Clothing for the outdoors is made from a variety of fabrics, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Cotton is comfortable to wear when dry but absorbs many times its weight in water and loses its insulating qualities when wet. Because it absorbs so much water, it takes a long time to dry. In hot weather, however, cotton ventilates well and helps cool the body. Wet it down on a hot day, and the water evaporating from the cotton will cool you off.

Silk readily absorbs water, but not as much as cotton, so it dries faster. Silk is also useful in hot weather. Wetted down, it helps cool the body through evaporation.

Wool is far less absorbent than cotton, so it holds less water when wet. Consequently, it does not conduct away as much body heat and requires far less heat to dry. Wool is also warmer when wet because it does not collapse and therefore retains much of its dead-air space.

Synthetic pile does not absorb any water. Some moisture is held in suspension between the filaments of the fabric when it is wet, but most of the water can be wrung out. Garments made from synthetic pile arc comparatively warm when wet, and they dry fast. Pile is also very light and fluffy so that, ounce for ounce, it traps more dead air than natural fibers like wool. All these features contribute to make pile a versatile and effective insulating material.

Polyester, acrylic, and polypropylene fabrics are used for a variety of long underwear and insulating garments. The synthetic filaments in these fabrics are also lightweight, non-absorbent, and quick drying. The filaments of some are also very good at transporting perspiration away from the body, making them well suited for use next to the skin. More and more fabrics are being designed to do this, and these fabrics have largely replaced wool, cotton, and silk for use in long underwear. When selecting items of clothing, consult the tags on individual garments or get help from a salesperson.

Down is still, ounce for ounce, the warmest insulation available. It is also the most compressible, so it packs away small yet quickly regains its loft—and therefore its warmth—when unpacked. These qualities make down an excellent insulator for cold-weather use. Unfortunately, down loses all its insulating value when wet and is almost impossible to dry in the mountains, making it a poor insulator in wet climates.

Spun synthetic filaments do not collapse when wet, as down does. Therefore they make excellent insulation for coats and sleeping bags used in moist climates. Although cheapcr and more easily cleaned than down, they are not as warm, weigh more, and are less compressible. The useful life of synthetics is much shorter than down.

Nylon shells, which go over the insulating layers, give protection from the wind but are not waterproof unless the nylon is coated. Typically, polyurethane coatings arc used to waterproof nylon. The thickness of the coating is measured by its weight per square yard, and a 1 -ounce coating is the minimum weight you should consider. Polyurethane coatings are lightweight and effective when cared for but are not very resistant to abrasion or mildew, so some climbers prefer shells coated with synthetic rubber. These shells are more durable, but most rubber-coated raingear is too heavy for mountaineering.

Although most coatings keep rain out, they also seal sweat in. If you're working hard, the sweat generated can dampen your insulation from within. Microporous coatings were designed to attack this problem. These coatings have billions of microscopic holes per square inch. Moisture vapor from your skin has a much smaller molecular size than liquid water. The holes in the coating are large enough to let vapor escape but too small for liquid water to get in, so the coating breathes but is still waterproof. Gore-Tex, the first waterproof/breathable fabric on the market, works on the same theory but, rather than using a honeycombed coating, a Teflon film with microscopic holes is laminated to the inside of the nylon shell.

Many climbers see the waterproof/breathables as an improvement over the old-style coated nylons, but the new-generation materials are not perfect. If you work hard, you will exceed the garment's ability to blow off steam, and sweat will condense inside the shell. Once in liquid form, the sweat can no longer escape through the garment. Ventilating the garment helps keep you from overheating and building up perspiration. Most waterproof/breathables need maintenance. When water stops beading and rolling off the surface, the material should be washed, rinsed, dried, and treated with silicone or another waterproofing spray. Apply the spray generously three times over the course of three days.


When the rest of the body is covered in clothing, an unprotected head is like a radiator that accounts for more than half of the body's heat loss. The head is the first part of the body to uncover when you're overheated, and the first part to cover when you're cold. The old adage says "If your feet are cold, put on a hat." There's some truth to this because as the head and trunk get cold, the body reduces blood flow to the arms and legs in an attempt to warm vital areas. To increase blood flow back to the arms and legs, you need to warm the vital head and torso areas.

Climbers usually carry several different types of hats. Cotton glacier hats and baseball caps are popular for sun protection. A bandanna can be draped from a hat to help shade your neck, ears, and face, or it can be dipped in water and tied around your head to cool you on a hot day. A lightweight rain hat is useful for warm-weather trips because it keeps your head dry while allowing ventilation at the neck of your rain parka.

Warm insulating caps of wool, polypropylene, or pile are standard for cold weather. Consider carrying two hats, because an extra hat affords almost as much warmth as an extra sweater but weighs much less. Warm hats should also be part of your summer wardrobe in case of a forced bivouac. Balaclavas are versatile insulating hats. Rolled down, they protect the face and neck from the cold; rolled up, they warm the head but allow ventilation of the upper body through the neck area.

THE UPPER BODY Long underwear

Protection of the torso begins with appropriate underwear. Synthetics like polypropylene and polyester are currently the best fabrics for this purpose. They are soft, stretchy, ventilate well, and wick moisture away from the skin. The underwear comes in a variety of weights, and you can choose which suits your climate and metabolism.

It's smart to buy light-colored long underwear. Light colors absorb and radiate heat more slowly. If it is warm enough to strip down to your underwear, you will appreciate having a white rather than black or dark blue shirt exposed to the sun.

Insulating layers

In hot weather a thin cotton shirt will keep you comfortable and serve as a first line of defense against sunburn. Stick to light colors. In cold weather you'll carry several insulating layers for your torso. Shirts and sweaters should be made of wool or synthetics, such as pile, so they still provide warmth if they get wet. Cotton sweatshirts are useless once wet, so don't bring them.

Shirts and sweaters should be long in the torso so they tuck into or pull over the waist of the pants. Gaps between the pants and upper body let valuable heat escape. Similarly, turtleneck sweaters can keep much of the torso's heat from escaping. Tests show that the addition of a turtleneck alone can increase a garment's comfort level by 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jackets insulated with down or synthetic fills are not usually needed on summer trips but are valuable in cold climates and for winter travel. These jackets, weighing between 2 and 3 pounds, are seldom worn while climbing but are needed for emergencies, bivouacs, and the cold hours in camp.

Rain and wind protection

On top of everything comes a shell of nylon or other synthetic material as an outer layer to provide protection from rain and wind. The ideal shell is uninsulated, windproof, waterproof, and breathable. Another option is to carry both a lightweight, unlined nylon windshirt and a coated rain parka. The breathable wind shirt (which won't be completely windproof) will reduce heat lost to the wind yet let sweat pass out of your clothing. The raincoat goes on when the dampness caused by precipitation exceeds the dampness caused by perspiration.

Many of the qualities you should look for in a good rain parka (fig. 2-8)are the same whether or not the fabric breathes.

• A size large enough to allow for additional layers of clothing underneath without compressing your insulation or restricting your movement.

• A hood with a brim, neck flap, and good drawstring to keep water from dribbling down your face and neck. The hood should be large enough to accommodate a hat (or climbing helmet) and should not impair vision when you glance to the side.

• Seams sealed at the factory with tape. Check that the tape has bonded well to the coat. All seams need to be sealed to prevent moisture from entering along the stitching, and it's preferable to have factory-sealed seams rather than trying to seal them later yourself.

• Zippers with large, durable teeth and good flaps that keep the zipper dry.

• Pockets that are easily accessible with gloved hands and with a pack on. Pockets also need good rain flaps that keep water out.

• A coat length that extends below the hips, and a drawstring at the waist that allows you to seal off the bottom of the coat.

• Sleeves that cover the wrists. Snaps, elastic, or Velcro should keep the sleeve in plaee at the wrist.

• Ventilation: controllable openings at the front, waist, underarms, sides, and cuffs that allow you to open up for ventilation or shut tight for trapping warm air next to your body.

Some climbers prefer anoraks, a pullover jacket with no front zipper, to standard rain parkas. The front zipper of a standard parka helps ventilation but can also leak, jam, or break. Cagoules (knee-length anoraks) are an option preferred by a few climbers. Ponchos, used by many hikers, are nearly useless in the wind and are not viable rain protection in the high mountains.

Anorak Esqu
parka); b, standard (zip-front parka).

THE LOWER BODY Long underwear

Winter travel and cold alpine conditions call for long underwear, made of polypropylene, other synthetic material, or wool. Under these conditions, long underwear is not optional clothing, but an integral part of the layering system. The convenience and versatility of layering is compromised if a climber faced with a sudden storm has to strip to the skin to put on long underwear. Like your long underwear top, the bottoms should go on first and come off last. It is your heavier insulating pants that should be taken on or off as necessary. Down or synthetic pile underwear can also be carried and worn as outer wear during a bivouac. Synthetic briefs are an alternative to cotton.


Your insulating pants should be loose fitting for freedom of movement and made of a closely woven fabric with a hard finish so that it's resistant to wind and abrasion. Wool and wool/polyester blends work well. In cool, wet climates, synthetic pile is another good choice because it retains most of its insulating qualities when wet. Pile is not wind resistant, but a nylon shell, integral to the pants or separate, will remedy the problem.

To help layer your lower-body clothing, look for pants with full-length zippers that allow you to put the pants on while wearing boots. The life of your pants can be extended by reinforcing the seat and knees with patches of nylon or other durable fabrics.

Some climbers prefer knickers to long pants because knickers give better freedom of movement. By opening the leg straps and rolling down the socks, you can ventilate the knickers better than standard pants. Shorts are handy for hiking in the rain and for stream crossings, letting you keep your long pants dry inside the pack. Nylon shorts or gym pants worn over long underwear bottoms make a good summertime combination when shorts alone give inadequate protection against wind or cooler temperatures.

Wind and rain protection

Wind and rain pants should parallel your solution for protecting the upper half of your body. A pair of waterproof/breathable pants is one solution. Here again, full-length zippers are convenient. The zippers also help you ventilate the pants. An alternative to the waterproof/breathable fabrics is to carry both lightweight nylon wind pants and a pair of coated, non-breathable rain pants. Don the wind pants in blustery conditions, and the rain pants when it is raining hard.

Waterproof rain chaps are another outer covering for the legs, though they are now seen less and less frequently. Chaps protect the pant legs from rain, while the uncovered seat is protected by a long parka or cagoule. The system saves weight and improves ventilation but is more likely to fail in severe conditions, such as bushwhacking through wet brush or walking in blowing snow.

Some climbers use bibs made from waterproof/breathable fabrics and held up with suspenders. Bibs are best suited to winter snow and ice climbs, ski mountaineering, and cold-weather expeditions. They are considerably wanner than rain pants because they cover much of the torso and keep snow from melting around the waistline, but they are too warm for most summer uses.


The boundary between your trousers and boots is protected by gaiters (fig. 2-9). Climbers often carry gaiters both summer and winter to prevent wet brush, mud, or snow from saturating pant cuffs, socks, and boots. Gaiters are usually made from nylon packcloth and close with snaps, zippers, and/or Velcro. A cord running under the foot from one side of the gaiter to the other helps the gaiter hug your boot, while a drawstring at the top keeps the gaiter from sliding down. A tight fit around the boot is essential to prevent snow from entering underneath the gaiter. A tight fit also helps prevent catching your crampon points on the gaiters.

Short gaiters, those extending 5 or 6 inches over the top of the boot, are adequate for keeping corn

Fig. 2-9. Gaiters: a, short length; b, full length; c, supergaiter.

snow and gravel out of your boots in summer. The deep snows of winter, however, usually call for long gaiters that extend up over the calf.

The portion of the gaiter covering the boot should be made of coated nylon. The upper portion of long gaiters should be made of a waterproof/breathable fabric or an uncoated nylon so that the legs can breathe. Zippers are the usual failure point of a gaiter. Make sure yours are heavy-duty with large teeth. A flap that closes with snaps or Velcro protects the zipper from damage and can keep the gaiter closed and make it functional even if the zipper breaks.

The strap under the foot will wear out during the life of the gaiter. Neoprene straps work well in snow but wear quickly on rock, while heavy cord survives rock better but sometimes balls up with snow. Whatever you use, be sure the gaiter strap is designed for easy replacement.

Supergaiters completely cover the boot from the welt up but leave the lug soles exposed for good traction. Insulation built into these gaiters covers the boots and reduccs the chance of frostbite during cold-weather climbs.


Mittens are warmer than gloves because they allow your fingers to snuggle together and share warmth. A pair of synthetic pile or heavy wool mittens worn inside waterproof ovcrmitts is fine for most non-technical climbs. Pile mitts can be wrung out when soaking wet and retain most of their insulating loft. Wool is not quite as effective once wet, so carry an extra pair of inner mitts (in a pinch, socks will work). Get inner mitts that cover the wrist.

Outer mitts can be made of a waterproof or waterproof/breathable nylon on the palm side. An increasing number of manufacturers use a non-slip coating on the palm to improve the climber's ability to grip ice tools. The backhand side of the over-mitt should breathe, so choose a style that uses waterproof/breathable fabric. The ovennitt should overlap the parka sleeve some 4 to 6 inches, and elastic or Velcro closures can cinch the overmitt around the forearm.

To prevent losing your mittens and overmitts, it's a good idea to sew on security cords (unless yours came so equipped). You'll find it's well worth the effort, especially when you need bare hands for snow or rock climbing, or if you take the mittens off in a high wind.

Many climbers wear polypropylene glove liners or a thin pair of fingerless gloves inside their mitts. Both give excellent dexterity for delicate chores. In very cold temperatures (around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, or -18 degrees Celsius), the polypropylene liners are better at keeping exposed flesh from freezing to metal. Fingerless gloves give slightly better dexterity and are preferred for cold-weather rock climbing when you don't want a layer of fabric between your fingers and the rock. You can buy fingerless gloves or make your own by cutting the fingers off a pair of army-surplus wool gloves.

Thin leather gloves are important for safety when rappelling or managing a hip belay because they prevent rope burns that could cause you to release the rope. These gloves are difficult to waterproof and they soak up water, so don't rely on them for warmth.

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