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My Dad's First Outdoor Gear

My Dad's First Outdoor Gear

While growing up in central Maryland, my father was the one to introduce me to camping, hiking, and canoeing, which he had been doing for decades. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, during WWII, where he lived until he went to college at Sewanee in 1959. In the late 40s and 50s he was a Boy Scout and then a Senior Scout (Explorer) and that's how he got introduced to outdoor activities.

two books: The Camper's Bible and The Sierra Club Wilderness Handbook

Two books I found on Dad's bookshelf: The Camper's Bible (1970) and  The Sierra Club Wilderness Handbook (3rd printing: 1968) 

Most of their Boy Scout gear came from army surplus, including daypacks and boots, and were purchased and owned by the individual scouts. They wore denim, which appalls us now. A typical camping set up was a pup tent shelter-half. Two could be buttoned together to make a full shelter. It had no floor and was not waterproof. When it rained, the scouts used polyethylene as a groundsheet. The Boy Scouts slept on the ground, with no sleeping pads, until cots because available. Rain ran underneath the edges of the tent but it was considered "roughing it." They had sleeping bags that were either army surplus or bought from Sears that were made specifically for the Boy Scouts. The better sleeping bags were warm comfortable cocoons stuffed with down. The more basic sleeping bags were filled with kapok, a fiber from a tropical tree. These sleeping bags had a wrap-around that protected the sleeping bag during travel. It was also supposed to shield the user's face from rain. Dad says it didn't work.

My father much preferred the jungle hammock. It was like a waterproof room, developed for tropical Pacific deployments in WWII to prevent malaria, and it included mosquito netting. It was comfortable, but at over seven pounds, it wasn't something you'd want to backpack with unless you had to. Still, it's the prototype for the hammocks campers use today.

"If you let your arm touch the edge of the jungle hammock and then used a flashlight, you could see the mosquitoes lined up against the netting and you knew it was protecting you, but you had to be careful to not touch the edge," my dad tells me.

bw photo hammock with rifle hanging below

Since most of the expeditions were at Boy Scout camps, water came from a pump and was stored in 2-quart aluminum canteens with heavy rigid plastic lids. No need for a Vecto, there. Each camper had a mess kit, which included a cooking pot, frying pan, eating plate, fork, spoon, and knife.

My father's favorite experience was a month-long trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in the summer when he was 14.

"It was a major expedition to get the whole troop organized," he says.

They traveled by bus from Memphis. My father remembers they drove through the first night, stopped briefly in Dallas and left via Fort Worth. He was amazed by the contrast of greenery and desert in such a short span.

Memphis, Tennessee, was surrounded by flat cotton lands and deciduous wooded areas. In New Mexico, there were no trees and steep dry valleys that got higher and higher, up to forests of Douglas fir trees that he had only seen in identification books.

"I'm wasn't used to seeing hemlocks or granite peaks carved by glaciers. It was such a contrast from Memphis. Later on, I read an exposé that the camp was just a boondoggle for the upper ranks of the Boy Scouts but to me it was magic," he tells me.

Tooth of time at Philmont

There he went on a two-week backpacking trip with upgraded gear. Dad made the frame of his own backpack out of pine lathes, heated in boiling water and made to conform to his back. His mother sewed the pack and compartments out of canvas. The straps were also canvas but wrapped in something soft for comfort.

He had a "mountain tent" with walls on all sides, a warm sleeping bag, real hiking boots (not waterproof), a large carving knife, a heavy cast-iron kettle, and dehydrated food. The food was purchased from the Philmont camp commissary and his favorite was pancakes. He hated the bitter foraged dandelion greens they ate along the way. Before he left, his father had given him a fishing line and hook, saying it might save his life one day. My dad used it to supplement the dehydrated food and bitter greens with fresh trout that he caught with worms. The scouts purified their drinking water by boiling it.

After high school, he took what gear he had with him to work at national parks and camp around the Western US, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

While in college, he upgraded his gear again. He had an acetylene headlamp that he used for spelunking and a better down sleeping bag suitable for colder temperatures. He loved that reliable lamp because as long as he had carbide and water, he had a light source. He still wore Levis in the rain. An overnight trip was about 40 lbs of gear. His camping stove used gasoline and had a couple of burners.

mildewed backpack and equipment described below

At age 20, he got his first store-bought backpack. It's this stinking thing that has been mildewing in our shed for decades. To get it out, I had to survive a downpour of alien-looking camel crickets bouncing everywhere. With an aluminum frame, the pack was once considered lightweight and had fancy padded straps. The compartments were still packed from his last trip with the pack. I found an old disposable razor, stuff sacks that had been chewed on by mice, an intact North Face dry bag, a set of stainless steel utensils (made in Japan), and fishing sinkers.

"I wonder if these sinkers contain lead," I said.

"Yes," he responded, simply.

The tag on his pack says he was traveling from Denver to Regan National Airport in Washington, DC. He doesn't remember which trip that was. Maybe geology related.

While he later added a four-person tent and an aluminum canoe to the mix, my family used the same midcentury camping equipment until my sister and I left home. While my father's outdoor days are over (due to injury and illness) my sister and I ramble around the world for beautiful stones, stories, and pictures to bring back to him.

How to Upgrade 3 Season Gear to 4 Seasons for Winter Camping on a Budget

snowy field with snow covered evergreen trees

Getting into four season gear can be pricey: warmer sleeping system, more complicated layering, new footwear solutions, etc. In reality, if you have a solid three season system, getting to four seasons (for snow camping) doesn't have to cost a fortune or be very complicated.

First, let's break down the main changes that need to be made:

  1. Increasing the warmth of your sleeping system: sleeping pad and insulation
  2. Estimating the need for a 4 season shelter
  3. Updating to a 4 season cooking system
  4. Adjusting to the appropriate layering system
  5. Choosing and getting the right footwear
  6. Finding the right balance at camp

With that outlined, let's address each of those issues so your gear can handle all 4 seasons.

Increasing the warmth of your sleeping system

This sounds daunting, but is probably one of the simplest adjustments to make as there are only 2 parts:

  1. Increasing your sleeping pad's R-value, and
  2. Increasing your sleeping bag/quilt insulation

For the mat, the solution is easy: your 3 season sleeping pad is probably around 3-4 R-values, so you just need to bring it up to around 6+ R-values. Luckily, you can increase R-value for winter camping just by stacking more insulation, so get a good closed-cell foam mat to fit under your 3 season mat (a short Thermarest Z-Lit Sol is a great option) and you are done. For more on R-Value, check our in-depth post about it.

The insulation on your body (togs, or the like) is a bit more challenging. There are several "hacks" that try and solve that issue, like adding a reflective liner in or out of the sleeping bag, adding a bag liner etc. As nice as the idea of having a shortcut to warmth is, this is not how life works - for more warmth, you need thicker insulation. To get more out of your 3 season sleeping bag (20 Fahrenheit/-6 Celsius) you need to add more insulation, preferably on the outside to avoid pressing the insulation you are adding inside your bag/quilt. Though not quite the same as direct as R-values, insulation can also be stacked, so get creative. In the US, Costco down throws are a cheap and effective way to add warmth to your sleep system, or you can look into making your own synthetic quilt (what I chose to do).

With this, at about $100 you have upgraded your sleeping system to winter. Done.

Shelter - Yes? No? Which?

Shelter is directly connected to your camping spot and location. Personally, I prefer finding a sheltered (from wind) place somewhere on a slope and "cowboy sleep" in the winter, if snow is not predicted to fall. If snowfall is predicted, I prefer using a simple tarp in the same setting. As much as we all like minimalism in camping, that is not always possible and wind chill, snow fall (potentially heavy) and condensation are all a risk. In those situations, it is vital to use the right shelter for snow camping.

Tent

When it comes to tents for 4 seasons, there is not much to do besides buying a heavy, strong, 4 season geodesic tent. If you choose that, expect a high price point and don't pick one of the "single" or even "double" pole ones, you need 3+ poles for a strong winter camping geodesic tent.

Winter Tarp

Luckily, we have hundreds of years of experience from nomadic tribes to learn from about the pyramid style tent in winter. The modern iteration of that is the "mid" style tarps that use a single pole and have very steep slopes for good snow-shedding ability. If you like having some bug protection or just the sense of privacy, bug tents can usually be added inside.

Mid tent in winter

A last thing to remember about winter shelters is that they need to have lots of room as there is a good chance you will end up spending most of your time outdoors in them. With long nights and harsh conditions, when winter backpacking you tend to do most of everything (besides walking) in your shelter.

Cooking Outdoors In Winter

Even if you are a UL fanatic and choose to live on cold soaks all summer, when winter hits we all crave some hot food at the end of the day. This is also a big part of heating your sleeping system at night with the heat your body produces when digesting. Our Buc bags are great for cooking your dehydrated meals. For some bonus warmth to you and your food, stash the warm bag in your jacket while it is rehydrating. 

woman solo winter camping with cnoc outdoors gear

 

The big problem with cooking while winter camping is that alcohol stoves and the ultralight upright stoves just won't work (most of them, at least). For cooking in winter, you have 3 main options:

  • White gas stoves - amazingly reliable in most conditions, they tend to be a bit hard to handle, heavy and pricey. But if you want something that will work come frozen hell, this is the best choice and they will be good for all year round
  • Integrated gas stove system - think about the Jetboil family, MSR Reactor and the like - these are meant to increase the life and efficiency of an inverted gas stove in extreme conditions. The big issue with these stoves is that they are really only good for boiling water, they also tend to be heavy and cumbersome to carry
  • Remote canister gas stove - the idea is to use gravity by inverting a gas canister to get the most out of a lightweight gas stove. To read more about how to do this, head over to this post.

Reactor melting snow

With regards to pricing, things get pretty expensive when it comes to cooking, but a UL remote canister stove is a really good all around solution for cooking. If you go for any gas option, choosing the right gas mix is important, with isobutane (no n-butane) and some propane, but if you really want to learn a lot about this topic, check out this Adventure in Stoving post about it. A few more how to points for more efficient cooking while winter camping:

  • Sleep with your fuel to keep it warm for cooking (free!)
  • Have a heat reflector around and under your stove, you can use a disposable tin pan (very cheap)
  • Regulate the temperature of your fuel from cold ground/snow with some insulation like something reflective, a small closed cell foam or a piece of ply-wood

No matter what, don't cook in your tent: it can kill you. Make sure you have enough ventilation and keep your stove outside of your shelter.

Cooking out of the tent

Adjusting Your Layering System

There is no need to rewrite all there is to know about layering, just read the post I wrote recently. I just want to make sure you are set for cold temps when active and mainly, when camping, in winter:

  • When you stop moving, you will get cold fast so a warm, thick, insulation layer for camp is recommended: jacket, pants, gloves, hat, maybe even booties. Thick is the key here, and to make it light you can pick down, but synthetic insulation will work too. For a cheap UL solution: your sleeping system is insulation; wear it around camp while cooking/setting camp etc
  • The key for cold weather is avoiding sweat buildup that might freeze, which is why synthetic, fast drying layers are better: a synthetic base layer (running shirt), fleece mid layer and a shell is the best combo for moving in winter. Softshells are a great shell in dry and snowy conditions for your torso and legs
  • Protect your feet with a Vapor Barrier Liner. Place a sealed layer between two layers of socks to prevent the thick, external socks and footwear from freezing. An easy and cheap solution is using an oven bag
  • Have dry, warm sleeping clothes. This is key for a good night's sleep. Focus on thick and dry socks and a hat that are only used for sleeping
  • Don't let yourself get cold fast when stopping, layer on fast and replace wet garments quickly

Last but not least in winter: "be bold, start cold" is the only way to hike in the winter, as body heat climbs up fast and not dumping sweat out while active is very dangerous.

Hiking in snow

Choosing and Getting the Right Footwear

Footwear is tricky as it is very personal, so I will skip most of it. I'll just say that I hike in trail shoes in the snow, too.

How you choose to approach footwear will stay your choice but it's worth remembering:

  • Vapor Barrier Liner (see above)
  • Comfort is still key
  • How fast are you moving?
  • Will you need traction devices? Which?

As an example, I'll just explain my winter upgrade. To my trail shoes, I add Gore-Tex liners along with thick wool socks, trail gaiters to prevent snow buildup, micro-spikes for icy conditions, and snowshoes for deep snow. This setup can be as cheap as $100 and go up to $300. Snowshoes have a very popular and abundant second hand market.

Shoes on snow

Too Much Camp Time

This is a huge problem in winter camping that first time backpackers often forget - you will end up with 10-15 hours of dark in most of the Northern Hemisphere, and that is a long time of not moving. To make it more enjoyable, here are a few simple and cheap tricks:

  • This is a good time for reading and writing. Bring the right tools for you
  • There is no light, so your UL light probably won't be enough at some point; consider a lightweight lantern of some sort to make things more livable (like Montbell's)
  • Drink lots of tea to catch up on liquids; it is probably dry and you won't have hydrated properly during the day. Stick with decaf teas that will also help you keep warm
  • Warm bottle in your sleeping bag/quilt can make magic, especially near the feet
  • Pee bottle is worth considering as leaving your warm sleeping bag 4 times to pee is really frustrating. 32 oz wide mouth bottle is really convenient (add a pee tube for ladies)
  • Have a high calorie meal just before tucking in to warm up your sleeping system and give you enough energy to get through the night.

Stunning winter camp

Lastly: enjoy! Backpacking year round makes the year so much longer and eliminates the constraints of the "hiking season."

Getting The Most From Your Insulation

Getting The Most From Your Insulation

When it comes to what insulation clothing is needed in the outdoors, you can find so much information that it is just amazing, and most of it is pretty good. What I have noticed, though, about the information available, the questions I get asked and the people I meet outdoors is that there is an implementation gap: many have no idea how to utilize their insulation layers for the best efficiency, comfort and weight. In order to add some guidance about the best way to use insulation and staying comfortable this coming winter, I wrote below about my method of staying comfortable when hiking and camping in colder weather.

What is insulation, why do we need it and what is the best way to achieve it

First, we need to make it clear that in this post, I will be referring to thermal insulation. Thermal is essentially anything heat or heat related, and the term is often used incorrectly; most things have thermal properties (conduction/insulation etc) while living things are thermally active – they generate heat. When something has thermal conduction it means that it can allow the transfer of energy in the form of heat from one body to another. Thermal insulation is aimed to reduce that thermal conduction – simple!

The reason that we need insulation is to make sure that the energy our bodies work so hard to make by consuming food will not just be conducted to the air (two bodies: us and air) without our having benefited from it at all. If we don’t insulate ourselves from a cold environment, we will need to consume huge amounts of food, to be turned into energy, in order to sustain our bodily functions – though we probably wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. What this means is that the result of not having enough insulation is more energy production – you can think of it in terms of house heating: if the house is not insulated well, heat escapes and you need to crank up the heat to keep it comfortable, burning more fuel. When we are outdoors this is even more important: we are usually active and our environment is harsher. We also don’t want to carry loads of heavy food to keep us going, but just the most efficient amount by avoiding too much energy loss.

Insulation can be achieved by warming up a layer of a slow conductive substance that allows for the heat trapped inside the insulation to be released slower (and therefore allow us to enjoy the heat for longer). There is not really a practical way to insulate yourself completely, but there are more and less efficient methods; the most efficient of all is by using trapped air. Air is the best insulator we have managed to find so far, as the rate of lost energy on the outside takes a long time to reach the inside, allowing for very slow heat conduction. When it comes to using trapped air for insulation there is a very simple rule: the more air that there is between the two bodies, the better the insulation is, so our goal is to trap and warm up as much air between our body and the cold air outside as we can. The main issue here is trapped air, i.e. air that will not just conduct and dissipate into other areas.

Cooking Stove

Wicking vs breathability

Wicking and breathability are two words that are used often despite the fact that they are not really words (ever tried to run them through a spell checker?), and usually, they are used wrong. So to make it very simple, here is what I understand these words to mean:

  • Wicking – a capillary action of moving liquid through a narrow space using opposing forces (gravity v heat), or: the movement of your sweat from the inside of your shirt to the outside of your shirt and then facilitating it drying on the big external surface. The more wicking a garment is, the quicker it dries.
  • Breathability – the movement of air and vapour through a narrow space (fabric, lung membrane etc), or: warm sweat turns into vapour in your shell and then moves through the fabric of your shell outside and dries out.

Defining these two elusive and over-used words allows us to look at insulation at the function level, and not the popular or marketing terms. This is extremely vital in terms of choosing the right insulation for the right activity to avoid over heating, as this is one of the biggest enemies of long-term exposure when outdoors.

Sweat

Wicking insulation, aka mid-layers

In short, wicking insulation is meant to absorb sweat and still dry quickly due to the material’s close proximity to the skin. I don’t think there is a need to explain much more beyond this, but if you really need more:

When wearing an insulated fabric (any fabric that traps air) close to your body and being active in a colder environment, there will come the point when the body temperature rises and you will start to sweat. The sweat will almost certainly get absorbed into the closest fabric (I hope you are wearing some form of a base layer!) and then to the next closest, and so on. The mid-layer style insulation that is worn straight over a base layer (or sometimes as a base layer) will absorb sweat quickly, too. I’m guessing that it is not really necessary to get into why having wet clothing outdoors is bad, so I’ll just say that you want your clothing system as dry as possible, all the time.

Rainy hike

And this is where the wicking insulation comes into play: what you want is an air trapping fabric (always a single/dual layer fabric) that will absorb sweat quickly, move it to the outside surface and dry quickly. As we need this layer to dry quickly, the best option is to use synthetic fabrics as they are hydrophobic (repel water), unlike natural fabrics (cotton, wool) which are hydrophilic (absorb water). The most commonly known fabric in this group is the polar fleece, but wool fleece, hollow fiber fabrics and thick woolen garments all can be used in the same way.

Wicking insulation garments are usually only made to trap air and generally provide no real wind protection. Wind is probably the main weakness of these garments, as it will just “swoop” away all the hot air trapped in the fabric, and so they need a protective layer over them (hence why it is a mid-layer). Some of the newer fabrics might offer some wind protection (like the Polartec hardface) but usually that tends to be very low in wind protection or they become shells.

Using a mid-layer is usually appropriate when you find the ambient temperature too low for comfort and would rather have another air barrier (insulation) between the cold shell and the base layer. When using wicking insulation it is very easy to over dress, keeping a warmer layer on at the start of your activity. It is actually important to start slightly cold as you will quickly warm up from being active, to avoid over heating and sweating. If in doubt, use Sir Chris Bonigton’s words:

                    Be bold, start cold.

Active insulation

Non-breathable insulation

I know I mentioned breathability above, but in reality most insulations are not breathable. They tend to be very much meant for static situations (camp, belaying, breaks etc), as those are the times when we need the extra insulation. Non-breathable insulation is made by trapping a high loft material (i.e: down, microfiber, wool etc) in a pocket, usually made using thin, high tenacity, synthetic fabrics. “High loft” insulations usually are constructed in a way that makes breathability practically impossible, or are so thick that breathability is neglected.

The up side of non-breathable insulation is that it can use very high loft materials and so offer a great level of insulation. We can immediately split this category into 3: down items, synthetic insulation and others  (wool, alpaca, yak etc). As these garments are not breathable, they are obviously pretty useless while being active – you will overheat quickly and won’t be able to “dump” that heat. They are also not practical as mid-layers, as the fabrics containing the insulation are most likely windproof and maybe even waterproof, so having a shell over it (unless it is a rain shell when static) is a redundancy. Last, layering these garments under a shell means that the insulation will collapse, creating a complete loss of the trapped heat.

woman sits in high loft down jacket inside tarp tent held up by cnoc trekking poles, eating from a buc food bag

 

When looking at non-breathable insulation (as stand alone items) there are 3 factors to consider:

  • Thickness – probably the single most important factor. The thicker the garment, the warmer it will be; so if you are usually cold or will be in a colder environment, it is a thicker garment you are after.
  • Weight to warmth ratio – the “bang for the buck” for an outdoors enthusiast. Obviously we want to carry the lightest option we can find (and afford) and get the most warmth out of it. This is where fill rate comes in; I will not explain it here, just look at the further reading in this section.
  • Limitation – synthetic fibres can only be so thick without collapsing and will never be as thick as down is. Down is, however, extremely sensitive to humidity and condensation, making it a risky item in wetter environments.

You may notice that I didn’t factor in cost; this is due to the fact that cost will be determined by the above factors: a very light (under 500 gr), thick, down insulation jacket with 850+ fill power will be very expensive, for obvious reasons, unlike a thinner, lower fill power version.

My recommendation is to always look at these insulation jackets and garments as resting time items only.

Camping in the cold

Finally (for this section), there are different functions and uses with regards to the actual insulation material:

Down

Down is the “original” insulation material and it offers the best warmth to weight ratio when compared to any other air trapping insulation. Down can also be clustered to create a very thick garment, which means that the warmest items to be found are usually made from down.

On the other hand, down’s sensitivity to humidity makes it something that should only be used under protected conditions: in very dry and cold conditions (desert/icy snow/tundras etc) or in base camp where a shelter is available.

Lately there has been a rise of waterproof down – a specially treated down that is less sensitive to humidity and getting wet. This, theoretically, solves all the downsides of down, but it does come with a price – a literal one. Waterproof down garments are very expensive, but with the potential of a longer life, they should return the investment.

Down hood

Synthetic filling

Synthetic insulation is essentially the human attempt to mimic nature’s down material with polyester-based insulations. There are various ways that this can be constructed, and every company claims to make a better version of it. In reality, all the synthetic insulations are “fluffed” polyester mircofibers aimed at trapping as much air as possible. The problem with synthetic insulation is that it struggles to keep its structural integrity in high volume, so it is usually used as a thinner insulation compared with down.

Of course, synthetic insulated jackets and gear are not sensitive to humidity and many times will continue working even if wet in retaining some heat and offering some protection. Due to this property, synthetic insulated jackets are many times seen as “belay jackets” (or trousers) that can be put over any layer, even if wet, when stopping for a short time. That means that the best way to use a synthetic insulation garment is as a quick overlayer when stopping your activity for a short time (you will need to find how long you can last on your own, according to your level of tolerance); i.e: belaying a partner, a short stop in a hike, ski etc.

There are many names in the industry for these insulations, but the key brands are: Primaloft (proprietary), Heatseeker (North Face), Coreloft (Arc’teryx), Microtemp (Columbia), Thinsulate etc.

Belay Jacket

New (=old) natural insulations

The insulations in this category are actually all very, very old but are enjoying a resurgence in the outdoors market: yak, sheep, llama (and other) wool. The idea is to trap more “fluffed” versions of the wool and protect it from the elements using protective synthetic fabrics. These garments tend to be thinner compared to down (and even synthetic insulation), and at times can even be used as mid-layers.

The obvious positive aspect of using natural insulation is clear – it has all the positive properties we desire: anti-microbial, retain heat when wet, sustainable etc. The big drawback with these garments is that many times they are not thick enough to use as static garments, making them less useful as a non-breathable insulation.

Sheep

Breathable and hybrid insulation

Manufacturers have been trying to solve the problem of needing warmer mid-layers when being active in very cold conditions, when the danger of sweat build up is not only real but life threatening. The idea is to use insulation that can be breathable, to allow some level of sweat evaporation. In this category we find names such as Polartec Alpha.

Besides using specific insulations, some brands will use a mix of fabrics and insulations to create a warmer yet slightly wicking garment. Most common is a mix of synthetic insulation on the core/arms and fleece under arms and side panels (and sometimes the back as well). It is easy to see how a combination of fabrics will result in enhanced wicking ability while keeping other areas warmer.

The problem with garments like this is that they usually compromise somewhere, mainly on the breathability front. In the cold conditions where this level of insulations is needed, the dangers of being wet are extreme, so I would look into layering using the wicking insulations rather using the breathable insulations.

Hybrid insulation

What should you have in your closet

At the end of the day, our goal is to stay comfortable outdoors. All the terms above need to translate to real, usable garments that can be effectively utilized outdoors. Below is the list of garments I believe any hiker/walker/backpacker/climber should have in his/her arsenal to be able to be active through most of the year. I’m assuming you are using the right baselayers, but that is a whole different topic.

Winter camp

Basic 3 season hiking

  1. A solid belay jacket – a synthetic jacket that can be used over your shell for any kind of break. Find the fit or brand that works for you and pick the right weight of insulation: for most men 60g insulation is enough and 100g for women. Go for heavier insulation for colder conditions (120g+). This jacket should be in your pack on any outing in cold and potentially wet conditions.
  2. Thin down jacket – not really obvious for most, but the “micro” down jackets that have become so popular in since 2010 can be layered under the belay jacket for a low weight solution for extra warmth. When camping, this can also become a pillow. They tend to be very packable and light; aim for at least 700+ fill for this.
  3. 100g/stretch fleece jacket or pullover – this is your most basic mid-layer when the conditions are cold to put on under your jacket. Focus on polar fleece only (to dry quickly and which come at a good price) and it is worth investing in a stretchy fleece for a closer fit under a shell. 

Hiking through the year

3 Season camping (in addition to the above)

  1. Thick down jacket – a warm down jacket that can be used while your legs are in the sleeping bag will increase comfort dramatically. Getting a good jacket is not simple and it is a personal preference, so I recommend going to stores to try them on and have a guess about your comfort level and warmth needs. For example, I have a high tolerance but I hate being cold (once I get to that point), while my wife has a low cold tolerance but doesn’t seem to mind a bit of chill. I recommend at least 600+ fill for anything that will be packable, and keep it thick with a nice warm hood. Waterproof down will increase the life of the jacket and will make it less fragile. 
  2. Fleece tights – these are a real luxury but they will also boost your sleeping bag rating and make the night much warmer. The best is to find a stretch fleece trouser that can be almost like tights.

Winter camping

Additional garments that can boost your experience

  1. Thin fleece top if you are working hard or tend to be warm. The more technical winter base layers will do the trick well, or something like the Polartec Power Dry or Power Grid which are amazingly fast to dry. 
  2. Hybrid fleece/synthetic jacket for cold or mixed conditions. Especially useful for cold climbs when the arms are warm and the core cold, using the hybrid style jacket is useful for heat regulation. 
  3. Fleece gilet is a great way to boost warmth in a simpler and more modular way. I do own a fleece gilet yet have found that I rarely use it, and I have never taken it on an outdoors adventure. I tend to find that my arms are the coldest, but for many people I have walked, climbed and backpacked with, the fleece gilet was a must-have item.
  4. Synthetic insulated pants – this is really a specialty garment, but you can think of it as a belay jacket for your legs. Really used in very cold conditions only or if less static. If you are choosing to use one, search for at least 60g insulation and a full side zip for easy on-off over ski pants or waterproof pants.

Down Hat

What to take from all this

I hate being cold, I really do, despite all the odd things I choose to do, even in the worst of weather conditions. I also can’t afford to buy 10 different jackets to always be optimally comfortable when outdoors. I think the list above of the core insulation garments is extremely useful and worth investing both the time and the money to buy the right items.

It is also important to understand that unless you actually get your insulation and take it outdoors, you will never know if it performs well for your needs, so get something and go outdoors. A good way to maximize your insulation is to be modular and layer smartly, while avoiding over heating and sweat.

I hope this helped you better find and use the right insulation for your coming adventures.