As backpackers, we need a collection of clothing that functions as tools to allow us to remain active in the backcountry as long as we want, in any season. By utilizing an Adaptive Performance Clothing System, we will have the right collection of clothing that will keep our bodies performing optimally in inevitably changing conditions like weather, terrain, and strenuousness of the journey.
There are many options out there when it comes to clothing for the backcountry. Some of them are good options, but many are inadequate, and we need to be careful about what we buy and use. With such a multitude of clothing choices available, people can sometimes feel overwhelmed to the point where they either don’t know what to buy, or they acquire more than they actually need, including clothing that is not appropriate at all.
Our deliberately curated 10 piece clothing system has the versatility to meet needs for all but the most extreme conditions in the backcountry- year round.
MOST cold weather (winter) backpacking needs are met with this system, however in some extreme conditions, small modifications or supplemental pieces may be needed to meet additional demands on the body. Furthermore, this 10 piece system doesn’t contain conditional accessories like headwear, footwear, or handwear. This is not to dismiss their importance, but to primarily focus on the application of core pieces in a technical clothing system.
To implement this system, we consider the details for a specific trip, like weather conditions, environmental factors, intensity of the terrain, and intensity of travel, then deliberately select from our 10 pieces the most appropriate and helpful items. Versatility is a key component of this clothing system, so there are pieces within the system that can serve more than one purpose.
What are the goals of this essay?
Provide the user with an understanding of the background and purpose of clothing, particularly how it relates to backpacking and high output backcountry travel.
Provide the user with an understanding of how a performance clothing system works, and how it works with the user to keep them performing optimally, while accomplishing the 3 main goals (the 3 main goals described in the Modern Context section below).
Give the user an explanation of different clothing categories within the system and how each piece accomplishes its purpose.
Provide the user the understanding of how and when to apply the system to their trips.
Give the user the confidence and motivation to put their clothing system to use.
Call out the specific product recommendations that meet the requirements, if not point out specific parameters and performance qualities to seek after.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, prehistoric man learned to improvise and manipulate resources to make tools and other implements that made life easier. Some of these tools helped man in the harvesting of animals to sustain life. He subsequently learned to make use of the hides from these animals to protect and preserve his body, which was the advent of mans’ use of clothing.
From the very beginning, the core purpose of clothing has been to preserve and protect the body as a means to sustain life.
Prehistoric man had no luxuries or conveniences. He used his body to provide all the things that sustain life. In short, life itself was a very physical and active existence. Though it didn’t take long for human nature to decide that clothing could function as a symbol of wealth, status, or expression (fashion); the real, core purpose of clothing has not changed much for the backcountry traveler.
In the current age there are a multitude of purposes for clothing, although image and fashion seem to be at the forefront. However, the impetus and purpose of the adaptive clothing system described here gives no consideration to image, fashion, or aesthetic because those considerations do not add to the performance of any given piece in the system.
This system exploits modern materials and designs applied to performance clothing for the core purpose of protecting and preserving life in an active, backcountry setting.
Modern context of the System
The focus of this system is in the context of backpacking, or highly active backcountry foot travel, where the person is an active participant in the function and performance of the clothing system. This means that the majority of the user’s time awake is spent on the move. This is an important distinction, because the physical exertion of hiking or running generates heat while simultaneously creating conditions close to the body that need to be accounted for, exploited, and managed. Although the context of this essay is backpacking, many of the concepts and principles apply to other active outdoor pursuits and activities.
The purpose of the clothing in this system is to efficiently accomplish 3 main goals:
Regulate and maintain our core body temperature. We can’t deviate too far from 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The 2 primary functions that accomplish this are below.
Moisture management, primarily moisture from the body. Clothing should move moisture away from our skin. In cold conditions this process helps reduce heat loss. In warm conditions it facilitates heat loss.
Protection from the elements: rain, wind, sun. All 3 of those factors accelerate heat loss or heat retention.
Protect our bodies from external harm and contamination.
Physical harm from cuts and scrapes that irritate and lead to infection.
Bug bites also lead to infection, allergic reaction, and irritation. See number 3 below for more explanation to why we want to protect from bugs.
Keep our bodies comfortable and at maximum performance so we can confidently stay in the field and enjoy our time there, knowing that our clothing will do its job.
Each piece in this system performs at least 1 of these purposes, sometimes more. Hence the use of the word ‘performance’ in this system.
But what about the word ‘adaptive’? It’s an adaptive system in that the user selects from the collection to adapt to the variability of conditions that may occur on each specific trip.
Essentially it's a mix and match system.
The whole collection is not meant to be worn all at once. There are some pieces in the system that will frequently, if not always, be worn. However, the adaptive element is also exercised by the user adapting to changing conditions within a single trip by selecting from the clothing she has packed. The simple example of this is putting on a rain jacket when it’s raining, and taking it off when it stops raining.
We are ultralight backpackers, so we believe in efficient yet effective minimalism when it comes to packing our gear, and that includes clothing. However, goal #3 says that we do want to be comfortable and perform optimally, so it’s imperative to find the balance of accounting for those needs and minimizing weight.
Why have a "system?"
It simplifies the selection process and knowing what to pack. The versatility of the system helps us utilize our clothing efficiently without too much thought.
Why have a "system?"
It reinforces the WHY behind our clothing choices, which facilitates our learning from each experience we have in the backcountry. As we apply it more and more, we catalog what we have learned and call upon those lessons each future trip. The more we do this, the less time we spend trying to decide what to pack.
Why have a "system?"
It builds confidence to spend more time in the field because we know our clothing system works.
Disclaimers / Ground Rules / Assumptions
There isn’t a single best set or piece. Everyone is different. Body type, genetics, geo-location, preferences & senses (touch), cold sleeper, sweat output, tolerances to environmentals, and other factors will mean that each person may choose slightly different items from the collection for the same backpacking trip.
For the most part this is an active system, meaning the majority of time spent using the system the user is physically active. Very little waking time is spent stationary. The body is a key component of the system and its effectiveness.
The easier the weather conditions are, the less critical the performance of the system is. On the other hand, as conditions become more intense or extreme, the more critical it is that the clothing system is focused on performance and thoughtfully selected.
It’s easy to feel like we don’t need to pay much attention to clothing performance when the conditions are easy / mild. If someone hasn’t spent much time in the backcountry in inclement weather, it’s easy for them to feel like their clothing choices don’t really matter. This is a slippery slope and can lead to a range of consequences from significant discomfort to a life threatening situation.
Remember the main reason to pay attention to our clothing system: we want to enjoy our time in the backcountry and stay as long as we planned, or wanted to when we set out.
Our focus should be on conditions rather than seasons as it relates to trip planning and gear selection. Thinking in terms of seasons can be too general. It’s kind of the easy and lazy way to plan. Sometimes we refer to seasons as a matter of convenience in conversation when we assume people are familiar with what we’re talking about. This can be ok. However, thinking only in terms of seasons doesn’t adequately account for the level of detail we need to get optimal performance from our gear, ourselves, and subsequently the level of satisfaction from our backcountry travels that we were looking for.
We are much better served to train our minds to think about conditions rather than seasons. Our gear functions according to conditions, not seasons, and so should our thought process. I couldn’t count how many “summer” backpacking trips in the “dry” Rocky Mountains I have been on when I was snowed on and temperatures were well below freezing. In some parts of North American deserts, it can be 70 degrees in the daytime in the middle of “winter”. 70 degrees is considered a pretty warm day in the Rockies in the middle of summer. How many of us sweat while backpacking or ski touring at 11,000 feet in the mountains in January, with ambient temperatures in the single digits? By focusing on conditions, we will be confidently prepared and appropriately outfitted.
Critical Processes to Understand
There are 4 ways our bodies lose heat. Radiation, evaporative cooling, convective heat loss, and conductive heat loss.
Radiation: our bodies constantly radiate or emit heat.
Evaporative cooling / heat loss: when moisture on the body draws heat away from the body as it evaporates.
Convective heat loss: when air moves across the body, it removes heat from it.
Conductive heat loss: when our bodies contact an object of lower temperature, heat is removed from our bodies and transferred to the other object.
With some understanding of heat loss, we can apply it to our clothing system and better prepare for how we will promote heat loss to cool off, and mitigate heat loss to stay warm. We mitigate heat loss by protecting ourselves from wind when it is present, and by utilizing insulation - the right insulation at the right time.
What is insulation and how does it work?
In the context of a clothing system and heat loss, insulation is a layer or layers of material that separate our bodies from the open air and reduce the physical processes of heat loss. While a very thin baselayer does technically retain some body heat, it is negligible in this context. We are talking about meaningful insulation that provides significant heat retention when it’s applied correctly. There are various types and applications of insulation, which we will get into at a later point, but when we use insulation in our clothing system, it is to retain body heat or prevent heat loss. The two phrases can be used interchangeably.
Cold air doesn’t work its way inward into our clothing. It’s quite the opposite. Cold air accelerates the movement of our body heat away from our bodies. When we experience feeling cold, we are feeling the warmth from our bodies being pulled away from us. So when we apply insulation to our clothing system, we aren’t trying to keep cold air out, we are trying to keep our warm body heat from escaping. Insulation functions by trapping our body heat in little pockets of dead air space throughout whatever the insulation material is. There can also be dead air space between two separate layers, which does actually help with heat retention. In all these little dead air space pockets, the trapped air cannot move around or circulate, therefore it can’t pull heat away from the body. For this clothing system, an effective insulation piece should be constructed in a way that capitalizes on and maximizes dead air space.
What about warm conditions? How do we apply the clothing system to keep cool and promote heat loss? All the same principles regarding heat loss apply. So to facilitate heat loss to cool down, we should remove as much insulation as possible from our bodies, and use our lightest weight, most breathable and moisture wicking layers to take advantage of our natural cooling system: sweat.
Our bodies naturally promote evaporative cooling via perspiration. The process of perspiration being pulled off our skin will accelerate heat loss. In addition to that, any movement of the air across our bodies will introduce convective heat loss and further cool our bodies down. This is why in warm conditions we want our baselayer top, at least, to be moisture wicking. The pulling of moisture off our skin pulls heat away with it. The lower the loft, the lower the insulative value. The higher the ability to wick & evaporate moisture, the higher the breathability.