In May of 1984 when I embarked on an outdoor leadership training expedition with Paul Petholdt and 21 other students in Nantahala National Forest In the Shining Rock Wilderness which was basically the backyard of the land where I grew up in Cullowhee, North Carolina. During the this six week wilderness trek we experienced a weather extreme which took us beyond the limits of the gear we had prepared for. Paul Petzholdt being the world’s most respected outdoor leader used this opportunity to teach us how to deal with a crisis when in the backcountry. Judgement, discernment, preparedness, emergency plans…all these things were up now as we had to make the most critical decisions of the journey.
We knew we were about to experience a lunar eclipse. There was talk that this could bring extreme weather and animals would act strange…whatever that meant. I remember walking away from camp that night to find a place to pee, and the fog was so thick I had trouble walking back to the campfire. What we didn’t expect was, that night after we went in our tents, the wind started picking up. Ridiculous gusts started whipping our tents around and me and my tent buddy spent a mostly sleepless night shivering and wondering if the tent would collapse.
The next day the storm had blown over to reveal a crystal clear sky and freezing ass temperatures. Our water bottles had frozen and the wind was still strong enough to keep us in our tents waiting on some signal about what to do next. Some of the other students started coming around bringing us hot water and telling us how 3 tents had collapsed and we needed to stay in our tents as someone had hitched a ride to a nearby town to get some supplies and take an injured student to emergency room.
We were caught unprepared. And this is perfect because this is exactly what we need to be prepared for…for the unexpected. It was too cold to get out of the sleeping bags because we had packed for spring and we had a burst of winter. It was so nice to huddle later that day in a south facing rock overhang out of the wind and get more teachings about how to deal with this kind of situation.The first thing Paul Petzholdt told us was he made a mistake. We were camped in a “wind tunnel” next to Devil’s Courthouse where we were going to do some rock climbing. We should have moved camp in preparation from the storm, to a place lower down on the ridge. We talked about gear and what worked and what didn’t.
I have spent the following decades testing outdoor gear and thinking about how to achieve the ultimate balance between weight, performance and comfort. I have studied the various approaches such as Lightweight Backpacking which came along years later after that expedition with Paul Petzholdt. Also included in my studies is Native Culture’s, Primitive Earth Skills and the science behind how we generate heat and the Wim Hof Method.
There are many varieties of weather conditions and when in the backcountry you can rely only on what you have carried in your pack and the natural surroundings. Once you are “Beyond the Trailhead”, you are in a different environment and culture where humidity, wind chill, and temperatures are constantly changing. Your clothing is how you control your homeostasis. It has to fit in your backpack. It has to work. That’s why to be a true Rewilder, we need to get beyond the buildings that comprise the majority of our world. Then, what you are wearing or carrying in your backpack…that’s where the buck stops. You can’t look at outdoor gear in only one situation. Each condition is multi faceted and ever changing. We need to predict the patterns that can happen. And also see the patterns of how the body and environment interact with weather dynamics.
The SHELL layer is the outside layer which is meant to shield from rain and wind.
There is a major problem with synthetic shells–lack of breathability. This includes even the so called ‘breathable’ fabrics such as GoreTex. While hiking you generate heat and sweat. When resting you need more insulation. If you bring a non-breathable synthetic shell, it works during certain conditions and not well for others. In this case, a non-breathable synthetic shell—would work for most people when temperatures are around zero or below. Then if the temps are higher than that, there is a point where you start sweating and overheating. At one point in the conditions and exertion level, there is a point of diminishing returns. This means, the so called ‘technical’ aspect of the gear where it worked well is now not technical.
Because the gear that was keeping you dry during certain conditions by keeping the rain out, is now keeping your body perspiration in. You can sweat and later become chilled as exertion level and weather conditions change. At this point the word “Technical” looses it’s meaning. Or at least, we see the multi-faceted aspect of “Technical”.
While the jacket is keeping the rain out, it is also at times causing your body to overheat and sweat. And what is needed at this point is something that is both breathable AND wind resistant. So the so called EVIL cotton would work better—and be TECHNICAL in a different way— during certain conditions. Or better yet, coat the windbreaker with beeswax to make oil cloth or use one of the new blends of hemp/silk or hemp/wool.
However, this wind breaker wouldn’t work well when it is wet. It is miserable at best wearing anything cotton when wet and can lead quickly to hypothermia. So in interests of lightweight minimalism we have thrown the baby out with the bath water and wear synthetic for everything. In many conditions this works against biology and physics. And most people have no idea what I am talking about because they have never worn a non-synthetic windbreaker/clothing set this way. So there is nothing to compare performance to, meaning people don’t know what it is like to have truly breathable outdoor clothing.
Cotton actual may not be great for most backpacking trips. Because you pretty much need to pack for wet conditions. There isn’t room or weight for having a set of cotton clothes for dry conditions and a set of synthetic clothes for wet. Wool works as a base layer and as insulation layer but doesn’t weave tight to make a windbreaker shell.
There is an answer: OIL CLOTH. That is the ancient technique of coating cotton or hemp with beeswax. A cotton oil cloth windbreaker is ideal for most situations. Even if it gets a little wet underneath, the windbreaker can actually be somewhat wet and you are still relatively dry and better yet, the right temperature…not too hot or too cold. The oil cloth windbreaker is still protecting you from the wind, and letting body heat escape to regulate your temperature. Also, when the sun comes out you can actually wear it wet over a wool base layer and sweater until it dries out, or hang it over your backpack while you hike, or a tree limb or clothes line at camp. It dries quickly because it is a thin, lightweight cotton and the beeswax repels water absorption. I pack all my wet gear on the outside pockets of my backpack. and let them drape during dry conditions to dry.
Also, this beeswaxed cotton wind breaker works as a comfortable and breathable shirt during fair weather. So it doubles for different conditions/purposes. Instead of bringing an extra T shirt, this windbreaker can also be the thing to wear during fair weather right against the skin and is fine for sleeping as well, when not wet.
I started wondering if letting myself get wet sometimes would be the best option. The thing that drove this home was when I was hiking in a pouring thunderstorm wearing my last item of synthetics, which was a so called ‘breathable’ Gore Tex Parka over a merino base layer. I was overheating and feeling like I should just take the parka off and get wet. I finally did that and I was cold and wet but felt better than being hot and wet.
This changed my approach. I realized there is more to the equation than was being discussed in the outdoor gear world. It is not black and white. We need not just protection from the rain, but to maintain homeostasis in the body. That means temperature regulation and that means moisture wicking, breathability and ventilation.
So I started trying out some new approaches. In summer I started sometimes wearing a merino top and bottom and just getting wet. That evolved into wearing wool shorts and minimalist sandals for the bottom, letting the waist down part get wet. For the top, I could wear a synthetic poncho with wool felt rain hat, or umbrella. I got the umbrella idea from Ray Jardine. I got the poncho/hat idea from ancient Peruvian Indians.
Each of these ideas add up to make a complete Natural Fiber Outdoor Dress System that ROCKS!
The beeswaxed cotton windbreaker parka is my latest invention/discovery. Stay tuned for upcoming blog post showing you how to make your own!