Ground Rules: Fixating on foam

Forty years ago, Scouts eager to stay warm in the winter were encouraged to dress in foam. The 1984 BSA Fieldbook included patterns for making hats, clothing and a sleeping bag from inch-thick polyfoam more often found in mattresses and sofas than the backcountry.

The fellow behind the fixation on foam was Gil Phillips, a longtime Scoutmaster from Albuquerque. He had lived with Inuit people in the far north and studied how they kept body temperatures high as thermometers went low.

Phillips experimented with replacing the animal skins used by the Inuit with furniture foam. It could be cut with scissors and the edges glued together for garments and gear. Foam was cheap, breathable, easy to manage — and it worked.

He taught his Scouts how to wear loose woolen shirts and pants over foam torso and leg liners. They wrapped their feet in foam and laced them into mukluks. Foam mittens and hats completed their attire.

At night, Phillips’ Scouts kept their foam clothing on for added insulation as they crawled into foam sleeping bags wrapped in plastic sheets to shield them from the wind. They could overnight in the open as temperatures plunged toward zero.

Gil believed the simplest winter shelter was a snow trench. A Scout using a carpenter’s saw could cut blocks of snow to make a trench about 3 feet deep and as long and wide as a sleeping bag, and then set the blocks against each other above the trench to form an A-frame roof. For longer-term camps, Scouts would use snow blocks to construct igloos.

Just as important as gear was attitude.

“Don’t fight natural conditions,” Phillips said. “Try to accept and adjust to them sensibly.”

He wanted Scouts to have confidence that they could survive the cold without a fire or stove. For water, they would fill collapsible plastic bottles halfway with snow, and then hang them around their necks so body heat could melt the contents.

Cheese, raisins, jerky and nuts formed the basis of a no-cook menu. Phillips also carried a No. 10 can for a cookpot and an old steel frying pan for times when he did have the luxury of a stove for preparing soup, bacon and other treats.

Today, we have high-tech fill materials for clothing and sleeping bags, though the principles of insulation and being smart are as important as they were when Phillips was camping.

“Relax and be confident,” he told his Scouts.

In other words, Be Prepared, even if that means wrapping up in furniture foam and burrowing into a drift of snow.

Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbook and the latest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at

Photos courtesy of Robert Birkby.

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