The layer system
The two most important layers are the base layer (next to the skin) and the outer shell
With a good outdoor 'system' of clothing you should feel comfortable whatever the weather conditions, whether you are working hard and sweating or if you are stationary and rapidly cooling down. The best way to do this is with a layering system.
In simple terms, that means dressing in layers, so that you can adjust your temperature and level of weather protection to suit the conditions by putting on or taking off garments. The two most important layers are the base layer (next to the skin) and the outer shell. The role of the base layer is to quickly transport perspiration away from the skin, the outer layer has to keep out rain and wind - and ideally, allow moisture vapour to escape at the same time.
Wool, silk and wicking synthetics like polypropylene or treated polyester all make good inner or base layers. Thin garments are best as they transport (wick) moisture more quickly than thicker ones and they are comfortable over a wider range of temperatures. However, if you work really hard, any base layer will feel damp and cold, but this shouldn't last very long. Cotton, however, takes ages to dry and should be avoided.
hiking jacket © Remains
A good waterproof garment is a combination of technical fabric and considered design. There are many fabrics that claim to be both waterproof and 'breathable', that is, they let body moisture escape. Making a fabric waterproof is easy. It's the breathability that's difficult so this is where the main differences between fabrics lie. It is true to say that budget waterproofs, those costing below £100, won't be as breathable as more expensive ones. At the same time though, the most expensive waterproofs aren't necessarily more breathable than mid-price garments. What you're paying for is usually just a more complex design and more features, but these are optional. If you have too many features you just end up with a heavier, bulkier garment.
Worthwhile features in your outer shell garment include:
- A good hood with a stiffened peak that moves with the head and fits well over a hat.
- A couple of pockets, especially if they're on the chest as these can be accessed when wearing a pack hipbelt.
- Ventilation is important, as even the best fabrics won't allow all the moisture through when you're working hard. Cuffs that open wide make good vents for the arms. Underarm zips ('pit zips') are found on many jackets. (They can be awkward to use though and may feel clumsy under the arms, so try them out before buying a jacket with them). Chest pockets with mesh linings make good vents and can often be left open in all but the heaviest rain.
And old adage says, 'If your feet are cold, put on a hat'
Mid wear can be a fleece jacket or wool sweater with perhaps a windproof top over it or a windproof top with a light fleece or pile lining. These last can be worn next to the skin or over a base layer. The best windproofs are surprisingly water-resistant so you only need to wear a waterproof in real downpours.
And old adage says 'If your feet are cold, put on a hat'. It may sound strange but this is actually very good advice, as you can lose heat rapidly through an uncovered head. It's worth carrying a warm hat in your rucksack all year round - ideally one that can be pulled down over the ears if necessary. A fleece or woolly 'bobble hat' is fine, though if it's windproof as well you'll need to wear your jacket hood less often.
Your hands and fingers will suffer in the cold, but again the layering system works well. Wear a thin inner glove that allows good dexterity; on top of that wear a thicker, warm fleece or wool mid layer; and if you need it, a waterproof, breathable shell on top of that. In cold weather it's worth carrying spare gloves, because if your gloves get wet you'll soon start to feel cold (as water conducts heat away from the body much more quickly than air).
Fit is the key to comfortable footwear. For most walking, light, flexible shoes or boots are best. There's no need for heavy, stiff boots if you're not venturing onto snow-covered hills. After fit look for a good tread and a cushioning midsole to absorb shock. Most walking footwear comes with a removable insole. If your feet move about in your boots this can lead to sore spots and blisters, so it may be worth replacing these with a stiffer, more supportive, footbed to help stabilise your feet. A good retailer with trained staff should be able to advise on this.
Once you have your boots or shoes, don't neglect your socks. The right pair will make walking much more comfortable. Merino wool is perhaps the best material for socks and there are many models made from this. Pure wool socks wear out quickly however, so there should be some synthetic material at the toe and heel. Synthetic rich socks are available but aren't quite as comfortable over as wide a range of temperatures as wool. Socks need to fit snugly - baggy ones will rub, perhaps leading to blisters, and wear out quickly. You may find it more comfortable to wear a very thin inner sock (Coolmax cycling socks are ideal) under your thicker walking socks.
Many boots have waterproof / breathable linings. These work well, at least when new, but boots with them are slow to dry if they do get soaked and they can be a bit warm in hot weather. An alternative is to wear waterproof / breathable socks, and take them off when they're not needed.
However well your footwear fits and however soft your socks, blisters are still a possibility. One small speck of grit could be enough to cause untold problems. To minimise the risk of blisters, take your boots and socks off at the first sign of a 'hot spot' and see if you can find the cause. Put a dressing on the hot spot too.
If a blister does appear it has to be treated. Sterilise a needle (the end of a safety pin from your first aid kit will do) in a match or lighter flame. Pierce the blister then squeeze out all the fluid, mopping it up with a piece of tissue. Once all the fluid has gone (roll the needle over the blister to check) cover it up. Gel dressings like Second Skin or Compeed are ideal as they absorb any further rubbing and speed up the healing process.
Tailor your clothing to the activity
You can wear the same clothing and footwear for different types of walking but it can be more comfortable and sometimes even safer to adjust your gear to suit the activity. A winter mountain jacket will be heavy and bulky for a low-level stroll but it will still keep you dry. However, a flimsy rain jacket designed for summer showers will not be adequate for a day of heavy wind-driven rain high in the hills.
For backpacking or long distance day walking you'll want to keep the weight of your gear as light as possible so consider the weight of every item. It's worth doing without extra features if it saves weight (and it usually does). Besides, fast movers will need to wear less than those who amble along slowly, stopping frequently to look at rocks or smell the flowers.
It's worth doing without extra features if it saves weight (and it usually does)
The real difference comes when you venture into snow-covered hills however. Then you'll need boots suitable for crampons. Gaiters are essential if the snow is more than a few centimetres deep. Extra warm clothing such as an insulated jacket is a good idea too, as you'll cool down quickly whenever you stop. You'll need thicker trousers, perhaps lined, or long underwear under your regular walking 'strides'. In really bitter weather you may need both.