Wednesday 31 August 2016

Thoughts on Waterproof/Breathable Clothing

Sheltering in a bothy after a day of heavy rain on the Southern Upland Way in February. Rab Neoshell jacket

Waterproof/breathable (W/B) clothing has been controversial since Gore-Tex first appeared some forty years ago. Outdoors folk argue vigorously about its merits and failing, about whether it works at all, about whether it's a complete con, about whether it's actually waterproof let alone 'breathable'. Most recently this debate was stirred up again by Jörgen Johansson, author of the excellent Smarter Backpacking, in this article on the Fjärderlätt website. Jörgen referenced long-distance backpacker Andrew Skurka's hard-hitting views, which appeared on his website last year. Also worth reading are climber and writer extraordinaire Andy Kirkpatrick's forthright opinions. These are three highly experienced mountain men whose views I respect. That doesn't mean I always agree with them though. Here, anyway, are my thoughts, based on far too much experience of wet weather. (For the purpose of this piece by W/B fabrics I mean ones with a coating or membrane not two-layer materials like Paramo which aren't technically waterproof though they do keep out most rain).

Firstly let’s make clear where I stand on a couple of points. W/B fabrics have certainly been grossly over-hyped and their performance talked up ridiculously in the marketing. That doesn’t mean they don’t work but if you believe the exaggerated claims you’ll be disappointed. Then there’s that word ‘breathable’. I don’t know who first came up with it but I wish they hadn’t. It’s silly. Fabrics cannot breathe. They’re not alive. ‘Breathable’ suggests they do something active. They don’t. They’re inert. We’re stuck with the word now however. 

What the fabrics do is allow moisture vapour (not liquid water) to pass through. The jargon for this is Moisture Vapour Transmission or MVT. The rate of this – MVTR – determines just how breathable the fabric is. That measurement is for 24 hours of steady vapour transmission in the lab. Of course in the real world you don’t transpire regularly, the rate goes up and down enormously depending on activity levels. Walk vigorously on a wet humid day and you’ll be putting out an enormous amount of moisture, almost certainly too much for any W/B fabric to allow through fast enough, resulting in condensation forming on the inside of the garment. However a difference between W/B and non-breathable waterproof fabrics is that the condensation in the latter will be far more copious and it won’t shift until you can vent or remove the garment. With a W/B garment once you’re not exercising so hard and/or the rain eases the inside of the garment can dry out.

Rain beading up nicely on a new Montane Air jacket, made from Pertex Shield AP, earlier this year

For moisture vapour to escape it helps if the outer of the fabric isn’t saturated. Pushing moisture vapour through a film of water is difficult. To counter this the outers of W/B garments are given a water repellent treatment that makes rain bead up and run off. This is the DWR or Durable Water Repellency, a misnomer if ever there was one. Durable it isn’t, and now that the stuff that’s been used for years has been found to be environmentally unfriendly it’ll be less so in the future as the replacement treatments are not yet as effective. When the DWR wears off it doesn’t mean the garment is leaking, though many people think that’s what’s happening. It means that it will be less breathable. Only less breathable though, not non-breathable. The DWR can be replaced with wash-in or spray-on treatments from Nikwax and other companies. This is worth doing though it never seems to last as well as the factory treatment. It’s not practical to do on a long walk however and I’ve finished a few of those with garments with no DWR left. They’ve still kept the rain out and allowed some moisture through though.

After many days of rain on the Pacific Northwest Trail in a Rab Demand Pull-On made from eVent that has lost it's DWR but which still kept me comfortable and only a little damp inside.

Whilst ‘breathability’ varies between fabrics and in performance waterproofness doesn’t. These fabrics are waterproof. I’ve never had rain come through a W/B garment that wasn’t worn out and I’ve spent many, many days and weeks walking in rainy weather. Even on wet multi-month walks my W/B clothing has been as waterproof at the finish as at the start. Does this mean I always stayed dry inside? No, and any dampness wasn’t only condensation. Heavy driving rain will find its way inside a hood and up sleeve cuffs and the hem of a jacket however tightly they are closed. And once inside it will start to spread out, which can make you think the garment is leaking, especially if it’s merging with condensation too. When carrying a pack you’ll almost certainly get very damp under the shoulder straps and hipbelt and anywhere the pack touches your back too. Put a thick layer of foam and nylon over a W/B fabric and it doesn’t matter how breathable the latter is, moisture can’t escape.

At the end of a day of rain I expect to be slightly damp inside W/B clothing. At the end of many rainy days I expect to be more than slightly damp. The constant rain and high humidity leads to slowly creeping wetness. What I don’t expect to be is cold and that’s the key. Getting wet won’t harm you, getting wet and cold can. Try wearing a non-waterproof top in cold rain and see how quickly you start to feel chilly, especially if it’s windy. Much safer and more comfortable to be warm and a little damp from sweat than cold and wet from rain.

The performance of W/B garments can be enhanced by how you use them. Firstly, don’t wear them if it’s not raining. That extends their life, reduces wear of the DWR, and means you’ll be more comfortable. Windproof tops are far more breathable than any W/B fabric. Next unzip anything you can – far more moisture vapour can escape at the neck, cuffs, hem and through pit zips or mesh pockets than through the fabric. And don’t wear too much underneath. If you’re comfortable when the rain starts you’ll probably be too warm if you add a W/B garment over your clothing without taking a layer off. Being too warm means you’ll produce more moisture vapour resulting in more condensation.  The type of garments you wear under W/Bs matters greatly of course, especially the next to skin layer. This needs to be one that doesn’t feel too cold when damp and that allows moisture through – either a wicking synthetic or wool or a blend of the two. Never cotton, which absorbs moisture and then feels cold and clammy. If you want to find out just how damp you can get in a W/B jacket go out with just a cotton shirt on underneath and see how wet it gets. If you need a midlayer light fleece is excellent as it allows moisture through. If that’s too warm a thin windproof works well. In fact in cool rainy weather base layer, windproof, waterproof is my usual clothing system.

So W/B clothing then? It works but not as well as claimed. It is waterproof. Breathability varies. It won’t keep you perfectly dry. But it will keep you more comfortable in wet weather than anything else, especially if you use it sensibly.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Recent Reviews on the TGO Website

Packing the Granite Gear Lutsen 45 on the TGO Challenge

The last few weeks have seen the following reviews appear in my Gear Editor's Column on the TGO website.

First look at the ultralight Berghaus Hyper 100 Waterproof Jacket

Test reports:

Lifestraw Steel Personal Water Filter 
Teva Terra-Float Universal Sandals  

 UV Insect Shield Buff 

Granite Gear Lutsen 45 Pack

Tuesday 23 August 2016

I've joined Instagram!

After wondering bout it on and off for months - did I really want another social media account? - and after suggestions that I should from various people I finally joined Instagram a little while ago. I'm slowly building up a collection of pictures taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone which you can find here.

Monday 22 August 2016

The Great Outdoors September Issue: Lots of Gear!

In the shops now the September issue of The Great Outdoors has rather a lot of gear pieces by me. There's an account of the lightweight gear I used on the three-day trip in the Cairngorms I wrote about in this post, a look at new gear coming out soon, a review of knives and multi-tools, and a test report on the Keen Versatrail shoes.

Away from gear I've been dreaming about the desert for my backpacking column. Making a dream real is Carey Davies on a visit to the magnificent hills of North-west Scotland. In the Lake District John Fleetwood describes a multi-day route including twenty classic scrambles. Andrew McCloy walks the Pennine Way and ponders the future of this iconic trail. Carey Davies is also in the Pennines, exploring Kinder Scout in his Mountain Magic column. One hundred years of the United States National Park Service is celebrated in a series of spectacular images by Jason Hatfield. (You can see my own gallery of US national park images here). 
Away from the high mountains Roger Butler explores the rolling hills of Radnorshire. The Hill Skills pages move abroad with a useful guide to trekking.

On his Environment page Roger Smith reviews two new books - Fiona Reynold's The Fight for Beauty and Stephen Moss's Wild Kingdom - and looks at the messages they contain and how they could and should influence the new UK Environment Secretary while in his Hillwalkers' LibraryJim Perrin reviews an old favourite, H.W.Tilman's The Seven Mountain Travel Books.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Thoughts on Bivouacking

In the Grand Canyon

My favourite way to spend a night in the wilds is under the stars – no tent, no tarp, and no bivi bag. I’ve been thinking about this following some recent discussions of bivouacking on social media in which the use of a bivi bag was assumed. I wonder why. In any circumstances where a bivouac will be pleasant a bivi bag shouldn’t be needed. And if bivvying won’t be pleasant I’m not going to do it unless there’s no other choice. If rain, snow, strong winds or biting insects are likely then I’ll use a shelter I can actually live in not a bag in which I can do nothing but sleep. That means I rarely bivi in Britain despite my love of it. I am planning on some forest bivis on calm nights this autumn once the midges are gone however. I’ll take a tarp as well though, just in case of rain.

In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail
Most of the bivouacking I’ve done has been in dry areas where rain was very unlikely. I first learnt how much I enjoyed this on the Pacific Crest Trail when I realised early on that I didn’t need my tent most nights. Only when the mosquitoes came out and in the rain and snow in the North Cascades did I use the tent often. I slept out many times on the Continental Divide Trail too and almost every night on the Arizona Trail and on a month-long walk in the High Sierra. 

In the High Sierra
On these trips I would lay down a groundsheet – over the years these have gone from silver Sportsman’s Blankets to much lighter weight silnylon ones – and then my mat and sleeping bag. My kitchen would be set up next to the groundsheet so I could cook and eat while in or on my sleeping bag. When using a pack with a frame I’d use my trekking poles to prop it up for use as a back rest. (This doesn’t work with frameless packs – at least not for me). With everything I might need to hand – notebook, reading matter, maps, headlamp, clothing – I could then spend a restful evening with the world I’d come to be part of all around me. I’d fall asleep staring up at the stars and the silhouettes of trees or mountains rather than a sheet of nylon.

Larry Lake at a bivouac in the Yosemite backcountry on the Pacific Crest Trail
The key to comfortable bivouacking like this is dryness. Cold doesn’t matter – I’ve had many pleasant bivouacs in sub- zero temperatures. Wind can be a problem but as long as it’s not too strong a tarp or groundsheet can be used as a windbreak.  This blocks off some of the view but still gives more freedom and contact with nature than a shelter with a roof.

Using my groundsheet as a windbreak at a chilly bivouac on the Arizona Trail

On none of these bivouacs did I need a bivi bag. Sometimes my sleeping bag has been dew or frost covered in the morning but this has always quickly dissipated in the sunshine. And on the few occasions when I have packed a slightly damp bag airing it during the day or at the next camp has dried it. 

When I’ve slept in bivi bags to try them out I’ve usually found a little dampness inside (sometimes more than a little). The only times I’ve chosen to use bivi bags have been in dripping bothies and tents (either from rain getting in or copious condensation – which can occur in badly ventilated concrete shelters as well as tents). A few times I’ve used a bivi bag for extra warmth when sleeping out in very cold temperatures in the winter in Norway and Sweden. Each time I’ve woken to a thick layer of frozen condensation inside the bivi bag. I’d have been better off with a warmer sleeping bag or clothing.

Just once I’ve slept in a bivi bag in heavy rain. This was the first night of a walk in the Pyrenees. Tired from the long train journey from the UK my companion and I had decided not to bother with our tents but just collapse into our sleeping bags on the ground. That night for the only time on the two-week trip it poured down. Woken by the first drops we quickly wriggled into our bivi bags, turning them over so the zipped opening were underneath to prevent leakage. We stayed dry but I was very relieved when dawn came with a clearing sky and I could escape from the restrictions of the bivi bag. I wouldn’t do that again by choice.

Almost a bivouac - a tarp pitched to ward off wind and light rain on the Arizona Trail

Rather than gear I expect to use I view a bivi bag as an emergency item, to be used if I get stuck out on a day walk or if my shelter fails in some way. Used like this a bivi bag lasts a very long time!