Outdoor gear assistants will refer to this as the ‘wicking effect’: the transfer of moisture from your body to the outside elements. They may turn their noses up at this for two reasons. First, being in the stressful location of an outdoor gear shop may cause your body to ‘wick’ your own natural aroma around the shop. Second, the assistants don’t actually sweat themselves. They are so fit that breaking into a mild perspiration hasn’t happened to them since they hiked from John o’Groats to Land’s End one wet Wednesday afternoon.
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The mid-layer looks more like ordinary clothing. It comes disguised as T-shirts, shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and shorts in either earthy, natural or vibrant, psychedelic colours. (There’s no middle ground in outdoor clothing colours.) Never mention to the shop assistant that you’ve got a shirt at home that looks ‘just like that one on the rails over there’; you haven’t. They might all look as if they’re made from natural fabrics, but space-age technology has been applied. Even if the shirt in your cupboard was bought from an outdoor gear shop, it’s last year’s technology, whereas everything on the rails in front of you is this year’s.
Depending upon which season is taking place in the great outdoors, the fleece or soft-shell layer may be either the final layer in the system or the penultimate one. Fleece jumpers or coats work just like the fleece on a sheep (but smell better). Dense fibres trap the warmth of your body, preventing it from escaping, and also help to cut out the wind. If out on the hills without a fleece, don’t worry: there are always a few spare sheep wandering around. Just catch a couple, strap one across your chest, and another across your back, and you’ll enjoy the same benefits. Sheep have a nervous habit of urinating when hikers pass by, so strap them head upwards and feet outwards. There’s only so much work your wicking base layer can do.
The waterproof or outer-shell layer is what most non-hikers would call a coat. It’s usually a noisy garment that rustles loudly when you swing your arms as you stroll purposefully along the footpath. The outer layer should keep you dry when it is raining/hailing/snowing, and keep you warm in a gale-force wind. Bluffers who are now thinking about the moisture being wicked away from their bodies by the base layer need not worry. You might be hiking through a particularly vicious anticyclone high on the moors, but all these layers should work together to prevent a similar anticyclone from taking up residence beneath your outer layer. Thankfully, the manufacturers have devised a high-tech solution to this problem It’s called a zip.
Actually, manufacturers have pioneered a variety of materials designed to let your clothes breathe out any moisture you create without letting in any of the moisture that nature creates. ‘Breathability’ is all to do with making the holes that let the moisture out smaller than the rain molecules that want to get in.