This is the 3rd article in a series produced in partnership with Kananaskis Public Safety, and in particular, thanks to Morgen Funston of KPS for her wisdom and suggestions.
We guess you could summarize this entire article by simply saying “Not This” to the photo at right. That’s Lady Gaga out for a hike in California. Among other things, you’ll note she’s wearing high heels.
That might seem like a joke, but it was real, and it’s not even the most unusual thing Kananaskis Public Safety have seen people wearing that have led to back country – or even front country – rescues.
Footwear is critical
Let’s start with the most egregious of Ms. Gaga’s errors: correct FOOTWEAR. Kananaskis Public Safety believes about 1/3rd of the accidents they respond to are related to improper footwear. You need footwear with a good lug tread pattern, solid ankle support, and some kind of toe cap for all the rocks you’re going to find in K-Country. Some people swear by all leather, some are OK with a mix of leather and mesh material, some like above the ankle, some below, and if those are the decisions you’re making, you’re in the right frame of mind. What doesn’t work is:
- Flip flops. You may laugh, but we’ve seen them on the Ha Ling trail.
- Skateboard shoes. The smooth tread on these will be perilous on downhill descents on gravel surfaces where you’ll feel like you’re on a bed of marbles.
- Open toed sandals. There are some that are “made for hiking”, but the same way an “all season” tire is really only 3 seasons here, open sandals are not for hiking here. One crossing of a scree slope will show you why. Use your Tevas to cross streams, but the straps simply don’t offer enough connection to your feet for any distance over uneven terrain.
- Most running shoes. These are made for running, not hiking, and while they would probably be fine for that walk to Troll Falls, anything more challenging will prove they lack the torsional rigidity needed for long distance hiking.
Waterproof boots or not?
Having waterproof boots is a personal choice. A bunch of SnowSeal can waterproof most any leather boots, but other than boots made from all leather, every other boot will let in water. It’s entirely up to you if you can handle the squelchies.
Make sure you have broken in your hiking boots before heading out. We once met someone descending Ha Ling in bare feet; their brand new, never been used boots had given them such bad blisters that they preferred the pain of a barefoot descent to the pain of their boots.
We guess hiking in a skirt could work, though Ms. Gaga’s looks like it would catch on every tree branch and rosebush here. We know several people who like hiking in a kilt (yes, they make hiking kilts). For most of us, though, it’s pants and shirts, and it’s firstly about the MATERIAL and secondly about VERSATILITY.
You want your material to be a COTTON-FREE product made from synthetic fibre. To this end, Ms. Gaga may have gotten it right. Polyesters and their ilk wick moisture and dry quickly. Anything with cotton in it (including cotton/poly blends) absorbs moisture (like sweat or rain) and take forever to dry, getting you cold in the process. Way back when, wool was the best fabric because it was warm when wet (though it wasn’t durable). Merino wool is popularizing wool again, especially for socks and base layers. (The kilt at right is a wool/nylon blend; avoid the all cotton ones).
We like the versatility of zip-off cargo pants, enabling us to start the day in long pants, and switch to shorts when it warms up. Columbia makes several in quick dry fabrics.
We recommend the versatility of a long-sleeve hiking shirt when it has tabs to hold the sleeves if rolled up. The ventilation you can get in a polyester hiking shirt is a really good thing.
We use a 2-sock system to reduce the risk of blisters, with an ultra thin polyester pair under our wool hiking socks (which happen to be Darn Tough socks, but any sock designed for hiking with more than 85% wool is fine). Wool socks keep your feet warm even if you develop the squelchies with boots that aren’t waterproof.
They may not be needed mid summer, but for at least 3 seasons in K-Country, you’ll want to consider wearing some kind of light-or medium-weight base layer. Fast dry, polyester underwear and base layers for men and women are readily available at places like Wal-Mart. If polyester isn’t your thing, again, avoid cotton and opt for merino wool.
In the winter, polyester or wool as a base layer is essential; get rid of those cotton long johns that will somehow always get wet and freeze on you.
Once you’re dressed, you need to think about WARM LAYERS. When it comes to warm layers, you always need to carry at least 1 more layer than you think you need. There are all sorts of varying thicknesses of polyester pullovers and fleece that work just great, as would a really lightweight wool sweater.
Making a comeback is down. It’s windproof (which fleece isn’t), ultra light and packs down to nothing, but much more expensive and it can’t handle being wet at all. Still, KPS and us both recommend carrying a down sweater as an extra warm layer winter and summer, in addition to an extra fleece/synthetic pullover.
NO JEANS. NO COTTON TEES.
Possibly the worst thing you can hike, climb, paddle or bike ride in is blue jeans. They’re hot when it’s hot, cold when cold, cold when wet, absorb moisture like crazy and never actually seem to dry.
Coming up next in the “never wear it” department is a cotton T-shirt, so leave your 1994 Eagles “Hell Freezes Over” reunion tour shirt at home. Again, you laugh, but again, we were caught in a rainstorm once with someone wearing that exact shirt with his jeans, and he was soaked. He verged on hypothermic, and we knew he wouldn’t be dry until he got home.
It rains in K-Country
Being soaked is bad, so your clothes need to include RAIN GEAR. We’ve tried it all and hate almost all of it. This whole “waterproof breathable” thing of GoreTex and others just doesn’t seem to work for us; we always seem to get wet from the inside on a rainy day. So our go-to is a brimmed hat with a waterproof poncho. The hat keeps direct rain off our face and glasses (we hate that). We like ponchos because they drape over you and your pack, covering almost down to your knees, but have such wide open sides that the ventilation keeps us only slightly damp. The Gore-Tex raincoat we own channels water to the waist belt of our pants, meaning everything from the waist down gets drenched; ponchos don’t do that.
Here in the land of ticks, gaiters are a must-have from the moment the snow is gone until July 1 each year — and they happen to be waterproof.
While rain pants work just as well to keep ticks at bay, they tend to be “over pants” that get too hot unless it’s actually raining. If you’re wearing gaiters and have a poncho but no rain pants, and a short June-soon shower pops up, you can just make do with wet knees.
Hats and gloves are for more than just winter
There are vagaries of mountain weather. Temperatures drop with altitude. It can get mighty cold if you are forced to over-night. Accordingly, you should always have a warm hat and gloves with you.
Your emergency gear should always have a pair of fleece gloves in it, so perhaps you’ll be OK. In the winter, a second back-up spare pair of gloves is a godsend. Finding the exact right glove that keeps your hands warm without being wet is a challenge; if your hands do start to get cold in a damp glove, being able to swap them out can save your fingers.
Substance over style
In the end, being safely dressed in the outdoors means forgoing style, which Ms. Gaga has in spades, and embracing functionality, which she does not.
When it comes to WEAR WHEN YOU GO:
- Proper footwear for the sport you’re engaged in;
- Clothes made of synthetic fabrics, and NO COTTON;
- Versatile clothes that can fit any environmental condition;
- Base and warm layers to match your budget and the conditions;
- An extra warm layer (or 2) for the coldest and ugliest conditions you’re likely to encounter;
- Rain gear and gaiters;
- 2 pairs of gloves in the winter
<– Back to what to Carry
To see what your clothing considerations should be for the winter, head here –>
Onward to What to Eat to keep your energy up –>