Outdoor clothing is too complicated. There are too many choices. It’s all too expensive. How on earth can a person expect to make the right choice about outdoor gear when there are so many options? The answer is easy: Simplify.
The Paradox of Choice
In 1991 I took a job with a small outdoor store in Green Bay, Wisconsin called Life Tools. The shop was a holdover from a sort of Whole Earth Catalog co-op concept. We sold outdoor gear, and food dehydrators, and homebrew supplies, and futons and there was a used book corner run by somebody that I never would meet filled with all kinds of subversive titles.
I dove right into the world of outdoor gear and started to put together a closet of outdoor clothing for backpacking, climbing, paddling and ski touring. Every year, each manufacturer came out with a new range of innovative clothing that was billed as the perfect solution to some kind of outdoor adventure problem. Gore-Tex mountaineering shells, lightweight raincoats, wicking baselayers, polyester fleece , windproof fleece, hybrid shells–the list was practically endless.
Each one of these manufacturers was doing its best to increase sales by innovation and product development, but an unintended consequence of all this innovation was an ever increasing level of complexity in the outdoor clothing category. There were too many choices. There still are.
One of the problems with variety is that as choice increases, it becomes more and more difficult for a person to be happy with the decisions that he’s made. This is The Paradox of Choice, first discussed by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book of the same name. On the face of it, more choices seem like they should make us more satisfied, but Schwartz’ research indicates the opposite: the more choices we have, the less happy we are with the outcomes.
One potential solution to the Paradox of Choice is to deliberately limit the options you’ll consider for a given situation. In the case of outdoor gear this might mean creating a framework of actual needs and sticking to it, rather than being influenced by the latest innovations in equipment. The goal of this series of essays is to present such a framework for outdoor clothing–a simple system of clothes to help outdoor enthusiasts to limit choice while creating a flexible clothing system that will work in the broadest possible range of environments and conditions.
Moving Toward Simplicity
My first exposure to the idea of a simple clothing framework came from reading Ray Jardine’s book on ultralight backpacking: Beyond Backpacking. Jardine is the original ultralight backpacker. He more or less invented the category and style, racking up thousands of miles on back-to-back trips of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
Beyond Backpacking outlined a very simple clothing system for long distance trekking. This system hit all the key layers and added a few that I hadn’t considered to be critical, yet it helped keep Jardine’s base pack weight under 10 pounds for extended trips. Jardine is an advocate for radical simplicity in outdoor gear, and went so far as to design and sew his own equipment and clothing to cut out any unnecessary weight and complexity.
Jardine’s advice for long distance hiking focused on breathable windshells and light baselayers. Waterproof breathable shells were only to be used in cold and rainy conditions where the rain was blowing sideways. More temperate precip was better managed with an umbrella and breathable gear. The umbrella wasn’t the only thing that cut against the conventional wisdom of the Outdoor biz. Almost every page of Beyond Backpacking was a paradigm buster, and the simplicity of Jardine’s approach was compelling.
Different Applications, Similar Solutions
I ran across Jardine’s book in the early 2000s and started playing around with his ideas for lightweight backpacking . Around this same time the US Army was developing a new cold weather clothing system that leaned heavily on similar concepts. Soliders fighting in Afghanistan were struggling to keep warm in a range of conditions with their standard issue clothing, so the Army reached out to the civilian market for advice on the most advanced clothing technologies available.
The Protective Clothing Uniform (PCU) was developed by the Army R&D lab at Natick Soldier Systems Center in concert with civilian advisers from the Outdoor Industry. Chief among these was alpinist Mark Twight, who had helped Patagonia to develop its Regulator system of fleece and breathable soft shell garments.
Given Twight’s background as an alpinist and ambassador for Patagonia, it’s no surprise that breathable soft shell fabrics and technical fleece became the core of the new military clothing system. In testing, fully breathable shell fabrics performed better and kept testers more comfortable in a wide range of challenging conditions than the Gore-Tex cold weather shells the Army had been issuing up to that time. New, lightweight fleece fabrics were lighter, quicker drying and more compressible than the previous versions. The same was true of new, lighter polyester baselayer fabrics. In the end, the new military system ended up looking like something out of the Patagonia catalog–exept in camo.
The PCU brought military clothing up to date with the most innovative fabrics and technology available from the Outdoor Industry. More importantly for our discussion, it created a simplified system of clothing that could be issued to all soldiers for use in a full range of cold and wet environments. The need for a universal cold weather uniform drove PCU developers to weed out excess variety and focus in on what worked best for most people in the most conditions at the lowest possible weight.
Most of the components of the PCU are now fielded by the US Army as the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) Generation III. The layers issued in ECWCS Gen III are remarkably similar to the recommendations that Ray Jardine had for long distance backpacking clothing. In place of Jardine’s ultralight wind shells, the ECWCS leans more heavily toward durable shell fabrics that will hold up in rugged terrain, but the central premise is the same: light wicking baselayer, breathable shell for cold, lightweight waterproof/breathable shell for serious rain, insulating layers for cold or sedentary conditions.
The framework for a simple outdoor clothing system I propose closely mirrors the seven layers of the ECWCS Gen III system and takes into consideration Ray Jardine’s suggestions for ultralight backpacking. Keeping to the ECWCS framework is handy, because there is a lot of surplus clothing from this system available for sale at affordable prices. Alternately, you can easily find commercially available products that hit the same categories and use the same (or superior) materials.
The point of this exercise isn’t to find the perfect piece of clothing for each individual situation. I’ll be passing up plenty of functional, effective garments that you might choose for a specific activity like ice climbing, nordic skiing or lift-served Alpine skiing. I am leaving aside a whole raft of specialized clothing designed for paddlesports applications: sea kayaking, whitewater, standup, etc. This is deliberate. This exercise is focused on trying to sort out the most versatile, minimalist clothing system possible. Something that can take you from beach to mountains, summer to winter and function effectively.
By the end of this series you will have recommendations for purchasing 13 garments–7 tops and 6 bottoms–to take you through most outdoor scenarios. Those 13 garments comprise seven layers and combine to create a complete system.
Here are the seven layers of the system along with comparisons between the ECWCS and commercially available equivalents. Click the link in each title to go to a detailed discussion of each layer.
Layer 1: Lightweight Wicking Base Layer Top and Bottom
ECWCS Gen III uses silk weight Polartec Power Dry for this layer. Similar to Patagonia Capeline Lightweight (previously called Capeline Silkweight). This post will explore Power Dry as well as other synthetic and wool baselayers in various weights.
Layer 2: Lightweight Fleece Top and Bottom
ECWCS Gen III uses midweight Polartec Power Grid for this layer. Similar to Patagonia R1 top and bottom. There are a lot of options available in light to mid weight fleece and this post will dive into the pros and cons.
Layer 3: Midweight Insulating Jacket
ECWCS Gen III issues a high loft fleece jacket made from Polartec Thermal Pro. Similar to a Patagonia R2 or Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man fleece. Jackets made from some of the newer, more breathable insulated fabrics like Polartec Alpha, Primaloft Silver Active and Toray Full Range are also good options for this layer.
Layer 4: Lightweight Nylon Windshirt and Pants
In ECWCS Gen III this is a wind shirt only, intended to be worn with the standard combat uniform. We’ll add wind pants to this category. This is the go-to three season shell layer for all outdoor activities as recommended by Ray Jardine. Patagonia Houdini Jacket and Pants or similar.
Layer 5: Soft Shell Jacket and Pants
This is the winter version of the wind shells listed in Level 4. This layer is tougher and heavier than Level 4 wind shells and is sized to fit over all insulating layers listed above. The PCU/ECWCS has used a variety of nylon and nylon blend fabrics for this layer over the past 15 years. This post will explore the confusing Soft Shell category with a focus on uncoated, fully-breathable stretch woven garments. Patagonia’s Guide series of stretch woven jackets and pants would fit this category.
Layer 6: Lightweight waterproof/breathable Jacket and Pants
Dedicated rain gear for truly wet conditions. ECWCS Gen III uses Gore-Tex Paclite in this layer, but there are other options worth consideration. Widely available from a range of outdoor manufacturers.
Layer 7: Synthetic Insulated Parka and Pants
High loft insulation layers designed to fit over the other layers of the system. These components will keep you comfortable in winter conditions. ECWCS Gen III has used both Primaloft and Climashield synthetic insulation in this layer. Synthetic insulation dries more quickly in severe conditions, but down garments offer the most warmth for deep cold. This post will examine the pros and cons of each.
Each of these seven layers will be explored in detail in the following series of posts. I’ll also add a post or two about outdoor clothing and accessories for special conditions like hot weather and bugs. I hope you’re along for the ride and look forward to discussions in the comment sections of these pages.
The PCU Protective Clothing Uniform: A Buyer’s Guide and Clothing System History
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