Old Tech - There's Nothing New Under the Sun

31 March 2010
I have a student who is involved in orienteering and adventure racing, he's experienced and successful in his sport and has a well organised approach to it. Check out the website at team360.pl for more details. By virtue of taking the line of speed over comfort and short term advantage over long term use he represents the opposite end of the curve to the average bushcrafter.
It is a pretty common question for bushcrafters, why do you have this old-fashioned kit? In truth, there are several reasons and one of the most eloquent explanations of both the ecological benefits as well as the more direct positives is in "the Snowwalker's Companion". I first started moving down this road several years ago and remember a conversation in a high street camping store that helped clarify a few things for me.
A sales assistant was trying to sell me some type of waterproof jacket and I mentioned that, in my experience, such jackets were prone to condensation. He told me that the jacket had to be worn over the company's man-made base layer and fleece in order for the breathe ability to be optimal! I asked him why people who worked outdoors didn't seem to wear the dayglo polycarbon clothing he was peddling and he opined that it was through a lack of knowledge. Experiences like this are why I pretty much gave up on the mainstream outdoor retailers; a weekend's wear isn't taxing for a lot of items and many people expect to be uncomfortable outside so presume there is no other way.
Natural materials offer many advantages, the first of which is breathe ability. Wool is obviously breathable, otherwise sheep would be rather strange waterlogged creatures. Cotton and canvas are also breathe able although different coatings may affect this somewhat. Leather, being skin, contains pores designed to allow moisture to pass through so is both breathable and windproof, a difficult combination to find. Nature even provides us with some nice waterproofing agents such as lanolin, a wax from wool.
Natural materials also offer some longevity benefits. Although they may be heavier, they are tougher and easier to repair. Whilst not ideal for commerce this benefits the woodsman as not only is it less likely to break, but there is more chance of fixing canvas or leather than nylon or polythene. I've got an old Swiss army, Salt and Pepper backpack which demonstrates this well. It's not light and trendy but it does blend in and has the sort of construction that makes you think it could survive Armageddon.
It's the same with boots. I've got a pair of gor-tex lined leather boots with a rubber gaiter over the edge of the sole and the bottom of the leather. Of course, after some cold weather and a couple of years this rubber has split allowing water to ingress. I went to a walking boot shop and asked and was informed that the rubber was "sacrificial". Sorry, I want something designed to work, I don't mind taking care of it but I don't expect an impossible to repair add-on that's designed to fail. I asked if they had any simple, low-tech, all leather boots and got a funny look - obviously not the profitable and fashionable thing.
This is hardly a new problem. I recall Thoreau railing against the attitudes of clothing makers in his day and in most areas there has been a trend towards cheap Chinese synthetics. Don't believe me? Try finding a wool jumper in a high street store.
There are advantages in terms of colour when using natural materials. By the virtue of being natural they tend not to hold onto odours as badly too, making a good choice for watching wildlife or hunting in areas where subdued colours are safe. Natural materials also tend to be quieter and russle-free. Man-made fibres can also melt or cause some pretty horrific injuries when subjected to flames, high heat or sparks - pretty common in wilderness living. Long term wilderness living also puts demands on gear that weekend recreational stuff can't cope with, something mentioned with regularity in Call of the Wild.
Natural fibres also offer ecological bonuses. They decompose at the end of their life, avoiding filling landfills for centuries to come and they don't require any oil to make. You could even see wool as a waste-product of the sheep farming industry, such is the low price that it garners for farmers.
Sadly, it's not always easy to find this old-tech kit. Keep an eye out though, it's better in the long run.
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