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Stuff that works | Five reasons to get a wool, pullover sweater for wilderness survival


My wool sweater has kept me warm for going on 30 years.

Here’s why I still wear wool, even when I have access to many other modern materials.

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by Leon Pantenburg

Here’s a few instances where my pullover sweater has worked really well:

My red wool sweater has served me well for a couple decades.

My red wool sweater has served me well for almost three decades.

  • The rain beat down on my deer tree stand in a Mississippi swamp. My poncho covered the muzzleloading blackpowder rifle, and my sweater kept me warm.
  • Dawn of opening day of elk season in Idaho; I set out from camp in the frosty morning, and planned on being on the move all day. I wore a base layer, wool sweater, insulated vest and waterproof shell. This combination kept me comfortable all day, even when it started to sleet and rain.
  • Winter steelhead fishing in Oregon can be frigid. A wool sweater can be as important as your waders. Well, almost.
  • In January, I spent an afternoon building snow shelters and igloos in below-freezing temperatures. Most of the time, I wore wool pants, socks, mittens and my sweater. The wool layers allowed me to work hard without breaking a sweat or cooling off too much.

In all these cases, I used the same sweater I got from Lands End™ in 1987. I bought three the same day, in red, blue and grey. I had just moved from Mississippi to Washington D.C. in January, and the cold and snow were extreme. The sweaters provided the layer between my overcoat, and shirt and tie.

Over the years one of the sweaters went on virtually every day hike, back packing and biking trip.

The Dechstein 100 percent wool mittens, sweater and socks are durable, effective choices for cold weather wear.

The Dechstein 100 percent wool mittens, sweater and socks are durable, effective choices for cold weather wear.

Some 25 years later, the only one left is the red, and people probably think I have a very limited outdoor wardrobe because I wear it so much. And it in in grave danger, and at great risk of disappearing, every time my wife takes a load of stuff to the thrift store. If she could find, it would already be gone.

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But the fact is: The Vikings, Scandinavians, Celts and Northern Europeans got it right. When it comes to staying warm, wool may be the best choice. Irish fishermen relied on thick wool sweater to protect them from the cold North Sea. The Vikings – those fierce warriors, raiders and blood-thirsty pirates – were also avid knitters while on ships and long voyages.

With today’s super fabrics and technology, wool is often overlooked. (Know your fabrics.)

Here’s why you need a wool sweater in your emergency gear:

  • A sweater  is compact, light to carry and a pullover style seals out the wind.
  • Wool is very fire resistant. Polypropylene and other synthetics will melt when a spark from the campfire hits them.
  • Wool is warm when wet, breathes well and insulates as well or better than just about anything.
    wool sweater, MS river canoe, ms river

    A wool sweater is extremely versatile.

  • Wool can be an organic, renewable and sustainable material with a tiny carbon footprint. Synthetics and plastics use petroleum.
  • Wool sweaters can be cheap and they are easily available – check out your local surplus store for bargains. Look for wool sweaters at thrift stores and garage sales.
  • They seldom need cleaning, and when they do, a simple hand wash with mild soap will generally be all they need.
  • Quality wool sweaters can last a lifetime – be sure to get one you like!

The only problem might be if you’re allergic to wool, or think the material is too scratchy. I wear polypropylene or merino wool long underwear underneath the wool, and that eliminates any itchiness. (Before you give up on wool, read these tips to keep wool from itching.)

Other than that, you’ll find the benefits far overshadow any potential discomfort. Add a wool sweater to your winter survival gear. You’ll like it. I promise.

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