I can still remember my first experience with winter hiking. Mr. Thuot, my 8th grade math teacher, arranged a Saturday snowshoe hike on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, up above Paradise Inn. It was the winter of 1971, the snowshoe rental price was $3.00, and the only instructions we received as far as clothing was concerned was to bundle up, wear wool socks, and if we didn't own ski pants, to make sure we sprayed generous amounts of Scotch Guard on our blue jeans. I think I sprayed on most of a can of Scotch Guard, and with some borrowed gloves and my big, puffy, "Michelen Man" down jacket on, I hit the trail with my classmates. Only problem was, the coat was way too warm for the 20 degree weather. Once I started moving, I broke out into an immediate sweat. And if I took the coat off, it was just too windy and cold for the waffle weave long-johns I had on. I kind of wish someone had told me about layering then ...
My down jacket had three shortcomings. First of all, it was an "all-or-nothing" approach. Either I was wearing it, and I was very, very, warm, or I had to remove it, and I was much too cold. Second, the down was encased in nylon, which is a material that is far too willing to allow water (and perspiration) to pass through. And third, the down insulation completely loses it's ability to insulate when it gets wet. I hiked, I perspired, the down became wet from perspiration, and there I was, in a very wet, cold, down jacket. Not fun.
Layering has a particular advantage beyond adding to your list of things to purchase. Layering allows you to micro adjust your clothing to fit the weather and the level of your exertion. In 20 degree weather, when cross country skiing or snowshoeing, you may feel warm in lycra tights and and a long-sleeved long underwear top. Stop for long, though, and you'll be needing an insulation layer, and perhaps a wind blocking layer. By layering, each piece of clothing becomes an integral part of the whole.
This phrase does not exist simply as an example of alliteration. Cotton is extremely absorbant, so much so, in fact, that they make bath towels out of the stuff. Need I say more? If you want to experience the process of getting wet, becoming cold, losing your ability to think coherently, and happily freezing to death, cotton just might be the material of choice for you.
Now it's time to outline those three layers you're going to be talking about with that pushy salesperson at Expensive Mountain Sports (or wherever).
The Inner Layer
It's not rocket science, folks. We're talking long underwear here, and all those wonderful proprietary brand names are hiding a simple fact. It's all some form of spun polyester. Polyester is hydrophobic, which means it doesn't absorb water. To test this theory, take your favorite spun polyester long underwear top (or bottom) and use it as a towel after you shower. 'Nuff said? Before you write to complain, I'll go ahead and admit that polypropylene, wool, and silk are also valid inner layers. Except that Polypropylene absorbs odor, wool itches when it's against your skin, and silk is about as durable and long lasting as a fart in a windstorm.
The Middle Layer
For most people, the options for that insulating middle layer really boil down to just two. I'm not including down in the discussion, because although I own some down clothing, even in sub-zero weather I have not found a need to use a down jacket. Some people love down, it's wonderfully compressible, and even I have a certain fondness for my driloft covered down sleeping bag. But when it comes to middle layers, it's simply a matter of style. Is it polyester fleece, or is it wool? I can't answer that. Fleece is certainly lighter, but a nice wool sweater has been many a hiker's best friend. My only advice, should you buy fleece, is to buy a product that is made from Polartec and/or Polarfleece, which is produced at Malden Mills. The owner of Malden Mills clearly fits into the "cool" category. When his factory burned down, he kept his nonworking employees on the payroll until he could get his factory back up and running. What a guy!
The Outer Layer
It's time to talk about shells, which keep out the wind, the rain, the snow, and whatever else nature throws your way. That salesperson is going to march you right over to a rack of jackets and pants made with Gore-tex. Gore-tex is expensive, but for many people, it's worth the price. Many clothing manufacturers have a proprietary substitute for Gore-tex, but there is usually a difference. Gore-tex is a breathable membrane, which allows water vapors to pass through, but does not allow water to pass through. It's cool to put the membrane over a cup of hot coffee, watch the steam pass effortlessly through the Gore-tex, and then invert the cup and watch how the coffee does not.
Unfortunately, most (not all) of the competition in the waterproof, breathable outerwear market does not use a product that consists of a breathable membrane. Instead, they put a coating on some other fabric (often nylon or polyester). In time, this coating, unlike Gore-tex, can degrade (or worse, delaminate), impacting the garmet's breathability and water resistance.
Less expensive alternatives to a garmet with a waterproof, breathable barrier would be microfiber (very finely spun polyester), a coated nylon windbreaker, or even those goofy waterproof rain jackets and pants that you may remember being forced to wear as a young child. Just don't buy yellow, okay?
Copyright © 1997, David Lister