You may have an emergency kit or bug-out bag ready packed, but what clothing do you have stored with it? Your emergency kit should include an outfit of clothes suitable for travelling. This must include underwear, outerwear, footwear, headgear and insulation suited to any season. There are many possible choices, some better than others. What are our best options, particularly if on a budget?
For most of the nineteeth century the US Army wore a dark blue woollen uniform. This was considered suitable for all climates, regions and seasons within the US. In practice the material and colour were uncomfortable and impractical for the hotter months and latitudes. Durability was also an issue. Troops often returned from campaign with uniforms in a very poor state. The blue woollen uniform was also poorly suited for the various menial tasks a soldier might be called on to perform.
Troops on campaign were, however, allowed considerable latitude when it came to clothing. During the Geronimo campaign some infantry in Mexico and Arizona are known to have marched wearing only their army underwear of undershirts and cotton drawers. (Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment: Headgear, Clothing, and Footwear by Douglas C. McChristian) Historical accounts mention soldiers on campaign wearing their “overalls” as an alternative or replacement for uniforms. The overalls in question were a two-piece alternative to the stable frocks mounted troops were issued. Mounted troops were required to conduct stable duties twice a day. Horse hair and dust would have rapidly fouled the blue wool uniforms so troops on stable duty wore either frocks or overalls of white cotton duck garments over their blue uniforms. These overalls and smocks saw use as campaign wear or unofficial uniforms. The white colour was less than ideal, but a few weeks of campaign often turned them another shade.
Officially, the US Army remained resistant to issuing a summer uniform. When regulations were relaxed to permit the wearing of a white summer uniform, the soldier was expected to pay for the garments out of his own pocket at whatever prices sutlers asked. It was not until the 1880s that a summer uniform was issued. Quartermaster General Holabird ordered surplus shelter tents to be made into coats and trousers. Experiments with dying the canvas brown also proved successful. The uniform was clearly intended to serve as a summer uniform and campaign wear. The jacket was of blouse or sack-coat style, rather than a stable frock coverall. I have seen it suggested that the canvas uniform was designated a fatigue item so troops would not have to pay for them from their clothing allowance.
Jump forward about half a century and things come full circle. World War Two saw fatigue-duty clothing being used as hot weather combat wear. By the Korean War this had become common practice and “fatigues” became synonymous with hot-weather combat dress.
When selecting outdoor gear it may seem logical to copy what the army uses. After all, the army spends millions developing and testing gear, and surely wants our troops to have the best possible. Sadly, no! If this hypothesis was true, why do different armies produce different solutions to the same problem? Why is gear changed and replaced with such frequency?
If you study the history of, say, US combat/ field jackets, you observe a repeating cycle. Something practical is designed. After a few years in service it is noted the practical item is not that smart looking. A new, smarter replacement is adopted. Troops complain the smarter item is not that practical, so a replacement is designed, and so on. This cycle dates back well into the blue woollen uniform era. The army wants practical field and work wear that still looks soldierly. (This trend can be seen in a number of books on the history of US Army uniforms. Several of the “U.S. Army Uniforms of…” series by Shelby L Stanton are a good starting point) The US Army currently seems to be in a “non-practical” phase. Trousers are cut too narrow to fit over knee-pads or to allow good air circulation. Shirts intended to be worn under body armour have no camouflage on the torso, with tight-fitting sleeves that do nothing for shape disruption and air circulation. Camouflage that does little to hide the wearer.
As preppers, survivalists or outdoors-people, looking neat and soldierly is low on our list of priorities. We want versatile, practical gear that hopefully will not break the bank.
As I have mentioned in the previous post, for many conditions, jackets are too warm, particularly if lined. This holds true for many designs of combat jacket. As might be expected from the introductory passages, an unlined fatigue jacket is a possible option, if you can find such a thing at a reasonable price. More readily available are medium or heavyweight shirts, which we will designate “bush shirts”. A pair of cargo trousers and a bush shirt over suitable underwear is the start of a very practical clothing system. Notable is that the upper garment of US Army fatigues was originally designated a jacket, but troops were usually required to tuck it into their trousers. Eventually it was re-designated a “utility shirt” and redesigned with shirt-type cuffs.
If you now jump to googling “camouflage shirt” you will discover most of your hits are tee-shirts, which are not what we are looking for. Those that are not tee-shirts tend to be pricey!
Forget about camouflage patterns for a while. Smocks and other camouflage measures will be dealt with in other posts. For the moment we will be satisfied if our bush shirt(s) is a low-signature “neutral or natural” colour. Google “khaki shirt” and you should discover a wide variety of choices and colour shades. The true green coloured are best reserved for summer or jungle use. Similarly, very light khaki shades may be best kept for bright environments such as desert. This still leaves us a wide choice ranging from light tans to olive-brown. Mid to light greys and possibly pale olive are also acceptable shades.
Whatever shirt you opt for, buy it larger than you would usually wear. In cold weather that space allows you to wear more insulation under the shirt. In hot weather that space allows air to more freely circulate. Your shirt should also be long-sleeved, for when insects bite and thorns come scratching. Here is a good place to repeat a piece of advice from the Victorian explorer Francis Galton: “When you have occasion to tuck up your shirtsleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside out, but outside in-the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.” Try it! He is right!
Most of the potential bush shirts you will encounter will be cotton or poly-cotton. Microfibre shirts are becoming more widely available and often with a similar price tag to cotton. These are breathable synthetics, so should be quicker drying.
Other features are up to the buyer. A pair of practical breast pockets are useful, although your trouser pockets should be where your primary EDC gear is carried. The shirt is also your nightshirt, so overfilled pockets may be uncomfortable. A “traditional” shirt collar can be turned up to further protect the back of the neck, although since your outfit should include a neckerchief, shemagh or scarf this is probably moot.
Your bush shirt(s) can be customized, should you feel so inclined. Reinforcements can be added to the elbows and possibly the shoulder area too. Elbow patches should not hinder the sleeve’s ability to be rolled up or stay up. Breast pockets may be covered by pack straps, so sleeve pockets are a useful addition. These should be long enough to hold a pen or pencil. Poppers may be preferable to buttons. Vent zips or holes under the armpits can be added for increased ventilation. Additional pockets can be added to the lower part of the shirt, although these will not be accessible if the shirt is worn inside the waistband. If the shirt is worn outside the waistband the sides may be vented to allow access to a belt-worn knife or pistol. If desired, a bush shirt can be converted to a pullover style by sewing up the lower half of the front opening. This can reduce drafts around the midriff and keeps biting insects out.
In many conditions your bush shirt will be your outermost garment. When it gets colder it is an additional mid-layer beneath a jacket or coat. It may also be your nightshirt.
While I was planning this article, I came across the following passage in the Boy Scout Handbook (1911) “It is well to carry a spare shirt hanging down the back with the sleeves tied around the neck. Change when the shirt you are wearing becomes too wet with perspiration.”
Tying a jumper around your waist was standard practice when I was a schoolboy. The jumper tied and draped over your shoulders is a familiar 1980s icon. Carrying and using a second shirt this way is something quite different, and potentially very useful. If not worn in this way the spare bush shirt should be kept somewhere easily accessible, such as the outer pocket of a pack. The merits of being able to change out of sweaty gear were addressed in the last post. If the weather turns colder you can wear both shirts. The spare shirt can also serve as an emergency face or head covering or as a scarf. A wet shirt can be hung down the back, or the back of the pack, to dry. This is one of the reasons we choose neutral or natural tones for clothing, even undergarments. Drying laundry can act like a signal flag!