CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT FOR WALKING IN THE HILLS by Mike Higgins
Generally, one pair of quality thick woollen socks with smooth seams. A pair of fine cotton or silk liner socks may be worn under the wool ones to protect delicate feet.
A two-season boot will be suitable for walking at low level, across fields, some types of moorland, farm tracks and smooth paths. They are not suitable for general hill and mountain use over rocky and greasy terrain, due to their flexibility and lack of ankle support (low ankle cuff).
Three season boots have a stiffer sole unit and a leather or leather/fabric upper. These tend to offer better waterproof qualities and may be lined with a breathable membrane, such as Gore-tex. This type of footwear offers greater support and protection for the foot and ankle when travelling over steep ground. They also create a better platform on steep ground, using the edges of the sole and heel to keep the boot level and maintain grip. If you ski, you will understand the last sentence!
A boot of leather/fabric construction may appear trendy but they are not as reliable and as easy to maintain as an all leather upper. A boot with a full leather upper is easier to clean and can be stiffer, more supporting and waterproof. If boots have a waterproof/breathable membrane, the fabric type of boot will be more vulnerable to puncture by sharp rock, flint and thorn, thus losing their waterproof quality. Some recent research has proven that boots lined with Gore-tex are no warmer or sweatier than non-Gore-tex.
BOOT FITTING - Take your own socks to the shop when buying boots (proper outdoor shops will have baskets of socks for this purpose but the odds are they will all be stretched and ill fitting). With your foot in the unlaced boot, push the foot forward till your big toe makes solid contact with the inside front of the boot. Now if you can fit most of your index finger between your heel and the back of the boot, it should be alright for length. Bring your foot back inside the boot so that the heel makes contact in the heel box and lace the boot up. (The shop will give you advice on different methods of lacing and maybe do it for you.) If the fit across the foot is too tight or hurts, check lacing on that part of the boot is not too tight, then try another make with a wider fit.
Never leave the shop with a pair of boots that do not feel a good fit and/or have pressure points. For this reason always try and buy your boots from a local outdoor shop that has a mini hydraulic press. If they start to hurt or rub, you can take them back to the shop and have the offending part stretched with the press. The boot should stay on the press for a minimum of 24 hours. A good shop will be willing to carry out this stretching procedure until you are completely happy. Some shops just have an iron ‘stretching bar’ - do not be kidded with this because if you are buying a pair of boots with a thick quality leather, then a few minutes of rubbing the pressure point with this bar may only stretch the offending part for a short while, maybe a couple of hours! A cheap thin leather may hold this bar stretch indefinitely.
Finally, on boots, (and even an old faithful pair can do this) if they start to hurt or rub (however slight) let the leader know and request a short stop while you attend to the problem. Do not worry about the group because they will all have had the same or similar problems in the past and will fully understand and be helpful. Take off the boot and check the sock/s for creases or any foreign matter; even if nothing is found fit a plaster to the affected area of the foot. If you do not have any plasters then ask, you will find everyone wanting to help. This action should do away for a further stop and a guaranteed blister.
THE LAYER SYSTEM
Top half of the body – do not wear cotton or wool as they trap moisture and do not wick. Synthetic materials dry rapidly because the fibres do not absorb moisture; these fabrics generally rely on their hydrophobic (water hating) qualities to transfer moisture away from the body and keep a dry microclimate next to the skin. This is known as wicking.
THE FIRST LAYER or base layer as it is known, is generally 100% polyester. They come in short and long sleeve, crew and polo neck (with zip - important for venting). Price range £10-£30 plus.
THE MID LAYER is either a micro-fleece or a full fleece (possibly both if its really cold) and, like the base layer, are nearly always 100% polyester. There are some variants where some manufacturers add other types of synthetics to a garment and make big performance claims and prices to match! Price range £6-£50 (not counting the fancy ones). A good branded fleece that will fit well, wash and last is, as a rule, in the £30-£40 bracket. When working hard up hill, with two layers on and a good sweat, you will see and feel moisture on the front of the outer fleece. Put the other hand inside the base layer and you will feel warm and reasonably dry. A percentage of this good action will be lost when putting on the top layer - the jacket.
JACKETS (waterproofs), whether £10 or £300, claim to be breathable which is partly true as they all have gaps around the waist, neck, wrists, zips, etc, through which heat and moisture can escape. Jackets/waterproofs are a compromise or balance between cost, waterproofness, breathability and weight. The choice is almost endless and bewildering - in the UK there are 26 major brands or trading names (they are not the manufacturer because most are made in China or somewhere similar) who offer a total of 143 hill/mountain jackets, each using one material for the outer layer. The number of different outer layer materials used between these 143 jackets is 68! Even a ‘3 layer Gore-tex XCR Super-duper Napal’ jacket will suffer from moisture under certain conditions and, at around £280, it could be too heavy, too warm for a summer shower and too bulky for a 30-litre day sack. When taking up hill walking, start looking at jackets with a sub-£100 price tag. With a bit of ‘reading up’ or research it’s often possible to buy a jacket with a retail price of a lot more than £100 for £70-£80.
BUYING A JACKET - what to look for. It must be waterproof, windproof and also breathable to a reasonable degree. It needs to be light and fold up small. Lined or semi-lined. All zips to have storm flaps and maybe venting zips under the top half of the arms. A hood that’s adjustable, fits close round the face and has a stiff or wired peak and a storm flap (often with Velcro) that closes the gap around the neck, either below or above the chin. With the hood in use and adjusted properly, it is important that your vision is unhindered when turning the head sideways. A long jacket that covers the backside and has drawstrings at the waist and the base is generally the best choice. Extra long sleeves are good in heavy rain, and when not on rough terrain, for withdrawing the hands inside keeping them dry and warm. Using pockets will only result in them filling with water. Other desirable features are:- a map pocket, often zipped and under the storm flap protecting your main zip; all pockets to have flaps and be either below or above the rucksack waist belt; any pockets above the waist belt should be between the shoulder straps; sleeves should have Velcro or studs to make a close fit around the wrist; all jackets should have a double main zip to allow more freedom of movement on rough ground by undoing from the bottom and to aid venting. Waterproof qualities will wear off after a while but it is easy to reproof.
UNDERWEAR - PANTS (gents), KNICKERS/BRIEFS (ladies) - Most of these are 100% cotton or a big percentage of cotton and a small amount of synthetic, like polyester. Sweating, moisture and the lack of wicking below the waist is generally not much of a problem for men on a day walk in this country, unless you’re flogging up hill on a very hot day. As for the ladies, it is less of a problem because the garments they wear below the waist are usually quite small and are not capable of collecting much moisture. If wearing a pair of walking trousers with a loose or generous fit on the top half, sweating and moisture below the waist is not a major problem for most people. There are plenty of ‘technical’ men’s boxers and ladies’ briefs on the market that claim to give maximum wicking and keep you dry. Prices £15-£20 apiece.
WALKING TROUSERS - Never wear jeans or cords or any trousers with a high percentage of cotton or wool because, when wet, they will be very heavy, can chap and be very, very slow to dry. Trousers need to be light, comfortable and quick drying. This is why they have a large percentage of synthetic resin in the material. The cheaper trousers, and most popular, are generally made of 65% polyester and 35% cotton. Desirable detail would include double front pockets (one behind or over the other) and the inner ones zipped. A large thigh pocket and the ones on the rear to be zipped with a narrow protecting flap. All the mentioned features can be found in the £25-£35 bracket. Other materials used for walking trousers can include nylon, cordura, lycra and polyamide and many more. Coupled with fancy design and detail and an ‘up market’ label, the price can be as much as £200.
WATERPROOF WALKING TROUSERS (not over trousers) - They may be called ‘waterproof’ but most of these trousers are between the first and second grade of waterproofness and classed as ‘water resistant/waterproof’ (see waterproof and breathability performance ratings elsewhere in these pages). Some of them have the top ‘breathability’ rating which is ‘extreme’. These trousers are worn in place of normal walking trousers, they save carrying and stopping to put on and take off over trousers and, under normal wet conditions, should keep you dry. WARNING: do not wear gaiters over these trousers in the rain because the water will run down between the trouser and the gaiter and into your boots. The best type of gaiter to wear with these trousers is stop-tous or short gaiters. They will not keep your trousers clean but should stop water running off the trouser and into the boot when flexing the leg and the trouser rides up a bit. Price range £80-£200.
OVER TROUSERS - should be light and ‘very waterproof’. They should be easy and quick to put on and take off. For this reason, a zip is required on the outside of the leg for at least three-quarters of the way up and must be covered by a flap and secured by Velcro or press-studs. The waist should be elasticated and adjustable. Access to a trouser pocket is handy but not when wearing a short jacket. Price range £30-£100.
GAITERS - Essential for keeping trousers clean and water out of boots. The strap that holds the gaiter down and close to the boot and goes under the boot, should only be adjustable on the outside of the leg (the most awkward side!). Some have a buckle either side and an excess of strap which can be a nuisance and dangerous. Other desirable features are a close fit under the knee and not baggy with adjustable elastic or strap to make sure they stay up. Also a hook on the front (for hooking on to the bootlace) and ideally, and unusually found, a zip that fastens from the top. This enables easy adjustment of the bootlace without taking the gaiter off. The zip will have a protecting flap secured by Velcro. Some manufacturers have done away with the zip and use a wide strip of Velcro instead; this makes for easy bootlace adjustment. Stop-tous or short gaiters are the same in the lower part as the full size gaiter but finish with an elasticated enclosure a few inches above the boot cuff. While these do not keep your trousers clean, they are less sweaty. In the rain, do not wear gaiters on the outside of waterproof trousers.
HATS - Up to 33% of heat can be lost through the head and it is a good way of keeping the temperature down when working hard. If it is cold, a headband can be worn and this will keep your ears warm but still allow heat loss. When stopping for lunch on a dry and cold day, make sure your jacket and hat are worn to retain heat. Of course, if it is raining or really cold these two items will be worn anyway. Wool is often itchy and not suitable in rain. The best type of hat has a synthetic waterproof and breathable outer with a fleece inner. It will have some sort of adjustment on the back, a stiffish peak and will cover the ears, though this can be turned up to aid hearing. A chin or retaining strap is desirable.
GLOVES - Mittens are warmer than gloves. Waterproof gloves are expensive, often clumsy and awkward to wear and use and sometimes not very waterproof! Woollen gloves are ok, or better still a synthetic glove that is windproof. One way around this waterproof business is to carry a light pair of waterproof over mittens, just put your gloved hand in and tuck the wrist part of the mitten up the sleeve of the jacket to keep the rain out.
For day walking in spring and summer, a 30/35 litre will be fine; in autumn and winter a 35/45 litre and for a walking holiday (not a luggage transporting type) a 65/70 litre. So leaving out the holiday, a 35-litre sack should do the average hill walker through the four seasons. There are very few waterproof rucksacks on the market. It could be said that most manufacturers do not even attempt to get their sacks into the ‘water resistant/waterproof’ bracket. They seem to concentrate on design and visual appearance and then throw in a cheap nylon elasticated cover to keep most of the sack dry. The alternative to the cover is a polythene sack liner; this, of course, will not keep the contents of the pockets dry. A metal or plastic frame is desirable to allow the back to breathe. A pocket in the flap, maybe one on the bottom of the sack, and the pockets on the side not to protrude too much. Waist and chest belts and fixings for two walking poles plus comfortable, well padded, easily adjusted shoulder straps are also desirable. The shoulder straps should be adjusted so the sack is next to the back and as high as possible. The shoulder straps must be even (take the sack off and check); if they are not, the body will start to compensate for the lop-sided effect and parts of the back could be strained, if not damaged, over a period of time. Likewise, never carry a sack on one shoulder for more than a couple of hundred yards. Other features could be compression straps (for making the sack smaller), hauling ring or strap, ice axe and crampon fixings.
Over the last ten years, the Mountain Rescue teams in the Lake District reckon the call out for minor accidents has been reduced by 15% due to the use of walking poles. If used properly, and many are not, they can take weight off the legs and can really assist progress up hill. Coming down hill, with a much lengthened pole, placed ahead, they can make a third and fourth hand hold. What to look for when buying is a comfortable grip, as small as possible when compressed (this will be a three or four section pole) and able to extend to shoulder height. A small size when compressed will mean it will not catch on tree branches when fastened to your rucksack. It will also go in a holdall or suitcase when going on holiday. Forget the shock absorber type for it can give quite a fright when about to make a big step or movement with a lot of weight on the pole and the shock absorber activates! Price range from £6 a pair to about £50 each.
ITEMS TO CARRY IN THE RUCKSACK
As an individual or walking with a friend or two: waterproofs, hat and gloves (plus spare in the winter), a spare fleece, a foil blanket or bivi bag, map and compass, whistle, head torch, first aid kit, foot plasters in a small polythene bag, emergency long lasting sugar and starchy food plus, of course, your normal packed lunch and a drink. On a hot summer’s day, the extra fleece can be left out but throughout the summer, you will need to carry items to protect head and neck from the sun plus sun cream and sun glasses. As a member of a larger group you will need all of the above except the map and compass, first aid kit and foil blanket/bivi bag. However, this is only if at least two other people in the group are carrying these items.
FOOD - A balance should be sought between sugars, which can rapidly provide energy, and starchy food that will give slow burning fuel. So sandwiches, cake, fruit, energy bars and sweets should cover a hard day.
DRINK – Coffee or soup are fine on a cold day but you will still need to carry water as well, maybe up to a litre and on a hot summer’s day two litres! The thought of carrying this sort of weight will frighten some but these are the recommended amounts. Rehydration is essential and drinking water before you feel thirsty is important. An energy drink can be carried to supplement your food.
PERFORMANCE RATING FOR HILL AND MOUNTAIN GARMENTS
(as used by the ‘outdoor industry’ and manufacturers, mainly based on laboratory tests)
WATERPROOFNESS: Resistant means water-resistant
Waterproof means meets the British Standard to be called ‘waterproof’
Very Waterproof means easily meets the British Standard after regular use
Extremely Waterproof means a very durable level of waterproofness
BREATHABILITY: Breathable means meets the lowest British Standard for high activity
Very breathable meets the highest British Standard for high activity
Extremely breathable offers the maximum level of moisture vapour transfer inside a garment
(One can imagine how these ‘guidelines’ and the words ‘waterproof’ and ‘breathability’ are misused by manufacturers and importers of cheaper garments - BEWARE!)
All the above is given in good faith and for guidance, including any errors and misinterpretation by the reader.
For any questions or discussion on anything in this paper, please call Mike Higgins on 01704 872831 or 07989 307909.