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A wool shirt will keep light rain at bay for a surprising length of time.

Clothing for the Outdoors.

Clothing must perform several important functions to keep us safe  outdoors. Obviously it needs to protect us from the cold which it does by providing insulation and protection from the wind.

It needs to protect us from moisture, mainly because that moisture will effect the insulation and expose us to the cold. To do this clothing needs to be breathable so that body moisture can escape into the air. It needs to transport perspiration away from the skin and prevent rain from soaking through to the skin. Ideally it should be easy to dry out, preferably just by wearing.

Other less obvious things it needs to protect us from are the sun, thorns, rocks, insects and other critters.

If you want to be protected from the elements, camping and outdoor shops contain a staggering amount of modern synthetic clothing designed to keep you warm and dry in all conditions.

Of course you will sound like an old crisp packet and smell a lot worse by the end of the day, but everybody will tell you synthetics are best for outdoor activities.

I prefer to take my inspiration from the hardiest of mountain dwellers, that endure the worst weather nature can throw at them, without shelter, 365 days a year 24 hours a day.         Sheep.

Millions of years of evolution has given sheep one of the best insulating materials known to mankind.

Wool is warm, it’s breathable, it has antibacterial qualities that stop it smelling and it will absorb a lot of moisture before it loses it’s insulating effects.

The downside is that it has been out of fashion for a while in outdoor sport pursuits and getting good woollen gear can be a challenge.   The wool shirt you can see above was made by Bison Bushcraft.

Wool clothing is also a little heavier than synthetic fleece, but it doesn’t burst into flame and melt onto your skin like fleece either.     I know which I find preferable while working near to a fire.

Merino wool underclothing is at last becoming popular with outdoor users, unlike synthetic base layers it absorbs a lot of moisture but remains comfortable because it’s held in the fibres and not next to the skin. As merino is very fine fibered it doesn’t itch like traditional wool garments and used as a base layer it allows heavier wool garments to be worn on top which becomes a very effective insulation system.

Clothing protects us from the cold by trapping air, which is a good insulator, near to the body. When we are moving or working we may need to vent some of this air to avoid overheating. When we are stationary we may need to use a windproof layer to prevent this warm air from being blown away and replaced with cold air.

Most people combine a windproof layer with a waterproof layer to prevent water soaking into the underlying insulation. This has led to a technological race to produce fabrics that keep water out while remaining breathable to let water vapour out. To varying degrees these fabrics do work but I have yet to find any of them comfortable in sustained use. Most feel like being wrapped in cling-film after a very short amount of time working outdoors. 

Self made Canvas Wind Shirt

The best combination I have found for a windproof water resistant layer that actually breathes is yet another natural fibre that has fallen out of use with the outdoor community,    cotton.

Cotton has a bad reputation because when wet it loses what little insulating properties it has, however, cotton canvas has for many years been one of the best tenting materials available, replaced by synthetics mainly because of it’s weight and drying times.

Cotton canvas makes an excellent windproof layer and if proofed can also serve as a water resistant layer too. I have a couple of garments like the Wind Shirt shown above that I have made myself from canvas, that are my first choices for outerwear over a wool shirt.

Another old school fabric, Ventile is woven from cotton in such a way that as it gets wet, the fibres swell and prevent further ingress of water. Ventile is not really “water proof” in the true sense of the term, but it will stop you from getting seriously wet. Wear it on top of wool, which will absorb any slight moisture without losing insulation, and the problem goes away completely.

A Ventile poncho belted at the waist.

So, having discussed fabrics, lets look at the clothing.

For most of my activities I use a merino base layer with a woollen shirt. If this is too warm, the shirt goes into the pack and I wear the base layer top on it’s own.

For leg wear I use fast drying polycotton trousers and a merino base in the winter. Usually I wear cotton canvas gaiters to protect my lower legs from brambles and wet foliage.

If there is a weak point in my clothing it is the trousers. I have tried to source woollen trousers suitable for outdoor use with little success, this seems to be a significant gap in the market to me and I am currently looking into getting some made for the job.

I wear a Ventile or canvas jacket over this as a wind / water resistant layer or use a poncho which can also be used as a shelter if required.

Lately I have been involved in the development and testing of a Ventile poncho for Hilltrek,  and I’m currently testing a canvas one that I’ve made to my own specification.

In combination with the gaiters the increased coverage of a poncho gives head to foot coverage without the need for waterproof legging which are another item I very rarely favour. 

I’m not a great fan of hoods, while some of my clothing does have attached hoods I rarely use them, preferring instead a hat with a brim. Perhaps it is because I am usually out to photograph the landscape but I find a hood restricts my vision and definitely my hearing far too much.

Footwear wise, I seem to be the fortunate person that British army boots have been designed for. I actually find them very comfortable and therefore have not had to search elsewhere for a well fitted boot. The socks are wool of course and the old standard issue plastic mesh insoles are also very good if you can get them.

In Winter I add to this outfit a heavy wool bush shirt and warm gloves which gives me enough insulation to wait comfortably for hours if needed for the light to break in some bleak and desolate spot. If it’s windy, a canvas wind shirt tops it off and adds a couple of degrees to the retained heat.

One other item I should mention as particularly useful to a landscape photographer such as myself. Never underestimate the value of the humble umbrella. An umbrella provides shelter not just for you but also for what you are doing. I often strap a light, strong umbrella to my rucksack along with my tripod and it has allowed me to continue shooting when most photographers would fear to take their cameras out of their bags.

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