The clothing system is one of the most difficult gear systems to get right. This is an overview to help the consumer make the best choices possible to get a clothing system that will keep them comfortable in a variety of conditions.
There are a few options for base layers on the market today. The first consideration should be which fabric will work best. Forget cotton, there are only a few applications where cotton is useful such as desert hiking. Cotton does not dry fast and is generally heavier. Synthetic fabrics like polyester or polypropylene, have long been the standard for base layer clothing. These baselayers wick moisture well, are very lightweight, durable, and less expensive. Unfortunately they have the tendency to build up odor easily. A synthetic shirt could smell quite bad by the end of the day. We find that they are best suited for short day trips.
At ProLite Gear we get out and test the gear we sell. We have put all sorts of baselayer clothing through the paces and find our favorite fabric is merino wool. Merino wool comes from the merino sheep in New Zealand and Australia. This fabric has great thermo regulative properties. This means it will keep you warm when its cold, and keep you cool when its hot. Versatility is key when building a functional lightweight clothing system. Merino wool will also insulate when wet, and breathes better than synthetics. Each individual merino wool fiber is breathable while synthetics breathability is based solely on the weave of the fabric.
The best feature of merino wool is its resistance to odor. A merino wool shirt can be worn for weeks without building up any odor. Like synthetics merino wool is sold in a variety of weights measured in grams per square meter. Typical weights for merino baselayers vary from 140 grams to 260 grams. Anything heavier than this is used for insulation. For versatility we recommend weights between 150-200 grams these can be used year round. Unfortunately merino wool carries a higher price tag, but most people believe the benefits are worth the added cost. Merino wool is also flame resistant adding a element of safety when around a camp stove or fire.
For added versatility zip necks provide good ventilation. Make sure you get a top with Raglan sleeves ( No seams on shoulders to reduce rash from pack straps). Great merino clothing is made by Icebreaker, Patagonia, and Smartwool.
Wind shells are one of the most useful clothing items you can carry. These are breathable and highly wind and water resistant, with very low weights. We are starting to see wind jackets and pants below 3 oz in weight. Lightweight wind shells are made by brands like Golite, Integral Designs, Mont Bell, Montane, Patagonia, and Rab.
Wind shells can be incorporated into the clothing system to provide not only wind and rain protection, but they also allow you to use lighter mid-layer insulation as they add a high degree of warmth. You will find that these will become one of the most used clothing items you own. Low weights will make sure they come on every trip. Most windshells are made with microfiber fabrics. These fabrics are highly wind and water resistant, very breathable, very low weight. Look for Pertex fabrics as these are some of the finest.
We like wind jackets with a full zipper and a hood. This adds a great amount of versatility and increased warmth for roughly 0.5-1 oz in weight more. When every ounce counts, or for trail running a hood less pullover is also an option. Make sure to select a pullover with a deep zipper for good ventilation.
Soft shells are usually heavy duty wind shells. The purpose of soft shells is to put breath ability as a priority, and also have great wind and weather resistance. Soft shells are made to be worn 95% of the time when a waterproof/breathable shell would be overkill. These shells are very durable and often times stretchy. Most soft shells tend to waeigh a few ounces more than hard shells, but are much more useful and versatile as they perform the best throughout a variety of conditions.
These garments are very comfortable to wear while working hard because moisture does not build up inside, and only high winds can penetrate. Make sure to get items with a good DWR treatment, as you will most likely see some light rain while wearing these clothes. In an all out downpour layer hardshells OVER the softshell layers you are wearing. Pants should have articulated knees which provide a better comfortable range of movement. Many soft shell jackets do not have hoods, we recommend trying to find one with a full zip and a hood for more versatility and function. Try to pick soft shells with minimal features as these only add weight and cost. Two hand pockets and/or a chest pocket is usually suitable, pit zips are unnecessary.
There are numerous different fabric weights available on the market today. For winter choose something around 8 oz per sq yrd. For spring through fall 4-6 oz per sq rd is a good weight. We find Schoeller dynamic is a great three to four season weight while dryskin is best for winter.
The soft shell is one of the core elements in a good, versatile clothing system, and work well worn directly over a base layer. These shells will provide some warmth and are very wind resistant. Soft shells also excel in winter conditions as dry snow will not penetrate very well. These shells are designed to be worn while active. Choosing a soft shell fabric can be very confusing, as there are numerous choices available. We like fabrics such as Schoeller (dynamic, and dryskin), Polartec Powershield, Pertex Equillibrium, Patagonia's Proprietary soft shell fabrics are great too. These fabrics are all highly breathable, which is really the foundation of the soft shell concept.
Many companies use membranes to enhance the weather resistance of soft shells. In our opinion this makes the item no longer a soft shell and more of a hard shell. This is because breath ability no longer takes priority. When a membrane is applied the shell is not as breathable and moisture will build up inside making you more wet then you probably would get without a membrane.
Hard shells are used for rain, wet snow, and can be used to block wind. When choosing a hard shell jacket and pants, buy the lightest weight models possible as they will most likely spend a lot of time in your pack.
Hardshell jackets and pants are made with a few types of construction. There are 2, 2.5, and 3 layer constructions. 2 layer constructions consist of a waterproof breathable membrane laminated to a nylon face fabric. 2 layer construction is the least common but among the lightest in weight. Gore-Tex Paclite is the most common 2 layer construction. 2.5 layer construction consists of the membrane laminated to the nylon face fabric. In addition to this a textured pattern is printed on the back of the membrane to add durability and moisture management. 2.5 layer fabrics are quite common and used by many brands such as Golite, Montane, Mont bell Cloudveil, and others. 3 layer laminates are probably the most popular, they add significant durability and comfort increases with not much added weight. Three layer constructions consist of a woven nylon mesh bonded to the membrane which is bonded to the outer nylon face. This is the most common type of construction.
There are many different brands of fabrics on the market, many performing very similar. From our testing we find that eVent is the most breathable. Most brands do not use eVent so it is a little hard to find, really only specialty brands are using this fabric. Gore-tex makes a few different types of fabric, classic Gore-Tex, Paclite, the older XCR, and the new Pro Shell. From our testing we find Gore-Tex to be good, but not nearly as breathable as eVent. Many companies make their own proprietary fabrics. We really like Mont Bell's Breeze Dry Tec Fabric. This fabric works in a similar fashion to eVent but costs much less.
When choosing a waterproof jacket, make sure to select a model that fits slightly roomy. This way you can accommodate a soft shell or lightweight isulation layer underneath. Get a jacket with a comfortable fitting hood that is adjustable. If you are a climber make sure the hood will fit over a helmet. Make sure to select a model with adjustable velcro wrist cuffs, a drop tail for better protection, and a adjustable waist. These features add very small amounts of weight but add a great increase in performance.
Pants should be simple and have minimal to no pockets. Ankle length zips are a nice option when you need to pull the pants over lightweight hiking footwear. If you are a climber full side zips will be a great help when putting pants on without taking off boots and crampons. Select the simplest, lightest weight pair you can find.
There are many insulation choices on the market. When choosing insulation your intended usage and climate are important factors.
Fleece has been around for a long time and has been the standard of backpackers and mountaineers for years. Fleece will remain warm when wet, dries quickly and is very durable. Fleece also wicks moisture away from the body. However fleece tends to weigh more than many modern synthetic insulations. We still feel fleece has its place for some activities, it works great as an expedition weight top for cool weather, is a great comfortable choice for skiing and is generally less expensive. Look for quality fleece fabrics from Polartec. We really like Power Dry, Power Stretch, Wind Pro, and Thermal Pro.
Synthetic Fill Insulations
Synthetic fill insulation is a great choice if you plan on traveling in wet regions and risk your insulation getting wet. This is because these insulations will keep their loft even when wet. Clothing made with synthetic fill insulation tends to weigh much less than fleece and are much warmer and compressible. This is because a wind resistant shell fabric is always used. We are starting to see synthetic insulated jackets and pants weighing less than 8 oz. Synthetic insulated clothing is usually not as durable as fleece. Every time you compress the insulation it breaks down a little. This means synthetic fill clothing will not last as long as fleece or down. We like insulations such as Primaloft, Polarguard, Climashield, and Mont Bells Exceloft.
Down insulation is the lightest, warmest, and most compressible insulation available. Unfortunately down looses its loft when it becomes wet. This makes down the best choice for drier climates. Down insulated clothing has very low eights with certain articles weighing less than 4 oz.
There are many different qualities of down on the market. For ultralight clothing you will need down with a 725 - 850 fill power rating. This measurement determines the volume one ounce of down will fill. The higher quality of down you buy, the less down is needed to achieve the same loft. Down that carries a fill power rating of 650 or higher is generally good quality down from Europe. Anything 600 fill power or less is usually from China.
Choosing the right type of insulated clothing can be difficult. When you have decided the type of insulation you will be using you will then need to choose various combinations of clothing.
Vests are great because they provide a very high warmth to weight ratio, are very versatile, and do not restrict motion. We like 4 oz full zip down vests from Mont bell as they go unnoticed in your pack. Choose a vest that is roomy enough to be worn OVER the wind layer, but will still fit under your waterproof shell. For cooler weather use we like to wear vests over a power stretch fleece top.
Jackets are the warmest option, we tend to carry a insulated jacket during spring and fall, and at higher altitudes in the summer. Get a jacket with hand warming pockets, trust us it will be worth the slight increase in weight. Also use your jacket to boost the warmth of your sleep system, this allows you to carry a lighter weight bag. Many jackets are also available with a hood, this can be a nice feature but we prefer to carry a lightweight hat because of the versatility.
For cold winter weather get a big insulated belay jacket. These are made by brands like Mont bell, Montane, Patagonia, and Rab. These tend to weigh between one and two pounds but add a great deal of warmth to your sleep system and an extra measure of security when traveling in the cold. Make sure the belay jacket can be thrown on OVER all your other layers.
Insulated pants can add a great deal of warmth to your sleep system. We don't usually carry these in the summer but they are great for early spring and fall, and are a must for winter. If you are a climber get a pair with full side zips. Look for lightweight shell fabrics such as Pertex Quantum or Microlight.
For spring-fall use a lightweight pair of fleece gloves is a great choice. When winter rolls around get a breathable insulated glove with leather palms, rubber if you don't like to support the leather industry. Also carry a warm insulated mitten with either leather or rubber palms. The shell fabrics or inserts can be waterproof but this will decrease breath ability. Make sure there is a gauntlet long enough to cover the cuff of your jacket. Fleece or synthetic insulation is usually the best choice. Choose down for extreme cold high altitude conditions. Get mittens with removable liners that can be dried out in your parka or sleeping bag at night. We usually carry a spare pair of fleece liner mitts in case you or your partne loose a glove on an alpine route.
Bring a warm hat with you always. This is especially important for sleeping at night and travel in cool weather. You loose the most heat from your head. We like fleece or synthetic insulated models. Make sure the hat is wind resistant to stop heat loss from convection. For sun always wear a baseball cap style. Make sure it is very breathable preferably mesh. Many people like to carry rain hats, numerous models made of Gore-Tex are available form Outdoor Research. Choose either a baseball cap or a wide brimmed hat.