The top half
Next to boots, I think the most important kit to consider are waterproofs. Usually this means separate over-trousers and a jacket. When I was walking the Way of St James in France in September quite a few people were donning a poncho style waterproof that went over the whole of the upper body including their back pack. I wasn’t attracted to them. They seemed to flap around in the wind and would still lead to wet legs if it’s raining unless you also wear over trousers.
I remember getting my first Gore-Tex waterproof jacket years (made by The North Face) ago when I was en-route to Scotland. Or was it the Lake District? Or did I get it in one of those lovely outdoor shops in the Peak District. I used to go there a lot. As I say, it was a long time ago. It has served me well in certainly over 20 years use. And it is still in good condition, apart from some minor marks from adhesive. I lent it to a young man who was installing our satellite broadband in the pouring rain. Which was nice of me but I regret it because I really don’t like the marks he left on it. Yes, on balance, I had rather he had got soaked.
There are several really great things about this jacket. It fits snugly without being too tight even if I am wearing a fleece. And it is quiet. It has a nice outer shell that has a soft feel to it rather than a plasticcy (sp?) one, if you know what I mean. Which means it doesn’t rustle when you walk. I am a wee bit over-sensitive when it comes to rustles. From what I can see on the racks in those wonderful outdoor shops, this finish is quite rare now, though I noticed the other day that my friend Bridget’s Paramo jacket was very soft. She climbs Munro’s and reports it being waterproof and good in the snow but I think I would find it too warm for ordinary walking.
My North Face Gore-Tex jacket has two good zipped pockets outside and one inside and when I use the hood it also fits snugly round my face and is just the right size. It is very irritating to find that your hood keeps flopping over your face or flaps about. The hood doesn’t have a peak, which might not be so good for those that wear glasses but I reckon if it’s wet the glass-wearers are going to have difficulties unless they have peak the size of a large pizza. The cuffs are Velcro – essential I think. Much better than elasticated ones that will inevitably stretch over time. And it is a good length, so it goes over the top of the over- trousers comfortably. This is really important or you will get a wet bottom even if the over-trousers are 100% waterproof.
But of course, the most important thing is that it is a lovely blue/green. No, Ok, the most important thing is that it has nearly always kept me dry on top even in very heavy rain.
But in preparing for the Way of St James, where I was going be walking for 10 days in a row I decided I wanted to make my day pack as light as possible. My old jacket weighs 720 grammes which is relatively heavy -relative to the 21st century, waterproof tech has lightened up in the last 20 years. So I decided a new set of waterproofs was required.
I started with the jacket. I tried a lot of different ones on and did a fair bit of research on the internet and then I bought a blue Montane Minimus Jacket from Taunton Leisure in Bedminster, Bristol. The guy in the shop seemed to know what he was talking about and recommended it for hiking. And it is incredibly light- just 240 grammes (large size). The Montane cost £140 which is a lot but you can pay a lot more than that for jackets so I felt pleased with my purchase. The hood was a little too big but I compromised on that. I bought a pair of the same over trousers in black on the internet for £80, which was a good price.
In light showers they seemed to do OK. The material claims to have great breathability and water resistance. Breathability means that your body moisture (that’s sweat to you and me) is supposed to be able to get out of the jacket thus keeping you dry inside even if you are exerting yourself. Gore-Tex is breathable, too. In fact everything claims to be breathable these days. Our house paint is said to be breathable. We are about to have our chimney repaired by wrapping it in some very clever breathable system. My iphone probably breathes.
So when I was forecast heavy rain in September when I was walking a section of the Wales Coast Path from Llanrhidian I was quite pleased to be able to test my new gear. Until less than an hour of walking in steady but not torrential rain, when I was quite certain that both my trousers and jacket were leaking. The fronts of my thighs were really wet and my upper body was, well, pretty damp. When I later changed my clothes in my car it was clear from my sopping trousers and damp top that I had been let down.
At the first opportunity I took the jacket back to Taunton Leisure. The shop manager was not exactly helpful, arguing that the problem with the jacket was (despite its great breathability, remember) probably condensation of my perspiration. He wouldn’t offer me a refund and sent it back to Montane for testing. It came back two weeks later saying that it was fine. But then I don’t believe that they had someone go for a walk in the rain wearing it and carrying a back-pack. So despite not believing that the gear was ok I took the jacket and trousers to France. And got wet again. Silly, ain’t I?
On my return I contacted Montane and although they had some other possible explanation for the jacket leaking (perhaps it needed to be washed – I know, it’s difficult to get this, but apparently body fluids can clog it up). Or possibly my backpack was preventing the escape of moisture. Now I admit my backpack does sit on my back (but does have webbing designed to assist wicking away of moisture) and I could make sense of it being difficult for moisture to escape but I still thought that the fabric was at least partly to blame. The guy at Montane was pretty good, though and offered to sell me another of their jackets – the Venture for a good discount. The Venture costs lots more than the Minimus and has a different fabric and although the jacket is significantly heavier than the Minimus at 450 grammes it’s still quite light.
But given that I have currently shelled out £140 on what I now think of as expensive windproof which is now sitting in the boot of my car for emergencies, I thought I should at least try on this jacket before spending money on another one. Montane were unable to identify an outlet in Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Cardiff, Newport, or Carmarthen that had a Venture (not that popular, then) which pretty well exhausted all major towns and cities I was going to be passing by in the next few months. So Mr Montane then offered to lend me a jacket to test. But they didn’t have a Venture that they could lend. So they have lent me their Air jacket. This has the same e-vent waterproofing fabric as the Venture and it still sounds like it would be good for trekking. They only had it in Tangerine (well you wouldn’t describe a Jacket as Satsuma would you – but why not?) to lend though, which I think is kinda intrusive in the countryside, but beggars can’t be choosers. And it weighs much less less than the Venture at just about 300 grammes.
Last weekend it got its first outing. It was a beautiful day and my friend Paul and I were meeting in the Brecon Beacons to do the waterfall walk from near Ystradfellte. I didn’t wear it for most of the day so I can’t comment yet about how noisy it is or how it deals with my body fluids when carrying backpack but I did stand under the Sgwd clun-gwyn waterfall with it on and it kept me dry. But I was only there for a minute so the jury is still out. I’ll let you know the verdict as a footnote here in due course. I’m nice like that.
Paul very helpfully observed that he didn’t think I would get lost in the jacket, though what I really think he meant was that he thought it was a bit in your face as well..
When I bought the Montane Minimus jacket the shop didn’t have the matching trousers so I got those on the internet from Mountain Leisure in Perth at a good price (£80). Following their failure they were prepared to accept my word that they had leaked unreasonably or maybe they just have a “no hassle” policy (wouldn’t it be great if everyone did) so they accepted them back and gave me a refund. They are nice guys so I recommend them.
Although my old over-trousers were quite lightweight, I don’t think that they were fully waterproof either. And besides, with a new jacket I would look much better with new trousers. I found just what I wanted in Field and Trek Gloucester. They are made by Outdoor Research and were in a sale at £79.99 down from £99.99 (a bargain!) and their guarantee says that “Outdoor Research Products are guaranteed forever”. Even for someone of my tender 57 years, “forever” seems like quite a long time and on my demise I will bequeath the trousers to someone who can continue to monitor this guarantee. They are in the “M’s Foray Collection” (sounds like a fashion house, doesn’t it) and offer “3 season storm protection during alpine, trail, and paddling pursuits”. It was the paddling protection that was a clincher. I do love a paddle. They are made from “3-layer 40D Gore-Tex Paclite fabric”. They weigh 280 grammes, which is ok.
Over-trousers can be a devil to put on – especially in a hurry when you are out in the open in the middle of a downpour, and standing on one leg. My old ones had about a 12” zipping gusset on each leg but with a boot on this still wasn’t enough to avoid a struggle to get my booted leg through. This was the cause of much swearing. The Montane Minimus leg openings were even smaller.
These OR ones are fabulous. The zips are waterproof to start with. But the amazing thing about these zips is that they open up right the way up to mid thigh, which means that my booted leg goes through easily. Even standing on one leg (I do have a good sense of balance). The only downside is that they are black, but hey, black goes with everything, so I won’t be making a horrible fashion mistake when I am wearing them. Here’s me putting them on ( I know, how much excitement can I take you are asking yourself).
Maintenance of waterproofs.
Read the label and do what it says. Easy eh! Most gear is machine washable but you may need liquid soap as opposed to detergent and watch out for the spinning and tumble dry advice.