Whilst it’s easy to think of shelter as tents, tarps or even debris shelters, the fact of the matter is that the first line of defence we have from the elements is our clothing, so making sure that you have the right clothes for the time of year and climate is essential.
You might also want to read this post on heat loss to help understand some of the concepts discussed below.
Based in the south east of England the summers are generally warm, typically with night time temperatures of around 10 to 15°C and day time temperatures of 15 to 25°C. At that time of year I tend to wear inexpensive clothing for my bushcraft, and there are plenty of bargains around that mean you don’t need to stretch your budget. Get to boot fairs, charity shops, army surplus shops, search online and you’ll be surprised what you can find. This weekend (in September) I had on a pair of boots that cost £20, trousers that were £10, a t-shirt that was £5, a shirt for £6 and a fleece that cost £12.
With that said, a sudden downpour coupled with wind can make conditions unpleasant, even dangerous, at any time of year so I always make sure that I have my waterproof coat with me, there’s no point in taking any chances.
So what about bushcraft winter clothing? Well, even here in Kent the winter is much less forgiving and I think there are some items that are worth spending a little extra on. It would also be irresponsible of me not to tell you that you need the right clothing to go into the woods (or indeed outdoors in general) in the winter. So I’m going to go through what I wear during the winter.
Note: There’s an old saying that ‘on the hills, cotton kills’, so try to avoid it when you’re looking at outdoor clothing, particularly in wet climates.
But first, a few words on the layering system.
The layering system
I find that when I’m out in the woods I have periods of activity, so collecting wood and lighting a fire perhaps, followed by periods of inactivity, so waiting for the kettle to boil. This means that I heat up and cool down all the time so I make full use of the layering system and use clothes that can work with these cycles.
So what is the layering system? At it’s most basic, instead of wearing one thick layer of clothing, you wear several thin layers. These layers mean that you can take them off or put them on according to what you’re doing and the conditions around you, thus helping you to maintain your core body temperature. But perhaps the major advantage is that a thin layer of air is trapped bewteen each of the layers of clothing, which then warms up and in turn helps to keep you warm.
Generally we have 3 layers, base, mid and outer.
Base layer is the layer of clothing against your skin. Whilst there are many ‘technical’ fabrics on the market, I prefer merino wool. Look for base layers that will wick moisture away from your skin.
A mid layer goes on top of your base layer, think a jumper or a fleece.
There are different weights of base and mid layers, usually measured in grams per square metre (gsm). For example, typically a merino wool base layer will be around 200gsm. You can get different weights of mid layer; if the weather is mild, you might opt for a midweight midlayer, probably around 400gsm; if the weather is colder, you might chose a heavyweight base layer, maybe 600 – 800gsm.
The outer layer is the item of clothing that protects you from the wind and rain, so a waterproof coat, poncho or similar. It’s very important that you stay dry as heat is conducted away from your body much, much quicker if you’re wearing wet clothing (up to 30 times quicker!).
First things first – there is a persistent myth that you lose up to half of your body heat through your head. This is not true. According to a 2008 report in the British Medical Journal you lose about 7 – 10% of heat through your head, which is more or less proportional to the surface area of your head compared to the rest of your body. Nonetheless, 10% is a lot of heat, so a hat is a good idea.
I love the merino wool and possum fur beanie hats, they have 2 layers and are really warm and comfortable, although sadly I shrunk my first one in the tumble drier and so gave it to Ho Kyung (it does say on the instructions not to tumble dry, so I can only blame myself). You can buy these hats on Amazon in a wide range of colours; Nicola has one in grape.
If there’s a cold wind I’ll often wear a merino wool buff around my neck, it’s fantastic and makes a surprising difference.
And both of these items are easy to put on and take off again to match my activity level and body temperature.
‘Core’ refers to the top half of your body, the bit where your internal organs are located. The best way to keep your core warm is through the layering system. You might have guessed by now that I’m really keen on merino wool, I wear it all the time in the winter. Not only is it a great insulator, it wicks moisture away from your body, doesn’t smell, stays warm when damp and is not too bulky.
I wear a merino wool t-shirt as a base layer that I got from a cycling shop for £20; on top of that I wear a roll neck merino wool jumper (mid layer) that was £25 from Edinburgh Woollen Mill (John Lewis and Tesco online both sell merino wool jumpers at around that same price and more recently I bought a merino wool jumper in Marks & Spencer for £15). As a second midlayer I often wear either a Fjallraven heavy duty shirt (as in this photo) or a Bison Bushcraft smock; I like the brown coloured one and wear it all the time over the winter. I bought my smock around 2006 and it’s incredibly hard wearing. Probably my favourite item of bushcraft clothing. I also have a Swanndri Ranger Extreme shirt which has the bonus of a windproof inner.
I also have a Woolpower Ullfrotte mid layer jacket which is 600gsm; I bought it around 2005 and it cost about £50 at the time, although they are more expensive now. I wear it from time to time if it’s particularly cold as I find it warmer than either the Fjallraven shirt or the Bison smock.
I have a Rohan 3/4 length waterproof coat (outer layer). They’re lightweight, pack down small and are good at their job. And if I wear this and gaiters, I don’t need waterproof trousers.
I do like my Rohan, but like all coats made of that type of lightweight material, they are prone to damage in the woods from snagging on brambles, branches etc. so if I’m at work in the woods I wear a Faljraven Anorak No.8; these are expensive but real workhorses that can take whatever you throw at them.
I’ve got 2 pairs of gloves, a pair by Hestra and a pair by Rab. The Rab gloves are made of fleece, have an insulating layer and leather palms.
I mostly wear them if I’m not doing anything too manual as the fleece part snags easily on thorns and brambles. The Hestra gloves are made of leather and have a removable fleece liner; they’re great gloves and very hardwearing but probably overkill in Kent; I wear them when I’m likey to be exposed to the cold for an extended period.
Typically in the UK I don’t use the layering system on my legs, but it’s still important that they’re kept warm and dry. Mostly I wear lightweight, quick drying trousers but recently I bought a pair of Fjallraven Vidda Pro, they’re cotton so need to be kept dry but are very tough and real workhorses. These trousers can be waxed to make them waterproof.
If it’s wet, I often wear gaiters; I’ve got a pair of Cordura gaiters in olive green, made by Tasmanian Tigers that were £16 on Amazon. I’ve recently added some Berghaus Deluge waterproof overtrousers to my kit. They come in a variety of leg lengths as well as waist sizes, which is useful for me as I’m quite tall.
I have summer boots and winter boots. My summer boots are cheap and cheerful, costing about £20 – £30; they last a summer and I’m happy with that.
But in the winter I like something a little more substantial. I also prefer to wear high leg boots in the winter and after trying various boots over the years, I’ve settled on Lowa Hunter GTX Extreme; they’re expensive but excellent quality, mine are on their 3rd winter and are still in good condition.
I tend to feel the cold in my feet so I wear two pairs of socks. I’ve got some thin merino wool socks (3 pairs for £12 from John Lewis a few years back) that I wear as a base layer; on top of those I have some mohair socks which are very warm. Remember though, don’t wear so many socks that your feet are squashed into your boots; it’ll be uncomfortable for one thing, but more importantly your socks won’t be able to do their job of insulating properly.