Textiles surround us every day, yet they probably aren’t the first thing to come to mind when gathering survival gear. A quick web search gives lackluster results, focusing more on what kinds of tactical gear would be appropriate than the fabrics and types of clothing to look for and why. Obviously what to look for is based on several things. Do you live in a hot or cold climate? Will you be staying in your home, in a bunker, or traveling around? What’s your budget? And most of all, what makes you comfortable? If you live in cotton, a tight lycra jumpsuit under your clothing may be too much to get used to, spur of the moment.
I’ve been sewing for ten years now and have learned a lot about what fabrics are appropriate for certain garments. There are some commonly known rules, like wool will keep you warm and cotton will cool you down but there are myriads of textile choices beyond those. Clothing is very personal and what works for one person may not for the next so I’m going to provide several suggestions for what to look for in terms of fabric and functionality, starting from the bottom and working our way up.
Footwear is integral and wearing them in beforehand will prevent pain and blisters at a most unwelcome time. I’m not an expert in the materials used to make footwear so I will share what I know from experience. The most common of all footwear is the sneaker but picking one out can require some research. For a ton of walking or running, running shoes would be the best choice. It is important to learn whether you experience overpronation (high arch), underpronation (flat foot), or neutral pronation to reduce foot pain and provide proper support. I experienced a lot of foot pain in my old running shoes before I learned that I have severely overpronated feet. Now I have such a good pair of sneakers that I don’t have to use insoles for cushioning like I used to. Cross trainers are another choice of sneaker for people who may be doing a lot of jagged movements, jumping, or climbing. Keep in mind that running shoes last for about 300 miles before they should be replaced (up to 500 miles if you have a low body weight).
Boots are another option with multiple choices. Combat boots would be a tried and true boot. My husband, who is in the military, finds his issued ones to be uncomfortable but there are plenty of people who find them to be comfortable. I would definitely suggest trying on all types of footwear that you are interested in before making a purchase. Waterproof shoes, commonly referred to as ‘wellies’ [short for the Wellington brand name], would be a great choice for areas with a ton of rain and water or as a spare shoe. Snow boots or boots with wool insulation are excellent for cold areas. I have a pair of men’s leather boots with wool insulation that I wear while shoveling three feet of snow and they keep me just as warm as my Carhartt overalls. And they were purchased at JC Penney, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a quality shoe, just do your research.
Last but not least are sandals. Some of you may think I’m off my rocker for that suggestion, so bear with me. If you live in a warm climate you may want to avoid boots and sneakers all together. Or maybe you want a second pair of lightweight shoes in your backpack. Or maybe you love the freedom of a naked foot. For whatever reason, a pair of sandals may work for you. Look for one with grooves on the bottom for traction as well as wide straps- no flip flops. Also be sure to bend the shoe before buying. If you can bend it in half it doesn’t offer enough cushion or support.
And don’t forget to stash some extra shoelaces.
Chances are you are going to need some socks to go with your shoes, even with sandals. For socks you’ll want either CoolMax or wool or even both. At the very least look for synthetic fibers (which you may want to look for in a lot of the clothes) because they wick away moisture and increase breathability. Avoid cotton, especially if you don’t think you’ll be washing your clothing often, because it collects moisture and increases your chance for fungal infections. CoolMax is a polyester blend that wicks away moisture and dries quickly.
Besides synthetics, wool is going to come up again and again primarily for its ability to both repel and attract moisture as well as heat retention. Wool does take more care than other fabrics in that it should be washed in cold water and lay flat to dry. However, it doesn’t need to be washed as often as cotton or polyester. Which may be a moot point, depending on the state of the world. If you live in a place where cold days outnumber warm you may want to invest in both wool and synthetic blend socks, wearing the lighter CoolMax type socks as the inner layer and wool as the outer for extra warmth and, depending on your footwear, comfort.
I’ll break this one down by three different geographical locations: (A) areas that often receive a lot of snow at one time from October until March with much less precipitation the rest of the year, (B) areas that receive fair amounts of precipitation throughout the year and middling temperature, (C) and areas that receive little precipitation with temperatures regularly over 100 degrees. I realize this doesn’t cover all the climate variances- it’s meant to be more of a jumping off point.
(A): Wool pants with polypropylene long johns/tights are going to be your MO. Columbia makes a quality wool pant that comes in camo (which I’ll touch on more later). Avoid a nylon pant as nylon, if it catches on fire, will likely fuse to your skin since it is petroleum based and highly flammable. In comparison, wool is slow to catch fire and is often used in fire blankets. Polypropylene long underwear is very lightweight allowing for a large range of movement while providing warmth in subzero temperatures. It has little water absorption and acts as a barrier to water. Though it isn’t very flammable it can melt in temperatures over 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Polypro also retains odors without consistent washing but dries the quickest of any fabric. A polypro pant or leggings during the summer months with a wool pant over it in winter would be a strong choice for the area.
Cotton would be a poor choice in this scenario due to its water absorbency, flammability, and slow drying time. If it gets wet in the winter you’ll need to seek shelter and warmth immediately since it will no longer insulate you. The adage “cotton kills” is appropriate in area (A). Other fabrics to avoid include tencel, rayon, neoprene, silk, and bamboo.
(B): Lightweight wool or nylon will serve you well. With all the wet weather the lightweight and waterproof qualities of nylon outweigh risk of flammability. (Water repellant jackets are made from nylon.) LL Bean makes a quality cargo pant that converts into shorts and comes with insect barrier ingrained in the fabric. When it comes to clothes, loose layers will be helpful in keeping mosquitoes at bay, as opposed to skintight that allows the bugs to get closer to your skin and penetrate through the fabric. Lightweight wool is also great- it won’t weigh you down as much as thick wool while still providing the benefits of it.
With all the precipitation you’ll especially want to avoid the same fabrics as area (A): cotton, tencel, rayon, neoprene, silk, and bamboo, among other synthetics including polyester/cotton blends.
(C): Cotton, linen, and silk will all keep you cool in the sweltering heat though they also have their disadvantages. Cotton will absorb sweat easily which can make some people uncomfortable. You can always moisten the fabric to help keep cool and stave off feelings of griminess from sweating. (Not advisable if you’re trying to conserve water.) Linen is porous as well as absorbent which allows heat to escape between the fibers. It is stiffer than fabric so it won’t cling heavily to the body when wet like cotton will and is a common pant textile. Silk is very lightweight, thin, and soft which women like myself can appreciate. However, the sun will break down the fibers quicker than with cotton or linen, so silk pants aren’t the best choice for long term wear. CoolMax type blends are also available.
Lightweight wool can also be a good choice depending on how hot you get. I have a pair of wool shorts that I wore around Hawaii that, depending on how hot it was, would become itchy and uncomfortable despite the lining.
Cotton, cotton, cotton ladies (and gents)! Moisture collecting in your nether regions from synthetic fabrics is far more likely than cotton to become a sweaty breeding ground for bacteria. And avoid anything too tight. You’ll be better off going commando than sporting too-tight underwear. Don’t forget about extra bras as well, Wacoal makes an amazing underwire sports bra that goes up from an A to an H cup. I wear them quite often and have always felt comfortable (and I wear an H, so I understand how hard it is to find a supportive sports bra).
Once again the fabrics you want are going to reflect the area in which you reside. The rules for pants pretty much transfer over to shirts. Wool/cashmere tops, including turtlenecks, make for a nice layer below a coat or jacket in the cold. Personally I can’t wear turtlenecks or cashmere and find that this is the one area that I have to go against my own advice, living in a cold climate. In a survival situation I plan to find myself in three layers of shirts: a tank top, a tee shirt, and a long sleeve shirt, all made from cotton or lightweight wool. I’ll place a lot of reliance on my coat (which is waterproof and windproof, made by Gersemi) to protect me from precipitation. I keep a spare 100% wool one made by the fashion company Nine West. There is a very limited range in temperature that I find comfortable so the layers will allow me to have more flexibility. I’ve had good experiences with cotton and wool shirts from Banana Republic, the Gap, and JC Penney among others.
The same thing goes for area (B) residents. Cotton layers can work if you are careful about staying dry and preserving layers in cool temperatures. Wool or nylon are still great choices as well. Those in area (C) can still benefit from a long sleeve shirt despite the heat if it has UPF, especially if you burn easily and don’t have access to sunscreen or other protection. Otherwise cotton, linen, and silk once again.
Here I’m going to cover hats, belts, and gloves but keep in mind there are plenty of other accessories to consider including umbrellas, sunglasses, scarves, watches, and jewelry (useful for bartering on the go). When it comes to headgear the balaclava can’t be beat in terms of versatility and size. Balaclavas work for every climate; a knitted wool balaclava will protect from the winter’s cold while one with UPF will help protect delicate skin from sunny rays. They come in a variety of materials and colors, can be worn several ways, and take up little space.
Two types of belts that can be useful depending on your needs are paracord belts and tactical belts. Paracord belts work just like the bracelets, being made from 550 paracord that unravels to function in numerous survival capacities. They can be made or purchased. Tactical belts come in different materials, typically leather and webbing, and are generally useful for attaching weaponry. There are also cartridge belts to hold ammunition.
For gloves, look for leather in the palm and fingers. A really padded glove can be useful in moving and carrying large objects or heavy outdoor work but can make manual dexterity difficult. To achieve a wider range of movements, like in shooting for instance, I recommend a shooting glove made with leather and thinsulate.
First impressions could be vital so I’m going to spend a moment on image before getting to sewing and purchasing fabric. Camo and earth tone clothing are generally safe bets and, if being deserted or lost is a concern, a bright colored flag could be thrown in a pack or sewn into a coat. Keep in mind that being decked out in the best of gear can attract unwanted attention from people who would like what you have or give an impression of skill that you may not possess. Women may want to dress in more manly clothing and consider a short, pixie type haircut. In a chaotic, desperate situation people may do things they wouldn’t in normal society and women and children, being seen as a whole as weaker than men, would be automatic targets. (Unfair or not, it is what it is so I myself plan to chop off my hair to gain as much of an advantage and become as anonymous as possible).
When it comes to sewing, once you know the basics it really is not difficult to master. If you are just trying to make basic clothing you don’t need to have spent months learning techniques you won’t need. The first garment I ever made was a pair of pajama pants with an elastic waist. I taught myself how to sew them by reading the instructions on the pattern. Granted, it took me three times as long as it would now, but the pattern and instructions were so simple that any kind of extra assistance from the internet or books was unnecessary.
There are a few things you should collect if you do plan to sew your own garments. If you are going to get a sewing machine, no matter how tiny, learn to use it before you stow it in a basement or bunker, even if you only use it for a minute. Patterns for every type of clothing can be purchased. Easy Stitch ‘N Save by McCall’s and It’s so Easy by Simplicity are two collections by big pattern makers than can often be found for .99 cents or $1.99 at JoAnn Fabrics. (Just check the flyers for sales.) The garments are simple, taking only a few hours. However- and this is important-cutting out the patterns is sometimes more time consuming than making the actual garment. To save time and help yourself become familiar with clothing construction I’d recommend cutting out the patterns ahead of time. There are also plenty of unisex patterns and patterns for children along with ones for household items, shoes, and gloves.
As far as fabric goes, it can be purchased by the yard or in bulk by the bolt. Prices vary widely. I usually purchase any 100% cotton fabrics from JoAnn Fabrics, fabrics.com, or various local quilting shops. For wool, I try to purchase it from the Dorr Mill Store and Pendleton’s Woolen Mill store but that can be expensive. Some Wal-Marts sell fabric but their selection is rife with polyester and rayon blends so be sure to check before you buy. And don’t forget about notions. You’ll need needles (both hand and machine if you have one), pins, several spools of thread (a half to one spool per project is a fair estimate so you can do repairs later as well), extra bobbins if you have a machine, dressmaker’s chalk, scissors, buttons, zippers, elastic, belt buckles, and no-sew glue. Check each pattern for specific needs; they’ll also tell you how much fabric you’ll need to purchase for each size.
[JWR Adds: Be sure to check your local thrift store regularly. You can often find wool blankets, sweaters, and even Scottish kilts that can be used as-is, or re-purposed. (Traditional kilts have eight yards or tartan wool!) It is not unusual to find genuine Pendleton wool shirts and merino sweaters for less than $5. One trick is to run your hand down the racks, feeling the textures of the sleeves as you walk by. With some practice you can learn to detect wool with just a touch. Once you've developed this skill, there is no need to read labels except to confirm what your sense of touch has already told you.]
Overall you need to consider what’s best for you. If you strongly believe you’ll be out on the road don’t go out and purchase a sewing machine and bolts of fabric that won’t see use. Focus that money and time on finding pieces that will last a long time and provide you with protection and comfort. Also don’t settle for a blend of fabrics that you find unsuitable just because it is a great price or you like the color. And don’t be overwhelmed by the choices out there. Ask friends and family about their favorite coat brands or where they purchased their new wool socks. If you just plain out hate shopping ask your shopping-friendly spouse, friend, or second cousin if they’d like to swap expertise. Just be sure to give them a list of what garments you’re looking for, along with sizes, colors, possible brands, and fabrics. Making sure to write down the details, including what percentage of which fabrics you want, will help your assistant narrow down the search quickly. If you are, say, a vegan and do not want leather on your clothing at all, be sure to write that down too. And once everything is hung or folded neatly next to your Bug Out Bag, take yourself out to a nice dinner, knowing that you’re ready to withstand the elements.