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Survival fabrics

Stuff that works | Five reasons to get a wool, pullover sweater for wilderness survival

Stuff that works | Five reasons to get a wool, pullover sweater for wilderness survival

My wool sweater has kept me warm for going on 30 years. Here’s why I still use it, even when I have access to many other modern materials.

by Leon Pantenburg

Here’s a few instances where my pullover sweater has worked really well:

My red wool sweater has served me well for a couple decades.

My red wool sweater has served me well for almost three decades.

  • The rain beat down on my deer tree stand in a Mississippi swamp. My poncho covered the muzzleloading blackpowder rifle, and my sweater kept me warm.
  • Dawn of opening day of elk season in Idaho; I set out from camp in the frosty morning, and planned on being on the move all day. I wore a base layer, wool sweater, insulated vest and waterproof shell. This combination kept me comfortable all day, even when it started to sleet and rain.
  • Winter steelhead fishing in Oregon can be frigid. A wool sweater can be as important as your waders. Well, almost.
  • In January, I spent an afternoon building snow shelters and igloos in below-freezing temperatures. Most of the time, I wore wool pants, socks, mittens and my sweater. The wool layers allowed me to work hard without breaking a sweat or cooling off too much.
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The sweater was well worth the investment.

In all these cases, I used the same sweater I got from Lands End™ in 1987. I bought three the same day, in red, blue and grey. I had just moved from Mississippi to Washington D.C. in January, and the cold and snow were extreme. The sweaters provided the layer between my overcoat, and shirt and tie.

Over the years one of the sweaters went on virtually every day hike, back packing and biking trip.

Some 25 years later, the only one left is the red, and people probably think I have a very limited outdoor wardrobe because I wear it so much. And it in in grave danger, and at great risk of disappearing, every time my wife takes a load of stuff to the thrift store. If she could find, it would already be gone.

But the fact is: The Vikings, Scandinavians, Celts and Northern Europeans got it right. When it comes to staying warm, wool may be the best choice. Irish fishermen relied on thick wool sweater to protect them from the cold North Sea. The Vikings – those fierce warriors, raiders and blood-thirsty pirates – were also avid knitters while on ships and long voyages.

With today’s super fabrics and technology, wool is often overlooked. (Know your fabrics.)

Here’s why you need a wool sweater in your emergency gear:

  • A sweater  is compact, light to carry and a pullover style seals out the wind.
  • Wool is very fire resistant. Polypropylene and other synthetics will melt when a spark from the campfire hits them.
  • Wool is warm when wet, breathes well and insulates as well or better than just about anything.
  • Wool can be an organic, renewable and sustainable material with a tiny carbon footprint. Synthetics and plastics use petroleum.
  • Wool sweaters can be cheap and they are easily available – check out your local surplus store for bargains. Look for wool sweaters at thrift stores and garage sales.
  • They seldom need cleaning, and when they do, a simple hand wash with mild soap will generally be all they need.
  • Quality wool sweaters can last a lifetime – be sure to get one you like!

The only problem might be if you’re allergic to wool, or think the material is too scratchy. I wear polypropylene long underwear underneath the wool, and that eliminates any itchiness.

Other than that, you’ll find the benefits far overshadow any potential discomfort. Add a wool sweater to your winter survival gear. You’ll like it. I promise.

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View Comments (6)


  1. Leon

    03/14/2016 at 09:53

    Good tip – thanks!

  2. PeteM

    02/18/2016 at 23:06

    I agree, wool is a great material for wet or dry environments. I have two favorite sweaters… A pull over and a high collared zip up with hand warmer pockets. Love wools socks, gloves, and hats for cold weather too. Looked onto a wool hoodie but the hood closes off peripheral vision and dampens sound too much for my use.

  3. John

    02/18/2016 at 12:58

    I live in wet Souteast Alska. After washing I like to spray my wools with a good soaking of lanolin to enhance to shedding of rain.

  4. Leon

    02/17/2016 at 05:14

    You can get some great deals on woolen clothing in the spring at the local surplus store.

  5. Linda

    02/16/2016 at 20:28

    I too have a second hand wool sweater and would not trade it for the world. I wear it in early spring when I first start gardening.

  6. Christopher

    02/16/2016 at 16:38

    Yes, Wool is king among clothing materials for the out-of-doors. Water repellent, fire-retardant, it handles water vapor (sweat) very effectively, to keep the skin functioning healthfully, while dissipating heat. It stores heat chemically as it dries, and then releases that heat when getting wet, to help stay dry (and warm) longer.
    The fact that it give a wider comfort-range, means that we do not have to be adding and removing layers nearly as often as with synthetics. While synthetics have their place, and can be lifesaving, they just don’t touch the performance of wool for comfort in heat, cold, and wet.
    To avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke, wear a thin layer of wool over the whole body. To avoid hypothermia, wear more wool over the whole body. An outer layer of wool makes the best rain-gear for moderate precipitation. Soft wool jersey (lamb’s wool, camel down, etc.) makes excellent underwear.
    Three basic factors contribute to itchiness: (1) Coarse, short fibers, such as are found in carpets, some blankets, and re-milled or shoddy wool; (2)Chemicals used by the manufacturer to dissolve vegetable material in the fleece; and (3) Methods of laundering that leave the wool stripped of all oil. Solve this by using a fat/lye-based soap, instead of detergent, and then put a little vinegar in the last rinse water. This usually leaves the wool fairly well lubricated.
    Best wishes to the shepherd and the sheep! (And the wool-processors, too!)

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Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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