13 Oct 2010

Outdoor gear: is the great outdoors the new designer catwalk?

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Take yourself out on the hills these days, particularly in the more popular areas, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that many of your fellow walkers had escaped from a fashion catwalk, rather than were out to climb a hill.  And, strike up a conversation and you are as likely to end up discussing the relative merits of your techno layers, as the view from the summit.

Now, while it’s obviously good that there are far fewer ill-equipped people in jeans and trainers on the hillsides, have we now actually gone a bit too far in our love-affair with designer labels and, more importantly, how many of them fulfil their stated function and are worth anything like their high outlay?

Clearly, if you are planning to be out and about in the UK at any time of the year, walking, cycling, whatever, you will need to invest in waterproof outers  to keep dry.  These, plus comfortable, robust and waterproof  footwear are vital and should account for the largest part of your spending.

But scrape beneath the epidermis and the issues become cloudier.  In the last 20 years or so, the fleece has become ubiquitous, leading to the now “normal” combination of base layer, fleece and waterproof/windproof outer.  So far, so good, but now it’s not a question of a fleece, but which fleece: micro, mid, or maybe a softshell instead?  There again, that down sweater looks cosy, but a microlight vest might be a better bet for the variable British weather and you could always wear it down the pub.

The choice is huge: ideal for the experts and gear nerds who can satisfy their pedantry for membranes, weight and insulating fill, but confusing and often bewildering for anyone with no expert knowledge of the outdoor gear maze, who just wants to keep warm and dry.  Open a specialist magazine and you are likely to be suffocated by enough technical jargon to make a computer geek drool and, although many assistants in the large multi-range dealers are helpful and knowledgable, it can be daunting just to pluck up the courage to go into the shop, far less have any real confidence that you won’t end up paying a fortune for some hyped-up garment you don’t actually need .

This is most obvious in the hype surrounding so-called technical base layers.  Now, while I accept that technology has progressed somewhat since Otzi the Iceman and his woven grass coat, many of the claims made for these shiny, smelly, singularly unattractive garments are plainly ridiculous.  For the uninformed, a technical base layer is usually composed of a combination of man-made materials and is marketed on the basis that these fibres wick away sweat as it is produced, therefore keeping you dry inside.

Years ago, when buying my first ever techno layer, my mother looked on with contempt, dismissing the garment, in her best Maggie Smith manner, as hideous in both texture and appearance, overpriced and unwearable.  My mother, whose idea of an outdoor expedition was negotiating the best route between Peter Jones, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, was hardly an outdoor gear expert, but with a long career at the high-end of fashion retail, she certainly did know her fabrics.

“Natural fibres alone will keep you appropriately warm or cool, anything else is a waste of money and an offence to the eye and the skin,” was her parting shot to that particular retail excursion and recently, I had reason to remember this advice when, eventually consigning my nine year-old Icebreaker to the duster bag.  A present from a cousin in Auckland, I’d never heard of the manufacturer of merino wool tops  and would have scoffed at the idea of paying over £60 for what was essentially a long-sleeved t shirt, admittedly also with a zipped roll neck and handy thumb slots.  But after a decade of multi-activity wear, including consecutive days of treks and bike touring, I reckoned its £6 per year, or 50p per month, breakdown cost  was well worth it.

This is far from an advert for Icebreaker, whose products are well out with most budgets, but used as an example of how I found the “right” outdoor garment through a combination of trial and error, plus good fortune, and not as a result of expert recommendation, advertisement, or the now familiar product test.  Naturally, manufacturers have to market their goods and, in an increasingly cut-throat environment, have to use the most appropriate and effective means at their disposal, but I wonder whether this over-exposure is now almost counter-productive?

Given the current importance attached to encouraging all sections of society to take more exercise, get more fresh air and appreciate their environment, it would be interesting to find out how many people, particularly members of groups currently under-represented in outdoor pursuits, were at least partially put off by a belief that before you step outside you have to be kitted out in expensive, technical gear.

For my part, for what that’s worth, I still believe that, as long as your outers and footwear are waterproof, you invest in a cosy hat, gloves and a decent pair of socks, the rest will look after itself: layer up with t shirts, check out the discount (Aldi and Lidl do merino tops for under £15) and factory outlets.  But, ensure you keep away from those nasty techno base layers: after only a couple of hours on the hills they offend, not just the eye and the skin, but the nose as well.

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