Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark
Version 1.9 -- Sept 10, 2013
This document is broken up into a number of sections. Major sections are divided by parts of the body. Within the "torso" section I have subsections which address each of the classic "layers". I have not bothered to subdivide other sections because the fundamental issues are well covered in the torso section. Quick links to major subsections of the document are:
Note... I often revert to information from the web site backpackinglight.com. So save space, I will use the abbreviation BPL.
Conventional wisdom is that you should dress in three layers: a base to manage moisture; a middle to provide insulation, and a shell to protect you from the elements such as wind and rain. In colder conditions it is common to have multiple insulation layers which can be added or removed to fine tune the system for immediate conditions. A slight variant of this system is to use a wind-shirt over the base layer, and for the insulation layer to sometimes be over your shell. When people are engaged in high output aerobic activities the combination of a good base layer in a windshirt provides adequate protection from the environment while preventing the person from overheating. When the activity level drops or if the conditions turn harsh, insulation and/or shell layer can be placed over the windshirt without removing it. This approach is recommended by the folks at Pro Mountain Sports on their 3/4 layer clothing page. I would also recommend BPL Clothing (and Sleep) System for Mountain Hiking with it's ode to windshirts. Highly breathable soft shells are often used like wind shirts in colder conditions. For a good description of how to effectively use clothing read British climber Andy Kirkpatrick's (aka pyschovertical) The Art of Not Suffering. There a nice presentation from people up north about Cold Weather Clothing which is worth looking at. I also captured some notes about thermal-regulation (a.ka. Stay warm) which will give some insight into clothing choices. there is a nice collection of tips for winter running.
On extended trips in the back country or when you are adventure traveling and need to be able wash your clothing in the sink or river and be able to wear almost immediately worst case, the next day best case. This requires clothing to be made from materials which dry quickly and retain their characteristics even when wet such as performance oriented synthetics, silk, or high quality wool. Cotton is an inappropriate material for highly variable conditions. Cotton can absorb more than four times of it's weight in water and can take five times as long to dry as some synthetics! For a bit more on this see my Water Retention In Clothing and take a look at why cotton kills. FabricLink has a decent index of high performance materials and Keith Conover wrote up his experiences with different clothing materials. The US military has spent a lot of time and money working on clothing materials. You also might be interested to look at a discussion about the performance characteristics of the new protective combat uniform and a review of the PCU.
There is some very sophisticated science being applied to clothing material. Examples include Schoeller's nanospheres which virtually clean itself, a treatment from Avelana and Roudiere which is first being applied to wool which has some thermoregulation properties much like Outlast, several Japanese companies are making garments that generate heat when they get wet, materials which are normally soft but stiffed to provide protection during an impact developed by d3o, and clothing as a battery. Some folks are claiming that high concentrations of some metals speeds recovery time which I am somewhat skeptical of. There is also a trend toward mixing different materials using tools like thermal mapping to guide the level of insulation, moisture transfer characteristics, etc to different parts of the body. There was an interesting article comparing Sir Hillary's Clothing on Everest to what we wear today. While this comparison is interesting, his system wouldn't fair as well against a more careful selection of modern clothing. There was an interesting thread about Clothing Science and Folklore on backpacking.net. There is a classic article called General Principles Governing vSelection of Clothing for Cold Climates by Paul Siple of the U.S. Army from 1951 which provides useful background information. Many of Richard Nisley's postings on BPL are filled with useful, science based information.
People are often concerned about the durability of clothing that will be worn in the back country or for an extended period of time while traveling. Many manufacturers encourage people's fear and sell seriously overbuilt clothing, often labeled "Expedition Proven" or some such thing. The truth is, very few people, even those on expeditions need clothing that is so overbuilt. Unless you are facing continuous hard-wearing conditions, lighter weight clothing will have close to the same lifetime as the over-built clothing. There are many advantages to selecting items which aren't overbuilt: you save weight, save space, often get better performance and spend less money. It is possible to go so light that durability is effected. Several manufacturers make clothing which is aimed at extreme athletics looking for the lightest weight performance. Often times weights savings comes at the expense of durability. For example, the classic nylon windshirt weighted around 10 ounces and might be usable for ten or twenty years. Some of the ultralight windshirts made today weight as little as 2.5 ounces, but will likely last only a few years before the ultra-light fabric tears or the zipper breaks. Sometimes you can patch or repair these failures, sometimes you will have to pick up a new item.
I would recommend nearly all the clothing made by MontBell and Patagonia: they have great design sense, use innovative materials, and are super high quality. On top of this, both companies are responsive, stand behind their products, and are ecologically and socially responsible. You don't have to pay a huge premium for Montbell, but Patagonia is often quiet expensive. It's hard to find Montbell at significant discount, but it's often possible to find Patagonia clothing at 40% or better discount on their website under "specials", at Sierra Trading Post, or at Patagonia outlet store (especially during their semi-annual sales events) which can reduce or eliminate the premium compared to the retail price of other manufacturers. Arc'Teryx, Westcomb and Rab might soon be added to my top tier list, they make very nice outwear. Marmot, Mountain Hardware, and Outdoor Research consistently manufacture a broad range of well designed and high quality clothing. I really like the materials used by Cloudveil, but I have sometimes been disappointed by the quality of construction and their attention to design details. Northface (TNF) and Eddie Bauer used to make great outdoor clothing. For the last decade or two they were more of a fashion brand, but they seem to be trying to make a come-back with clothing which are really designed for back country activities rather than just walking around town. REI, EMS, MEC, and Campmor sell store label items. My experience is that these store brands items tend to be cheaper than equivalent quality of most name bands, but tend not to be as refined as my favorite brands listed above.
Rational: You want something which will wick moisture away from your body. In warm weather a wicking base will help keep you cool by provide significantly more surface area than your skin to promote evaporation of your sweat. A base layer can provide addition surface area only if it retains it's structure when wet. Many fabrics (cotton for example) collapse when saturated making it feel hotter and sticky. In cold weather conductive cooling tends to be the bigger issue than evaporation... so a wicking base layer which pulls water away from your skin helps you stay warm. In most cases you want your base layer to minimize water retention. In very cold conditions (say consistently under 0F) consider using a Vapor Barrier. While not a "critical" issue, odor retention is also a consideration for many people. There was a nice thread about odor retention in shirts which lines up with most of my experience. It is common for a particular base layer to be offered in a number of "weights". My recommendation is generally go with one of the lighter weight bases and get warmth from a mid layer and / or shell.
My Choice: If the day time temperature is going to be >55F my normal hiking shirt is Patagonia Merino 1 long sleeve crew shirt in white. It provides modest protection against the sun, I treat it with permethrin for some protects from bug bites, it breaths well, dries fairly quickly, and doesn't get stinky on a multiple day trip. In cooler conditions I switch to a Patagonia Capiline 4 hoody which is the very best base layer I have used then it's <=60F. I use my Cap 4 hoody for all my done in a day activities: hiking, skiing, biking, running, etc whenever it's <55F. I have been reasonably comfort doing a big uphill push when it was 55F and ok with sleeves pushed up and zipper fully open up to 70F. With it zipped up, hood up, and a windshirt worn I have been comfort hiking down to 35F. Cap4 with a windshirt to control how much air is allowed to pass covers a huge range of conditions because the Cap4 fabric is so air permeable. When I expect really bad biting bugs I will wear a button up shirt made of supplex that bugs don't bite through but unfortunately is not very air permeable which means in hot weather it feels hot and sticky.
Options-Synthetic: There are lots of materials for base layers. Malden Mills Power Dry is my favorite because it is one of the best base layers for moving moisture, it's soft against the skin, and has a reasonable amount of stretch so it moves with me. Power Dry is a bipolar fabric that uses the physical prosperities of a combination of materials to move moisture away from your body and toward the surface of the garment. Besides moving moisture more effectively than most of the other synthetic wicking technologies, bipolar materials tend to feel less clammy when wet, some what like wool is less clammy than most synthetics. A nice refinement to Power Dry is the addition of embedded silver which worked better than any other anti-odor treatment I have used. Different companies use different amounts of silver. Looks like you want >8% silver for effective performance. The US military selected Power Dry + X-static for the new PCU base layer which can be purchased from Insport and sekri. [I don't recommend these anymore, the current model is reported to use 4% X-static in the under arm panels and nothing in the main body which is unlikely to control odor effectively.] Mountain Hardware eXend base layers, some shirts from Terrmar, and a few other manufacturers also use a silver based anti-microbe treatment called VisaEndurance which seems equally effective to x-static. I have worn x-static and VisaEndurance shirts for nearly a week strait without the really awful synthetic stink. One thing to note, is that some people have expressed concerns about the possible health effects of nano materials. There are no conclusive studies at this time. There is a new treatment made by Polygiene which has gotten good reviews but I don't think it is as good as wool at resistanting accumulated stink. Power Stretch is not as soft as Power Dry, but more body hugging and durable with a fuzzy inside and a smooth outside... great for cool-cold weather climbing and other abrasion prone activities or if you need a slightly more wind resistant base. Patagonia's Capilene (most of which are based on Power Dry), Lowe Alpine's Dryflo Montbell Zeo-Line, and GoLite C-Thru base layers are also fine materials. Marmot DriClime might be better than anything else when it comes to moving moisture away from the skin, but it tends to grab anything that isn't baby smooth and is not as stretchy or soft as PowerDry. Some people rave about Norwegian Brynje mesh base layers for cold weather because they dry quickly and give a lot of warmth for weight provided the next layer restricts air flow. In the US you can find Brynje sold a few places such as reliableracing. Personally, I think Patagonia Cap4 with it's high void spacing provides most of the advantages of Brynje in a much nicer package. Columbia Omni-Heat base layers provide a bit of extra warmth by embedding the fabric with reflective dots. This gives a boast of warmth with not extra bulk. Outdoor Magic wrote up a review of omni-heat heavyweight top which matches my experience with Omni-Heat. There is a really cool NASA invented material made by Outlast which phase changes to absorb heat when you are working hard, and releases heat when you are at rest. Very useful for sports which have varying levels of activity like alpine skiing and climbing, but not useful for backpacking or snowshoeing where you are engaged in continuous activity. There are a number of companies such as CW-X which are producing base layers with a built in taping system which helps bind together and support muscles and ligaments. In general I would recommend getting a long sleeve base layer with a deep front zipper. This provides maximum flexibility. In warm weather you can push up the sleeves and open the neck zipper.
Options-Wool: Wool has started to make a come-back last few years. Many people have discovered high quality Merino wool to be very soft and comfortable against the skin. There have been a number of articles such as BPL's Wonder Wool and psychovertical's The Wonders of Wool encouraging people to reconsider a wool base layer. I would recommend the comparison by BPL on the comfort and moisture transport in merino wool and capiline. The reviewers concluded that wool vastly superior when it comes to odor control and feels less clammy when wet, while capiline dries more quickly (~50%), and is warmer for the weight. My more casual experiments had similar results, though I think that if the BPL folks had been using a heavier base layer, the synthetic would have dries more than 50% faster. The comparison failed to note that wool is not as durable as most synthetics of comparable weight. I would also note that for periods up to a week, I have found synthetic + better silver treatment to be almost as effective keeping stink down as wool. I have good experience with Smartwool, Icebreaker, Patagonia's line, and io Bio. My favorite is currently Icebreaker 150 weight in the body fit cut which is my daily wear around town and sometimes in back country.
Options-Sustainable: There are several companies which are now selling shirts made from sustainable materials such as Soy product's in Ex Officio's Tofutech line, and bamboo in Marmot's Switchcane line. Some have a textured feel... sort of like seersucker. I think most are very soft and smooth with a cashmere like feel and a somewhat clingy drape. Some people might like this... but I am not super happy with it. It seems a bit too clingy to me. On cooler or moderate days this was fine, but in hot conditions I want just enough contact to wick, and I also want good air flow which I didn't feel I got. I haven't given it a really good odor test since it's only been wore 2 days in row. The performance after two days was fine. Then again, my cotton tees are good after two days as well. It's just untreated polyester and to a lesser extent nylon than turns nasty after 2 days for me. It was certainly better than those. I look forward to hearing how bamboo's odor performance is in a real trial. As far as drying speed... I haven't don't any careful tests. My impression is that is better than cotton, not as fast as my thin supplex or my summer weight poly based synthetic shirts. I don't have a comparison against light weight wool because I can't use wool without a reaction. Something that would be interested to understand how durable these bamboo shirts will be. My ex officio shirt is already looking a bit used after maybe 10-12 uses. I am not sure if that means it's going to fall apart soon, or if it will last a look time but just not look new. Cocona Fabrics is using material from coconuts for a variety of uses. No experience with these items yet. Since I don't really understand how long lasting, I don't know if they are actually better for the environment or not. For now, I am sticking with wool or synthetic materials.
Options-Hot Weather: When trying to stay comfortable in hot conditions there are several things to keep in mind. First, color matters. Some informal tests found that bright white shirts are significantly cooler than shirts with colors today. Schoeller has been working on ColdBlack which can look black to the human eye, but reflects more than 80% of the suns energy (particularly in the UV and NIR range). Second, you typically want good air flow. This can be achieved with good venting / mesh panels, high air permeability fabrics, and to a less extent shirt being loose fitting to provide a billowing action, or puckers material which leaves space between most of the shirt and your skin. Third, you ideally want a material which wicks well. Many people use feather weight shirts made from the typical based fabrics. The VisaEndurance treatment have been effective for me. Others who seem to have more odor issues than me have reported that the odor fighting performance was good but not perfect. While not as cheap as a cotton tee, these shirts can often be found for around $15 which is a good value. A different approach are shirts that are chemically tried to cool when they come in contact with water (e.g. your sweat). This includes Omni-Freeze ICE by Columbia, 180s QuantumCool, and Sherpa Adveture Gear summer line. Another popular option are shirts made from woven (not knit) nylon such as Supplex, SolarWeave, Solumbra, Talsan. These shirts provide protection from sunburn and biting bugs, dry quickly, and are very durable while still being reasonably comfortable. The three downsides of tight weave nylon shirt is that in hot weather is that it blocks some wind (so it's a bit hotter than a more traditional base), they tend not to wick so sweat sticks to your skin, the fabric is a bit rough (my elbows get irritated after a few days of wear) and that they will stink like polypro after an extended use. My favorite tight woven shirt is the Rail Riders Adventure Shirt thanks to it's sun protection and side venting. I hope someone makes a VisaEndurance version of this shirt someday. I have also used Ex Officio neo-tartan shirt which is made from a a nylon/polyester blend called dryflylite. I found this shirt seems to dry as quickly as supplex, but has a softer feel, actually wicks a bit, and is more air permiable making it a better hot weather shirt. The material doesn't seem quick as durable as supplex (time will tell) and I don't know if the weave itself is tight enough to prevent bug bites. I do know that when it's treated with permethrin it will provide efficient bug protection. In hot dry weather with good water sources, cotton can be an ok material because you can dampen your clothing and let them help keep you cool like a portable swamp cooler. Warning: wet cotton loses a significant amount of UV protection... cotton tee shirts drop to a UPF of 3 when wet. Also keep in mind that new cotton clothing is often not very sun protective, brand new tee-shirts are the equiv. of SPF 5. You can use sunguard wash-in to raise the sun protectiveness of your clothing... but if you have washed your clothing in detergent with a "brightener" around 20 times, you will already raised the sun protection of your cotton clothing as high as it is likely to go (somewhere between SPF 15-30). American Backcountry make some cool looking technical tee-shirts.
Low Cost: Go with CoolMax base. Dupont has licensed CoolMax to multiple suppliers which has resulted in competition that keeps the price down. Duofold and Terramar CoolMax base layers can almost always be found for around $10 at Campmor and other discount outdoor stores. These shirts aren't as well finished as more expensive base layers but they are much less expensive and are very usable. For warmer weather you might already have some shirts that would work well: a biking jersey, running shirt, a soccer jersey, or light weight woven synthetic button-down.
In extremely cold, dry conditions, vapor barriers can be part of an effective clothing system. According to the book Secrets of Warmth by Hal Wiess, the human body gives off moisture for three reasons: (1) as a fear response, (2) as sweat to cool us down when overheating, (3) to maintain adequate humidity (~79%?) for the skin. There is some debate in the backpacking community as to whether the insensible perspiration (aka transepidermal water loss) is directly related to keeping the skin at a fixed humidity... but there should be no question that the micro climate near the skin effects rate of transepidermal water loss. This is alluded to in numerous scientific articles such as Eero Lehmuskallio's thesis Cold Protecting Emollients and Frostbite. [I will do a more complete literate search later... most of the article I found were about care for premature babies.] The bottom line is that you want to minimize the moisture for two reasons. First, and I think most important, you want to keep moisture out of your insulation. If you are out for more than a couple of days, moisture from your body will condense and then freeze in your insulation. This will result in your insulating jacket getting heavier, stiffer, and be less insulating. A vapor barrier prevents this from happening. Secondly, it is likely that the vapor barrier trap some moisture near your skin so you don't need to perspire as much. BPL has a brief article on vapor barrier liners. There is a nice Introduction to Vapor Barriers by Andrew Skurka. One of the early modern proponents of vapor barriers is WarmLite's Benefits of Vapor Barriers. You can see a rebuttal of some of the warmlite VB claims. There is also an interesting posting on BPL's forum about the science of vapor barriers. I found vapor barriers useful on some extremely cold trips in northern Canada. When I was active, I found that vapor barriers didn't seem to help me until the temperature was below 10-20F. I found that vapor barrier socks are great, pants and mittens are fair, and that shirts were useful but hard to get right. I found when I was inactive or sleeping vapor barriers worked very well when the temperature was 20F or lower and I was using appropriate amounts of insulation (e.g. don't overheat or you start sweating and it doesn't have anywhere to go). Very few companies make vapor barrier clothing. I would recommend checking out rhdesigns and warmlite. The cheapest way to try out vapor barriers is wear light polypro liners, with sandwich bags as a vapor barrier followed by wool socks (your insulation), try some latex surgery gloves over your hands and insulate your insulated gloves or mittens, and/or a plastic trashbag around your torso. If this works for you, take a look are some of the better quality materials. Today, I am typically on short trips during the winter and am not facing extreme cold. As a result, the only vapor barrier clothing I currently wear are socks or sometimes mittens. A bit more on vapor barrier socks near the end of this document.
Rational: Wind speeds up convection cooling significantly. A simple, unlined windshirt can ounce per ounce provide more warmth than many other clothing items. In many cases a light wind shirt over an appropriate weight base layer is all you need to keep comfortable when active. Furthermore a good wind shirt can protect you from bug bites and light drizzle when a full rain shell would be too much. Finally, wind shirts also slow evaporation a bit (not perfectly breathable) which moderates flash-off cooling. Ideally you want slight air permeability to maximize breathability while still providing protection from convection cooling. There was a nice discussion about windproofness, breathability, and air permeability on a BPL forum. Most people can't perceive wind if a material is CFM of <=5.
My Choice: I mostly don't take a wind shirt backpacking. For me, a supplex shirt I wear for bug protection provides adequate wind protection in warmer conditions while and in colder conditions my rain shell is adaquately breathable so long as it's below around 45F. When I take a windshirt, I bring a ArcTeryx Squamish.
Options: People use the term "windshirt" for a number of different sorts of shells. I divide "wind shirts" into four categories. My favorite type of windshirt are ultra-light, ultra-breathable unlined nylon or polyester jackets. I am particularly fond of windshirts with hoods and full zippers such as the Arc Teryx Squamish, Patagonia Houdini, Marmot Ion (older Polyester or Quantum versions), or Montane LightSpeed. There are also a number of nice pull over and/or hoodless windshirts such as the Montane JetStream, Outdoor Research Ion (Quantum model), or RAB Quantum Wind Top. If I was buying a new wind shirt today, I would most likely go with the Patagonia Houdini because it has a full zipper for venting, sufficient body length, and hood or the slightly heavier ArcTeryx Squamish depending on fit (I found the Houdini size M is tight across the chest for me). If I didn't want a hood I would most likely go with the Montane JetStream for minimal weight. If I wanted the cheapest high quality windshirt on the market I would get a Montane Featherlite Smock (my review). Some people might favor the heavier and more durable fabrics such as Pertex Equilibrium. Other types of "wind shirts" I discuss in my section on soft shells. These include:
Some people use rain gear for wind protection. In warmer weather, most WPB shells are not sufficiently breathable and make matters worse by being somewhat insulating. The result is that they block the wind well, but in cool to hot conditions, you will overheat and get wet from sweat. A counter point is that if you either manage you activity level and/or are in cool weather light weight eVENT jackets are sufficiently breathable to be used as a wind shirts.
Low Cost: The cheapest solution is a cheap nylon windbreaker found at Target, Walmart, etc. Treat with DWR after-market product.
Rational: The purpose of the insulation layer is to keep you warm. One of the biggest mistakes people make is using too much insulation which causes the body to sweat, which results in the individual feeling chilled. I would recommend selecting insulation layers which are highly breathable to minimize moisture accumulation. In most cases you want your insulation layers to be easy to take on and off and ease to vent heat since as conditions vary you will want to avoid overheating. When active I think it's good to be slightly cool to avoid sweating while having enough insulation that you could can be comfortably warm when you stop. Often people take multiple insulation layers which can be varied to match the conditions. There are a number of factors which effect how much insulation a person will need to be comfortable for a given set of conditions. The most significant is the level of activity, or what researchers call Metabolic Equivalent (MET). Below is a table from Hal Weiss's Secrets of Warmth which summarized the results of US Army study to determined recommended insulation (expressing in terms of inches of loft) for various effective temp (which include wind chill):
|Effective Temp||Sleeping||Light Work||Heavy Work|
As the table indicates, the amount of insulation you need is inversely proportional to your activity level. I would note that people base metabolism level varies which is often reflected in people talking about running "hot" (which is me) or "cold" (many women), so the amount of insulate listed above should be considered "average". You might find that you need more or less. For example, I found that I need approx 2/3 the insulation listed for "light work" when I am doing simple chores around camp but I need the listed amount for sleeping. If you haven't had adequate food and water, you are short on sleep, or if you are physically exhausted, you will need additional insulation because your metabolic systems will not work efficiently. Activity levels can shift your metabolic rate, even after the activity has ended. For example, I have found that after backpacking for 15 miles with a lot of elevation changes that I need less insulation in camp that evening, even though I am no longer hiking.
It's also worthwhile to note that while inches of loft is a decent approximation, that there are other factors that govern how warm clothing is. For example, there have been a number of tests which indicate that down garments that are overfilled provide more insulation that standard fill and that often synthetics often lose more loft than insulating ability as they age. There are also other elements that can be incorporated into insulation that can boost it's warmth without changing the garment thickness such as vapor barriers and inferred reflectors such as those used in the Fugu Down Jacket or in Columbia's Omni-Heat.
As the table above indicates, it's important to consider both activity level and target temperature when selecting clothing. There are three common approaches used by people:
For even more information, check out Richard's best combinations for backpacking. I think it's very useful to note that as the temperature drops, activity level significantly changes the absolute amount of insulation. The colder it gets, the more you want different insulation for when you are active, when you are are at rest, and when you sleep. Richard also has a very useful iclo for common backpacking mid-layers. I think Richard's graph is quite interesting and it matches my subjective experience in the field except that I have found the Thermawrap Jacket to be closer to the 200wt fleece. I also found the original micro puff to be a bit warmer, but the more recent models don't seem to be as warm which would match up with Richard's chart. But all of my observations are subjects vs Richard's objective measures. I wonder if there are facts that Richard isn't testing for, or if my subjective experiences were shaped by my expectations. Another useful chart from Richard is his theoretical -vs- measured iclo. For more information see the discussion thread about high loft materials CO values and engineeringtoolbox clo clothing page. The paper Application of Nanofiber Technology to Nonwoven Thermal Insulation has some interesting observations for people interested in various properties of a number of insulation materials.
My Choice: For the last year I have be using a Stoic Ultralight Down Pullover. I got it on sale to replace my beloved WM Flash Vest which is now too big for me. The Flash Vest was surprisingly warm (better than a 200 weight fleece), weights just 4.5oz, is very compressible, and makes a good pillow. I like the freedom of movement a vest provides. When just sitting around I found the combination the vest, a heavy-weight base layer, hiking pants, rain jacket or windshirt, neck gaiter, and warm hat keeps me comfortable down to 20F though my arms are getting chilled on backpacking trips. [Note: I seem to run warmer than many people so this might not provide enough warmth for you.] In colder conditions I bring a Thermawrap Jacket which I mix and match with my vest. When the temperature is >35F I don't wear an insulation layer when active, I just wear a base layer and maybe a light shell (depending on conditions) or an integrated soft shell. In colder conditions I will typically wear the my vest and save the jacket for when my activity level drops.
Synthetic High Loft: I recommend using high loft synthetic insulation such as Polarguard, Primaloft, Climashield which is large enough to layer over all your clothing (aka a Belay Jacket). See comments on various insulation material in my sleep system page. High loft vests and jackets tend to be lighter and pack smaller than the more commonly used fleece. They break the wind better than traditional fleece, but don't breath quite as well. Another downside of high loft insulation is that when you compress the garment, it loses it's warmth. This is typically not too much of a problem with jackets. On the one hand, a backpack will compress a jacket, but on the other hand, the pack will typically provide plenty of insulation to keep the back plenty warm. This is typically more of an issue in insulated pants (when sitting) or hand wear when holding an ice tool. See BPL's High Loft Review for more info. For an insulation layer down to freezing I would normally recommend a high loft vest. Using a vest has several advantages. First, it tends to provide more warmth / weight, leaves your arms unencumbered for better mobility, and you harness your bodies natural vascular constriction (as your arms chill your body sends less body which means less heat lose). In mild weather I would recommend the Montbell Thermawrap Vest. For cooler conditions there are a variety of good options, the Patagonia Micro Puff being the classic choice. Vest. For colder conditions I would suggest a jacket. The Montbell Thermawrap Jacket is good in cool conditions. There are number of high loft jackets (typically insulated with Primaloft) which are not quite as light weight such as the Patagonia Micro Puff, REI Gossamer, North Face Redpoint, and Mountain Hardware Compressor. There is also the ArcTeryx Atom LT which is synthetic insulated except for a PowerStretch side panel and underarm. It won't be as warm as a number of the other options, but it might be just the thing when you want light weight insulation when you are moving. For harsh conditions I would recommend a hooded "belay" jacket with a durable shell like the Patagonia DAS Parka, OR Synchro Hoody, Integral Designs Dolomitti Jacket. Note: a belay jacket should be large enough to fit over all your clothing. This way you can wear lighter clothing while active and put the belay jacket on over everything else when you stop and need the extra warmth without having to take anything off. There are also a number of "big name" companies that sell reasonable nice synthetic high loft jackets which typically don't match the above for weight / warmth, but are still quiet nice such as the or the North Face Optimus Jacket, Mountain Hardwear Compressor Jacket, and several jackets made by REI.
Down Insulation: for amazingly light, compressible and warm down vests or jackets take a look at Western Mountaineering, Montbell, Nunatak, and Feathered Friends. There are some nice down sweaters from PhD Gear, Rab, Patagonia and Rab. While not quite as warm / weight, Eddie Bauer, Lands End, and Costco?! sometimes sell fairly reasonable light weight down sweaters. One of the lightest option, and also one of the best warmth / weight is the Montbell Extra Light Down Jacket which weights a mere 6oz. My favorite (aside from the $260 price tag) is the West Mountaineering Flash Parka. Warmer still is the Montbell Light Alpine Parka. I think the Light Alpine has a great fit, but fit tends to be rather personal. There is also the Western Mountaineering Flight jacket, but I found it too short, almost too puffy, and too warm. I am hoping that Montbell or Western Mountaineering will shortly offer a version of their ultralight down garments made with the water resistant down. The New Balance Fugu was briefly avail on close-out is an amazing value if you are looking for a light, really warm jacket as discussed in bpl thread about the Fugu. In general, my recommendation is to use synthetic insulation unless you will be using your down garments "in camp" or where is it sufficiently cold that you don't worry about external moisture. Something that might change this is a treatment applied to down that will first appear in products from Sierra Designs which is claimed makes down hyrophobic without impacting it's insulating properties. Several other companies are now offering treated down. It looks like the treatment that Patagonia has invested in might be the best of the bunch, time will tell. Even without the special treatment, a counter-point comes from an experiment done by BackpackingLight.com folks, it seem that even when you soak well designed ultra-light down garments with highly breathable shells such as the Western Mountaineering Flash Vest, that in less than an hour the Flash vest will have more loft than any synthetic vest which weights approx the same as the Flash when dry. For folks who are considering a WM Flash Vest, keep in mind that you will lose a fair amount of heat from the V-neck and the lack of a collar. You should consider using a neck gaiter to protect what the Flash leaves unprotected. The shell material used on the Flash has been changed several times... at least one of the fabrics used was too light and tended to lose feathers.
Fleece (typically 100, 200 or 300 weight) have been the most commonly used insulation layer for the last twenty years. Reasons to use fleece include: durability, breathability, fleece dries very quickly if it gets wet, and that compressed fleece retains it's warmth. If you want a fleece which holds up for many years I would suggest looking at high quality fleece like those made by Mountain Hardware, Patagonia, Montbell, Arc'Teryx or semi custom jackets from Beyond Fleece. I think Polartec Thermal Pro High Loft (which first appeared in the Patagonia R2/R3) is the nicest fleece material in terms of comfort and insulation / weight since it's weight is similar to a 200wt fleece, but it's warmer than most classic 300wt fleece. WindPro is one of the few forms of fleece that is somewhat wind resistant while still being adequately breathable. I prefer high loft garments because they pack much more compactly, and because they provide significantly more warmth / ounce. That said, I will take sometimes take a my TNF TKA80-weight fleece rather than my high loft vest if I expect the morning lows to be above 50F. There was a nice discussion about fleece as a staple for backpacking. I am very fond of combining a light fleece with a high loft vest.
Other Options: Polartec Alpha looks to be a very interestig material trying to combine the best of high loft and feece. WindStopper and Windbloc fleece are discussed in my soft shell section (I don't like them because they don't breath well and aren't as warm for weight as other fleece). Gore used to have a product call Airvantage which you would vary insulation by blowing-up / letting air out of the garment, but lit was quite heavy and didn't catch on. A related but much lighter possibility is the 2oz Aerovest (review) which is designed to emergency insulation. Klymit is making something similar which uses compressed Argon rather than human blown air. There is an enlightening thread about Klymit. Another emerging solution is micro heaters (or coolers) being developed by companies like Aspen Systems primarily for military applications. I thing there is a lot of development left before these sorts of systems would be good for backpacking trips. Finally, there are materials like aerogel which often incredible insulation for a given weight at stratospheric pricing such as the custom Grado Zero Espace Jacket and the prototype climbing Champion Supersuit. Time will tell if this can be made sufficiently durable and affordable to be useful.
Low Cost: You most likely already have a fleece. If not, it is possible to buy a 200 weight fleece at discount stores for $10-20 which will be adequate for cool-moderate temperatures. You might also look at using the US Army's M-65 Field clothing liners which can often be purchased for less than $20. For colder weather add a good wool sweater, a second layer, or you could make one of the thru-hiker kits. Sometimes L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, or Lands End will have specials on primaloft or Polarguard jackets for under $30.
Rational: The purpose of the shell is to protect you from environmental conditions: rain, sleet, snow, etc. Finding the right rain gear is quite challenging because staying dry and comfortable requires managing external moisture from rain, sleet, and snow as well as managing internally generated moisture. Most rain gear is not only waterproof, but is also windproof and has some insulating characteristics. In warmer weather this is a serious problem because the wearer of rain gear will often over heat, start sweating, and then find themselves almost as damp as if they were walking around in the rain without protection. The best short explanation of breathability, or the late there of was done by Andrew Sjurka in the article Breathability: It's Mechanism and Limitations. Roger Caffin from down under has written a nice Rainwear FAQ. BPL has a good article about Light Weight Backpacking in Sustained, Cold Rain. Waterproof Breathable Fabric Technologies at BPL to be very helpful in understanding the characteristics of various materials used in rain shells. BPL also has a brief ORWM 2011 new WPB fabric technologies. Sounds like we might be seeing changes in the Fall of 2011. There was also a very old BPL article High Exertion Moisture Accumulation which I found interesting. Patagonia wrote a nice article entitled What is Percent of Naked? which describes an interesting way to characterize shells which captures both wind permeability and water vapor transmission. A nice study found that air permeability was a better predictor of comfort than vapor transmission rates. Materials such as eVENT, Propore, and to a lesser extent Montbell Breeze-DryTec, which directly vent moisture will feel more comfortable than materials that require water to condense to be transported such as Gore-Tex and most PU materials. I have found the Breathability Graphs and Temperature Dependent Water Vapor Diffusion from the Soldier Systems Center, water vapour permeability of fabrics from U of Kansas to be interesting.
I have noticed on various discussion lists that people talk about how breathable various garments are. Often I will see people rave about a particular jacket that both laboratory tests and my personal experience suggestion is just mediocre like the original Marmot Precip. It is likely that there jackets / materials I describe as not very breathable will be raved about by others. I explain this in three ways:
My Choice: There is nothing which satisfies me 100% of the time. If the temperature is more than 60F depending on other factors, I sometimes don't bother with rain gear and just get wet. Sometimes I will use an umbrella in these conductions. For the last five years or so, I used a Propore rain jacket: BPL Drop Stopper, DriDucks, etc because they were light, waterproof, has decent breathability. They have worked pretty well, but I am getting tired of having to baby them, the awful cut, and that I see to wear holes in near the wrists. I am now using a Westcomb Focus LT DVL eVENT Jacket most of the time for better durability, fit, and breathability, even though it's nearly 2x the weight.
Options: There are a variety of approaches people take:
There is a wide variety of materials used in rain shells. In a perfect world there would be materials which would prevent rain from entering but let you vent perspiration. This is the dream offered by waterproof / breathable (WP/B) materials. Alas, WP/B materials don't live up to their hype. Even the very best WP/B materials (eVENT, PacLite, Propore) can be overwhelmed by aerobic activities. Many WP/B will be overwhelmed if you do much more than stand around. This is why many WP/B jackets have side or pit-zips which enable the wearer to vent heat and internal moisture when activity levels will overwhelm the materials ability to move the moisture. Something else to keep in mind is that most waterproof breathable jackets are breathable only so long as their DWR continues to function. Basic use will degrade the DWR over time. Rough conditions such as bushwacking can significantly speed up this process. This is why you rarely see WP/B beimg used by people who work in very harsh conditions like the Alaskan or Australian outback, fishing trawlers, etc. You will typically find them using very durable non breathable waterproof materials, or they use something that keeps warm and mostly dry such as the modern military layering system using EPIC fabrics. If you don't need a durable rain jacket, I would recommend going with something made from Propore since they are significantly cheaper than most other options and fairly effective. If you need more durability and can afford it, get a jacket made from eVENT. Common materials used in shells today ordered roughly by their breathability.
Note: I am behind at updating specific models. Some of the jackets listed here aren't made anymore.
Low Cost: The cheapest rain gear for short periods of rain are those cheap ($1, 2oz) plastic emergency ponchos or a plastic garbage bag... don't laugh, I have found them very useful a number of times. You can also find more durable ponchos made from thin PVC for around $3 (weights around 8oz) at home depot or most outdoor stores. The cheapest water proof breathable option I know of are DriDucks Rain Suit which can be found for $15 for jacket and pants. If you want a more durable jacket which decent breathability (but no pitzips) try Cabela's Rainy River Parka which typically is $99.
Everyone has their own definition of "soft shell" which makes the marketplace quite confusing. My definition of soft shell is any single layer garment which is designed be worn in a wide range of conditions putting an emphasis on breathability over absolute protection from external conditions. I consider unlined windshells a form of soft shell (or at least as a very close relative). Contrary to what some manufacturers would like you to believe, soft shells have been around a long time, predating hard shells by several millennium since full waterproof didn't exist until the 1800s. These days there are a number of man made wonder materials that are attempting to beat what has been found in nature (e.g. animal skins). I would suggestion that people who are just working out their clothing systems skip soft shells until they are fully comfortable with a more traditional layering system.
Rational: The primary advantage of soft shells is that they typically offer appropriate protection while doing away with the typical layer on/off dance that people engaged in aerobic activities. Additionally, many soft shells offer better mobility than a classic hard shell and will be less noisy because the shell isn't encumbered by a stiff membrane and often have some stretch in the fabric. Classic hard shells are very effective at keeping wind and water outside the shell. Unfortunately, no hard shell made today is sufficiently breathable avoid significant internal condensation during aerobic activities. Since many outing don't face serious deluges removing the need from a fully waterproof shell. Much more common are wind, light rain, or snow. So why not take a garment that will keep you comfortable in the more common conditions and lets you avoid the pain or taking off and putting back on various layers. Soft shells work by using a durable water resistant fabric that shed precipitation while still being highly breathable. Light rain, slush and snow rolls right off the shell. In an extended shower or when in constant contact with snow, moisture will soak through the outer surface, but the combination of your body heat and the wicking action of the soft shell will provide a comfortable micro climate next to your skin. This approach has been popularized by British climbers who regularly face notoriously wet conditions in cooler temperatures. For this system to work well you need to be engaged in sufficiently aerobic activity to be generating heat, and the conditions need to be cool enough that the soft shell doesn't cause you to overheat. I think the best soft shell materials has some air permeability which helps keep the wearer from overheating, and allows the modest air flow to move water vapor away from your body. For more information I would suggest taking a look at Andy Kirkpatrick (aka psychovertical's) the real soft shell concept.
My Choice: For the last few years I really haven't been using a classic softshell, though for day activities and winter trips I often use an unlined windshirt combined with light fleece or heavy base layer which functions much like a classic softshell. In the past I often used an Pertex Equilibrium Shell with a liner, either intergrated together in the Rab Vapour-Rise line or the Rab Alpine Pullover over a Patagonia R1. Both systems breaths well, has just right amount of warmth for when I am active, has kept me comfortable in long drizzles (damp but warm enough), dry in hard (but very short lived) rain storms, and in wet snowfall, has a nice fold away hood, and the sleeves easily push up to my elbows when I need to cool off a bit. The Vapour-Rise was also my "around the town" jacket from about October-March in the SF Bay area. I experimented with Rab Vapour-Rise in "wet" conditions such continuous cool weather rain without using a hard shell. When active, the micro clime near my body has always been fine, but I am still concerned that the moisture absorbed into the jacket will chill be excessively when I drop my activity level at the end of the day.
Options: I break soft shells into four categories. The first are nylon or polyester shells bonded to pile. These first appeared in the 1980s, and are still one of the best options because they provide good performance at a reasonable price. The Buffalo Systems Teclite Shirt was the first modern soft shell, and it reminds largely unchanged from it's original form. In recent years there have been a number of related garments. The Marmot DriClime Windshirt switched from pile to a more effective bipolar wicking fabric, but uses a shell which is more breathable but less protective than Pertex 6. Rab Vapour Rise Trail Jacket (review) uses a micro fleece which does not feel dry as fast as pile, but has upgraded the outer shell using materials that is more breathable and dries faster. I have found that the Vapour Rise gives me a wider range of conditions than either the Buffalo or DriClime because it seems to be a bit more breathable, a bit more water resistant (than the DriClime), has a great hood, and the sleeves are wide enough that I can push them up to by elbows to extra venting. DriClime is slightly lighter weight, dries more quickly when it gets really soaked, and has the tendency to snag on any imperfection on your skin. The Buffalo is warmer than both and more water resistant. In 2009 Rab will release in Vapour-Rise Lite which uses a lighter weight Powerdry liner rather than the current micro-fleece but will unfortunately not have a hood. Other good options on the warmer side are the Montane Extreme Smock and Paramo waterproof jackets, though they tend to be heavy, and I find them too warm until the temperature is hovering around freezing when I am active. [For US folks, there isn't good distribution of the UK companies, best to order from a UK retailer who ships to the USA such as Jackson Sports] There is also Cioch Direct which custom makes jackets using Nikwax Analogy. For people who are tall this is a good option. I know a number of people who seem to be comfortable wearing technical tee + DriClime Windshirt when the temperature is between 25-55F assuming a reasonable activity level. For example, my daughter lives in her Marmot DriClime Windshirt year round backpacking, skiing, and just walking around town. See the best softshell. and the archive of Michael's Ultralight Clothing page, for a good description of how these shells work in the field. The second option are the stretch woven "wonder fabrics". Stretch Woven soft shells are great when you need an a garment that can stand up to a lot of abuse without binding such as when engaged in cool to cold weather climbing. I think that Schoeller Dryskin is one of the nicest materials for this sort of application. The downside of most stretch-woven materials is that they can absorb significant amount of moisture. The third type of soft shells use membranes or laminates to provide wind protection and to provide some protection from external moisture. The best known materials of this category would be Windstopper and PowerShield. I would recommend avoiding these sorts of soft shells because they typically don't provide sufficient breathability for aerobic activities while being heavier, more expensive, and not as protective as a traditional layering system. Finally, there are a number of light weight materials such as EPIC which are extremely water resistant while still having reasonable breathability. These materials tend not to be as breathable as unlamented stretch woven soft shells, but have the advantaged that they absorb virtually no water, and the water resistances is significantly more durable.
Outdoor Magic published a summer 2011 softshell round up. Climbing Online had a decent (but now dated) summary of softshells and there was a nice article about choosing a fall jacket in the Seattle Times. Softshells.co.uk blog might also give you leads. A interesting concept is Versalayer, a soft shell with a retractable micro fleece inside. Alas, I think this product has a ways to go given it's bulk and it weighing in at 30oz. Here is a list of "soft shell" materials I have encountered. Temp range is my comfort range when engaged in aerobic activities going from lightest to heaviest:
Low Cost: Find an old, heavy weight wool shirt at a thrift store. This was the traditional NOLS approach which is fairly effective. While not "cheap" Sporthill is cheaper than most other stretch-woven soft shells.
Rational: I could have separate sections describing possible layering for legs the way I did for the torso. I am not going to do that because it would be overkill. My experience is finding effective clothing for legs is much easier than the torso. Why? Moisture management isn't as important for legs because legs sweat less and are more resistant to cold. Furthermore, in most activities (other than climbing) your legs tend to be generating more heat than your arms because you are using your legs to propel yourself. Legs also tend to be more sheltered from rain than your upper torso. All these factors means that the comfort range of pants will tend to be wider than clothing for your torso. One thing to keep in mind... your upper thighs come just after your head and your core torso in the amount of heat you can lose. So even though you legs tend not to be as affect by cold, insulating your upper legs can be a big help if you are trying to stay warm. The most significant challenge presented by legs is that they tend to get abraded more than your torso, so pants generally need to be more durable for an equivalent lifetime. For some people, reducing chaffing is very important. Remember Wetness + friction = pain.
My Choices: When it's above 50F I typically wear a pair of Zoot Tri Shorts because they have elimated chafing I used to experience and carry a pair of BPL Thorofare Trekking Pant or Rain Pants I can layer over the shorts. In cooler conditions or when it's hot but I need protection for my legs I have been wearing a pair of Arc Teryx Ramport Pants, though recently I have started using a pair of Outlier Slim Dungarees with a pair of Icebreaker Anatomica Briefs. If it's consistantly below 20F I wear mid-weight tights under then Thorofare pants. Rain protection is often a "rain skirt" though sometimes is a pair of Montbell PacLite Rain Pants. If I am going to be standing around for extended periods of time when the temperature is below 15F, I layer a pair of high loft Bozeman Mountain Works Cocoon Pants layer over the pants.
My Old System: 2004-2010 I used a pair of pants made from Inertia... most recently Cloudveil Spinner Pants (my review). They provide protection from the sun and biting bugs. They dry quickly so I don't have to worry about carrying a second pair of pants. If it's raining and >55F then I use the zip-offs and let my legs get wet. In colder rain I use either a pair of DropStopper Rain Pants or a pair of Montbell rain pants because I don't like hiking in wet pants. I wear a pair of Ex Officio boxer/briefs one size smaller than normal which really help reduce chafing for me. If I expect the nights are going to be less than 25F a bring a pair of light weight tights to sleep in, which can also be worn during the day if it turns even colder When I am expecting the entire trip to be cold I wear a pair of Marmot ATV pants which are made with Schoeller Dryskin fabric. The ATV pants are comfortable when I am active down to 15 F (skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, moderate duration ski lift rides) and still acceptably comfortable when it was 45 F and I was engaged in demanding activities. They were even comfortable when I was inactive in 70 F (eating lunch inside a lodge). If I expect conditions to be below 20F, I add a mid-weight base. I sometimes wear a pair of REI Trail Running Shorts with an integrated brief I purchased several years ago.
Adventure Travel: Sometimes I am mixing travel with outdoor activities. I need clothing that I can be use in the back country, but can also pass for business casual. My absolute requirements for these sorts of pants are made from a quick dry material than is reasonably durable, has no giant cargo style pockets, no obvious reinforced bum/knees, and no zip-off legs. Extra credit if the material looks like classic chino twill on the outside but is lightly calendared on the inside for comfort, good cut, has pockets that are deep enough that things don't fall out when I sit down in a chair that slopes back, and it has a small "change" pocket at the top of the right front pocket, doesn't have "discreet" inseam pockets on the side of the leg, no prominent logos, doesn't have a built in belt. While pricy, I really like the pants made by Outlier.. The fit me well, most are made from high quality Schoeller fabrics with NanoSphere treatments. There are a increasing number of companies makes good quality travel friendly softshell pants as well as pants from Maker and Rider which wasn't covered the the review. Pants make from classic supplex while not as comfortable as some of the softshell materials tend to be less expensive, more compact, and dry faster. Good options include: Royal Robbins Global Taveler Pant match most of my criteria only lack the change pocket, ArcTeryx Rampart good except they have cargo pockets on legs which are more discrete than most, Railriders Backcountry Khakis (pockets not deep enough, cut a bit baggy), Ex Officio Nomad Pants (cell phone pocket on the side), Patagonia Sol Pants (material sort of shiny and no change pocket). Mountain Hardware and Ex Officio in the past made pants that were perfect, but those models are long discontinued.
Options: There was a nice discussion about the best three season pants on BPL which would be worth reading. Convertible supplex nylon pants such as ExOfficio Convertible Explorer have become quiet popular in many circles since they can worn as pants when it is cool and then convert to shorts when it warms up. They dry quickly, provide protection from biting bugs & sun, plus they are durable. Many people find that hiking pants + maybe rain pants are all they need to wear in conditions that are above freezing. My first pair of Ex Officio convertible pants have been worn at least once a week between 1996 and 2006, plus many successive days on every trip I took until 2004. Recently, several companies including ex officio had switched some of their pants to nylon / spandex blend. While the stretch in these pants can provide additional comfort, it comes at the cost of extra weight and slower drying times. I think plain supplex is better for backpacking. Most outdoor clothing manufacturers make supplex pants: Campmor, Columbia, Ex Officio, MH, REI, Royal Robbins, TNF, etc. Personally, I have found that I like Mountain Hardware's fit and waist more than anyone else, but typically don't like their pockets. I have also found that the MH pants tend to be extremely durable. Ex Officio seems to use a lighter material than many which is nice in the summer because it's a bit cooler. The primary difference between the various manufacturers is fit, pocket configuration, and whether that have integrated mesh briefs. I would suggest going with whatever pants fit well and have a design you like. BPL Thorofare Trekking Pant and Rohan Elite Trusers are some of the lightest options. While I am not fond of the Thorofare shirts (not air permeable enough and so/so wicking performance) I found the pants work very well when they are new. Unfortunately they start to pill very quickly. Some people find traditional travel / backpacking pants use fabric not sufficiently durable I have heard good reports about nylon "canvas" tactical tactical pants and railrider's weatherpants made of heavier nylon reinforced on the seat and knees. The Paramo Merapi Vented Pants are a polyster trekking pants which look interesting.
Some people like to hike in shorts no matter what the temperature is. In cool weather they use a light base layer under their shorts, and maybe add wind pants when it's cold. The only down side of wearing shorts is than if you have a large swing of conditions, removing or adding the base layer under the shorts requires removing the shorts. Half way between pants and shorts are knickers which seem to much more popular outside the US. I don't wear knickers... but they have a number of things going for them. They are normally cooler than pants, adding insulation to the lower leg is easier than shorts because you can use long socks, and you don't have pant legs that flap around. Finally there are kilts. Mountain Hardware makes the Mountain Kilt which seems to be a cult favorite. I have tried hiking in a kilt. In general I thought it worked pretty well, especially combined with a pair of Sahalie ultra-light tights but decided I won't continue for fear the fashion police would get me.
"Soft shell" have been gaining popularity since they are comfortable over a wide range of conditions and tend to be made from durable materials. For a description of material see the section in this document about soft shell jackets. For a look at a number of soft shell pants, take a look a BPL's Softshell Pants Review. For moderate weather you might check out the Cloudveil Peak Pants made from Inertia Plus. These are made from the same material found in my Cloudveil Spinner Pants. I found Inertia to be more weather resistant and more comfortable against the skin (less chaffing) than Supplex. The down side is that Inertia is not as durable as supplex and is more expensive. When my Cloudveil Spinner pants wear out, I will most likely switch back to plain supplex pants because they are much more reasonably priced and are more durable. In cool weather I tried a pair of Sahalie ultra-light tights (1.7 oz) with a pair of Montane Featherlite pants which was ok, but the convection produced by the featherlite pants make this combination less warm than I would have expected. I also found that the sahalie tights weren't veru durable. I got a run after just a few uses. Many people have found that soft shell pants are ideal in cold weather. The REI Acme Pants seems to be made from a light version of Dryskin which should work well except hot summer days. MEC Ferrata Tights are very nice winter (and the cool parts of fall & spring) pants for a very reasonable price (given their performance). Many people rave about the custom made pants from BeyondFleece. GoLite Propel pants also sound good for cool-cold conditions: they are a bit warmer than pants made from Inertia because they block wind more completely, as well as being more water resistant, but less insulating that the Dryskin material found in the Ferrata Tights. While I don't have personal experience with them, pants like the Marmot Driclime Pants would be great in colder conditions. I believe they would provide adequate warmth in fairly cold weather, the side zips would allow venting so they could be used in moderate temperatures, and they are sufficiently weather resistant that hard shell pants would typically not been needed.
Something to keep in mind is that you want to minimize chafing. One of the most effective solutions to minimize friction against the skin is to wear tight fitting boxer-briefs, biking shorts, or tights which are made from nylon or polyester with lycra. A number of people I know really like Under Armor compression shorts. Some people apply products like Glide as a preventative measure. I found that Glide did significantly reduce chafing, but I thought it was kind of a bother to use, especially on trips which are more than a day or two. Wearing light, open, well breathing pants/shorts helps minimize accumulated moisture. There are some new products which are base layers with stretch sections designs to compress and support your muscles to enhance performance such as those made by CW-X. I have no experience with theses, but they have gotten some good reviews. As for rain pants, there are a variety of theories. Some people believe that legs work hard enough that rain shell for legs is typically not needed: Nylon pants + base layer will be just fine. I tried this for awhile but concluded that I am not comfortable doing this, I hate having soggy legs. Something I haven't tried but sounds promising is a rain skirt. The idea is that you are protected from the rain coming down, but still have a lot of ventilation.
Low Cost: Nylon warm-up pant or running shorts from Target, Walmart, etc.
Rational: People use hats to protect themselves from sun, rain, and cold. There is a wide range of numbers given for how much heat is lost through the head. My investigate of various scholarly articles brought be to the conclusion that somewhere between 35-40% of body heat exits through the head & neck given uniform insulation on the body. This means that in cold weather having a warm hat, or better yet a hood, plays a significant role in keeping you warm. In hot weather a hat had better provide optimal ventilation to help you stay cooling. Hats have the warmth / weight ratios given the disproportionate heat transfer / surface area of your head. Hats are highly effective at fine tuning thermal comfort because they are easy to take on and off (provided you aren't wearing a helmet) which lets you control the venting of a significant amount of heat. Don't try to save weight by skimping on your headwear. I would also strongly recommend that at least one of your jackets have a hood.
My Choices: I am very fair skinned... so I have to be very careful about getting sunburned. I always use a hat that shades me. This might be a hat with a full brim or a hat which directly covers most of my exposed skin. Most of the year I use a Sunday Afternoon Adventure Hat. Yeah, its geeky looking on me, but the oversize brim and veil provide highly effective protection for my face and neck, while the mesh side panels helps keep my head cool. In moderate conditions I rarely need a hat for insulation, though I will sometimes use the hood from whatever shell I am wearing to block the wind if my ears get cold.
When backpacking I always bring a Buff (polar variety) with me. I can configure the Buff to suit my needs. In warmer conditions I double the fleece section over my ears with just the light polyester fabric over the top of my head to avoid overheating. When the temperature is down around freezing I reconfigure the buff so the fleece covers all of my head for some extra warmth. When it gets really cold the buff becomes a neck gaiter / face mask, and I put on whatever hat I am wearing with my hoodless quilt which is either a GoLite Snow Cap or a DownWorks down Balaclava. On snow trips I typically have a balaclava around my neck (used to be a (Mountai Hardware Flex Balaclava, when it was lost it got replaced by a Seirus Combo TNT Headliner which I don't like as much) and a Cloudveil Four Shadows Hat (dryskin) on my head. As it gets colder I typically pull up the hood of my Vapour Trail, then pull up the balaclava and add goggles, and then I add a GoLite Snow Cap (under the hood).
Options: Hat's seem to be one of the more "personal" pieces of gear. More than many items, people seem to care about the style of their hat. There are a huge number of options with a wide variety of styles, colors, materials, etc. Many people use baseball caps to keep their hair out of the way, things out of their hair, and shading for their eyes. I don't wear baseball caps because they don't provide adequate sun protection for the side of my face and neck. There are several companies that add a veil to a baseball cap to protect ears are neck from the sun. Sometimes rather than a baseball cap shape, they have a higher crown like the hats made famous by the french foreign legion. These hats provide very effective sun protections but will block what could be cooling breezes. I have found the hats from Sunday afternoon, which provides more space between the veil and the neck tend to block less air flow and are often cooler to wear. As mentioned above, the Sunday afternoon Sport hat has been my standard sunhat for several years. The only change I would make would be to make the crown a bit higher and then to provide better ventilation. There are a host of more conventional brimmed hats on the market. Brims for hats are sometimes fabric (like bucket hats), light foam, stiff foam/plastic, or sometimes flexible foam + edge stiffener. I have found that in moderate to high winds brims made from fabric or very light / flexible foam are not very effective. In the summer I would recommend looking at hats which have a full brim made from a light weight supplex (or other woven nylon) material. Dorman-Pacific make a number of nice hats from a very light weight supplex weave which breaths, gives good sun protection, keeps light summer showers off the face and dries quickly. One of their hats hat as an oval shaped foam brim with a plastic stiffener running around the outside of the brim to keep it from flapping in the wind. If you are very sun sensitive I would recommend a light hat with a veil such as the hats from Sunday Afternoons. Some people wear hats such as the LT line of Tilley hats in warm weather, but I have found the materials used in the LT not breathable enough for the summer. My head is soaked in sweat in a matter of minutes. One way to deal with this is to have the entire top of the hat be mesh like the Henschel Breeze or using a visor. Personally, I want some sun protection for the top of my head. I once sunburned the part in my hair, I don't want to experience that again. In moderate weather having a hat which is wind resistant can be a big aid to regulate your body temperature. In cool or cold weather, hats made from waterproof breathable material can be quite useful. Outdoor Research is well known for making brimmed hats from WP/B materials. These sorts of hats can keep your head dry when you are not wearing a hood which allows more ventilation then wearing a hood which is nice in warmer conditions. There are a number of companies that make baseball style hats out of WP/B materials. Some people use these sorts of hats without a hood, or sometimes as a way to compensate for I a hood with lacks a brim. Keep in mind that not all WP/B materials are equally breathable. If possible, get a hat made from eVENT.
In cold weather you will want a hat which keeps you warm. Winter hats can be caps (typically wool, fleece, or soft shell) though there is the blackrockgear downfill beanie and the ID primaloft lid, hunter style (typically shelled fleece), or balaclavas (normal fleece, windstopping fleece, high loft). I typically find a balaclava overkill until it is below 20F and windy at which point it is indispensable. The Mountain Hardware Flex balaclava is my favorite. Polarwrap sounds interesting but I have no personal experience with it. Don't underestimate how much a neck gaiter (or scarf) can help you stay warm. In hot weather a cotton bandana, or better yet, a "tie" filled with poly-crystals such as those made by Cobber and Kooltie can help keep you cool. The classic OR Seattle Sombrero is one of the most beloved rain hats. I used one for many years but am back to using a rain jacket which has a hood.
Low Cost: Get a free hat. Lots of companies give hats away with their logo on them for proportional purposes.
Rational: Like hats, hardware seem to be one of the more "personal" pieces of gear. Unlike "hats", fit rather than style seems to drive most people's decision making. The fit of handwear is much more important than say, a jacket. Less than 1 cm of extra length in the fingers can be the difference between a glove that is highly functional and a glove that gets in the way is makes it difficult to to make the grabs necessary. People use handwear to protect their hands from abrasion, cold, rain, and sun. There is often a trade-off between "feel" and "protection". Typically the more protective handwear is, the less "feel" they provide. My experience is the same as Andy Kirkpatrick's: there is no perfect glove.
My Choices: I don't use handwear unless I need protection from abrasive conditions or when continuously near freezing. If I need to warm up my hands I use my pockets or a pair of socks. I favor thin, flexible gloves, to gloves which are thick or stiff. When conditions are going to be below freezing for an extended time when I am not under my sleeping quilt, I bring and use a pair of powerstretch gloves. They give me basic protection while minimal downside on dexterity. If I am carrying them I might put them on when it's 40F and the wind is blowing hard, or 30F without wind. I have found that I can wear these gloves into the 50F comfortably. I have found that changing how I hold my hand changes how much surface area my hand present and lets me fine tue comfort: in the cold my hands are in loosely held fists, at the water end my fingers are stretched out and spread open. As conditions get colder I add some sort of un-insulated shell. On trips that I am not experience to be doing "snow" work, this is a pair of MLD eVENT mitts.If I am doing "snow work", I bring a modular mitt, with a durable shell and a removable inner glove or mitt which is either 100% fleece, or has a fleece palm, with primaloft insulation on the back of the hand. While far from perfect, I most often bring a pair of OR Meteor Mitts. On extra cold trips I typically wear the Meteor Mitts (sometimes with the standard liners, sometimes with my PowerStretch Gloves), and carry Marmot Expedition Mitt as backup and in camp warmup. When I was climbing in cold weather I liked Black Diamond Dry Tool gloves.
Options: The first set of options are how the handwear is structured. From best "feel" to most protective are fingerless gloves which can keep the core of your hand warm while giving full dexterity to fingers, fingerless gloves with a mitten flap that can be overlaid when you don't need to be using your fingers, gloves, lobster claw gloves, and mittens. The second set of options is what materials are used on the palm and the fingers: how durable and how "grippy". The most grippy materials tend to be specially designed synthetic materials. Leather is reasonably grippy and long lasting. Plain fabric is often slippery and not very durable. The third issue is how waterproof which ranges from water absorbing, to water resistant, to fully waterproof. The forth issue you should consider is how quickly the handwear will dry. Handwear which doesn't have absorbent padding will dry more quickly. Handwear which separates insulation from the protective outer shell also has an advantage when it comes to drying out your hands. Finally, there is the question of insulation. Primaloft and down are commonly used in warmer handwear because it is warm for it's weight, while still providing good feel because the insulation will compress when pressed. The compressibility gives good feel, but it means that the compressed area isn't as protected from the cold. So if you are going to be holding onto things for an extended period of time (say climbing with ice tools), then you want the insulation to be something that won't compress like fleece or thermolite. Some handwear uses hybrid insulation... fleece on the palm and fingers, and primaloft across the back of the hand. Komperdell seamless gloves so like they might be quite an innovation. Some people really like neoprene gloves such as the glacier glove 824BK. Most gloves fall into the following groupings:
Make sure that you are bringing footwear which is comfortable and appropriate for your chosen activities. Nothing has the ability to spoil your entire outdoor adventure like wearing uncomfortable footwear! Shoes are extremely personal. Just because a shoe is well regard doesn't mean that it will be good for you. There is no substitute from trying on a pair of shoes/boots, and then wearing them for an extended period of time. Even if your footwear doesn't need to be broken in, you should spend time wearing them before you take them on a journey. Backpacker had a nice article which is still on archive.org about understanding feet and footwear which is oriented toward boots, but has a lot of valuable information such as the wet foot test (or runner's worlds wet foot test video). You might try to find a local store that has been trained in the FitSystem by Phil Oren. Or go all the way and get a gait-analysis. Keep in mind that for every 1 lb of footwear, it's like carrying an extra 6.4 lb of weight on your back. [Legg SJ, Mahanty A. Energy cost of backpacking in heavy boots. Ergonomics.1986 Mar;29(3):433-8.] I have found that Zappos is a good source for hard to find shoes and that shoebuy has free shipping including returns. There is a nice video about Customizing shoe fit by relacing.
I have recently switched to a pair of Five Finger Spyridon trail running shoes which are extremely minimalist, have a good tread, and keep my toe seperated from each other which has eliminted between the toe blisters which was common for me unless I did a lot of preventative treatment work. When I expect a lot of water I sometimes wear a pair of Luna Sandals, though I find that I am not as careful as I shoe be and end up scraping up my toes. In the winter when expecting cold / snow I switch to a pair of Inov-8 390 boots for the extra warmth / protection. Before switching to Five Fingers I used Inov-8 Flyroc 310 or one of Inov-8 Trialroc shoes, most recently the Trailroc 150. I found that so long as I keep moving, that my feet don't get cold until it's below 35F, even when my feet are wet. More than most other clothing types, the "best" foot wear varies a great deal person to person because feet are quite different, and these differences have a direct impact on how well a shoe would work for you. I used to have a terrible time finding shoes which fit me because I have a very narrow heel, a small volume foot which a modest arch, and need a large toe box because I have both hammertoes and morton's toes. I used to try every shoe I can find in local stores without finding a single pair that are comfortable. When I did find a shoe that worked for me, I would buy multiple pairs because I don't know the next time I will find a shoe that will fit well, and my experience is that manufacturers change designs on a regular basis (Inov-8 being the exception... thank you!).
Historically people wore heavy weight boots for backpacking, trekking, etc. Your feet need to be protected, and what could do a better job that a heavy boot which will help prevent sprained ankles and give excellent support? Wrong. Most boots don't give good ankle support. The sides of the boot are flexible. Only extremely stiff boots like the modern, hard plastic telemark ski boots actually provide good ankle support. What actually helps protect your ankle in good quality hiking boots are a high quality heel cup, a well formed foot bed, and good traction. This helps prevent your foot from suddenly shifting which is the source of most ankle injuries. Guess what? Trail running shoes have good heel cups, supportive foot beds, and aggressive soles. In other words, your ankles will be as well protected with a trail runner as with most hiking boots. So how do boots and trail runners compare:
|Area||Trail Runner||Heavy Duty Hiking Boot|
|Equiv work for this Weight on Back||11.2 lbs||28 lbs|
|Service||400-750 miles||4000+ miles (guestimation)|
|Cost/Mile||10-19 cents||5 cents|
|Break In Period||Practically None||Often 100+ miles|
|Foot Protection||Moderate to Excellent||Excellent|
|Moisture Management||Most are fairly breathable. Your feet will get wet. They will also dry in a few hours of hiking. Gore-Tex trail runners are available.||Most are highly water resistant or waterproof. If they do get wet they stay wet for a long time. Feet tend to be slightly damp because when they are sweating, it is hard for the moisture to escape.|
|Insulation||Typically no insulation on top. Many models have some amount of mesh which helps keep feel cool and well ventilated. The soles though (often made from light weight foam) tend to be more insulating than heavier boots with dense soles.||Tends to be warm on top. Thick leather or material, and typically thick sock to protect your feet from the boots. In cold weather good. It hot weather you feet sweat and swell which encourages blisters to develop.|
For most conditions provided you are carrying less than approximately 40 lb, I would strongly recommend trying trail running shoes because they can be quite comfortable and will be lighter than the more traditional hiking shoes or boots. To go into a bit more detail about the four most common concerns I have heard about trail runners:
There are lots of good trail running shoes on the market these days. There are a number of factors you should consider when looking at a trail runner:
If there is an athletic shoe manufacturer that seems to make shoes that fit you well, I would look to see if they make a "trail running" model, and try that. If there is no manufacturer that you are more inclined, you might see what shoes are recommended by the wet foot test at runners world ltd and/or check out the descriptions and reviews on running warehouse. The following are some of the popular manufacturers that I have had reasonable luck with. Note: the models listed in the next section are likely out of date. I have found shoes that work really well for me, so I typically am not following shoes too closely anymore:
Manufacturers that I don't have a lot of experience with recently, but are worth a look include Adidas (Supernova), Asics, Brooks (Trail Addiction), Mizuno (Wave Ascend), and Nike. Timberline and Golite Footwear have repeatedly release innovative trail running shoes. To date, I haven't been impressed with any of their trail running shoes. There was a rumor that they were withdrawing from the market, but at OR Winter 2011 they were showing new shoes, so I guess they were just regrouping. Time will tell if they have got it right this time.
There are a number of people who have found sandals and water shoes to be highly effective. They provide excellent ventilation for your feet, and are ideal when you are in wet conditions because they don't hold water against your feet. The downsides of using sandals or water shoes are that your feet get really dirty and most sandals don't protect your toes. Keen makes a wide range of shoe including sandal like shoes with a toe guard. Many people seem to love Chaco Sandals, but they have a very pronounced arch support which hits me in exactly the wrong place. Chaco are also heavier than most trail runners. I sometimes hike in sandals if I am expecting to be fording lots of streams. Solomon Amphibian are well regarded water shoes which numerous people have found work well for hiking. These shoes did not fit me well (typically they were too stiff in the wrong places with a heel that gave me a blister), but they might work for you.
There are some people who love to hike barefooted or wearing moccasins. There have been numerous articles about the benefits of going barefoot such as You Walk Wrong, Your shoes are killing you, and The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques. The short summary is that your foot is well engineered, and actually does a better job on removing stress from your knee and hip than cushioned shoes. Traditional shoes with heels forces you into an unnatural position which is less efficient. You can find a variety of resources at barefootted.com, barefooters.org, and therunningbarefoot.com. The book The Barefoot Hiker is free on the web or you can buy the book. There was also a very interesting study published in Nature which examines Foot strike patterns and collision forces in runners whose stride is different than hikers, but I think this has some interesting information. The Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab has a lot of information about foot strikes and biomechanics. The book Born to Run has gotten a lot of play in the running community touches on issues related to barefoot running. Other studies have suggested that while running is more efficient on the balls of our feet, that walking with heel strikes is more efficient, Some people want barefoot like foot-falls, but with a bit more protection for the soles of their feet. There are several options. The most minimal option would be the classic, sole-less, suede moccasins. It used to be that Feiyue shoes and Vivobarefoot (which you could think of as Kevlar protected moccasins with rubber soles) were the only options for minimalist footwear. Both are fine in the city but both have serious traction issues in the back country (more on this later). vibram fivefingers has been a cult hit with sole looks like the bottom of our foot, down to a separation between the toes. There is a nice beginner's guide to five fingers for people getting started with these shoes. I feel mixed about the five fingers shoes. The separated toes prevented between the toe blisters I get without something separating my toes, but they are really annoying when it comes to putting on, and taking off the shoe. I tried the original version and have mostly stopped using them after two years. First, the lack of traction has been a real issue for me... I often really need the sole to have lugs. Second, I found with the KSO model, little particles get into the shoe and irritate my feet. I found that on dusty trails (especially when the trail has been pulverized by horses) I need to take the five fingers off every 30 minutes to get the grit out. There are now a number of five finger models designed for trail running of trekking whoco have addressed these problems. Several of the shoes made by Inov-8 have thin soles and lot of flexibility which is more like a barefoot experience than traditional shoes, I am particularly fond of the TrailRoc 150. A number of other athletic shoe manufacturers have noted Inov-8 success and have released ultra-flexible soled running shoes. There is a nice series of pages about minimalist footwear and the follow on website toesalad which is dedicated to minimalist footwear. The Gear Junkie Ultimate Barefoot Running Shoe Guide is also worth a quick look. The ultimate minimalist shoes and sandals such as those made by Luna Sandals and Unshoes. While very different from the minimal shoes above the MBT shoes might be a good way to strengthen your feet around town in preparation for time in the field with a more flexible soled shoe. I would not wear MBT in the back country.
Historically hiking boots were very heavy and used full leather on the uppers. These days, boot uppers are often a mixture of leather, nylon, and even plastic. If you need truly heavy duty boots I would recommend full leather boots with a Norwegian welt made in Europe, ideally by Italian companies like Scarpa.
Most of the companies which "back in the day" used to only sell 5lb all leather books make light weight hiking boots and shoes. While these are not as light weight as trail runners, they tend to be much more durable. They also tend to have stiffer soles which is useful when facing terrain which benefits from a good "edge" and lateral stiffness. There are a number of old favorites which see to make popular light weight boots and shoes:
There are also some newcomers that might be work taking a look at:
Most people can get away will lighter weight boots. I haven't looked carefully at boots for many years.
The few boot / hiking shoes I have had experience with recently are:
Rational: Appropriate socks help keep your feet at a comfortable temperature and play a large part in preventing blisters. Blisters come from the combination of friction and moisture. You want socks which wick moisture away from you feet and minimize the amount of friction between the sock and your foot which is often best accomplished by using a double sock or two socks.
My Choice: Injinji Tetratsok Toe Socks, "performance" model made from wool. I found the coolmax version of the sock was a bit too dense and non cushioning. I found the combination of the Inov-8 trail running shoes and Injinji socks have completely prevented blisters on my feet without requiring me to use any treatments to my feet! This is a first for me. These socks took some getting used to. The first several times I wore them I was very aware that the socks were on my feet and between my toes and I hated them... so I gave up on them. I had several friends kept saying how great they were. So I tried again. I wore them around town for a couple of week, and then pushed through a few days the trail. After that, I found I had gotten used to them and found they effective and comfortable. In the cool to cold weather I switch to Coolmax Injinji liners combined with Darn Tough Vermont Treking Socks, Rocky Gore-Tex over socks or vapor barrier socks.
Options: Conventional wisdom for people wearing hiking boots is to
wear a heavy wool sock, with an very light weight inner liner. Dr. Murray Hamlet of the Army
Cold Weather Research Center confirmed this with an extensive testing of a
variety of sock systems. The first set of these tests was documented in the
Impact of Sock Systems on Frequency and Severity of Blister Injury in a Marine Recruit Population. Hamlet and team found that a thin liner sock made of CoolMax, and a thicker sock made of wool&polypro (fuzzy side out) had a significantly reduced the frequency of blisters. This is because the slipping is happening between the socks rather than between the foot and the sock. TechSpun sells the socks designed by Hamlet. Besides TechSpun there are a variety of companies which sell high quality wool or wool blend backpacking socks including Bridgeport, Dahlgren, Darn Tough Socks, Fox River, SmartWool, Thorlo, Wigwam.
People carrying lighter loads and using trail runners or walking shoes often prefer socks that have less bulk. Since lighter shoes tend to flex with the foot, an inner / outer sock combination isn't as critical as when using boots. Some people find double socks are helpful with trail runners. Some low bulk ways to get double socks include using two pairs of nylon dress socks, WrightSocks DoubleSocks, X-Socks (I have no experience with these pricy socks), or normal light running sock next to the foot with a liner on the outside. Single socks I would recommend for trail runners include Darn Tough Vermont Running socks, Injinji toe socks (for people who have problems with blisters between toes), Smartwool Adrenaline, asics running socks, Inov-8 Mudsoc (coolmax), and the Bridgedale X-Hale Multisport Socks (multi-fabric blend). See later sections on dealing with water and cold for additional options. Keep in mind that there needs to be enough room in your shoe for your feet and the socks you select. Socks which are too thick for your shoes will crowd your feet and result in blisters just as quickly as your feet sliding around. I would strongly recommend trying a variety of different socks and figure out what works best for you. Socks are cheap and will often mean the difference between a miserable blister plagued trip, and one with comfortable feet.
Cheap: Use a double pair of synthetic dress socks.
A number of my friends swear by Superfeet inserts, but they are not for everyone. Some people have issues with overlapping toes. There are a number of products to keep toes separated.
In general you want to keep your feet dry. There are a variety of ways you feet can get wet. The most dramatic are river crossings, followed by rain, snow, and slush. The final issue is sweat from your own feet (feet can dissipate up to 2 cups of water in a day). There are several approaches people use in an attempt to keep feet reasonably dry: There was an article at BPL about spring footwear that is appropriate for cool, wet conditions when there is a real risk of the temperature dropping from cool to cold.
"Quick" Dry: Use footwear which is highly breathable and quick to dry (sandals, water shoes, or trail runners with a lot of light-weight mesh) on the assumption that their feet will get wet, but then will dry quickly. A slight variation of quick dry that is comfortable when wet. Some people have found that using Neoprene socks can keep feet comfortable because the neoprene foam provides effective insulation and doesn't bind when wet. Modest wetness dries overnight, but soaked shoes don't dry overnight. Wet trail runners being worn while active without additional external moisture will mostly dry in a reasonable amount of time thanks to body heat plus the pounding of the feet which drives out moisture. Mostly-dry trail runners can dry overnight. There was some data about time it takes for a variety of different types of trail runners to dry in the open air in the forum posting about Inov-8 & Timberline Delerion (and other fast drying shoes) and a second posting of fast drying shoes. Bottom line is that shoes in a cool location take a long time (>15 hours) to fully dry. On the other hand, shoes can dry significantly in just a couple of hours if you feet are active and you don't have external water sourced to deal with or if the shoes are sitting in bright sunlight. BPL did a nice article about water weight gain and loss in lightweight shoes. There are a number of light weight trail runners that will absorb between 15-30% water weight after being soaked, and be down to 4-10% weight gain after a couple of hours of use. So it is possible to soak your shoes in the mid-afternoon, get them mostly dry by the end of the day, and see them fully dry over night. It should be noted that in some environments that "quick" dry will never dry. Some of our friends down under report that between rain and river crossings their feet are wet until they go to bed. What they have reported as that so long as they are using light weight, flexible, highly breathable trail runners which fit well, and a good pair of socks that they have avoided blisters. In these sorts of conditions some people have had very good experiences coating feet that are going to be continuously wet with Hydropel.
Waterproof Socks: I have found waterproof breathable socks such as Rocky Gore-Tex oversocks, Cabela Goretex Socks, or SealSkinz tend to be more breathable than "waterproof" boots when worn inside highly breathable trail runners. I have also found these socks to be more waterproof than the boots and that I can dry the gore-tex socks over night (skinskiz not so much). When wearing waterproof socks you don't need to worry about your shoes getting wet, because you feet are protected inside the sock. They also keep your feet clean... often mesh trail runners let a lot of small dirt particles in. It's possible to seal the top of the socks so they can be submerged and keep your feet dry. My experience is that unless it's cool (say below 40F) gore-tex socks are too warm and my feet sweat more than the socks can breath.
"Waterproof" Boots: One of the most common approaches is the use of waterproof boots. For example, boots with Gore-Tex liners or leather boots with Snowseal or Nikwax to the outside of your footwear. While these approaches will keep external moisture at bay for a time (my experience is for a few days at best). Once the inside of boot gets wet, it stays wet for a long time. Alas, while good at keeping external water out, they also tend to hold water in. You feet will stew in the sweat they generated. Waterproof boots don't typically have when crossing water because the water will flow in over the tops.
Extra Shoes / Barefoot: Some people focus on dealing with external moisture when fording streams, walk through the surf, or otherwise immerse feet in water. The most common approach is to carry a spare pair of footwear such as sport sandals like Tevas which often add 1.2lb to your load or the slightly lighter Crocs. Some people use minimalist shoes or sandals mentioned above for water crossing. Sand Socks Grip Socks look like a good option. The lightest options (and one of the cheapest) I have found are nylon mesh pool shoes which provide modest protection to the soles of my feet and some slight traction. I have known people who wear just socks but I don't think that makes a lot of sense because their traction is worse than bare feet and they offer little real protection. Some people do water crossings by taking their shoes off and going barefoot. This is a low weight option, but runs the risk of bruising or cutting your foot. I do go barefoot for crossings when the crossing is the only reason my feet would be wet and I am confident that the riverbed doesn't have a lot of sharp rocks.
In colder weather, people often struggle with their feet getting cold. There are a number of reasons for this
While there are a number of issues which make keeping feet warm enough challenging, there are a number of approaches which have been proven to be effective.
Vapor Barrier Socks: VP socks can be used with any of the below footwear options. I have found VB socks a huge win once the temperature is below around 10F. Warmlite, RBH Designs, and Integral Designs make vapor barrier socks. The cheapest vapor barriers can be plastic bags. Bags holding sandwich bread or provided at some office buildings for wet umbrellas are an ideal shape, though you should expect them to last just a day or two before you rub a hole in them. Small Mylar cooking bags are a bit more durable, but are hard to find in the right shape. My first attempt using vapor barriers was a pair of liners, a bread bag, wool sock, another bread bag to keep my wool socks dry, and then boots. Dave from owareusa suggested that rather than sliding the outer bread bag in and out, to put your insole inside the outer bag... leaving the bag in the shoe. He noted that he gets 5 days out of the bag then rather than a day or two. Haven't tried this yet, but it makes sense. For the last couple of years I have used a pair of RBH insulated vapor barrier socks and trailrunners. This has been good for me down to 0F without any problems.
Trailrunners and Water Protective Socks: This is the approach I most often use. On most trips I have found that waterproof socks and trail runners (goretex oversocks + trail runners + gaiters) worked well in 20F conditions, even in deep snow. I recently went on a trip that this didn't work well. For some reason my feet felt cold and damp. Even though it was moderate weather and only dropped to 28F, my feet were freezing but my socks didn't leak. Other people have reported good results using neoprene socks. In the winter of 2007/8 I picked up a pair of Inov-8 RocLite 390 GTX to try out. I expect these boots plus my vapor barrier socks and toasty feet insoles should keep my feet warm enough down to -10F or so. I don't have enough experience to report on them yet.
Hiking Boots & Socks: A classic approach to keeping feet warm are thick wool socks and a water"proof" hiking boot. The boots protect against external moisture and the socks provide insulation. A slight variation on this theme are boots which have additional insulation. Socks are periodically changed and dried (place over your shoulders under your jacket, around a hot water bottle, or over your stomach while you are in a sleeping bag.) Hiking boots typically have a hard sole, with an aggressive trend which provide good traction except when facing extremely icy conditions. One thing to watch out for is that the boots will absorb some water, and in colder conditions the boots will then freeze. It takes a lot of work to thaw solidly frozen boots. Don't let your boots freeze. My favorite light weight, insulated boot today is the Keen Growler. I think this is a good option for -20F through 20F.
Synthetic Boots w/ Foam Insulation: There are two different types. Some are designed for hardcore mountaineering, and have hard, plastic exteriors. Others are primarily designed for protection against the cold such as those made by Baffin and will be softer. This approach will keep feet quite warm. The synthetic materials doesn't absorb water, so the only moisture problem will be what your feet produce. In extreme cold (< -20F) I think this is the best solution.
Mukluks: Traditional Inuit footwear made from animal hides. Steger Mukluks seems to be one of the best regarded manufacturers. Mukluks don't have high traction soles which are needed for walking on ice, but if you are on ice, you already have crampons (stand-alone or part of your snowshoes), so not having this on your shoes should work just fine.
Overshoes: NEOS, Forty Below, Outdoor Research's Brooks Range can be an effective way to keep feet warm in very cold conditions. When using overshoes, you typically are wearing some sort of footwear inside the overboot which provide a good footbed. Some people don't wear shoes inside the overshoes, but rather use them as sort of a high tech mukluk. I found overshoes in basic cold (>=0F) to be overkill, and more bother than they were worth. In extreme cold I can see whether they could be quick useful.
Booties: Once you are in camp, it is often useful to have comfy, insulated footwear. There are a variety of companies that make down or primaloft booties including Sierra Designs, Goosefeet, Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends Booties, etc.
Accessories: You might want to check toastyfeet insulating inserts.