Fighting islands of moisture

“Go for a short walk, and you’ll know if your gear fits. You might notice the stretch, the lightness, the breathability, the warmth. But you won’t really know if it can keep you alive.”

-Sitka blog

ul-wpb-jackets-sotmr-part1-1Fire during the 2011 Wilderness Classic, still the coldest I’ve ever been.  Photo by Paige Brady.

The article/post linked to above is worth reading, not for the hyperbolic and jingoistic aspects of its marketing slant, but because it hammers home an essential truth of dressing for the woods: under duress the most important characteristic of your clothing system is not the ability to keep external moisture off you, but the ability to allow internal moisture to escape efficiently without chilling you excessively.

This is accomplished via several different tactics.  Having base and insulation layers which respond to thermal pressure and move water quickly is one.  Having enough shell gear, but not too much (i.e. wind gear rather than WPB if it isn’t raining) is another.  The most effective and important, by far, is having pieces which hold the smallest amount of moisture possible.

My upper body system for the 2011 Classic was a Capilene 1 stretch tshirt, Capilene 2 longsleeve, hi loft fleece hoody, and a Goretex anorak.  The tshirt was a poor choice, with a relatively high spandex content, and was consistently hard to dry all trip.  A cap 2 tshirt would have made all the difference.  My lower body system consisted of a pair of cap 2 undies, Patagonia Traverse pants, and Montane windpants.  The windpants let my legs get soaked, so I brought real rain pants the next year, and while the Traverse pants dried fairly fast, they were still the weak link, and were replaced the next year with a pair of more fragile but lighter and faster drying 100% nylon supplex pants.  For serious conditions little details like 4% versus 0% spandex content are absolutely worth sweating.  It’s ironic that Sitka, of all companies, published this, as they are more guilty than most of excessive spandex use.  The previous generation of the Traverse zip-t, for example, was without question the worst midlayer I’ve ever used due to an outsized ability to hold tight to sweat and water.

As a textile spandex doesn’t hold on to moisture, but in almost all occasions it is turned into a garment whose structure is a big island of moisture, and avoiding lycra/spandex is thus a good first rule for eliminating islands of moisture.  That said, fabric thickness correlates more directly with drying time than any other metric; the thinner the fabric, the faster it dries.  This is why the new lightweight Capilene (80 grams/meter!) is so exciting, and why the Alpine Start hoody is the best softshell fabric around.  Pants remain a tricky one, as they often need to be a bit heavier for durabiity’s sake.  Go as thin, tight-woven, and light as possible.  Hats are another tricky issue, but Arc’teryx figured that one out a while ago.  Insulating hats should be on the thin side, numerous, and able to layer over each other without causing eye-bugage.  And so forth.  These principles apply, with some modification, to items like backpacks and shelters.

It’s easy to dismiss concerns like these as only applying to a small percentage of users in eccentric circumstances, and while it is true that the extreme wetness which comes with packrafting did more than anything to open this issue up for me, it is equally true that if you spend enough time far enough from the car you’ll get bitten by islands of moisture.  It can even happen during warm months in the desert, though such equipment and body stress is far less probable.

R0000416The day after a full day of hiking in a downpour, on the Heaphy Track, NZ.  Had we not stayed in a hut with a coal stove the night before life would have been challenging.

An investment in these clothing and equipment details pays dividends in comfort most of the time, and in a lighter pack which contains a larger margin for error most of the time.  Occasionally, having already minded these things will make it much easier for you to save your own life.  Not as sexy as “survival” stuff like firestarters and knives, but far more significant.

10 responses to “Fighting islands of moisture”

  1. I have a couple of Cap 1 t-shirts, they were relegated to work out shirts some time ago- agreed-very slow drying. Look forward to giving the new lightweight Capilene a go, doubtful it will replace my Merino 1 layers for longer trips, but for high exertion stuff might be the cat’s a$$????

    I know a lot of folks eschew fleece in favor of more exotic offerings, but I have several fleece garments (both “100” weight and Cap 4 stuff) that still have a prominent place in my clothing quiver.

  2. Unfortunately, the biggest purchasers of those products are dog-walkers, or hunters who sit in the tree all day long.

    I wish there are more products for us mountain athletes, but we are not the money-makers for most corporations.

  3. Reading the original post made me chuckle, since my stepfather went through that during his outdoorsmanship course his father made him take during high school during the ’70s. They had to wade into an old ice-fishing pond or lake, then try to dry off their gears when it’s all slush and no dry snow to wick the moisture.

  4. Navy SEAL stories seem to have an uncanny ability to tap into something in the typical male psyche and subsequently sell just about any product or idea….but nonetheless the Sitka piece was a worthwhile and thought provoking read, thanks Dave.

  5. Any thoughts on the cap 4? I just realized my cap 4 hoody has 8% spandex. I haven’t had it in really wet weather yet other than some cold rainy days at the end of our Bob trip, but I was able to keep my top layers dry. After reading this I’m wondering if some regular classic fleece in a light fabric would be a better option.

    1. Against the skin cap 4 is no problem. The light weight (~120 g/m) and surface area see to that. As a mid layer it is less good, and 100 weight fleece is I think better for nasty weather.

  6. You might find this excerpt from Notes of an East Siberian Hunter by Alexander Alexandrovich Cherkassov,1865, reprinted, trans. Vladimir Beregovoy and Stephen Bodio (2012) interesting:

    “It may also happen that you become drenched while hunting, but do not want to go home, because you still want to hunt and stay out overnight; in such a case, my advice is not to warm up by the bonfire while wearing wet clothes. The best thing is for you to take your clothes and squeeze out the water, then put them on again, drink a little vodka or hot tea, and walk for some time to warm up from inside, not from the fire. It is better to sleep with wet feet than to dry them by the fire. It stands to reason that when it rains, one should look for comfort in a tent, or in a balagan as Siberians say. I should say that Siberian promyshlenniks hunting in the same places year after year keep spare balagans nearby in case they are caught out by bad weather. They make them of larch wood and birch bark, and some promyshlenniks who live in well-forested areas, even build log cabins.
    I am sure that many gentle hunters will scoff and joke at my advice. Many would disagree, saying that it would be better to spend the night in dry clothes than in wet ones, and with wet feet. Perhaps they would also say that it is good for him to say so, when he has an iron-strong constitution, or they would say that it is good for a Siberian promyshlennik, tough and accustomed to all kinds of discomfort, because he has been raised that way since his youth. Maybe they are right, but I write what I have experienced myself and actually saw others do. Indeed, when roaming for several days in a row through the wet fall weather, getting wet and cold until my teeth were chattering as though I had a fever, I always did as I said and have never had any bad consequences. However, when I followed the advice of others and put on dry underwear, socks, warmed up by the fire, rubbed my wet feet with vodka, etc., then I got a runny nose, cough and attacks of fever. Of course, one man’s nature may be different from the nature of another! In my view a man with weak health, sickly, and gentle or khlibkyi as Siberians would say, is not a hunter and especially not in our country of East Siberia! Here, one needs to be in vigorous health.”

    1. Of coure he followed up with:

      “I still have not finished my comments. When, in spring or fall, you have to walk across small creeks and wet your feet, I advise you to drink a wine glass of vodka and then run a little until your feet warm up. After this, you can be sure that you will not suffer any bad consequences to your health. Your boots and socks will dry up by themselves on your feet. If after this you ride your horse for a long time with cold wet feet, you will be more likely to catch a cold.”

      Some passage about getting lost in the forest then closed with:

      “I will say once again that to a highbrow bird hunter, who never spent a night in the forest, never heard what the taiga is, and who has never spent a night outside, not just in winter, but even in summer, who has never had wet feet while walking in the swamps in his huge long cork-soled boots, that some of my advice may seem wild and unwise, etc… How could it be possible that my advice would seem anything but wild to such a hunter? I will tell you that the inexperienced are mistrustful! When hunting in Siberia, such a hunter should recall my advice and thank me. In our country it is rare to hunt without spending a night or two or more in the forest, woods, or in the fields. Our hunting grounds are vast, and a Siberian promyshlennik does not like to go hunting for one day; in his view hunting must be “real” for him to please his soul! “What you can do obydenkom-to (in one day)? You will barely have time to reach the place.” Indeed, riding in the taiga is very difficult; you must ride slowly on paths, over mountains, in forests, swamps and thickets!”

  7. […] under the same rain coat while hiking, and dried in a way which was nothing short of astonishing.  Islands of moisture within midlayers (indeed, all layers) are a small thing that can make for big misery during […]

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