The Role of Clothing for Wilderness Safety

Your body is constantly working to keep your body temperature between 97 and 99 degrees. Your clothing helps your body accomplish this. The clothing you wear in the wilderness helps protect you against sunburn. It also helps you reflect heat and trap dead air to help you stay cooler in hot climates. In cold climates, your clothes act like insulation to help keep you warm. While in the wilderness, three layers that are all loose fitting are your best protection against the heat and the cold.

You should wear:

1. One layer to insulate yourself from the cold and heat. This layer traps heat.

2. One layer to pull moisture away from your body. This is also known as a wicking layer. Wet clothes create more heat than dry ones.

3. One layer as the outer shell. This layer protects you from the elements, such as rain, snow, and wind.

When you wear multiple layers, you can also remove layers and put them back on to help your body better maintain a normal body temperature.

Choosing Appropriate Fabrics

Fabrics fall into two categories: natural and synthetic. There are fabrics that are best for cold or hot climates, and fabrics that are better in wet or dry climates. For example, wool works best as an outer layer in cold climates. The different types of natural and synthetic fabrics are listed below, along with how and when to wear them.


Never wear cotton while in the wilderness. When cotton gets wet, it loses all of its insulating properties. It also does little to pull moisture away from your body. When it does get wet, it takes forever to dry and becomes heavy in the meantime. Cotton is a natural fabric.


Down is lightweight. It is also a good insulator. That said, it is a lot like cotton in that it is no good to you once it becomes wet. When feathers become wet, they clump together. This means that they can no longer trap dead air. If you are going to use down, only use it in dry climates. Down is a natural fabric.


Unlike cotton and down, wool is still a good insulator when it becomes wet. However, it also retains the moisture, so it is also heavy when it is wet. Wool makes a good outer layer, because it protects you from the wind. Wool is a natural fabric.

Polyester and Polypropylene

Polyester and polypropylene are synthetic fabrics. These fabrics work best as either a wicking or insulating layer. When they become wet, they dry quickly. They also make good insulators, even when they are wet. It is not a good idea to use these fabrics as outer shells, because they are not good at protecting from the wind.

Quallofil, Polarguard, Hollofil, and Such

These are all synthetic fabrics that are commonly used in sleeping bags. They are also used in heavy parkas, because they trap dead air and provide insultation. If these materials get wet, they will try quickly. However, they will keep most of their insulation properties while wet.

Primaloft, Thinsulate, Microloft, and Such

These synthetic fabrics are all lightweight. Even so, they make excellent insulators. Microloft and Primaloft are used in sleeping bags as alternative to down. Thinsulate is used in clothing. All three remain good insulators when wet.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Basic Wilderness Safety course?


Nylon is used in rain and wind garments, mittens, and parkas. It is also used to make lightweight and breathable shirts. That said, nylon is not waterproof. If you buy a nylon garment that is waterproof, you can know the manufacturer has added a waterproof coating, such as polyurethane. That said, be careful when buying nylon garments coated with polyurethane. These types of garments do not allow moisture to escape.

About Breathable Fabrics

Here is something to remember. Breathable fabrics are only breathable if the pores of these fabrics are kept clean and free of dirt. Follow the washing instructions on the tags to clean breathable fabrics. In addition, moisture cannot escape even a breathable fabric if you sweat a lot. This is why it is so important to wear multiple, loose layers.

Deciding What to Wear in the Outdoors

When deciding what to wear while in the wilderness, always remember the loose and layered rule. The first layer goes against your skin. It should be made of a fabric that pulls moisture away. The second layer should be an insulating layer, and the third layer should shield you from wind and precipitation. This tells you what type of clothing you should wear, but it does not cover the articles of clothing. The different articles of clothing you may need are listed below.

Parka and Rain Pants

These protect you from precipitation and wind. Typically, they are made of nylon with a polyurethane coating - or a laminated waterproof membrane that makes it breathable. Parkas can come with an insulating garment that zips inside, such as a blanket.

Make sure a parka is big enough for additional layers to fit below it. If the parka has a zipper, make sure the zipper has polyester teeth and backing behind the zipper to help insulate. Openings in a parka should be at your wrists, under your arms, at your waist, and in front. Rain pants should have openings on the outside of the lower legs and in front. Seams in both parks and rain pants should be well bonded or taped so that moisture cannot get through.


Whenever you buy a new pair of boots to wear on your trip into the wilderness, make sure you break them in before you leave. The boots you select to wear should be based on your destination and their purpose.

Leather boots are all-purpose boots. You may want to treat them with a waterproofing material, but they tend to protect your feet under most conditions.

If you are venturing into a hotter climate, you might consider a lightweight leather and fabric boot. They are lighter than regular leather boots, and they also dry faster if they get wet. The only potential problem with these types of boots is that moisture soaks through the fabric. They also typically do not offer as much stability for your ankles.

Rubber boots are often used for the extreme cold or the extreme wet. These types of boots have nylon uppers with molded rubber bottoms. Typically, they also have a removable felt inner boot.


Gaiters are worn over the shoes. They cover the shoe, as well as the lower pants leg. They add a further layer of protection by keeping you safe from insects, underbrush, and moisture. They are typically made from Gore-Tex.


When selecting socks, select types that absorb moisture and pull it away from the skin. You will also want to select socks that provide insulation and reduce friction. The best fabric for socks is polyester, nylon, wool, or an acrylic. Just as with clothing, you want to avoid cotton socks. It is also a good idea to layer socks just as you layer your clothes. The first layer should pull moisture away. Polyester or silk is good for this. The second layer should be an insulating layer, such as wool or a synthetic blend. When in the wilderness, change your socks at least once every day.

Gloves and Mittens

You can lose a lot of heat through your hands, so you always want to be sure to wear gloves or mittens in colder climates. Gloves give you use of your fingers so you can do whatever you need to do with your hands, even with the gloves on. Mittens keep your hands warmer by using your body heat. Choose gloves or mittens based on the tasks you need to accomplish, as well as the climate and weather. Just as with clothing, you can also select a fabric to help meet your needs.

Rain Hats

Rain hats are made either with nylon or another insulating material that has a nylon outer covering, such as Gore-Tex. Having insulated earflaps on a rain hat make it even better for cold or wet weather.

For cold weather, select a rain hat that is made from polypropylene, polyester fleece, or wool. A watch cap or a balaclava are perfect choices, especially since the balaclava protects your head, ears, and neck from the elements.

For warmer weather, select a rain hat made from a lightweight nylon. Examples of these are the Sahara, which also drapes your neck, and the wide-brimmed bush hat. These kinds of hats protect you from UV rays, as well as reduce the amount of heat you lose from your head.

Goggles or Sunglasses

Do not forget UV protection for your eyes. Goggles or sunglasses are must-haves in the wilderness.

Improvising for Articles of Clothing

Hopefully, you will have all the clothing you need packed with your gear before you venture into the wilderness. If you get into the wilderness and discover you are mssing items you need, you can always improvise using resources found in nature. Throughout the rest of this lesson, you will find ideas of improvised clothing that you can use.

Improvised Shoes

If your shoes become wet, you can dry them by a fire. However, you still need to protect your feet while your shoes dry. You can do this by using your socks, as well as feathers or dry grass. To do this, put a clean pair of socks on your feet as the inner layer. Place dried grass or feathers between the inner layer of socks and another (second) layer of socks. The grass or feathers serves as an insulator. Use nylon or a rubber material as the outer layer. Secure the material in place using cords around the feet and the ankles.

Improvised Gaiters

If you didn't bring any gaiters, you can improvise by using canvas, nylon, or a poncho material around your lower leg. The material should cover from below the ankle to the top of the calf. Use cords to hold it in place.

Improvised Snowshoes

To make a pair of snowshoes, you can use boughs from trees. A fir tree is perfect for this since they have smaller branches with thick needles. Use five to ten boughs. Each bough should be four to five feet long. Simply lash the base of the branches together, then tie them at their midpoint. Tie a line around the toe of your boot and the front third of the boughs to secure them to your feet.

Improvised Sunglasses and Goggles

If you lose your sunglasses your goggles, you can use bark, webbing, or leather to make a pair. Simply cut a strip as long and wide as you need to cover both of your eyes. Next, cut horizontal slits in the places where the material is over your eyes. Use line to attach to the side of the goggles so that you can secure them on your face by tying them around your head.

Improvised Layers

Wearing multiple layers is especially important in colder climates. If you do not have enough layers to keep you warm and protected, you can create second and outer layers using resources in nature, as well as resources you have with you. What is more, if you are in an extra cold climate, you can add additional second and outer layers.

To create an insulating layer, you can add dry moss, grass, and lichen. It is easy to do. Simply put a t-shirt on, then an outer shirt on top of it. Tuck them into your pants, then put the moss, grass, or lichen between the two shirts. It will help to keep you warmer by trapping dead air.

You can use a garbage bag or space blanke as an outer layer by wrapping either around you. They will help protect you from wind and precipitation. In addition, they will also help increase the dead air around your body, which will keep you warmer.