Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Layers...

When it comes to the clothes you wear on the Trail, there are some important things to keep in mind.

First of all, be practical. Whatever clothes you bring must be lightweight and "scrunchable." In other words-- no jeans. They are too heavy and take up too much space in the backpack. You can't roll them up into a ball and fit them (along with 5 or 6 other items) into your clothing Stuff Sack.

Second, they must be quick drying. So generally, cotton or jean material is out. A lot of hiking clothes are nylon or a poly-blend, which make them lightweight, quick drying and easy to fit in a Stuff Sack.

Also, don't over pack. This was one of the things they gave me a hard time about at my "shakedown." When I originally geared-up for my six month Thru-hike, I packed four sets of hiking clothes and one set of "Town Clothes." One of the books I read mentioned that it might be a good idea to bring "town clothes" so that when you go into town to resupply, you don't look like a homeless person. And so people aren't afraid to sit near you in a restaurant.

Now I carry two sets of clothes and a "town shirt."

Another important thing to consider in regard to Trail attire is layers. You should easily be able to add on or peel away layers depending on the conditions (weather, elevation, time of day, etc.)

Let's start with the Base Layer and work our way out:

Socks-- As with all hiking attire, cotton is out. When your feet sweat, those white tube socks will never dry. So, with socks you have two options: wool or silk.

It's really a matter of preference. Most hikers feel strongly one way or the other. I haven't met anybody who likes both.

Those who wear the silk say they are warm, comfortable on the skin and lightweight. They don't like the wool because they are too bulky or "itchy."

Personally, I agree with the wool wearers. I enjoy the extra comfort of the thick socks and find the silk a little "slippery." Some say the silk bunches up and causes blisters.

Either way, wool or silk, be sure to wear your hiking socks when you buy your boots. It will make a difference in how your boots fit.

Side Note: When machine washing your wool socks at home, be aware of what else is in that load of laundry. Many pants pockets (jackets, too) are conveniently made with Velcro. And in the course of the "laundry dance," when wool meets Velcro, they quickly become one and nearly inseparable. The battle to tear them apart is like trying to dislodge a tick that is well burrowed. It also compromises the integrity of the sock as a good portion of the fibers remain on the Velcro.

Underwear-- Trying to find non-cotton underwear was a challenge. There is the silk option which is great from a "sexy lingerie" perspective, but not durable enough for hiking.

I am not a big fan of the Under Armour products. I like the concept of "wicking" material but somehow the Under Armour brand seems to hold that sweaty smell.

Luckily, just before I left I found another option. A company called Exofficio makes a similar product. The material is breathable, wicking, odor-resistant and comes in whatever style you are used to wearing (boxers, briefs, etc.)

You just wash them, hang them out and they are dry in about two hours. Unfortunately, they are much more expensive than you would pay for your Haynes or Fruit of the Looms, but I am happy with them, so far.

Another Side Note on Laundry: Thru-hikers go into town about once a week to resupply and find a laundromat, but if you are section hiking there's no time to waste going into town (if you don't have to.) Of course, you can't do your laundry at the water source, because that is also the drinking water! So you fill your water bag or water bladder, bring it back to camp, wash the clothes and hang them in your tree. By morning they should be dry and ready to fold up and pack. The next day you wear the alternate clothes.

There is another Base Layer of clothes. The overnight wear. This time I did spring for the silk! I bring two sets of overnight wear. One silk and the other is a poly-blend. Both sets are long sleeve, long pants. Both are plenty warm enough. I admit that the silk feels great on the skin, but the price difference is substantial.

On REALLY cold days I can wear the poly-blend as an extra base layer under my hiking clothes and feel comfortable that it's durable enough to not fall apart. But that is very rare, because once you get moving your body warms up and the extra base layer is not easy to peel off. It requires stopping, removing all of your other layers and then redressing.

At this point you are sweaty from having the extra base layer, then cold again from stopping and taking off your clothes. Now you are cold and wet. Not to mention the time you wasted making the extra stop to change and repack.

You learn very quickly that just because you are a little chilly at 7 AM when you start your hike, that you don't necessarily need an extra base layer. Tough it out for an hour or so and see how you feel then.

Pants-- I bring two pairs of pants. They look like regular "cargo" pants with lots of (Velcro) pockets. But they are much lighter and have zippered legs that I can unzip to remove the lower part of the legs-- which turns the long pants into shorts!

Generally, I keep the pants long because a lot of the sections so far (especially in CT) are a bit of a tight squeeze. The branches brush against my legs and I don't want to get too scraped or bruised. Not to mention the spiders and ticks...

Shirts-- Because the shirts are so light and compact, I bring three regular t-shirt type shirts (in case I wear more than one in a day.) And I bring one "town" shirt. This is a Polo-type shirt with a collar made out of the same lightweight wicking material.

Outer Layer-- The Windbreaker is exactly what it sounds like. It's perfect for starting off in the morning, for windy days and even for a foggy or misty day. It appears to be a normal Windbreaker but when zipped all the way up, it covers the neck all the way up to the chin. And hidden in the collar is a hood with a drawstring that covers your head to leave only your face exposed to the elements.

Rain Gear-- For my Rain Gear I opted to NOT get the pants. Partly because the jacket is so long it covers my upper legs anyway, partly because I'm a "tough guy," partly to save space and weight in my pack, but mostly because I'm a cheap skate. Good Rain Gear is generally very expensive.

My Rain Coat looks similar to the Windbreaker, except it's bright yellow (not blue like the Windbreaker.) Also, it's longer and has elastic at the wrists. There is a drawstring in the hood and also at the waist (which is really lower than my waist.) And the big difference is-- it's REALLY waterproof. And breathable.

Cold Weather Jacket-- The one item I let someone talk me into that I wouldn't have bought-- but now I'm glad I did-- is my Mont Bell Jacket. It's 90% goose down, 10% goose feathers. It seems more like a ski jacket than a hiking jacket. The great thing about it is, it's very comfortable and very warm. It's actually too warm to use for hiking. But because it's so comfortable... it's perfect to wear at night while sleeping.

I've only had to wear it a couple times but it's so light that it's worth carrying!

Another Side Note: In the world of long distance hiking, size matters. All three of the outer layer items; the Windbreaker, Rain Gear and Cold Weather Jacket-- come complete with their own Stuff Sacks to keep them compact for easy storage. The Windbreaker and the Jacket each compress to about the size of a pair of wool socks, and the Rain Gear compresses to about two pairs of wool socks.

Also, because they are in their own easily identifiable Stuff Sacks, they are more easily accessible. When it suddenly start to rain, it's nice to be able to open the pack, spot the splash of bright yellow and pull out your Rain Gear without everything getting wet.

A Stuff Sack (for those of you not familiar with the term) comes in many sizes and colors. It is usually nylon or similar material, preferably water proof or at least water resistant, and has an adjustable drawstring. Using Stuff Sacks helps you compartmentalize and identify the gear inside of your backpack without having to empty your pack to find something. For example: small black Stuff Sack- jacket; big light blue- food; medium size grey- base layer wear; medium size green- mid layer wear (pants, shirts); small navy blue- windbreaker; and yellow mesh- Rain Gear.

You may also want to use a Stuff Sack for wet or dirty clothes. And you may use one as a Bear Bag. A Bear Bag is what you use to keep your food in at night. It hangs from a tree-- away from where you are sleeping. The last thing you want is a bear knocking at your tent door asking for the food it smells!

Every hiker I've talked to has their own system. I use a system similar to what I just described above, but some pack one Stuff Sack per day. One pair socks, underwear, pants shirt, etc. all in one Stuff Sack.

And everyone has a valid theory on whether the sleeping bag and tent should be at the top or bottom of the pack. What should be closer to your back and what should be in the outer pockets. What if anything should hang on the outside of the Pack. Weight distribution can change the way you move... which can change your hike.

It all depends on what is comfortable and convenient for you.

OK, so we're almost done with the Layers...

The only thing I would add to this thread (pun intended for my computer geek friends) is:

Accessories-- There are a few more items that don't exactly fit into the other categories. For example:

Camp Shoes-- When you get to where you are camping for the night, it's good to take off your hiking boots to let your feet (and boots) breathe. Some hikers use flip flops as their Camp Shoes. Mine are more like boat shoes or what you might wear on a personal water craft or kayak. They are rubber but have a removable insert to cushion the sole of your feet. And there are holes to let the air circulate.

Gloves-- I bring a pair of 3M Thinsulate gloves in case it gets really cold. I've never had to wear them while hiking but I have put them on at night.

Hats-- I have a collection of hats, but only bring the ones I think I'll need. I have a Rain Hat that I always bring just in case. It's the camouflage hat that you see in a previous post.

The other hat I always bring is the knit ski cap that I only ever wear at night. We lose most of our body heat through our head, so wearing the ski cap really helps on those cold nights.

Occasionally, I wear my "Life is Good" baseball cap which can also be seen in a previous post. It has a visor to keep the sun off my face. But I almost always wear sunglasses anyway so lately I've been wearing...

Bandanas-- I haven't cut my hair since I started hiking in March. Needless to say, my Flat Top has grown out, but not quite long enough to do anything with it, yet. So I have been sporting some type of head cover whenever I leave the house.

A Bandana is easy to throw on, it allows my scalp to breathe and I can accessorize so that the color matches what I'm wearing.

Besides being a fashion accessory, a bandana is a multi-purpose tool. It can be used to tie things together or to lash something onto your backpack. And if your water purifier is clogged AND your cookstove is out of gas... a Bandana can be a makeshift water filter. This, of course, should be a last resort and is not as efficient as the other alternatives. But it is better than no filter at all.

One last note in regard to the clothes. There is a very wide price range in clothes marketed to hikers. Don't be fooled by name brands. Look at all the fancy, expensive brands and then really compare it to the less expensive stuff.

You have to compare comfort, efficiency, size and weight, quality and then figure the cost in the Big Picture.

As frugal as I am I still opted for the good Rain Gear. There were cheaper brands that were very sturdy and I'm sure waterproof-- but they were bulky and felt like a heavy rubber straight jacket.

The pants I wear are a mid-range price. The less expensive ones looked like the stitching would fall apart after one or two washes. But there were also pants that cost twice as much-- I think just for a name brand label.

Shirts I go through very quickly anyway because I sweat like a monster, so I opted for the cheap ones.

That is one benefit of shopping at a place like Kittery Trading Post or Cabellas, they have a lot of options to compare. If you go to the warehouse outlets you only get their name brand with nothing to compare it to. So shop around. Do your homework.

The next post will be on Trail food. More than Trail Mix...

Also, anytime I use a term that you aren't familiar with (like Stuff Sack or Bear Bag) feel free to ask for clarification. And if there is a topic that I haven't discussed that you would like more information about, just let me know and I'll try to write a post about that subject.

Happy Independence Day!!

Peace and Love,

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