Whilst there are many of
us who have been camping in various climatic conditions over the years, there
are those who are relatively new to this activity and it is for these that I
write this article about the principles of choosing appropriate clothing for
outdoor activities. That being said, there has been much progress in clothing
technology over the past few years and even seasoned campers may find some
snippets of this article relevant.
It will be beyond the
scope of this article to recommend any particular brand of clothing item as
there are simply so many good ones out there and the final decision will be an
individual one based on intended use, fit, comfort and cost issues.
The types of clothing
taken on any camping expedition should be chosen with due consideration to the
Trip location and expected climatic conditions
Travelling to northern Queensland will entail quite different clothing
requirements than a ski trip to the Victorian High Country in winter.
Thoughtful packing of clothing, keeping in mind the potential for unexpected
weather that may be encountered. I have had to drive through 18 inches of snow
in the Victorian High Country in December! It can also be cold in north
Queensland (though what you northerners call cold amuses me constantly!) I
always have at least one spare layer for those unexpected conditions.
personal activity levels
Some of us
enjoy high activity levels in the outdoors and spend a great deal of time
walking, skiing, paddling, carrying packs, even running, whilst others tend to
do things a little more sedately. You know who you are! Do you gently pull into
camp, quietly set up the camper whilst nibbling on a pre-prepared cheese and
biscuit, then sit down to a few quiet ales with the other campers? Or do you
hurriedly set up the camper so that you can don your 15kg camera pack and scoot
off to the top of the nearest mountain to photograph the sunset, then run back
to the camp to placate the ‘other half’ and help out with the dinner and bathing
the children? Clothing requirements for theses different approaches to camping
will differ significantly. Standing around in cooler weather still requires some
warm clothes, but there will be fewer requirements to adhere to the ‘layering’
principle, the discussion of which follows.
Shelter and heating availability
In a similar way to the trip location and
expected weather conditions, the availability of shelter (ie small nylon hiking
tent, larger canvas tent, campertrailer, caravans and/or huts with or without
fires, will also have a bearing on how ‘technical’ we need to be in the choice
of clothing for our trip.
I take very different clothing for a snow camp in my
hiking tent on the Main Range, than I do for a basic weekend trip with the campertrailer down at Wilson’s Prom. in Vic. In snow, I have very little
shelter and would tend to spend a greater portion of my time ‘outside’ exposed
to the elements whilst on this type of trip. On the other hand, for me, the
campertrailer offers a much greater level of comfort and shelter from the rain
and wind, thus requiring less thought to what I’m wearing at the time. It is
somewhat difficult to tow the campertrailer into snow conditions….believe me
I’ve tried it!
Level of responsibility
You may ask what this
has to do with clothing, but as a teacher or leader of others, you MUST be able
to be sufficiently comfortable in all conditions, so that you can provide
instruction and assistance to others in your care. If you are struggling with
the cold and desperately trying to stay warm yourself, how can you possibly
provide support and assistance to others. This also has much to do with
familiarity with and experience in the intended environment. I always like to
have at least one layer ‘spare’ to offer to others who may be cold or simply for
myself to be ‘extra’ warm so that I can concentrate on the task at hand, rather
reactions to climatic conditions
I’m sure we
all have friends that ‘don’t feel the cold’ or are always rugged up, even when
it’s warm? I always have an extra layer on, compared to one of my friends who
I regularly camp with. I feel the cold more than he does. This is a recognised
factor in packing clothing for any trip. Some simply need more than others.
I’m sure you already know which category you fall into.
Now that we have these
basics under control, it’s time to fully explain the most commonly followed
principle in choosing outdoor clothing, particularly for cold, wet and windy
The principle of layering is really quite simple, but there are some
misconceptions about the why’s and how’s. I like to think of layering in 3
basic layers; Base Layer, Insulation Layer and Shell Layer
This consists of a layer that sits next to the skin. Its primary purpose
is to keep you dry by a process called ‘wicking’. Many synthetic materials will
not absorb much water and therefore will ‘wick’ moisture away from the skin. It
is this process that helps keep us warm, particularly when active and sweating.
If the layer next to the skin is made from cotton, the material will absorb a
great deal of water and the result is a cold wet layer of clothing stuck to the
skin which will draw body heat away and therefore give the feeling of being
cold. This also has the potential through conduction to speed up the process of
Materials that should be considered for base layer clothing include
polypropylene, superfine merino (wool) and very thin Polartek or fleece
garments. The most common of these is polypropylene (‘polypro’) and it works
well in most situations.
I personally find polypro garments a little too body
hugging for me and prefer thermal underwear that sits just a little more
casually. There are many variations on thermal underwear for base layering and
the best advice I can give is to visit a proper ‘outdoors’ shop like Paddy Pallin, Kathmandu, Bogong, Mountain Designs and such like as their staff are
generally ‘outdoor’ type people who participate in a variety of outdoor
activities and are well placed to give good advice, unlike many of those who
work in ‘disposal’ stores.
Whilst talking about underwear, it should be mentioned that the above also
exists for your normal ‘undies’ or ‘briefs’, which are mostly made from cotton
or cotton synthetic mix. Whilst we may take the advice of layering and be warm
everywhere else, having a soggy wet crotch and bum is still unpleasant to say
the least. ‘Undies’ or ‘briefs’ as well as sports type bras for our fairer sex,
can also be purchased in similar materials to that of synthetic thermal
underwear, for the ultimate in comfort.
As the title suggests, the purpose of this layer is to provide insulation, to
keep you warm. Good insulation layers will trap copious amounts of air and it
is this air that heats up and keeps you warm. Examples include wool, fleece (in
its various guises ie ‘Polartek’, ‘Polarfleece’, ‘Ecofleece’, ‘Windbloc’, ‘Windfleece’,
‘Windstopper’, ‘Softshell’, and a myriad of other trade names) and ‘down’.
When I first started bushwalking, woollen garments were the most common clothing
item and variations included woollen trousers (ex-army of course), woollen
sweaters (home knitted), woollen shirts of varying types, woollen socks, beanies
gloves etc. Wool is a good insulator and will retain some warmth even when
damp, but it will absorb about 30% of it’s own weight in water and thus become
quite heavy when wet.
It is certainly a better proposition than cotton or the
common ‘windcheater’ type material as cotton will absorb up to 80% of its own
weight in water, hence why they feel so heavy when washed. This needs to be
avoided at all costs in cold environments, particularly when active and
producing sweat. Other downsides to woollen clothing items are that many people
find them less ‘comfortable’ and ‘itchy’ when worn against the skin.
days, wool garments are being manufactured from ‘Superfine Merino’ and are
reputed to be very warm, non-irritating and with many of the advantages of
fleece without the disadvantages of wool. The downside, from what I can see is
the cost. They may certainly be an option if you prefer natural fibres over
synthetic and are prepared to spend the extra money.
For the vast majority of us who are looking to stay warm and dry in outdoor
environments, the best choice for insulation layering is fleece. A good quality
fleece jacket is warm, will not absorb much water, will keep you warm even when
damp, is easy to care for, dries quickly, is comfortable and now relatively
inexpensive (keep an eye out for the summer sales at the outdoor shops!).
Fleece garments come in many forms, either with or without a windproof membrane
and in a variety of ‘weights’ or thicknesses.
My advice is to have several
thinner layers of fleece, which allows greater adjustment of clothing to ensure
comfort over a wider temperature range. Usually two fleece layers are
sufficient, one being a quite thin layer for when the conditions are cold, but
the activity levels are producing just a little perspiration and a thicker layer
(perhaps with windproof membrane) for when you’re just sitting around and not
When it’s really cold, they can both be worn together to provide
even more warmth. Conversely, when very active, such as cross country skiing or
bushwalking with a rucksack, I often just wear thermals and a shell layer for
protection against the wind, rain and snow.
For the ultimate in warmth with the very minimum weight and bulk, one cannot go
past ‘down’ or ‘Superdown’ garments. Down garments are made in jackets, vests,
full ‘alpine-style’ suits and down trousers. Do not confuse this with the
‘ski-suits’ often seen at the snow resorts. Mostly, these are simply cheap
synthetic padded garments which will absorb water like a sponge and become quite
cold when wet.
Quality down items will cost many hundreds or even thousands of
dollars and nowadays mostly come with a very light wind/waterproof outer layer (eg.
Gore Dryloft), generally to keep the snow from soaking into the garment. Though
most of these suits are still not ‘seam-sealed’ and will still leak a little.
In damp conditions, a shell layer will still need to be worn to keep the jacket
dry as down looses almost all of its insulating properties when wet. In this
situation, the down ‘clumps’ together, thus not allowing it to trap air and it
becomes very heavy and cold.
Down is available in various ‘mixes’ of feather and down (ie 80/20 etc) and the
highest quantity of ‘down’ is the best and warmest as it traps the most amount
of air. There are a number of down jackets available that would be suitable for
replacement of fleece jackets, particularly the warmer jacket in a multi layered
system as described above. I often carry a thin fleece for mildly active wear
and a down jacket/vest combination instead of a thicker fleece to save space and
weight in my rucksack.
For general camping with a camper trailer, I doubt the need exists for down
clothing items and my advice would be to stick with quality fleece garments.
As the term implies, this layer is to provide protection from the elements: ie
wind and rain. To be really effective, the shell layer must, of course, be
water and wind proof, but must allow moisture created from within the layering
system (sweat) to escape. This ability to ‘breathe’ is vital to the
effectiveness of the shell layer as a garment that does not breathe well, will
allow a build up of moisture inside the garment causing you to get very damp
from the inside and dampness = cold. If this feature were not so important, we
would all be walking around in $5 plastic rain coats from Big W.
As with fleece garments, there are many different brand names of materials use
to make breathable shell garments, the best known of which is Gore-Tex.
Gore-Tex is simply a membrane that can be applied to many types of material to
create garments, such as jackets, over-pants, beanies, gloves, socks and even
Shell layers made from Gore-Tex will be available in different
‘weights’ with varying ‘layers’ of base material, thus making selection fairly
complicated. Generally speaking, the thicker and heavier garments tend to be
quite robust, abrasion resistant, tear proof, but a little less breathable,
whilst the lighter Gore-Tex items tend to breathe better but may not last as
long with heavy use. Other materials to look out for include: ‘Hydronaut’ by
Mont Equipment, ‘Reflex’ by Macpac, ‘Triplepoint’ by Lowe Alpine, ‘Aquafoil’ by
Berghaus, plus many others.
recommendation is to find a garment that tends toward being more robust for
most of our campertrailer brethren, unless the purchaser is one of the more
active members who does a significant amount of walking or other energetic
pursuits. Also, look for a jacket that you find comfortable and allows
freedom of movement to do the tasks that need to be done in wet weather.
The length of jacket is personal preference.
I prefer shorter
jackets and to wear a light pair of Gore-Tex over-pants when required,
rather than having a very long jacket and wet legs.
Whilst on the topic
of comfort, I tend to dislike the ‘cattleman’ style jackets such as the Drizabone and similar, due to the fact that they are very stiff,
particularly when wet and are quite uncomfortable. The lining material can
get very damp, as it is made of cotton and thus does nothing to help keep us
The jacket can also be
very difficult to don when damp and also difficult to get off when
required. They are heavy, particularly when wet and certainly don’t breathe
as well as something like a Gore-Tex jacket. They don’t come with a hood
and will require the use of a hat to keep the rain from running down your
collar. They do, however, look the part if you want to be a pretend
cattleman. One may also assume that they would be a good option for horse
riding due to the ‘split’ that goes up the back of the garment and
presumably over the horse. I guess that’s why the mountain cattlemen use
Accessories such as hats, beanies, socks, gloves and such like are generally a
personal choice, but keep in mind that a significant amount of body heat may be
lost from an uncovered head. Materials for headwear are the same as that for
the above layering principle, though I rarely find the need for multiple
headwear layers. A fleece beanie is usually sufficient and when wet, the hood
from a quality waterproof jacket over the top.
In terms of keeping the hands warm, mittens are warmer than gloves, but are less
convenient when trying to do tasks around the camp. A pair of polypro gloves
with a pair of ‘working’ gloves will be all that is required for cold/wet
conditions around the camp site. More layers and waterproof shell layers will
be required for snow conditions.
Good old ‘Explorer’ type socks are hard to beat, perhaps with a pair of polypro
socks underneath for extremely cold conditions or when long walks are
anticipated to reduce the likelihood of blisters. As with other items of
clothing, avoid cotton socks as they will get very wet and cold feet are often
the hardest part of the body to re-warm.
Trying to outfit oneself for the outdoors is an expensive challenge. There are
literally thousands of options of materials, styles, features etc and it can
become quite confusing to say the least.
I would recommend taking the above
information and perhaps sitting down to list the features of the individual
layers which you think most important to yourself, given your own interpretation
of your capacity to manage cold conditions and your activity levels..
when you have a spare day or two (because it will take that long!) go into the
city or town nearest you where there are at least a couple of different
‘outdoors’ shops and have a good look around at what’s available. Make notes
about the features, materials, prices, comfort, fit, etc and you will finally
come to what you think suitable for your needs.
It is not an inexpensive task to purchase this type of clothing all in one go,
so by all means, buy the basics first as your outdoor ‘wardrobe’ can be added to
when you find the end of season sales. It is often better to buy fleeces,
waterproof jackets etc at the end of winter when the shops are attempting to
move old stock, ready for the summer lines.
Also, I recommend not worrying too
much about colours and fashion when purchasing as many great items of clothing
do not sell well due to their perceived lack of fashion status, thus are often
found on the discount rack.
Sales staff in the mainstream ‘outdoors’ shops are fountains of useful
information. I find they generally don’t ‘push’ one brand over another and will
do their utmost to advise items that best fit the purpose to which they will be
put. Buy quality items in the first instance and you will receive many years of
useful service from this type of technical clothing.
Thanks to Mark Eddey for
this great article