Wilderness Survival / Primitive Skills/Thermal layering


Hi Michael, I am wondering how efficient baselayers can really be at preserving heat - especially if you are not exerting yourself much in order to be producing extra body heat that can get trapped. I realise that many thermal clothes put an emphasis on "activity level" in order to gauge whether the person wearing the clothes needs a material that can breathe.

I live in a cold place and my activity level is not much at all. I have tried some baselayers which are either cotton / polyester mix, or some slightly more expensive ones which are a mix of wool, polyester and polyamide. The more expensive thermals only keep me slightly warmer, but I will still get cold after even twenty or thirty minutes.

Is it asking too much to expect to wear a baselayer and one or two sets of clothing on top and expect these clothes to keep you warm when you are not moving around if the temperature is around 0C or 32.0F ??

What would you recommend as the best material to retain heat if breathability is not important. And how many layers do you think are needed to do this efficiently at the above temperature?



Hey Mike,
The principles surrounding outdoor gear do seem to focus on active hikers, climbers, etc.  But the concepts and physics around heat loss are the same.  The goal of the active outdoor person is to remain "comfortably cool" to prevent hypothermia after they settle in for the evening, often soaked in sweat, due to poor ventilation.  This doesn't appear to be your concern, so lets start with how heat is lost and what fabrics to choose to prevent it.  Conduction is a major means of heat loss for folks who would rather sit or move slowly through cold environments.  We encourage this approach at our school, especially in the awareness and tracking courses.  Folks without adequate cold weather footwear or who sit on rocks or ice will lose their core temperature at a rapid rate due to the larger and more dense objects they are standing or sitting on actively robbing them of the heat their body generates.  You could be wearing an arctic parka, but if there isn't enough insulation between you and the ground, you are going to feel cold all over.  Sorrel and other reputable cold weather boot companies make boots designed for temps well below freezing.  They are pricey, but worth the investment.  Occasionally you can pick up a good pair at Good Will, but remember, fit is important.  Try on your boots with a thick pair of rag wool socks.  The other ways our body loses heat are more obvious, convection (wind), evaporation (through sweating), radiation, respiration (breath through your nose instead of your mouth to slow the process), and precipitation.  Addressing the actions caused by weather is simple.  Create a large enough "dead air" space around your body that the wind and rain can't get through, and you should be sufficiently warmed by your own escaping body heat.  My favorite insulation layer is the thickest wool coat I can find.  The thicker the better.  Barring a thick wool coat and wool pants, dress in layers of thin ones.  To add to your warmth, a wicking layer close to the skin of silk or polyester/polypropylene will act as a wicking layer, as will the newer marino wool garments.  These should be thin and rather form fitting, replacing the role of the old waffle style longjohns (which were made of cotton and retained moisture).  With enough layers or, more importantly, thickness, if the material is wool, you will have a sufficient bubble of warm air trapped inside the fabric(s) to not only keep you warm, but also block the wind.  If the wind is a consideration, or the rain, then a final "shell" layer is recommended.  I should, at this point tell you that wool will still keep you warm if it is wet, but it can also get very heavy.  I'm a young 44 year old and don't mind the weight, but I cannot ignore the benefits of gore-tex as a Shell.  It is light weight, breathable, and protects you against the wind and rain.  My regrets about it is that it only lasts a couple of years of wear (remember, I make my living outside so it might last longer for you) before the UV and environment render it as absorbent as wool.  It can also be expensive, though it is getting cheaper.  A  military style wool watch cap on your head and under your hood coupled with one of those neck warmers will keep the capillaries, veins, and arteries that radiate out your core temperature well insulated.  Think about the coils on the back of a refrigerator and thats how we too lose heat.  Thus the old saying, "if your feet are cold wear a hat", has a lot of merit.  By the same token, wear thin gloves beneath thick mittens and stuff an extra pair of mittens and wool socks in your pants waist band so that the tops are just sticking above your belt line and the bottoms are toward your inseam.  This way, when your toes or fingers get cold, you can always switch over to a toasty warm pair of mittens or socks.  Thanks for the question, I hope this helps.

Wilderness Survival / Primitive Skills

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Michael James Douglas


I can answer questions about wilderness survival, primitive skills, bushcraft, mentoring, outdoor education, nature, awareness and tracking. The subsets of these skill areas are vast and include Shelter Building, dressing for the out of doors, fiber arts, wild crafting, making cordage from plants, trees, and animal parts, flint knapping and stone tools, bone tool making, crafting and using hunting tools from the landscape, tracking, trailing, track interpretation, edible, medicinal, and utilitarian plants, trees, and shrubs, primitive pottery, fermentation, fungi for food and medicine, identifying hazards, movement, camouflage, and concealment, making baskets and containers, water gathering and purification, using bird language to read the landscape for survival needs and the movement/location of other living things on the landscape, primitive/modern navigation, fire making off the landscape, fire by friction, ice lenses, and approaches to survival atttude.


Student of Survival and Primitive Skills since 1980. Founded The Maine Primitive Skills School. Have been sharing and learning skills professionally since August 4, 1989. Studied with Tom Brown jr., Charles Worsham, Paul Rezendes, Jon Young, Mark Elbroch, Arnie Neptune, Ray Rietze, and all of the students, volunteers, interns, instructors, and staff at The Maine Primitive Skills School and the schools that have been started by its community. We go on full survival outings at least twice a year to build community and develop our skill sets. New instructors are allowed to bring a metal knife. These trips usually last between 5 and 10 days. We have also been weaving in permaculture and sustainable land management concepts at our main campus.

New England Environmental Educators Alliance Maine Environmental Educators Alliance

MAMLE-Middle Association of Middle Level Education Ancestral Plants-A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Udeful Plants of the Northeast.

B.S. University of Maine, College of Education, Environmental Education USMC-Numerous military Survival Schools (SERE, JWS, Cold Weather) Tracker School (16 courses from 1989-2003) Kamana (Wilderness Awareness School) Paul Resendez (numerous Tracking Workshops)

Awards and Honors
Vigil Honor-BSA-1984 Primitive Skills in the Modern Classroom-1992 Volunteers of America Star Award-2002

Past/Present Clients
U.S. Military Unity College Bowdoin College Colby College Scouting Maine Conservation School 4H

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