Monday, January 24, 2011

Keeping warm in winter: Wood or Wool? Guest article by bmatt, an American Bushcrafter in Finland

Today in the News:  bmatt returns with another great article about "smoothing it".  I hope you enjoy!  Matt is a great writer and we're very blessed to have him here on the blog.  Also, We're celebrating the achievement of reaching 50 followers (we're now at 61!).  If you'd like to enter our gear give away, please click here.

Link of the Day:

Keeping warm in winter: Wood or Wool? by bmatt

In my quest over the past several years to "smooth it" rather than rough it while fall and winter camping (near freezing down to -24*C/-11*F so far), my techniques, equipment and philosophy for keeping warm have changed considerably.

I started out using the tried-and-true methods of the campers of yesteryear, with their spruce bough beds and baker tents with large, long-lasting fires outside. This setup works very well and is very versatile (heating, cooking, snow melting, clothes drying). It's a time-tested technique that is still very worthwhile to use.

Sometimes, wood of that size isn't readily or easily available to me where I camp, so I had to figure something else out. I was always interested in enclosed shelters with a fire inside, so I built one for myself. This tipi-like shelter reduces the amount of wood needed, since it can utilize most of the heat provided by the fire thanks to its more closed design. I am able to maintain a temperature only a few degrees below freezing inside when it is well below freezing (-24*C/-11*F) outside the shelter. In this kind of cold weather, though, there a limit to how much heat a small fire can put out and how long it will last, so I found myself wanting warmer bedding materials.

At this point, I find myself entering what I call the "eskimo phase" of my winter sleeping philosophy. High in the arctic, there is little or no wood to be burned, so the Inuit often burned seal blubber in a stone lamp/stove called a kudlik. This helped to increase the temperature inside their igloos and tents, but was a far cry from a roaring fire. To compensate for the low heat output of their lamps, they slept between layers of animal furs, especially caribou. This shows that in some of the coldest and harshest climates on earth, you don't even need a hot fire to keep warm! I recently bought a Swiss military surplus sleeping bag which I will be incorporating into my current winter camping setup (i.e. nesting one sleeping bag inside the other, both within a bivy sack atop a thin sleeping pad and spruce boughs. I'm convinced that this should keep me warm even in the lowest temperatures I might find myself in. After my fires would burn out on my last outing, I was only a bit cool with a thin blanket nested inside my main sleeping bag instead of the new second sleeping bag, so the second bag should do the trick.

So I have transitioned from using an open shelter with a big fire to a closed shelter, possibly with no fire at all, relying instead on my sleeping gear. This may not seem very "bushcrafty", as the philosophy is generally to rely more on know-how than on gear, but it is easier, more practical in some cases, necessary in some cases and is in fact in line with some traditional methods, as mentioned above. I look at it this way: I have the skills and experience to camp with an open shelter and larger fire, so I can do this again if I want to (shelter building experiments) or need to (emergency situation), but I now prefer to use more sleeping gear (by the way, the additional sleeping bag only weighs about 3 lbs.). Doing it this way will also conserve a considerable amount of firewood.

For daytime use, I sure will continue to have a small fire burning throughout the day in my shelter for warmth, cooking and that atmosphere that only a campfire can provide.


MOH's note:  Hope you all enjoyed this article.  In addition to what bmatt wrote, I have to say that "nesting" works very well.  In yesterday's post I mentioned that I almost froze to death when I camped out for the cordwood class.  I slept in the back of my pickup with a cap on for shelter.  The first night I laid my extra sleeping bag under me on my wooden "pad" I had built to keep me off the metal body, thinking that I would retain the heat that the wood would draw from me.  I was wrong. I spent the night chattering my teeth and wishing for one of my mom's quilts.  The next day I complained about freezing (it was about 22 degrees F - summer weather for bmatt) to one of my classmates.  He suggested "nesting".  I was toasty, even in my cheap sleeping bags, for the rest of my camp out.  Sometimes the simplest solutions make sense.  I often think to myself, "Why didn't I think of that?"  That's why we're here.  Shared knowledge from experienced bushcrafters goes a long way.

For pictures of bmatt's winter lavvu shelter, click here.

Pax Domini Sit Semper Vobiscum,

Mike, Oscar, Hotel....out.


  1. I was a bit sad that the title mentioned wool but the article was more about tents and bedding. I used to be a fleece guy and still sm when it comes to having to carry it for days, but the last few years I have been buying wool from blankets, to shirts, to coats for arounf town. Wool is just more romantic and is what I would use most if I lived in a cabin in the woods due to its toughness. I got a plaid coat from the 30s made in a near by province, the company is long gone but this is a beautiful example of local business and how we didn't always need to go to China. I'd like to see a post on your view of wool as clothing. :)

  2. A good lesson learned by all of us at some point I'm sure! My personal set up will definitely be an old U.S. surplus bag with at least one if not two wool blankets, my thermal under layer, and at least a small camp mat too. My experience was New Year's Eve a year or two ago when I slept in my van after the festivities .... needless to say I didn't think about how cold a van really gets in the middle of winter and had to get a ride into town to keep from probably dying. Never...ever... again.

    It really doesn't matter what the traditionalists or the gear snobs say though ... if its a matter of life and death ... it isn't a matter at all.

    Good stuff as always!

  3. Didn't mean to mislead anyone! :) I thought it would be a creative title, since wood and wool are similar words. Maybe I should have called it wood or "wool".

    Anyway, I think wool is a great material. I use a wool blanket for camping in the summer. It still keeps you warm even if it's wet, and wool blankets and garments can last many, many years. They're not as prone to burning as synthetics and have a certain old-timey charm about them as well. I have a wool coat and wool blankets and think I'll eventually make or get some wool outdoor clothes as well.