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The Best Clothing for Outdoor Adventure

As I often remind folks, the #1 killer in the great outdoors is not grizzly bear attacks, falling off cliffs, and all the dramatic scenarios that end up in movies and magazines. Rather, hypothermia is the elusive, silent predator that claims the lives of so many. It’s estimated that in the United States alone, an average of 1,300 people die each year from this condition. And, very importantly, it’s not strictly a cold weather danger. Hypothermia can set in and ultimately kill even when it’s as warm as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Choosing and wearing the proper clothing is a very serious issue, and can truly be a matter of life and death.

A common saying in Alaska is, “Cotton kills!” While comfortable, cotton clothing is fine for traveling, doing light work, lounging around camp on a nice day, or wearing during the dog days of summer in hot locations, 100% cotton is not suitable for serious use while in the wilderness, or working outside for long periods of time in damp, cool/cold climates. 100% cotton clothing is very absorbent, and when one works up a sweat or gets wet from rain, cotton clothing holds the moisture in, close to the body, which combined with a drop in temperature or high winds, greatly accelerates a major drop in one’s core body temperature, resulting in hypothermia and possibly death. As an example, I know of a woman in southeast Alaska who went out for a jog on a warm, sunny day, and just hours after she began her run, she was found dead. Shortly after heading down the trail on her jog, a brief, though substantial rain shower blew through the area…accompanied by strong wind gusts. She got soaking wet, blasted by cool (not cold) winds, and lost body heat so fast that her hands numbed up to the point that she couldn’t get the keys out of her pocket to unlock her vehicle. Unable to get in and warm up, she died right there outside her car. A sad, tragic story, but also a graphic reminder of how fast hypothermia can kill!

Of course, along with providing proper thermoregulation and keeping your body warm and dry, clothing is also your essential barrier from the damaging effects of the sun, from rash inducing-plants, insect bites, abrasions from thick, thorny brush, and everything else you come into contact with that could potentially harm you.

Kashevaroff Mountian, Kodiak Island, Alaska
Proper clothing is your first line of defense from the elements while in the great outdoors.

 Dress for Success – Use the Layer System

When it comes to outdoor gear, your clothing is the most important equipment of all! And, when planning what to purchase or pack, in regard to clothing for serious use in the outdoors, I highly recommend using the layering system as a guiding reference. Dressing in layers allows you to properly regulate your body’s temperature (thermoregulation) by putting on extra clothes when you get too cold, in order to stay warm (but not too warm) and shed layers when you get too hot. The goal is to keep both you and your clothing comfortable and free from excessive moisture/perspiration. 

The Base Layer

The base layer of clothing is essentially your socks and underwear. This foundational layer should be exceptionally comfortable, as it will be directly on top of your skin. The primary purpose of these critical garments is to regulate body temperature by dispersing sweat and moisture away from your skin. So, naturally, a good base layer should be made from non-absorbent, moisture-wicking fabrics. It’s also important to wear the right weight base layer for the right activity and weather condition. Too light of a base layer in too cold of an environment and it might not help insulate all that much, and too heavy of a layer may result in getting sweaty and overheated. I almost always wear and recommend a light to mid-weight base layer, but will go heavier in subzero climates. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference based on the experience one gains while regularly spending time in the great outdoors.

My most highly recommend base layers are those made by Smartwool, Grundéns/Gage, Helly Hansen, Meriwool, and Under Armour. These trustworthy brands have been making high-performance clothing for the likes of commercial fishermen and hardcore adventurers for many generations. And, for socks, it’s darn tough to beat Darn Tough Socks. They are made in America and are simply the best around, in my opinion.

The Midlayer

The middle layer of clothing goes on top of your base layer and generally acts as insulation for your upper body’s core area: heart and lungs, which in turn pump warm blood throughout the rest of the body…thus sustaining 98.6 degrees. The midlayer consists primarily of a jacket, although many folks wear midlayer pants as well. In most circumstances, base layer bottoms, covered by shell layer pants, is usually plenty to keep the bottom half of one’s body warm. However, if you’re going to be in very cold climates and moving slow, you may want to wear midlayer fleece pants for added warmth. Wool is a good choice for midlayer clothing material, as it insulates in both wet and dry conditions, but, heavy-duty polar fleece, down, and various synthetic materials are popular today too. It’s important to choose a midlayer that is not too bulky, as your shell layer may need to go over top of it during bad weather, and you don’t want to end up like the kid from the Christmas Story movie who had so many layers on that he couldn’t even put his arms down or move comfortably. Your layers of clothing should complement each other and work in unison. When it comes to midlayers, it’s hard to beat products from North Face, Columbia, Helly Hansen, Grundéns/Gage, Filson, and 5.11 Tactical. They are proven brands and have consistently made dependable, world-class, high-performance clothing. 

The Shell Layer

The shell layer of clothing tops off the midlayer and essentially protects one from the elements: abrasions, damaging UV rays, insects, wind, precipitation, etc. In warmer climates, a shell layer may simply be one’s pants, shirt, and/or a lightweight jacket, but in colder, more harsh conditions, the shell layer will be clothing that is made from strong, protective fabrics. In extreme weather conditions, such as brutal high winds and non-stop downpours of rain, heavy-duty rain and wind gear may be required as an additional layer, even on top of one’s shell layer.

As I often tell folks, do not skimp on a shell layer! I’ve seen low and even respectable quality shell layers of clothing literally rip right off of people in severe weather or while walking through heavy brush. Keep in mind…you get what you pay for when it comes to quality outdoor clothing and gear, so get the best you can afford, as your life may literally depend on it! My top picks for shell layer clothing include those from 5.11, Simms, Sitka Gear, Helly Hansen, and Grundéns/Gage.

Click on the photos below to shop our Amazon affiliate service for a wide variety of men’s and women’s outdoor clothing from the best brands on the market.

5.11 Tactical
Sitka Gear
Helly Hansen
North Face
Under Armour
Darn Tough