What the Special Forces Can Teach Us About Layering
Beyond Clothing is turning protective combat uniforms into stylish outdoor gear
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Imagine clothing capable of drying out and keeping you alive after you’ve spent ten minutes submerged in arctic water. Well, that’s the requirement the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command came up with for the apparel systems it wanted for its soldiers. And the man who developed that solution is now bringing it to the civilian market as Beyond Clothing.
Retired Army Ranger captain Rick Elder was sitting at his desk in early 2002 when the phone rang. On the line was a soldier deployed to the early phase of the war in Afghanistan. Elder was about a year into his new role, developing personal equipment for Special Operations units, and the solider was calling from a bomb crater where he was sheltering from enemy fire. Before the call got cut off, he told Elder that “he was freezing his ass off” and that Elder needed to come up with a fix. So over the next year, he and his team created something called the protective combat uniform (PCU).
The Naval Special Warfare Command’s requirements called for a clothing system that could go from completely soaked through to completely dry in 30 minutes, in subfreezing temperatures, using only body heat generated by exercise. Such a requirement, says Elder, is “a real son of a bitch.”
Clothing specs for the Special Forces are very extreme because, in the field, soldiers may have little to no control over the conditions they face and no ability to remove themselves from those conditions. If you or I get a little too cold or wet on a camping trip, we can usually do something about it: start a fire, crawl into our sleeping bag, go home, whatever. But that soldier under fire, sheltering in a crater, needs to be able to stay comfortable and alive even if that crater is full of water and the weather is below freezing, while concentrating on the battle.
Elder nailed the requirements with that first PCU system. The big innovation happened when the team accepted that wearers were going to get wet—either from their environment or through physical exertion—so the system’s performance could be focused around managing that moisture. Whereas previous combat uniforms were designed simply to keep soldiers dry, Elder decided to focus on getting them dry. In order to do that, he had to look at the performance of fabrics when they’re soaking wet, then design a layering system in which all components worked together to transfer moisture away from the wearer’s body as quickly and effectively as possible. Elder employed fabrics and technologies you’ll be familiar with—Polartec Power Grid base layers, Polartec Alpha midlayers, Gore-Tex hard shells, and others—but considered their performance in combination and designed a system accordingly.
Beyond Clothing was started as a supplier for the military back in 1996. Elder says the brand actually fulfilled some of the contracts for his PCU designs. It was acquired by 5.11 Tactical in 2012, and that company brought Elder in as the new president and has essentially let him run wild with the brand. Military contracts dictate American-sourced materials and American manufacturing, so he started there, with a range of layers called Axios. Those were made to the same standards as the PCU, but the range came in a wider variety of colors and offered a few more options than soldiers got. Axios was also pricey, so if the government wasn’t buying it for you, it was a hard sell, and production remained very limited. That’s a problem the new foreign-made Kyros collection is trying to solve, while also bringing to the brand new technologies like better DWR coatings that aren’t yet available from U.S. manufacturers.
Now Elder is bringing that Beyond performance to civilians. Thinking of clothing as a solution rather than, well, clothing, is what makes the company unique. Elder doesn’t want to sell you a jacket; he wants to look at the problem you’re trying to solve, then sell you a complete layering system designed to solve it. You probably already wear base layers, insulation, and some sort of outer shell if you want to be comfortable in a cold, wet environment. But you have to learn through practice how all those layers work together, and you’ll probably be stripping them off or adding them on as the environment, and your levels of exertion, change. By analyzing the performance of its layers all together—especially their ability to drive moisture away from your body—Beyond Clothing thinks it can prescribe a selection of its gear that will be perfect for whatever conditions you might face.
“We’re one of the only companies in the world that will say: in this environment, you need exactly this, and you wear it this way,” Elder says. And he says he can do that because Beyond’s solutions are based on massive amounts of real-world testing accomplished by the military. “It absolutely, 100 percent works and has been validated so many times over now that it’d be ridiculous not to trust it,” he says.
I’ve been wearing a system pulled from the brand’s new Kyros collection since November. And I can report that it works as claimed. One day that first month, I spent a 20-degree morning wearing the base layers, an insulation piece, and a soft-shell jacket and pants while going through mostly static firearms training. I was warm and comfortable, even as light snow transitioned to freezing rain. Later that same day, in the same weather, in the same-exact clothes, I took the dogs for a hike up a steep mountain. Halfway up, we surprised a herd of mule deer, and Bowie, our two-year-old husky–German shepherd gave chase. The deer led him out onto a horse ranch, so I had to try and catch him, running at full speed for 30 minutes before I was able to do that. I was too focused on trying to tackle the most athletic dog I’ve ever owned to notice, but once he was again on leash and we were headed back to the truck, I realized that I was totally dry, and I’d never needed to even zip the jacket open a bit.
I was doing the firearms training as part of a grizzly-attack survival course. And as you saw if you watched that video, it involved spending some time with an actual bear. Adam weighs 850 pounds and is mostly friendly, so long as you feed him a continuous supply of candy; stop for a few seconds, perhaps to repeat a line of dialogue you goofed, and Adam will rake his claws across your chest to demand more. He did that to Beyond’s soft-shell pants and jacket at least a dozen times while we were filming, even catching those claws in the zipper pulls and pockets. Other than getting covered in grizzly slobber, the system displayed no damage whatsoever. I’ve been wearing the pieces regularly since, and after six months, they still look as good as new—even after washing out about a gallon of deer blood that I let soak into the jacket overnight. It’s well-made stuff.
The K5 Testa soft-shell jacket I wore in that grizzly video says it was made in Taiwan, and it has kept out even heavy downpours while remaining exceptionally breathable. It also hits a $150 price point. Compared to the equivalent American-made A5 Rig, which goes for $390, that’s exceptional value. Items from both the Axios and Kyros lines can be worn together. Beyond’s entire lineup is designed to fit together when layered; its base layes and midlayers fit perfectly under its shells, and the way moisture flows through all of them remains compatible.
The other thing you’ll notice about Beyond Clothing’s stuff is that it doesn’t look overtly tactical, like gear from 5.11 does, nor is it tailored to suit a specific activity, like climbing or skiing. Instead, Elder employs a simple, attractive color palette, minimal branding, and athletic silhouettes, which combine to make the gear suitable for most outdoor activities as well as wear around town. I took the production crew out for dinner at a decent restaurant after running down Bowie, and other than the grizzly slobber, I fit in just fine.
I may not have fallen through arctic ice yet, but it’s pretty reassuring knowing that I’d be OK if I did in a clothing system that keeps me comfortable and looks good no matter what challenges nature throws at it.