Most gear is something to which I pay little attention. Packs are a fascination and thus an object of consistent experimentation, even if for example I currently have five very solid 3000+ cubic inch ones in the closet right now. Most other things, such as stoves and shelters, are boxes to be checked once before moving on. So long as I have a few which work well, interest is largely absent.
The glaring exception is clothing, towards which I put too much time and money. Outdoor clothing is hard to get right; why else would there be so much of it? Even when we can avoid the impulse to merely pursue the novel and fashionable (the answer to the previous question, as well as to why most outdoor brands and shops are able to stay in business), it is easy to build up a seemingly redundant closet in the quest to have an ideal system. Andrew Skurka recently took a good swing at cutting through the noise, asserting that one could backpack in all 3 seasons (read: outside deep winter) with only 13 items of clothing. It’s a good departure for discussion, as well as a way to stay the madness of excessive clothing acquisition. In the following I’ll look at Skurka’s suggestions, and make a few comments of my own.
Before I get started, I need to mention the first rule of being an intelligent consumer of outdoor clothing: pay attention to fabric weight. I’ll reference it constantly below. Good clothing companies today make fabric weight a prominent part of their web and marketing copy. If they don’t, I approach them with trepidation. If they won’t or can’t tell me over their chat or via email, I don’t buy their stuff. (Get your house in order First Lite.)
Skurka’s 13 items are as follows. with links to the relevant posts:
- short sleeved shirt
- long sleeved shirt
- bug shirt
- running shorts
- fleece top
- insulated jacket
- insulated pants
- rain jacket
- rain pants
- sleeping shirt
- sleeping bottoms
The first or core layers of 3 season clothing serve to protect externally from sun, bugs, and abrasion, and internally from chafing and temperature regulation issues. The first six items on the above list all fall into this category. In his various posts, Skurka highlights the extent to which these objectives can conflict. Short or long sleeved baselayer shirts are a good example. In this application merino wool has, in the last decade, become the fabric of reference due to its superior moisture managing properties. Merino is not inherently warmer than various synthetics when wet, despite frequent claims to the contrary, but it does manage evaporative cooling by absorbing sweat into the wool fibers and releasing them in a moderated fashion. Merino also does an excellent job of resisting odor, though given enough use between washings it is not immune to bacterial growth. The only reason, aside from cost, merino has not taken over completely is the difficulty of balancing performance and longevity. Thicker merinos (>150 grams/meter) have too much fiber and hold too much moisture too long. I’ve written them off for anything aside from casual, town use, and know exactly no one including cold-blooded light sweaters who having used sub 150 gram wool have any desire to go back. The problem with thinner merino is poor abrasion resistance, something to which Skurka aludes both in writing and in pictures. The latest and best solution is to blend polyester with the wool, two examples being Rab Meco 120 and Patagonia Merino 1, both of which are 65% merino and 35% polyester, and 120 grams per square meter (3.5 ounces per square yard). These shirts are identical in function and appearance, and blend the characteristics of modern merino and polyester fairly well. They dry fast, but not as quick as the lightest pure poly fabrics, while still having a modicum of moisture buffering. They resist stink well, but not as well as pure wool. They’re tougher than the pure wools of comparable weights, but not as durable as pure polyester. They are currently my preference in shirts for all conditions above 20 degrees F, at which point I swap over to the warmer Capilene 4.
Skurka does an excellent job encapsulating the problems with bug shirts, and I have nothing to add, other than that I dislike heavy bug pressure more than any other adverse environmental factor, and go out of my way to avoid them both by altering my routes to camp in suitable places, and not visiting certain areas at certain times of year.
For 3 season backpacking, Skurka correctly identifies that pants are more often used for leg protection than for warmth. I could see making due with one pair for everything, though two would be better. A ~200 grams/meter pair with a bit of stretch (less than 10% lycra content, such as the Black Diamond Modernist Rock jeans) are good for colder weather and abusive applications, while warm weather pants are ideally in the 120 grams/meter range. Fabrics this thin are not inherently strong, so they should be built as tough as weight requirements allows: 100% nylon plain weave or taslan. Pants like these are not easy to find, fishing pants seem to be the most likely candidates. Aside from gloves and socks, pants are the garment which wears out first and most often. Light nylon pants won’t last forever, perhaps 2-3 years for me, but their ability to dry fast and not cause swamp ass when it’s 85F out more than justifies the cost.
Lace closure from a destroyed pair of Patagonia board shorts added to BD Rock jeans. The best pant/short closure, in my book. I also removed the belt loops from these pants to eliminate all possible pressure points.
Now, a brief digression concerning pant features. As with just about anything, less is more, though not absolutely. Waist bands should be wide and slick. I see no reason for belts (under any circumstances). Buttons are a good way to close pants, the Patagonia ones which are sewn on with a length of 3/8″ webbing are the best, as thread always seems to wear out. I really like the closure system on Patagonia board shorts; the lighter, shorter Minimalist Wavefarers are great if you can find them on sale. Plain stretch waist bands are good if done properly, but most companies integrate too much stretch into these pants and they end up sagging under heavy packs, which is no good.
Rise through the crotch of pants (and shorts) should be low. The old style of waists up by the belly don’t actually add more protection, they just add an extra 2 inches above the natural waist for the pants to sag. This often co-occurs with the aforementioned excess stretch.
Back pockets on pants are useless, except insofar as they function as a double seat (which is something I’d like to see more of, a la the old Patagonia Stand-Up pants). Front pockets in the jeans model are fine, though I could do without them for the rest of my life. Cargo pockets are the best, so long as they’re baffled or pleated just enough but not too much, and places up high so your snickers and knives aren’t knee-dragging all day. Most importantly, cargo pockets should zip forward to open, and back to close. That almost no clothing designers have had buskwacking unzip their zip-back-to-open cargo pockets is something I cannot understand.
Skurka and I disagree on the particulars of layer 7, though we agree on the principle that folks often need a fourth layer beyond the basic trinity of baselayer, insulated jacket, and rain jacket. I’ve long been a fan of a light softshell windshirt, something which both functions as a light insulating layer and provides a degree of wind and precipitation resistance. The issue with early iterations of this idea, like the Patagonia Traverse and before that the Cloudveil Veiled Peak anorak, were fabrics which were too thick and had too much lycra, thus holding too much water and drying too slowly. The Black Diamond Alpine Start has been a favorite since it came out. There are a few things I’d change, but the fabric is simply amazing. It breathes well enough to be a bug and shade shirt so long as you’re not moving too hard, and at a very light 80 grams/meter is astoundingly tough. Skurka casts aspersions on the traditional tightly woven nylon windshirts for having a narrower window of proper use, and I agree. The Houdini et al. are on the verge of irrelevance.
There is a lot to be said for a plain 100 weight fleece shirt or vest. Classic microfleece is great because it traps a ton of air for the weight, and has no lycra, so it dries super fast. Simple is best, as mesh backed pockets and lycra binding trap water. You can get these super-cheap from places like LL Bean and Target, but my favorite currently is the Rab Micro Pull-On. The Micro uses particularly light fleece (160 grams/meter versus the more common 200), and fits incredibly well, especially through the shoulders and arms. A fleece shirt is a key second layer for cold rain, packrafting, and people who get cold easily. I can’t see myself doing without either the windshirt or the fleece shirt, and not infrequently use both on the same trip.
Insulated coats aren’t too complicated, down for dry places, synthetic for wetter ones. I’ve only had a limited amount of experience, but thus far I’m not impressed with the types of dri-down. Alpha and the other more breathable synthetics are very promising. My main advice here is to pay attention to insulation weight, and not be too much of a gram counter in this area. If I’m bringing a warm jacket, I want it to be warm. 60 grams/meter synthetic fills are summer weight, 100 is more versatile. 200 weight fleece is roughly as warm as 60 grams/meter Primaloft, which is roughly as warm as a hooded down sweater with 2-3 ounces of 800 fill. I disagree with Skurka about needing insulated pants for 3 season stuff; I haven’t used my Primaloft pants at all for over a year, including winter.
Rain gear is a frequently misunderstood subject, such that I’m done having sympathy for people who don’t understand how it works and then complain about it “failing.” Modern WPB fabrics are not breathable enough to keep up with perspiration most of the time, but you can overwhelm just about any garment under all but truly cold conditions if you try hard enough. Anyone who’s worn a totally unbreathable parka under a variety of conditions will know just how breathable Goretex et al actually is, and hopefully quit bitchin’ about how it doesn’t work. Skurka is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of DWR, and the extent to which it limits the utility of WPB garments on expeditions. However, most of us with rarely if ever do a trip long enough and far enough between towns to truly make this an issue.
I remain a fan of Goretex, including the oft-maligned Paclite 2.5 layer laminate. Goretex seems more durable and more consistent than eVent or PU coatings, and I think the rigorous and innovation-stifling certification process Gore insists upon does result in better face fabrics, which overall improves durability and DWR performance.
Rain jackets need phenomenal hoods, nothing less is acceptable. Big stiffened brims, three point cinches which don’t gutter rain into your face, and enough room for hats and hoods are all must-haves. There are lots of seemingly good rain coats I’ve rejected out of hand due to bad hoods. Aside from this and nice long articulated sleeves and a long hem, all other features are optional. I can do without any pockets just fine, prefer anoraks to full zips, and dislike pit zips (though the to-the-hem cagoule-style zips OR and Arc’teryx use works well). Rain pants need knee-high or higher side zips so they can put on with shoes on.
I don’t wear rain gear unless it’s raining, I’m in a packraft, or I’m walking through high and soaking brush. This promotes rain gear longevity. Pant fabrics should be a bit heavier than jacket fabrics.
I used to regard sleep clothes with disdain, and still hardly ever bring them, but they do have a place, especially for folks (like M) who don’t produce as much body heat. She has convinced me fairly recently that there’s a massive difference between the two of us in this regard, and that damp clothes at the end of a day take a lot out of her. So I’m learning things and getting a heavier pack as I age.
Clothing systems will always be evolving, especially given that we’re is a period of legitimately rapid innovation in fabrics. Neoshell and Gore Active are two things I’d like to try and haven’t yet, among many others. That being the case, the following are what I use today, with parenthetical substitutions for those items no longer in production.
- Rab Meco 120 short sleeve
- Rab Meco 120 long sleeve
- ExOfficio Impervio (haven’t used, deferring to Skurka)
- Patagonia Minimalist Wavefarer or Patagonia Strider
- BD Modernist Rock jeans or Patagonia RPS or BD Highball (haven’t tried last two)
- Patagonia Capilene 2 boxer-briefs
- Rab Micro Pull-On
- Rab Strata Hoodie or Montbell Thermawrap Pro
- BD Stance Belay or Patagonia R1 tights
- Haglofs Gram Comp II pull (haven’t used, yet)
- BD Liquid Point
- Patagonia Capilene 4 crew
- Patagonia Capilene 2
Everyone will have their preferences, but function shouldn’t be subservient to fashion or sentimentality. In the end only experience will tell you what works