You’re off on your first day hike, and the day looks pretty nice from your bedroom window in Lake Forest Park. You slip into a t-shirt and cotton shorts, put on some nice cotton athletic socks and grab your boots and daypack. Just in case, you throw in a hooded sweatshirt and head out to meet your troop at Starbucks.
Two miles up the trail, after an elevation gain of about 1500 feet, you’re getting a little tired and the back of your shirt is soaked with perspiration. All of a sudden, the weather changes dramatically – the wind kicks up, threatening clouds move in, and it starts to rain. You’re becoming soaked and feeling cold, even with the exertion of hiking. You put on the sweatshirt, but within fifteen minutes that’s wet too, and it’s too cold to stand still and eat your lunch. To make matters worse, your feet have gotten wet and muddy inside your boots, and it feels like a blister is forming on your heel! You’re a mile from your destination, but at least three miles from the warmth of the car . . .
Sound like a nightmare? It could well turn out to be, and you haven’t even walked back to the trailhead yet. What could you have done to be better prepared?
Good preparation for hiking and backpacking starts the moment you roll out of bed and start getting dressed. The primary rule of thumb in outdoor dressing is layering, or wearing a number of thin layers that you can take off or put on as needed, instead of one or two thick items. The second important concept is wicking, or the ability of your clothing to transport moisture away from your skin so that it can evaporate.
Wicking ability is most important for the first layer of clothing next to your skin. If you get a cotton t-shirt wet, chances are it will stay wet for the duration of your hike, even if the hike lasts three or four days. In the old days, you didn’t have much choice, since cotton or wool was all that was available for undergarments. Now, however, there is polypropylene, or polypro for short – fabric made of tiny, curly and sometimes hollow fibers of polyester that draw moisture away from your body like tiny straws. You can sweat like crazy in a polypro garment and not even feel wet; if the fabric is dark you can actually see the droplets of water forming outside your shirt, which soon evaporate. You can get in your sleeping bag at night wearing damp clothing and wake up in the morning dry. And you can get by bringing less items of clothing on a trip because you can actually wash polypro and dry it out on the trail or in camp.
Start with a light or mid-weight wicking layer next to your skin. Many hardcore hikers wear lightweight polypro tights almost all the time (until the temperature hits about 80 degrees, anyway) as well as a shirt. Some of the best fabrics have names, like Coolmax® and Capilene®, and most of the respected outdoor clothing companies all make these garments in a variety of weights. REI, Patagonia, and Duofold are some quality manufacturers.
Your next layer should also have some wicking ability if possible. A fleece vest (a vest of Gore Windstopper® or similar wind-blocking fabric is an especially versatile choice) or light coat is perfect for the top. Nylon Supplex pants that can be zipped off quickly or long "Surf" style baggy nylon shorts can be worn over polypro tights to protect them. Long, heavy cotton jeans, especially the baggy gangsta styles, are not happening in the woods – they will drag with every step, and pick up about a pound of mud on each leg by the time you reach camp.
Your top layer needs to offer primarily wind and water resistance. In the Northwest, a shell of Gore-tex® or Ultrex® or other waterproof and breathable fabric is a key item of apparel that no one should be without in the woods. There are currently several types of such fabrics, basically two and three-ply. The two ply variety will have a shell fabric of nylon or polyester with a coating on the inside which is designed to let water vapor out but not let liquid water in. There will be a separate mesh lining to keep the coating away from your body. The three-ply variety has the lining bonded to the other two layers, so it is less bulky – these designs are somewhat harder to work with and the garments are considerably more expensive to produce. These fabrics (typically Gore-Tex XCR) are usually reserved for top-of-the-line ski, snowboard, and mountaineering clothing. Different brands and models of fabric will offer varying degrees of waterproofing versus breathability – none are perfect, but they’re getting pretty darn close. Whichever style you choose, be sure to look for taped seams – a plastic coating applied with heat over the sewn areas to make them waterproof. For the most versatility and easy packing, choose a shell design without added insulation and wear a fleece layer underneath if you need more warmth.
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Don’t forget your hands, feet, and head, either. Socks are really important, and your cotton school socks are not really the best thing for hiking. For one thing, the white cotton gets irretrievably dirty on a hike, but they also get and stay wet. Look for a wool-lycra or wool-polypro blend instead, and consider wearing gaiters if the trail is muddy.
You should always have a knit or stretch fleece cap and some sort of knit or fleece gloves along, even in the summer, since you never know when it’s going to get cold in the mountains.
Finally, you may want to have a set of raingear in case it gets really wet – cheap plastic ponchos work just fine for this, although if your Gore-tex® coat is good enough you may not need one. Rain pants are nice if you will be walking through much wet brush or grass, but can be heavy – you may do just as well with knee-high gaiters.
There you have it – dress smart to stay warm and dry, and you can have a great time in the mountains even when the weather doesn’t cooperate (and in the Northwest, we know how often that happens). And remember, when the weather’s lousy, most of the other people stay home!