A Simple Outdoor Clothing System Supplemental: Shirts, Shorts and Skivvies

DSCN4975To complete your year-round simple clothing system you need to add a lightweight summer shirt and a pair of quick-dry shorts. You should probably have some undies that don’t suck, too.

This is the ninth in a series of posts outlining a simple outdoor clothing system for all seasons. An overview of the system can be found here. Other posts cover baselayers, lightweight fleece, midweight insulated jackets, wind shells, winter soft shells, waterproof/breathable rainwear and high loft winter insulation.

So far, the outdoor clothing system that I’ve been outlining in this series of posts has been focused on cold weather. Most of us do the majority of our outdoor recreation in the summertime, so it makes sense to round out the system with a couple of must-have items that will keep you comfortable in hot weather. In addition to this, there is one more, critically important item that needs a mention to insure comfort year round. This supplemental post will fill in a few details and set us up for a discussion of how the whole system comes together season-by-season in a future post.

At the beginning of this series I mentioned Ray Jardine’s book: Beyond Backpacking as an inspiration to refining and simplifying my outdoor clothes closet. I read Beyond Backpacking shortly before I spent the summer as an intern at the Voyageur Outward Bound School up in Ely, MN leading canoe trips. One of the best pieces of advice that Jardine had in his book was to wear a lightweight, short sleeved button-up shirt as an everyday trail shirt. I hit the trail that summer in lightweight cotton plaid shirt and haven’t looked back since.

The short sleeve button-up shirt makes sense on every level for hot weather wear. The collar protects your neck from sun and can be turned up for more protection. The shirts can be purchased in ultra lightweight nylon or polyester and are much cooler than a silkweight baselayer shirt. What’s more, they are cut looser. The combination of a loose cut, button front and short sleeves creates a truly comfortable shirt in hot weather. Pockets are nice too for holding small items that you might need to reach quickly like lip balm or eye drops.

A lightweight nylon button-up shirt is cooler in hot weather than a wicking t-shirt.

For the past 6 or 7 years I’ve used an ultralight nylon shirt from Royal Robbins as my go-to summer outdoor shirt. It’s been through hundreds of outdoor days and is still going strong. The shirt is feather light and cool on a hot day. Similar shirts are available from nearly all outdoor clothing companies. Look for something in an ultralight nylon fabric. Nylon is a better choice than cotton because it dries more quickly. It’s a better choice than polyester in hot weather because it’s hydrophilic nature helps keep you cool by absorbing sweat and drying a little more slowly than polyester. A slight pucker to the fabric can help to improve cooling and air flow next to skin.

A lightweight nylon button-up shirt (left) is the best choice for hot weather comfort. A silkweight wicking T (right) comes in a close second.

If I haven’t convinced you to go the button-up route you can always opt for a lightweight, wicking T-shirt instead. Focus on the lightest weight polyester or merino wool options discussed in the earlier post on baselayers. Steer clear of cotton T-shirts for obvious reasons–they are slow to dry and hold moisture next to skin. On a hot day, a cotton jersey T-shirt is hotter and less comfortable than either a lightweight nylon button-up or  a silkweight wicking T.

There is no need for long sleeves on your hot weather outdoor shirt. Long sleeves inhibit cooling, even when rolled up, and if you need protection from sun or bugs you can always put on your windbreaker top.

I spent the summer at Outward Bound wearing a pair of Umbro nylon soccer shorts that I found on the bottom of the lake in front of the dock at the Home Place. Peach plaid shirt, bright green Umbros, navy blue wind pants. I assume that the students thought I was crazy. Which is part of the fun.

These days I usually wear Patagonia Baggies as my backcountry shorts. They have a liner so they can be worn without underwear, they dry quickly when wet and are tough as nails. Baggies are a little heavier than ultralight running shorts, and I have used those for several trips when weight was a little more of a focus.

Lightweight running shorts (left) and Patagonia Baggies (right).

The idea behind shorts is that you wear them under your wind pants for bug and sun protection, and can pull off your wind pants if you start to overheat and the bugs aren’t a problem. To my mind, this works better than zip-off pants, and avoids the fact that you’re going to look like a kook if you wear zip-offs. Seriously.

There’s no point in wearing a system of high-tech wicking clothing over the top of cotton undies. Cotton dries slowly and holds moisture next to your skin instead of letting it move outward through your clothing system. Nylon is better, but specialized outdoor skivvies made from wicking polyester are the best choice. I’ve had success with ExOfficio’s line of synthetic underwear, but there are good options available from a wide range of outdoor clothing manufacturers.

At the risk of putting myself well into the weeds I need to put in a word about brassiers. Ladies have a bit of extra difficulty when it comes to skivvies. Sitting around in damp drawers is unpleasant enough, but a sweaty, soaked bra can be downright dangerous in cold conditions. Women’s foundation pieces sit next-to-skin-in right over your core and can cause a serious chill if they are slow to dry. What’s worse is that the most supportive options are typically among the least breathable as they are frequently reinforced with foam. Women will be best served by finding the lightest, quickest drying undergarments possible, ideally from polyester or merino wool. Steer clear of cotton or nylon.

[Here my wife interjects and mentions her strong preference for Icebreaker’s lightweight merino wool bras and suggests going with a little bit looser fit for winter wear to prevent constriction under layers].

Buy This, Not This
Buy a lightweight nylon button-up shirt for hot weather wear. If you can’t stand the idea of a collar, buy a wicking T-shirt in a silkweight or lightweight fabric. Buy some pull-on athletic shorts or Baggies. Guys may prefer them with an integrated liner. Buy some wicking undies that will dry quickly and help to move moisture away from your skin. Ladies should buy a wicking bra that dries quickly.

Don’t layer cotton skivvies under your wicking clothing system–it defeats the purpose. Don’t wear cotton T-shirts. Ladies should steer clear of bras made from cotton or nylon or those that use a lot of foam in their construction.

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