Clothing Considerations

To fully leverage a technical clothing system you need to be an active participant. The wearer needs basic knowledge of fabrics, layering and moisture management to get the most from a clothing system. It’s short sighted to buy the latest brand, throw on the clothing and expect it to perform as advertised.

Venturing into the mountains is a thinking person’s game. It’s not enough to throw on gear and expect it to perform. There’s no Superman’s cape with magical powers. It’s essential to understand how moisture moves through clothing and how we, the wearer, affect this process. The ability to mange moisture and dry clothing is one of the biggest pieces of knowledge we carry into the mountains. It’s impossible to stay dry in the backcountry during all conditions. The ability to dry ourselves and our clothing helps mitigate hypothermia, frostbite and improves the overall experience.

Understanding how to manage moisture within your system affords you the ability to go hard and not worry as much about the weather. You’ll carry less gear and stay warmer during repeated nights in the mountains, increase your safety margin and allow yourself more freedom to roam. The knowledge and ability to dry out in even the worst weather doesn’t cost or weigh anything.

Moisture Management
Our bodies are the internal engine that keeps us warm and dries our clothing. As the body generates heat, it creates a warm, humid environment between the skin and baselayer. This micro-climate is almost always warmer and more humid than the outside environment.

The temperature and humidity difference between the micro-climate inside the clothing and the outside atmosphere is called the temperature gradient. Physics dictates that these two environments seek equilibrium. Moisture wants to move from the warm, damp climate in the clothing to the colder, drier atmosphere outside. The heat from your internal engine is the force that drives the moisture through the layers.

As water vapor moves through the clothing and away from your body’s heat, it loses strength and begins to cool. The more layers of clothing, the more difficult it becomes for water vapor to move all the way through. For this reason, clothing worn farther away from the skin needs to be very efficient at moving water vapor. A well-constructed clothing system takes all this into account during design and testing.

Clothing Systems
Your ability to manage moisture effectively in the mountains is mainly contingent on selecting a proper clothing system. When building a system it’s essential to not look at a single layer or piece of clothing in isolation but as a holistic system. It’s even more important to get into the field and test the system for yourself and understand any limitations. Some clothing looks great and performs well independently but doesn’t integrate into a clothing system efficiently.

Most fabrics used in today’s technical clothing move moisture efficiently and dry quickly. The materials themselves, though, in isolation, are not enough. We don’t wear fabrics; we wear clothing. Technical clothing should leverage modern textiles built in the correct product form to create a symbiotic clothing system. A well-built clothing system manages moisture in the wettest, most challenging conditions.

Understanding some basic fabrics used in technical clothing allows for more educated buying decisions; saving frustration and money. Not all materials excel in the same conditions. Select clothing layers optimized for your hunting style and the environment to provide the best experience in the backcountry.

Don’t Wear Cotton! This rule is the only one I suggest never breaking. Replacing cotton with synthetics or wool will significantly improve your clothing system’s performance and ability to manage moisture. Cotton works well at keeping you cool in hot weather but doesn’t dry quickly under most field conditions. The more humid the atmosphere, the slower cotton dries.

Cotton absorbs many times its weight in water then tenaciously holds onto it. While this may be desirable during the heat of a summer day, you’ll find yourself chilled if you get stuck out in an afternoon thunderstorm or hiking back to camp at night.

Wet cotton clothing quickly sets the stage for hypothermia. Packing extra clothes to change into when wet isn’t always possible and rarely practical. Lighten your pack and simplify life by wearing garments containing fabrics that dry quickly and perform day after day.

Synthetic fabrics don’t absorb much if any moisture. Polyester, nylon, and Spandex are common synthetic materials used in today’s clothing. Nylon is durable and works well in outer garments like pants and jackets. Polyester manages moisture in baselayers as well as outerwear. Spandex provides stretch to clothing for freedom of movement but can hold moisture, so look for apparel containing no more than about 10% Spandex.

I prefer the quick, dry time of a synthetic baselayer, especially in cold weather. I know that even in worst case scenarios a synthetic baselayer will dry quickly. Synthetics don’t manage body odor as efficiently as wool but its a compromise I’m willing to make to stay dry.

Wool is a natural fiber that performs well in baselayers and some outerwear. Merino is high-quality wool that’s comfortable next to skin, won’t shrink, and doesn’t stink in the field. Wool doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetics, but use it without reservation if it suits your needs.

I generally wear wool in mid or outer layers for its warmth and quietness. Combining a synthetic baselayer to pull moisture from my skin worn under a wool mid-layer is a good combination.

Synthetic insulations manage moisture exceptionally well and perform in damp climates. For this reason, I usually select synthetic insulation for puffy jackets and sleeping bags. No matter the situation, I know a synthetic sleeping bag or jacket will keep me warm even if wet.

Down insulation has an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio but struggles with moisture management. Dry down insulation features a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment to help this weakness but is not a substitute for synthetic insulation.

I’ve suffered many nights in damp sleeping bags testing various dry downs. Down insulations wet out and clump under the weight of your body in compression zones like elbows, back and hips. Once loft in the insulation is lost, down’s ability to trap dead air to keep the user warm is compromised.

Down has a narrower use profile than synthetics and works well in drier climates. It takes too much mental energy to monitor down insulated products in damp climates to keep them from getting wet. For this reason, I often default to synthetic insulation for sleeping bags and jackets.

It’s bad enough when Mother Nature kicks our ass but we shouldn’t purposely do it to ourselves. Hiking too fast and sweating from wearing too many clothes is a rookie. Pacing is an easy and efficient way to manage moisture within your clothing system.

Begin a hike dressed comfortably cool. You should be a little chilled while waiting on your partner to get his shit together before stepping out. If you’re comfortable while standing around, you’ll quickly overheat under the burden of movement.

Moderating pace eliminates taking time to stop and change out clothing layers. Stripping off layers to add or subtract others is inconvenient, wastes time, and unnecessarily exposes you to the elements. Be conservative with baselayers and layer over the top with a softshell or insulated jacket to manage warmth. When stopped to glass or setting up camp, immediately put on a puffy jacket to trap body heat and dry out your clothing.

Hiking for 50 minutes and resting for 10 is more efficient than pushing hard for 3 hours and burning out. Having a schedule to stick to also helps manage your nutrition, keep up on navigation, monitor effort, and provide opportunities to modify clothing layers as necessary. When the hiking is difficult or the weather’s poor breaks up the misery.

The proper management of moisture is a fundamental requirement for safe and comfortable backcountry travel. Understanding how to manage moisture within your clothing system affords you the ability to hunt hard and not worry about the weather. The knowledge and ability to dry out in even the worst weather conditions doesn’t cost or weigh anything and is a vital tool for survival.

Gear References
These links take you to some of the gear I use and rely on in the mountains. This is not a definitive list but a good place to start. Ultimately, testing and training allow us to dial in a system that works for each of our unique requirements.

Sitka Gear:


Darn Tough:
Farm to Feet: