Dress For Success Outdoors

September 18, 2007
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Looking good in the outdoors is not about style; it’s about wearing clothes that are functional. Fortunately, these days, outdoor clothing manufacturers are making quality gear that allows you to enjoy both form and function at the same time. If you make the right choices in the way you dress, it will dramatically impact your level of safety and comfort.

There are a few general rules for dressing properly outdoors.

Dress long. That means long sleeves and long pants, the last thing you want is to expose yourself to harm. Exposed skin can suffer sunburn, bug bites, scratches and scrapes from every bush you pass, and contact with toxic properties of some plants (poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac). Some injuries can lead to infection.

There are exceptions to the “dress long” rule. It’s fine to dress in short clothing when you’re in the water for a swim or when you’re spending a day at the beach for fun. If you’re just lounging around camp, life is usually pretty safe in short pants and shirt, as long as you don’t get sunburned or devoured by bugs. I have a pair of zip-off-leg pants for just such occasions. The rest of the time, wear long clothes.

Choose the right fabrics. Cotton feels soft and comfy but it is not the best material for serious outdoor clothing, because it absorbs moisture and holds it against the skin. Wool or synthetics are a better choice, because they are less absorbent and they wick dampness away from the skin, keeping you dry and helping retain a proper body temperature.

Dress in layers. Think of your clothing as a system, not just an item. Ideally, you have a base-layer undergarment that wicks moisture away, allowing skin to remain dry and comfortable. The next layer is (pants, shirt, fleece hoodie) is insulation that is meant to trap and hold air at body temperature. The outer layer (jacket) is a shell, designed to turn the wind and repel precipitation while allowing body moisture to pass through from the inside and escape to the atmosphere.

By using the layer system, you can make adjustments as conditions change. You don’t have to wear everything at once, if you don’t need it. Take it off, tie it around your waist or stuff it a pack until needed. There are pros and cons to pullover tops vs. clothing with buttons or zippers. Pullovers retain maximum warmth, but don’t offer the versatility of opening for ventilation purposes. Buttons and zippers can break or foul, but offer ventilation options. I like to be able to open each layer as much as needed to vent, without having to remove the layer.

Wear a brimmed hat. Keeping your head, neck, ears and face covered with shade is an advantage when the sun is strong. Keeping those parts of your body covered when it’s raining is also good. On a cold, rainy day, you don’t want water running down the back of your neck. So, a brimmed hat is excellent in all seasons and all conditions. It’s your portable palm tree, and a rain fly for your head. Not only that, but a hat helps retain valuable body heat, when the weather is cold (you lose significant body heat through your scalp), and keeps bugs and other stuff from getting in your hair. An alternative to a full-brimmed hat is to tuck a handkerchief up under the back of a ball cap and let it drape (Legionnaire style) over your neck and ears to protect against the sun, wind and rain.

Sturdy shoes or boots. Nothing will slow you down faster than sore feet. You need honest-to-goodness trail shoes or boots. The difference between backcountry footwear and other sport shoes is more than just the pattern of the sole; it’s also the level of protection against stone bruises, twisted ankles, and such. Sandals are fine for the beach or in camp, but not for the trail. Going barefoot, even around camp, is just asking for an injury that can ruin your trip.

Pockets are good. Cargo pants and shirts with pockets are high on my priority list when it comes to outdoor clothing. In those pockets, I carry such things as an emergency supply of toilet paper, fire starting equipment, folding knife, signal mirror and whistle, map and compass, some food, and lightweight poncho. The list goes on. I would rather carry these items in pockets than a pack because I am never separated from my pockets.

You wouldn’t run onto the football field wearing swim trunks and flippers. It is almost that ridiculous to go into the outdoors without the proper equipment and clothing. Mother nature can hit you as hard as a 300-pound linebacker, so you want to be prepared. To knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts, looking good in the woods isn’t about style; it’s all about dressing appropriately, so your outdoor experiences will be much more comfortable and fun.

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