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I've gone sub-freezing camping a few times and each time I've had an ember (without noticing) melt/burn through an outer layer.

The first time was through a synthetic down type jacket (fairly thin), left maybe two or three small holes. The second was a fleece (200) and it melted/burnt straight through the pocket.

What top layer can I wear in the cold that won't get holes in it?

Restrictions:

  • I can't avoid the fire.
  • I won't wear cotton.
  • I'd love some practical advice, i.e. brands/specific types of coats etc.

Also note that this isn't about the material catching fire, rather just being damaged through melting.

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1  
Experiment with wrapping a "space blanket" around you. This will be awkward if you are doing anything, but fine if you are just sitting by the fire. – ab2 Jan 19 at 2:00
4  
why won't you wear cotton? as a sub-freezing shell it is said to be surprinsigly good. – njzk2 Jan 19 at 4:02
6  
synthetics burn/melt, as you experienced. Wool flanel or waxed cotton would probably survive the embers. – njzk2 Jan 19 at 4:05
2  
@James For below freezing camping I wear a synthetic base layer, then a (200) fleece layer and another synthetic layer on top of that as a shell. In this case cotton would only be good for fire and not much else. Getting cotton wet is something I want to avoid so I'm adding it as a restriction. – tertius Jan 19 at 15:58
2  
@SnakeDoc cotton is bad for base layers. it takes your humidity and keeps it instead of transferring it. But for outer shell, it can be woven tight to be windproof, waxed to be waterproof, is resistant, and you basically just need to shake it to remove the frost before putting it on. Not in near-0 temperature, for sure, but much below that, yes. I can't find the reference, but cotton is used for a weatherproof outershell in very cold winters. – njzk2 Jan 19 at 18:37
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Wool does not melt or drip

This answer might surprise you: wool!

Wool (...) does not melt or drip(.)

Wool ignites at a higher temperature than cotton and some synthetic fibers. It has a lower rate of flame spread, a lower rate of heat release, a lower heat of combustion, and does not melt or drip; it forms a char which is insulating and self-extinguishing, and it contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than other flooring products when used in carpets.

From section "characteristics"

It's even quite commonly used a so called "fire-retardant material" in many end consumer textile products. Check out a list here.

Here's another interesting article regarding this topic:

According to Wool Gatherer, one thing that makes carded wool flame resistant is the fact that the fibers are so close together that they create an environment that is fairly devoid of oxygen thus resisting flame. An example of this idea, although one I have not personally tried and would not recommend, would be attempting to light a phonebook on fire. Apparently, it is not easy to light a phonebook on fire, as the pages are so tightly held together there is not enough oxygen present to support the flame.

Last but not least you may want to watch a comparison between synthetic products and wool here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKuAl_HzCjs

Product recommendation

As a product recommendation I can refer to this one (however, it has some cotton on the inside, the shell/outside is completely made out of wool):

enter image description here

This coat originated in the 1800s and is still as popular today. The rugged wool-blend shell wards off the fiercest weather. It's not only warm, but it sheds water, and the tight weave keeps out bone-chilling wind. Two-piece sleeve for a roomier fit; knit storm cuffs in sleeves. Four outer snap pockets, plus hand-warmer pockets and internal security pocket. Back stowage pocket originally designed to put game in. Under-collar tab keeps collar up to hold out cold and breezes. Fully lined body and sleeves. Button front covered by storm flap.

enter image description here

Further reading

You might have already seen this question. Please check out ShemSeger's answer.

Campfire clothes are the heavy wool jackets, and flannel shirts worn by mountain men, hunters and lumberjacks. I have a wool jacket from nepal that I use as my sit around the fire jacket.

(...)

First-aid responders will tell you that synthetic materials are actually one of the worst things to have on when working with a fire, because they will melt to your skin if they do catch.

This list from Wikipedia (already linked above) contains every material which come into question:

Fire-retardant materials used in textiles

PBI
Burnstop
Twaron
Noflan[2]
Nomex (a DuPont trademark)
Indura FR Cotton (a WESTEX Tradmark)
Arselon (Khimvolokno trademark)
coated nylon
CXP(a WESTEX Tradmark)
Carbon Foam
M5 fiber
Kevlar
Ultrasoft FR Cotton(a WESTEX Tradmark)
Melamine
Pyrovatex fr cotton
TrueComfort(a WESTEX Tradmark)
Technora
Modacrylic
Wool
Ultrasoft AC FR Cotton (a WESTEX Tradmark)
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TLDR: military grade tech fabrics designed for air and tank crew uniforms.

As others have pointed out you might reconsider cotton as an outer layer only. Be careful with waxed cotton as some have suggested, occasionally the wax is flammable.

Wool is a good choice given your criteria.

If however money is no object and/or you don't mind surfing ebay till you get lucky: The DOD and various of its suppliers have also noted that various outdoor fabrics have very poor flame retardance.

To that end they have designed (very expensive ) uniforms to combat this. As long as you don't mind buying and wearing a uniform you weren't issued (ie: earned) then this would certainly make the grade.

keywords: massif, crye, cvc, nomex, aramid

This answer is probably overkill, but it's proven handy for friends of mine who do circus crap: fire blowing ,juggling or spinning.

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A purely synthetic outer layer of Nomex is a good choice. People fighting wild-land fires generally wear Nomex It it works in the middle of a forest fire, you will probably be happy with it at the campfire.

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As already was pointed out in the comments: leave synthetics. Some time ago (can't find the source any more, unfortunately) I read about a guy who planed on a very minimalistic outdoor trip basically for the rest of his life, i.e. basically wander the woods of Europe and staying wherever he likes to stay. In his plans this required mostly to build your camp from what you can find where you are and rely as least as possible on (close to not) on having to get stuff from other people. The article stated that one of the main differences compared to the average outdoor camper is "no synthetics", since he would have to deal with campfires all the time and could not need clothes that get destroyed by sparks or getting too close to the fire. Hence, all he was planning to wear was from natural fibres, e.g. wool, felt, stuff like that.

So basically, if you want to go that way, take a look at what people have worn in the winter and in the arctic regions some 50+ years ago before synthetic clothing got available. However, if you think this in full consequence, it won't be done with just another coat, since your whole clothing system worn below this coat might no longer work if the coat does not provide a breathable membrane – so you might have to adapt your other layers as well.

The downside of this might be quite surely that you get much less insulation for the same weight.

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2  
felt is a technique, not a material. it would have to be wool felt. – njzk2 Jan 19 at 18:39

Leather is awesome for standing up to sparks. Just ask a welder. And some people think it's good for going outdoors too.*

*But not me.

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