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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

Tips on Winning the Shell Game

By Tamia Nelson

March 1, 2005

When the wind blows cold and hard, anyone venturing out of doors needs a break. A windbreak, that is. I was reminded of this not long ago, as I got ready to go snowshoeing on a clear, crisp January morning. I didn't think I'd be cold. The air was almost temperate — not far below freezing, in fact. And sure enough, I felt the warmth radiating from the sunny south wall just as soon as I stepped out. By the time I'd checked my gear, I was more worried about overheating than hypothermia. After all, snowshoeing is hard work. But then I moved away from the sheltered nook where I stood and walked right into the teeth of an icy norther. The wind cut through my fleece jacket and wool shirt as if they weren't there, chilling me to the bone. So I beat a hasty retreat back under the lee of the wall, where I slipped my rucksack off my back, tugged open the flap, and reached into the depths, grabbing my ripstop nylon hoodie. (Hoodie? If you haven't encountered the word before, it's Newspeak for any hooded jacket.) In just a few seconds, I'd zipped the hoodie up and shouldered my pack again. Then I left the refuge of the wall for a second time. The wind was still blowing half a gale, but now I was warm. Twelve ounces of nylon saw to that.

Not much of an adventure, right? That's just how I like it. (The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson once wrote that "Adventure is a sign of incompetence," and while this is putting it a little strongly, I think he was on to something.) In any event, my doorstep "adventure" brought home to me just how important a shell garment — I actually prefer the old term "windbreaker" — can be. Of course, it's not a good idea to get too hot, either, whatever the season of the year. That's why I opened my jacket at the neck and dropped the hood after slogging through the drifts for a little while. Later still, deep in a dense stand of hemlocks, when I really started to steam up, I stripped off the hoodie altogether. But I put it back on as soon as I stopped for a Newt Nectar break at Curtain Falls, where I spent ten delightful minutes standing in swirling mist, watching the tannin-stained water of The River carve new channels through the blue ice.

Are you wondering what I did to break the wind over my bottom half? Nothing special. The high gaiters that I wear to keep snow out of my boots protected my calves. (I wear the same gaiters for winter bicycle rides, too.) The closely-woven cotton of my BDU trousers did the rest. Cotton in winter? Sure. It's comfortable, hard-wearing, and nearly windproof — though I wear a pair of wool or polyester long johns under my BDUs in sub-zero (that's Fahrenheit zero, not Celsius) weather, and I always have a dry pair in my pack, as well. On the coldest days, when the thermometer struggles to get out of the bulb and Farwell's beard is a block of ice, I pull a featherweight pair of nylon cargo pants over everything below my belt. That usually does the trick. If not, I grab my ultimate weapon from the closet: a pair of thick, felted-wool NATO pants with integral moisture barriers at the knees. Though they slow me down on the trail, they've never let me down.

Back to breaking the wind. It's not just a winter problem. You can find yourself shivering in the breeze on a summer evening, as the earth gives up its heat and cool air starts to flow down off the land and over the water. Amphibious paddlers, too, have wind as their constant companion. Cycling through the backcountry on our way to the next put-in, we often make our own gales, at least on the downhills, and we know the importance of finding clothing that keeps the Hawk at bay. But what to get? When every catalog lists new choices, many of them bearing an unfamiliar name and all of them claiming to be the only shell garment you'll ever need to buy, that's always a big gamble. And finding the right jacket can be a shell game, with the winning combination always just one more play away. I know. I've been playing the game for most of my life. What's my strategy? Simple. I keep my eyes on the prize and my hand out of my pocket, at least at first. Instead, I begin by asking myself some questions:

  • Function? How will I use it? Do I need a windbreaker? Or a rain jacket? Or do I need both?

  • Fabric? Old standby or the latest thing? Waterproof? Breathable? Or both? Is light weight more important than long life? And how small will it pack?

  • Fit and Fitments? Loose or form-fitting? Long or short? Hood or collar? Pull-over or full-zip? Pockets?

  • Tariff? How much money do I have to spend? Do I need to pinch every penny till it squeaks or is the sky the limit?

Now let's take a closer look.


Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, climbing, fishing, cycling, snowshoeing — all active outdoor sports have similar requirements. You can't afford to get too cold, too hot, or too wet, and you don't want to brave the unchecked rays of the sun for too long. But "similar" doesn't mean "the same." It usually boils down to differences in emphasis. A kayaker towing his boat behind him in a bike trailer on a sweltering summer day won't have any trouble staying warm. Neither will a canoeist humping a 105-pound freight canoe over a forested height of land in the middle of a heat wave. It sounds like they're in the same boat, doesn't it? But wait just a minute. The cyclist won't have to worry much about hordes of blackflies, and the portaging canoeist won't be in the sun for very long. It looks like they might have different needs, after all.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Zippers and vents will make any garment easier to ventilate, but every zipper is a weak point in a rain jacket. And that brings us to the great divide. When I was first venturing out on the water, windbreakers broke the wind, and rain jackets shed the rain, but nothing on the market did both jobs well. So if you were going out for more than an afternoon you needed two shell garments: a rain jacket and a windbreaker. Then Gore-Tex® changed the rules of the game. Now most high-end jackets are built from a fabric that's breathable as well as waterproof. Call me old-fashioned. Though I recently bought a wonderfully light jacket that claimed to be "a barrier to both wind and rain" while still being "highly breathable," and though, to my considerable surprise, it actually lived up to its billing in hard going, I still carry two shells. I wear a windbreaker almost every day, but I use my rain gear only when it's raining. I like knowing that when I need it most it won't be chafed and fretted from months of constant use.

That said, it certainly doesn't hurt that my windbreaker is also more or less waterproof. Which brings me back to…


My first real parka was made of Ventile, a tightly-woven cotton favored by British alpinists. It broke the wind (and my budget), but it also soaked up water like a sponge in anything more than a light shower. It didn't take me long to replace it with an uncoated, "water-repellent," ripstop nylon anorak. This did nothing to keep me dry in a downpour, but at least it didn't weigh more than my pack when it got wet. Farwell uses a nearly identical nylon anorak to this day, in fact, and claims that he's never found it wanting. Since I sweat more than he does, however, I've moved up to an easily-ventilated full-zip hoodie that's both windproof and waterproof. And it's proved its mettle in everything from swirling autumn drizzles to winter ice storms. Yet I'm a cautious soul. My urethane-coated rain jacket will always have a place in my pack. It keeps cold water out under all conditions. Period. Farwell feels the same way about his cagoule, a sort of waterproof monk's cloak, minus the tasseled cord.

In the final analysis, the seemingly endless array of choices boils down to three: fabrics which break the wind and "breathe" but don't keep out heavy rain or breaking waves (tightly-woven uncoated nylons, usually), truly waterproof fabrics that don't breath at all and therefore leave you feeling like you're in a sauna much of the time (mostly coated nylons), and the Holy Grail — fabrics which do both, under at least some conditions (Gore-Tex® and its imitators).

Still, no fabric can keep you from getting soaked with sweat if you're really steaming along, even if you're as cold-blooded as Farwell. That's one reason why hard-charging paddlers, including part-time cyclists and off-season snowshoers, will need to give special thought to…

Fit and Fitments

Take zips, for instance. They're great at letting your sweaty armpits breathe, but don't forget that ventilation works both ways. The same zip that keeps you cool can pour cold water into your clothes in a downpour. Good design helps, however, as does intelligent placement. A cape vent is great in a cycling jacket, but useless in anything that's likely to be worn under a pack. It's also an open invitation to every wave larger than a ripple.

Now consider the humble hood. A life-saver in arctic climates, and all but indispensable in driving rain, a hood also leaves you half deaf and blinds you to anything that isn't right in front of your eyes. In short, a hood can get you killed on a bike, and it won't help you much if you ever have to scout a steep, technical drop from your boat, either, or hear a companion's shouted warning over the noise of falling water. Intelligent design can ameliorate these failings to some degree, but even good hoods still leave some people feeling like a horse with blinders on. And bad hoods can be very bad indeed. Farwell has a cycling rain cape — a sort of abbreviated poncho — with a hood that can't even be stretched over his smallest bicycle helmet. Why did they bother? The hood on my newest waterproof-but-breathable windbreaker, on the other hand, fits over every helmet I own, even an outsized climbing dome. Better still, it leaves me with usable peripheral vision. The moral? Try before you buy.

And don't forget that a hood can act as a drag-chute, too. One brisk, chilly spring day last year I found myself on a good-sized lake in my little pack canoe. The wind, a pleasant Force 3 when I started out, had risen to Force 7, and I was headed right into it. Except I wasn't. Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, I was working as hard as I could to stay in the same place. Then I got the bright idea of tucking my billowing hood into my collar. And that was that. The tiny reduction in drag was enough. I didn't exactly fly to windward, but at least I wasn't standing still.

Once again, it's the details that make the difference. Winter windbreakers are best bought large enough to cover your bulkiest insulating layer with room to spare, while shell garments for open-water kayaking or amphibious jaunts — or anywhere else where the wind is often your enemy — need to be more form-fitting. Does this sound like you'll need a whole wardrobe of specialized shells? Yes and no. It depends on your willingness to compromise, and on your readiness to meet the…


High-tech often means high cost, and specialty garments are almost always more expensive than their jack-of-all-trades counterparts. So what can you do if you're strapped for cash? The answer is obvious. Take advantage of the annual-model-change mentality that now drives so much of the clothing industry. Look for bargains in outlet stores and close-out sales. Almost all my name-brand speciality clothing was bought on sale, often at discounts of 50 percent or more. See what's on the shelves of your local military surplus outlet, too. For years my winter shell was a vintage Korean War fishtail parka. It cost less than a large frozen pizza. And don't be ashamed to wear the "wrong" clothing, if it works for you. Farwell wears his climbing anorak on the water — and on his bike. (It helps that it's bright yellow.) He wears his cycling cape on the trail, as well. He's gotten a few curious stares over the years, but he only smiles in return. He stays dry and comfortable in all weathers, and he knows that's what really matters.

With so many choices available, every paddler can stand up to the Old Woman's wrath in style. It needn't be a burden on the trail or portage, either. High-tech fabrics pack down to tiny bundles that fit inside even the smallest rucksack and weigh less than a can of Coke®. And you don't have to break your piggy bank to break the wind. Pinch-penny hack or high roller — it makes no difference. Nowadays all of us can win the shell game.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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