This might sound like a silly subject to some, yet the sad truth is that most people do not know how to dress for the outdoors. I mean, where do we learn this? Not school, for sure. From family and friends, mostly, I’d guess.
But what do they know? Well, it depends—upon how much time they spend in the outdoors, and it depends on what type of conditions are present in their outdoor environment.
You really don’t need to know much to walk from your front door to the car, then to work or the store, and back. The car, store/work, and home environments are artificially created for your comfort.
The wilderness doesn’t fucking care about your comfort—you adapt to it; it won’t adapt to you—in fact it will do its damnedest to make sure that you are not comfortable at all.
So, if you’re spending a great deal of time outdoors, or planning to, I wrote this with you in mind (obviously this piece here is not intended for those who engage in a ten-minute stroll to the grocery store and back). This is mainly for colder, wetter weather; however, I will spend a little time on the subject of staying cool in summer.
These two subjects are linked to two dangerous states for us humans: hypothermia and hyperthermia. You’ve likely heard these terms before. But what do they mean?
[Two other terms I use frequently:
Cold, dry weather – this means temperatures below 0°C (32°F); weather in which water is frozen (falls as snow instead of rain or sleet) and won’t soak through your clothes—hence a “dry” cold. I’d say this type of weather begins at about -5°C (26ish°F) and it doesn’t matter if it’s clear or snowing, it’s still a dry cold.
Cold, wet weather – this means temperatures above 0°C (32°F); weather in which water is not frozen (falls as rain or sleet) and will soak through your clothes and make them damp or wet—hence a “wet” cold. This type of weather begins on or above 0°C (32°F), when it’s raining. Even mild weather can lead to hypothermia if you get wet.]
“Hypo” means not enough, as in hypoxia (anoxia), which is low blood oxygen, I’d pretty sure. “Hyper” means too much, as in hyperactive. And of course “thermia” is about temperature.
Hypothermia is the chilling of the body core.
If the body’s core temperate (core = the upper torso, the spine and outward areas where all the vital organs are located, but it also includes the neck and brain) drops below 95°F (35°C), you’re in trouble. The extremities (fingers, toes, ears, nose, et cetera—non-vital areas) start getting cold (because the body is trying to keep the core area warm by restricting blood flow), and you shiver. Shivering is the violent convulsing of muscles to generate heat, energy.
As the core temperature drops further comes further blood restriction, more shivering; slow reflexes, confused thinking, and eventually you will stop shivering all together, pass out and die.
There are only a few ways to keep warm…
—clothing and shelter, but this only does so much: if you’re not eating food (or near a heat source), you won’t have a lot of heat being generated in your body; clothing and shelter can only keep in heat that’s already there. They might prevent the cold from getting at you, but that’s it. They don’t generate heat. This is why if you’re outside in the winter, inside a big down sleeping bag with a huge parka on as well, you will end up shivering if you have an empty stomach and are not generating heat through the digestion process;
—a heat source, like a fire (or the sun);
—eating food, especially hot food (a hot beverage can help, but it’s only temporary—hot food will be broken down into warmth-generating energy, while hot fluid will be gone within an hour and then you’ll be cold again); if you chose a hot beverage, choose a caffeine-free one—caffeine prevents urine from being retained, so you piss more, and in a cold environment, you know, it’s best to not spend a lot time with your zipper down…
—movement. Moving around uses the muscles, of course, burns calories, and generates heat. This is why you can dress lightly in very cold temperature, and as long as you keep moving, you’re toasty warm.
Other key factors in hypothermia:
Conductive heat loss. Heat lost through conduction means that warm naturally travels to cold. If you stand on cement with bare feet, what happens? You cool off fast because that cold concrete is sucking the heat out of your body through your feet. This is why sleeping on the ground is really not encouraged—unless you have some sort of padding or foam beneath you. If you’re cold, never lean against (or lie down on) something colder than you.
Convective heat loss. Heat lost through convection includes a couple of things like the wind chill and being wet. The wind can strip heat away from you fairly quickly, as most of us know all too well. And being wet, well, enough said (you lose heat 25 times fast when wet compared to when dry). These two things combined can lead to hypothermia extremely fucking fast.
As an example, remember a nice hot day at the beach…the water’s cool and there’s a slight breeze; once you’re used to the water, it’s fine…but the moment you step out of the water, Jesus… Being wet and having that wind hit you, well, you’re being double-teamed by convective heat loss. You’ll get “goosebumps” right away—the skin’s way of trying to prevent further heat loss by inflating pockets under the skin with air. It’s not until you dry off can the sun warm you back up.
Another way to get butt-surfed by convective heat loss is to be in cold running water.
Lastly, it’s rather important to not sweat (through moving too fast or through strenuous activity) too much in cold weather; once your clothes get wet, if the temperature is below 0, well, you’re looking at hypothermia for sure. Staying dry is the most important thing to do in cold weather. More on this later.
Okay, done with that for a minute.
Hyperthermia is the over-heating of the body core.
You don’t want to look as fucked up as that guy. Hyperthermia is when you simply can’t cool off (impaired thermo-regulation). Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, excessive sweating (then no sweating at all, meaning you’re close to passing out and dying), cramps, confusion, faintness, headaches, and it can lead quickly to loss of consciousness and death. It’s cause by overheating, but it’s not that cut and dry…here are some other factors:
Not enough water can cause it, too. Water is crucial in the body for regulating a stable core temperature. So fucking drink water—plain water. Why? It gets processed quickly, gets where it’s needed fast. The more shit in the fluid (sugar, et cetera), the longer it takes to be absorbed. Coffee is terrible, so is tea, obviously, and not just because they’re hot (drinking them cold is just as bad). It takes too long to process it. Plus, caffeine impares the ability to sweat properly.
I would not recommend sports drinks, either—especially energy drinks (stay away from caffeine altogether).
Obviously, alcohol dries you from the inside out and should be avoided in hot weather.
No. Plain, pure water is best. Little periodic sips is the way to go—whether you feel thirsty or not. What I do: every time I take a piss, I drink some water; every time I stop, for any reason, I take a drink. Remember, by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. And look at the colour of your piss—the clearer it is, the better hydrated you are; the darker or more discoloured, the more dehydrated. Consider this fucking Scripture.
If you have health conditions—organ diseases, skin or circulation conditions, or trouble with sweat glands—you are at greater risk of “heat stroke,” another term for hyperthermia.
Sunburned skin is terrible at helping the body thermo-regulate. The skin is so important when it comes to this. If you’re burned, stay out of the sun—or if you can’t, be sure to cover up with light (in material property and in colour; light colours reflect the sun, of course) clothing and drink plenty of water. Use sun screen if you’re into that. A good way to prevent overheating is to soak your T-shirt in cold water. Lasts for hours. Yeah, have a wet T-shirt contest…with you as the only contestant. You never fucking lose!
Right. So drink water. Alright, now onto what you can do for clothing to help you stay warm and dry.
(mainly for cold and wet weather)
Cold dry weather gives you a less strict set of choices for clothing. Why? Because you don’t have to concern yourself as much about staying dry. Unless you’re active and beginning to sweat, then you have to watch it.
Your only real concerns are insulation and having a wind-proof outer shell. And of course keeping all bare skin covered in very severe cold, or windy, weather.
Anyway, I’m going to focus mostly on cold, wet weather here. Dressing for cold, dry weather is as well known to me (growing up in Alberta), mostly by trial and error, as breathing. Cold, wet weather was something I had learn on my own when I began coming to the west coast.
THE LAYER SYSTEM
The layer system is the only way to go. Unless you’re sitting in cold, dry weather and mot moving much, then you can get away with bulk, with thick insulated clothing like big winter boots, and a parka.
When we played hockey as kids, in the winter, no one ever told us about any “layer system.” You can’t play hockey in -25°C with a massive parka on, because you sweat like a pig, dehydrate yourself, and then freeze when you stop moving around. So we learned on our own what to wear.
(Even though preparing for winter weather is easy for me, my feet are fucked due to being nearly frozen so many times and having frost bite. There was just nothing else to do inside a skate for your foot; wearing too many socks squashed the insulation (and cut off circulation) and your feet froze, wearing too few socks wasn’t enough insulation and your feet froze (plus you just couldn’t skate with them loose). And so now I have extremely sensitive feet from nerve damage. So I have no idea how to keep your feet warm jammed into skates. But as far as every other vital area of keeping warm, I learned a lot. And the key was using layers.)
If you’re ice-fishing or doing something sedentary like that, sure, bulk up. Otherwise (if you’re going to be moving around), go with layers. Why? Because you can add and remove layers as you go, to help thermo-regulate. Too hot? Remove an outer layer. Too cold? Put that layer back on. A big heavy thick parka doesn’t cut it. Sure, you can unzip it, but your back is still going to sweat if you’re moving around a lot, not to mention your arms and shoulders.
In this next part I’m focusing on clothing for the torso…
1. THE FIRST LAYER
First things first. The layer next to your skin. The first layer. This is the most important layer because it’s right against your skin and is subject to getting wet or damp through perspiration.
So, what material is best? Cotton is right out. I’ve known some outdoor types who still wear cotton against their skin in cold weather, but I won’t do it. In fact, unless it’s a dry, summer-type situation, I will not wear cotton at all. It absorbs moisture, it’s cold when wet, and it takes forever to dry out. Plus, it gets very heavy when wet. It’s a terrible choice for cold (especially wet) weather. You could, however, get away with it in a cold, snowy, winter conditions as long as you’re not sweating.
Some outdoorsmen swear by wool. And I admit that wool next to the skin is hard to beat. It insulates, it stays warm even when wet, and it’s great at wicking moisture away from the skin and into the outer layers of clothing, which helps keep you dry. The problems: it’s itchy (it takes a man with skin like leather to endure it) and bugs will eat it. Plus, it’s a bit heavy and quite bulky.
What’s better than wool is polypropylene. I’ve used it since 1988 and swear by it. It’s light weight. It’s durable, and bugs won’t eat it. It insulates and stays warm when wet, and it does a better job of wicking moisture away from the skin and into the outer layers of your clothing. One might think I’d be all about natural materials—but I’m not. Cotton and bamboo are great, for the summer, but I only tried wool once and I could not stand it. Well, I have wool socks and mitts that don’t bother me, but the skin there seems a bit tougher, I suppose.
If you can tolerate it, use it. One could even have a thin layer of something (other than cotton) right next to the skin and then have the wool over that.
If you can’t hack it, wear polypropylene. The only downside is that it’s expensive (and harder to find than wool), and unlike wool it melts when exposed to excessive heat—it’s tricky drying out polypropylene near a fire, unlike wool. I’ve melted a few pairs of socks doing this. Now, I simply have two sets of it so that I can slow dry one set and wear the other dry, clean set.
Wool and polypropylene clothing (as with most types of fabric) eventually lose their insulative value as they get dirty. Sweat leaves an evergrowing salt build-up and this takes away insulative value. So, you can either wash it regularly or rinse it in a creek or something every few days.
If you hate wool and can’t afford polypro, try some thin sort of micro fleece, or a snug-fitting thin type of polyester, next to the skin. You want something not too loose, not too tight, not too thick, something that has a bit of give (slightly stretchy), and something that will not absorb much moisture.
2. THE SECOND LAYER
The next layer. What you want is a fabric that helps wick the moisture being tranferred from the wool or polypropylene to the third layer. I choose a stretchy polyester type. Thin. What this will also do is help preserve the fabric of the polypropylene—which tends to ball up and wear out in regions that see a lot of wear (armpits, knees, elbows, groin area and between the thighs) through friction. What it also does is add some windproofness in case you strip down to the first two layers.
Anyway, fleece works too, but I’d recommend a thin layer of it. You can go thicker for the next later. Keep the first two layers thin, so that they needn’t be removed for self-thermo-regulating. The third and fourth (thicker, more insulative) layers should be the ones to be removed.
3. THE THIRD LAYER
This is basically your inner “coat” layer. I highly recommend fleece (micro-fleece, polar fleece are both excellent). A medium thickness is good. This will serve as your main insulation, and I’ve found it works great for a variety of conditions. The moisture from the previous two layers gets forced through this layer easily. And it can be removed to cool you off. I prefer a hooded fleece sweatshirt with a zipper (and hand pockets) for this third layer. The previous two had no hoods of course. So, this acts like a light jacket, and while you’re moving about it’s more than enough to keep you both warm and dry…depending.
On what? Wind and rain. Now, if the weather is quite cold, you might want to go with a big thick fleece vest as your FOURTH layer (the vest gives your core an added shot of insulation without the extra bulk in the arms—what you’ll find quickly using many layers is that your arms will soon be too thick to bend properly).
4. THE OUTER LAYER
Okay, note that this is not the FOURTH layer necessarily—depending on temperature, you could have a couple more layers under this one.
This is the second most important layer, a close second. It is what will come into direct conact with your environment, and it is the complicated choice. If you’re going to be brushing against trees and underbrush or rocks, you will have to take into consideration the strength and durability of this outer layer.
If you’re in a windy place, this layer must keep that breeze away from the other layers (none of which will defend much against convective heat loss—in other words, they suck in the wind, and that wind will suck the heat out of you very quickly).
But here’s where we get into trouble. If the material is non-porous, like a tight weave of nylon, air-tight basically, it will not allow moisure vapor to escape. Your sweat will collect against this layer and make you very uncomfortable, as well as cool you off.
So, here is the most vital attribute of the outer layer: it should be breathable.
Breathable. Basically, you want your layer system to mimic the skin and fur system of other mammals; for some reason, we lost our fur over time and our skin got thin. But other mammals enjoy a very advanced natural insulative system. Northern mammals often have hollow fur—since air insulates when it’s not moving, fur with individual hairs having a hollow center helps create an incredibly warm layer. And of course the hide, the leather, the skin under that fur is breathable.
So, what we want is that in reverse, with the fur (the three basic layers discussed above) underneath and the skin (the outer layer) on the outside. The skin, the outer layer, should do three things for us, ideally: be breathable (allow water vapour to escape), be windproof, and be waterproof (keep drops of water out)…to some degree…so, these last two mean “weatherproof.”
Waterproof means that it will not allow heavy rain to permeate the fabric and get you wet. The trouble is that very few materials can do this and remain breathable. Such as…
If you’re not moving around too much, or going for a light walk, and it’s raining, you can get away with wearing a conventional (non-breathable) raincoat. No problem. With sweating to a minimum, this works fine.
But I’m writing this for outdoor types—and outdoor situations can last for several hours, or all day…or all day and night.
Anyone who’s worn a conventional (non-porous) rain coat all day (usually rubber coated nylon) can attest to the fact that sweat and condensation build up and you end up damp anyways. Your skin gets clammy. Instead of a cold damp state from the elements, you’re in a warm-to-luke-warm soup in the clothes underneath the raincoat. Neither of these is ideal.
Gore-Tex revolutionized the rain coat and it’s been around since the 1970s. Its primary feature is a waterproof and breathable membrane inbetween other fabric types. Since water and air molecules are different sizes, as I understand it, this membrane allows one (air molecules) to pass through and keeps the other (water molecules) out.
Well, in theory. What it really does is allow steam (sweat vapor) to pass through as it denies tiny water droplets from penetrating the fabric.
It’s by no means a perfect system, but it helps. Various other types of outdoor gear manufacturers have copied, then improved upon, the Gore-tex membrane (polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which, I suspect, was dsigned with the nothion of mimicking the skin of an animal).
Another type is polyurethane rain gear—
—it does basically the same thing as Gore-Tex for a lot less (price-wise), and is soft, quiet, flexible, keeps the wind out, but—I’ve found, having used this as well—is easily scratched or torn in forest conditions. Walking on a road or trail in the pouring rain, the stuff works great. Just don’t put it through any heavy shit and it’ll last. I dunno, maybe they make it tougher now, or there are better versions of it. I have not worn it since 2008.
But using the layer system described above, I can say it works and has kept me warm and dry while being active through cold, rainy Chilliwack winters.
What is the best? Brain-tanned, smoked leather from an elk, deer, moose, or some similar mammal.
Seeing how only a few of us will ever be in a position to have or make this supreme cold-wet-weather clothing, we’ll have to settle for artificial.
When you have a breathable outer shell like this, you’ll find that, when you stop to notice it and get out of the rain, there will be tiny beads of water forming on the fabric; this is the heat driving water vapor from the inner layers and causing it to “dew” up on the outside of your layer system.
The beauty of fleece and polypropylene is their light weight and the fact that they dry so fast. They constantly push moisture away from your skin, so it’s easy to remove an outer layer (which is wetter than the layers nearer to your skin due to this wicking process) and hang it out to dry.
One drawback of polypropylene (I can’t speak for wool) is that it only stays warm when wet if you are actually producing heat. If you’re tired and have not eaten for a while, and you’re damp with polypropylene next to your skin, you won’t notice much heat being kept in…because you’re not generating much. I’ve gone to sleep in a damp sleeping bag with polypropylene next to my skin and have woken up shivering once that cold dampness reached my skin. I had to do some exercises to generate heat and warm up again.
So, keep this in mind.
One last thing: if you want a rain coat of some sort and can’t afford Gore-Tex, try a poncho.
I still use em. (No, that’s not me.)
You can find good rip-stop fully water-proof (not breathable) rain ponchos from 10 to 40 bucks (I found well-made military ones—which can snap together to make an emergency shelter—for ten bucks a piece at an army surplus store). The plus of poncho-type rain gear is that it’s loose-fitting and allows a lot of ventilation, making it easier to dry sweat underneath.
That’s about it for the torso area. It will be the area in which the most layers are used.
The head is the next important region because something like 80-90 percent the heat your body produces will escape through the top of your head.
I think as far as headwear goes, it’s more a matter of personal preference. In severely cold (dry) weather, you’d want a toque, ideally with a thick, windproof hood over top. In really cold weather, you might see folks (in a parka) with a fur-lined hood done snugly around their face. This “ruff” has been used for thousands of years—the fur was traditionally from a northern mammal, of course, but wolverine fur was the best. Real fur is the longest-lasting, and fur from the wolverine or caribou is hollow (insulative) and resists not only snow building up but also frost. The frost that would otherwise build up from exhaling through the fur.
(This looks like me, but it’s actually a cousin of mine. Well, a friend’s cousin.)
Nowadays, one could wrap his face with a scarf (or neck warmer—a toque with the top cut off, like we used to make when we were kids, playing hockey in extremely cold weather) and have some sort of eye protection (fog-resisant goggles; ski goggles).
A loose fitting neck warmer. (No, that’s not me either.)
The type of fabric used for your head seems to me to be not all that important for very cold weather. Most toques are made of acrylic or polyester and work fine. Some are made of wool. Some now are made of fleece, which I find a wee bit itchy when damp with sweat.
I wear (mostly) a polypropylene toque. And a thin fleece hood over that. Then a windproof hood, outer shell to keep the wind out. A simple neck warmer, as well, I use. When it’s pissing down rain, I’ll use the hood of a poncho or Gore-Tex coat, which is the third and final layer. It’s not often, though, that I’ll need three. Just the fleece hood and a weatherproof hood is usually fine.
I also have a Gore-Tex boonie hat and a Gore-Tex “Seattle” rain hat, one for the woods, one for the road.
Covering the neck in cold weather is as important, I reckon. This region carries all the blood going to your head—and if your neck gets too cold, it won’t matter much what you have on your head.
Conversely, in hot weather, to keep cool you can soak a bandana in cold water and tie it around your neck to cool the blood vessels and blood going to your head; it’s an old technique used to keep the head’s temperature down. Headwear in hot weather…I go with a thin cotton skull cap that’s lightly coloured (light beige or white). But something (cotton, preferably) light-coloured, loose, and thin will work great. Why cotton? Because it aborbs moisture and retains it well—takes a while to dry out—any sweat will be sucked up by cotton and this helps to keep you cool.
Conclusion: for cold, wet weather, I’d recommend polypropylene next to the skin, and a waterproof/windproof hood over that. If it’s quite cold, the hood from a light fleece hoodie could go inbetween these layers. I don’t think you need to have a lot of layers for the head, since the more active you are, the warmer your head will be.
In cold, wet weather I use polypropylene next to the skin, with an outer layer that’s weatherproof. Gore-Tex pants will do. And that’s all. When you’re active, your legs will be working the whole time, and I’ve found that additional layers aren’t needed—they just make you sweat more. The legs themselves create enough warmth.
I have two sets of polypropylene leggings—one thin and one thick. The thick pair I’ll use for very cold weather (cold, dry weather), when I need a bit more insulation. But, strictly speaking, it’s not imperative for really cold weather. Even a pair of sweat pants under a pair of windproof pants will do. As stated, the legs create a lot of heat just by walking.
If you’re using a non-breathable rain poncho, you’ll find that your lower legs aren’t covered by the material (while a poncho might just reach the top part of your boots, the movement of walking, or the wind blowing, will expose your lower legs to the rain). You can probably get away with this hiking along a road or on a trail, but in the forest it’s a different ball game.
I’ve found walking in a rainforest, even if it isn’t raining (or hasn’t rained for days), can get your pants soaked. Dew on the undergrowth (or tall grass) can soak your pants pretty fast. So, I’ve invested in some gators for this reason.
Gators are usually made from a heavy, tough nylon material that’s waterproof; they fit your lower legs from the ankle to the knee. Perfect for bushwhacking. (Also called “gaiters,” but this is the less cool spelling.)
You can get away with conventional rainpaints (meaning non-breathable), I’ve found, because it’s only really your body’s core that must be kept dry.
Now, some might accuse me of being a bit preoccupied with staying dry—some may even call me a pussy for taking all this so seriously. Go ahead. These types of people will go out in the rain and get soaked, wearing dumb clothes, and think they’re such hardasses for doing it…as they hurry to a nice warm, dry home or apartment, where dry clothes, hot food, and a hot shower await them. Yeah, okay, your core is fucking titanium.
Hey, tough guy, try staying out all night like that. I’ve done it dozens of times, and that’s how I learned how to dress properly. Go on. I dare you. Go get soaked and stay out, and stay awake all night (or scramble around for some place to sleep…somewhere dry), out in that weather…and then let’s see how tough you are with chattering teeth, a water-logged itchy ass, and a cold shrunken scrotum…
However, I digress…
This is a big topic. Opinions differ greatly on what you should have on your feet. But let’s just start with socks.
Of course, I go with polypropylene next to the skin, followed by wool (or wool blend) or heavy acrylic or polyester. I prefer wool socks (sometimes I’ll wear wool blend next to the skin), though, because the feet can sweat so much. I only wear cotton socks indoors or if I’m pissing about in town. When outdoors (in the wild), I rarely wear them. Again, they absorb way to much perspiration and take too long to dry out.
There’s something inexplicable about the feet: when they get wet and cold, you feel cold all over. Yet with polypropylene next to the skin, I’ve found that even stomping through nearly frozen water, my feet stay warm (once I’m out of that cold water). As long as I keep moving, they stay warm even if they’re wet. And the more heat you generate, the more quickly the socks will dry.
As for boots, well, I’ve tried all kinds and have not found a single pair that keep my feet perfectly dry. The only ones that were closest to perfection were (leather) mukluks (with wool socks) I made when I was a teenager. They kicked ass. They were the best footwear I’ve ever worn.
However, most of us will never even see a pair of mukluks up close, let alone be able to afford them (authentic hand-made Native mukluks made with fur and leather can easily reach a thousand dollars in price), so we have to shy away from the ideal footwear for now and stick to “white man’s” boots here.
If the weather is extremely wet, wear rubber boots with wool socks. No, they’re not breathable, but your choice here is cold water coming in or warm sweat building up. These are great if you’re working in very wet conditions, stepping in and out of water (swamp, sea or stream), or it’s just pissing down rain.
But they’re no good for hiking, walking long distances, or moving through rough country. Here you need boots. I’ve had all kinds of boots, from “Walmart specials” (and “Zellers’ specials”—both of which I called “shit-kickers,” and they lasted maybe one year) to ones designed especially for hiking, from Nylon to leather, from soft leather to stiff leather, from expensive civilian wilderness gear boots to old army surplus…
The old army surplus ones were the least comfortable but the toughest, longest lasting. Obviously, you have to care for the leather parts of a pair of boots—I’ve had a few pairs rot on me because of my failure to take care of them.
The civilian wilderness gear ones were way comfortable, and waterproof—for a while. They’re great for occasional strolls along a nature trail, but for hardcore bush adventures, they have limits. Sooner or later they wear out, scuff, get ripped up, have leather coming out its stitches, and they lose their waterproofness.
You have to pay attention to the design of the boot if you’re looking for a pair that can last you five or even ten years. I’ve never had a pair last three years. Well, some have, but they were on the edge of following apart, with gaping holes here and there—I still used them for a while after that, mainly because I could not afford a new pair yet.
Take a look at how they’re put together. Take a close look. The more pieces used = the more chances that something will tear, rip, snag on something, or open up. See here:
Just looking at them, through my experiences, I can tell exactly where they’re going to separate and start to fall apart…the top pair were designed to be used for “tactical” situations. Which means that they sit in a bag until that weekend of paintball, or that camping trip, or whatever. Just by the look of them I can tell that they’re temporary use boots and nothing more. Wear them every day for a few weeks in tough wilderness conditions, and wet weather, and—no matter how well you treat them and baby them, use sprays or dab with special oils, if they are real leather, that is, or keep them clean—they’ll wear out pretty quick. (The bottom pair—well, that cheap rubber-type layer sewn between the sole and the leather will tear and separate first.)
I’d stay away from boots (no matter how cool they look) that are made with so many pieces. I’ve gone for the “cool-looking” hi-techie type boot before, and fucking hell did I regret it.
I’ve also gone for the “old-timer” type boots, and regretted it. Once I bought a pair of Irish Setter genuine leather boots—months later I got out into the woods, took about fifteen steps and the leather on the heel separated from the sole.
Pay particular attention to how the material is attached to the sole—is it glued on? How can you tell? Look for stitching.
I recommend a boot that has its upper part sewn directly to the sole. Looks like this:
Nice and simple design and construction. The less pieces sewn together the better. And with that material sewn directly to the sole, I’d bet they last at least twice as long as boots with a more complicated design. I’d also advise you to stay away from soft (thin, factory-processed) leather altogether. It doesn’t last. Phony leather doesn’t either. Good thick leather, slightly stiff, is best.
Personally, I don’t wear anything now that isn’t military surplus. I’m done fucking around with civilian boots—99% of it is just shit for what I need them to be—I swear by military boots now.
However, I’m no fan of the older surplus boots. They’re durable but take forever for your feet to fit into them. Plus, if you’re buying them used, chances are they’ve been worn into the shape of some other guy’s feet, making them twice as hard to “train” to fit your feet. I hear soaking them in warm water and them putting them on immediately, going for a hike in them like this, helps get them accustomed to your feet.
I prefer the newer types of army boots. I have a Canadian-made pair of cold, wet weather boots (tough black leather, insulated, with a Gore-Tex layer inbetween), and they are simply the best boots I’ve ever had. I bought them slightly used for 50 bucks (not including shipping). Aside from the crappily made Walmart/Zellers shit-kickers, these were the cheapest boots I’ve ever had. Anyway, my feet are happy. And dry.
Dry is important for feet because of foot fungus. “Foot rot” it’s called in tropical zones. It can actually lead to serious problems, not just itchiness and pain, but you can actually lose toes.
You have to deal with so much discomfort, suffering and deprivation, and even hardship, in the wilderness that there’s no need to add to it. A long hike, say, that might otherwise be a slight ordeal can be made into utter, miserable, agonizing hell simply by having shitty footwear. I’ve had enough of these to learn that you gotta take care of your feet; you have to baby and pamper them, because without them, you ain’t going anywhere. These things carry your ass around, hold the weight of you and all your gear and supplies, and take more punishment than any other part of you. So why not be kind to them? Be grateful for all they do for you by treating them well.
Anyway, that’s my philosophy. Polypropylene socks, then wool socks, then (even though eventually I want mukluks, but for now) insulated Gore-Tex army boots.
For hot weather, in which I’m not hiking through harsh country, I just wear sandals. No socks. Let the feet breathe. Get some sun and air on them.
If I could recall the name of that stuff (that you can put on your feet) to create callous, I might look into that. Toughening up the bottoms of my feet so that I could stand walking around barefoot. Not that I’d do it in cold or wet weather or in certain (civilized) locations, but there are plenty of spots in the wild where walking around in bare feet would be cool. It’s better for your feet to not be jammed into boots all the time. The bottoms of my feet, however, are much too soft right now.
In areas where I have to have foot protection (in the drier summer months), I have a second pair of boots (lighter, not waterproof) in which I stuff my feet with the same deal: polypro socks, then a wool pair.
I think at least two pairs of boots is a must; simply, each pair lasts longer this way. It’s impossble to find one pair of footwear for every single occasion, environment, and climate. I’d like to have a pair of mukluks for my third pair. Great for cold weather, great for hunting and doing other things in the forest. (I would not wear them on the road or anywhere near civilization, though. They’d wear out rather quickly scraping on gravel and cement, and I’m not even going to get into all the other shit like oil and tar, rusty nails and broken glass, et cetera, found in such places.)
The awesomeness of mukluks is that they’re weatherproof, breathable, and do not fit tightly—your feet can move around, which creates warmth. Plus it’s cool to be able to feel things on the ground. It is a lost sensation—feeling the earth and ground beneath us—for modern human beings. Long ago, we could learn a lot and perceive a lot just by walking around, sensing things through our feet.
Anyway, that’s it for footwear.
GLOVES OR MITTS?
Lastly, what do we put on our hands? For very cold weather I’ve found that gloves are useless. What usually happens is you end up balling up your hands into fists within the gloves to try to keep your hands warm. One finger alone does not generate much heat. Mittens are superior because, grouped together, fingers produce more warmth. Although mitts are only needed in very cold temperatures.
For cold, wet weather, I wear polypropylene glove liners and some sort of outer layer. I’m not very fussy here, yet in my experiences there is no such thing as a glove that insulates and keeps the rain out and is breathable as well. I’ve wasted a lot of money on a lot of gloves that claimed to do all three, and some worked—for a while. But usage tends to, over time, tear the breathable membrane in gloves. One pair I had worked well until I threw them in the wash—they shrank and tore the delicate membrane inside.
The only thing (100% guaranteed) that will keep your hands “dry” is a set of rubber gloves. “Dry” because your hands will still sweat, of course, and the longer you wear them, the clammier your hands will become.
I do own a pair of German Army surplus gloves for cold, wet weather, which are Gore-Tex, but I’ve yet to try them in the rainforest, so I have no idea how dry they will keep my hands.
In the winter, in Alberta, I’d wear these:
A fleece mitt-glove combo that allow your fingers to come out easily, without taking the gloves off (important). For colder weather I have a thicker pair—two layers, fleece and wool—like the pair above.
Fingers are not naturally insulated well—virtually no fat in them—and they’re too small and skinny to give off much heat. In very cold weather (or if they get wet in a cold rain) it takes a long while to reheat your hands once you remove them from mitts or gloves to do something which gloved/mitted fingers cannot accomplish (such as tying boot laces). When your fingers and hands get too cold, they are useless for such activities.
There is an old Inuit technique to tell how cold your hands are, if they are nearing the state of being useless, which has to do with how much blood is being restricted to the extremities: take your pinky finger and see if it can touch your thumb.
If not, and you are shivering, then you are well into hypothermia. If you’re generally warm everywhere but your hands, which got chilled doing something gloveless, and you fail the finger test the Inuit use, then it’s just a matter of reheating them, of course. One good way is to stuff them somewhere against bare skin (armpits are great—as long as they’re not sweaty—because you can heat nearly both sides of your hands).
This is why true outdoorsmen will have something that prevents the loss of their mitts—a string going from mitt to mitt through the arms of your coat is a great way to ensure you never lose your mitts. Modern mitts and gloves usually have small clips that can be hooked onto each sleeve of your coat to prevent this. Losing your gloves or mitts in cold or wet weather in the wilderness is no joke. Since your hands are the main tools you use to stay alive in the outdoors, I wouldn’t fuck around. It could prevent you from making a fire or using a knive properly—it could mean your ass. Keep your hands warm (and as dry as possible) and keep your gloves and mitts secured.
In the winter, on the coast, in wet weather, I wear polypropylene glove liners with an outer glove of wool, or acrylic or polyester knit. And I keep them jammed into pockets as much as possible—works great for hiking. If I’m doing some sort of task, well, they’ll get damp at least, no matter what; but I’ll have leather on the outside. I’ve used just the polypro liners with the knit outer glove, doing work, but it sucks. They get soaked so quickly. They get snagged on stuff—you can ruin knit gloves this way. They get dirty fast. And dirty gloves, even after being completely dried, lose their insulative value. And “dirty” in the forest means evergreen needles and twigs and crap stuck in them, so it’s not just a matter of getting mud of them, you have to pick and fuck around getting the crap out of the knitting.
So, to hell with all that. Leather is best. Or rubber gloves. The choice for gloves depends on what you’ll be doing. I have a few different pairs for different things. This way I don’t ruin one pair using them for shit for which they were not intended.
In conclusion, a basic polypropylene layer next to the skin will give you a lot of slack when it comes to sweating—you can get away with letting yourself sweat, much more than if you were wearing thick cotton next to your skin (or wool next to your skin with cotton over top of that—if you’re one of these “natural fabrics only” types of people).
Natural fabrics are great, but what are we talking about here? What is natural? Materials that come from plants and animals are typically considered “natural,” but what isn’t natural is to have to wear an artifical skin-and-fur system in the first place. How many creatures in the forest do you see wearing the skins or furs of other animals?
None. Enslaving an animal, like sheep, and stealing the hair of its body to be processed into a sheet of fabric…I mean, what exactly is either honourable or natural about this?
Native Americans hunted and killed to survive, and they used all of the animal. Skin, bones, fur, entrails, brains, organs, all of it. This is honourable and respectful. So, it’s not just because wool is itchy that I try to not use it—it promotes the captivity and exploitation of another creature.
Obviously, wearing plastic (polypropylene) is not going to make me ethically superior to anyone (plastic is an oil product, and the gathering, extraction—and the politics—of oil is obviously disastrous for the planet and fellow humans). My goal is not be ethically superior; rather, just to try my best to stick to my beliefs, and I’m anti-slavery.
Similarly, cotton is a plant that’s held in rows, unnaturally, manipulated and controlled and confined and exploited for our own selfish purposes. It’s no different in essence to what we do to animals—in some cases, I think it’s far worse because many of us do not consider or treat plants as fellow life forms, and do our best to rationalize all manner of barbaric, disrespectful actions done to them. All because they don’t scream and run away like cute furry critters do, we claim that it’s okay to enslave, manipulate, mutilate and “own” them.
Anyway, I’m anti-slavery when it comes to plants, as well.
Idealism is great, yet I can only do so much right now. I’m not in a position in which I can be free of consumer goods, so…well, I’ll leave off there. I only mention this for some information to some types out there who might feel I’m not being true to some “mountain man” code or way of life by using synthetic materials.
Honestly, I’m not an idealist anymore—use whatever you can to stay alive, that’s how I feel about it.
Ideally, I’d love to have all leather clothing, naturally obtained, from wild animals; I’d love to have “natural” materials only, not ones from enslaved and brutally exploited animals (or plants) in pens (or rowed in fields). But I think I’m a long way from that ideal. So I cannot judge others who are doing what they can, just like I am right now. And I ask not to be judged as well for not using “natural” materials right now.
I’ll use polypro and other types of artificial clothes until I’m able to use something better, something more natural.
Anyroad, this concludes my entry on how to stay dry and warm in the wilderness.