Western Traveler

Dressing For The Outdoors

By Steven Grimes

Dressing appropriately for outdoor activity is paramount to both the enjoyment of the activity and also for safety aspects. Unfortunately, many people don’t give much thought to dressing for safety. Instead, they dress solely for comfort, or wear whatever happens to be on them, such as jeans, sneakers, etc.

In today’s high tech world, hikers, campers and paddlers have available to them more options than at any previous time. Costs have come down on high- end equipment; technology has gotten into the outdoors market with considerable success, and equipment is getting more forgiving, e.g. it lasts longer and isn’t as easy to tear up as would have been the case years ago.

When choosing the proper clothing and footwear, you should take a moment and consider several options. Foremost is what kind of temperatures will you be recreating in? Will this include extreme changes in temperature or climate conditions? A good example involves hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You might start out in June with 84 degree weather at low elevation. By the time you reach any elevation, the temperature may have dropped by up to 15 degrees. What began with clear skies and bright sunshine could easily change into a hard rain with gusty winds. Would you be prepared, or would you be wearing light shorts and a tee shirt and be not only miserable but in danger of hypothermia?

In addition to the temperature and climate conditions, terrain is an important consideration. Running shoes are wonderful for hiking easy trails with non-technical features, such as nature park trails, or the “tourist” trails in many national parks. However, experiencing the back country can expose you to conditions which are beyond what running shoes or sandals can handle safely. Although heavier than sandals or running shoes, hiking boots are worth their weight in gold in these types of situations. They provide two vital functions that the other choices may not be able to provide at all. These are ankle support and high traction soles. It is difficult, if not impossible to walk out of the woods with a sprained or strained ankle, let alone a broken one! Hiking with a loaded pack raises your center of gravity. Add anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds of gear in that pack, and what would have been a light slip on wet, mossy covered rock now becomes a potentially life-threatening fall.

It used to be that one had two choices in clothing. You either wore scratchy wool, which was warm and kept most of its warmth when wet, or cotton. Cotton was cooler, much more comfortable, but when wet it lost almost all of its insulation properties and in fact would contribute to hypothermia by staying wet and robbing the body of heat. If you want a good example, think about if you wore a cotton shirt hiking on a cold day. After it gets wet, you’d notice a considerable difference in how much you shiver because your sweat got the cotton wet but didn’t evaporate. Instead of providing insulation, now you have the equivalent of a wet towel wrapped around you. However, there have been some recent advances in cotton. Researchers are experimenting with cotton that is actually water repellant, and may prove to be a good alternative to wool or synthetics in the near future.

Buying good quality clothing is not only affordable now; it is easy to choose the right gear. Camping warehouses like REI and Campmor carry the latest brands. Catch them at seasonal changes, and you can get gear for a fraction of its regular price. All stores need to clear shelf space to make room for new inventory. Reducing the price to sell old merchandise quickly means the outdoors consumer can find great deals with a bit of searching.

Now, hikers have a variety of synthetic materials from which to choose. Shirts, hiking pants and shorts are often made from materials labeled as Hydro-duct. This synthetic blend allows perspiration to evaporate quickly. It helps to cool you in the summer and also helps to prevent heat loss in colder conditions. As good as synthetic materials are, it is worth noting that Marino wool is an excellent insulator, is comfortable, and will maintain a good level of insulation when wet. Hiking socks or a sweater made of Marino wool will keep you toasty in some very cold conditions. Other choices such as Polypropylene, rayon, and Polar fleece are also good choices. Polar fleece is almost the norm for jackets, base camp pants, and pullover caps. A good brand usually does not cost that much and is often more insulating than cheaper brands sold in department stores.

Whatever choices one makes for clothing, layering is a major factor. A tee shirt as the bottom layer, with another shirt over it, and perhaps a fleece jacket as the outer layer is a good combination for cool weather activities. If wind or rain, are present, adding a top layer that is wind resistant or water proof keeps you dry and adds another layer of insulation. A good rain jacket has zippered vents in the armpits and chest area. Such jackets usually have a vent in the back also. This allows you to adjust for temps that would cause you to sweat. The jacket still works, but you have control over how much ventilation passes between you and the jacket. Price determines the quality of water proofing jackets, pants and hats have. DWR, which is “durable water repellency,” is often a spray on waterproofing, although some brands have waterproofing directly in the threads. With taped seams, DWR coatings will last for a long time if properly cared for. Getting them dirty or extremely hot, as well as friction from rubbing against fabric, will over time, reduce the waterproofing. Fortunately, there are spray-on or wash in chemicals that can renew the coating. Comparatively, Gore-Tex® materials are considered the king of waterproofing. It costs more, but Gore-Tex® will provide years of service, although getting it dirty can cause leaks also.

Whatever choices you make in dressing for the outdoors, always have a backup plan, water, snacks, and more insulation that you think you’ll need. This can all be carried in a daypack. Weather turns nasty, accidents happen, and Murphy is always present.

Last modified on: March 15th 2012.
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