• Leon Pantenburg | Survival Common Sense


How to choose the best wool pants for winter comfort, camping and survival

600 400 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

One of the first winter camping clothing items you should get is a pair of wool pants.

Here is how to pick the ones that will suit your needs best.

by Leon Pantenburg

After my first afternoon in the Confederate Army, I was ready to desert. Leading my list of complaints was the thick wool uniform.

I was an embedded journalist with the Confederates at the re-enactment battle of Champion Hill near Jackson, Miss. I’d borrowed authentic weapons, accouterments and uniform from the Vicksburg National Military Park, and I was about to melt in the 90 plus-degree heat.

My trusty medium weight wool pants kept me warm and dry while building a snow cave during a winter outing.

My medium weight wool pants kept me warm and dry while building a snow cave during a winter outing.

The wool kepi I wore provided  virtually no sun protection and the heavy pants and jacket were like wearing a sweat suit. No body heat escaped. It’s hard to imagine a worse material for the hot, humid weather of the Deep South than wool.

But, on the other hand,  there is no worse pair of pants for winter survival than denim  jeans. The cotton fabric sucks heat from your body, and once they get wet, the moisture wicks through the material until it’s completely soggy.

While there are synthetic clothing  options available, for my money, nothing beats wool in winter. Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is  my favorite material for pants about six months out of the year. Also, the material is fire resistant, and stays warm when wet.

Wool can also be inexpensive: Last fall at the local surplus store, I got a lightweight pair of wool pants for $7.95. And once you find a good wool garment, it will last seemingly forever. My  old Lands End red wool sweater has served me well for the past 20 years, and it’s still going strong. The biggest danger is my wife finding and sending the sweater to the thrift store!

Here are some tips for choosing wool pants.

  • Size: Get a couple inches or so bigger around the waist. They will shrink with use. You may want to wear
    2009 fabrics website story 013

    I’ve worn this wool sweater for well over 20 years. It shows no signs of wearing out.

    polypropylene long underwear underneath, or synthetic pajama bottoms if wool makes you itch. Never wear 100-percent cotton thermal longjohns – they will get damp from perspiration and suck the heat away. Also, you’ll want plenty of room in the seat and thighs of the pants if the plans include vigorous snow sports, such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

  • Not too long: While it may be the style to wear pants cuffs that drag on the ground, that isn’t going to work well in snow. With gaiters, you’ll have to tuck the pant legs in them, and unnecessary bulk can be a pain.
  • Lots of pockets: I carry a BIC butane lighter in my pocket to keep the fuel warm and functioning. I also need other pocket survival gear, and having large pockets is incredibly handy. Some items, such as batteries, must be kept warm for them to function and you’ll need a place to carry them.
  • Sturdy belt loops or suspender links: Wool can get heavy, and a belt or suspenders will be needed. Suspenders are great if you don’t want the bulk of a belt around your waist. They will also allow you to comfortably strap on a fanny pack or the belt of a daypack.
  • Cost: Surplus wool pants can range in price from under $10 to about $30. Go to the high end Filson or L.L. Bean pants and you’ll spend upward of $120. You get what you pay for, but I’ve never seen the need for high-priced wool pants.

The next consideration is the weight, or thickness, of the pants. Obviously, the colder the weather, the thicker the material you’ll need. In the surplus arena, there are usually three different weights.

  • Lightweight dress slacks: These are designed to go with military dress uniforms, and the fabric may be no thicker than jeans. They are much warmer than jeans, though, and are a good choice for early fall. They won’t have a lot of pockets, but will be very comfortable when the weather is chilly.
  • Medium weight: This is generally the weight I wear most of the time in the winter. They are usually standard military wear and the weight most commonly available. They are comfortable from about 60 degrees down to the teens, depending on your activity level.
  • Heavy duty, arctic wear: I have a couple pairs of Swedish heavy duty woolies, and they are too hot unless it is very cold. But when the temperature is in the single digits, these pants come through just fine.

Cleaning wool is easy. I wash my stuff after an outing with regular laundry soap and warm water, then air dry them. You’ll get some shrinkage (see size) but if you start out a little big, the pants will soon fit you fine.

Wool may not be the best fabric for everyone. Synthetics have a place in your outdoor wardrobe, but the good gear is expensive and may not be particularly fire resistant.

Check out the local surplus or thrift stores. You might find a fine piece of wool survival gear for a very good price.

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  • BD

    Wool makes me itch to, the heavier it is, it seems the worse it is, as Leon has said though, Cotton kills in my experience. Want zero cotton for any winter or cold wet conditions and I can speak from experience in how it will wick the heat away from your body. One solution for wool pants is to sew some buttons into the waist band, make and insert a pant liner. Also learned from west coast natives, is that I no longer wash my heavy out door wool or even wool blankets. There is natural oil in many of the wools which helps retain heat and water resistance. To clean, you simply find a nice clean snow fall spot, spread the pants, blanket on top, cover with more snow, shake it out, repeat and then leave it there a couple hours before bringing in to hang dry. If you suspect the oil has been washed out the Cowichan’s suggested buying baby oil, after cold wash, do a rinse with water infused with baby oil and hang dry again. Worked up in the artic and wool is a must go to for me.

  • Dave who lives in the Rockies

    thanks for the post. i appreciate the good basic info. i actually asked a mfg. how much shrinkage to expect from normal use wetness – rain, snow and such – and was given an idk. “a couple inches” is a much better answer.

    i do have a question on fabric weights still. what material weight constitutes a heavy, arctic weight pant? and a medium weight? it would be helpful to have a number.

  • John Young

    I always check the local thrift shops for merino wool dress sweaters. They make a great base layer as they don’t itch at all and are light weight enough to layer with a heavier sweater. You can also just layer a few of them over each other to get the perfect level of warmth. You can also use this technique with wool dress pants, as many of them are also made of merino wool. Be sure to increase the size of the articles of clothing as you layer them.

  • Amy

    Wool doesn’t itch if it is processed properly. Silk is actually very unhealthy for the body. It’s from an unclean animal and registers as very draining to the body. See this:http://www.lifegivinglinen.com/linen-study.html

    Linen and wool are the only items people should make clothing out of. Maybe organic cotton or perhaps hemp, but I don’t know readings for hemp and organic cotton is only neutral to the body so it has no healing benefits.

  • Leon

    Silk is great, and they are available. Don’t overlook polypropylene long underwear. The material wicks moisture away from your skin, and keeps you drier. I bought a set for my wife several years ago, and she loves them.

  • Kim

    Wool makes me itch like crazy. What do you think about silk for long underwear and sock liners (if there is such a thing). Also how difficult is it to find such things for women?

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