Warming Up to Technical Fabrics

A friend who lives in Alaska once told me: "There's no such thing as bad weather. Only bad gear."

I remembered that when the chilly temperatures sent me to buy some cold-weather gear, namely a fleece jacket, a couple of warm but lightweight long-sleeve t-shirts, and a "performance top" for outdoor exercise.

My quick errand, however, stretched into a two hour odyessy, as I got lost amid all the Polar Fleece, Gortex, Windstopper, Capilene and Smartwool. Did I need an outer shell, soft shell, wind shell, rain shell or a zip up hoody. How about base layers? And what is a moisture-wicking matrix with thumb holes anyway?

One fleece jacket cost $25 while another -- much denser, but otherwise identical -- was priced at $250.

Fortunately, a salesperson noticed my baffled expresssion, and came to my rescue. He explained that the shiny, hi-tech, and presumbly rain/wind defying jacket in my hand was designed for training for a marathon in Minnesota, not walking the dog in the Albuquerque foothills.

He led me to a rack of soft-shelled, fleece-lined jackets designed to block wind and light rain. They were less intense, less expensive, and perfect for my day-to-day life, which rarely involves Alaskan squalls.

The upshot was that I learned a couple things about technical fabrics. A few useful pointers I picked up:

  • Check the tags for capabilties and suggested uses. A rugged-looking jacket doesn't necessarily mean it's designed for foul weather, while the one that looks like a fuzzy, pink marshmallow may in fact be tough enough for back-country adventures.
  • For serious wind/rain/snow protection, get a heavy outer shell to block the elements. Underneath, you'll need to add warmth with a moisture-wicking base layer, a sweater or fleece and, if needed, a soft shell jacket.
  • Top/tights must be fitted and next to your skin to effectively wick away moisture. Moisture-wicking—essential in the summer—is equally important to keep you warm and dry during cold-weather workouts.
  • Polarfleece is indeed eco-friendly, made from Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.
  • Geek out all you want at this Technical Fabric Library definitions for a boatload of techno-speak high-performance fabrics.
  • When in doubt, seek help from a patient salesperson. After that, the only thing left to worry about is the color.

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