Dress for Success: The Outdoorsman’s First Line of Defense

Dress for Success: The Outdoorsman’s First Line of Defense

If you had to abandon a vehicle or airplane crash site and head a few miles through the wilderness with only your clothing to protect you from the elements—could you?

A desert, which is a landscape where it is important to where protective clothing against the sun
Open, exposed arid landscapes are among the harshest environments to travel on foot.

Many people consider tents, tarps and bivvy bags as shelters, which they are. However, even before conventional shelters are set up during a camping or bug-out situation, your clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. Layering clothing and using accessories such as scarves, bandanas and gloves can help make all the difference in protecting you from sand, cold, wind and the sun.

Keep Them Long

When it comes to pants and shirts, I prefer keeping them long. Loose fitting is best; it keeps the air circulating and aids in cooling. It also traps warm air in the spaces if the weather is cold.

The extra protection from both long sleeves and long pants also carries over to some defense against bugs. Nothing beats covering up with clothing. My only time wearing my sleeves rolled up in the jungle was short lived: I dropped something in the tall grass and, upon retrieving it, the blades of grass sliced up my forearm and hand, drawing blood. That was the last day I kept my sleeves rolled up in any jungle. Loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants are the best defenses in the tropics.

A man wearing the proper clothing for his environment, a hat, scarf, and gloves
Having the proper hat, scarf and gloves for your environment could make the all the difference in the world.

Many trips to the jungles of South America and Southeast Asia have taught me that bug/mosquito spray simply doesn’t work. It does, however, ruin clothing and gear, especially if the bug spray contains DEET.

I grew up hiking in the high-elevation mountains of California, which feature all sorts of nasty terrain, as well as exposure. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts have always been the right choices in case of slips and falls and will offer protection from minor abrasions.

Many people feel that in warm weather, shorts and short sleeves are better than long sleeves and pants, but that leaves the skin open to sun exposure—which leads to heat-related illnesses and dehydration. (Besides, when a person overheats to the point of collapse, it is from their head and their core being too hot, not their legs or arms.) Do yourself a favor: Keep them long!

Bandanas and Scarves

Reuben Bolieu dressed in protective clothing like a hat and glasses, to protect against the sun and bugs
On an expedition to Mount Roraima in Venezuela, the author was covered up for protection from the bugs and the sun for most of the hike.

No other type of clothing offers more uses than scarves and bandanas. Think of them as multi-functional tools. Using these items in a survival or outdoors situation has been recognized in books about wilderness living going back to the late 1800s. Some even go as far as to say that every woodsman should always wear or carry a hanky or bandana.

Bandanas should be made of cotton so they can absorb water when being used as “utility rags” for cleaning yourself or for drying off. There is an art to using a bandana as a hanky for blowing one’s nose … and as a water filter. It can get messy—literally. Keeping track of the clean and contaminated areas is not that easy. The late, great Ron Hood, of the Woodsmaster series DVDs, had an interesting way of keeping track of the correct side of his bandana: He would use a black permanent marker and write FACE on one half and BUTT on the other half. Hopefully, it was enough for him.

In 2014, I did a long expedition up to Mount Roraima in Venezuela. I encountered all types of weather—mostly extreme sun and wind exposure. I had a small, light backpack for the trip, as well as my regular survival items. I can honestly say that no one piece of gear was used as much as my cotton bandana. It saved my neck and face from literally burning up on the mountain.

Reuben Bolieu using his protective clothing such as his bandana to protect against the sun
In South America, the author covers up with a hat and bandana—which was used as a hanky, wash-rag, toilet paper and bug swatter.

On the hike in and out of the jungle and on the rolling savannas, the bandana acted as my mosquito swatter and sweat rag, as well as my wash cloth in the small pools we’d bathe in. It also served as my only source of toilet paper, because littering the mountain with conventional toilet paper wasn’t acceptable.

That thin, cotton bandana was very easy to clean in puddles with sand and small pebbles, which served nicely as an abrasive cleaner. Because it was very thin cotton, the bandana would dry in minutes under the harsh sun on the mountain’s exposed terrain. Hiking around the top, it played a vital role in conjunction with my brimmed hat by supplying shade, covering my neck and face from the sun, and hot winds.

A scarf or kerchief is best made from synthetic materials or wool. Larger than a bandana, it provides more shade, and its extra length can be used to lash a tripod or serve as a makeshift arm sling. In cold weather, a warm scarf/kerchief is ideal to wrap around one’s neck and over the face to trap body heat. Over the past few months, I have been using a merino wool kerchief and neck gaiter from North x North. I used it all over Scandinavia and the Eastern Woodlands as a light blanket on air flights and stored it in my bivvy bag to use as a scarf, towel and all-purpose cloth.

On a recent trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, I used the wool kerchief every day for hiking up large Mayan pyramids, as well as for a sweat rag and bug protection in the jungle surrounding the ruins. It dries extra fast, and the dark color gave me just the amount of protection I needed from the UV rays.

Dark or Light?

There is an ongoing debate as to which color is best for the outdoors. Forget for a minute that bright, colorful clothing is better for a lost hiker situation and helps in signaling. If I had to choose between light colors—tan, white or the like—or dark colors, I’d gladly choose dark. The sun is powerful, and a person can easily get sunburned through a white or tan shirt, especially if it’s made of thin materials. However, darker colors won’t allow as much of the dangerous UV rays through.

We have been taught that dark objects absorb more heat than light ones. That might be, but darker colors don’t change the ambient temperature: Hot will still be hot. The long-sleeved, dark-colored shirt won’t increase your temperature much, but it will do a heck of a lot for you as far as protection from the sun.

A prime example of dark colors being more protective than white and tan is the attire worn by the nomadic Bedouins. They roam Northern Africa and much of the Middle East, literally wearing their main shelter, which is a long, dark robe and head covering. Usually, they will be found wearing brown, grey and burgundy, as well as black. Who better to teach us this lesson than the people who have adapted to their harsh, arid, desert lives under the sun?

Reuben Bolieu wearing dark clothes to protect his skin from the sun
On a trip to Mexico, the author used a North x North merino wool kerchief for its dark color in combating the harsh UV rays.

Cotton vs. Synthetic

Each fiber has its own advantages, but you should also take the type of weave and the fabric weight into account when making your choices. Synthetics are a favorite for places where drying quickly is important. However, some synthetics, such as polyester and polypropylene, are downright uncomfortable and make you sweat more. They also retain odors much more than cotton. Cotton does breathe and is more comfortable, but if you get it wet, you are probably not going to be able to dry it in a hurry.

Cotton is great for very hot places, such as deserts, where breathability is a necessity—especially under the sun and during strenuous activity. It can also be cut into small pieces to char in a fire for making char cloth. A sharp knife blade can also be used to scrape tinder fluff off cotton to help start a fire. Cotton is also more absorbent when used as a towel or a compress to stop bleeding

Leather Gloves

Glove are an example of protective clothing that can protect you from the elements
Leather gloves give hands nine-life protection against sharp tools and trail hazards, in addition to weather protection.

Possibly the most underrated piece of clothing for the outdoors is a sturdy pair of leather gloves—for all environments. I would actually almost opt for a pair of leather gloves over a chopping tool in the woods. Grabbing logs and handfuls of dry twigs is harsh on the skin. Breaking wood for a fire and dragging logs into camp is not easy on the paws. Injure your hands, and your trip is definitely going to be adversely affected.

Processing wood with an axe or knife is best done with leather gloves … period. Around the campfire and woods kitchen, leather gloves are the perfect oven mitts, as well as hot pot lid lifters. Not especially warm, leather gloves do block wind and snow to a certain extent. In the winter, I use light fleece gloves under my leather work gloves. On sharp descents in rocky terrain, leather gloves are good for getting a good hand hold, as well as for slipping or sliding, butt first, down a very steep rock face. Walking through briars in Georgia and Alabama has taught me to wear leather gloves, along with long pants; the same goes for desert terrain, where cactus and sharp rocks make up most of the landscape. The more your hands are protected, the easier survival will be—in every way.

There is no such thing as “bad” weather, just bad clothing and gear. Not every outdoor trip is a survival situation, but it could become one. Taking a backpack full of clothing for a day hike probably won’t happen, but some accessories, such as a hat, bandana and gloves, can really help when a casual outdoor encounter becomes a fight for survival.


Reuben Bolieu

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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