Rain fell heavily as though a giant watering can was being poured – liberally – from the skies. Yet despite the changeable conditions I wasn’t cold, or wet, because I had finally learned the importance of good gear when it comes to outdoor adventures.
With the rise in popularity of walking (thanks, Covid) causing so many brands and shops to make their own gear, how on earth do you know where to start? When it comes to buying kit, it’s easy to get lost in all the PR spiel, but don’t be swayed – because there is no such thing as the perfect gear, only the perfect gear for you. We are all different and have varied levels of comfort – or, rather, discomfort – that we are prepared to put up with, and that must be in proportion to our budget. Keep that in mind and you’re sure to enjoy the great outdoors with a smile on your face, whatever the weather.
Perhaps most important are waterproofs, or what is known as an “outer shell”. Look for fabrics rated as waterproof, not water resistant (which only repel rain to a point) and breathable, because you will generate sweat when you’re active, which can make it rain just as heavily inside the jacket if it doesn’t allow moisture to escape. Some will have a mesh lining for this (cheaper but heavier), others will have a painted-on treatment (known as 2.5-layer construction) which is light but less effective than 3-layer fabric – the high-end and high-price option.
Also important are an adjustable hood and cuffs, as well as storm flaps (strips of fabric) under and over the zip. A good starter is Decathlon’s Quecha: it’s just £65 (£69 for women’s fit), has an adjustable hood and cuffs, and is 3-layer fabric. For waterproof over-trousers, such as the Berghaus Deluge, look for side zips so you can pull them on easily over boots. Which leads us to…
There are two choices – boots or shoes. For flat paths and paved trails, shoes are fine; but for mountains and hills, uneven ground or multi-day treks when carrying a heavy backpack, boots offer more ankle support. Unless you’re planning winter hikes, 3-season models are a great all-rounder and suitable for most of the year. Leather is more durable but needs looking after; synthetic is lighter, though tends to wear down faster. Columbia’s Peakfreak Mid OutDry Boots offer good cushioning and grip, are waterproof and breathable, and can be picked up for £70.
No matter which option you choose, pair them with good socks. Look for flatlocked seams (to avoid rubbing/blisters) and ventilation to keep your feet in good, walking order. Bridgedale is a classic, and its Trail Light wool/synthetic blend combines insulation with moisture control and durability (from £11.55 a pair).
What you wear under your jacket is key to keeping comfortable. That’s where you opt for the layering system: basically, rather than wearing one heavy, thick coat, you sport a series of lightweight layers that you can add or remove depending on conditions.
First is the base layer – the one that sits next to your skin – in both top and bottoms. Near-invisible seams are key to avoiding chafing, and the fabric must “wick” (AKA move) sweat away from your body, to keep you warm in cold weather and cool when it’s hot. They come in different weights, such as 150gsm (grams per square metre) – the higher the number, the warmer the top. Fabric-wise you can go natural, such as merino or bamboo, or synthetic. The former is usually more expensive, though warmer and naturally smell-free; the latter is cheaper and lighter. Go Outdoors’ own brand, OEX, offers short- and long-sleeve base layer tops and leggings made from a bamboo and synthetic blend, from £16.
Over the base layer is the mid-layer. This adds instant warmth. You can opt for a fancy “soft-shell” jacket (usually water resistant), a gilet (AKA sleeveless vest), or a bog-standard fleece. The fleece is the most inexpensive, works well and there are lots of sustainable models made from recycled bottles available, such as this £16 option from Cotton Traders.
Look for water-resistant, lightweight material that dries quick, with articulated knees for freedom of movement. Craghoppers’ Kiwi Pro Trousers are stretchy, comfy and can be picked up at a bargain £25.
Comfort is key, and extras will help in the ever-changing British weather. Essentials are a hat and gloves. With the latter, go for layering: so, an inner, thin pair for warmth when it’s not wet, like this fine-knit pair from Rab for £9, and an outer waterproof pair, such as Regatta’s Transitions (£9.99), to wear over the top. Useful is a neck tube, which can double up as a headband, face mask – the options are many. Perhaps the best extra is an “overlayer”; a warm insulated jacket to throw on over all the other layers to keep you toasty when you stop for a snack.
In the bag
Finally, for all this kit you need a rucksack. Look for one around 25-30 litres, so that there’s room for your lunch and a water bottle. As with clothes, there are women-specific fit options which are worth a look. Just as important are padded (and ventilated) shoulder straps and hip belts, as well as some kind of mesh or foam “back system” – which essentially keeps the pack from sitting against your body and making you sweaty. Useful additions are wand pockets, the side, mesh panels that you can use to store a bottle. A great – and sustainable – pack comes from Jack Wolfskin: the Ecoloader 24 has a decent back system, is made from 100% recycled products and comes in at £45.