Sunday, 23 April 2017

Windshirt or Fleece. Are they alternatives?

Windshirt and fleece worn together at a camp on the summit of Ben Nevis

Windshirts are one of my favourite and most worn pieces of outdoor clothing. I’ve taken one on every long walk I’ve ever done. I’ve always felt they were under-valued and under-appreciated so I’ve often promoted them. I like fleece too but not as much and I haven’t taken a fleece on every long walk – sometimes I’ve taken a light insulated top instead.

Polycotton windshirt on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985
I was surprised then to read a recent piece on the layering system by very experienced backpacker Alan Dixon in which he says that a fleece is better than a windshirt. Now I take Alan’s carefully considered thoughts seriously and the article is excellent (I recommend his blog as a whole) but on this I cannot agree with him. He says that a light fleece has a far greater temperature range for comfort than a windshirt. I find the opposite. He says a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as a windshirt. I get sweatier much more quickly in a fleece. He says windshirts are not that ‘breathable’. That depends on the fabric. Some are easily breathable enough that I can wear them all day while walking and stay dry underneath. Alan also says that inexpensive fleeces are more densely woven than expensive air permeable ones and so better at keeping out the wind. I’ve tried many fleeces in all price ranges over the years and none have kept out more than a light breeze except those with windproof linings or membranes. The best was a fairly dense fleece called Karisma or Ultrafleece that was around in the 1980s but even that was no more than slightly wind-resistant. 

Fleece for warmth at a camp in the Scottish Highlands
Overall I don’t consider windshirts and fleeces as alternatives. For me they have different functions. A windshirt is to cut the wind and provide a tiny bit of warmth (don a windshirt over a damp base layer when there’s even the slightest breeze and the difference it makes is noticeable). A fleece is to provide warmth – in summer I often only carry a thin fleece for warmth and only usually wear it in camp.

Windshirt cutting the wind on Telescope Peak in Death Valley
When it’s cold and windy enough to justify a windshirt Alan suggests you can just wear your waterproof jacket. Well, yes you can but you’ll shorten the life of your waterproof and you won’t be as comfortable or stay as dry inside – no waterproof is as breathable as windshirt. I also find that a light waterproof and windshirt combination is often all I need for protection in cold, wet weather outside of winter conditions. Change the windshirt for a fleece, even a thin one, and I overheat. And on cold windy days a fleece under a windshirt is a more breathable combination than a fleece under a waterproof. 

Fleece for warmth at a camp on the Arizona Trail
Now clearly for Alan Dixon a windshirt doesn’t work well enough to justify carrying one. For me a windshirt is essential. What works for him wouldn’t work for me. I can’t imagine doing without a windshirt. This might be because much of my walking is done in the windy Scottish Highlands where a fleece on its own is rarely enough. Outside of winter my commonest clothing combination is a base layer or hiking shirt and a windshirt. However even on walks in much more sheltered and less windy places I’ve often worn the same two garments when a cool wind picks up. Sometimes on a slightly chilly morning a windshirt can be just enough to keep me warm in camp. In rain a windshirt and waterproof combination is excellent and more versatile than a fleece and waterproof as it’s comfortable over a wider temperature range. A windshirt and light waterproof combination gives the same protection as a heavier waterproof too, again being more versatile as you can wear the garments separately.

Windshirt at a breezy camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Just in case I’d forgotten what fleece was like in the wind I’ve been out for a few short walks in dry windy weather in some fairly dense fleeces recently. I got cold quickly! And was glad I had windshirt with me.

Friday, 21 April 2017

John Muir Day

                     "Do something for wildness and make the mountains glad."  John Muir

Today is the 179th anniversary of the birth of John Muir, naturalist, conservationist, mountaineer, writer, and campaigner. Muir revelled in the beauty and glory of wild places and turned his feelings into a series of books designed to help preserve the places he loved. 

There are many events marking John Muir Day. But Muir’s legacy shouldn’t be celebrated on just one day. He founded the Sierra Club, today the USA’s leading environmental organisation, and spent many years campaigning for nature. I think the best way to celebrate his birth, life and work is to continue the struggle for the wild by joining and supporting organisations like the John Muir Trust (half price membership for the next few days!). 

The Merced River, Yosemite Valley

With increasing threats to wild land and nature both home and abroad we need Muir’s words and example more than ever. 

You can read more about John Muir here.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

North West Highlands Geopark Funding Appeal

Ben Stack & Loch More

The North West Highlands of Scotland contain some of the most spectacular, unusual and important landscapes in Britain. It’s an ancient land of rock and water with wild lochs and tremendous mountains like Foinaven, Arkle, Quinag, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh plus a long and magnificent coastline including beautiful Sandwood Bay. Studies of the very complex geology here led to breakthroughs in the understanding of earth movements.

Quotation from geologist James Hutton at Knockan Crag
In 2004 the area was awarded UNESCO geopark status because of the outstanding geological features and landscape.  The aim of a geopark is to conserve and enhance the local geological heritage and also provide learning opportunities. 

Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt & Quinag
This is the most sparsely populated part of Europe. Since its creation the geopark has been valuable for local communities and has provided a wonderful service for visitors as well as helping conserve and protect the landscape. However there is now a funding crisis and the Geopark has made a crowdfunding appeal, Love the Geopark -

Arkle rising above Loch Stack
The North West Highlands are a favourite area of mine and I’ve spent much time there. The Geopark has added to my enjoyment and I’ve been impressed by the work and commitment, as can be seen by the excellent website and by all the information on the ground – if you’re up there The Rock Stopvisitor centre, café and shop in Unapool is well worth a visit. I think it’s essential for the area for the Geopark to continue its work and urge anyone who loves the area to support it – even if you haven’t visited yet!