I was over at the Montane office this week doing a day of design work, talking to the design team (1 guy, 2 women) about current gear and future designs. I always enjoy these meetings, even if they’re not always as easy as you’d imagine, due to me being a little blunt at times, and also a little uncompromising. For me, I follow that old design principle that when you’ve removed every single superfluous feature of a product and stripped it to the bone, then that’s perfection. I have a pack coming out from Montane this year that’s so stripped down it’s nothing but a bag with straps, not even having foam in the back (cut some out and shove it down if you want it), but is almost as tough as a sack could be while a third of the weight of anything equivalent. Is this a commercial product - hell no - it’s at the bleeding edge - and is designed for alpinists, mountaineers, rock climbers and for those who simply want simple gear that is light AND will last ten or so years (you can get both strength and lightweight as long as you’re willing to accept the removal of all the crap of a pack)?
In our meeting I talked a bit about how we often get everything the wrong way round, how we build our clothing systems from the shell down, spending all our money and time sorting out what that shell is (shells are high value and sexy), the importance getting less as you draw closer to the skin. In fact, we should focus most on what we put next to our skin as this is the citadel of your comfort and safety, what lies on top of just castle walls.
Very often when we’re planning on what kit to take we focus on the big items imagining they have the biggest effect on our performance, while often it’s the details that matter. A case in point is how much money and time did you put into buying your fancy GPS or altimeter watch? Now ask yourself what thought you put into your underpants : ) Get out on the hill for a very long wet day, or some hard sweaty slogging in the alps, and you may wish you’d spent some more time on this small detail. Cotton soaks up the sweat and as the material gets damp the friction increases, leading to chaffing, and add in sweat and abrasive salt deposits on your skin and the result can be debilitating (I’ve seen people with blood running down their legs). Swap out your boxers or normal pants for some power stretch boxers (one of my favourites are Reed Transpire Shorts for winter) and you’ll find your stay more comfortable in every way (warmer and dryer and without any chaffing). For all-round use (summer and winter, especially for alpine climbing) the modern tight/shorts combo works really well, with a close-fitting inner tight wicking sweat away and also reducing ‘rub’, yet working as normal shorts if things get hot (I use the Montane Trail 2Sk shorts).
But this not really a blog about underwear, but another little detail people often overlook, but one that does some solid duty for very little weight - the cap.
I know this may be like explaining how to suck grapes, but using a simple cap, be it a normal plain jane sporty one, a fancy running design, or a full-on mountain cap, gives you a lot of performance advantages in several areas for almost zero weight or cost.
- Wearing a cap under a hood instantly makes any hood a hundred times better fitting, reducing the need for full-blown wired rims or fancy pants drawcord systems. Once the hood is lifted up it creates a solid seal on the hat’s peak and locks everything in place, so no fabric in your face while still creating a solid seal.
- A cap tends to be cooler than a fleece hat, and much cooler than pulling your hood up, and often this alone is good enough protection in light rain and drizzle, allowing you to keep a little cooler (plus the peak keeps the rain off your face, like an umbrella, so you feel dryer).
- A hat protects your eyes and face in harsh weather, including driving rain, snow and hale. Being able to see properly is a major plus for both your safety (knowing where to step), your ability to navigate (it’s easier to check a map when your eyes are open, not squinting against the hale).
- The protection offered by the peak allows you to don goggles later, so reduces the time spent wearing something that invariably fogs up and makes seeing anything only slightly less than not wearing them at all!
- For winter climbing, although you lose some upwards visibility, the peak of a cap can deflect spindrift and icefall pretty well (a soft peak with a wired rim can be pushed upwards between helmet and head to keep it out of the way when not needed.
- As you can guess a hat also keeps the sun out of your eyes, but also in hot weather it also soaks up a sweat that could trickle down and get in your eyes.
When picking a cap you need one for the right conditions but a catch-all design should be one of the modern lightweight breathable designs you get for running (I use a Montane Robo Cap, as it fits under a helmet well (you DO NOT want a baseball cap with a top button as this will split your skull if your helmet gets hit!), and dries fast. For really hot conditions get a hat that covers the neck and face as well (like the OR Sun Runner. For Mountain and expedition use a hard shell that is good to purchase (Gore or eVENT), and is much less sweaty than you might imagine, and as you can guess sheds rain and snow brilliantly (again I use a Montane Pace hat. Insulated caps like the Montane Featherlite Mountain Cap (Pertex, Primaloft and brushed polyester), is a good option for pure winter use but is less adaptable to all conditions as an unlined one.
So there you have it, some meat and two veg words, kind of useful, kind of boring, but inoffensive and back on track. As for that comment, when Vanessa read it she just said: “Now you know how Bear Grylls must feel when you slag him off”.