Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 1/1/16 - 1/3/16

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“The man who goes afoot, prepared to camp anywhere and in any weather, is the most independent fellow on earth. He can follow his bent, obey the whim of the hour, do what he pleases whenever he pleases, without deference to anybody, or care for any beast of burden or obedience to the course of any current. He is footloose and free. Where neither horse nor boat can go, he can go, seeing country that no other kind of traveler ever sees.” Horace Kephart, 1918

Lately I have been messing around with a style of backpacking I have been calling Classical Backpacking. It focuses on the same type period as Steve Watts and Dave Wescott’s concept of Classic Camping, 1880s through 1930s, but is deals with the backpacking aspect rather than the camping:

As the new year rolled around, I figured I would give it a try and put the gear and skills I have been researching to some actual use.

The weather was ideal for the task. From the sources I’ve been reading, there seems to be a consensus that a person in the woods, relying on a single 5lb blanket and without relying on a fire all night long to keep warm, can do so down to about 40F (4C) and with discomfort can go down to 32F (0C). For temperatures below that, one would have to rely on a fire that can be kept burning all night long, or would need different insulation like fur robes. Since the temperature for the weekend was set to be fairly warm, at about 32F (0C) during the day, and down to 20F (-7C) at night, I figured it would be a good test for the gear and techniques I was about to use. Any colder than that, and I would have had to bring out a larger axe and rely on a fire to make it through the night; any warmer, and it wouldn’t be much of a test.

I picked an area of the forest that I expected to have good resources, and set out. When doing Classic Backpacking, it is much more important to select your terrain carefully, as you are much more dependent on the resources that you can find, so you must plan accordingly.

I followed a river into the woods, or at least I tried to stay close to it. You always hear the advice of following a river out when in a survival situation, but the terrain along rivers is often some of the most difficult you will encounter.

Along the way I tried to gather resources when I saw them. Some birch bark and pine pitch make good fire starter. They also make a big mess when you try to carry them.

There are two very significant constraints on someone doing Classic Backpacking these days when compared to the people in the late 19th and early 20th century who did the same. One of them is the willingness to drink untreated water. While I do not want to discuss gear specifics in this post, most sources specify carrying only a single canteen for water. That indicates two things. The first is that those travelers were much more careful in sticking close to water sources. The second is that they were willing to drink untreated water.

When it comes to water, that presents a serious issue if one wants to do things in an authentic way without getting sick. I would have to purify my water, something I can’t do on the move. That means I had to wait until my canteen was empty, fill it up with unpurified water, and then bring it to camp so I can boil it. Here I was also lucky to have some snow around, which I could melt for water once I got into camp.

I walked as deep into the woods as time allowed. Ordinarily I would wait until it was fairly late before stopping to set up camp, an act which takes me about ten minutes. Since when doing Classic Backpacking I would have to set up a much more complex camp, I stopped several hours earlier and got to work.

I brought only a small hatchet. I figured it would be sufficient for setting up camp and gathering a small amount of firewood so that I could cook, and have some left over in case I needed it during the night.

When setting up the bedding area, I encountered the other significant disadvantage faced by someone doing Classic Backpacking when compared to people in the past: the ability to collect natural resources. It is simply not considered responsible these days to start felling trees in the way that it was done in the late 19th and early 20th century. While Nessmuk describes bringing down one tree six inches in diameter for fire wood and another for bedding and shelter material, that is not a sustainable practice.

The result is that we have to be more careful in the way we use our firewood and bedding materials. In this case, instead of me collecting a large number of pine boughs, I collected just enough to create a soft top layer of bedding. Underneath a constructed a stick bed, comprised of lined up sticks, covered by finer willow branches. That way I can create sufficient dead air space and separation from the ground without excessive use of living plant material.

For insulation, in addition to my blanket, I brought a sweater, a scarf, a pair of gloves, and an extra pair of socks. Unfortunately, I was tired and distracted, and forgot to change my socks before going to bed, and wrapped myself up in the blanket while wearing my damp socks. I woke up around 9 pm with my feet freezing. I had to get up, put on my other socks, get the fire going again, warm up, and then get back into bed.

All went well until about 1 am when I woke up because I was cold. I had a little bit of fire wood left, but starting the fire up again would have been a waste. See, contrary to popular belief, cotton/canvas tarps are not flame resistant unless they have been chemically treated. Mine hasn’t been because I didn’t want to use modern chemicals, and the methods listed in the primary sources, using sugar of lead (lead acetate) just didn’t seem like a good idea. The result is that you can’t have the fire too close to the tarp. I had my fire set up about three feet from my bedding, which was safe for the tarp, but would mean I would have to get up and move closer in order to get any decent heat from my small fire. It just wasn’t worth it. I spent the night waking up on and off due to the cold. In the morning I used the remainder of my wood to warm up.

The first night under my belt, I packed up and got moving again.

For the second night I also stopped early. My plan for night number two was a bit different. It seemed to me that the time I spent the previous day setting up my tarp was time I could have used in better ways. There was no chance of rain, so I didn’t really need the tarp. A tarp does virtually nothing when it comes to reflecting heat from a fire, and an open set up like mine does little to trap warm air. I figured my time would be better spent gathering more firewood and then building the fire closer to my bedding.

That's exactly what I did for night two, using my tarp as ground cover on top of my bedding to keep moisture away.

I melted snow for water, cooked some basic food, and wrapped myself up for the night.

I hope you appreciate the above picture. I only have a 30 second timer on my camera. That right there is the Olympics of blanket wrapping.

I didn’t make the socks mistake again, but still woke up during the night from the cold. Having the fire close by made it easy to restart and warm up on several occasions, letting it die down in between. That way the wood lasted me through the night.

Some of you are probably wondering why I didn’t build a long fire like you see in retro-style pictures. The reason is that I find long fires to be incredibly wasteful of firewood, a precious resource that requires time and energy to gather, and are usually unnecessary. A smaller fire, close to you, at about torso level will keep you plenty warm. I would only consider a long fire if I needed a very large fire for some reason without making it very deep.

Anyway, the night wasn’t as bad as the first. I packed up, and headed out.

Considering that I was trying to push my gear and the corresponding skills, I think the trip was a success. I was right a the boundaries of what my gear would allow me to do. I would say that the estimates for a comfortable night with a single 5lb blanket, assuming proper bedding, of about 40F (4C) sound right. I was able to push it lower with a few tricks I have picked up over the years, but it wasn’t comfortable. If the temperatures were any lower, I would need to bring out a proper axe and depend on keeping a fire going all night long for warmth. That’s not a fun way to spend the night, but the choices are limited.

I’ll do some separate posts on gear. I tried to keep the items as authentic as possible, but they weren’t in all respects. My boots were my regular boots, my knife is not period correct, my water bottle has a threaded plastic cap, etc. But, I’ll get into all that in later posts.


Jan 21, 2005
S. Lanarkshire
Interesting read Ross :D and thank you for posting :D

I think there's an issue with the natural resources used in the past and using the kit of the past together though.
If you can't utilise as much natural material (firewood and bedding) then it's not amiss to add enough lightweight modern
stuff to make up the difference. Proofing your tarp for instance so that you can sit closer to a very small fire, or a reflective blanket in place of the rack of logs that would have made the heat reflective back to the fire.

Why won't you drink the wild water though ? That site 'looks' pretty pristine. Getting sick from dirty water was (and is) rare. Healthy guts deal, and indeed need a change to stay healthy.

Having grown up and camped pre the advent of plastic everything (even 'survival bags were layers of heavy brown paper :) ) I sometimes wonder at the stretched out sleeping bases folks make these days. We 'nested' and slept curled up. Feet don't get so cold stuck out on their own at the bottom like that. We hollowed out an area for hips and shoulders, padded the lot out and snuggled down.

How did your pack and kit weights compare ? I admit that the straps on modern rucksacks beat the old ones hands down for me.



Thank you.

With respect to the water, it is clean from human pollutants, but I wouldn't risk it. I trap beaver in this area, and I know they use the waters upstream. I can certainly risk it, and I would be fine 99 out of a 100 times, but then that one time... I don't like giardia. :)

My pack on this trip was 21lb 1.7oz, so it wasn't bad. Obviously a pack like this one that is nothing more than a bag with straps is not ideal, but for weights around 20lb is not bad, especially considering my blanket composed about 70% of my pack, giving is a lot of rigidity.

I really want to try to use period correct gear as much as possible and deal with the limitations. It's my best effort at trying to experience what woodsmen at the time actually went through. Some of the authors from the time period like Warren Hastings Miller discussed trying to use less materials for bedding etc. Winter is going to be the hardest time. When it warms up, it shouldn't be an issue. I'll keep you guys posted on the "progress".


Jan 21, 2005
S. Lanarkshire
Aye, the kit reports will be interesting too :D

Seriously though, I agree about the weight. We didn't carry a heavy pack, we didn't have that much stuff to carry anyway, but it seems like folks are so burdened by kit at times these days that they can't enjoy the walk.
Different times I suppose. Even things like first aid kits….we carried a couple of elastoplasts and a triangular bandage, and that was pretty much it. Steri tabs were things old folks used to clean their false teeth :D
We wore a lot of our kit, even the blanket got wrapped around and belted on when it was a day like this one. Cold, really, really damp, just above freezing and short daylight. We didn't waste heat, iimmc. We wrapped it up :D

How did you get damp socks though ? the heat of your feet ought to have driven off the damp unless you were squelching through sodden ground or bog. Chilled like that makes for an uncomfortable sleep, no wonder you were up and down.
Supposedly so long as you manage two or three good short sleeps then it's as good as one long one. It's the quality that matters.

Best of luck with it :) good to read something a bit different at this dreich time of the year :D



Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 25, 2005
Greensand Ridge
Nice read. It made me feel cold!

I also enjoyed your BlogSpot section on axes. Must see if anyone here in the UK is bringing in the Council Tool Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe.

All the best

Re the sleep bit mentioned by Toddy
I find havin several 3 or 4 hour stints of sleep interupted by waking to rebuild fire,water a tree and smoke a pipe (mainly as i am waiting to ensure the fire takes again) is as restful as a solid lump of sleep.
Anyone who has had a child will know you can function on less sleep than the traditional 8hours

Chris the Cat

Full Member
Jan 29, 2008
First night out almost anywhere I sleep badly, always need to get that night 'out the way' as it were.
From -20 arctic to the benign conditions of ,say, the Wilderness Gathering it's always the same .
The following night, or nights due to early starts, fresh air and what ever the day brings in temps of camp chores or yomping ( plus/minus whisky! )
usually sees me sleep well.
I must say, I find it hard to stay wrapped in my two blankets on the occasions I have used them, despite using Mors method!

Very interesting Ross.


da C.


Oct 9, 2014
Edge of The Wilds
Oh, how fun!

I understand you want to be as authentic to the classic backpacking period as you can and you find enjoyment ‘testing’ the authentic materials that they would of used.

On your second night you chose to use your tarp as only a ground cloth and laid wrapped in your wool blanket and you found yourself getting cold,… why not cover the top of you with the tarp as well, like a bed roll, to keep the winter dampness from getting on to you? I think classic backpackers of that time period would have used whatever materials they possessed at the time on the spot to stay insulated and warm.

Cheers :)


Thanks everyone.

My socks get wet from sweat. In fact, a lot of my clothing gets wet from sweat. The notion that you should slow down so you don't sweat doesn't really work too well when you have places to go and things to do. In my experience, wool socks don't dry out from body heat. I've never had any luck drying out any wool clothing other than a very thin base layer with body heat, and that was in a sleeping bag. I try to wear minimal clothing when on the move, and if it is still wet by the time I go to bed, I take it off.

I suppose I could have wrapped myself in the tarp. I'm not sure how much warmth it would have provided. I also didn't want to damage it with the fire.

I stay wrapped in a blanket by using two 4 inch blanket pins. They were in use during that time and several authors mention using them to secure their blankets at night.

I did three post so far on my gear:

I'll do a gear summary when I am done with all of it.


Full Member
Jan 31, 2005
Enjoyed the report Ross, learning to use older style kit takes a bit of time. On the tarp front try giving it a light wax coating. It will add to the weight but not only make it more proof against the weather but also inure it to sparks from the fire. Toddy's mention of nesting works too, wild animals curl up in a ball and it works well for us humans when trying to return to nature.

Sent via smoke-signal from a woodland in Scotland.


Jan 11, 2012
Nice write up. Have you considered wearing a period corect blanket coat aswell as carrying your wool blanket? I find the extra insulation to be very effective, even if it is only on the upper body.


From what research I've done, I haven't read of anyone wearing a blanket coat during that time period, at least not people traveling on foot. In fact, they all advise against wearing such coats. It would be too big to carry in a pack, and it would certainly be too warm to wear when I'm on the move.

My tarp is treated with boiled linseed oil. It gives a finish very similar to wax. From my experience, with a thin cloth like this, with either treatment, it can easily be damaged by sparks.


Oct 9, 2014
Edge of The Wilds
Don’t sweat. [Smile with a laugh]

Finding a way to manage your sweat whilst wearing and using period appropriate gear is going to be the most critical thing to work out. Damp layers will make you cold. Managing your period appropriate clothing layers and keeping them dry will be important. You'll need to constantly adjust your layers and ventilate your body, which is one of the biggest challenges for any cold season outdoor activity in any time period.

Does the open fire actually provide additional body warmth to you…or rather a sense of warmth, light and comfort in the dark woods?

Could you keep your body warm using your gear without a night time fire?


For me, if I am working hard enough, even if I am in base layers and it's -10F (-23C) I still end up sweating. Then I end up with a layer of frost all over my body. :)

The fire definitely provides warmth. It makes a big difference. For a small fire like the type I usually use, you have to be pretty close to it though. That's why on the first night, where the fire was about three feet away from me, I didn't bother. At that distance it wasn't worth it. The second night though, when I had it a foot from me, you can definitely feel the difference.

I would say that if you have proper clothing, sheltered from the wind, and with good ground insulation, you can sleep comfortably in a blanket like the one I had down to about 40F (4C), but not much lower. Lower than that you need a fire to stay warm. Getting up to pee is a real problem.


Jun 8, 2014
Poole, Dorset
Excellent, really enjoyed reading that - I guess you have learned a few things from that experience? Would a second blanket solve the cold issue?


Excellent, really enjoyed reading that - I guess you have learned a few things from that experience? Would a second blanket solve the cold issue?
A second blanket would make things better, but it would not solve the cold issue. If you are traveling on foot, you just can not carry enough blankets to stay warm past a certain point. Once you start getting into temperatures like 15F (-10C), you have to rely on a fire for warmth, even with two large blankets. The blankets are there just to supplement the warmth from the fire, but by themselves they are horribly inadequate.