The Right *Stuff*

The Right Stuff - Hiking Gear

In a few days my best friends depart for what I lovingly refer to as the “hike from hell” – they are hiking to the summit of Mt.Whitney- the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states.  22 miles long with an elevation gain of 6,400 feet, this hike can be done in a couple of days OR you can go completely gonzo like my beloved friends and do it in a single day.  This bit of insanity requires terrific physical fitness, months of training, and a very serious dose of masochism.  It also, as they have discovered, requires really good gear. 

While my general fitness level and crummy knees made the big hikes a no-go, I gamely joined for some of the easy stuff and jumped into the planning – poring over maps, discussing training schedules, and, of course, shopping for gear.  So what does hiking have to do with fashion?  How complicated can it be?  Obviously you need some really good boots, but beyond that, just pop on your baggy old jeans and a cotton tee, pack a windbreaker and you are good to go, right?  Uh….no….  Not once you start hiking for miles, sweat pouring out, elevation changes taking you through micro-climates with sun, rain and snow, and temperatures going from 90 degrees to 45 and back to 90 in a few hours.  As the weeks of training hikes rolled along the advantages that good technical hiking gear offer quickly became evident.  Even the guys came around, albeit more slowly, to this reality.

And so began the nearly weekly visits to REI, as folks fine tuned what worked and didn’t work for them.  Now these folks are no strangers to good quality fitness gear – these are my partners in crime for ski gear and work out clothes.  We are long-time denizens of Road Runner Sports, Sports Chalet and REI.  With wardrobes of Nike, Under Armour,Patagonia, The North Face, and other go-to fitness brands, we manage to look pretty great in our workout togs, and ski gear while addressing all the practical requirements of whichever sport we are doing.  But hard-core hiking brought this to a whole new level!  

This went well beyond the endless quest for the right boots and discovering the benefits of trekking poles.   Top to bottom, every garment needs to be highly functional, light weight, and above all, comfortable.  Sun protection is really critical, especially at higher altitudes.  Layers are the order of the day, providing protection from the elements…cold, wet and sun, but they can’t be bulky or heavy– a backpack with a hydration system isn’t all that roomy, especially once you fill it with all the other essentials and keeping pack weight down is key.

So what is there beyond great boots?  Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up:

1) Socks – everyone has their various likes and dislikes – long vs. short, fit, weight, but above all really good hiking socks are a must, in either wool or a blend – moisture wicking is key to keeping feet happy.

2) Bottoms – some folks prefer shorts, some pants but everyone appreciates true hiking features like vents, gussets and offset seams to prevent chaffing.  And wicking fabric can be a big plus.  With the changeable weather of high altitudes you can really learn to like those ever-so-geeky convertible pants where you zip off the legs to create shorts.  Geeky?  Yes.  Fashionable? Not So Much.  Practical? Oh yeah.

3) Tops –Designed-for-hiking tops offered the best solutions, again offset side panels help eliminate chafe, as do raglan sleeves and single-piece shoulder panels that merge out of the way of packs shoulder straps.  Also great are the usual fitness tanks and tees in technical fabrics with good wicking properties.  There are even some terrific options with UV protection.  Mr. Commando swears by his Under Armour T-shirts in a synthetic fabric that keeps him cool and dry.  My own favorites are a short sleeve top and a coordinating zippy top to layer over for chilly mornings, both in a fitness specific fabric.

4) Weather Layers – here it depends on need, foremost for everyone is a lightweight rain jacket with true water-resistant features like sealed seams, long back panels, contoured hood, and vents with zippers that let you control temperature while staying dry.  For cold weather I am a big fan of the Patagonia “Nano Puff” jackets and vests – they are insanely light, stuff into their own little carry pouch and happen to be super cute too!   

5) Gloves – it gets cold up there – one weekend hike in May was so cold folks couldn’t undo zippers or tie their own shoes – so a pair of super lightweight but warm gloves are a good thing to have in the pack.  I am also at an age where my hands are starting to look a bit worn so I liked the “sun gloves” idea to cut down on sun exposure and slow the arrival of hereditary age spots on my hands. 

6) Hats – Again its all about sun protection.  My ever-so-cool girl buddies wear their baseball caps.  Mr. Commando, the soul of practicality, wears his army issue Boony hat.  Me, well I hate to admit this, but my giant sun phobia has driven me to a Boony hat of my own – albeit NOT olive cammo!  Mine is a white and grey number that keeps the sun off my face and neck, and stays cool in the sun.  I look like a complete dork but it is admittedly functional.   

All in all, geeky solutions not withstanding, I found a lot of good looking hiking clothes in cool and fun colors, with some great functional features, and all pretty comfy too.  None of it is exactly high fashion, but everyone looks like they know what they are doing and they all now have the “right stuff” to do it.  Did I ever expect to see my best friends in convertible pants?  Uh, no.  But I don’t imagine they expected to see me in a Boony hat, either! 

Good luck and safe travels dear friends, I will be thinking of you every step of the way!!!!

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