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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Getting Fleeced

Dressing for 21st Century Amphibious Ops

By Tamia Nelson

December 7, 2004

I've always been fussy about what I wear. No, I'm not talking style here. I'm talking materials. I'm a natural-fiber kind of girl. Well, I was, at any rate. Clothing made of cotton and wool filled my closet — and my pack. Cotton for hot weather. Wool for cool. Down-filled parkas for winter. I didn't ignore synthetics, of course. My down parka had a nylon shell. And my wetsuit was made of neoprene. But I wanted natural fibers next to my skin. They lasted longer and felt better than any synthetic. And that was enough for me.

This isn't to say I didn't have occasional flirtations with technology. I was at the head of the line when the first Gore-Tex® rain jackets hit the market. If coated nylon was good, I reasoned, Gore-Tex® ought to be great. But it wasn't destined to be a long-term relationship. On our first trip together, my new love left me cold. Admittedly, Washington state's Cascade Range is a hard testing ground for any rain gear. But I did expect my jacket to do more than slow the rain drops down. It didn't. I would have stayed drier if I'd stitched an anorak together out of dollar bills. Well, maybe this is a small exaggeration…but at least it would have been cheaper. In any case, first impressions last a long time. I've been assured that Gore-Tex® is much better today, and I believe it. Still, I'm sticking to coated nylon rain gear. It's hot and sweaty, to be sure, but hot and sweaty beats cold and wet any day. And coated nylon isn't fazed by dirt and salt. That appeals to me, particularly when the nearest washing machine is miles away.

Then there was polypropylene. Back when paddlers and climbers first took to polypro, I fell hard for a shirt made from this miracle fabric. I thought I had a winner: a synthetic that felt good next to the skin. The shirt kept me warm, too, and when the sleeves got soaked they didn't weigh me down like wool. Yet the relationship soon began to sour. The polypro felt slimy when wet, and after a couple of outings, it reeked like a losing team's locker room on a steamy summer day. Washing made no difference. In fact, the smell got worse with each use. I'm not particularly fastidious — I used to work in a cattle auction barn, after all — but in the end the stink got too bad for even me to bear. So I consigned my almost-new polypro shirt to a storage box and went back to wearing wool next to the skin.

After these early disappointments, I lost my interest in chasing the latest kid on the block. I decided to stick with my tried and true friends, instead, even if they sometimes disappointed. Cotton got wet and stayed that way forever, and it was cold in any temperature less than tropical. Wool was heavy, and wet wool was heavier still, not to mention slow to dry. But wet or dry, wool kept me warm, and I never felt like I was wearing old trash-can liners. I even liked the smell.

Then I started scouting forest roads on my bike, and things changed. My natural-fiber clothing worked pretty well on the water, and a flannel shirt was fine for a two-wheeled trip to the store. But the clothes that kept me warm and dry on a quick trip to town didn't hold up very well on a 50-mile jaunt though the mountains. Spinning the pedals round and round while hauling a load is very sweaty work, however cool the weather. Cotton shirts don't hack it. Even wool gets wet quickly. Worse yet, it stays wet, and I soon discovered the obvious: cyclists make their own high winds. A 30-mph descent on a 40-degree day is plenty chilly, even in dry clothing. It gets colder still when you're heading right into a 15-mph breeze. And if your shirt is already soaking wet, it's breathtaking. Literally. A couple of trips was all it took. I needed a wardrobe upgrade. Luckily, I'd just rediscovered fleece.

I can thank for that. When Farwell and I signed on to write In the Same Boat, we each got fleece pullovers as a sort of signing bonus. We already owned ancient first-generation fleece, but Farwell's old jacket had worn out, and mine needed a zipper transplant. The new pullovers were a revelation of sorts. From that day on, they were the first thing we grabbed when we did chores around the house. For some reason, though, we didn't take them with us when we went out on the water. Wool remained the mainstay of our paddling wardrobes. Then we got back on our bikes. Almost immediately, we realized we still had a lot to learn about staying warm. Soon we were trying out our fleece pullovers as undershirts, and I was hooked. Before long, I had a closet full of fleecewear. And that was just the start. Now I wear synthetic undergarments and insulating layers year-round, on the water and off. The new engineered polyester fabrics are everything that first-generation polypro was — warm when wet, quick to dry, and compact to stow — and a lot more besides. Comfortable, for one thing. Cheap, for another. How long "cheap" will last is anyone's guess, of course. For the moment, however, polyester has supplanted wool in my outdoor wardrobe.

Now let's see what's in this amphibious paddler's closet.

  • Fleece Headover. Also known as a neck gaiter, the headover is a deceptively simple garment. It's nothing but a long, stretchy fabric tube, fuzzy on the inside and smooth on the outside. Wear it as a scarf, a hat, or a balaklava. It even stretches to go over a helmet. And unlike a scarf, it'll never unwind or blow away. Best of all, it's light and small enough to stuff in a bicycle handlebar bag — or in the cargo pocket of a paddling jacket.

  • Fleece Ear Band. Just the thing when a headover is too much, but your ears still go numb. Cheap, too. Mine fits under any helmet.

  • Fleece Vest. A sleeveless fleece jacket, this is the workhorse of my wardrobe, perfect for cool days or hard work-outs. And what happens when cool turns to cold? Then I grab my…

  • Fleece Pullover. Who says fleece doesn't last? Not me. Not now, at any rate. Our "signing-bonus" fleece pullovers are still going strong, though I'll probably get a full-zip jacket someday to round out my collection. In really cold weather, I wear both vest and pullover, and then throw a nylon shell over the whole works. I haven't needed my old down-insulated parka in years.

  • Polyester T-Shirts and Their Kin. At the other end of the thermometer, nothing beats a polyester t-shirt. (One important exception: If the biting flies are out in force, stick to wool or high thread-count cotton, or wear a nylon parka.) Polyester tees are cool when you're hot and warm when you're not. And they dry in no time at all. As the temperature falls, switch to a mock turtleneck, with or without a zipper. There's a bonus, too. Poly tees can be had in every color of the rainbow. I don a bright orange t-shirt when I'm cycling (or paddling) in traffic and whenever I venture into the autumn woods, then change into a weathered green tee when I don't need — or want — to be seen.

  • Gloves. I wear padded cycling gloves in summer, even when I'm canoeing or kayaking. No more nerve-numbed hands for me! And insulated polyfleece mittens make a good cold-weather alternative, particularly if you get the kind that convert instantly to fingerless gloves. Warmth and dexterity — who could ask for more?. Not Farwell, at any rate. Since he picked up a cheap hunter-orange pair from a rack in the HyperMart, he won't wear anything else. I wouldn't be surprised if he's still wearing them in June.

  • Nylon Windbreaker. But "windbreaker" is oldspeak. If it's got a hood — and it should — it's now a "hoodie." By either name, it's essential any time the wind's blowing. Be sure to buy large. And make certain your everyday hoodie isn't made of coated fabric. (Gore-Tex® is fine, however.) A full zip makes it easier to ventilate, too, but beware of delicate zippers. Color? Bright yellow or orange is best on open water or during hunting season. Otherwise, follow your fancy.

  • Tights. These aren't just for dancers and long-distance runners. In fact, nothing feels better on a really cold day. Mine have polyester for warmth and a nylon skin to stop the wind. Spandex keeps them from bagging or bunching up. Wear 'em alone or under your…

  • Pants. OK. I confess. I haven't given up on natural fibers entirely. I often wear mil-spec cotton BDUs and BDU shorts. BDU means "battle-dress uniform," but you don't need to be heading out on patrol to appreciate good design. BDUs are sturdy and cheap, and they dry faster than you'd think. (Cotton-nylon blend BDUs dry even quicker.) The tight weave blunts the beaks of biting flies in summer and defies the winter wind. I love 'em. Farwell, on the other hand, wears polyester paddling shorts year-round, in all but the coldest weather. To reduce chafe, he cuts out the mesh liners. He also wears tights under the shorts when the temperature drops below freezing, adding gaiters and cyclist's knee-warmers on really chilly days. (If you're riding and not paddling, remember that gaiters also keep BDUs out of bike chains, as do Velcro® ties. Moreover, black doesn't show grease stains.) You say you don't like the Peter Pan look? Neither does Farwell. That's why he now has his eye on a pair of "convertible" nylon pants, the type where the legs zip off to make shorts. If they work for him, I may give them a try myself. Is that all? Not quite. I've left out some very important items. Whatever the weather, in and out of boats, both of us have embraced…

  • Polyester Undergarments. Nowhere are the virtues of synthetic fabrics so apparent. Wet cotton briefs and clammy, sodden bras used to be a fact of life on the water. (Nylon underwear never made the grade.) But no longer. Polyester briefs, bras, and boxers dry quickly and remain almost comfortable even when soaked. They make laundry day in camp a breeze, too. I don't have to worry about color. I know I can't go wrong with basic black. No expedition kayaker or long-distance cyclist will have to ask why.

  • Socks. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." That's what Thoreau's buddy Emerson thought, anyway. And to my mind, wool's still the first choice for socks anywhere it's wet or cold. But I could be wrong. Farwell's already made the switch to polyester socks, and he's happy he did. They certainly dry fast.

  • Shoes. Once I wore only leather boots, tennis shoes, and wellies. I still have all three, but now I find I'm wearing high-tech fabric shoes year-round. I have two pairs, low-cut cross-trainers and ankle-high hikers. They're equally at home in a boat, on a bike, and on the trail. (Farwell wouldn't agree. He has a pair of fancy leather mountain-bike boots he swears by, but he won't walk more than a mile in them, and they're useless in a boat. That's a real drawback on amphibious treks.) When the weather turns cold or the water gets deep, I just add overshoes and (sometimes) neoprene socks. It's a versatile combination. A good thing it is, too, with cheap wellies getting harder and harder to find.

That's it. My new-fashioned, all-season amphibious wardrobe. If you're old enough, you'll probably remember when polyester was universally derided. No more. The times they are a-changing. Polyester is now cutting-edge. It comes with a caveat, however. While I may be a convert to twenty-first century engineered fabrics, I'm still hedging my bets. As I watch the cost of oil ratchet upward, I'm reminded that the price of synthetic fabrics will go over the top someday, too. I'll continue to outfit myself in polyester as long as the price is right, of course, but I'm not about to throw out my serviceable wool sweaters and pants. Getting fleeced is one thing, being fleeced is something else. I don't warm to that idea at all.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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