Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Branding the Outdoors

Saw a guy in the mid-piste bar the other day wearing a Buffalo mountain shirt. From this observation alone one can easily infer that he is British, and almost certainly a climber or mountaineer. Several brands are equally keyed to either niche sports, national identity or both. If someone is wearing 5.10 shoes or prAna clothing, they're almost certainly climbers, or at least somehow aware of the 'scene', as it were. If you see a person wearing a Crux rucksack, they're almost certainly a British mountaineer. A Klattermusen jacket is probably the sign of a Swedish off-piste or ice climbing demon. Helly Hansen used to be a sure sign of a Norwegian, but the brand has now gone pretty global. The excellent Mammut stuff is almost solely worn by Germans. Skiing-related brands are a mish-mash of hard-core, true performance and vanity fashion, and many of the latter pretending to be the former.

Peak Performance is a clothing brand from Sweden that used to make true high-end gear for the cold weather athlete for whom the right clothing is a matter of survival. This market being somewhat limited, and with the costs associated with manufacturing in the reverse tax haven of Sweden, somewhere down the line their finances suffered, and they got bought out by some big shot Euro clothing manufacturer, and they're now firmly rooted in the vanity fashion pretending to be real camp. Judging from its visible proliferation across nationalities here in Val Thorens, it's a stonking success.

The aforementioned Buffalo is arguably one of the best performing bad-weather clothing system ever designed, yet you rarely, if ever, see it outside its British mountaineering core market domain. Sure, no one can accuse Buffalo of being stylish, and its against the market grain quirkyness probably doesn't help. If you ask your average punter how to dress for cold (or wet) weather performance, you'll get the same, well-rehearsed answer that the big manufacturers want you to give: base layer in the form of thermals, mid (or insulating) layer, probably in the shape of a fleece, and then a 'waterproof breathable' membrane laminate jacket made from an expensive corporate fabric probably ending in '-Tex'.

There is no such thing as waterproof and breathable, unless you count the umbrella. You can have either or. If you don't believe me, put on your £500 coat and go for a run in the driving rain. Even the most breathable membrane can't keep up with even a modest level of exertion. Worse, it also assumes a temperature gradient across the fabric. Fine if you're out and about, but step inside for a hot chocolate, and suddenly the fabric is soaking on the inside. The expensive '-Tex' coats are ideal for walking from the front door to the car, and from the car to the entry to Tesco on a Saturday shoppping expedition. The 'Guaranteed to Keep You Dry' tag line is pure marketing genius, but very little to do with real performance.

If you really want to be comfortable whilst active in changeable weather, the first realisation is that true breathability is much more valuable than true waterproofness. Who cares about how many metres of water column the garment can withstand without incursion if you still end up cold and wet due to condensation? Real performance means wicking away moisture from the skin, and not placing a membrane in the way. A manufacturer that understands this (apart from Buffalo) is Paramo. A wicking liner is placed under a wind proof DWR-treated tightly woven microfiber shell. The Durable Water Repellency treatment means that water beads and rolls off the surface of the garment like water off the back of a goose. This DWR coating is infinitely replenishable by the owner using an inwash additive. This means that rain can't penetrate the outer layer, yet moisture passes freely from the inside out. Yet, by the accepted industry norm it is not waterproof. It can't take any size water column at all. Sit in a puddle, and it will soak through. In normal use it will keep an active user bone dry. The Scottish mountain rescue teams, who know a thing or two about bad weather, wear the Paramo Aspira jacket. The disadvantages of the Paramo concept is that the garments tend to feel bulky and heavy, but this is partly offset by the user needing fewer layers underneath.

The Buffalo system is far more minimalist. A Pertex shell is bonded to a pile inner. Pile is the ancestor of fleece. It looks a bit like a kind of short sheep's coat - certainly not fashionable, but with superior insulation qualities and with virtually zero moisture retention. Pertex is a windproof microfibre weave, favoured as a shell material for sleeping bags. It's exceptionally breathable, wind proof, light and if it gets wet the moisture quickly spreads to a large surface area which dries in an instant. Buffalo's approach to waterproofness is: 'being dry is for wimps' - yes, in driving rain you'll eventually get wet, but the pile layer will keep you warm in the wet, and the pile/pertex combination will dry in an instant the moment the rain stops. Buffalo recommends you wearing its garments next to skin, and this has probably contributed to the reputation of the odour of the British mountaineer after a few weeks in the wilderness.

Quirky makes like Buffalo and Paramo survive as purveyors of niche products for people who need real performance in atrocious conditions. These guys will always be big fish in a tiny pond. Some makes from a similar background (amongst others North Face, Patagonia, Arc'teryx, Berghaus) are gradually making the transition into the more profitable 'life style' markets, yet still manage provide the good stuff aswell. Arc'teryx in particular seems to be surviving with their soul intact after being bought out by the Adidas/Salomon mainstream giant.

So, how should you dress for an active life in the hills come rain or shine? The problem with being active is that as long as you're moving you need a lot less clothing than when you're stationary. Walking in to a winter route in the Scottish mountains is a lot more sweaty than the climbing itself. Belaying is cold. Skinning up a mountain side is far more taxing than the long ski descent on the glacier on the other side. Most people over dress, become warm and sweaty, and when they stop they get cold, despite wearing all their clothes. With a traditional layering system, adjusting your temperature becomes an arduous chore, involving taking off multiple layers to remove or add an insulator before putting the outer layers back on. Apart from being time consuming, this process also leaves you exposed to the elements. This usually means that people can't be bothered to adjust to conditions correctly, instead choosing to put up and shut up. A better system is to wear as little clothes as possible for the action, and then layering on top when stopping to rest or belay. Sometimes, perhaps it is sufficient to wear a wicking base layer and a feather weight Pertex windproof, and then a synthetic duvet on top when stopping. Putting on or removing a thin duvet jacket takes five seconds, and the new synthetics, such as PrimaLoft, are almost as warm and compactible as down, yet unlike down stay warm if wet. You will also perform better as your body won't have to spend effort cooling itself down from the heat of overdressing.

True waterproof membrane fabrics have no place in the hills unless you're sitting still in prolonged driving rain - and those days I'd rather stay at home.

1 comment:

Andy G said...

I tried forever to find a good waterproof/breathable jacket for cycling but came to the same conclusion: they do not exist. Roadies use a Buffalo equivalent which lets the moisture in but keeps you warm and dries in a jiffy. They may take a cheap waterproof shell out for when it gets really bad. Buffalo gear is truly excellent: their pertex shells are amazingly cheap and have 'pit' zips which extend down their whole sides. Ventilation is the key to keeping the sweat levels down - a GoreTex or equivalent with good vents will keep you dry in the downpours and yet keep the condensation levels down to an acceptable level, even when hard mountain biking.
I would say that you do need a heavy Goretex for Scottish winter days out though. Up there the sweat level is far outweighed by the need to keep the elements out.