Thursday, November 10, 2011

What not to wear

Perfect outdoor kit for boys

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Lucy asked if I'd write about what to wear and take on a nature adventure. It put me in mind of an article I must have read twenty years ago, by the equipment editor of a climbing magazine. It was his last article before retiring, and he was going to own up: despite all the fancy gear he received,  he mostly went out in the hills wearing a smelly jumper and a pair of old jeans.

And I've always remembered that article because it points to a greater truth: that we don't need hi-tech, lightweight, waterproof and breathable, see-you-home-in-the-dark clothing to enjoy a day outdoors. Not that you'd believe it in places such as Keswick or Hathersage where the shopping has become as important as the landscape. But we're trying to get away from all that, right?  And most of us are heading for a day on the moors, rather than a Scandinavian winter. So with that in mind we can get by without spending a fortune or worrying unduly about the fashion police.

Footwear is always my first consideration, and though I have a pair of very good walking boots, I mostly use lightweight outdoor shoes. My favourites are a pair of Salomon trail boots, which are pricey, but the Hi-Tec company does much cheaper equivalents and it's possible to find very good value on the Internet. Aside from winter mountaineering there are very few places in Britain that you'll truly require dubbed leather boots. I'm actually a big fan of wellies too, and know people who swear by those cheap suede bog trotter boots - I once met a bloke who'd walked the entire Pennine Way in those.

Waterproofs come next, and not a word of a lie, my favourite cost me six euros from a Decathlon store in France. It's a brown Pertex smock that packs the size of a large sandwich; it's featherlight, windproof and even supposedly breathable - and it's cut like a bin bag which means you can slip it over almost anything. They're available in the UK but any pac-a-mac equivalent will do. Of course, I wouldn't use this as my only waterproof on a full day in the hills with a threatening sky - but for most times, when the worst that happens is you get a bit damp before heading to the caff, I'd pack it in preference to coat that cost fifty times more.

For the rest - trousers and tops and all that, go for lightweight and lots of thin layers. Even in winter you're much better off with thermal leggings underneath some cotton trousers, than wearing heavy denim or tracksuits that soak up the damp. You can buy all manner of technical clothing, but you know what, most of it is marketing bollocks - and the rest is common sense.

But surely there's more to it than that? I'm tempted to say not really, but actually, I do have a few tips and tricks too. Sticks are excellent, and for all that retractable walking poles have become overly technified, they do make a difference (though fallen branches are almost as good) - they also make excellent swords for young boys to fight with. Cyclists use body-warmers to ward off wind-chill and they're excellent for walking too - just make sure you find ones with pockets. On the subject of which most people don't have enough and use rucksacks that are far too small - the extra weight of a larger sack is minuscule but if it means you can carry your kid's waterproofs and stuff in a bigger picnic and flask, it makes all the difference to your day. Alpkit Gourdon sacs are cheap, light and very cleverly designed - they're a great online retailer too.

On the subject of kids, I have boys, and they like things like pocket knives, magnifying glasses, matches, i-spy books and notebooks - and I say that, not because I'm a middle-class throwback to the Sixties, it's because they work at engaging their interest. For something more modern, try a fling sock which is possibly the most fun we've had from a present and in a different league to a Frisbee or a worse, a kite... I have this theory that people only fly kites when they're bored. Another tip - keep spare clothes in the car; this is blindingly obvious but even we forget sometimes, and yet it makes such a difference if there's any sort of stream or lake they might fall in - because of course, they will.

For nature watching you need a decent pair of binoculars and those tiny ones won't do - if you want to save weight, buy a monocular (try here) - they are way better for kids too. Most identification guides are too large and complex for practical use in the field so I often use the Collins mini gem series - no, they aren't perfect, but better to have something that might actually be opened. Back at home, I have a comprehensive library of guide books. What I use more than anything is my digital camera which is fantastic for snapping wild flowers, trees, even birds - I'm not looking for composition, just to identify them later.

In the outdoors, as in most areas of life, there's a balance. I don't want to wear tweed and plus-fours, but neither do I want to be one of those prats who've 'all the gear but no idea'. A little fashion is fine, but function is more important. The same goes for equipment - a map, a rucksack and a good picnic; that's enough on most days. Because most important of all is getting out there in the first place.


  1. Forget Ray Mears... you are now my nature god.

  2. Such absolute sense! I once encountered a father and son at the top of Snowdon (they'd followed us up the Miner's Path). Both were wearing jumpers jeans and wellies. I've never been rich enough to afford all the kit and tend to walk in the trainers that have recently retired from road running. The thing is just to get out there and do it (as Nike would say).

  3. Sound advice.

    Have been wondering about getting some poles - I shall consult the Oracle i.e. you :)

  4. Nice to know we're on the right lines. Because of a previously broken foot I need proper boots on rough ground, but otherwise your advice is spot on.

  5. well said Mark. On our recent visit to the Lakes (sorry I never met you in the Borrowdale Caff) we bought serviceable gear. Left the coat in the luggage rack on plane home but the shoes are steadfast and will wear them every time I walk somewhere here. It's obvious that you do this for the sheer joy of it and that comes through so clearly. :-)

  6. Thank-you, Mark for this incredibly informative post which was a 'breath of fresh air'. With 3 sons, and a very tight budget I feel relieved after reading this - we won't have to splash out on a full compliment of over-priced outdoor wear.
    My youngest two, aged nearly 3 and 4.5 have only been on short walks so far. I want to instill a healthy appreciation of nature in them, also for exercise to be part of life, not a chore. This common-sense guide should be available to all parents, particularly those claiming they "can't afford" to be healthy. I doubt the retailers would be happy though, they make a fortune selling waterproof, breathable, lightweight, bulletproof outerwear!
    Thanks again.

  7. I once walked up to an 800 foot hill fort ( 5 miles) flip flops

    not good

  8. Dressing up for an activity eaves me cold.
    Good shoes, and appropriate layers for the weather conditions is all I think about.

    And price is certainly not everything. I bust one of a pair of expensive walking shoes in Turkey, bought a cheap pair of shoes in the market the next day and they lasted me years.

  9. Such a refreshing take on a subject that sometimes people can get overly 'twitchy' about.

    I really must get 'out there' again soon.