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Clothing to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable



  • Layering
  • Base Layers
  • Insulating Layers
  • Shell Gear (The Outer Layer)
  • Windproof, highly breathable but not waterproof
  • Absolutely waterproof, absolutely windproof, but not very breathable
  • The middle ground between windproof, waterproof and breathable
  • Gore-Tex
  • Construction to Keep You Dry
  • Care
  • Restoring Water-Repellency to your Waterproof/Breathable Outerwear
  • Bringing Back your DWR
  • A Case of Mistaken Identity
  • What exactly is a "waterproof" fabric?
  • And Finally
  • Simple Waterproof Test for Jackets
  • Every time we go winter camping, the same question crops up -- What should I wear? The manufacturers' choice is bewildering, and most of us choose to use layers to provide warmth, protection and comfort -- but what features should you look out for?

    Layering is not a new idea, intrepid early mountaineers would don layers of wool, starting with an itchy vest, followed by woolly jumpers, rounded off with tweed breeches and jacket. Stylish? and warm perhaps but no good once wet. Thankfully modern layering is more sophisticated; a light wicking layer next to the skin, covered by insulating layers, topped off by a protective shell. You just vary the layers as the weather and activities demand -- easy!

      Base Layers
    "Base layer" is a posh word for underwear. Buy underwear that are made from synthetic fibers, wicking away moisture from the skin. They don't absorb much water and dry very quickly. So if your system fails and you get sweaty, your skin will still remain warm and dry. And even if the shell leaks, effective wicking should keep you cozy. Make sure this layer is a close fit to be effective and comfortable under everything else. Most people just use a "thermal" top, but give it a little more thought: Do you need longjohns too? Wet underwear are bad news -- want some wicking briefs? Check out the back length of tops -- will they tuck in? Will you want long sleeves to keep the sun off? Would a light color reflect the sunlight on ice? Do you need a ventilation zipper, if so will it rub.

      Insulating Layers
    Twenty years ago, woolly jumpers did the job. Then Helly Hansen invented fiberpile and all mountaineers became identical, little bits of blue fluff could be found all over the crags. Finally fleece arrived and the world changed! At first fleece was only worn by those in the know, it is now everywhere and on everyone.

    Fleece comes in different weights, so bear this in mind for maximum versatility. Windproof fleeces which have a breathable membrane sandwiched between two layers of fleece, are popular and warmer. You'd probably want a ventilation zip, pit-zips in the armpits are also worth considering. Try on the layers of fleece to check that you can move without difficulty. Nylon shells on fleece tops are windproof and also help layers slide over each other. A stretch fleece is equally non-restrictive, and will also wick more effectively when worn next to the skin.

    Stretch fleece is particularly good for legs when it's a little colder or if you're stationary. Otherwise choose a light nylon or polyester pants that dry quickly. If it's very hot wear thin running shorts, then put pants on top when it gets chillier.

    The next step up is 'padded' insulation like down -- a vest is a popular compromise. Down has remarkable insulating properties, super lightweight and packs very small, but is ineffective when wet. The latest microfibers (e.g., Primaloft or Qualofill) solve this problem. However, these items can be expensive and always weigh a bit more than down.

    Again consider comfort and function. Can you use the pockets in your jacket with your backpack and hipbelt on? Do pack straps rub on a jacket or shirt seam? Can you operate the zips with gloves on? Your clothing should make things easier for you, not more frustrating.


      Shell Gear

    (The Outer Layer)
    Shell gear will probably be your most expensive item of clothing. A full outfit could cost over $500. After paying so much, expectations are high, but always bear the limitations in mind. Neoprene or urethane coated nylon with sealed seams is waterproof but not breathable, giving in a hot and sweaty climber. A 'breathable' fabric is the answer, but, which one?

    When it comes to technical outer wear, the choices are plenty, not only in terms of manufacturers, but also in terms of materials. With the careful selection of inner and middle layers used to create a mini-climate, the last thing that you want is to have your whole system shot by having it susceptible to the harshness of wind and rain.


    The primary goal of the outer layer is to keep your inner layers (both middle and inner) able to perform their insulating and wicking duties. So, in terms of actual functions, the outer layer is responsible for protecting the wearer from immediate contact with the outside elements (be it wind, rain, snow or whatever else mother nature happens to throw your way). When you consider that the greatest single threat to personal comfort and even safety is being wet (given the right environment), it is no surprise that an outer layer should protect the user from these elements. The outer layer should also be able to withstand the abuses of the activities it will be subject to. If you are a climber, the outer layer should have higher abrasion resistance than the choice of garment for a runner.

    For dry conditions, a windproof and breathable shell may be preferable, whereas in salt water paddling conditions a durable water proof garment may be more appropriate. For general all purpose use, most consumers are drawn to water-proof and breathable fabrics of which Gore-Tex and other similar products are a family. The unfortunate part about outerwear is that there is an inverse relationship between breatheability and waterproofness. The more breathable a product is, the less waterproof it will be. The same goes for the reverse - a highly waterproof garment will be less breathable.

     Gore-Tex - a breathable membrane sandwiched between protective layers is the market leader, coming in many forms. Three layer ply is best for mountaineering; two ply is not hard wearing enough, weight is also a consideration, lighter fabrics wear-out quicker and lose performance. Other breathable waterproofs rely upon coatings and are now reaching equal performance standards, with The Patagonia H2NO system and Lowe Alpine Triplepoint Ceramic systems are especially popular. See below for a comparison of some of these materials.  

     While Gore-Tex and similar products have the amazing ability to keep water and wind out while still letting your body vapor to escape, it is important to remember that no fabric is a panacea for all your outdoor dressing woes. In the case of waterproof and breathable fabrics, they vary greatly in their ability to keep water out and their ability to let water vapor escape. So, depending on your choice of activity, not only is the actual fabric chosen important but additional features like zippers, seam sealing and other construction elements must also be examined carefully.  

    In all cases there is a choice, go for maximum weatherproofing with minimum vapor transport or maximum vapor transport with only shower or snowproofing, or maybe just a windproofing. Just choose the right material for the job.

    When it comes to technical outerwear, you have your choice of 2 of the 3: waterproofness, windproofness, and breatheability. You can excel in 2 of the 3 categories...but if you want all 3, you will have to compromise on the level of performance in each of the categories.

    Windproof, highly breathable but not waterproof
    These fabrics include Super Microft, Activent and the like depending on the manufacturer you choose. If you are a jogger, odds are you will want something that can keep out a little morning mist and gusts of wind, but more importantly, you don't want a garment that makes you feel like you are wearing a plastic bag as soon as you start sweating.

    As the fine folks from W.L. Gore say:
    "When we participate in short-duration, high-energy activities, we produce significant amounts of heat and moisture. If we wish to be comfortable, the outer clothing layer, as well as the other layers, must be extremely breathable. If the weather is windy and cool or cold with the likelihood of light precipitation, we need an outer clothing layer that protects us from those elements...[products in this category] are windproof, extremely breathable, and water resistant. Outerwear made with Activent [and related] fabric[s are] the ideal apparel for those times when you stand a greater chance of getting wet from the inside than from the outside."

      Absolutely waterproof, absolutely windproof, but not very breathable
    Products that fall in this category will keep absolutely every bit of water out...that is both rain and ocean the like from getting inside the jacket, and sweat from getting out. Fabrics in this category include coated nylons, variations of membrane fabrics like Gore-Tex and H2NO whose purpose is to keep out spray, foam, and splash. Generally, if one is considering a fabric in this category, you should also look at features that aid in keeping water out of the easier entry points like the collar and cuffs. Design features that are common in products of this group are latex and neoprene cuffs and collars, specially designed zippers, spray skirts, and other advances that create a hermetically sealed environment for the wearer.

    The middle ground between windproof, waterproof and breathable
    For the rest of the world, this category is probably where you will have the most choice. Gore-Tex has long been considered the Holy Grail of the outdoor industry because of its ability to be used in a wide range of environmental conditions and applications. Membrane fabrics of which Gore-Tex, Ultrex, H2NO, and other products are a family of are exactly that...membrane fabrics. Gore-Tex (the most famous) is actually polytetrafluorothylene.(Teflon)..the same material used in some lab instruments, some non-stick cookware, and some medical prosthesis. The idea behind these fabrics is that if you can stick enough little holes in a garment, you will be able to create a fabric with pores large enough to let vapor from sweat out, but keep droplets from rain from getting in. The pores in Gore-Tex (9 billion pores per square inch) are actually 20,000 times smaller than a single drop of water, but at the same time, are 700 times larger than a molecule of water vapor. Now here's the kicker that most sales people forget to tell you: you have to keep the outer surface of a gore garment water repellent for it to breathe properly. If you don't and the outer fabric becomes saturated with water, then the perspiration vapor produced by your body won't be able to escape, and it will condense on the inside of your garment making it feel like your garment is leaking. So what you need to do is check and make sure your garment's outer shell fabric still beads water, if it doesn't, treat it with Nikwax Tx Direct. After that you shouldn't have any problems. There is more on treatment techniques below.

    Given its chemical stability, Gore-Tex can be used in a wider range of temperature and other extreme conditions the human body could not withstand. It is not damaged by salt water, UV rays, bleach, detergents or dry cleaning chemicals. It is also not susceptible to mold or mildew. But, because it is a membrane fabric, the materials it is bonded to may be affected by any or all of the conditions listed above.

    The Gore-Tex membrane is laminated to the inside surface of high-performance fabrics like nylon and polyester to create waterproof, breathable and windproof clothing layers, boots, gloves, hats and more. In 2-ply fabrics, the membrane is bonded to the outer fabric but not the liner. The choice of outer fabric depends on breatheability, durability, abrasion resistance and other factors. The required separate liner protects the membrane from wear. In general 2-ply fabrics are softer and more supple than their 3-ply counterparts, but are a little more bulky, less durable and less breathable.


    2 Layer Gore-Tex

     In general, 3-ply fabrics are designed for more rugged and technical use. By sandwiching the fabric between the face material and the backing, it is possible to produce a lighter garment with less bulk. If you see someone with a stiffer, and "crunchier" sounding jacket, odds are it is a 3 ply jacket.

    Because 3-ply garments lack a layer of air between the membrane and "liner", they are better able to transfer body moisture to the outside.

    In cold weather environments, it is possible to actually get frost build-up between the membrane and liner in a 2-ply fabric, which makes the 3-ply alternative more appealing in such conditions. As with anything that is a "higher performing" alternative, 3-ply jackets generally cost more than their 2-ply counterparts.


    3 Layer Gore-Tex

    What makes Gore-Tex so effective (and so popular) as an outer layer fabric is the fact that it is waterproof and breathable at the same time. Only a handful of other fabrics (including REI Elements and H2NO) can make this claim. And no other waterproof fabric can match Gore-Tex fabric for overall performance and durability.

    Construction to Keep You Dry
    While the discussion above regarding fabrics is important, the choice of material is not the only factor to consider when choosing an outer layer garment. Equally important is the construction of the garment. Gore produces a standard called the "Gore Guaranteed to Keep You Dry" test that is a measure of a garment's ability to keep the wearer dry regardless of how much rain is falling or wind is blowing. In addition to natural forces, sitting and kneeling also put additional pressures on the garment. Gore-Tex can withstand entry pressure of 65 lb. per square inch. When you consider a 165 lb. person puts about 16 lb. per square inch pressure on the fabric when kneeling and squatting, it is possible to see the waterproof capabilities of the fabric.

     With many companies making gear with Gore-Tex and other such fabrics, design features become increasingly important. If you want a climbing jacket, make sure that the arms give freedom of movement. Check that the hood will fits over your helmet, and that volume adjusters shrink it back again. Are the pockets accessible and in the right place? Can you fit a map in the pocket? Are the closures easily operated?

    Shell pants (rain pants) are even harder to fit and be comfortable. Easy access probably means full length zips ­ greater expense and an increasing risk of leakage. Are the knees articulated (movable joints)? If they're not it'll be harder to walk and climb, and pressure points will lead to early wear and leakage. Too baggy and you'll trip over your own feet. Let's face it, unless you wear a diver's drysuit you are going to get wet eventually, no matter how expensive the shell gear. This is why a layered, quick drying system is important so that you stay comfy and warm.


    Additional factors in the design of a waterproof garment include its construction as applied to the function of the garment. W.L. Gore has a set of waterproof standards that must be followed for a garment to receive its "Guarantee to Keep You Dry". These standards include seam sealing techniques, closures used (zippers, Velcro, flaps), design, and material choice. The final test of a garment is performed in Gore labs using various tests including a rain chamber. If a garment passes these tests, it is eligible to receive W.L. Gore certification, which allows the user to send the garment back for repair, replacement or refund if it does not perform to the consumers' expectations.

    Why is Gore-Tex outerwear more expensive than other brands?
    Only the select manufacturers are licensed to produce Gore-Tex products. These manufacturers use certain raw materials and the highest performance fabrics. Gore oversees the construction of all Gore-Tex products, and they use stringent quality control standards. All exposed seams must be sealed with Gore-Seam tape to prevent leaking before the Gore tag goes on a garment. Every design must pass Gore's performance tests before it is offered for sale

    None of these garments work well when they're dirty. Fleece is much more comfortable and wicks better when clean. Wicking underwear can get horribly smelly if not washed regularly, despite manufacturers claims. Most shell garments work better when cleaned and the outer proofing is in good condition. Wash your shell gear regularly and re-proof as recommended by the manufacturer -- the material won't "wet out" and it'll breathe more easily! As the old saying goes:

    "Wash it lots...dry it hot" (but not too hot...follow the garment's care instructions)

    To keep membrane fabrics performing well, the pores must be kept open...this means washing the garment often. Unfortunately, washing also has a tendency to remove the water repellency of the garment. Some manufacturers state that their water repellency is built right into the outer materials fibers. While this may be true, it still wears down. The key to maintaining water repellency is to keep that water beading on the jacket surface. Drying the garment in a dryer helps restore the water repellent finish, as does ironing the garment with a warm iron.

    Washing the garment in a non-detergent cleaner like Ivory Snow will help keep the pores clear as will adding additional rinse cycles.

    Restoring Water-Repellency to your Waterproof/Breathable Outerwear
    To maximize water-resistance and breathability, most waterproof/breathable outerwear layers come with DWR (durable water repellent) treatments on their outer surfaces. These DWR finishes cause water to bead up and roll off the garment, which keeps the fabric surface clear so that sweat and body heat can pass through from the inside. DWR treatments also keep fabric surfaces drier, which keeps outerwear layers lighter and warmer (less evaporative heat loss).

    Over time, with regular laundering and exposure to the elements, DWR treatments can wear off. When this occurs, water may no longer bead on the surface of the outerwear fabric and the fabric may absorb some water. This doesn't mean that the waterproof/breathable barriers built into the layers (like Gore-Tex, REI Elements, H2NO and so on) are no longer working -- most likely, they are. But it does mean that the outerwear layer will be heavier and may lead to faster heat loss.

      Bringing Back your DWR
    The best way to renew your DWR is to launder your waterproof/breathable outerwear according to the care instructions and iron it using a warm steam setting. This will restore the water beading protection on the outer surface as long as the original water-repellent treatment is present.

    Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent DWR treatment. Eventually, after extended wear and/or many washings, the original repellent finish will be depleted and you'll need to use a spray-on or wash-in water repellency treatment to treat the outer surface of the fabric. You may repeat this process as many times as needed.


    A Case of Mistaken Identity
    Problems caused by worn DWR coatings are often blamed on faulty waterproof/breathable fabrics. This is due to the fact that when DWR coatings wear off, waterproof/breathable layers may:
    · Appear wet on the outside -- since the outer fabric may absorb some water
    · Feel heavier -- again, due to water absorption
    · Collect condensation on the inside -- water on the fabric's surface can lower the temperature of the fabric through evaporative heat loss. This can cause warm, humid air inside the garment to condense on its inside surface so it feels wet--like it's leaking.

    Before you consider replacing your rain jacket or rain pants, first try restoring your DWR or reapplying a spray-on or wash-in coating. Should additional water repellency need to be added, products like NikWax® TechWash can be used. Patagonia also recommends DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coatings like a spray-on from NikWax called TX Direct Spray-On®. A DWR works sort of like the wax job on your car: it will cause any water to bead up and roll off. But, like the wax on your car, the DWR must be reapplied regularly... at least once each year. Another product from W.L. Gore that is recommended by other manufacturers is Revivex® (another spray on after treatment). If you follow the garments care instructions, it should perform well for long time.

    Remember--just because the outer fabric becomes wet does not mean that water is passing through the waterproof/breathable membrane or coating inside your garment.

    While the above will help keep your products performing at their best, it is important to remember that these products do wear down, and are susceptible to the same laws of physics as anything else. If you are sweating excessively, no fabric short of nudity will keep you from accumulating moisture inside your garment. So, the rule applies...match your garment to your activity.

    What exactly is a "waterproof" fabric?
    All outerwear fabrics resist water pressure to some degree. Water-repellent and water-resistant fabrics provide limited protection from rain, snow and other forms of precipitation, but they cannot stand up to harsh conditions or extended exposure to water without leaking. To be called waterproof, a fabric must provide a high-level of sustained water protection during harsh conditions and extended periods of activity.

    The more a fabric resists the entry of water under pressure, the more waterproof it is said to be. Gore-Tex fabric can withstand 65 pounds psi of water pressure. The most commonly-used water-resistant fabrics only withstand from 3.3 to 5 psi. To put this information in perspective, a 165 lb. person exerts about 3 pounds psi of downward force when sitting down and about 16 psi when kneeling.

    And Finally
    Clothing is a very personal thing ­ what works for one person is useless for another. Make your choice with care and enjoy the outdoors ­ warm and dry..ish!

    Simple Waterproof Test for Jackets

    All right, there's been a lot of talk about such-and-such high priced jacket not being waterproof, some incredibly cheap jackets being bone-dry, etc. So I decided to make a test of three similarly priced, but differently constructed, shells that I happen to own.

    The contestants are:


     '98 Patagonia Storm Jacket Fabric: 2-Ply Mid Weight Taslanized Nylon Barrier: H2NO Storm Coating Lining: Mesh and Nylon Taffeta Weight: 25 oz. No pit zips or reinforcement patches

    New suggested price $289

     '99 Patagonia Super Pluma Jacket Fabric: 3-Ply Light Weight Ripstop Nylon Barrier: H2NO StormHB Coating Lining: Laminated Tricot Scrim Weight: 18 oz. No pit zips or reinforcement patches.

    New suggested price $329

     '96 Marmot Cervino Jacket Fabric: 2-Ply Light Weight Microfiber Nylon and Mid Weight Taslanized Nylon Barrier: MemBrain Laminate Lining: Mesh and Nylon Taffeta Weight: 32 oz. Pit zips and reinforcement patches

    New suggested price $299

    OK, How waterproof are these things? This is the test drill:

    Wear Capilene shirt and pants and wool socks, but no fleece layer that could absorb leakage or sweat. Put on the jacket, a pair of waterproof pants, waterproof boots (T-2 plastic ski boots), and Marmot Randonee Gore-Tex ski gloves. Batten down the hatches and pull up the hood as far as it will go. Put large hunks of toilet paper in the chest pockets-a place about equal with the hood and back shoulders for potential leakage. Then stand in the shower at full force and stand there until the 40 gallon water heater runs out of hot water (about 20 minutes, and I figure the equivalent of 10-12 inches of rain). If after this deluge the toilet paper is dry enough to be lit with a match (to take away the subjective nature of feeling if it's wet), then the jacket is waterproof enough for me.

    With the Patagonia Storm jacket, the toilet paper was completely dry. The insides of the main zipper flaps were wet (to be expected) and there was a bit of wet through where the hood cord came out of the taffeta tunnel near the outside edge of the hood. The exterior fabric was saturated, but the inside was dry. After I hung the jacket up, the taffeta in the sleeves felt clammy (probably because the fabric cooled down and the moisture was my sweat condensing-I think mesh is a better liner for the arms), and the taffeta lower lining was starting to soak through from water running down the outer fabric and then being wicked up by the liner (which makes the mesh drain strip at the bottom a brilliant idea). The jacket air-dried overnight.

    Next night, I did the same thing with a Patagonia Super Pluma jacket (H2NO and Deluge DWR but no pit-zips.) Again, dry as Natur champagne (interior and toilet paper) except for some wetting of the inside of the zipper flaps. This is a nearly new jacket, but the Deluge DWR does the trick-fabric saturation only on the hood and over the pockets. When drying, there was no wicking of the exterior water into the liner except for the hem drawcord tunnel. The Super Pluma air-dried in a couple of hours without shaking.

    As for the Marmot Cervino (from the first year it was made), things didn't work as well. Although, in fairness to Marmot, they've recently pulled back a little on their statements about their MemBrain laminate (the catalog copy now says: "especially suitable for very cold, drier climates like the Rockies where breathability and softness are key.") The Cervino has also been a fine ski parka in the snow and wind. Because of the considerable number of seams, the zip-off hood, and pit zips, I thought this jacket would at least leak at the hood connection or in the pit zips, but these areas held up well. It seems that the force of the water simply overwhelmed the barrier-one paper wad was drenched, the other was damp; the mesh liner was wet; and one side of my shirt was damp. The Cervino's microfiber shell was really saturated, and it didn't air dry overnight. It should be noted that the present Cervino has entirely different fabric than the one I tested-although it still uses MemBrain laminate.

    As for the Patagonia Triolet pants (three-layer H2NO with smooth nylon shell), it's a little harder to say-the tricot scrim was a bit clammy in the knees and seat-probably from perspiration (it was, after all, hot water). There was no leak through at the seams or even the side zippers-which I found amazing. Water beaded well except at the knees, and they dried as fast as the Super Pluma.

    Comparison tests with a Patagonia Glade Runner Activent/Pneumatic jacket and a circa '70s Sierra Designs coated nylon parka without any seam taping or seam sealing didn't last long: about two minutes for the Activent and five for the coated nylon.

    I never really expected the gloves to stay dry through this deluge, and they didn't. I put the glove gauntlet over the jacket sleeves and tightened the draw cord as much as I could. My hands had water on them at the end, but not really running off, and the dri-clime liner was damp but not soaking. After I took the gloves off to dry, the liners really got soaked-proving that they wick like crazy, which is what they are supposed to do. I suspect the problem is that water runs down from the jacket sleeve into the gauntlet (and thus onto your hand) rather than the gloves are inherently leaky. I think putting the jacket sleeve over the glove would be more storm-proof, but the gauntlets are too bulky to fit under the jacket sleeve. Gloves are notoriously difficult to waterproof even with Gore-Tex (although better gloves like Marmot and Black Diamond have either welded or taped seams on the waterproof bladder).

    So the moral is, the Storm Jacket is waterproof but not the best choice for extended trips because the outer fabric saturates-thus destroying breathability until the outer shell dries again. As Clyde Soles has said over and over in Rock and Ice magazine, three-ply shells like the Super Pluma and others (Marmot Thunderlight, Arc'Teryx, etc.) are the only choice for the big mountains. And as Marmot itself says, MemBrain is not as waterproof as Gore-Tex (65+PSI for Gore vs. 45 PSI for MemBrain). Patagonia says H2NO is as waterproof as Gore-Tex but not as breathable-which seems to be true. Smooth finishes such as ripstop bead water better than texturized fabrics, and three-layer parkas feel less clammy.

    Because the DWR treatment is so important to the performance of the shell, I decided to give the Storm Jacket and the Cervino a refresher using Tectron wash-in DWR. The results are spectacular if you do things right: wash the jackets in a non-detergent like Ivory Flakes, use bar soap on the really dirty spots, let the jackets soak in the water/Tectron solution during the wash cycle, and then put in the dryer. Against the full rush of the showerhead, the newly rejuvenated jackets just kept beading up the water without saturation. Tectron was the highest rated DWR replenisher in a recent Backpacker magazine test, and I'm really impressed. Also, although many people say don't use wash-in treatments for jackets with mesh liners (it supposedly counteracts the wicking properties of the mesh), I've found that spray-on treatments don't work or last nearly as long.