What Clothing Do You Really Need For Outdoor Activities
Our 'what do you really need' series of protips is designed to help you get outside & save money. We talk honestly & frankly about the purpose that different items are designed to fulfill, as well as help you evaluate your needs, which there isn't always a good formula for, every body is different! Our goal is that you don't feel like you have to spend $100s before every trip buying all new gear, especially when many existing items may work (and for everything else, you can always rent outdoor gear from us)! On our individual gear guides, we also have specific info on alternatives you can use. If you're looking to buy, check out our calculator first to see if it's a good deal!
Should you use a poncho or a rain jacket? What's the difference between a rain jacket & snow jacket? Why are snow jackets sometimes so thin? These are the questions we'll help answer! By the way, since waterproofing is so important for outdoor clothing, we have a separate guide to waterproofing; all the terms we use in this guide correlate with how we define & use them there. It may be worth a quick read, particularly the second section on how we define the terminology.
Surprise! You rarely need special, technical clothing to go outside
But you might want it! Industry develops with activity. In some places, people hike in regular clothes because hiking isn't popular. Yet in other places, where professional outdoor athletes are something to aspire to, clothing is so fine-tuned for performance, you can have a different outfit for every change of weather & activity. In other words, because a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, and there definitely are masters in every activity, our industry has evolved to produce thousands of options & features in technical clothing. Of course, for most people not performing at the top percentile, it can be overwhelming (which is why renting clothing for activities like skiing can be so helpful). Our goal in this guide is to help you understand exactly what the technologies are--what you can optimize for--so you can decide what's worth paying for.
Since special clothing (& gear) optimizes performance (including comfort), the biggest decision factor isn't any technology behind the item, it's what you want. For example, sometimes tourists to San Francisco need a down jacket for the cold summer fog, whereas locals will still be wearing T-shirts. So, read this guide, then carefully consider:
- Your itinerary (what's the forecasted weather? how is it forecasted to change?)
- Your experience (are you doing this for the first-time & therefore won't be exerting yourself too much? also, should you have back-up options?)
- Your skill level (will you hardly break a sweat or be pushing yourself to your limit?)
- Your preferred experience (would you rather be too warm or too cold?)
- Your budget (what technical traits should you spend money on?)
Here, our scope is limited to technical clothing that isn't yet 'gear'. If it's not too unthinkable to wear it around a city, we'll talk about it (rain jackets & ski jackets yes; but wetsuits, life jackets, or climbing shoes, no). Additionally, we do not yet carry footwear (except for climbing shoes, which are 'gear'), so it is also out of scope.
Athleisure or Outleisure
Before we jump into the very technical stuff, let's first talk about athleisure (or less commonly heard: outleisure), which is a bridge category that merges elements of regular casual clothing with more technical athletic or outdoor clothing. Some reasons why people want such a merger include:
- Convenience - people want the ease of being able to go from city to trail and vice versa without having to carry or get a bunch of specialized clothes to change
- Fashion - people want to look cute even outdoors, and don't want to trade-off functional features with style
- Features can be overkill - the majority of people are casual outdoorsfolks who venture out when the weather is nice on well-developed trails, and don't need so many features
It's important to keep in mind that anytime you mix two categories to try to get a happy middle, you gain flexibility but lose out on the best-in-class elements of each. For example, you might go from trail to city, but you'd probably never have clothes that you could wear from trail to corporate boardroom. And the best athleisure may not perform as well as specific technical clothing designed for whatever activity you're undertaking. Here are some examples of ways these clothes try to blend the best of both worlds:
|How it's technical||How it's casual|
It captures a little bit of each of the 3 key factors that drive technical clothing, which we'll discuss later in detail
With respect specifically to the outdoor activities, a large chunk of outleisure clothes are marketed as for hiking. In accordance with the outleisure category, these look very similar to daily-wear (and again, depending on your trip, you might wear casual clothes hiking, or wear these around the city!); the difference is that they may be water-repellant, include built-in UV or bug protection, or have other features (I love my zip-off hiking pants!).
|Hiking shirt||Hiking pants||Hiking skirt or kilt*|
*Some hikers, such as those who do distance hikes or thru-hikes, love these for greater ventilation & ease of changing or using the bathroom.
One more thing; if you ever hear people talk about "camp clothes", this isn't a technical term. There's nothing that's defining camp clothes other than... the clothes you want to change into at camp. Some people may not carry camp clothes (not worth the weight) and just wear their technical apparel (even to sleep, if it's cold!). Other people absolutely want something comfortable & clean after a long day, and will forego all the rules of outdoor clothing (e.g., wearing cotton). Our advice for camp clothes would be (don't worry, all the technical terms below will be discussed in the next section):
- As long as you're outdoors, we recommend trading off a little bit of comfort for more performant fabrics. For example, we'd avoid cotton for its weight & lack of wind or waterproofing, but may recommend a clean base layer
- Your feet will be most tired, so prioritize comfy camp shoes over clothes. A lot of folks like something open (e.g., sandals) which really let your feet breathe
- Once you stop moving so much at camp, it can get real cold real fast in the night; be sure to have warm layers (which can be easy to overlook if you're planning for weight!)
Technical clothing optimizes for 3 key factors
FYI, the Thermoregulation section is most technical and is very long, split into multiple sub-sections.
Clothes that complement your body's biological processes to regulate temperature
While the body does thermoregulate itself, complementary clothing is still very helpful when we...
- Sprint & stop: Biologically, when we exert ourselves, we sweat to cool down, and then as we gradually stop moving, we gradually stop sweating. But what about someone skiing up & down a mountain, or running sprints? There's a lot of stopping & slowing that our gradual thermoregulation can't keep up with. (This is why many runners wrap themselves up in an emergency blanket after a marathon: they abruptly stopped running but haven't stopped sweating yet, but they now must conserve body heat)
- In extreme environments: No matter how good of a thermoregulation system we have, we're just not built for places like Mt. Everest or the depths of the ocean. And even if not in such an extreme place, outdoor weather conditions can change rapidly, and you won't have a building to duck into, so you need to be prepared
In managing thermoregulation, technical clothing is designed with a lot of material science, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and physics; don't worry we've simplified everything!
There are 4 states of being...
By common sense, technical clothing is going to focus on keeping you warm & dry, the upper-right highlighted quadrant. And by the way, warm & dry generally go hand-in-hand. When you're wet, you lose heat through evaporation (which is why & how we sweat to cool off) or convection (think feeling cold in the pool).
If you just need to keep dry but not also warm, regular clothes with a loose fit/ weave fabrics to increase ventilation (you want the wind to hit you to evaporate sweat to help you cool off) will be fine (so will being nude but, well, that depends on where you are).
Keeping you warm & dry depends on 4 traits
|To keep you...||Clothing should have trait...|
|Warm||Insulation & windproofing|
|Dry||Breathability* & waterproofing|
This section is prepared to help you understand ratings that you may see. We emphasize that use of ratings is very non-standardized; and it's not hard to imagine why. For example, waterproof in a lab vs waterproof at high altitude with wind and snow pelting you may not be the same. And insulation doesn't account for individual people's body types, activity level, etc. For those reasons, not all brands choose to rate their items, or may choose to rate them differently, or, even if they do use the ratings, may use different testing methods. One thing you can count on, is that where things are rated, a higher rating correlates with higher pricing within a brand's product line!
As another example, beyond the 4 traits we've defined, less commonly you may also see brands talking about air permeability. And there's even more inconsistency into how the industry talks about breathability, air permeability, ventilation, and windproofing, and the inter-relationships between these.
Finally, while we have collected metrics for all 4 traits, only the waterproofing metric (MM) is generally used in marketing. The other 3 are hard to intuit, and almost never communicated to consumers.
|Keeps you warm||Keeps you dry|
Number of grams (G)
Higher = better
e.g., 80g, where 80 is the quantity of grams of insulating material per square meter
Cubic feet per minute (CBF)
Lower = better
Amount of cubic feet per minute of a 30 mile per hour (48 kilometers per hour) wind that can pass through one square foot of fabric
Higher = better
how many grams (G) of water can transfer through a square meter of fabric over 24 hours
Higher = better
how many millimeters (MM) of water can you put over a single square inch (6.5 square centimeters) of fabric before it starts to leak through
|A good range||>50g in general; >80g for cold-weather/ snow-based activities||20 CBF or below||Pegged to MM rating, see note below||5,000-15,000 MM Given lack of standardization, one brand's 5,000 MM may be another's 10,000! Generally stick to the lower end for light rain & snow, and higher end for seriously rainy days or wet snow|
Because it's so hard to say a specific rating or measurement of a trait is what you need, here we've compiled some general rules of thumb in a chart below, instructions to follow
|Your body runs*||Hot|
|Your activity level**||High|
*Generally, men run hotter than women
**Generally larger bodies sweat more
How to use the planning chart above
- Map the recommended 'direction' for the traits - For each of the 7 row header queries, figure out which of the two options (e.g., High or Low) applies, and then map it to whether you need Less or More of each relevant trait. For example, let's say you're going skiing:
- Say your body runs hot less insulation, less windproofing
- Say you're a beginner & won't be going very fast less breathability, more insulation, more windproofing
- Skiing is a cold! less breathability, more insulation
- Generally mountains are less humid less breathability
- Say forecast has high wind less breathability, more insulation, more windproofing
- Say forecast has blue skies less waterproofing, less breathability
- Mountains are land less waterproofing, less breathability
- Review the 'directions' across the traits for conflicts - Based on the above example of going skiing:
- Waterproof - less waterproofing (recall earlier note that snow is less penetrating than water) is fine
- Breathability - less breathability is fine
- Insulation - conflict!
- Windproofing - conflict!
- Resolve conflicts - You could look at this additively: there are so many more things telling you to have more insulation & windproofing than not, so more might be best. But on the other hand, only you know your body, if you know you're constantly hot even in a freezer, well, then maybe that takes priority
Now you see that this isn't a straightforward activity, and this was an easy example where only 2 traits conflicted! We're not trying to make this so hard, we're just trying to emphasize that there is no right answer for everyone, you have to do the legwork of figuring out what works for you. Most people start with a baseline and then figure it out via trial-and-error. Hiring snow clothes can be a great way to experiment! Layering, as we'll discuss next, is also a great way to build flexibility for yourself!
Another way to strategize is to consider your activity and what you might want to focus on. The below guidelines are just averages, of course (for example: hiking in Mt. Everest should be very insulation focused).
|Hiking & backpacking||Biking||Watersports (e.g., sailing)||Snowsports||Climbing|
|A little bit of each trait!||High exertion activity; so less insulation, more breathability (therefore may not be fully wind & waterproof)||Focus on waterproof||Focus on waterproof & insulation||Focus on windproof & breathability|
If you think about this from an activity-based lens, you'll notice that clothes marketed for certain activities emphasize the average traits we've called out above. For example, a snowsports-specific base layer is likely to have more insulation (be heavyweight) compared to other types of base layers. In fact, in the other major factors: Durability and Features & Style, things are marketed predominantly by activity, rather than any specific metric of durability or specific feature. For that reason, we've carried this comparison chart for these 5 common activities to the sections that discuss those other two factors.
Yet, it's not the best ideal to simplify completely and just rely on activity-based product marketing, because without a deeper understanding, you may get redundant pieces of clothing. For example, a rash guard used in watersports is basically just a lightweight base layer; it's just called a rash guard to emphasize its purpose to protect against chafe.
Layer is a great way to manage trade-offs in the traits you might want to have while also being flexible. We'll go through & discuss each of these more in detail, but here's a high level summary.
|Base (innermost) layer||Middle or mid layer(s)||Outer layer|
|Primary purpose||Moisture-wicking*||Insulation||Wind & waterproofing|
|Optional purpose**||Insulation||Wind & waterproofing||Insulation|
*Keen eyes may notice that breathability isn't mentioned, and that "moisture-wicking" isn't a previously-discussed trait. The thing is, all layers have to breathable as a baseline. Otherwise, if a base layer is breathable but a mid-layer is not, sweat will just stop and condense between the mid-layer and base layer, and you will feel wet again (this is why sometimes when wearing waterproof clothing, you can still get 'wet', it's really from your sweat! Read more here). Given that everything needs to be breathable, the base layer, since it's the first layer next to skin and right next to where we sweat, must be... super-breathable, and be extra conducive to wicking sweat away from the body, since sweat keeps you wet rather than dry--that's called moistured-wicking, we'll discuss that more in the Base Layer specific section below
**Depends on additional components that clothing may have, we'll cover this in more detail below
In the following sections, we'll do an in-depth review of each layer. Keep in mind, when we compare materials, comparisons are meant to be general guidelines at a high level. There are various sub-types of materials (e.g., wool can be standard sheep's wool, cashmere, merino, etc.; for outdoor use, merino wool is favored because it's a good balance between softness & price). Additionally, ratings may be affected by fabric weave or construction (e.g., breathability is affected by how open a weave is), and any special treatments that may be applied.
Recall that in an outdoor context, breathability means allowing sweat to pass through, despite any waterproofing layers that may be present. Therefore, as we mentioned in the introduction to layering, all layers must be breathable. However, the base layer, closest to the skin, has a special purpose, it must help facilitate the transformation of sweat from liquid water to water vapor. Think of the base layer as a breathability booster!
Moisture-wicking is the name for this technology (given the abilities below, you may also hear moisture-wicking clothes referred to as quick-dry clothes), where the fabric is woven & treated such that it:
- Quickly pulls sweat from your body via capillary action
- Distributes that sweat over a larger surface area for faster evaporation
- Has hydrophobic properties such that sweat pulled into the fabric or rain absorbed into it is not then transferred to skin
Since sweat ultimately evaporates from the base layer fabric itself rather than your skin, it counters body heat loss through evaporation. That's why the base layer is called the 'second skin' or 'proxy skin' since it takes on the evaporative cooling effect, and why for it to work, it's important that a base layer be well form-fit to your body.
|Synthetics (nylon or polyester)||Wool||Silk||Cotton|
Cotton absorbs rather than wicks moisture*
|Ability to compact small & be lightweight|
|Other considerations: odor resistance|
*The moisture absorbing ability is why cotton is a good undershirt. One purpose of an undershirt is to absorb sweat before it can get to the outer shirt & stain it. A wicking undershirt would facilitate more sweat getting on your outer shirt, leaving more stains!
While fabric type affects insulation, so does the weight class of a base layer
|Less insulation & expensive||More insulation & expensive|
Gym, sport, general fitness (e.g., yoga pants)
High exertion outdoor activities (cross country skiing, running, etc.)
|Most versatile, good for general fitness to snowsports||Very cold weather (e.g., expeditions)|
Go for synthetic or wool fabrics, depending on whether you're prioritizing moisture-wicking (e.g., for a very high activity level in relatively warm or humid climates) or insulation (e.g., for moderate activity or in colder climates). We like a good mid-weight that's pretty well rounded
Before we jump right in, since this is the most appropriate section it's worth noting that a poncho can be an outer layer, but it generally leaves a lot to be desired, particularly on a durability front, and is not something we'd really recommend. Read more.
Windproofing is achieved by closely weaving together fabric to prevent wind from passing through. You can think of an extreme example of a mesh fabric, which is a super open weave that's not windproof at all, versus a plastic bag, that's completely solid (not woven) and windproof.
For many outer layers though, people rarely shop just for windproof; they also want waterproofing. Luckily, anything waterproof that relies on a solid waterproof-breathable membrane will be, by definition, windproof. However, the reverse isn't true, since a weave alone can't keep out water fully. That said a tightly woven windproof pattern may be more water-resistant.
If you find yourself just looking for windproofing standalone, try this trick: Blow as hard as you can into a piece of fabric to approximate a 20mph wind, put your hand on the other side, do you feel it? This can be a great way to compare middle layers (e.g., fleece) that aren't designed to be very windproof, but it's nice to see which product may be more wind resistant.
In our waterproofing guide, we talk about how the waterproofing technology used in most outer layers is a waterproof-breathable membrane. Since this membrane needs protection, the fabric in which it's embedded is actually multiple layers. The nuance is that the inner layer, thats protects the membrane pores from being clogged by bodily oils, sweat, etc., can take on different forms, that affect overall functionality and price.
Click image to view larger size
|Unbonded liner, usually a visually obvious 'flap' on the inside of the clothing, may be mesh||Spray-on coating, from interior, usually looks shiny & may have spot patterns||Bonded liner, clothing feels more stiff & robust|
|How well it protects the waterproof-breathable membrane|
|Ability to compact small & be lightweight|
|Other considerations||May feel softer to some skin types||May be less moisture-wicking than base layer||May be slightly 'crinkly' (likely will improve with wear)|
Usually, consumers aren't comparing such details. Instead, they may be more familiar with a singular product marketed by a brand that encapsulates the whole of an outer layer. For example, Gore-Tex Pro-Shell is a Gore-Tex membrane with a 3-ply construction while Gore-Tex PacLite is a Gore-Tex membrane with a 2.5-ply construction. Despite other major brands' efforts to name & market their own proprietary technologies (e.g., HyVent from The North Face), consumers are still generally only familiar with Gore-Tex. If you're curious, this comparison chart may be helpful.
Insulated or not
Non-insulated outer layers are often referred to as 'shells'. Insulated outer layers come in two styles:
- Built-in - the insulation is sewn in to the inside of the jacket. These jackets are referred to as 'insulated jackets' or 'insulated shells'
- Zip-off - the insulation is a separate jacket (basically mid-layer) that can be zipped into the interior of the shell. These jackets are sometimes referred to as 'system jackets' (outer + mid-layer together in one system) or '3-in-1 jackets' (because you can wear it as outer + mid-layer, just outer layer, or just mid-layer)
Across these 2 styles, you can find every combination: less insulation, more insulation, different insulation materials, etc. (We do rent jackets and pants with varying combos as well.) For more information on insulation materials, check the next section on "Middle or mid layer(s)". Obviously, the more insulation, the more expensive you can expect the outer layer to be.
Isn't a zip-off style or 3-in-1 jacket the best of everything? For some people yes, but if you're trying to optimize at the highest levels of performance, you may want to fine tune amount of insulation, materials, etc. based on minor changes in circumstance. A 3-in-1 would force you to go with what's built-in, without this degree of control. Also a 3-in-1 jacket tends to be much more expensive.
Another option for many folks is a soft shell, which blends elements of outer layer with middle layer. In a nutshell, soft shells are insulated but tend to be a little less wind & waterproof than hard shells because they nay not have the full-on waterproof-breathable membrane. Check our detailed comparison.
Few people compare the material technological differences that affect wind & waterproofing or breathability; i.e., the traits that relate to thermoregulation as a broad factor for technical clothing. It may be best to look at the other 2 broad factor categories: durability & activity performance, or general factors such as price and style, or whether or not the outer layer is insulated.
Do you need any middle layer(s)?
We discuss the middle layer last, because its primary purpose, insulation, may have already been achieved by heavyweight base layers or an insulated outer layer. In other words, depending on your needs, more insulation via middle layers may not be necessary. Again this is something you'll need to figure out for your body, we rent some basic mid-layers that you can experiment with (you can also try renting jackets or pants with varying levels of built-in insulation).
If you're proceeding with a middle layer, then the main comparison point is what type of material you'll use. Broadly there are 2 classes of insulating materials:
|Lofting fillers||Standalone material|
|Filler material is stuffed into a face fabric, the filler material then expands to fill up space to trap dead air||Material fibers themselves trap dead air|
As a class, lofting fillers have a better warmth-to-weight ratio because their puffiness traps more dead air, thus these jackets may be called puffer or puffy jackets. However, sometimes clothing needs to fit tightly & not loft, that's why there are standalone materials that are also insulating (standalone materials may also be more breathable), such as a wool jacket. Below we'll compare performance across the materials commonly used in each class. Also note that for comparisons with lofting fillers, many factors also depend on face fabric, for example, if it's part of an outer layer or not.
|Lofting fillers||Standalone material|
|Natural down||Synthetic fibers||Wool||Fleece||Cotton|
|Naturally-derived from duck or geese feathers||Man-made, various technologies exist||Naturally-derived from sheep||Man-made, from polyester||Naturally-derived from cotton|
Break down quicker & less effective than down, but likely better than wool
Wet feathers don't loft well. Face fabrics or feathers may be treated to be water-repellant, still take care!
Synthetic fibers are designed to loft even when wet
Holds air pockets even when wet
Absorbs water quickly, but also dries quickly (so sligtly better than cotton)
Absorbs water quickly
|Wind & waterproofing
|Depends on the face fabric. High if designed to be an outer layer; less so otherwise||
Fibers can absorb a good amount of water before it feels wet
|Durability||Depends on the face fabric. High if designed to be an outer layer; less so otherwise|
|Ability to compact small & be lightweight|
|Other considerations||Ideally is cleaned with special detergent||N/A||Bad at moisture-wicking|
Wind & waterproofing
Middle layers may also be varying degrees of wind & waterproof. These days, most non-base layers that may be worn outdoors have some level of water-repellant treatment applied. Recall that the big workhorse in proofing is the waterproof-breathable membrane that was discussed in detail in the Outer layer sub-section above. Some soft shells may have this membrane.
- Lofting fillers: preferred insulator; the choice of down vs synthetic comes down to budget & activity type (e.g., wet conditions or backpacking where small/lightweight is more important)
- Wool: more ideal as a base layer given that it's heavier/bulkier & less durable
- Fleece: an affordable, versatile option you should just have on hand (see our 'Example layering strategy' below)
- Cotton: avoid!
We know there are tons of recommendations out there for what layers to wear for different climates, activities, etc. But these recommendations tend to assume that you will go out and buy dozens of different types of layers, which most people don't do! What we've tried to do up to now is to really help you understand the purpose of each type of layer, material, etc. so you can decide what's more worth it. Of course, you can also rent snow clothes, and even rent some mid-layers from us!
Here, we'll give you our recommendations for the most versatile pieces (as well as talk about which pieces, grayed out, are less recommended or generally used), with the estimated price range for a nice article of clothing that should last with proper care. If you had to cut due to budget, then de-prioritize the last 3 rows of clothing (always have activity-appropriate helmets & shoes).
|Base layer||Mid layer||Outer layer|
Midweight synthetic base layer (versatile for general fitness + outdoor activities), long or short sleeved
|2 pieces that you can wear individually or layer together to cover most activities||
Hard shell, 3-ply construction
Fleece (versatile for city or outdoors)
Insulating jacket (e.g., puffy; ~50g insulation, middle of the road for outdoor activities)
Midweight synthetic base layer (versatile for general fitness + outdoor activities), pants- or shorts-length
|While fleece pants (and more rarely, insulating puffy pants) do exist, these are more rarely used, since the lower body is typically more in motion & gets hotter. If you need more insulation, you can also think about getting a heavier weight base layer or more insulation in the outer layer||
Hard or soft shell depending on the more frequent activity (hard shell for water/snow-based or very rainy conditions)
|Head, neck, face||
A versatile buff aka neck gaiter, or a facemasks (aka balaclava)
|A scarf & beanie both would count as mid-layers, but given how heavy/ bulky they can be, as well as the fact that many outdoor jackets have high collars & hoods to insulate, these are less recommended||
Where approriate, an activity-appropriate helmet for safety or hat* for sun protection. Both layers also insulate
$20-50 for outdoor-specific hat*
|Hands||There are glove or mitten liners, but these, worn with gloves or mittens, further compromise dexterity. Generally people just wear one set||Extremities are hard to keep warm, the nicest gloves or mittens seem to still leave you cold. Yet layering isn't ideal, so remember to always bring some hand-warmers**!||
Insulated mittens or gloves (for cold-weather sports); gloves may be more dextrous but mittens are definitely more warm! Read more
|Feet||There are sock liners, but since feet can get so sweaty & smelly, many people are less inclined to add more layers here||
Ankle-length (to prevent twisted ankles) wool (for better odor control) socks. If you're worried about warmth (especially for snowsports), get toe-warmers**!
|We always recommend activity-appropriate shoes, which also provide some insulation|
|N/A, out of scope, depends on your activity|
*Outdoor specific hats can also be waterproof, which drives up the pricing relative to a baseball cap. Most people will just use a hat they already have. We just recommend it have a brim, preferably all the way around, and chinstrap to prevent it from being blown away
**A small packet of chemical powder or gel that generates heat once you expose it to air & shake it little. Warmers generally top out at 2-3 hours of heat, then feel a little warm for another half day or so. Commonly used in snowsports, where gloves may even have pockets just to contain them!
Durability (outer layer)
Clothes that maintain efficacy given abrasive outdoor activities while protecting your body (e.g., from branches, rock, ice, etc.)
In this section, we're primarily concerned with durability for outer layers' face fabrics. This is what's directly exposed to the outdoors. For a brief discussion on durability differences for various materials for base layers or mid-layers, check that sub-section in the Thermoregulation section above.
Denier measures thickness
If you've heard the term 'denier', this refers to fiber thickness, in short the higher this D number, the more thick the overall fabric is. A thicker fabric is important for activities with a greater risk of abrasion. However, as you can imagine, thicker fabric also increases weight & bulk (and price). This is why people may have multiple shells: thicker (or heavy duty) for climbing or snowsports (where you can fall on snow, ice, or rock with a higher risk of abrasion); thinner (or standard & ultralight) for backpacking, where weight & compressibility can be important, especially on long trips. In fact, denier doesn't even have to be consistent throughout an item of clothing! Some pants have extra thick fabric around high impact areas.
Synthetic fabrics dominate outdoor face fabrics given their durability, so typically denier is only measured for these fabric types. Nylon is stronger than polyester, so for the same risk of abrasion, you can have thinner nylon fabric, this is reflected below. Nylon also tends to be more expensive. As a result:
- Higher end gear & clothing is made with more nylon; lower end gear & clothing is made with more polyester
- Ultralight gear (high end) tends to be made with nylon
Thinner, less durable
Lower weight/ more compactible
Thicker, more durable
Higher weight/ less compactible
|Nylon||Clothing examples||Ultralight hard shells||Standard hard shells||Heavier duty hard shells|
|Gear examples||Ultralight tents||Standard tents||Bags or backpacks||Polyester||Clothing examples||Standard hard shells||Heavier duty hard shells|
Dyneema is a relatively new synthetic material with one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios, important because one of the core areas of innovation in outdoor manufacturing is ultralight. The reason we don't include Dyneema more formally in the table above, is because there are currently 2 major barriers to widespread adoption:
- Purely woven Dyneema is rare, it's often used in a composite form, called Dyneema Composite Fiber (DCF) or Cuben fiber. In this form, it's sandwiched between 2 layers of mylar which, alas, is not very strong (early reviews of tents with DCF warn about filing your nails before using to avoid tearing the fabric... just a joke or a dire warning?)
- It's extremely expensive. A 2-person ultralight tents made from DCF pushes to $1000 (which is why a pure Dyneema tent is even more unrealistic). In every item where DCF or Dyneema is used as a major component (tents, backpacks, clothing, etc.), prices push to the very top of any estimated ranges we provide, sometimes it's out-of-range entirely (i.e., it's too expensive for us to reasonably include as representative of the market)
Other factors of durability
Even more technical, so we won't go into all the details, but some other things that affect durability:
- Weave: very commonly, synthetic fabrics are woven with a technique called ripstop that makes them resistant to tearing or ripping; this is often visually obvious with a square pattern in the fabric
- Seams: where are they placed & how are they sealed? (e.g., a welded seam is more durable than a taped seam)
- Fit & stretch: does it allow for good range of motion? (e.g., a soft shell can be more durable than a hard shell in the sense that its stretchiness means you're less likely to bust through any seams!)
All that being said, the information so far has largely been more theoretically useful than practically applicable for most consumers. Few clothes are marketed with denier information, for example. Instead, clothes marketed for specific activities are designed to be "tough" enough for that activity, here's a quick overview of how durability may compare. If you rent a ski jacket or snow pants from us, you can take it home to compare with existing outer wear you may have to get a sense for the difference based on how it feels!
|Hiking & backpacking||Biking||Watersports (e.g., sailing)||Snowsports||Climbing|
Tough enough for off-trail conditions
Road biking may optimize for thin & light materials while mountain biking may be similar to backpacking-weight
No major abrasion risk
Resists falls on hard snow
Resists crashes against rock
Features & Style (outer layer)
Clothes that are featured or styled (e.g., the way it fits or is cut) to help you perform better
In this section, we're primarily concerned with features & style for outer layers, since that's on the outside, it's where built-in features are going to be!
At a high level, since technical clothing is generally designed to keep you warm & dry in a changing outdoor environment where you may be alternating between periods of high activity & rest, it has features that city clothes won't. That said, are these features worth, sometimes an extra few hundred dollars? Only you can decide, and at least for snowsports, we offer rental ski jackets or snow pants, etc., to help you experiment.
|Features you will generally see on all technical outdoor clothing||Features you may see on some technical outdoor clothing(may add to price)|
*Ok it's not fully waterproof, just a lot better than standard zippers that can often have sizable gaps between the teeth of the zipper track!
Beyond general features, there may be activity-specific features. Here, we'll list out what's common features
|Hiking & backpacking||Biking||Watersports (e.g., sailing)||Snowsports||Climbing*|
|Jacket & pants||
|Helmets||Out of scope since this is more gear than clothing. For more info, check our helmet gear guide|
*Generally cold/ alpine conditions, getting into mountaineering & ice climbing. Not for the gym or sunny days at the beach!
**There may be loops or zippers on jacket/pants that allow them to be integrated togethr in a way that minimizes seams or openings. This may require both jacket & pants to be the same model or product line
***2 zipper pulls that go in both directions, so you can unzip just the bottom part. If you're wearing the jacket over your harness, unzipping from just the bottom means you can access your harness without taking it all off.
Beyond just a fashion statement, style can be important to safety in the outdoors. Generally, you may notice that technical clothing:
- Sizes larger: so you can implement a layering system (important difference for bicycling, below)
- Is brightly colored: for better visibility (I was lost for 2 hours on trail until I saw a neon blue jacket in the distance!). Reflective elements may also be present
Here are some other activity-specific style differences you may see:
|Hiking & backpacking||Biking||Watersports (e.g., sailing)||Snowsports||Climbing|
For snowsports particularly, there are also onesies & bibs (overall-type pants). Both of these serve the benefit of reducing snow getting under the clothes (it's an Integration feature), but are also very much a fashion statement. For example, onesies were much more popular in the late 1980s (I had a onesie as my first ski outfit!). We unfortunately do not have onesies (these are largely out of style & not manufactured). For bibs, we have limited options and only to rent: when renting snow pants online, please write-in on the last page that you'd prefer a bib and we'll check availability.
There aren't that many differences here, and personal preference probably vastly trumps any differences that do exist. We've definitely heard that a sailing jacket on a snow mountain would make you look like a big traffic cone! But then again, think about the naked person skiing picture that opened this guide, and decide what's best for you!