Gear Guy

Will sci-fi outdoor clothing become a reality?

Checking out this season's gear, it's clear outdoor clothing is becoming truly high-tech; we can travel lighter and more comfortably than at any time in history. To tell the truth, I feel kinda sissy not having to grin and bear the cold and wet anymore. Are we reaching a point where technology only offers incremental returns beyond what it can do today? Will we ever see paper-thin insulating jackets, or do the laws of physics prevent a future of sci-fi outdoor clothing? Ross Reading, California


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You’re right, Andrew, we really can wear lighter layers and be more comfortable across a wider temperature range than ever before.

Certainly though, as you suggest, we are in something of an “incremental improvement” stage. The really big changes took place 20 to 25 years ago, when Gore-Tex became popular and the first synthetic fleeces, piles, and long underwear hit the market. Those were phenomenal innovations. Since then, much of what has gone on consists of fine-tuning. Right now the big push is to make things tougher and make them wearable in more types of weather, the goal of the “soft shell” market—the idea being that a single piece of clothing will suffice in all conditions, from light rain or snow to hot, sunny weather.

Will we some day run around in skimpy outfits, yet be comfortable whether it’s zero or 100 degrees? Probably not. Laws of thermodynamics require a certain amount of bulk for insulation. But there’s still progress to be made. I think in the next five years we’ll see a broader application of “phase change” materials such as Outlast. This stuff actually changes its physical state in response to heat, allowing it to store warmth when it’s not needed and release it when it is. Outlast is now found in a range of gloves, hats, and smaller pieces, but is beginning to creep into other clothing, too. So you can imagine a jacket that soaks up heat when you’re slogging uphill, then releases it when you stop for a break, keeping your body at an even temperature as you strip off or add layers. I also think that improved breathability in rainwear is also a focus for some gear makers, with eVent fabric starting to make Gore-Tex rethink its approach. And of course, price competition is brutal, which is a good thing for consumers.

Cheaper, lighter, dryer, warmer. Sounds good to me!

Check out the Gear Guy’s thoughts on the Future of Gear.

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