It’s the simple question you have answered (we hope) every day of your life since you were old enough to do the choosing yourself: what am I going to wear today? Now that you have decided to set out into the great outdoors for a day, or possibly more, that question remains the same. The simplicity in answering it, however, will be long gone now that you have a variety of new factors to consider: the need to be prepared for drastic changes in weather, the need to have clothing which maintains your ideal body temperature and handles sweat efficiently, and the fact that everything you bring will either be worn or fighting for limited space in your backpack. In this post, we are going to look at performance characteristics among some popular choices for outdoor apparel, what not to wear, and an explanation of the ‘3 layer system’ that is commonly referenced when discussing outdoor adventure clothing.
Goose/duck down jackets are one of the most popular choices for people spending time outside, and for good reason. They offer the best warmth to weight ratio of any available clothing option. The down feather clusters, in which these jackets are stuffed with, work to trap numerous pockets of air, and thus provide great warmth. These feather clusters are also lightweight and extremely compressible, allowing these jackets to be simply packed when not being worn (often compressed to smaller than a water bottle). The traditional disadvantage to down is that it loses its insulating capabilities when it becomes wet (the clusters lose their loft and become matted down, unable to trap any air). Many leading outdoor manufacturers, however, are currently introducing new down technology such as, downtek™ that attempts to reduce the effects of moisture on the clusters. Still, if heavy rain is expected on your adventure, you might be better off with a polyester fleece.
Another popular material used in outdoor and athletic apparel is that of polyester. While not as packable or warm as down, polyester is significantly more affordable and proves its worth in it’s ability to perform even when wet. When this synthetic material becomes wet, it still retains its insulating capabilities providing critical warmth in cold and wet situations. A quick tag check of the different fleece jackets offered at your local outdoor store will probably reveal that polyester is the main fabric in the majority. In addition to being a great insulator, as in a thick polyester fleece, polyester can also be a great choice for your base layer. Polyester fibers are naturally hydrophobic (they don’t absorb water), so they wick moisture really well and dry quickly. Due to attracting bacterial microbes, polyester does tend to develop a certain ‘funky’ smell after any prolonged period of wearing. For this reason, these affordable shirts are best used when you will be able to wash them at the end of the day, not on multi-day trips.
This top performing, base layer fabric has taken over the outdoor clothing industry in recent years. Merino wool, made from sheep bearing the same name, has numerous performance benefits for outdoor clothing. It is adaptable to a wide range of temperatures, works even when wet, wicks moisture efficiently and dries quickly, soft and comfortable to wear unlike traditional wool, and it is anti-microbial, meaning it doesn’t stink! These benefits come at a price however, as one look at the price tag for a merino wool t-shirt is enough to cause temporary breathing difficulties.
Please, No Cotton
Please, I beg you, do not be one of the numerous people I have seen on trails throughout the country wearing a pair of jeans, maybe even paired with that prideful, cotton sweatshirt with your college alma mater. Not only will you immediately give yourself away as someone who has no clue what they are doing (think all negative connotations of the word ‘tourist’), but you will also be risking your safety in the event of bad weather. Cotton absorbs a high amount of moisture keeping it close to your skin, and takes long periods of time to dry. It will leave you feeling cold as temperatures drop. Some arguments can be made for cotton clothing in extreme desert hiking conditions where keeping cool may be of benefit, but keep in mind that even in most deserts, temperatures drop significantly when the sun goes down.
What is the 3-layer system?
The three layer system of clothing has been the proven method for outfitting outdoor adventurers for many years. It combines the need to bring minimal clothing with the ability to adapt to extreme changes in weather. The layers can be worn all at once for maximum protection from the elements or quickly shed when conditions change.
|Base Layer||Insulation Layer||Outer Shell Layer|
|Wicks moisture away from your skin||maintains warmth for your body by trapping pockets of air||protects you from the harsh elements (rain, wind, snow)|
|merino wool, polyester are best options||may be natural or synthetic based on conditions (down vs. polyester)||usually nylon treated with DWR coating (durable water resistant)|
|keeps your body warm in winter, cool in summer||light-weight will be most versatile in majority of outdoor situations (prevents overheating)mid/heavy-weight optimal for extreme cold and/or minimal output activities||wide range of products and performance options from max weather protection & little breathability to max breathability and little weather protection|
I hope this has made answering that dreaded ‘what to wear?’ question a little easier, and that you can now head outside confident and comfortable in whatever mother nature brings! If you are looking for a more in-depth discussion of clothing materials and their uses in outdoor environments, be sure to check out Andrew Skurka’s book, ‘The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide’. It provides an entire section on outdoor clothing and was a great help in my early understanding of how different materials performed.