Parkas, shells and other rugged outdoor wear are supposed to be part of the simple life. But increasingly, buying such clothing is anything but simple.
Tags boasting of various fabric treatments read like primers in fluid mechanics.
More and more synthetics, all competitors to down, are on the scene, many with strange-sounding names.
And with some specially treated shells priced at $400 or more, it's not too hard for a bewildered shopper to end up buying a garment more suited to an assault on Mount Everest than a weekend walk.
"This is a field where hype runs rampant," said Dr. Ralph Goldman, the chief scientist for Comfort Technology Inc., an independent clothing testing laboratory in Natick, Mass.
Matthew Childs, an associate editor at Outside magazine in Chicago, said, "Most people don't need what they end up buying."
So how should consumers go about judging outdoor wear? Here are some points and pitfalls to consider.
JUST HOW WEATHERPROOF?
Under a federal standard set for military wear, a garment can be called waterproof if it doesn't leak in a rain falling at the rate of about an inch an hour, a steady rainfall. But since fabric manufacturers use a variety of methods to test clothing, there is no guarantee that all so-called "waterproof" garments will perform alike.
"Some material would pass one test and fail another," said Elizabeth McCullough, the associate director of the Institute for Environmental Research at Kansas State University.
Many garments that claim to be waterproof leak because fabric seams are not properly closed. Michael Harrelson, a spokesman for Patagonia Inc., a catalog retailer in Ventura, Calif., said the best parkas and shells (uninsulated parkas) have seams sealed with protective tape. Check for tape on the inside of an unlined jacket, and if it is lined, look underneath the lining to check the seams.
According to the federal standard, a material treated to be water-repellent or water-resistant must be able to withstand a drizzle. But given the success of raincoats, which are mostly water-repellent, some well-made garments may resist more than drizzle. In fact, many clothing specialists said that if your activities are limited to brief walks in the city or country, water-resistant outerwear should do the trick.
Another standby is the "waxed" hunting jacket, nowadays typically a cotton coat with a water-repellent coating that gives it a waxy finish.
CAN A JACKET BREATHE?
Your old yellow rain slicker was waterproof. But it also sealed in body moisture.
One solution to this problem is a "waterproof-breathable"
material, a fabric treated not only to keep rain out but also to allow body moisture to escape.
The best known is Gore-Tex, a trademark of W.L. Gore & Associates of Elkton, Md. It is a plastic laminate that is sealed onto fabric or inserted as a layer in shoe linings.
Garments that use Gore-Tex command a premium, but increasingly new and less expensive fabric treatments are appearing. The Gore company is also making its own garments in different price ranges.
L.L. Bean Inc., the clothing retailer and catalog operation in Freeport, Maine., has used Gore-Tex only in waterproof garments. But Bean may soon produce another line of waterproof-breathable apparel using Thintech, a laminate made by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.
Tests run in Bean's clothing laboratory show that Thintech performs like Gore-Tex, and it is cheaper, said Edward Howell, the company's director of product development.
L "A comparable garment could be half the price," Howell said.
Along with laminates, improved chemical coatings are also becoming popular. These are waterproof sealants that have air bubbles whipped into them, permitting some body moisture to escape.
One popular coating is Ultrex made by Du Pont Co. Julie Whiting, a buyer for Recreational Equipment Inc. in Seattle, a nationwide chain, said that Ultrex garments are about 30 percent cheaper than Gore-Tex.
"Ultrex is not as breathable as Gore-Tex," she said, "but if a garment is designed properly with vents, it will be as useful."
Most outdoor experts agreed that even the best waterproof-breathable garment will prove sticky if the wearer is involved in activities like cross-country skiing or mountain climbing.
Runners and other fitness buffs who exercise outdoors in the winter may want to consider a third possibilty: microfibers. These are tightly woven fabrics that are breathable and water-repellent rather than waterproof.
Russell Bevans, the product development manager for Hind Inc., a sportswear maker in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said that his company is increasingly using microfibers and that they are about 35 percent cheaper than laminates.
Down or Synthetics?
Down is the most effective insulator. But once wet, down loses its insulating ability and take a longer time than synthetics to dry out.
One synthetic that has won high marks from clothing researchers is Primaloft, a down substitute made by Albany Laboratories Inc. It is known as a high-loft synthetic; that is, it is puffy like down. In price, the two are equivalent, said Howell of L.L. Bean.