How To Choose The Right Clothing For Survival

Survival Clothing
Survival Clothing

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Many people underestimate the value and worth of having good outdoor survival clothing. Even before you realize that something has gone terribly wrong or you find yourself in a survival situation, your clothing is already working to keep you alive. Your clothing is your first shelter and frontline defense against the elements. Yet many spend more time and effort on gear and weapons and not much time finding the best clothing for survival situations. People have died simply because they chose to ignore the elements and not give attention to proper survival attire.

When choosing the right clothing, remember to consider the area you live in and consider the seasons. This will serve as a guide in choosing the proper survival attire.

Here is a list of clothing to consider:


Clothes can be bulky and can take up a lot of valuable space. You should have one high quality set of durable clothes that you can wear every day and then just change out the undergarments to keep up your hygiene.



Wool is the best choice. Keep dry and alternate socks if you can. Staying dry and healthy is key to surviving the elements.

Quick Dry Undergarments

Get the quick drying kind so that you can wash them and they will dry fast. You will need less of each since they can be washed/dried so quickly.

Gloves (All purpose and durable)

Find gloves that will keep your hands dry and safe from cuts and bruises.

Hat/Beanie (skullcaps)

Get a camouflage one if you are planning on not being seen. Get an orange one if you want to be found.


Body Warmers (extremities)

Keep a few of these in your bag for those really cold nights. The elements can sneak up on you and make life very miserable.

Rain Poncho with Hood

Keeps you dry and protects against the elements. Can also be used for shelter.

Sewing Kit (mending/repairs)

Good to have if your pants rip or your shirt tears. You shouldn’t be carrying much clothes so you’ll need to mend what you do have should they rip or tear.

In choosing clothing for your survival situation, you need to ask yourself this question: “What does my clothing have to do?” It must protect you from wind and rain, from the dry, from the cold and the heat, from poisonous plants and bugs. It has to get you through the various stages of the day and the night and to be of a construction and weight that allows you to travel without it becoming a hassle.


What you wear really depends on where you are going, the activity, and the season. But with few exceptions, layering is the best bet. With layering, which means three to five layers of clothing from your skin to your outer shell, you can strip down or dress back up again, depending on the weather. Survival starts with you so make sure you dress for the occasion.

Top 5 Survival Clothing Priorities

Stay Dry — If you can’t stay dry, you can’t stay warm. Wet clothing acts like a “swamp cooler” air conditioner, as evaporation inexorably drains the warmth from your body core. A simple pocket poncho can be a lifesaver in wet conditions. Waterproof/breathable clothing is even better, though it is expensive. The ability of the clothing to release perspiration into the atmosphere is a huge benefit not afforded by a plastic poncho. Hypothermia doesn’t care whether you got wet by falling in a river or by sweating. All that matters is you’re wet. So if you rely on plastic to keep you dry, pay attention to ventilation to release perspiration from your body and clothing.

Insulation — Trapping a layer of body-warmed air next to your skin is the purpose of insulation. It’s the same principle as a diver’s wetsuit, wherein a thin layer of body-warmed water helps protect the diver from the colder water around him. The best insulation is natural, such as wool or down. The problem with down is that when it gets wet, it quits insulating and becomes an almost worthless lump. Wool tends to wick moisture away from your body and continue to insulate even when wet. I like merino wool because it isn’t itchy. Man-made insulation materials are almost as good as the natural, and are generally much less expensive. I like fleece as an insulation layer beneath a shell that turns away the wind and precipitation.

Good Footwear — Your feet might be your only mode of transportation, so you must take good care of them. The worst thing is a pair of new boots that haven’t been broken in yet, as they can cause disabling blisters. Trail shoes or boots that are nicely softened and fit your feet perfectly are the right choice. But even the best boots aren’t enough. Good socks are essential. My favorite socks are made by a company named Point6 ( They fit like a second skin, are made of merino wool, and are very durable. It’s a combination of qualities that help prevent blisters, and keep the feet at a comfortable temperature in both warm weather and cold.

Head Covering — Most of your body heat is lost through your scalp. An old woodsman saying is, “If your feet are getting cold, put on your hat.” Sounds goofy, but it’s true. The body starts to shut down the delivery of warm blood to the extremities such as the feet and hands as the body core cools. If you lose too much core warmth through your scalp, the feet will be the first to know about it. Any head covering is better than none, but a hat with a wide brim and the ability to shed water is the best, as it provides protection against both the sun and the rain. Hint: if your hair gets wet, dry it as soon as possible, or else you’ll lose heat quickly due to evaporative cooling.

Leather Gloves — Second only to your feet, your hands need protection. Injure your hands in a survival situation and you will seriously limit your ability to perform life saving tasks. Not only that, but if you get an infection through a cut, abrasion, or a splinter, it can become a life-threatening injury as your weakened body and immune system are not able to fight it off. George Donner, leader of the ill-fated Donner Party, didn’t succumb to starvation the way so many of the pioneer group did. Nope, he died because of a small injury to his hand that became infected. He was still alive when rescuers arrived, but was too weak from the infection to be saved. A pair of lightweight leather gloves can become treasured survival gear.

How To Dress For Survival:

Take Gore-Tex as a perfect example of the conflict between rugged and high-tech. Gore-Tex is a fantastic material. It will keep you fairly dry in damp conditions because it sheds the rain and still breathes. But try sleeping beside a fire in it: one spark, one touch of an ember, and Gore-Tex melts. So high-tech clothing may be great for outdoor adventuring, but it’s less than ideal in survival situations.

Not so with wool, cotton, or canvas-like materials, which are tough and can handle the rigors when you’re pushing through dense forest to get firewood or food. With these materials, an ember will burn a hole only in the spot where it lands and often not before you can flick it off. On the other hand, cotton is horrible if it gets wet because it takes so long to dry.

Wool is very heavy, especially when it gets wet, yet it retains 80 percent of its insulating value. In the end, the best option in a survival situation is to have a combination of lightweight, high-tech clothing for your under layers and some rugged traditional clothing for your outer layers. But this usually applies only for survival courses or hunting and fishing trips, not sea kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, or other similar adventures. For anything that requires a high level of physical activity, high-tech gear wins out.

This is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show Survivorman on the Discovery Channel.

Your first line of defense against hypothermia is  your clothing. Here’s how to make sure the fabrics in it will do the job.

Dressing to survive starts with knowing what fabrics to wear. Different fabrics have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothing of different materials can be disasterous!

These Troop 18 Boy Scouts stayed warm on this winter hike because they all dressed correctly for the weather conditions.

You may not be able to tell what a garment is made of by looking. A nice, fuzzy, thick 100-percent cotton flannel shirt will be warm and cozy until it gets wet. Then that wet shirt may suck the heat out of your torso and cause hypothermia!

On the other side of the equation is wool. My hands-down favorite in the winter, wool, is generally a bad choice for a desert hike in August. Wool traps heat, and while it provides some UV protection, the material will prevent your body from cooling.

So, the buyer needs to beware.

Before buying any clothing item, read the labels and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or what’s trendy (I know that’s hard – I have a 16-year-old daughter!), and make your purchase based on the activity and the clothing protection that will be needed.

Here are some common fabric choices:

* Cotton:  Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton ishydrophilic, meaning it is no good at wicking wetness away from the skin, and can become damp just by being exposed to humidity.

Once wet, cotton feels cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can wick heat from your body 25 times faster than when it’s dry.

Since I spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite hot weather shirt is a medium-weight, white, 100 percent cotton Navy surplus shirt. The shirt has a collar that can be pulled up to shade my neck, and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a reasonable amount of UV protection.

Both of these 100% cotton garments would keep you warm until they got wet. Then, this clothing can become dangerous to wear!

On really hot days in a canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked with water, and worn to cool you down. On a desert hike, help prevent heat stroke by using a few ounces of water to wet the shirt down. (The water can come from anywhere, including that algae-edged stock tank. If necessary, pee on your shirt to wet it. The evaporation is what cools you!)

Typical urban casual garb is probably all cotton: sweatsocks, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, tee shirt, flannel shirt and sweatshirt. This outfit may keep you warm in town, but don’t wear it into the backcountry! Once the cotton gets wet, you could end up in trouble.

Don’t be mislead by the looks and camouflage patterns of 100 percent cotton hunting clothes. These garments may be just what you need for a hot, September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they become cold and clammy when damp or wet, just like anything else made of cotton.

* Polypropylene: This material doesn’t absorb water, so it is a hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer, since it wicks moisture away from your body.  The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from the campfire may melt holes in your clothing.

* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is the standard for  six months of the year. A good pair of wool pants and wool socks are the first clothing items we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter scout excursions, any sort of cotton clothing is strongly discouraged. Jeans are banned.

Wool absorbs moisture, but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently flame retardant.

* Polyester: This is essentially fabric made from plastic, and it’s good stuff. The material has good insulative and windstopping value, and can be made into many different thicknesses.

* Nylon: The fabric is pretty tough and can be used on your outer layer. It doesn’t absorb much moisture, and what does evaporates quickly. It is best used as some sort of windbreaker, to keep your clothing from being compromised by the wind.

* Down: This material is not a fabric, but rather, fluffy feathers stuffed inside a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, down is one of my favorite insulative materials.

But I don’t use a down sleeping bag, and would hesitate wearing a down vest into the back country because of potential moisture problems. When wet, down becomes hydrophilic, and loses virtually all its insulative value. It can be worse than cotton as far as sucking heat away from your body.

In addition, a down sleeping bag or garment is virtually impossible to dry out in the backcountry, even with a roaring campfire.