2015 December 3rd     Weather   Survival How-To


In the first Photowalk Survival Guide, we looked at some ways to keep from getting lost.

This article talks about a close call that I had in the woods.  We'll also look at the question, "Does wool, or synthetic, or anything else, really insulate when wet?"

A Quick Note

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In This Article

Backpackers vs. Backyard Woodsmen

Wool vs. Cotton

A Survival Experience

The Day Goes South


The Vest Loadout, Revisited

What Worked That Day

Out of the Woods


Backpackers vs. Backyard Woodsmen

You may read and hear statements-- both on-line and off-line-- to the effect that backpackers have some special cold endurance.  Whatever the facts may be, the delivery is something like, "Oh, why are you worried about the cold?  We backpackers routinely handle much lower temperatures."

That statement actually has a context. 

And that context is the gear.

Go ahead and take the four-season sleeping bag out of the picture.  Leave home the sophisticated modern fabrics, the tarp, and the rest of it.  Put the guy in a pair of cotton denim jeans and a sweatshirt, or a woefully-thin pair of slacks from the office.   And you know those crummy, thin socks you wear with dress shoes?  Yeah.  Those.

Let's say he got stranded in a blizzard on his way home from work.  Or maybe he's on vacation, and never expected to go backpacking.  Or, he simply forgot his stuff.

Now, suppose it's just above freezing and it starts to rain.

Our backpacker friend is going to be in baaad shape without his gear.

Wool vs. Cotton

Another common statement-- one that I've actually made myself-- is that wool retains insulating properties when wet.

This, again, is a statement that has a proper context.

Just as I doubt backpackers mean to imply they're superhuman without their gear, no one should go around thinking that wool can magically keep you warm when it's completely soaked.

Are there people who believe you could just use wool as a raincoat?  Well, let's hope not.  And if they do, it's time to revise that thinking.

With all this said, I've spent enough time outdoors to know that wool does have some insulating properties when wet.  That is, so long as the wool is not thoroughly soaked. 

Cotton, on the other hand, feels ice-cold when it gets wet.  Even just damp. 

Is it because cotton gets wet more easily?  Dries more slowly?  Traps air more poorly?   I don't know for certain.  All I know is that I'd rather have wool than cotton, unless we're talking about being completely soaked, in which case neither one is all that good.

One thing I have noticed is that a good woolen garment-- the kind that feels about as comfortable as wood shavings next to your skin-- doesn't seem to get soaked as easily as a cotton garment. 

Cotton soaks up and transmits the water right to your skin, and then of course that drains away your heat from that moment onward.   Some types of wool might be more highly processed, leading to a fabric that gets wet more easily.  I don't know if that kind of wool is still any good. 

I do know, however, that it's possible to buy some lanolin and treat the wool.  This will make it more water-repellent.  I don't think sheep get hypothermia, and the lanolin in their wool is probably a major reason why. 

A Survival Experience

There were old-time woodsmen who would supposedly shrug off a soaking.  You know, "Wring out your clothes and keep walking around." 

See, the thing is, I actually tried that once.  I survived, but only because I was close enough to a road. 

And in fact, I almost didn't make it to the road. 

Disoriented and stumbling around, I no idea that a road was only several hundred yards away.

They say that hypothermia makes you feel warm, not cold.  That was indeed my experience.  I remember that I didn't feel cold anymore.   The main thing was the frustration that I couldn't think straight, couldn't find my way, and I just wanted to go to sleep. 

Well, yes I was cold;  it's just that I didn't think I was.  In fact, towards the end, I felt overheated and wanted to remove my jacket.  Many people do that, and die.  I at least knew not to do that.  I knew there was cold water soaked into my clothes, which meant that I must still be cold. 

In fact, I remember wondering how it was possible that I felt warm, given that I was cold a little while ago, and my clothes were still just as wet as before.  

The Day Goes South

One morning in late fall-- I think it was probably 2008 or '09-- I started hiking into the forest.  I knew those woods very well, I thought.  And I wasn't going to be gone that long.  It was just a quick little hike. 

That morning it was overcast, mid thirties Fahrenheit. 

As I walked, it started to drizzle. 

The drizzle then became a steady, light rain.  It was the kind that's just light enough to make you underestimate it.  By now, I was already well into the woods.  

Soon, my clothes became damp.  Gradually they became wet.  And wouldn't you know it, I didn't bring a compass.  And the woods started to look the same everywhere!

I wandered around for what seemed like only a few minutes, but it was actually hours.

You may have heard that when you're in the woods, there's a natural tendency to walk in circles when you think you're walking in a straight line.   That is true, and it happened to me.  Even on very uneven terrain, where you'd think you'd know... you won't know.  


There are some people who act rather self-assured about the outdoors (as I did, for a while).  As if somehow, the rain and cold are not serious considerations.  Well, I guess they haven't yet been utterly, stupidly, soaking-wet lost.  
It takes some over-confidence to leave your base camp without a compass, or a tarp, or a way to make a fire.   That day, I figured I wouldn't need these things. 

Soon, I did.

One of the mistakes I made that morning was to overestimate my cold endurance.  Like the Siberian hunter, I thought I could just shrug it off.   I figured that if it did rain, I would wring out my clothes periodically and "keep going".

Now that I was lost in the cold rain, I sorely wished I had brought certain things with me. 

The Vest Loadout, Revisited

In the Photo Walker's Survival Guide, I mentioned "the vest loadout".  Just some small items to make your photowalk safer and more enjoyable.

I recommended bringing a wool hat, and a compass, and some other items.  Is wool perfect?  No.  Is it warm when it's totally soaked?  Probably not.  Will it probably hold out longer than cotton?  Based on what I've seen, I think it will. 

Let's take a fresh look at the "photographer's vest loadout".  Here are the things I realized I should have brought on "hypothermia day":

- A lighter or some waterproof matches. I don't know that I could start a fire with flint and steel.  A lighter, probably.   If your energy is spent and you're getting hypothermia, it might not do you any good to know that safety is still miles away.  You still might not make it if you don't have a source of heat.  This is what fire is for.

- Tinderbox.  When you're lost, hungry, and soaking wet in a cold rain, the LAST thing you should do is to expend energy searching for elusive supplies, unless you are darned certain you will find them.   Ask me how I know.  An Altoids tin will hold some homemade tinder and maybe a lighter. Soak cotton balls in melted petrolatum, or some sawdust in motor oil, and you've got tinder.  Be careful with molten waxes and such;  they get really flammable when they're melted.    Best bet:  don't melt them in your kitchen or even in your house.

- A whistle.   It works better than going hoarse.  It weighs next to nothing.  Bring one.  

- Compass and preferably a Map.  Now repeat after me:  I Will Not Go In The Woods Without A Compass Again....

Once you're lost, a compass will at least prevent you from going in circles... which indeed happened to me that day.  My cheap compass happens to work well-- if I'd brought it-- but many of them don't.  If you don't know why, or how to test that... just get a good compass now. The worst thing a compass can have is bubbles.  You'll see a lot of them with bubbles. Bubbles interfere with the needle lining up accurately.  I've had (and thrown away) compasses that would get you lost, easily.

I will venture to say that you're better off having an old-time compass with no liquid, than an oil-filled compass that has bubbles in it.

- Space blankets.  At some point you have to rest, but this is the danger time with hypothermia.  You might not wake up.  You have to rest long enough to get some more stamina, though.  It becomes a hypothermic Catch-22.  When I sat down to rest, I just kept getting more soaked and losing more heat.  That last time that I slumped down to rest is when I really felt like "this was it".   One of these lightweight blankets would have helped immensely.

- Food.  I didn't eat breakfast that morning, and I didn't carry any food.  This definitely didn't help the situation.  An empty stomach is only going to compound the disorientation and fatigue.  

How I survived that day's "perfect storm" of cavalier stupidity is a continual source of wonderment.  I'm careful with machinery, tools, driving, and pretty much anything dangerous, but up until that day, I hadn't developed a healthy respect for the weather (and the importance of a good breakfast).

- Clothing made of wool, or the right synthetics... something that doesn't become useless when it's damp.

- Lightweight Rain Gear!   Wool or no wool, you should always bring some type of water-impermeable outer layer.  Even if it's sunny out.  A simple emergency poncho is way better than nothing.    Other useful items:  plastic contractor bags, plastic tarp.  Use them to avoid getting wet in the first place, and you'll be way ahead of the game.

By the way, I had a pocket knife this day, but by itself it seemed pretty useless.  Carried with the requisite other stuff, though, I'm sure it could be a life saver.

What Worked That Day

It's difficult to say anything "worked" that day, because I dang near didn't make it home.   But there was one thing.

The only proper piece of clothing I had that day was an MA-1 flight jacket.  It was the low-cost one (same brand, I believe, as the one in that link), but it still worked.

That jacket, and my hat, saved my life.  That's because they retained some insulating power, even though I'd been walking around for hours in the cold rain. 

Was the jacket soaked?  I don't know that it was soaked to the core.  The outside was definitely wet, but that's a matter of degree.  The synthetic shell of an MA-1 jacket is never going to get as "soaked" as cotton fabric.   The jacket, with its polyester filling, should have a discontinuous burden of water droplets, whereas cotton just becomes a sopping-wet mop of cold death.

Waterlogged cotton = Game Over.  And yes, probably "waterlogged anything" could equal Game Over.

Was the hat soaked?  Again, I don't know for sure;  I do remember it being very wet, but before I stopped noticing the cold, I remember that it was more uncomfortable without the hat, even though the hat was not dry.  I would say it was not fully "soaked", for the same reason the jacket was not"soaked".  That is, it didn't actually absorb all the rain that hit it. 

Later in the journey, I wanted to remove both the jacket and the hat, thinking I was overheating, when in fact I was actually losing heat. The wet cotton jeans were just draining away too much heat for anything else to do much good.

Again, if the hat were cotton, instead of a synthetic material or wool blend, it would probably have gotten saturated much more quickly.

Out of the Woods

As I think I mentioned earlier, the rest of my clothing was indeed cotton.  I wore cotton jeans, cotton sweatshirt, cotton socks... et cetera.   I had the sweatshirt on the outside of the flight jacket, because the rain-soaking had already wicked down the hood into the sweatshirt a-ways.  I wanted some distance from the wet cotton.

Though I was highly disoriented, I believe that at some point I had wrung out the sweatshirt and jeans.  Can't remember for sure.  I think I do remember taking off my boots for a spell.  (A lot of it was a blur.)

If so, it must have all got soaked again.   Remember I said that it only seemed like a few minutes?  It was hours.

At the very last, I had just enough glucose, heat, and sense remaining to make one final realization.

Water always flows downhill, toward a larger body of water.   

Ilford XP2 400 film

Obvious, right?   And I knew this.  I knew this so well;  I'd used this knowledge to find my way, so many times in my youth.

Well, this fact eluded me in the desperate delirium of hypothermia.  I hadn't actually found the little stream until it was quite late in the progression;  had it been earlier, I'd surely have skipped this whole confusion.  (Then again, you usually don't think you're lost until you're waaay lost...)

But now, all disoriented, I thought the stream would lead down into some hollow that was many miles long, or into some anomalous canyon that went nowhere.  That's hypothermia.

All slumped down and near fell-asleep, I suddenly thought to myself, "Wherever that stream goes, it has to be better than here!"

And that was true, because if I stayed there, I had about a 100% chance of not making it home.

So, with what little energy that was left (almost none), I decided to follow that stream. 

And it led downhill... to a road.

That whole time, I'd never been more than a few hundred yards from the road. 


Though I'm no survival expert, I know what it's like to get lost and get hypothermia.  The most important piece of advice I can give is this:  never think you're immune to the cold.  Never overestimate your stamina or your sense of direction.

And never leave home without some basic precautions against the weather. 

You don't have to cart a forty-pound backpack.  The things you need to survive a cold rainstorm could fit into a small hip-pack, or a couple pockets of your photo vest.

If you don't have the right stuff, though, even a single autumn rain could lead to fatal hypothermia.  You don't need to have that happen, and as we've seen, it's actually quite easy to avoid it. 

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