Clothes Make the Paddler
Dressing for Success, on the Water and Off
By Tamia Nelson
September 27, 2011
The glossy photos in outfitters' catalogs never fail to elicit a knowing chuckle from many of us Old Hands. The models in the photos are poised for action, supposedly frozen for all time in the midst of high adventure. I use the word "supposedly" for a reason. Consider the evidence: Not a hair on their heads is out of place. No pools of sweat darken their shirts. Their collars show no pinprick bloodstains from blackfly bites. And their white socks are … yes … dazzlingly white, untouched by the greasy mud of beaver ponds. Even the creases in their immaculate clothes stand sharp and proud. The upshot? These amiable action figures, now made flesh by Mad Men, wouldn't look at all out of place on the veranda of the local yacht club, tall drinks in hand.
My own appearance frequently falls short of this standard, of course. Even on the good days, when the biting flies keep their distance and the portage trails have somehow escaped the attentions of the local beavers, I present a rather bedraggled aspect. Dirt‑clogged nails, scabby knees, smears of mud on brow and forearm, frayed sleeves, and a shiny, grimy seat, worn almost threadbare on hard granite and prickly cane — those are my fashion signatures. More Parris Island than Paris, France, in other words.
I don't ascribe this to any personal failing, however. Truth to tell, most of the paddlers I meet in the backcountry look more like me than the immaculate models in the catalogs. That's really no surprise. Insect repellent, campfire smoke, and spilled food all leave their mark, as do blood, sweat, and (occasionally) tears. Even if you can somehow achieve a Good Housekeeping standard of hygiene in camp, there's no escaping Mother Nature. Water and earth are the dominant themes in her exterior decoration scheme. When these two elements come together, mud is the inevitable result. And neither hot showers nor washing machines are frequent amenities once you leave the put‑in behind you.
Still, it's nice to be able to slip into something comfortable and more‑or‑less clean at day's end, isn't it? Which is why I always adopt …
A Policy of Strict Separation …
In matters concerning my paddling wardrobe. On all but the shortest trips, I have two outfits. One outfit protects, rather than adorns. Call these my work clothes, if you like. The key qualities are durability and weatherproofing. All else is secondary. The other outfit is the backcountry counterpart to the fabled "little black dress," though even here the emphasis in on comfort rather than display. It's what I change into after the "work" of the day (e.g., paddling, portaging, and doing chores) is behind me. That's when my work clothes get hung up to air — in the open if the weather smiles, under the kitchen tarp when, in that wonderfully expressive gallic phrase, il pleut comme une vache qui pisse. In other words, my work clothes have to take whatever nature throws at them, but I do everything in my power to keep my camp clothes out of harm's way, even if this means climbing back into work clothes for rest‑day scrambles up local peaks and the like. A nuisance? Yes. But it's worth it. There's nothing like knowing that however hard the going has been, at day's end I can wash up and put on something clean and dry and comfortable.
Of course, this tidy bifurcation into "work" clothes and "camp" clothes sometimes breaks down. Shell garments and other outwear are exempt, for one thing, and emergencies (or sudden changes in the weather) may dictate that some item — a sweater, perhaps — has to do double duty. But for the most part, I do what I can to enforce a strict policy of segregation. It's my way of smoothing it. And it seems a simple, common‑sense idea, even though it's certainly not to the taste of all paddlers. Many of the dissenting folks are diehard members of the Go‑Light Brotherhood, I suppose. They know their own minds, and I wouldn't attempt to talk them round to my way of seeing things. But I opt for comfort, even at the cost of a few extra pounds.
What about it? Are you already convinced that comfort is king? Or are you just now thinking about exchanging your hair shirt for a flannel robe? If so, you may be interested in my take on …
The Ideal Camp Wardrobe
Will it be hot? Or cool? Rainy? Or dry? The answers to these questions matter, but they don't matter as much as you might think, especially on extended trips, when the weather can be relied on to ring the changes from hot to cool and from rainy to dry — and then change back again, all within 48 hours. Versatility is key where campwear is concerned. Which is why my traveling clothes closet contains quick‑drying synthetic underwear in all seasons. Anyone who's spent a long weekend sheathed in sopping‑wet cotton will understand the reason. Now here's the rest of my day's‑end wardrobe, beginning with my …
Feet Wool socks rule! Except in the hottest weather, when I often leave my feet bare to air (until the biting flies move in for the kill, at any rate), I'm seldom seen without thick wool socks. Teva sandals are my favorite campwear — I wear them over my socks — but in cold, wet weather, I switch to NEOS Trekker overshoes. They, too, are worn over socks, and socks alone, on all but the coldest days. (Fleece mukluk‑like liners come into their own in truly arctic temperatures.) Trekkers also keep bugs and ticks at bay, and they make good boatwear, as well, though they're not suited to "serious" rapid‑running.
Hull In moderate temperatures, I wear a pair of lightweight cotton poplin "climber's pants" that I've had so long that I'm now patching the patches. They're the most comfortable fair‑weather lounging pants I've ever owned. When the heat's on, however, I switch to synthetic running shorts — and plan on doing a lot of swatting. Cold weather dictates another change: to light polyfleece pull‑over pants. I also have a pair of super‑lightweight wool long johns which double as pajama bottoms when I take to my tent and my sleeping bag.
Topsides I can't think of anything that beats a well‑worn cotton T‑shirt for comfort on a warm evening. (Farwell can, though: He won't wear anything but a poly tee.) For cooler temperatures, I turn to a lightweight, long‑sleeve wool crew‑neck. Either shirt works as sleepwear, too. When pack space isn't at a premium, I also carry a thick wool sweater. It's been keeping me warm on chilly nights for 30 years now, and it looks to have another 30 years of life left in it. That should just about see me out.
So much for campwear. When it's time to travel, I stow my clean and comfortable clothing in its own waterproof stuff sack and don …
My Work Clothes
Weather matters more now. I dress for the water temperature. If it's below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear rubber. (I may wear a shorty wetsuit as underwear even in warmer temperatures if I think I'm likely to swim.) When conditions are more benign, however, I stick to conventional garb. As before, I'll begin at my …
Feet L.L. Bean's celebrated Maine Hunting Shoes were once my footwear of choice for everything except whitewater, but the leather uppers were quick to get wet and slow to dry (and the circumferential seam chafed my ankles on long portages), so I switched to inexpensive wellies. Then wellies soared in price. Now I alternate between low‑cut river shoes (for fast stretches of water) and my NEOS Trekkers. Calf‑high wool socks remain my first choice for almost all purposes, though. I usually have at least three pairs with me. One is reserved for camp, while I alternate between the other two pairs under way. The day's "working" pair goes on my feet, while the "resting" pair is tucked under a lashing to dry in the sun. If there is sun, that is. (Farwell, ever the contrarian, now wears all‑terrain sandals from ice‑out to freeze‑up, usually over neoprene booties — though he's also been known to pull on a pair of NEOS overshoes from time to time, as well.)
Below My Waterline Campmor Trekmor 2/1 trousers are my constant companions on the water. They're light but strong, the nylon fabric is quick‑drying, and the tight weave discourages all but the most determined bloodsuckers. (The elastic loop closures on the gusseted ankles help keep ticks at bay, too.) They also have plenty of pockets. Best of all, when it's time to wade — or when the hot sun beats down — I just unzip the legs. Now I'm wearing shorts! On cold, rainy days, however, I need something more. So I pull a pair of rain pants over the Trekmors, adding lightweight synthetic long johns underneath as the temperature plummets.
Topsides In mild weather, I complete my Trekmor ensemble with a companion nylon shirt. Like the 2/1 trousers, this is lightweight and fast‑drying, with a full complement of pockets. When the water is cool, but not cold, I add a long‑sleeved, synthetic mock turtleneck underneath. A lightweight fleece pullover is my last line of defense before I have to don a rubber suit, while a waterproof paddling jacket with gussets at neck and wrists keeps rain and spray at bay.
Of course, as I've already mentioned, some items of clothing do …
Serving both ashore and under way. You'll find all the usual suspects on this list: head coverings, outerwear, gloves and mittens, fleece vests and jackets, along with specialty footwear like the NEOS Trekkers. Here's a necessarily incomplete summary, beginning — for variety's sake — at my head and working down:
Head and Neck A brimmed hat keeps the sun out of my eyes. I've found nothing to beat a military surplus "boonie hat" in mild weather. It's cheap, comfortable, and just about bombproof. The brim holds my mosquito net away from my face, while also diverting rivulets of rain before they run down my neck. I roll the brim up when it gets in my way, and use a chin strap to keep the hat on my head on gusty days. A wool watch cap formerly rounded out my collection of headgear, and I also wore it as a nightcap during spring and fall trips. Nowadays, however, a synthetic neck gaiter has taken its place in my affections.
Warm Hands Fleece gloves with a windproof overmitt are just the ticket in a cold camp, but I'm still searching for the perfect solution for paddling. I lean toward neoprene gloves, while Farwell prefers wool liners under waterproof gauntlet gloves.
Defying Rain and Wind Some years back, I picked up a very lightweight, breathable shell from L.L Bean that claimed to be waterproof — and it was. Better yet, it still is, though it's certainly not immersion‑proof. It does yeoman service as a wind shell, however, as well as adding a little bit of warmth when there's a hint of fall in the air. In downright chilly weather I wear a paddling jacket, with waterproof fabric and neoprene neck and wrist seals, plus a drawstring waist. It serves as a rain jacket, too, while the rain pants from my cycling wardrobe — pressed into service afloat — complete my foul‑weather ensemble. They're waterproof, with a generous cut and zippers at the ankles. Nothing fancy, to be sure, but they work. It's all I ask of any of my clothes.
That's the lot. With only two exceptions, every item in my paddling wardrobe packs small and rides lightly on my back. The exceptions? My heavy wool sweater and my cotton "climbing" pants. And they're worth the extra weight and bulk. After all, if you're paddling for pleasure, comfort is king, on and off the water. Don't you agree?
Let's face it: Paddling can be a dirty business. Even the most fastidious canoeist or kayaker can't avoid sweating, and mud figures prominently in backcountry exterior decoration schemes. Which is why it's such a treat to slip into a set of clean, dry clothes at day's end. But how can you make sure that those clean clothes will always be waiting for you? Well, the answer lies in a policy of strict segregation — in keeping your "work" clothes separate from your campwear. It's more trouble than just throwing everything in the same bag, of course, and it adds a little weight to your pack, but isn't clean living worth it?
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Keep It Under Your Hat!"
- "In Praise of the Neck Gaiter"
- "Getting a Grip on Gloves and Mittens"
- "Getting Fleeced: Dressing for 21st Century Amphibious Ops"
- "Tips on Winning the Shell Game"
- "Two Years With NEOS Trekkers"
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