What shall I wear on the mountain?
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“What, pray, are these?”
I opened my eyes widely from the
top bunk, as dawn was only just appearing through a mountain refuge window. In
the shadow was my walking colleague, now standing, and dangling some material
from his right forefinger. He held it at arm’s length, millimetres from my
nose. The material smelt terrible.
“Pooh!” I declared.
“They’re yours,” he replied.
“Underpants. Dropped from your bunk just now and landed on my head. I thought
you might need them.”
“Sorry,” I said, stretching out a hand
to retrieve my underwear. “I was trying to dry them. They must have slipped
through a gap.”
We were crossing the French Alps
and I had brought a single pair of underpants, washing them each night where we
slept. I would dry them beside my warm body, so they were ready to put on in
the morning. On this occasion, they had escaped and landed on the bunk beneath
I am no fashion guru yet have
noticed how little clothing I need when walking a great distance. My Alpine
journey was nearly 700 miles, on which I took two pairs of socks, one shirt,
one pair of trousers and, as my colleague would attest, one pair of underpants.
I also had a jacket and fleece.
There is a clear principle to
outdoor clothing that I follow, whether it is a journey of a minute, a day, or
a decade. The principle is layering, a concept that dates back many centuries. It
is based on the observation that multiple layers of lightweight material are
better than one layer of thick material, because layers trap pockets of air.
I keep three layers in mind when selecting
outdoor clothes. The base layer next to my skin, the insulating layer outside
that, and the shell layer covering everything. The base layer is the most
important and I always choose Merino wool. The Merino sheep, which originated in
12th-Century Morocco, has since spread worldwide. Its wool is softer
and thinner than the regular version. It is so hardy that even firefighters
wear it. It also does not smell. For many years I wore a synthetic base layer
and could not understand why friends kept their distance. Since Merino, I have
been welcomed back to the fold. I avoid cotton as it soaks up moisture and has
given me blisters.
For an insulating layer I am happy
to wear synthetic, normally a long-sleeved shirt, whatever the climate. Long
sleeves can be rolled up, but short sleeves cannot be rolled down. Long sleeves
are also protective. I learned the hard way. As a young soldier, on jungle patrol
with short sleeves, I accidentally scraped my bare forearm against a tree
trunk. Within 30 minutes, I swelled to the size of a hot air balloon and required
emergency treatment of my allergy. I have worn long sleeves and long trousers
Sometimes, I wear a gilet as a
second, insulating layer. This is essentially an outdoor waistcoat. It has lots
of pockets, which I stuff with as much as I can, to give me instant access to critical
items while I am walking.
Although I carry a shell, I do not
always wear it. Whatever design I choose, I need it to be waterproof and
breathable. Gore-Tex does that well, but there are other materials, too. They
do not last forever, and I work on three to four years. I want my shell to have
plenty of deep pockets, underarm zips to let me cool down, and a peaked hood to
keep rain from my eyes. Sometimes, and especially when I am exercising hard in
ice-cold weather, I will wear just a shell and base layer, with nothing in
On my feet I wear ankle-length
socks, part Merino wool and part synthetic. These can last for a very long
time. I have had one pair of socks easily handle 500 miles. I make my boots as
light as possible, although the heavier my pack, the sturdier my boots need to
be. On my hands are gloves, normally made from fleece, with added grip should I
need to grasp rock for security.
Then comes my only recognition of
mountain fashion - the hat. Mostly I wear a fleece beanie but when the wind is
high, and the rain lashing, I turn to a full Gore-Tex cap with ear flaps. But
at the first sign of sun, out comes Worzel.
Worzel? Worzel Gummidge, the famed television
scarecrow. His hat, my hat, is truly what I adore. I go nowhere without my
If you are thinking what to wear
Oh dear, now I must get dressed. My
wardrobe lies open before me and inside is a jumble of clothing. I must be out
the front door in ten minutes. What shall I put on?
This is my 10-point system:
- Underpants – I want them of boxer
design to protect my inner thigh. This area can chafe when walking, especially
if I have put on weight. I may also apply a smidgeon of petroleum jelly on the
inner side of each thigh before I set out.
- Base layer – on goes my Merino wool
top, short-sleeve in summer, long-sleeve in winter. In winter, I also use a
roll-neck top, with zip, and thumbholes in each sleeve to insulate my hands.
- Trousers – I wear long trousers, never shorts. My trousers protect from scrapes, or when
I kneel down. I prefer an integral belt. I do not like salopettes as they are a
nightmare in the loo.
– this is of traditional design, including collar, cuffs and buttons. Mine even
has a tail. I wear long sleeves, again for protection. The collar has an
extension, to cover my neck in the sun.
– ankle length and of Merino wool-synthetic mix. If I worry about blisters, I
apply a smidgeon of petroleum jelly on the foot, before putting on my sock.
– I love my gilet, largely because of its plentiful supply of pockets. I can
stuff them with most things I need.
– fleece, with reinforced fingers and palm. I put the gloves in a gilet pocket.
– Worzel, if I can. If it is cold and windy, I use a synthetic beanie that can
be pulled over my ears. I put the beanie in a gilet pocket. In my rucksack I
have a Gore-Tex cap with ear flaps.
boots – I do these up securely right away, as I do not like to keep others
waiting when we meet. I wish to spring from the vehicle and start walking.
– I check the rucksack for my shell and make sure it is near the top. When I
walk, I will only wear a shell when it is cold, windy, or rainy.
My favourite shops for outdoor
More informationHiking essentials – what to wear when hiking
Gear and Clothing to Wear Hiking
What to Wear Hiking
How to dress for hiking
See alsoYou are never alone on a mountain
A lifetime of walking boots
Fitting the perfect rucksack
Think seriously about walking poles
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