A lighthearted dive into the wooly world of traditional winter layering.
A few year’s back my buddy Mark introduced me to the idea of the Retro Grouch. A retro grouch is a specific kind of curmudgeon associated with the cycling industry. Retro grouches disdain index shifting, ride leather saddles, cycle in wool shorts and prefer lugged steel frames. The most famous of retro grouches is likely Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works who’s made a career out of preserving bicycle technology that most manufacturers abandoned back in the 1980’s.
The defining characteristic of a retro grouch is a belief that things were better in the good old days and that modern technology is mostly unnecessary bunkum. New stuff is just new, not better. It’s all advertising hype and bs. Stick with the tried and true.
You can imagine the retro grouch waxing poetic about all the things they used to do “back in the day” like Grandpa Simpson spinning a yarn about his exploits in Shelbyville. “Why back in my day we used to ride in woolen tights, they itched and rubbed your backside raw, but we liked it. We liked a lot of things back then. They were better. I used to wear an onion in my belt…”
Of course, cycling doesn’t have a lock on retro grouchiness. Not by a long shot. Canoeing? Sure. A retro grouch canoeist might only paddle wood canvas canoes, dress exclusively in wool, use only canvas packs and hardwood ottertail paddles. How about sea kayaking? A retro grouch kayaker might still be paddling a Nordkapp HM with round hatches and the Chimp pump behind the seat. Or maybe a Neckly Tesla with no deck lines and a rudder cut out of a stop sign. Of course, a retro grouch winter traveler would hand haul a toboggan, travel on wooden snowshoes and pack in a canvas tent and wood stove.
Truth be told, I’ve dabbled in the various disciplines of retro grouchiness, and while I don’t have a lugged steel bike I do have a pair of wooden snowshoes, a toboggan and a tent with a wood stove. I also have a closet full of woolen winter clothes. These factors, combined with the fact that I wrote a long series of posts outlining a complete system for outdoor clothing, have emboldened me to write this guide to retro grouch winter layering.
So, with tongue firmly in cheek, let’s proceed with an adaptation of the Simple Clothing System that’s suitable for any and all retro grouch winter adventuring.
Of course, the retro grouch will insist on wool for baselayers. The itchier the better. After all, once you’ve worn your wool long underwear continuously for several weeks your natural body oils leach into the fabric and blunt the worst of the scratching. Best not to ever wash these garments, lest the effect be neutralized by modern detergents.
While a failure to launder undergarments might seem like a way to trigger exile from polite society, the retro grouch knows that woolen undies are naturally odor resistant. There’s no reason to wash them. Ever.
A true retro grouch will opt for the least expensive set of wooly longjohns he can find. Most likely mail ordered from a mill somewhere in Nova Scotia. However, the less hardcore will eschew wool baselayers that feel like they incorporate strands of barb wire.
These somewhat less grouchy traditionalists will adopt merino wool as their next-to-skin layer. They’ll insist that it is completely itch free (it’s not) and that it wicks moisture better than any synthetic out there (it doesn’t). Armed with the sales pitch of one of a variety of merino purveyors they’ll tout the warmth of wool when wet and emphatically proclaim that wool, as a natural fiber, regulates body temperature more effectively than anything else.
What about the fact that this stuff doesn’t dry nearly as fast as synthetic baselayers? No matter. They’ll just “wear it dry” if it gets wet. After all, warm when wet, right? Yes, it costs 80 bucks for a t-shirt and it won’t go a year without blowing out. No matter. The manifold benefits of merino are well worth the price. Only a heretic would complain about a few runs and moth holes in such a miracle garment.
Did I mention that plastic long underwear is made from the long decayed carcasses of brontosauruses? A finite resource on a finite planet. It has no place in the wardrobe of a true conservationist. A closet full of poly long johns is proof that you care more about your comfort than the health of the planet. You might as well be driving a full-size Hummer. Or a tank. Steer clear.
Our next category is lightweight insulation. This will, of course, be wool. Nevermind all the discussion about grid fleece, Powerstretch and Polartec that we had back in this post. Nope. You don’t want that stuff. In fact, it’s dangerous.
That’s right, dangerous. Do you know what will happen if you brush up against the stove pipe in your hot tent wearing a fleece sweater? Instantaneous combustion. Anyone winter camping in synthetic insulation layers invites a horrific shrink-wrapping accident along with all the associated third-degree burns. It’s not worth the risk.
Wool is much safer. If you happen to lean back against the stovepipe after sipping one too many peppermint schnaps you’ll only get a little scorched. Wool is so fire resistant that you probably won’t even notice that the sleeve of your jacket is starting to smoulder. It may take a few minutes for your tent mates to notice the faint smell of singed wet dog and bring it to your attention.
Wool isn’t just superior to fleece in fire resistance. It’s superior in every way. Wool is heavier, slower to dry and less compressible than synthetics. This is a good thing. It keeps you from getting complacent. Winter camping is a serious undertaking. You can’t afford a moment’s slip in concentration. The knowledge that your insulating layers will remain wet indefinitely should you misstep and break through the ice will sharpen your concentration and help prevent accidents. And all that extra weight on your back and the toboggan will toughen you up. You have to be a hard, hard man (or woman) to survive the frozen North.
So harden up, and get yourself a pair of army surplus wool pants and a Pendleton shirt. You can probably find a wool shirt at the Goodwill. Most people receive them as gifts and immediately discard them because they itch so badly. Of course, that shirt will likely be shrunken down to garden gnome size, but you might get lucky. If you can’t track down a shirt, you can always go with a light wool sweater. These lack the button front that allows for easy ventilation, but they are abundantly available and quite stylish.
Wool again. Just heavier. That’s right. Heavier wool. You’ll need a densely woven wool shirt that’s about a quarter-inch thick. For years the classic choice for this layer was the Filson Jac Shirt, but Filson prices have skyrocketed into the stratosphere in recent years. My first car cost less than one of these things. A better option might be a stout buffalo plaid shirt or something from the surplus store. If you can lay your hands on a Filson Mackinaw Vest you should chuck that in the pack too. These are heavy, warm and outrageously expensive. The perfect combination in a woolen insulating layer.
Your midweight insulation will share all the advantages of your lightweight layers with the added benefit of being even heavier, bulkier and slower to dry. On top of this, it will be wind resistant.
Thick, tightly woven wool garments not only keep you warm, they do a decent job of blocking the wind. You see, wool really is the first soft shell. Yeah, I know, soft shells are all the rage right now. Patagonia invented them back in the 1990’s or something and Arcteryx has all kinds of beta gamma radiation something jackets in their lineup.
Wool was soft shell before soft shell even thought about being soft. Or a shell. You don’t need all that new-fangled crap. Wool pants and a wool jacket are all you need. They breathe, wick moisture, turn the wind and generally limit your freedom of movement. Skip the fancy new stuff and stick with what works.
I’m going to say right now that we’re going to skip over the wind shell category that I talked about in this post. Why? Because they’re mostly made of synthetic materials and they’re light. Garments like this have no place in a traditional winter layering system. Avoid them like the plague.
I already told you that wool is the original soft shell, and I warned you to steer clear of windbreakers, so what is this category all about? Well, you are going to need some kind of wind shell if it really starts howling. And you know by now it’s not going to be nylon or polyester. It IS going to be soft. Because it’s going to be cotton.
Oh yeah, cotton. What’s that you ask? Doesn’t cotton kill? Isn’t it dangerous to wear in the winter? Naw. I mean, you wouldn’t want to wear cotton next to your skin or anything. It would be way too comfortable. And it would be even slower to dry than wool. Yeah, skip that.
But cotton shells? They’re what you want. Cotton shells are tough enough to bushwack through a spruce swamp. They block the wind better than wool, and they give you that stylish arctic explorer look. You definitely want a cotton shell.
Did you know that when cotton gets wet it’s fibers swell? Yep. When you start sweating-up all your wooly layers some of that perspiration will eventually make its way out to your shell. [A lot of it will just get sucked up by the wool, but no matter.]
Once your cotton shell starts to get a little damp, the fibers will begin to swell and the shell will become even MORE wind resistant. Miracle of miracles. And when you stop moving for the day that shell will freeze solid so you can stand it up on the ice to dry through the process of sublimation.
Where do you get one of these cotton shells? It can be tough. There are a few companies making quality traditional shell layers. Empire Wool and Canvas is one. They make some very nice clothes.
If you’re at all like me, you know that frugality sometimes overcomes practicality. I could have bought a nice traditional shell, but I’m too much of a chiseler. So I tried to make my own. First, I tried to sew a winter anorak out of old cotton bedsheets. That didn’t work. Not windproof. Then I sewed one out of Versatech polyester. It worked great, but wasn’t nearly traditional enough. I’m not keen on getting shrink-wrapped either. I needed a better option.
What I found was a Norwegian surplus winter camo anorak made from tightly woven cotton poplin. It works great and set me back 20 bucks at a winter camping symposium. A few years later I managed to lay my hands on a pair of M-1951 wind pants that somehow escaped issue during the Korean War. These are a windproof cotton sateen fabric. They’re cut big enough that you can wear them over the top of down pants and pull them on over bulky boots. Real MC Hammer pants. With pockets.
Both of these shell layers are closed with buttons and ties. No fancy zippers to fail. Simple, proven technology that’s stood the test of time.
[OK, the wind pants do have a zip fly. But it’s a metal zipper. Not some kind of modern plastic junk.]
High Loft Insulation
The final essential retro grouch winter layer is high loft insulation. You need a big, puffy jacket to throw on when you take a break during the day. Maybe a pair of puffy pants, too. When you stop dragging that 150 pound toboggan across the ice you’ll catch a chill in a hurry. The solution is down.
Down is the warmest, most compressible, lightest insulation you can choose for your big puffy jacket and pants. I know we’ve been touting the advantages of heavier and bulkier insulations, but that’s why we have to choose down for our high loft layer. You’re going to be lugging around about forty pounds of wool if you’re wearing traditional winter kit. You can’t afford to add any more weight. It’s part of the system.
Down is also fantastic because it’s a natural fiber, not some synthetic dinosaur fluff. It’s all natural. Like puppies, oxygen and murder hornets.
Plus, it loses all it’s insulation properties if it gets wet. BONUS!
You’re not going swimming in the stuff, so you’re not going to get it THAT wet. It’ll just get a little damp from sweat. And then when you cram it back into your pack it will freeze solid. When you pull it back out it will unfold like a feathered accordion. Do this a few times and you’ll have reduced your puffy coat to a nylon bag full of ice clumps. Completely useless.
Not a problem. You can dry it off by the wood stove. You can dry off your down sleeping bag, too. You’re going to want a down sleeping bag, so you can cut weight. You can take maybe a pound or two out of your sleeping bag if you switch to down, and that will help you carry the 50 pounds of wood stove and canvas tent you’ll need to dry out the bag when you sweat it up overnight. That’s the beauty of the system. It all works together.
One thing that will be tough to get around is synthetic fibers in the shell of your high loft down coat and pants. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a 1950’s Eddie Bauer down parka with a cotton shell, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Even retro grouches have to compromise sometimes. That said, you can do your best to maintain good style. Make sure you avoid any kind of fancy water or wind resistant fabrics in these layers. You don’t need that crap. Plain old nylon works just fine.
Head, Hands and Feet
No discussion of traditional winter layering would be complete without a discussion of what to wear on your head, hands and feet.
For your head you’ll want some kind of big woolen hat. Preferably with a pom-pom on top. A hat like this has a rakish, traditional look. And the pom-pom helps keep your parka hood in place on your head. Without the pom-pom you’ll turn your head inside the hood. With it, the hood turns with your head. You also get an elegant Cone Head look with the hood up. Very traditional.
On your hands you’ll want wool and leather. You’ll need leather on your mittens because it gives you a good grip on the axe when you’re splitting the cords of wood you’ll need to stay warm in the tent. Leather mittens also stick tenaciously to the ice chisel you’ll use to beaver away at a hole in the ice because you didn’t pack an auger. Augers are not traditional.
You can layer wool mittens under leather chopper gloves. Or you might find a pair of army surplus arctic mitts. These are huge, heavy, cotton, wool and leather mitts that are really warm. They do have a synthetic pile liner, which is a little less than ideal, but we can overlook that issue. These mitts are so massively heavy and slow to dry that they definitely have a place in a traditional layering system.
Of course, choose mittens rather than gloves. They’re much warmer and the lack of dexterity you have with mittens is character building.
Finally, on your feet, you’ll need to have a pair of mukluks. These are without question the warmest winter boots you’ll ever find. They’re expensive but they’re worth every penny.
I’ve had my pair of Steger Arctic Mukluks for nearly 20 years. They’re warmer than any other boot I’ve ever worn. Even better, they’re made of leather, wool and canvas so they’re traditional. They even come with a nifty ribbon sewn to the top. Retro grouch approved.
Being made of leather, canvas and wool, they aren’t waterproof. But that doesn’t matter. When the temperature is under 20 degrees the snow is dry enough that they don’t get wet. Just brush them off before you go inside the hot tent and they’ll stay perfectly dry.
What if it’s warmer than 20 degrees? Stay home. Who wants to go winter camping when it’s that warm? That sounds miserable.
If you must venture out in 30 degree weather you’ll find that the snow is wet enough to soak through your mukluks in no time. For these conditions you need to pack a pair of Tingley galoshes. Take the wool liners out of the mukluks and put them in the rubbers. Now your insulation will be protected from the wet snow. It won’t, however, be protected from your sweaty feet. So, you should carry TWO pairs of wool liners so you have one to wear and one to dry next to the stove. Sometime during your trip both of these liners will probably freeze solid from perspiration. Not a problem. They thaw out pretty quick when you start walking. And frozen feet build character.
Retro Grouch Layering
There you have it. A complete winter layering system that will make the heart of a true retro grouch glow. Nevermind that even the US Army (!) has abandoned wool and cotton. Even the most storied of institutions can fall prey to fads and fashion. Don’t let this happen to you. If you stick to the system outlined above you’re sure to have an authentic experience on the winter trail. Adventure awaits. Will you answer the call?
This article was written by our in-house satirist and in no way reflects the views of Brian, Cristi, or Kitchi-Gami Outdoors.
A less satirical approach to this topic will be found in Garrett and Alexandra Connover’s excellent book: The Winter Wilderness Companion. Which, sadly, is now out of print.
The Lure of the North website is a also an excellent resource on traditional winter travel skills.
If you’re interested in reading about winter camping with traditional equipment check out this post. I didn’t wear wool, but I did run a toboggan, wood stove and traditional snowshoes.
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