Over the years technical fabrics such as Gore-Tex, HyVent, Aquafoil, DriLite and Conduit to name only a few have appeared at the forefront of outdoor adventure clothing. On the whole, they are very good and perform well in a variety of conditions. The main problem is that when wearing any shell garment you generally feel cold, clammy and uncomfortable; other friends agree that this is generally the case and that it’s just part of being outdoors in poor conditions. But is there a better solution?
My Own Waterproofs
I have tried quite a few modern serious mountaineering jackets/over-trousers over the years but none have performed better than the British Army issue tri-laminate Gore-Tex jacket and over-trousers. The over-trousers have elasticated waist & leg bottoms and can be put-on over boots easily in a few seconds. The elasticated waist means no messing about when your hands are cold and the elasticated leg bottoms ensure that the water always runs off over your high-leg combat boots or gaiters keeping your feet dry, again, no messing about with zips or press-studs. The jacket has all the features of a ‘top of the range’ mountaineering jacket but is much harder wearing. I have worn these in remote Scottish mountains in freezing rain/sleet/hail for more than twelve hours with buffeting winds and the occasional hail storm thrown in with no ingress apart from the normal bit on the face. A certain amount of discomfort is to be expected in conditions like these and the rule of ‘only wear your waterproofs when it’s actually raining/hailing/snowing’ keeps this to an absolute minimum. Always keep your waterproof shell mitts in the pocket of your waterproof jacket. Go for shell mitts because they will work with either under gloves or under mitts.
Is There an Alternative?
In these conditions, no, but in normal wet mountain conditions, yes, there is an exceptional alternative. It’s Cotton! No coatings, no additives and no gimmicks… To be more specific, Ventile. This is not a new discovery, in fact the fabric goes back to the late 1930’s and is used by the military today. It is windproof, weatherproof, breathable, noise-free, extremely durable, 100% natural, comfortable and reliable. It seems to have fallen out of favour because it’s just ‘run of the mill’ cotton and as such can’t possibly be as good as the modern space age fabrics and coatings. I have had a Snowsled Ventile smock for a number of years now and find it amazing. When dry it is velvety smooth to the touch, soft and warm to the bare skin. When the rain hits it the fabric goes damp, at first this is a little disconcerting but then the fibres expand and become so tight that water cannot penetrate. The downside is that in this condition the fabric takes-on a ‘stiffness’, a bit like thin cardboard. When the rain has stopped, a light breeze ensures that the material dries in minutes; a quick rub all over with your hands and the fabric returns to its normal soft, warm and velvety to the touch condition. Ventile can be worn in all weathers making Ventile garments much more versatile than normal waterproofs.
Is That the End of the Problem?
Well, no, not really. Ventile garments can be worn all the time in normal conditions, indeed, they look and feel just like normal clothes. This makes them an excellent choice for the adventurer; coupled with the fabrics extreme durability Ventile should be a first choice. Now, those who have read some of my other articles know that I try to tell it the way it is and I’m not going to tell you that Ventile is a magic solution to all your problems, neither am I going to tell you that Ventile is better than Gore-Tex and the suchlike in prolonged extreme freezing rain, sleet and hail. The way I see it is that Ventile garments are an excellent addition to your outdoor wardrobe and as your confidence in Ventile clothing increases you will become happier and happier. Now that can’t be bad in this day and age, can it? Of course, that’s assuming that you’ll make a full recovery from the stroke brought on by the purchase price. That said, a Ventile smock is comparable to a good quality high-end waterproof and will give many more years service, it can be patched if damaged… No need for tape on the seams!
A Little Help Using Either
For all but extreme specialist activities like high altitude mountaineering all the hype in the hiking magazines about the importance of the ‘layer system’ is just hype and nothing more than ‘tosh’ to sell more gear. The fact of the matter is that if you are carrying a medium to heavy pack you will get wet from sweat no matter what you are wearing. The more layers you are wearing the more layers you will get wet. If you are working hard with a heavy pack in any conditions wear as little as possible. When you set off you should feel cold, you will soon warm-up after a few minutes; I often only wear a ‘T’ shirt and adjust my activity level to maintain a comfortable temperature. Always have a warm fleece just inside the top of your pack for when you stop to put on straight away. When you stop for the night, clean yourself up, dry yourself off; get warm and comfortable before preparing your meal. There are conditions where this routine is changed around a bit but for 95% of the time it holds true. The whole thing is a damage limitation exercise really, but I’m sure you’ll find it the best way. Remember, any wet garments should be rinsed if possible and must be put on the next day so that your body dries them out. Never, ever get both sets of clothing wet.
The vast majority of problems with waterproofs come from nothing more than idleness; we have all done it and we have all no doubt regretted it. With a good set-up you can have your waterproofs on or off in less than two minutes; don’t be tempted to delay and get wet or leave them on when it stops raining. I know it can be a pain and I know how tempting it is to break these rules but they do work. Idleness with waterproofs in extreme weather and locations can cost you your life; wet, wind and cold can and will kill you easily if you fail to keep on top of the situation.
Know and Respect Your Adversaries
At the beginning of our basic survival course we always try and put in a 20 minute controlled exercise to demonstrate just how debilitating this can be. You are in a woodland area, it’s cold, windy and it’s raining heavily. You are wearing a ‘T’ shirt and your shorts and you have your knife and sparking tool; all you have to do is light a fire with what you can find around you and warm yourself up. The result of this controlled exercise under safe conditions focuses the mind so much during the course that when the same exercise is repeated at the end of the course the changes are dramatic.
Big Strapping Lads
On the face of it you would think that a big strapping lad could switch-off to this and carry on. Now, I’ve done a bit over the years and feel I can put up with and make light of many things while sticking to a tight schedule under extended, extreme conditions but this frightens me to the point that I give it 100% of my attention straight away. Second chances in this area are rare.
With a little knowledge and discipline you will be able to perform in extreme conditions for extended periods in relative safely.