Outside magazine, June 1998
It's been quite some time since polyester and other synthetic fabrics spilled from their traditional venues — you know, Polynesian "luaus" and bus tours to Laughlin — and into everyday sporting life. Now even the most casual of athlete will squeeze into some garish, tight-fitting performance getup without the slightest hesitation. That's not to imply, however, that too many folks actually like wearing the stuff. After all, petroleum-based sportswear is often cut too close for comfort and feels like woven Saran Wrap against the skin.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Recently manufacturers of high-tech threads have been striving to bring a "natural hand" to unnatural textiles by making the cloth more supple and pleasing to the touch. Oddly, at the same time, a small but growing number of companies, rejecting the oft-repeated cotton-kills mantra, are bringing back natural fibers, relying on construction rather than chemicals to fend off the elements, handle moisture, and insulate.
This, of course, is great news for the summer athlete, who requires a versatile uniform that will work equally well when an out-of-the-blue thunderhead rolls in or when a trail run ends in an impromptu swimming session. After all, just because such apparel has become something you use, rather than merely wear, doesn't mean you have to suit up like some spandex-adorned peacock. You can simply slip on your comfortable, high-performance, normal-looking clothing and go for a damn bike ride. It's a happy medium that seems long overdue — but at least, as the following collection suggests, it's one that has clearly arrived with a critical mass.
Among the more appealing models we've come across, 9 Lives' Valiant Water Shorts ($44) are simply designed and extremely well constructed of an abrasion-resistant and lightweight coarse nylon. They're cut long so they don't ride up unexpectedly when you're paddling, and the racy side stripes let you cruise the beach in style.
The Microsupplex nylon fabric used in the InSport Circuit Short ($25) may not have the texture of cotton, but it has the advantage of being highly durable, quick-drying, and resistant to wind and water. Simply cut with one interior pocket and a CoolMax crepe liner, these shorts shine in any high aerobic endeavor.
They've been around awhile, but Patagonia's River Shorts ($49) remain some of the most stylish, durable, and versatile trunks available. The outer fabric is a tough 2.5-ounce ripstop polyester, and the mesh brief is PCR polyester, made from recycled materials. Two front pockets and the one in back close with hook-and-loop strips and drain water and sand through mesh bottoms.
By contrast, the women's Sierra Designs Pull-On Short ($39) attains versatility solely through its fabric. The simple shorts are made of Congo Cloth, a material whose densely woven combination of cotton and polyester gives it durability and a great feel. They're perfect for hiking, walking around, or just loafing in a hammock.
There is no bright technology story to Timberland's Cargo Short ($56). It's just a plain, old-fashioned, 100 percent cotton hiking bermuda with spacious side cargo pockets and a generous cut. Obviously these shorts won't dry quickly or siphon moisture off of your skin, but nothing feels quite as pleasant as soft cotton on a broiling day.
It's tough to make bike shorts that don't look like...bike shorts. But Zoic Clothing pulls off the feat in relatively dashing fashion with its Men's Rival Short ($65). Inside, CoolMax tights with a seamless synthetic pad make you comfortable in the saddle, while the shell keeps up a casual appearance. A perfect option for days when you're just as content to lounge as you are to ride.
The Columbia Challenger Shirt ($45) feels as supple and comfortable as a cotton-silk blend, but because it's spun polyester you get the advantage of effective wicking. This shirt, in perhaps two or three different colors, is about all you'd need for a fishing excursion to the tropics. The two big hook-and-loop-closing front pockets have drainage eyelets, and the cuffs snap closed.
The KAVU Women's Tencel Tank ($36) feels much too soft to be synthetic, yet too fine for cotton. The secret? This blouse is made of Tencel, produced from wood-pulp cellulose, so it drapes beautifully and breathes very well. It's clearly sophisticated but still manages to qualify as sportif.
Even in summer, high-altitude roamings demand something more substantial than a T-shirt. Marmot's Power Stretch Top ($129) splits the difference between your R.E.M. concert souvenir and more traditional (read "too warm") alpine togs with its Polartec 200 fleece. The inviting brushed interior wicks like nobody's business, while the tough, four-way stretch face makes it a good choice for climbing on cool days.
In addition to "managing" your moisture, Mountain Hardwear's ZeO2 T-shirt ($35) purports to manage your hygiene. Embedded into the polyester yarn is a thread that borrows from water-filter technology to kill odor-causing bacteria. Strange as it may sound, it's somewhat effective. Such functions aside, this simple gray T-shirt is useful for any outing, by itself or as a base layer.
Sugoi's Matrix Zip Jersey ($40) for women stands out for its cropped and sporty look. The pique fabric is a textured polyester-spandex blend that's treated to draw in moisture and ship it out for evaporation. You might not want to waltz into a French bistro in it, but it's a versatile piece for whatever workout you enjoy.
If you're still clinging to that ratty, alma-mater-logoed sweatshirt but have come to lament its similarity to a sponge, consider instead The North Face Men's Turquoise Coast Crew ($95). You can wear this fleece top comfortably under a backpack and know that when you unshoulder your load, your back will dry before a chill sets in. The flat-lock stitching inside is smooth — a thoughtful touch on a sweatshirt that'll surely become a regular in the rotation.
The Cloudveil Serendipity Jacket ($230) features an amazing combination of fabrics whereby durable Cordura ends up on the face, hydrophilic nylon and stretchy spandex get dispersed throughout, and CoolMax does the wicking on the inside. With two chest pockets, a microfleece collar, and reinforced elbows, Cloudveil's jacket is truly a do-anything, anytime cover-up.
At the other end of the technological spectrum is Ventile. Spun from long-staple cotton — the cream of the crop — it's woven with 30 percent more yarn than typical cotton fabrics, rendering Ventile naturally water- and windproof, not to mention breathable. Ibex puts the stuff to work in its elegantly sporty Glencoe Ventile Anorak ($240), which is styled simply enough that you don't feel like you're marshaling a sponsored expedition when you wear it.
Lowe Alpine's Windbloc Vest ($85) consists of a front that's windproof and water-resistant, and a back that wicks and stretches. The point? To keep your trunk toasty in blustery wind but leave your arms free to flit about shagging volleyballs or hucking Frisbees.
Nike's Microfiber Side Vent Full Zip Vest ($54) clearly takes the prize if your criterion is the ratio of utility to weight. Made of an extremely light and compressible polyester microfiber fabric, with a Teflon coating for water repellency and Scotchlite reflective strips, it'll cut the chill on those downhill bike rides or dewy dawn runs.
Of course, you need more than tops and bottoms to actually get out the front door. Take shoes. Simple's new Shake ($70) blurs the line, or perhaps the chasm, between trail shoe and suede sneaker. This dusty-brown bomber combines just enough cushioning in the midsole and support in the upper for a day in the dirt, yet the design has ample subtlety for a day spent strictly on pavement. If your proclivities tend toward running, you'll appreciate the Ultimate Direction Solo TorsoPac ($25). Essentially a wide belt with two zippered pockets and a holster for a 20-ounce water bottle, it's quite an unobtrusive pack. To top things off, literally, you might try KAVU's Strapcap ($18.50), made from water-resistant cotton duck. The longish bill will shade you well, and black masking on the underside cuts the glare. If you want something of lighter weight, consider Pearl Izumi's Aloft Hat ($18). A mesh dome keeps your pate cool, and the fabric contains ceramic particles that block about 30 percent of the sun's harmful rays, which anyone with a Michael Jordan, or even a Michael Stipe, 'do is sure to appreciate.
Kent Black reviewed three-season sleeping bags in the April issue of Outside.
Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen, Clay Ellis