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Staying Dry

Insulated Jackets
 A primer on managing moistureBy Aubrey Laurence
Photo by Louise Mugar and Aubrey Laurence

Precipitation, wind and cold are your external threats and sweat is your enemy from within. Having the right clothing can make the difference between comfort and catastrophe.

Mt. Baker Experience MagaZineThe human body needs to stay within a narrow temperature range – roughly between 95 and 105 degrees – or it will succumb to hypothermia or hyperthermia. The body self regulates for the most part, but when you’re active in extreme environments it needs help.

In humid climates such as the Pacific Northwest, sweat doesn’t evaporate well, so its cooling effect is diminished. And once physical exertion is stopped, it doesn’t take long for the cold and humid air to chill your body.

COTTON. First and foremost, it’s best to leave all cotton clothing at home, including the ubiquitous, Pacific Northwest hoodie. Cotton holds moisture, it’s heavy, it takes a long time to dry, it has no insulating properties when it’s wet and it increases the likelihood of chafing and blistering.

BASE AND MID-LAYER FABRICS. When choosing base and mid-layer fabrics (including pants, socks and underwear), stick to synthetic fabrics or Merino wool.

Synthetics, such as polyester, polypropylene, nylon or poly blends (including name brands such as Patagonia’s Capilene or Invista’s Lycra or Thermolite) tend to be lighter and less expensive than Merino wool, but Merino wool is warmer and less clammy when damp.

Different breeds of sheep produce different wool fibers. Old-school wool was made from thick fibers, making it feel itchy and scratchy against the skin. Now you can find active-wear companies like SmartWool, Ibex and Icebreaker that use fine-fiber wool shorn from Merino sheep. Fibers from this type of wool are roughly a quarter the thickness of human hair, and they have kinks and bends that create millions of heat-storing air pockets that keep you warm – even when the wool is wet. The fibers also absorb sweat vapor on the inside and release it on the outside.

Regardless of the fabric you choose, keep in mind that different fibers move, or wick, sweat away from your body at different rates, so it’s important to combine the appropriate layers.
“It’s best to have a synthetic or wool base layer next to your skin,” said Krystol Ithomitis of Bellingham’s Sportsman Chalet. “And then, in between that and your hardshell, you want additional layers to be the same material as your base layer – such as a mid- or heavy-weight Merino wool layer over a lightweight Merino wool shirt – so that moisture moves away from your body at the same rate.”

FLEECE. Generally speaking, there are two types of fleece – open-weave fleece, which allows air to flow through it, and bonded fleece, which has wind-block or hard-faced material incorporated into it. An open-weave fleece jacket makes a great insulation layer because it provides a lot of warmth, it allows moisture to escape, is lightweight and has some insulating properties even when it’s a little damp. When an open-weave fleece jacket is worn underneath a windproof and waterproof hardshell jacket, it makes a highly effective jacket combination to fend off the cold, wind and rain.

INSULATED JACKET: DOWN OR SYNTHETIC? There are many variables to consider when choosing between a down or synthetic jacket. Down insulation is typically warmer, lighter and more packable than synthetic insulation, but it’s also more expensive, it takes longer to dry and it loses its insulating properties when it gets wet.

You probably won’t use a down or synthetic sweater or jacket on a day outing, but it’s a good idea to carry one. If something goes wrong (i.e., you sprain an ankle, get caught in a storm, become lost or slip into an icy creek), you may be immobile for a while, and having the extra insulation could save your life. Just be sure to keep your jacket in a waterproof bag so that it stays dry.

HARDSHELL JACKETS. A good hardshell jacket features water repellency and breathability. In other words, it keeps precipitation out, it allows
sweat vapor to escape, and it dries quickly.

It’s best to spend the extra money on a membrane-backed jacket rather than one that has been treated with a microporous coating. Membranes are typically laminated in between a face fabric and a liner. These types of jackets cost more, but they last longer, are more durable and more breathable than jackets with coatings that will inevitably wear off.

All of the major brands claim to have breathability, water repellency and wind-blocking features, and there are many different membrane brand names on the market, such as Gore-Tex, eVent, Polartec, Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q Elite, The North Face’s HyVent, Columbia’s Omni-Heat, and so on. Adding to the confusion, some brands even have multiple styles, names and fabric/insulation combinations.

Rather than trying to compare the seemingly subtle differences between the top brands, focus on finding a jacket that matches your activity (high-intensity activities may require a shell that moves vapor faster than others, for example), has the features you need (i.e., pockets, pit vents, helmet-compatible hood, etc.) and fits correctly – keeping in mind that you may need a larger size to accommodate insulating layers. In addition to the specific features needed for your activity, Ithomitis recommends investing in a waterproof, membrane-backed jacket with taped seams, waterproof zippers and a hood.

A high-quality hardshell jacket will be more comfortable, more effective at managing moisture and lasts much longer than a cheap jacket, and it just might become the most important piece of clothing you carry.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER. So now you’re all geared up with new clothing and you’re ready to give it all a test run. Not so fast. It’s best to start out underdressed and slightly chilled because once you begin your activity you’ll probably warm up quickly. When you generate enough heat to start sweating, either shed a layer or slow your pace.

If you become chilled, add a layer. And when you stop to take a break, immediately add a warm layer to keep yourself from getting cold and to preserve the warmth you have already generated. Then, right before you start moving again, remove the warm layer and place it back inside your pack.

Continually add or remove layers as needed, and try to stay ahead of your body’s temperature changes.

The outdoor-clothing market can be confusing because there are so many different fabric types, stitchings, seams, blends and brands. But if you do your research, consult with experts such as Ithomitis, and invest in the proper gear for your activity, you will enjoy many dry and safe days in the wet and wild Pacific Northwest. X

Aubrey Laurence spends as much time in the mountains as possible. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two cats.