Travel Clothing

The whole point of travel clothing is that it isn't "run of the mill" clothing. It therefore follows that comfort, robustness and ease of care should be the prime considerations when choosing what to pack for your big trip. In fact, the way it all fits into your luggage should be high on your list, too, since there's not much point in packing garments which are heavy or bulky.

Ease of care comes pretty high on my list of priorities. The easiest route to lighter travelling luggage is to take fewer items of clothing. That means that what I do take should be easily washable, whether I'm doing the laundry in a hotel hand basin or a mountain stream. In most cases, synthetic fibres not only wash more easily, they dry quicker, too.

I've been a fan of the lightweight travel clothing pioneered by Rohan since it started. It might be light, but it's not at the expense of durability. Cheap alternatives won't have reinforcing bar tacks stitched into the ends of the zippers or securing the belt loops. Neither will they have zipped security pockets which are impossible for someone to pick. You might not care to try it, but yes, a pair of their best-selling Bags trousers really does fit into a Coke can! 

The Social Factor
There are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't want to draw undue attention to yourself. Inappropriate dress can make you the focus of attention when you'd much rather blend in with the scenery - crossing borders, checking into hotels, even minding your own business waiting at railway stations. But when it comes down to it, I know I'm going to stick out anyway. I'm tall, thin and pale, and if I try to hide the fact that I look different, I may end up attracting even more attention. In other words, my advice is not to go over the top. Nobody expects me to wear a kilt when I go to Scotland (except perhaps for Burns Night) so dressing up in any kind of ethnic kit is likely to leave me looking pretty ridiculous.

About ten years ago, DPM (disruptive pattern material) clothing was all the rage in outdoors circles, with everything from clothing to rucksacks sporting camouflage patterns. I never did like the idea, and my efforts to stamp it out then (successful, I might add) were fuelled by reports of DPM-clad backpackers in the Pyrenees being shot at by the local bandits!

Of course you may have to consider the way you're dressed in certain situations in order not to offend local sensibilities, in order not to make yourself a target for muggers, and in order not to attract anything but a willingness to help from the local constabulary! Despite the fact that I've always considered what I wear to be my business and no one else's, and that I've always refused to be ruled by the often mindless dress codes of others, there are times when common sense should also prevail. This boils down to not exposing too much bare skin when it really is inappropriate (besides, see Sun Protection), advice which will apply to the ladies much more, not just in Islamic and other male-dominated countries, but even closer to home.

Having said that, westernisation is creeping all over the world, and there are few big towns and cities where you won't see the likes of Coca Cola T-shirts and baseball caps. Out in the provinces, the situation may well be different. The best advice is simply to be guided by what you see around you.

If you work on a system of layered clothing, you'll find you can cater for just about every kind of climate from temperate to downright cold, with only a few adjustments needed for hotter or more humid conditions.

Base layers 
What you wear next to the skin is of paramount importance. How comfortable you feel, and how efficiently the layers worn on top work all comes down to wearing the right base layer. In short, the kiss of death is anything made of 100% cotton. The problem with cotton is that it absorbs moisture, lots of it, and it takes forever to dry out. What we're after is the wicking effect, moisture passing through the base layer fabric so the skin stays as dry as possible. It's important in cold conditions, where you have layers on top, because keeping the moisture moving away from you will prevent you getting chills when you stop moving. And it's particularly important if your outer shell is a breathable waterproof. If you're wearing cotton next to the skin, you might just as well wear a bin liner as a £200 or £300 Gore-Tex jacket.

In warmer conditions, where the base layer may be all you're wearing on top, it helps keep you cool by wicking the moisture to the surface of the garment where it can evaporate most readily - and by evaporation we get cooling. 
Helly Hansen started the ball rolling years ago with polypropylene base layers, but technology has moved on considerably since then. Polyprop tends to go very smelly very quickly, whilst the latest polyester fabrics epitomised by Polartec's BiPolar have anti-microbial treatments which will keep them working and smelling sweet even under the most arduous laundry-free conditions.

Mid layers 
The traditional garment here is the woolly pully, and devotees will tell you that not only does wool absorb moisture, but it even generates a certain amount of heat when it does so. But once again, if you're wearing a high-tech breathable waterproof on top, you're not allowing it to do its job by encouraging moisture to hang about inside your little micro-climate.

The modern alternative is fleece, made from knitted polyester, napped and sheared in a wide variety of different velour finishes depending on the performance and look required by the manufacturer. As with the polyester used in base layers, it absorbs a mere 1% of its own weight in water, and the sophisticated techniques used in its construction ensure excellent insulation for the weight of the fabric.

It comes in different weights, and the most widely available weight - best suited to a broad range of temperatures - is the 200gms/sq.metre fabric epitomised by Polartec 200. The heavier weights are better for very cold conditions or inactivity in less extreme temperatures, while the lighter ones are useful for warding off the chills of a summer evening, or as an extra "thermal" layer. 

On its own, fleece isn't windproof. In many situations with high activity, a certain amount of air permeability can be an advantage. If you do need windproofing, you can either wear your waterproof on top, or a lightweight windproof layer made from poly/cotton or microfibre synthetic. Windproof fleeces made with a laminate sandwiched by two thin layers of fleece fabric are available, and while they do an excellent job, it is at the expense of flexibility in an overall layered clothing system. 

The buzzword these days is "breathability". Most will have heard of Gore-Tex, the best known microporous laminate, but there are also microporous polyurethane coatings, and there are also coatings and laminates which are hydrophilic. They work by different mechanisms, but the effect is the same. Moisture vapour on the inside gets transmitted through the membrane or coating to the outside. They work best when there is the greatest difference in both temperature and humidity between the micro-climate inside your clothing, and the air outside. In other words, cold and dry will see the best performance.

While there are differences in performance between fabrics, and even different versions of the same fabric, what's probably more useful is to concentrate on the design of the jacket. If you're after the most robust, you'll probably aim for one of the laminated fabrics in a 3-layer configuration - good performers, but not necessarily the best for looks if you want something a little more general purpose. Here the 2-layer laminate with a separate lining comes into its own, and indeed, all but budget jackets made from polyurethane coated nylon or polyester will come with a drop lining as well. The advantage is they feel softer, and jackets using this kind of construction generally look smarter.

The main zip needs protection to stop water getting through. A storm flap is what you need, but the best will have a double storm flap, either Velcro or press stud fastened, and the inner flap will be slightly oversized to form a gutter so any drips that manage to infiltrate that far can run down to the bottom hem. 

A good hood is essential. A walking jacket may have a fixed hood, but more and more these days are coming with rollaway hoods which stow in the collar - simply because people want jackets to be multifunctional, certainly better suited to travelling. The drawcord adjuster should bring the hood snug around your face without too much fabric bunching up, and it should allow you to turn your head from side to side without your face suddenly disappearing inside the hood! You also need a decent peak or visor to keep drips from running down your face. Visors made for typical hillwalking or mountaineering will tend to come with some form of stiffening - either a thin plastic strip or malleable wire. Old-fashioned designs do rather give you a closed-in feel - the best ones have cutaways at the side of the face so you don't lose any peripheral vision - important when you're picking your way across uncertain terrain.

If you really want to batten down the hatches in bad weather, look for elasticated drawcords at both waist and bottom hem as well as the hood, while cuffs need to have a good range of adjustment to allow for sealing around gloves.

When it comes to pockets, it's really down to your own preference and needs. Certainly if you're navigating yourself through wild terrain, a map pocket in the proper place can save you some grief. Decent map pockets will be situated at chest height with the zipped opening beneath the main zip storm flaps, but outside the main zip itself, affording access to your map without opening up the main body of the jacket.

Insulated clothing 
If you're heading for really cold climes, or maybe you just need something warm to wear around camp if the temperature plunges to freezing or below, you might consider an insulated jacket, something filled either with polyester wadding or down to keep you nice and toasty. As with sleeping bags, the two forms of insulation have their pluses and minuses. Duck or goose down provides the best insulation for the weight - it's also more compressible, and it regains its loft better after compression. The big minus is that it loses its insulation value if it gets damp. Even in an insulated jacket with a breathable waterproof shell, it can suffer from a build-up of moisture which will affect its performance. The first line of attack is to ensure you don't get it wet. You can also impregnate the whole garment with a waterproofing agent which will enable the down to loft even in damp conditions.

Synthetic waddings tend to be cheaper than natural fillings, and in general they're bulkier, with a shorter lifespan, though with huge advances being made in the technology over the last few years, that isn't always the case. The big winning point is the fact that damp doesn't affect the performance. 

On your legs 
Cotton canvas jeans have been around for over a hundred years. They might be robust, but they have little else to offer. Unless you buy the stretch variety, they're unyielding, and if you wash them, they'll take forever to dry. In my opinion, they make appalling travel clothing. Get them wet in cold windy conditions, and they become downright dangerous. Water conducts heat away 26 times as efficiently as air, so cotton trousers which absorb gallons of the stuff are not good news for your legs unless you're a fan of hypothermia. 

Polyester/cotton or microfibre fabrics made from polyester or nylon fare much better in those unexpected extremes because they dry off far quicker. Besides, most travel trousers made from these kind of fabrics look smarter, too. For trekking and mountain walking, the best performer without a doubt is Polartec Powerstretch fleece, but given that a pair of leggings made from Powerstretch will be "form-fitting", do bear in mind any social considerations when wearing them away from the mountains. 

A long and fairly full skirt can fulfil both practical and social considerations in hot countries. Apart from looking respectable, it also allows ladies to go underwear-free in hot humid situations where fungal infections can be a real problem. Also (I'm told) a useful aid to quick pit stops when the men are going up against a tree, and the ladies have not much else to hide behind... 

Sun protection 
The rate of increase in new cases of skin cancer is alarming, and the age of onset is getting lower. We now know there's no such thing as a healthy tan, but we can improve our protection against the sun by wearing the right kind of clothes. Most people don't appreciate that while parts of the body covered by light clothing don't get tanned or burned in strong sunshine, the skin is still being damaged. UV-A rays cause tanning and burning, while UV-B rays go deeper, causing more long-term damage, and they go through many types of light clothing. If you compare an average cotton T-shirt with a sun cream, you're looking at nothing more than SPF 6 to 9. That drops to less than half if the T-shirt is wet.

We tend to regard lighter colours as more suitable in bright conditions because they reflect better. In fact the opposite is true. Darker colours absorb more UV and therefore provide better skin protection. The best fabrics for sun protection can still be lightweight, but are close-weave. Some travel clothing companies now quote sun protection factor ratings for their products. 

As with base layers, synthetic or synthetic/natural fabrics are best. First of all, synthetic fibres can be made finer than cotton, and are therefore capable of being closer woven. Secondly, their quick-drying ability means enhanced cooling in conditions where you're likely to be sweating. 

A hat makes good sense, too. The head and neck are prime targets, with one third of all skin cancers occurring on the nose. A mesh-topped baseball hat or open-weave straw hat might feel good, but they don't offer sufficient protection. A hat with a 4" all-round brim is much more effective. 

I rest my case (or is it a rucksack?) 
f the layer principle gives you the greatest means to mix 'n match, both in terms of performance and looks, then this little outdoors tip is one which works well in the wider travel context. The good backpacker keeps his load light by using items of clothing and equipment which, where possible, serve more than one purpose. So as you begin to select clothing to put into that rucksack, travel bag or suitcase, think versatility, and don't take more than you really need. 

Clive Tully