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What to Wear: Looking Good and Feeling Comfortable

Copyright 2004 by Michael Brochstein

On any group hike one can always divide the group in a number of ways. One less common way is to divide the group in two with one group composed of those whose clothing works for them and the other composed of those whose clothing works against them. I don’t claim any great fashion sense but I hope the words below will help you pick out clothing so that you’ll agree that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”.

What is Bad Clothing? Bad clothing is clothing that gets wet from perspiration and doesn’t dry out quickly so that you don’t look too nifty and may be quite cold when a breeze comes, the temperature drops or when you stop for a while (i.e. for lunch). Bad clothing smells worse than “good clothing” after vigorous use. Bad clothing doesn’t shield you adequately from rain or wind. Bad clothing doesn’t breathe well forcing you to sweat more than you would with “good clothing” and soak your clothes. Bad clothing is not comfortable. Bad clothing doesn’t last very long. Bad clothing looks poor on you after vigorous use.

What is Good Clothing? Good clothing absorbs little moisture and stays dry under most circumstances. Good clothing can (at times) insulate you and keep you warm when wet. Good clothing doesn’t smell terribly after vigorous use. Good clothing can (where appropriate) shield you from wind and rain. Good clothing breathes well and doesn’t make you sweat more than you have to. Good clothing is comfortable. Good clothing lasts a long time. Good clothing looks good on you after vigorous use.

The System The classic good clothing dressing strategy revolves around a system of appropriate layers that work singly or together to keep you comfortable and prepared to face the weather conditions, whatever they may be. The “system” is composed of three parts; base layer, insulation layer(s), and a shell. Sometimes all three components are needed and sometimes only may be needed.

The Base Layer The layer of clothing next to your skin is called a base layer and is the most important layer. It should feel like a second skin and you should almost not be conscious of it. It is worn in winter and summer months. The only difference is it’s cut (i.e. short sleeved T-shirt, long sleeve turtleneck, etc) and weight (ultra-thin to extra heavy). This layer breathes, it absorbs very very little moisture even when you are perspiring heavily (it can get wet at times), it “wicks” moisture from your skin, it dries very quickly, it looks good and doesn’t smell badly after vigorous use, it’s very comfortable and it’s not made out of cotton.

One non-obvious issue with base layers is their sizing. In order for them to act as a second skin and wick moisture from your body, they need to be in close contact with your skin. A loose fit will not allow this layer to do its job. I would advise those uncomfortable with wearing a close fitting top (for modesty or other reasons) to wear a loose fitting layer over this base layer. Virtually all modern base layers made today are synthetic and come in many flavors including Patagonia Capilene, Coolmax, polypropylene (polypropylene can smell funky after one use), and many others.

Insulating Layer(s) Traditionally wool was the most common insulating material worn. Today, fleece has taken its place in most situations. On extra cold days, down filled garments may be worn. None are made of cotton.

Shells Shells protect you from rain and/or wind. Some do one but not the other of these jobs well and some do both well. Good ones breathe so that you don’t sweat more than you need to.

Multipurpose Layers There are materials made from Windstopper® (or similar) fleece that insulate and are wind resistant, some base layers are thick enough to also insulate very well, and generally waterproof shells are also wind resistant.

What Do I Wear? There are many good base layers. I’ve only tried a few and have been happy with Patagonia Capilene, Coolmax based garments, and Terramar EC2. A fleece jacket is my most common insulating material and I always make sure there are armpit zippers for ventilation. According to conditions, I have worn, when needed, a Gore-Tex based rain shell or a light wind shirt (i.e. Marmot Dri-Clime jacket) that offered a small amount of rain protection.

WARNING/DISCLAIMER: Outdoor activities can be dangerous and the information furnished on this website may contain errors!

Comments: Michael_Brochstein@MABsystems.com

Last revision: November 15, 2004

Copyright © 2008 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.