when one is going on a camping trip he does not desire to live just as he would at home, for in my opinion much of the pleasure of camping is derived from taking things just as we find them, of sleeping on a bed of boughs rather than on a cot, sitting on an old log rather than on a folding camp chair, and of eating off of the ground rather than from a table, in fact I think that most of the pleasure is in the novelty of the thing. And to the practical woodsman, this camp furniture is an abomination." Elmer Harry Kreps, 1910 

Again, I know not everyone is interested in these trip reports, and I usually try to give you only one per month, but I’ve been writing more of them because I want to keep you updated on what I’m doing as I am trying to figure out this Classic Backpacking thing I’ve undertaken.

My drive behind this most recent trip was to figure out a better sleep system. After my last trip it became clear to me that camping out with just a blanket, even if it’s a very good one, is not doable when the temperature is much below 32F (0C). While you can stay alive with the use of a fire, sleep becomes almost impossible as you spend your nights trying to maintain the fire, as your warmth is directly and immediately connected to it.

After my last trip Steve Watts recommended that I try a down comforter. They were in fact used at the time, and a cotton shell comforter, filled with goose or duck down, with sewn threw baffles would be period correct. “There is no doubt that, for comfort, economy of space, lightness, and simplicity, the down quilt has it.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.163

References to down quilts, comforters, and even bag designs can be found in the writings of most authors at the time. By the 1920s most well funded expeditions relied on down sleeping bags. Between the 1880s and the 1930, sleep systems evolved very quickly and by the 1940s down sleeping bags like the A. H. Ellis & Co down filled “Nordenskiƶld” bag with water-resistant cover was available.
I have been resisting the use of a down comforter for two reasons. One, I wanted to see what could be done just with the traditional one blanket. Two, even though it was available, none of the authors seem to recommend it as their primary form of insulation. They seemed to resort to wool sleeping bags, woven fur blankets, etc, but none of them appear to have abandoned their other systems for a down filled comforter or sleeping bag.

But, furs are not a realistic option for backpacking, and a woven fur blanket that might be light enough is cost prohibitive. Wool blankets clearly weren’t going to do it, and I’m just not excited about doing too many cold weather trips where I have to be up all night feeding a fire. I also figured, if it’s good enough for the guy teaching classes on Kephart, it’s good enough for me.

So, I went to a local department store, and bought a cotton shell down comforter. It’s the thickest, cheapest, and smallest one I could find: twin size. I went home, made a stuff sack for it from a pillow case, strapped it to my pack, and headed out.

Then came my next big problem. As bad as the weather was last week, this week in my area we have been having temperatures as high as 40F (4C) during the days. Not exactly a good test for the comforter. I decided to drive north for a few hours in the hope that the weather would be cooler there. It was slightly better. When I headed into the woods, it was 24F (-4C). What I didn’t anticipate was how little snow there had been further north from me. There were barely any patches on the ground. It was disappointing, and a bit strange considering I was further north. I decided that because of the nice weather I should add some more difficulty to the trip, and camp out in an area of the forest where I only had hard woods.

Shortly after starting out I had to cross a decent size stream. Water level was high because of the warm weather. I stopped there for lunch and then did a pretty stupid crossing. I should have looked for a better spot to cross.

Crossing done, I spent a few hours backpacking. The drive had taken up most of the morning, so I didn’t have much time. When I found a level patch of ground in a hardwood forest, I got to setting up my camp.

Since I was in an exposed location, and winds were going to be a problem, I opted for a more sheltered tarp set up. I kept it open while cooking in the evening by flipping one of the sides over. 

I had my wool blanket with me. I folded it over and used it as a ground pad. At first I pulled some dead leafs together, but they were wet, and I decided to rely primarily on the blanket. Folded in two it’s almost as thick as a regular closed cell foam pad.

It quickly became apparent why authors during the Classic Backpacking period were reluctant to rely on down quilts. We all understand that down is problematic around moisture, but we, or at least I, forget how good modern shell materials really are. While not waterproof, modern down sleeping bags have shells that will resist a lot of moisture. The cotton shell on the down comforter does nothing of the sort. The moment it touches any moisture, it gets absorbed immediately. At first I thought of using different configurations with the blanket, but the blanket had to be on the ground to make sure the comforter doesn’t touch the damp ground. It’s a serious limitation that I have to work around. 

Before going to sleep I staked down the second part of the shelter, and wrapped myself in the quilt as I would in a blanket.

During the night it got down to about 18F (-8C). Not cold, but cool enough to test the comforter. It performed very well. Obviously it’s much warmer than a wool blanket. I slept through the night without the use of a fire.

There were some issues though. The wool blanket was not perfect as a ground pad. It worked fine, but I still felt some cold from the ground. I suppose I still need to use some bedding even with the folded wool blanket. Also, even though I had pitched the shelter to cut into the wind, as it usually is, the wind was blowing from every direction. The down comforter, while warm, is not particularly resistant to wind, and the wind cuts right through it. As a result I got cold several times and had to adjust. Overall though, not a bad night. 

In the morning I made my way out. I went a considerable distance off my previous path in order to cross the stream further up at an easier location. 

The down comforter turned out to be a pretty big success. Together with the blanket, using the blanket as ground insulation and protection from the moisture, it once again opened up the possibility of doing actual cold weather backpacking with traditional gear. The comforter is bulky, weighs 4lb 3oz, and the stuff sack and four extra blanket pins weigh an additional 4oz. It is very susceptible to moisture and doesn’t stop the wind too well. That however is a small price to pay for being able to sleep through the night.

So, that’s it. I just wanted to give you an update on the changes I have been making to my sleep system.