Dressing for the outdoors used to be as easy as slipping into jeans, a T-shirt and sweater--a yellow rain slicker or poncho in case of rain--and hoping for the best.
Today, even casual hikers, mountain bikers and rock climbers know that, rain or shine, cotton is all wrong. But most of them have yet to master the language invented by the active-wear industry to describe a new generation of fiercely competitive man-made fabrics: Ultrex. Drytec. Micro Mesh. Hydrophobic. Triple Point Ceramic. . . .
What does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? Manufacturers try to dazzle with laboratory test results and sci-fi terminology, but what we really want are lightweight, durable clothes to keep us comfortable on a short early morning run or a climb up 14,000-foot Mt. Whitney. Here is a jargon-free guide to serious outdoor wear.
* Hats: Yes, they look ridiculous. And yes, "hat head" is a drag. But they're essential to staying warm. The Bomber Hat by Adventure 16 ($24.95) features a tough, water-resistant nylon shell, a thick fleece lining and ear flaps. Hind's waterproof Extreme hat ($39.95) has a long flap in back to keep rain off the neck. White-water kayakers might try Patagonia's snug-fitting, waterproof skull cap ($22). The North Face's High Point hat ($30) features heavyweight fleece.
Low-budget alternative: Army-Navy surplus wool cap.
* Shells: The old nylon Windbreaker begat a far more complicated--and much more costly--first line of defense against wind and water. High-end, Gore-Tex-lined models such as Moonstone's Light Wave jacket ($330) or Mountain Hardwear's Ethereal jacket ($325) might pay off if you're eyeing Mt. Kilimanjaro, but for a day hike in the local mountains, lower-priced shells (REI's Zephyr jacket, $50) should work fine. Best bet for all-around use: durable, lightweight, multipurpose models such as the ICR jacket ($185) by the North Face.
Low-budget alternative: plastic poncho.
* Vests: Joggers who wind up with jackets tied around their waists on chilly mornings haven't discovered the beauty of vests. They keep the body core warm without overheating. Hind's RegulatAire Segmented ($99.95) incorporates a thin inner layer of fleece that wicks moisture away from the body, keeping the back and chest dry and warm. Patagonia's Flyer ($85) pairs windproof fleece and a back zippered pocket for energy bars.
Low-budget alternative: an extra T-shirt.
* Fleece Jackets: The trick to staying warm is trapping body heat. Like wool, fleece--a synthetic that finds its way into everything from jackets to hats--retains body heat even when wet; unlike wool, it's lightweight, fast-drying (especially if you swing it around your head) and doesn't smell like a soggy sheep. It's as cuddly as a teddy bear too.
Fleece comes in a variety of thicknesses, or weights. Lighter weights are designed for highly aerobic activities such as running or hiking; heavier, downhill skiing or camping. Eco-minded folks take note: several makers offer fleece made almost entirely from recycled plastic soda bottles (Patagonia's Synchilla jacket, $110).
Low-budget alternative: thrift-shop wool sweaters.
* Body Warmers: Active wear is now limb-specific: Hind's Lycra-blend leg warmers ($39.95) reach from hips to ankles; arm warmers ($29.95), from wrists to biceps. The former includes ankle zippers.
Low-budget alternative: knee socks, for legs and arms.
* Long Underwear: Yes, even undies have gone synthetic. Pure cotton may feel great, but once it gets wet (rain, snow or sweat) it tends to stay that way, losing the ability to insulate. The new age undies, which range in weight and style from featherweight briefs to heavyweight long johns, wick away moisture. Patagonia's Capilene ($22 T-shirt, $120 union suit) and Lowe Alpine's MicroFleece ($75 zip-neck turtleneck) are two popular choices. For women only: Zanika's crotch design makes pit stops along the trail less of a hassle.
Low-budget alternative: drugstore pantyhose or tights.
* Socks: Cotton's OK for a short run or bike ride, but hikers and backpackers swear by sock liners worn under thick wool socks. Often made of polypropylene, the liners are like underwear for the feet, helping to wick away blister-causing moisture. Unfortunately, polypropylene also tends to retain odor. Some socks, including Thorlo's Trekking Crew ($12), blend wool and polyester to create a combo liner-sock. Fleece Feet ($14-$19) by Wyoming Woolens toast your tootsies with cozy fleece, a good idea for colder climes.
Low-budget alternative: knee-high nylons as sock liners.
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Where to Call
* Adventure 16, (619) 283-2362
* Backcountry Outfitters, (310) 434-6289
* Hind, (800) 235-4150
* MontBell, (800) 683-2002
* Moonstone, (800) 822-2985
* Mountain Hardwear, (510) 559-6700
* Patagonia, (800) 638-6464
* REI, (800) 426-4840
* The North Face, (800) 447-2333
* Thorlo, (800) 457-2256
* Verve, (303) 443-7010
* Wyoming Woolens, (800) 732-2991
* Zanika, (612) 529-1785