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How to Choose

Versatility first
In choosing technical garments we need to abandon prejudices and the common thinking patterns which typically lead us to the obsessed search for the "right" model of the "best" brand, made specifically for a certain sport. Instead, we need to try, as much as possible, to seek for versatility. In total antithesis with what manufacturers want us to believe, for the large majority of outdoor activities you don't need a specifically designed garment. 

Whether you go bird watching, hiking, camping, fishing, or climbing, in 90% of the cases out there you'll always have the same simple needs:
  • protection from the elements
  • maximum comfort (which means to be warm or cool depending on the varying temperature)
  • maximum freedom of movement
Having only a few versatile clothes, instead of many specific ones, also offers a fundamental advantage in terms of optimization of resources:
  • less weight and volume to carry (e.g. in the backpack or luggage)
  • reduced costs at the time of buying
  • higher adaptability to the varying weather conditions 
Therefore, the first and most general suggestion, valid for the choice of any technical outdoor garment, is to
always opt for the most versatile garments

Waterproofness or breathability?

One of the main concerns in the design of outdoor sport-clothing is to obtain sufficient breathability and protection from the element at the same time on a single garment.

On one hand, sport clothes should be breathable, that is they should always allow efficient regulation of body temperature through evaporation of sweat. The breathability of a garment indicates its capability to transfer water vapor from the surface of our body to the environment. 

On the other hand, when practicing sport outdoor we want to be prepared to any change of weather conditions and in particular in bad-weather conditions (rain or snow), we want to keep our body sheltered. The waterproofness is the capability to stop the passage of water droplets from the exterior to the inner side of a garment.

Waterproofness in sport clothes is obtained thanks to the use of water-resistant membranes combined with synthetic fabrics. Manufacturers claim that these membranes are at the same time water resistant and breathable. However, in reality, anyone who tried to do any kind of moderate physical activity when wearing a waterproof membrane, has certainly noticed that the result is always and inevitably a sauna!

The highly praised breathability of waterproof membranes that many companies advertise still keeps being only a dream: it may be working at rest, but when doing any physical activity, the level of breathability of the synthetic membranes is insufficient to prevent condensation.

For obvious reasons, this poses strong limitations to those who wear waterproof clothes to practice sport. The choice of wearing a complete shelter from rain and snow, such as a waterproof hard shell, must be left as the very last option when the weather conditions are really bad or in case a sudden shower catches us in a place where we cannot rapidly find a shelter. In all the other situations, especially when physical activity is involved, wearing an external, relatively stiff shield is not necessary and it only prevent us from maintaining the comfort condition, that is dry skin and temperature of about 37°C.

The ultimate goal is therefore to seek for a material that guarantees waterproofness, but at the same time also sufficient breathability. And that's the idea at the origin of the concept of soft shell.

It is therefore important to consider what is the use that you are going to make of your waterproof garment. In general, when the weather turns bad, choose

more waterproofness for very light activity, to stand, or to rest
more breathability for any activity, to move and to do sports

Light or durable?

Behind any functional design there is always simplicity. The idea of minimizing complexity and eliminate all the superfluous is the key for success of any product.

Of course, this is also true for outdoor clothing and equipment. Minimalism of technical garments implies weight and volume reduction, which is undoubtedly always a great advantage for what concern sport performances. From athletics to alpinism, from surf to cycling, lightness is a fundamental requirement of sport equipment in general when aiming at maximal performances.

Unfortunately, since consumerism has started to become dominant and to dictate the trends, design has often become "victim of fashion". This tendency has been deleterious, often leading far from the pure research of functionality of a product. However, in the last years a few sport clothing brands, still more focused on reaching the best performances rather than following the trends, have tried to reintroduce on the market ideas and concepts of minimalistic designs aimed at reaching higher performances. For example, ultralight backpacks, very similar in design to the old 70s backpacks, but now constructed with much lighter materials, are back.

Also for what concerns clothing, which is heavily influenced by fashion, we are witnessing today a greater effort toward the search of functionality and a much greater attention to the real needs of athletes in different sports. In fact, now the tendency is to go "light and fast" and lightness has finally been established as a fundamental aspect of design.

However, one also has to consider that in order to reduce weight, the most simple solution is to reduce the amount of material used for its construction. If made exactly with the same materials, a pair of shoes that weights 200g will be less resistant and durable than a pair that weights 400g. 

Although this is not an easy task, the suggestion here is to
always seek for the best compromise between lightweight and durability

The "best fit"

The fit, or the cut of a garment can be thought as its capability to adapt to the shape of our body. In general, two broad categories can be defined:

Tight-fit garments

These are garments designed to fit closer to the body reducing any extra bulk. Garments with very tight, adherent fit are thought to function as a "second skin", such as the base layers in the layered clothing system, where the function of the garment is to help drying moisture. For outer layers, a tight fit is indicated for activities that involve ample and rapid movements or whenever the aerodynamic drag must be minimized. To achieve a tight fit and still guarantee freedom of movement, most of these garments use stretchable fabrics. The advantage of thight-fit garments is that weight and volume are minimized. Tight-fit garments may be well suited for running, cycling, ski, etc.

Regular- or loose-fit garments

Loose-fit garments are usually designed for use in sports where excess bulk does not cause impediment, but instead may guarantee more freedom of movement. In many outdoor activities loose-fit garments also offer the advantage of being easier to wear, also on top of other layers. They may tend to get caught more easily by accident, to lag behind when movements are rapid, to cause more aerodynamic drag, and to be heavier and bulkier.

However, finding the "best fit" is mostly a matter of personal tastes and there is no particular guideline for the choice. 

What to look for when choosing a waterproof jacket

It is the garment to wear when the weather gets bad: to avoid getting wet when we are forced to be exposed to rain or snow for a long time, or to avoid getting rapidly cold when exposed to wind. 
It must be thought as an emergency garment that should always be carried in the backpack.

What to look for when choosing an insulation garment

With down or synthetic filling the insulators are the garments to choose whenever the temperature drops, for long stops in the cold, or to be used as outer layers in sunny, but chilly days.

 Down  Synthetic Materials
 For cold and dry conditions  For cold and humid conditions 
and for unpredictable weather
  • Maximum comfort
  • Lightness
  • Compressibility
  • Versatility
  • Durability
  • Minimal care

A tighter fit is to be preferred if you are seeking for maximum warmth and if you are going to wear it as an intermediate layer, underneath a hard shell for example.
Tight-fit down jacket                Regular fit                                 Loose fit                                       Worn underneath a hard shell
A looser fit is more convenient if you are going to use it as an emergency garment to rapidly wear it on top of any other clothes or if you have to fit it on top of other bulky layers.
The presence of a hood represents the maximum protection from cold, wind, rain, and snow. Whenever needed it is a handy substitute of a beanie.

What to look for when choosing a fleece

Different kinds of fleece
Fleeces may vary in their aspect, thickness, cut. These garments retain heat close to the body, dry quickly, and are pleasant on the skin. Obviously the thicker ones are those that have greater insulating power. The warmer ones are those having a "furry" aspect.

What to look for when choosing a base layer

Base layer shirt
The base layer is the innermost layer, the one that is directly worn on the skin. Breathable shirts, pants, underwear, and socks compose this layer. The main task of these garments is to rapidly drain sweat and moisture away from the surface of the skin and to let it rapidly evaporate in order to keep the skin dry.

Base layers can be made of synthetic materials, such as Polyester or Polypropylene, or high-quality wool, such as Merino wool. Synthetic fibers offer the advantage of being more "water repellent", in the sense that they do not soak up with water, but instead "covey" and spread moisture and water droplets on a larger surface, therefore favoring evaporation. Merino wool works following the same principle, but it adds extra insulation and it is, therefore, better suited for cooler temperatures. Various combinations of synthetic fibers and wool in different ratios are also available, suited to different temperature ranges.

A helpful new addition to many of the modern base layers is some kind of Anti-odor treatment. These treatments may be very effective at limiting the "stink factor", which has always been a serious problem of synthetic base layers. Many of the new anti-odor systems are based on silver, which efficiently acts as anti-microbial, and are even advertised as "eco-friendly". 

The base layer must ALWAYS be worn! For any sport: running, climbing, skiing, etc. 
It is also a perfect pajama!

Synthetic fabrics:
  • for activities with high physical engagement with profuse sweating
  • in extreme heat and humidity
  • as protection from the sun, even in water
  • for faster drying
  • if you are allergic to wool
  • for maximum versatility
Merino wool:
  • for stop and go activities in cold climates
  • for all outdoor recreation activities
  • to sleep in a sleeping bag
  • in long travels/expeditions, when one is forced to wear the same clothes for several days
A base layer must be:
  • soft
  • adherent
  • comfortable
For a base layer to function correctly the fit is very important. This layer must be tight, it must adhere to the skin to absorb sweat and moisture. However, it should not be too tight either, otherwise it may impede movements and irritate the skin. It may sound like a trivial advice, but it is important to choose the right size to ensure optimal functionality.