The above photo is a picture of the original clothes that I used to take out hiking with me during my first year out. It consisted of a standard T-Shirt and some ex-military trousers. I used these because I thought at the time that all the talk about specialist hiking clothing was just hype! That and the fact that these were all I had.
However after the first year I transitioned to the clothes shown below:
Why did I make the transition? Was I caught up in the marketing hype? Or did these new items of kit actually make a difference?
Over the rest of this post I’m going to go through my current kit load out for a backpacking trip and explain the pros and cons that the new kit brought to the party.
Before I go on to the specifics though, I thought I’d better have a quick talk about how many clothes I tend to take with me…
Rather controversially, when I’m out and about I do not carry any spare clothes – none whatsoever. This might alarm and shock some people, but there is sound thinking to this!
The new clothes dry very quickly when wet. Plus, I figure that it is pointless changing into dry clothes if it is still raining! If you are in a tent, then the other spare layers come into play – including the sleeping bag.
To date, I have not found a need for a spare set of clothes and have never wanted for them on the trail – so as a result I don’t carry them.
The downside to this approach is that I can be a little smelly after a week in the field and some people on public transport might not like this. That said I do try and sit away from people on the way back from a walk!
I should warn readers that what follows is going to sound like a big advert for RAB, but that is not the case. It is simply the way my kit collection has evolved!
First up is the base layer top:
When I first started hiking I didn’t think that anything could top a T-Shirt. But in a fit of madness I sucked up the marketing hype and bought 4 pairs of RAB Aeon long sleeved T-Shirts.
Note to self: that last bit sounds a little like a contradiction in terms! 🙂
When the Aeons arrived I thought that the postman had delivered the wrong package as there was no way that the parcel I was looking at was holding 4 long sleeved t-shirts. It was simply too small and way too light.
However, I cannot emphasise enough that the RAB Aeons weigh next to nothing! – 95 g vs 227 g of a standard T-Shirt. Seriously, find something that is 95 g and pick it up – there really is nothing to it!
So even before I got to wear the Aeons I was already impressed.
But the advantages don’t stop there. During a hike my old T-Shirt would get soaking wet in sweat resulting in it weighing much more and being very clingy and uncomfortable. This can be seen in the photo below taken in 2012:
The RAB Aeon’s by contrast don’t soak up sweat. You can hike all day in them and they will come back dry. This is because they are designed to ‘wick’ away your sweat into the atmosphere and I have to say they do a very good job of this too.
Also, should the Aeon’s get wet due to rain or other causes, they still feel light weight and dry exceptionally quickly.
Another advantage of the Aeon’s over a T-Shirt are the long sleeves. These can be worn up or down. When worn up they stay up unlike some other clothes that I own.
This might seem like a small thing, but it is amazing the difference rolling one’s sleeves up or down can make to one’s overall body temperature. In effect this adds more flexibility when in the field.
So are there any downsides?
Yes – just one….
It seems that the mechanism employed to wick away one’s sweat infuses some of the smell of one’s sweat into the material, which can result in them smelling of Body Odour a lot sooner than you would expect for a normal T-Shirt.
It’s one of the reasons I bought four pairs. I train in them 4 times a week during my employer’s lunch break. I suspect that if I didn’t bring a fresh pair into work everyday I would have been lynched by now – assuming anyone could get through the stench field that is!
Next up are the base layer bottoms:
After the success of the Aeons, I thought I’d splash out on some real hiking trousers too.
In the end I bought a pair of RAB Alpines and a pair of RAB Atlas trousers. These are both extremely similar in construction and I think the Atlas trousers are a replacement for the Alpines.
Once again, when they arrived, I was stunned by the RAB trousers’ lack of weight – 374 g vs the 696 g of the ex German Army trousers.
As with my old T-Shirt, the ex-army trousers absorbed sweat, rain and ground water. Once wet they weighed a ton, took an age to dry and clung very uncomfortably to one’s skin.
In contrast, the RAB trousers stay very light when wet and do not cling. Plus, just like the Aeon’s they dry exceptionally quickly.
Prior to buying the RAB trousers I would start off each new day by putting on a wet pair of trousers – not a pleasant experience.
However, with the RAB trousers, they are always dry by the following morning. In fact they sometimes get dry before it is time to turn in, which means that I can put them in my sleeping bag so that they stay warm! Bonus!
The other advantage to the dedicated hiking trousers, is that all the pockets are zippered with one of them containing a keyring holder. This means there is no chance of one losing kit from one’s pockets.
Although the RAB trousers dry very quickly, they also get wet very quickly too. The minute it starts to rain, you can see every rain drop immediately appear on the trousers. However, this is not really a downside as they still remain lightweight and cling free.
Onto the 2nd layer:
On the whole I don’t tend to wear a second layer when walking. The reason for this is that I tend to run hot when exerting myself. The upshot of this is that I’m far more likely to put a hardshell directly over my base layer rather than a dedicated second layer.
In the photo above, I had started out with a conventional fleece. This fleece is pretty warm, but quite heavy at 590 g compared to the 288 g of the RAB PS Zip Top. Its other downside is that it does not wick sweat. This means that the base layer will be wicking the sweat directly onto the fleece, where it tended to stay!
As such this makes the fleece unsuitable for the second layer.
Right now I probably sound like the font of all knowledge, but I have only recently discovered the issues with my second layer. As a result, the dedicated second layer on the right has not yet been used in anger.
The new PS Zip Top is made of a special material called Stretch Polartec. This will provide me with better warmth levels than the conventional fleece and provide the ability to wick away one’s sweat too!
So for the first time on the next walk I will be going out with a fully integrated layering system!
Next up, we look at the hardshell:
I tend to use the hardshell as a second layer and also for wind protection, even though it is primarily designed for keeping out the rain.
In fact one should not underestimate how much warmer one becomes, just by putting these items of kit on, especially the water-proof trousers. As such, on cold winter days I tend to wear both items of kit, even though it is not raining!
In terms of materials, the trousers are super cheap run-of-the-mill waterproofs, whereas the RAB Bergen is made of eVent.
eVent has performance characteristics very similar to Gortex – in fact some say it is superior to Gortex because it is more breathable. And breathability is where it is all at when it comes to clothing layers.
Recall earlier that I said my base and second layers are designed to wick away sweat? Well, if my water-proof hardshell wasn’t breathable, this moisture vapour would have no where to go and would simply condense on the inner side of the hardshell thus making one wet.
Hence the importance of investing in breathable waterproofs.
Is there a downside?
For me yes.
The RAB eVent Bergen performed very well for about two years, but on my last walk, it wetted out in around 3.5 hours resulting in me getting wet. I initially thought that this was a result of water getting in, but I have since learnt that it was down to the material being unable to breath, resulting in ones sweat condensing on the inside.
I have since re-proofed the waterproofing on both the trousers and the top. Only the next walk will be able to tell me whether this has been effective or not.
On to the next layer – the thermal layer…
I use a down jacket for my thermal layer – in this case a RAB Neutrino Plus. For those that don’t know ‘down’ refers to goose down, or rather crudely goose feathers. The jacket’s construction is very similar to that used in sleeping bags.
Down jackets are exceedingly warm, weigh very little for the warmth they provide and pack up extremely small.
I don’t bring this jacket on every walk, but if I suspect it’s going to get cold I will bring it as it is worth its weight in gold. In fact I’m always reassured, just by having it in the rucksack as I am guaranteed to always remain warm.
This jacket is so warm that even in the winter I don’t normally wear it when walking. Instead it tends to get put on when I’m stationary, like in camp.
I only remember one occasion where I had to wear it whilst walking and that was during the Black Mountains walk of March 2013. But that March was cold, really cold. In fact it was the coldest March on record for a very long time!
The big downside to the jacket is that if the down gets wet, the jacket loses its thermal protection properties. The RAB Neutrino Plus is covered in a waterproof pertex material to mitigate this, but never-the-less I try to avoid exposing it directly to rain.
The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that my thermal layer apparently does not incorporate any trousers – and you would be right!
The reason for this is that I have found that even during the coldest of days, simply wearing a pair of waterproof trousers over one’s hiking trousers is enough to keep one warm. As such, my hardshell trousers also perform double duty as the thermal layer when required!
Next up, the head!
Apart from the helmet, hats are mandatory as far as I’m concerned. I always take a winter and a sun hat regardless of the conditions that I’m expecting.
Having a warm hat on during a cold walk makes a big difference. As does having one’s head protected from the blazing sun by a rimmed hat in the summer.
I don’t really have much to say on them, other than don’t leave home without them!
Next up are the hands:
Having cold hands when walking is not very nice. In fact if it is left unchecked that cold discomfort soon spreads to the rest of your body.
These days I always carry three pairs of gloves, unless it is mid-summer, in which case I will only carry one pair.
The Mitts and WindStoppers share similar properties, but I take both because gloves easily get wet during a walk and can take a while to dry out, hence why I always take a pair.
The Ron Hills on the right are extremely light and thin, however, they do keep one’s hands warm under most circumstances. Their lightweight combined with the excellent tactile feedback that they provide means that I tend to use these more than the others.
The other advantage of the Ron Hills is that they are thin enough to be worn under either of the other two gloves should conditions warrant this.
Next up footwear!
You don’t need me to tell you how important footwear is. More than anything, your chosen footwear has to work for you otherwise you are going to end up on a pretty miserable walk.
For the last year or so I have been using the relatively heavy Scarpa Activ SL’s. I both love and hate these boots in equal measure. I hate their weight and the fact that I always end up with blisters when wearing them. But having said that, I love the fact that they are completely watertight – even when fording, stick like glue to rocky surfaces and are crampon compatible.
However, for my next walk I have bought a lighter pair of boots – the Salomon 4ds. I used to own a pair of Salomon Quest boots which are quite similar and have found them to be very comfortable and also very light. In fact the new Salomon’s are around half the weight of the Scarpa’s so I’m expecting to see some gains in my endurance performance.
Also shown above are hiking socks.
I cannot stress how important these are!
Again, my usual cynical self dismissed them as a complete waste of time. After all a sock is a sock is a sock! Right?
When I first started hiking I wore normal socks and regularly got blisters after only doing around 20 km.
However, I bought a pair of hiking socks out of curiosity and found that in my old Salomon Quest boots I could return from a multi-day walk with nary a blister in sight! I was so impressed I immediately went out and bought two more pairs.
So the moral of the story is that if you are getting blisters and haven’t yet invested in a decent pair of hiking socks, then I recommend that you do!
The final piece of kit shown above are gaiters. I originally bought these for the snow of the last walk in the Lake District where they performed very well. However, I realise that these should also perform just as well in boggy areas.
As such, the gaiters are an item of kit that I wished I had bought a long time ago!
That is all the kit that I carry. But before I go I want to briefly cover layering:
Why layer clothes? Why not put on a thick wooly garment and wear that? Well you could… However, you would lack a lot of clothing flexibility on your walk.
Clothing flexibility is especially important for multi-day walks where the weather can be quite different from day to day.
Having the ability to add or remove layers on a walk provides one with the ability to stay comfortable over a wide range of weather conditions with a relatively small set of clothing.
These days clothing is a lot more technical due to the improvements made in material technology.
As such each layer in a modern dress system has a job to do!
The base layer is designed to be lightweight and to wick away sweat to keep your body dry during its exertions.
The second layer provides additional warmth where needed, but also wicks away body sweat too.
The third layer or hardshell is designed to protect you from the elements, normally wind and rain. Its other function is to allow the sweat wicked away by the lower layers to pass through to the open air to keep you dry.
Finally the forth layer, or thermal layer is used in extremely cold conditions or when the body is relatively inactive. It is the last line of defence with regard to keeping you warm. In the UK at least it will be all you need!
When in the field one is not just limited to the rigid layers described above. One can mix and match to suit the prevailing conditions. It is this flexibility to mix and match that provides the layering system with its greatest strength.
Hopefully this post has highlighted the fact that despite my early scepticism, dedicated hiking clothing is many orders of magnitude better than standard clothing. It makes for a much more comfortable walk in a bigger variety of conditions and as an added bonus is a lot lighter to carry around too!
So if you haven’t yet invested, now is the time!