”There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”
- Swedish proverb
A hiker’s attire is all about practicality. Substance over style. We need items that will keep us dry when it’s wet, warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Breathable. Comfortable. Lightweight. Durable. Affordable. Did I miss anything? Oh yes, for purposes of weight and space, all of these attributes should be accounted for in as few as items as possible. Is all that too much to ask for?
TORSO & LEGS
The Layering System
By dressing in multiple lighter layers, as opposed to a single thick or bulky layer, the hiker is able to better adapt to a wider range of conditions. Layers can be removed or added according to the weather and/or exertion level at any given time. Ideally your clothing selections should compliment one another, so that each layer works together as part of a flexible overall system designed to maximize efficiency and minimize duplicity. If the conditions demand, you should be able to comfortably wear all of your clothing simultaneously.
- The foundation layer worn next to the skin.
- Keeps the skin dry by wicking away moisture.
- Dries quickly. Lightweight.
- Avoid cotton which clings to the skin when wet, doesn’t insulate and takes longer to dry.
- Options: Merino wool, polyester, silk and polypropylene.
Upper Body: In three season conditions, I invariably wear a polyester long sleeve shirt. Lightweight and breathable, this has been my baselayer of choice since the 1990′s. The long sleeves afford protection against the sun in hot, shadeless environments, yet also provide warmth when the temperatures get cooler. In winter-like conditions, I will go for a merino wool base layer (eg. Icebreaker), the weight of which will vary according to the temperature (ie. the colder it is, the heavier the baselayer). Click here for a comprehensive overview of the pro’s and con’s of merino wool and synthetic base layers from the staff at Backpackinglight.com.
Lower Body: I have always hiked in shorts (nylon or polyester) rather than pants. Personal preference. Shorts feel less restrictive; particularly when walking uphill. In hot, shadeless conditions I will use sunscreen, which along with my natural hairiness provides all the protection I need. The only exceptions to my “shorts policy” is in consistently sub-zero temperatures, or if I am hiking in countries such as Pakistan or Tibet where the wearing of shorts is not considered culturally appropriate. In such cases I will wear lightweight synthetic hiking pants. For cooler night time conditions, I usually wear thermal underwear made of Patagonia Capilene or merino wool.
- The warmth layer/s. Works by trapping dead air space. Keeps the warm air in and the cold air out.
- Manages the moisturefrom the wicking or base layer through a balance of absorption and letting excess moisture escape through its fibres.
- Can be multiple items, depending on the temperature and conditions. More than one insulating layer gives you increased flexibility; particularly important when you are likely to encounter a broader range of temperatures.
- Options: Fleece, down and synthetic fibre variants such as Primaloft and Polarguard.
Upper Body: In cold and dry conditions I generally use a down vest or jacket as my principal insulating layer. Down offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio, however, is not well suited to areas subject to regular heavy rainfall. In cold and wet conditions, I usually go for a fleece or synthetic fibre item, which tend to perform better than down products when wet.
Lower Body: Unless the temperatures are consistently well below zero (in which case you may consider carrying down pants), a combination of thermal underwear and water resistant or waterproof pants should be sufficient to keep your legs warm.
- Protection from the wind, rain and snow.
- Generally waterproof or water resistant garments, which are quick drying and breathable.
Upper Body: For the upper body, in cold and dry conditions I will generally wear a Wind Shirt/shell. These garments are lightweight, very breathable, water-resistant and as the name suggests, keep the wind out. What they won’t do is keep you dry in consistently wet weather. In cold, constantly rainy conditions, I have found a waterproof outer layer made of eVent (a microporous membrane) provides the best overall combination of waterproofness and breathability.
Lower Body: For the lower body, in cool and dry conditions I will wear featherweight windpants. In cool and wet conditions, I go with a slightly heavier (though still relatively light) waterproof model.
Multi Functional: If you are looking for multi-functional rainwear it is hard to go past a poncho tarp. These items provide rain protection (generally down to the knees), shelter, in addition to acting as a packcover. It should be noted, however, that although these garments may be waterproof, they are not breathable. Common poncho tarp fabrics include silnylon and cuben fiber. That being said, when it comes to ponchos, the lack of breathability is somewhat offset by the loose fitting nature of the garment.
HEAD, HANDS & FEET
In cold conditions, you can lose a significant proportion of your body heat via the head, hands and feet. These are the areas, which due to their high surface to mass ratio, are likely to feel the cold first. You may be decked out in the puffiest of down jackets and pants, but if your extremities are not properly protected, chances are you will be miserable. In the event that your extremities are exposed to extreme cold for an extended period, you run the risk of incurring frostnip or frostbite.
COLD: In cool, three season conditions a warm hat made of fleece or merino wool should provide adequate head insulation. Be sure that it covers your ears and the back of your neck. A good compliment to your warm hat is a wind or rain jacket, which has an adjustable hood with a stiffened peak. This will provide wind resistance and keep your head dry. For consistently below freezing temperatures, a balaclava made of merino wool or synthetic material, provides the ultimate in all-around warmth.
HOT: In hot conditions wear a hat. Wide brimmed or Foreign legion-type models both have excellent coverage. A cap or visor combined with a bandana for neck protection is also a good combination. For years I have worn an Adapt-a-cap. It is still the best sunhat I have seen.
COLD: Thin liner gloves made of merino wool or a synthetic material such as polypropylene work well as a base layer. They are breathable, weigh next to nothing and can be used solo when the temperatures aren’t too cold. Merino wool or fleece mittens are a good choice as your insulating layer in colder weather. As an outer layer, I use eVent rain mittens, which are lightweight and provide excellent wind and rain protection. Except in consistently below freezing conditions, I forgo the insulating layer and just use the liner gloves in combination with the rain mitts.
HOT: Unless you wear lightweight, breathable liner gloves, your hands will be exposed to the sun’s rays. Frequent applications of sunscreen are your best defence.
COLD: In snowbound terrain when temperatures are consistently around or below freezing, keeping your feet warm and dry is a priority due to the risk of frostnip or frostbite. In such conditions I will utilize the following system:
- Socks: Thin liner socks of merino wool as a base layer. On top of that wool blend medium weight socks.
- Footwear: Waterproof / breathable lightweight boots.
- Gaiters: MLD eVent light snow gaiters are waterproof, breathable and help prevent snow from entering in the top of my shoes/boots.
HOT: In conditions ranging from just above freezing to hot and humid, I will generally use the following system:
- Socks: Thin liner socks made of synthetic or synthetic wool blend materials. Such models are breathable, wick moisture away from the skin and are quick drying. Except in below freezing temperatures, I never wear more than one pair of socks at a time.
- Footwear: Trail running or low-cut hiking shoes which are lightweight, breathable and quick drying. Note: Everyone’s feet are different. Make your footwear choices according to what is right for you and what is suitable for the conditions into which you are venturing. See Footwear in the GEAR and GOING LIGHT sections for details.
- Gaiters: If I am hiking in desert-like or overgrown terrain where debris entering my shoes is a constant issue, I will wear lightweight, quick-dry Dirty Girl gaiters, which fit perfectly over running or trail running shoes.
For further gear recommendations and an in-depth analysis of the layering system, check out Mark Verber’s Outdoor Clothing and Footwear.