Before you have time to build that first shelter, before you have the time to make a fire, and even before you have the time to figure out what you’re going to do next, your clothing is already working for you. Your clothing is your first shelter and therefore your primary defense against the elements. Yet despite its importance, most travelers don’t give clothing the attention it deserves. Remember that people have died simply because they wore the wrong clothing. Never underestimate the value of the right clothes.
In choosing clothing for your expedition or adventure, you need to ask yourself this question: “What does my clothing have to do?” It must protect you from wind and rain, from the dry, from the cold and the heat, from poisonous plants and creepy crawlies. It has to get you through the various stages of the day and the night and to be of a construction and weight that allows you to travel without it becoming a hassle.
Researching and planning what clothing you’re going to take with you on an adventure is as vital as any other preparation for your journey, including planning your route and the food required. What could be more important than the clothes on your back?
To figure out the most appropriate clothing to take, spend time talking with the people you know and try to get as much information as you can from people who have firsthand experience with the area you’ll be visiting or the activities you’ll be doing.
What you wear really depends on where you are going, the activity, and the season. But with few exceptions, layering is the best bet. With layering, which means three to five layers of clothing from your skin to your outer shell, you can strip down or dress back up again, depending on the weather and how you are feeling.
Layering is a hassle because it takes time to put on or take off several pieces of clothing to get warmer or cooler, but it could save your life. Perhaps the best thing layering does for you is to help prevent sweating, a factor critical to survival. Peeling off layers allows you to cool yourself down gradually as you work or travel, while still keeping as warm as you need to be.
In my adventuring, the question often is whether I should wear high-tech or more traditional gear. High-tech clothing is usually light and warm, brightly colored, and easily packed and transported. However, should the worst happen and you find yourself in a survival situation, such clothing rarely stands up to a few days spent in a bush shelter or sleeping beside a fire.
Take Gore-Tex as a perfect example of the conflict between rugged and high-tech. Gore-Tex is a fantastic material. It will keep you fairly dry in damp conditions because it sheds the rain and still breathes. But try sleeping beside a fire in it: one spark, one touch of an ember, and Gore-Tex melts. So high-tech clothing may be great for outdoor adventuring, but it’s less than ideal in survival situations.
Not so with wool, cotton, or canvas-like materials, which are tough and can handle the rigors when you’re pushing through dense forest to get firewood or food. With these materials, an ember will burn a hole only in the spot where it lands and often not before you can flick it off. On the other hand, cotton is horrible if it gets wet because it takes so long to dry.
Wool is very heavy, especially when it gets wet, yet it retains 80 percent of its insulating value. In the end, the best option in a survival situation is to have a combination of lightweight, high-tech clothing for your under layers and some rugged traditional clothing for your outer layers. But this usually applies only for survival courses or hunting and fishing trips, not sea kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, or other similar adventures. For anything that requires a high level of physical activity, high-tech gear wins out.
This is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show Survivorman on the Discovery Channel.