Magazine article Geographical

Base-And Mid-Layer Clothing: Essential Gear: Picking the Right Material for Your Base and Mid-Layer Is One of the Most Important Clothing Decisions You Can Make

Magazine article Geographical

Base-And Mid-Layer Clothing: Essential Gear: Picking the Right Material for Your Base and Mid-Layer Is One of the Most Important Clothing Decisions You Can Make

Article excerpt

During the 1980s, I organised a youth expedition to walk the length of the West Highland Way. The trip culminated with an ascent of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak. A good friend, Darren Tulley (who was to go on to bigger things in the Andes and Pamirs), offered to help run the project with me.

Our ascent of the Ben inevitably coincided with a bout of demoralising wet and cold weather. During the hike to the summit, Darren--who was wearing a cotton t-shirt, woollen jumper and waterproof coat--became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, he confided that he was feeling distinctly chilly.

Now, Darren never complains, so I knew his plight was potentially serious; hypothermia was likely to be just around the corner. On discovering what he was wearing, I suggested that he rid himself of the cotton tee. Darren reluctantly complied; after all, why would removing a layer of clothing help him warm up? Yet within a few minutes he had returned to his cheery self and he went on to complete the ascent with no iii effects.

Darren had just discovered the importance of fabric selection when choosing clothes for the outdoors. In cold, wet climates, there is simply no place for cotton. This natural material is ideal for use in products such as bath towels as it soaks up moisture rapidly. And although it takes a while to dry out, there is usually plenty of time after your bath for it to do so. However, it's this slow drying quality that makes cotton so inappropriate on rain-soaked hillsides.

But Darren was wearing a waterproof jacket, so surely there was no chance of his cotton clothing becoming wet from the lashing rain? Perhaps, but this merely serves to illustrate the hidden danger of cotton clothing. According to some reports, people involved in aerobic activities can perspire as much as one litre per hour. Consequently, any clothing being worn is hit by a continuous barrage of sweat vapour, causing it to become saturated in no time at all. Worryingly, it stays saturated.

And that's the killer: water robs the body of heat about 30 times more quickly than air. So a very short time after wrapping yourself in damp cotton, your temperature will begin to decline, lf left unchecked, mild hypothermia will inevitably set in. Although prompt treatment will see a rapid and full recovery, if it's left untreated, severe hypothermia will occur. This is a very serious condition; unconsciousness and death aren't far away.

So if we accept that cotton garments are inappropriate in cold and wet environments, what should we be wearing? Well, the good news is that outdoor enthusiasts and expeditioners are spoilt for choice, and the clothing doesn't have to cost the Earth.

One option is silk. Silk was extremely popular among pioneering alpinists, and lightweight silk clothing is still available. Personally, I've found it to be a great alternative to cotton on hot treks. It also makes for a fantastic sleeping bag liner. Nevertheless, it's my opinion that silk's usefulness in cold and wet weather has been largely surpassed by wool (to which I will return later) and synthetic fibres.

Poly is a cracker

The first synthetic clothing material, created during the 1880s, was rayon. In the late 1930s, Wallace Hume Carothers of DuPont invented Nylon as an alternative to silk. Work by chemists Giulio Natta and Karl Ziegler led to the development of polypropylene fibres and saw them receive the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1963. A decade later, and outdoor clothing made from polypropylene (polypro) began to appear. Polypro whipped sweat away from the skin very efficient y. However, unlike cotton, it pushed the perspiration right through the material--a process known as wicking.

However, polypro wasn't perfect. It had a very low melting temperature, which wasn't exactly ideal for mountaineers using commercial dryers in laundrettes. Also, the short polypro fibres that were used in the original garments deteriorated quite quickly. …

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