We’ve progressed a long way since the fig leaf. If you want to stay comfortable in your environment, you have two choices. First, grow a pelt. Second, clothe yourself properly. Although some will advocate a liberal application of Rogaine™ to the entire surface of the body, we do not.
Staying alive outside requires a delicate balance. Keeping the body at the correct temperature in climates ranging from arctic subzero temperatures to desert heat in the triple digits is no small feat. An astute observer of humans out in the elements will see a huge variation in methods to do this, depending on the climate.
Unfortunately, we have become creatures of the HVAC, slaves to central heating and air conditioning. If we are cold, we turn a knob and voila, cold no more. This doesn’t work in the elements, we know. Despite my father’s assertion that I was “trying to heat the whole outside” when I left the front door open, I knew better than that. I learned to stay comfortable I needed to reduce my heat loss in the winter, and keep cool in the summer.
First Step — Insulation.
Face it. To stay alive, we need a pelt. Since we can’t grow our own, we need to apply something else. For centuries, the best way to do that was to take something else’s pelt (often before it was done using it). While barbaric, it worked, and still does if you’re into mink. Then the idea of taking just the hair or fur and leaving the skin (and the animal) in tact grew in popularity. Wool from sheep, goats, llamas, and a host of other ungulates became the better material in most climates. Wool is still one of the best insulators around, keeping the wearer dry when wet and looking pretty nice in the meantime. In short, we added insulation. The next step was to figure out a way to keep moisture off and still allow the body to perspire — to get rid of excess moisture to keep evaporative cooling to a minimum, and to keep wind from blowing the precious heat we work so hard to create from flowing off our bodies.
Second Step — Wind and Water Repellency
Once we’re insulated, we found ways to cover our insulation to stay dry. Water evaporates, taking along with it heat. Leathers of various types were found to be water repellant, and certain fabric could be woven and treated with various oils or waxes to keep water off. They are still useful, and are even staging a come-back as weaving technologies and other efficiencies make natural fibers more accessible.
Two companies have affected the outdoor clothing world more than all others combined. The first, W.L. Gore, is responsible for Gore-Tex, the premier waterproof-breathable fabric. After a few fits and starts, this stuff is now recognized as the best protection for breathable fabrics that keep you dry. That protection does come at a premium price — so consider some of the other waterproof breathable fabrics too. The good news is that there are now many exceptional waterproof/breathable alternatives that are much less expensive. Gore is still cranking out the good stuff, so new fabrics and membranes are rapidly emerging. PacLite is a new one that’s very breathable and very light. Nice stuff for paddling clothing.
The second company is Malden Mills, the company responsible for Polartec fleece. This synthetic material is great for many reasons. First, it does not absorb a lot of water for its weight, so it continues to insulate you even when it is dampened. It is hydrophobic, so it will dry quickly when exposed to heat (even your body heat), and is soft against the skin.
Even as this is written, things are changing. That’s the nature of technology.