The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.
If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.
But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.
The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.
To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.
French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you to provide you with one.
I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”
Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.
As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!
First he got me into jackboots, which I like more all the time because they’re weather- and terrain-proof. On slippery rocks, in muck, over a gravelly boulder-scape, in a calf-high stream, the jackboots keep you stable and dry. This time I tried them with snowshoes. My cheapo, old-fashioned 1980s Swedish army snowshoes were not exactly high-performance dynamos, but the $20 East German jackboots kept me warm, dry, and comfortable all day.
Tip for you jackbooted thugs out there: boot grease really works. It’s cheap and takes two minutes to apply, and it makes these things truly waterproof.
Lars was also right about old Scandinavian wool. For cold weather, he’s remarked, you’d do very well to find Scandinavian surplus from the 1960s or before. It dates from a time when armies lived outdoors for long periods of time and they made clothes that were supremely warm and durable, in a way that isn’t true of modern stuff.
Through the awesome Surplus City, I found some old wool trousers that came along with me on the snowshoeing trip, and I think the world of them. Apparently these Nordic folks really know a thing or too about cold. I felt like I had a warm lamb wrapped around each leg.
They’re also very comfortable to wear with a pack because they’re high-waisted. My rucking guru Sgt. Šileika told me to expect this: the extra length of old-fashioned, high-waisted trousers protects you from chafing, and since they use suspenders rather than a belt, you don’t get flesh pinched between the top of your pants and the hip belt of your pack. Much more comfortable!