Let’s chat about clothing options!

Another gear related question I get from people is “what type of clothes are good to wear?” I tell them to do what they can to stay away from cotton. As the saying goes, “cotton kills,” and here is why.

The Techy-ish Stuff:

As we hike, our body temperatures inevitably rise and needs to be lowered. To achieve the required heat balance we sweat. This is good and helps to cool us off, unless we are wearing cotton clothing which soaks up and retains that sweat. Simply put, once the cotton is saturated it no longer acts as an insulator, and instead starts to suck heat away from the body. This can drop our core temperature enough to cause hypothermia, even when temps are not freezing. The Mayo Clinic says many elderly people suffer from hypothermia in an air-conditioned home every year. If you are hiking in cotton clothing in the winter, then the risk is greatly magnified and you should probably rethink your hike.

This doesn’t mean that if you wear cotton out in the woods you will inevitably die, only that cotton can be added to the equation if something does go bad. Everyone has, and probably most still do, wear cotton on a hike. If that’s all you have, that’s all you have. Just be cognizant that once you get wet, if you’re feeling cool it might not be the wet shirt cooling you off, but rather your body temperature dropping.

So if you shouldn’t wear cotton, what can you wear? The big three you’ll find most commonly mentioned are clothes made with polyester, nylon, or merino wool. The primary function you are going to hear is that these materials “wick away” sweat, which basically means it does the opposite of cotton.

The design of “wicking” materials is that they pull sweat away from the body where it evaporates more easily, helping you stay cooler and dryer. The first major name that I remember pushing this tech was Under Armour while I was serving in Iraq in 2005. It was the big thing to put it on instead of the standard olive drab cotton t-shirt to help keep us cool in the heat. (They played it up too by being one of the few to make their products in military colors and the whole “Under Armour” thing.)

The last kinda technical thing I’ll cover is terminology of the tops. There’s a base-layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer or hard-shell. Here’s the Barney-style breakdown. The base-layer is a thin, lightweight, breathable, wicking layer, such as the Under Armour shirts. The mid-layer would typically be a lightweight fleece or jacket, something to add a touch of warmth. The outer layer could be a coat to increase warmth, but mostly it is something that blocks out the wind and rain, sometimes referred to as a hard-shell since it goes over everything to protect you from the elements.

So what should we be looking for?

Now that the techy-ish stuff has been glossed over, let’s chat about what you actually wear. Today, there are more companies producing outdoor clothing than any of us realize. Some are going to be better than others, so read up and figure out brands to trust before you start investing heavily on a new outdoor wardrobe. When tech is involved in creating things, the price goes up, and quality outdoor gear definitely comes at a cost.

DSC_1353I’ll speak from personal opinion on what I do. I like to hike in a nice breathable shirt and a breathable pair of shorts or pants. Those are a must for me, I perspire a touch and breathable means wicking and staying cool. The majority of my hikes are from late spring through early fall (which I’m going to assume is like most of you). Iowa temps are roughly 70-90 degrees F, with 70-100% humidity during that time period, so I typically only bring an emergency rain jacket (hard-shell). If I do hike in the early spring or late fall I’ll add either a thin fleece or a lined windproof jacket. In the winter I wear a base-layer, the mid-layer fleece, and my outer layer is a lightweight, waterproof, winter coat.

When it comes to my legs I wear either my hiking shorts or pants. I only have one of each, so its a temperature dependent situation. Both are stretchy and have thigh pockets that work great for storing my map or lens caps, or snacks. In fact they are the same thing, except one is longer than the other. In the winter I will add a pair of running tights under the pants to add a bit of warmth.

And that is that on what kinds of clothes I wear on my torso and legs, moving on to the things we think less about.

The Peripheral Accessories:

Image result for under armour running glovesIf we have our legs and torso covered, then that leaves the head and hands (I cover the feet in another post). When it comes to hands, I think the only time we would need something would be during winter and possibly the weeks bracketing it. I use running gloves most of the time unless temps are really low, then a nice pair of thick gloves. I choose running gloves because they are thin and normally fit a little snug which allows me to still use my camera equipment and often allows the use of a touchscreen with them on.

When it comes to the head I think it is important to keep it covered and I use several options. First off, hats. I prefer to wear a full-brim sunhat most of the time. However, that doesn’t work when I have baby girl on my back I’m discovering; it annoys her half the time and she likes to play with it the rest. So I am switching to a standard ball cap. In the winter I use running beanies or standard stocking caps. I focus on sun protection and warmth.

The other item that I really like for outdoor wear is a Buff. Buff is the name of the company that produces a tube of material that can be manipulated to be used in a ton of different ways. I’m wearing my orange one with night time reflecting strips in headband fashion above. I recommend trying one out if you’ve never messed with one before.

Another newer item that has been popping up over the past couple years are arms sleeves. They are simple tubes of spandex for your arms that can be used to help warm a touch, or the more common use as I understand it, UV protection that is easy to take on and off.

The last accessory item I will touch on is one I never really hear anyone talk about, but it makes a big difference to me; the belt. We all should be wearing a belt to hold our bottoms up, but how many have thought about the materials that belt is made out of? I started out wearing my standard leather one, but it inevitably soaked up too much sweat, took too long to dry, and got annoying. Now I wear a nylon belt that doesn’t soak up water. It has made a big difference in comfort on the longer trails. Of course many have fancy buckles like rigger’s belts, or ones with bottle opens, etc. Just stay away from leather and cotton belts.

The Brands I Know About:

Like I said before, there are more companies jumping into the outdoors than we’ll ever realize. These are the ones I can speak to.

The budget option: Champion from Target isn’t among the highest end gear, but it will do when money matters and you’re just starting out upgrading from cotton.

The name brands: Eddie Bauer, North Face, Columbia, Under Armour, and Merrell are all high end brands I’ve had great experience with. My personal go to is Eddie Bauer’s Active and First Ascent lines, always great comfort and durability. None of these companies are cheap, but one thing about Eddie Bauer is that they have huge sales often. As Iowans, all of these brands also have an outlet store in the Tanger Outlet Mall in Williamsburg to save a few bucks.

That is just me though. There are other well know brands such as Arcteryx, Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, and REI that all have great reputations.

The important thing to remember, don’t let you clothing prevent you from going outside and getting active.

I recommend at least wearing something, we can have a ridiculous amount of mosquitoes in Iowa after all…

We all started with cotton, upgrade as you can. I have a specific set of outdoor clothes now, but I spent several years finding what I liked and putting it together piece by piece. You’ll figure out what you like and will build your outdoor wardrobe as you go as well.

I hope this little chat helped get you moving in the right direction.

Now go enjoy your walk!

 

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A discussion on Footwear

different-hiking-shoes-750x410One of the most common questions I get from those around me is “what kind of shoes do I wear?”

My number one answer; “You don’t need specific footwear to get on the trails!” Don’t wait until you get some new kicks, just get out there. Starting is the first step… heh. However, eventually we all want to wear the more appropriate coverings for our feet.

So let’s have a discussion about what kinds of footwear are out there. Now I will preface this by saying I am not a footwear expert and can’t speak to the super technical details. I have tried quite a few different pieces and can tell you my experiences.

parts-of-the-soleThere are four basic components of footwear: outsole, midsole, insole, and upper. The outsole is going to be the rubber on the bottom. This is the part that actually touches the ground. Companies develop all kinds of different compounds that create varying hardness, stickiness, and durabilities. The harder it is, the longer is should last, but it’ll be stiffer and likely yield less traction. Too soft and you’ll get great traction and more flex for added comfort, but they won’t last long.

Sometimes a manufacturer will include a “rock plate” (red) between the outsole (black) and the midsole (gray). This is normally a piece of plastic designed to protect the foot from sharp rocks, especially on footwear with a softer outsole and a thinner midsole where pointy rocks can hurt the foot more easily. Some can even be removed if you don’t like them, they are sometimes built into the insole, others only cover the forefoot, lots of variations.

The midsole is going to be the foam portion that separates your upper from the rubber and provides most of the cushioning when you step down. This is another component that gets a lot of science to create different densities for stiffness and rebound ability, how much it bounces back after being compressed during your stride.unisex-superfeet-green-premium-insoles-color-green-size-d-86301514088-1514088_1036_1

The insole should be familiar to everyone since there have been commercials promoting them for as long as I can remember. This item adds some cushion and support, not to mention that it may help with odor! The unique point about insoles is that they are customizable to user preference and can be swapped out for something that the wearer prefers.

Finally, the upper is the part that holds your foot into the shoe. The materials are anything from cloth, to nylon, plastic, leather and more. There is an infinite number of designs that can be put together creating a system of choices that can be intimidating. Different materials and technologies make the upper support your foot in a plethora of ways. One thing about the hiking community you’ll hear repeatedly, is the concern over weight. This is one area of your footwear where the design can really make this noticeable. I’ve had boots that were super supportive leather clod hoppers weighing 2.5 pounds per, to super minimalist shoes weighing 6-7 ounces per. There are advantages to both and I hope to make your footwear search easier.

3b84801b-6eab-4c01-b3b6-c63fd7cb95c0_1_56e5b83067aa98e933fa09520a5a53c4

There are 3 base categories I’m going to talk about: cheap “Wal-Mart” shoes, your standard boot, and the running shoe.

When it comes to the “Wal-Mart” shoes and boots, my recommendation is to stay away from them.  With cheap footwear all four of these components are going to be very sub par and possibly be harmful to you. CAN you use this kind of footwear to get out in the woods? Of course! If this is all you have, then don’t let it stop you. However, here are the reasons I say you should look elsewhere.

The most obvious reason is the sub par materials that are used to help keep the cost down. The outsoles and midsoles will tend to be harder, reducing comfort and causing increased impact on your feet and legs the longer you are on them. You might not notice it too much for a short 3-5 mile hike, but once you get into the 8-10 range you’ll likely find that you begin to feel every step. The uppers are going to be stiffer and less breathable most of the time too. Uncomfortable footwear leads to you deciding the TV looks more attractive than the woods.

So the next category would be your modern hiking boot, actually designed with hiking in mind. There are more brands than I know of available for you to look at. The materials are going to be more advanced, increasing the first noticeable thing… the price. On average, a good quality boot can range from $60 -$300. That aside for now, the next thing most will notice when comparing the name brand to the cheap ones, is comfort. The technologies involved that drive up the price, are often realized in short order.

cta-desert-tan-military-bootsWithin this group you will mostly find  3 variations; low, mid, tall. The tall variation typically has an 8 inch height that most people recognize as military style boots. These are less common in the woods these days, but do still have their place. The main advantage to the tall boot is ankle support. If you’re going over tough terrain with a load on your back, these boots will definitely help prevent an injury to your ankle if worn correctly. Having worn them for over a decade between the Marine Corps and work; I find these to do their job, but are the least comfortable and the heaviest in the category. They also are pretty stagnant when it comes to style.

861847Now the mid height are going to be around the 6 inch mark and the low will be similar to your standard tennis shoe. These two have become the most common of the hiking specific shoe. The mid will still provide some ankle support if you are looking for that, and the low will be the lightest and most nimble of the group. If you want a shoe that has a more stylish look, then these two will provide that as well. When I got back into the woods I went straight for the low top hiking shoe; a couple years ago my work transitioned to allowing the mid height hiking shoe. If I had to choose between them, I would go with the low top shoe over the mid height easily. I feel they are more comfortable, I like the lighter weight, and they feel more nimble. That being said, there is one more category to discuss.

product~p~126UG_01~1500_1The trail runner. The big craze now among hikers is to ditch their stiff and heavy boots for running shoes designed for the trails. At first I was skeptical because growing up we were always taught that hiking is done in boots. Today however, technologies have gotten to the point where a 7 ounce running shoe is just as tough as a 5 pound hiking boot. The outsoles have rugged lugs for traction, and the midsoles are designed for a lot of impact forces. The uppers are often super breathable to expel heat, and flexible due to the lighter materials for that breathability. One thing of note, most people who choose to wear trail runners also try to keep our pack weight down. So if you haven’t shaved some gear and are still humping a monster pack, something with more ankle support might be warranted. For reference, a rough guess says that with my day hike gear, water, and camera gear, my pack weighs about 25-30 pounds. I should actually weigh it one of these days…

Now once again, with technologies comes a price tag. The average retail price of a quality trail shoe ranges from $100-$250. This can be scary for those of us on a budget (we’ll chat about that in a sec). I have to say, for the past two years I have exclusively been wearing trail runners, and will not look back. I bounce between two pairs, one standard pair for dry conditions, and one Gortex pair for hiking when it is wet out. Now a word of caution about Gortex, it is great about keep your foot dry, as long as the water doesn’t get inside from the top. If that happens, it is also very good about keeping water in… I normally bring both pairs and opt to wear the Gortex if it is looking like it is slightly wet. My Achilles heel is wet feet.

81bDpzvyGuL__SL1405_Which one should you look into? I can’t answer that, only your feet can. If I were to steer you in a direction, I would suggest either the low hikers or the trail runners. Make sure to try them on in socks a little thicker than you plan on wearing, after a few miles of ground pounding our feet tend to swell. My sock of choice; Darn Tough Socks. Spendy, but if you wear them out, they’ll replace them!

Like I said before, there are too many brands to list. I will toss out a few I trust though. For hiking shoes I like Merrell, Keen, Soloman, and I’ve heard excellent things about Oboz. Merrell and Keen are pretty common in most of the outdoor stores we can find in Iowa, such as Dick’s and Scheels.  When it comes to trail runners; New Balance, Altra, Inov-8, Nike, Soloman, and Merrell all have solid entries. My personal shoe of choice is the New Balance 910v2 (910Gtx is the Gortex model), the red one above. Favorite part about New Balance, almost all of their models come in Wide/2E, and some even in Double Wide/4E!

Now that we’ve covered far more than I thought I would, let’s talk about stomaching the price for the higher quality boots and shoes. I often scour Amazon for good deals on name brands and have scored a few pairs for well under $50. In fact, most recently I snagged three pairs of New Balance running shoes that cost $100-$120 per, for a total of $120. Also, for you central Iowans, the Williamsburg outlet mall has a Merrell store and I’ve gotten some boots for as low as $25 before. REI is now in Des Moines and will have by far the best selection to choose from when it comes to being able to try them on, and they run deals all the time. So you see, there really shouldn’t be a reason to even think about buying the “Wal-Mart” shoe when you have access to name brand quality shoes for a price that is relatively close.

For those of you who are new to the trails, I hope this helps answer any questions you might have had. For those familiar with the dirt, maybe this post informed you of something you didn’t know and will improve your comfort on the paths you take.

Enjoy your hike!