Topping It Off In The Classic Style

Steve Watts

Hat, Scarf and Vest: Waist-up Essentials For The Traditional Outdoorsman

by Steve Watts

The Hat

Campfire conversations can venture off into dangerous territory when the topic turns to the choice of the “ideal” hat for camp and trail. All have an opinion, and most consider theirs to be divinely inspired. The choice of headgear is often based as much on romance as reason. It combines elements of practicality and personal mythology. “See the hat, see the man”, an old-timer once told me. So, here goes.

My everyday hat is usually a woven palm leaf high-crowned, old style cowboy model. But, when in camp I will usually opt for a good quality fur felt hat in some shade of brown or tan, with a four-inch brim and a medium crown creased in the “campaign” or “Montana peak” style—four dents (ala: Robert Baden Powell or Ellsworth Jaeger). This hat satisfies my needs–both practical and whimsical.

Its stiff brim turns the sun, buffets the wind, and serves as first-rate eye protection on the trail. Stiff brimmed hats are superior to soft/floppy models for fanning fires or swinging in self-defense. Contrary to popular opinion, good quality felt hats are comfortable in warm weather as well as cold. Lots of temperature adjustments can be made. Wet it down in hot conditions for a cooling evaporative effect. Stuff the crown with your scarf for cold conditions and you’ve just added 2-4 inches of insulation to where it is most needed. The hat band (outside) and the headband (inside) are great places to stash small items—a spare match or two, a toothpick, a length of fishing line, a piece of notepaper or a little bit of emergency cash. Like most hats, it can serve as an expedient container for gathering nuts, berries, or tinder. And, if free of vents, can serve as a water bucket or washbasin.

But, in the end I confess that I choose this hat style for more than its practical attributes (though practical it is). It appeals to my retro-romantic tendencies. It’s “old scout” qualities speak to me of the Golden Age of Camping. It imparts to the wearer a feel as well as a look–a reminder of by-gone days in camps both real and imagined. A head filled with such sylvan ideals should be covered with a hat of proper vintage.

The Scarf

A scarf of cotton, wool or silk is among the most practical and versatile pieces of clothing one can wear in or out of camp. We speak here of the large, square scarf—measuring 30-40 inches on the side. Smaller sized bandanas are useful items (I usually carry one in a hip pocket), but the proper traditional neck scarf of the outdoorsman is best cut to the larger size.

The American cowboy of the late 19th and early 20th century was the true master of the neck scarf. Baden Powell made such scarves part of the original Scout uniform based in part on the cowboy model. (A sad note: by the mid-20th century the Scout neckerchief had shrunk in size, been reduced from a square to a triangle, and began to loose much of its utility. Today, it survives as a poor shadow of its original self. Seldom worn when actually out “scouting”, it is in danger of disappearing altogether.)

But, for the old-style buckaroo and the traditional camper it remains essential. Around the neck (rolled and tied in a variety of ways) it protects from sun and wind and heat and cold. Pulled up over the face “bandit” style it can filter out sand, dust, and smoke. Tied “pirate” style it becomes headgear, either worn alone or under your hat. It is a washcloth, a towel, a dishcloth, a napkin, a hot pad, a bandage, a sling, a signal flag, a lunch bag, a strainer, a hat strap and a multitude of other things useful to old style camper. More than picturesque (though picturesque it is), the scarf is an important piece of gear.

The Vest

The vest or waistcoat completes our trinity of traditional waist-up essentials. Like the hat and the scarf, the vest is practical, multifunctional and (dare we say) stylish. Made of wool, linen, cotton or canvas, with or without lapels; the vest serves as a second layer under a coat or sweater or as an outer layer in warmer weather. By buttoning and unbuttoning any number or sequence of buttons, the core body temperature can be adjusted for a variety of conditions.

Get one with at least two pockets (four pockets are even better). Into these can go a variety of items: matches, compass, pocket knife, notebook and stub pencil, a few pieces of jerky, pocket watch, etc. If that’s not enough, you can even add an additional pocket or two to the inside. Items in vest pockets are readily accessible. They are much easier to get to than are pants pockets–especially when kneeling in a canoe, straddling a horse or sitting on a log by an evening campfire.

It was natural for old time campers to wear their vests to the woods. Most of them wore them every day anyway. It was the perfect marriage of fashion and utility. Some things are worth reviving. Give it a try.

Steve Watts directs the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Traditional Outdoor Skills Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. Watts is the author of Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills, Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004.


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