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The Art and Science of Staying Dry Outdoors

March 15, 2016
By COL(Ret.) Grey D. Berrier II , Ohio Valley Outdoors

"What was the worst weather you ever experienced, while you were in the field?" This is one of the most frequent questions I receive when I tell people I was assigned to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska from 1985-89. I've learned that what they're really asking is, "What was the coldest temperature you ever encountered while you were in the field in Alaska?" My standard response is that we endured -82F (that was the temperature, not the wind chill) during Joint Training Exercise Brim Frost '89 out in the Tanana Flats, south of Fairbanks, in January 1989 as verified by a U.S. Air Force weather team sent out from nearby Eielson Air Force Base.

If our discussion continues, I usually elaborate that from my personal experience, the worst weather to be out in the field for an extended period of time is 33 to 39F with persistent rain. During those continuous cold, wet conditions, after a day or so, your clothing and sleeping gear both start to get damp and you begin to lose the ability to retain heat and dry out. This can quickly result in a very real hypothermic situation, where you may encounter an uncontrollable loss in body temperature and corresponding life-threatening complications. The truth of the matter is that I've experience more extended periods of cold rains afield, here in Pennsylvania and Ohio, than I ever did in Alaska.

With Spring just around the corner, outdoorsmen and women are starting to look ahead to fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, and other eagerly anticipated outdoor activities. Frequently, our busy schedules force us to pick a day or several day period, well in advance, when we can head out; but often the weather does not cooperate when the time finally arrives. We're forced to make a decision to either: drive on with our plans, in spite of the cold, wet weather, or with great disappointment, abandon the effort and just stay home. If you're like me, you most likely are going to tough it out and continue to head afield in the rain to pursue your passion. That is when a little knowledge in the art and science of staying dry outdoors can make the difference between being comfortable in the midst of the rain or being absolutely miserable because of the rain.

Article Photos

The author’s collection of rainy weather clothing that he depends on to keep him dry while hunting, fishing, hiking or kayaking. Photo by Grey D. Berrier II

Human beings living in temperate environments, such as ours, have perpetually had to deal with periods of cold, wet weather in the Spring, Fall, and Winter. Some agricultural, commercial, construction, and military occupations have always forced individuals to spend extended periods outdoors in these inhospitable conditions. Historically, some of the most important, yet often overlooked, technological developments that benefitted the common man were in wet weather gear. The simple vulcanized rubber poncho/ground cloth was a major step forward for soldiers in the American Civil War. The oil cloth slicker, refined by Filson and other manufacturers, has been a stalwart companion of farmers, ranchers, cowboys, and outdoorsmen for over a century. Staying dry and avoiding hypothermia is a persistent fight for those who are forced or simply choose to head outdoors in cold rain.

When I was in elementary school in the late 1960's and early 1970's, I think every child had their standard yellow PVC raincoat they donned for the obligatory walk to school or the bus stop. I remember learning about "field expedient" rain gear from my maternal grandfather on the opening day of trout season, when I was only 11. My dad, uncle, and I were getting ready to head to the stream shortly after sunrise, when the skies opened up and none of us had raingear. Not to be deterred by the inclement weather, Pop-Pop quickly pulled out three large garbage bags, cut out the necessary holes for our heads and arms, and sent us on our way. When it came time to head to Penn State as a freshman in August 1981, I can still recall my parents having a disagreement over the $55 (a lot of money back then) Woolrich raincoat I wanted, since I didn't relish the thought of walking around campus toting an umbrella. Fortunately, Dad saw my point of view and made the purchase. I still occasionally remind my Mom, almost 35 years later, I still wear that Woolrich raincoat and it was a good investment that has stood the test of time.

My biggest challenge with all raingear, and probably yours too, is I can sweat profusely when I'm active. The decision frequently comes down to how wet I am going to get on the outside (from the rain) vs. how soaked am I going to get on the inside (from perspiration). If you will be relatively stationary, there is nothing wrong with staying dry and warm in a cold rain with an unbreathable outer layer, such as rubber, PVC, coated nylon, or plastic tops and bottoms, or a poncho. However, if you are going to be conducting more strenuous activities, such as hiking, walking an extended distance to your hunting stand or fishing spot, chopping wood, or dragging a deer; you are probably going to want raingear made from one of the newer waterproof-breathable fabrics. Cost also becomes an issue, since high quality raingear can definitely become the most expensive clothing choice in your outdoor apparel arsenal.

Fact Box

Don't let a cold rain stop you from passionately pursuing your favorite outdoor activity. Use some common sense when it comes to the best raingear options that will keep you warm and dry, based on your activity level and your budget.

Rather interesting is that the recent rapid progression in rainwear technology somewhat parallels my military career. When I first started out as an Army ROTC Cadet at Penn State in 1981, our sole piece of wet weather gear was a standard issue military poncho. We folded it to specified dimensions and carried it on the back of our LBE (load-bearing equipment), everywhere we went. That way it was always available and easily donned when needed. To this day, a surplus military poncho is a good investment since it is compact to carry, permits some air circulation to dissipate perspiration, and makes an excellent field-expedient "poncho hooch" shelter when stretched between two trees. It wasn't until I was commissioned and attending the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course at Fort Sill, OK in June 1985 that we received the standard Army-issue OD green wet weather gear top and bottoms. We quickly found that while the dual-coated nylon material kept you dry from the rain, it did not breathe and you subsequently became sweat-soaked on the inside, if you were active.

It was a substantial leap forward when the U.S. Army developed and began to issue Gore-Tex parkas and trousers as a component of their 1st Generation Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) in the late 1980's. For the first time, we had an external clothing option that was waterproof on the outside, yet breathable from the inside. Remarkably, Gore-Tex fabric is made from polytetrofluorethylene (PTFE), the same material as the Teflon that lines your favorite cookware. However, Gore-Tex is a virtually weightless film, called expanded polytetrofluorethylene (ePTFE), that is rapidly stretched to form an extremely thin membrane containing billions of microscopic pores that are too small to permit water droplets (rain) to get in, but are large enough to allow water vapor (sweat/perspiration) to get out. Gore-Tex, patented and licensed by W.L. Gore & Associates of Newark, DE, is the "gold-standard" of the waterproof-breathable fabrics industry.

Gore-Tex fabric employs precision three-layer technology. The outer layer or face fabric is the color/camouflage pattern you see on the clothing rack and it is treated with a durable water-repellant (DWR) finish. The middle layer, the "heart and soul" of Gore-Tex fabric, is the ePTFE membrane that is treated with a protective coating to repel contaminants that could retard breathability, such as sunscreen residue, body oil, and sweat. The inner layer is the soft, silk-like lining you feel against your skin. On a positive note, besides being waterproof, Gore-Tex is windproof, so it also helps protect against wind chill. However, one knock against Gore-Tex is that while it is breathable to enable water vapor to escape, it does not permit hot air (body heat) to escape, so Gore-Tex garments typically have pit zips that you can open to vent hot air or you can partially unzip your jacket.

Most of the major outdoor clothing and footwear manufacturers, that we're all familiar with, are licensees of W.L. Gore & Associates in order to utilize well-known and highly-respected Gore-Tex fabric in their products. However, because of the lucrative market for waterproof- breathable fabrics in the billion-dollar-a-year outdoor apparel industry, various competitors to Gore-Tex are on the market. They include OmniDry by Columbia, NeoShell by Polartec, and eVent by BHA Group. (It is claimed that eVent can allow hot air to escape through pores in the membrane, while still remaining impervious to external wind currents.) Other well-known options include North Face's HyVent, Patagonia's H2NO, Marmot's MemBrain. Frogg Toggs uniquely employ a Tyvek bio suit material by DuPont and are very reasonably priced.

Don't let a cold rain stop you from passionately pursuing your favorite outdoor activity. Use some common sense when it comes to the best raingear options that will keep you warm and dry, based on your activity level and your budget. There is an old Norwegian saying, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices." Make the right clothing decision the next time you head afield in cold, rainy weather. You'll be glad you still went outdoors and you'll be very content with the simple things in life, like staying warm and dry!



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