In praise of the original soft shell – Wool Pants

Breathable, warm, repels snow, blocks wind. A miracle piece of clothing that is high in quality and usually $20 or less. The original soft shell – wool pants!

Outdoor trends come and go.

Bright colors give way to subdued tones and then back again.

Simple and light gear is the norm that gives way to over complicated gear. People lighten up, perhaps too much, and the cycle repeats.

And natural fibers are considered old-fashioned and are replaced by allegedly breathable Goretex shells.

But something funny happened along the way.

Realization came that a  hard shell may not be the best layer for all applications.

Instead, water resistant soft shells that are more breathable are becoming popular. These softshells  are more ideally suited for more aerobic activities where breathability and not "bomber" weather protection is needed.

Outdoor clothing manufacturers have discovered a a material that repels water, is warm when damp, resists snow and wind. The material also  breathes remarkably well.

This miracle material? Wool.

Wool's properties are again being rediscovered for base layers and hats.  But also for outer wear such as jacket and pants

Wool's "magical" properties also make this material a great fabric for soft shells.

But the prices can be expensive.

A solution is to use what previous generations used for their outdoor activities and still used by hunters and experienced winter campers. : Old school wool pants.

A person can get the higher end wool pants from such places as LL Bean's or Cabela's, but can find very good quality pants for $25 or less from another staple of a previous generation: the military surplus store (EBay affiliate link).

Worked for these guys in the 10th Mountain Division too! (Historic photo; source unknown)

The pants I use for Nordic skiing are thick, warm and have seen me in negative temps while skiing or while winter camping.  They also cost me perhaps $10 or so.

For aerobic and/or stop and go activities (again, such as winter camping), wool can't be beat. Plastic pants caused me to sweat too much and have condensation build up on my body.  I also did not see the need to buy something more modern and attractive looking when the simple pants work so well. An added bonus, and why hunters use wool pants, is that wool is quieter than crinkly plastics in cold weather, too.  Any snow that gets on the pants is easily brushed off.

Ski touring at  Brainard Lake one snowy and cold day

Wool pants of course have their limitations.  The obvious trade-offs with hardshells and softshells come into play. Wool pants are also heavier and bulkier and best used when worn all day (as opposed to packing them).  Personally, I would not use them for anything other than cold and dry conditions. For more technical skiing I still like using the plastics but that is more because of my ski ability on steep descents (or lack of 😉 ) than anything.  Finally. though I don't area ski all that often, even I'll admit that wearing wool pants on a lift may make people mistake me as coming from a retro ski day! 🙂

Wool pants can be a great option for outdoor use.  Give this staple of old-school of outdoor use another look. You may be presently surprised at what you find.


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Ross Gilmore
11 years ago

Thank you for the post. I found it by following your post on the trip with Andrew Skurka. I tried wearing wool pants for quite a while, mainly because I liked the way the looked. 🙂 I switched from them for two reasons. The first is something you mentioned, snow gets on them very easily. They seemed to just attract it. If it was snowing, within half an hour my olive grab wool pants would look completely white. The answer was constantly brushing off the snow, but it was a hassle. The second reason was that they inevitably got wet… Read more »

James of Canada
James of Canada
10 years ago

Not all of Canada is the same, we have to mild but wet coasts in the winter. For cheap wool pants you have two options: Military pants tend to be thinner (a good thing) but try not to get the ones with a small button fly as they can be hard to undo with numb fingers, also most have cotton pockets and inner waistband. Thrift stores (which may also sell military ones) also give the option of civy workman wool pants that tend to be thinker (Just picked up a pair of Bigbill brand wool pants) and have zipper flys.… Read more »

10 years ago

I got some old school, super thick wool hunting pants on Ebay for $10. Classic red plaid, old LL Bean, and crazy warm. In fact, too warm for serious uphill hiking, but for easy walking in sub-zero weather, thy’re perfect. Also ideal for sitting around the campfire on a cold night. Unlike modern synthetics, wool is quite resistant to small sparks and embers from the fire.