It's worth noting that when shopping for products there are a plethora of industry terms that seem to be applied to every garment regardless of the realities of its' performance; fast-drying, wicking, breathable, waterproof (or water-resistant if it's not waterproof). You should ignore these instead asking yourself questions like; what is it made from? what do I know about the strengths and drawbacks of those materials? what conditions was this garment designed for? what am I going to use it for? how has this garment been tested? how did it perform during that test? All these will be available and are much more informative than the usual marketing buzzwords.
Similarly gear reviewers make a living and get a lot of free gear and trips from reviewing the latest products, as such they aren't the most reliable of sources - what brand would hand free gear for a review from someone who'd just given a product 1* out of 5* (regardless of how accurate this is)? EA Mountain Skills likes others to benefit from our considerable experience as such we'll offer some suggested products at timely points throughout this article. Remember this... we weren't given these products for free instead we chose carefully and paid for them, we haven't received anything from the brands in return and next time we're in the mountains we'll be wearing them... these recommendations are as honest as you'll find anywhere.
Function... this layer is worn next to the skin and its' most important role is to pull perspiration away from your body and into the outer layers where, eventually and if your layering system is right, it will reach the outermost layer and dissipate into the open air. During summer this function is key to preventing you turning into a sweaty, dripping mess on the ascent and as during winter sweat is the first thing to go cold if you take a break it actually helps you stay warmer when you stop for lunch.
Construction... merino wool (or blends of merino and other materials) has snatched a huge chunk of the base-layer market in recent years. Being softer and less irritating against the skin than traditional wool, being able to wick moisture away from the skin and being able to wear it for multiple days without it starting to reek it fulfils its role as a base layer very well. Your other option is a synthetic material which in personal experience wicks better, dries faster and being thinner is far more comfortable when just wearing your tee in the middle of summer, if going for a synthetic layer find one with some kind of anti-odour treatment.
What we use... finding synthetic t-shirts perform better and being a huge fan of Patagonia's environmental policies we use Capilene Lightweight Tees (4.5*/5*) as first-choice for our work uniform, you'll also find the odd Rab Interval Tee (3*/5*) coming out when we need to pack more than a few (although these are thinner and seemed to develop holes a bit sooner). We've used Icebreaker befor finding them to be highly durable and well-made, but often just a tad too hot, if you elect to go for merino pay attention to the different 'weights' of fabric and match the garment to the purpose; heavier for winter, lighter for the rest of the year.
What we use... I was so impressed by my Arc'tyerx Incendo (4.5*/5*) I've now bought a second. As always thin materials are more susceptible to getting little nicks and tears from snagging while scrambling and climbing, but considering how much the first jacket has been worn and how it has performed I didn't hesitate. I did also consider Patagonia's Houdini, but the mesh panels on the Incendo were a big part of its performance and tipped the scales in its' favour.
What we use... the new staff fleece is the Patagonia R1 (4*/5*) which is a highly breathable but also very warm fleece with a long zip on the front to aid in temperature adjustment. I can also speak highly of my Haglof's L.I.M. Barrier Pro (4*/5*) which being finished with a more windproof (but less breathable) textile brings a tremendous amount of warmth for a mind-bogglingly small amount of weight and sits in my hiking rucksack for the days when I need it.
Function... otherwise known as a 'hard shell' layer this goes on the outside when the mountains throw the worst they've got at you. It keeps rain and snow on the outside, keeps you dry on the inside by letting out the water vapour (that's been wicked all the way from your base layer!) via both a breathable material and (usually) by venting zips under the arm-pits.
Construction... waterproofs are based around a material containing microscopic holes too small for water droplets to pass through and big enough for water vapour to pass out of. Arguably the most significant test for this material is the hydrostatic head test in which a column of water is placed on to the textile and the height of the column increased until the water breaks through. A hydrostatic head of 10,000mm is the absolute minimum required for British conditions, however you will find that almost every garment that doesn't meet this specification will still be described as water-resistant (ignore this). In real terms the difference between a hydrostatic head of 10,000mm, of 20,000mm and of 30,000mm lies in the performance; how long does it keep the rain out for? Compare this rating with how long you expect to be standing out in the rain and you'll come to the conclusion that a hydrostatic head of 10,000mm would be fine for an emergency 'lives in rucksack just in-case' jacket for fair weather walkers who only head out with a good forecast, while a hardened walker or Mountain Leader who may find themselves out in 12 hours of rain needs something approaching 30,000mm. When creating the jacket the waterproof membrane is then sandwiched between two protective layers creating either a more-durable three-layer jacket or a less-durable two and a half layer jacket (the half layer being on the inside). One should also consider the amount of features on a jacket which are generally the first thing to be sacrificed when a jacket is made to be lightweight; a featured hood that can be cinched down so it moves with your head is a must, venting zips under the armpits are highly useful and front pockets that have been slightly raised so you can still use them when your rucksack waist loop is done up are definitely preferable.
With luck you've been inspired to think and shop more carefully and next time you're going into the mountains you'll be dressed for the occasion. Our next article will answer one of the perennial questions aimed at Mountain Leaders - what's in your rucksack? Prepared for the Occasion: What to Pack will detail what to take, what plans to make and why.
Fancy becoming more independent in the mountains? Go out with one of our qualified, experienced and enthusiastic Mountain Leaders. Take a look at our Experiences and Challenges page. Or alternately get in contact on the Bookings page. You can also like our Facebook page for regular updates on new articles.
All articles are written from a humble and deeply personal perspective. Where facts or recommendations are given these are taken from research and experience. We hope these articles help you in your quest to enjoy the mountains and that they portray our passion for what EA Mountain Skills does.