Dress for Success

Learn a boating lesson in the fundamentals of dressing the layers.

It was in the wee hours of the morning when we awoke to the commotion. When we had turned in to our tents for the night a few hours earlier, the weather was nice, if a bit cool. But sometime after midnight the rain came and with it the discovery by a pair of 13-year-old Boy Scouts that the rain fly on their tent was not quite up to its task. Oddly, their shrieks didn’t seem to disturb the other scouts, but to the scoutmasters it sounded as if a bear might have been tearing through their campsite. To our relief, we discovered the only carnage the boys suffered were some wet sleeping bags and gear.

Thankfully it was the last night of the campout, so they didn’t have to sleep another night in their wet sleeping bags. However, the morning dawned cold and damp, so they still had to contend with wet clothes for the hike back to the trucks. Luckily the boys had heeded the instructions to dress in layers.

What lessons can boaters glean from a bunch of soggy teenaged scouts on an autumn hike in the forests of the Olympic Mountains? With the chillier and damper boating season upon us, the same fundamentals of dressing in layers is one of them.

The relatively mild winters in the Pacific Northwest allow for year-round boating, though some preparation is necessary for contending with the same cold and damp that the local Boy Scouts face. Even with a heater in the boat, things just never seem to dry out. The wet gear that ends up in the cabin, the condensation from cooking and washing, the pesky window or two that just won’t keep all the rain out. They all add moisture to the boat’s interior that seems to intensify the chilly temperatures. Dressing in layers in these conditions is the best way to combat the chill.

Three layers are essential to keeping warm and comfortable while boating in the off-season: the base layer next to one’s skin, the middle layer over that, and an outer shell. Each has a specific purpose in providing comfort.

The job of the base layer — underwear — is to keep your skin dry. For this layer it is essential that the fabric have the ability to wick moisture away from skin. One of the unofficial scout mottos is “cotton kills.” Cotton, when wet, retains its moisture and holds it against your skin. It is the dampness against skin that keeps you cold and miserable, and potentially hypothermic, so choose a fabric that pulls the moisture away from skin to help keep you dry.

Among the most common and inexpensive materials for the base layer are synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene and polyester. Polypropylene does a slightly better job of wicking moisture and drying quickly and also provides a little better insulation and is probably the better choice. However, polyester holds up a bit better to laundering and hot-air drying and also does a good job at keeping your skin dry. My favorite base layer fabric, however, is merino wool. With its soft, ultrafine fibers, this is not the itchy stuff my father had to endure. It is probably not quite as good at wicking moisture as the synthetic fibers, but it also helps you stay cool once the weather warms up if the sun happens to make an appearance. Merino wool is also naturally resistant to odor-causing bacteria, unlike the synthetic fabrics. At double or triple the cost of the synthetics, it isn’t the cheapest option, but for situations when laundry isn’t a daily option, my nose finds the extra cost is worth it.

While the base layer keeps you dry, the middle layer provides the insulation needed to keep you warm. Again, polypropylene or polyester garments such as the ubiquitous fleece do an exceptional job at a relatively low cost, but wool is a strong contender here too. Both types of fabrics do a good job of wicking the moisture the base layer has pulled off your skin, allowing it to evaporate while retaining a buffering layer of body heat to help fend off the cold. A down- or synthetic-insulated jacket also makes for a very effective insulating middle layer, though fleece and wool are able to dry much more quickly, which may be an important consideration in the damp marine environment.

While it is called the middle layer, it is not necessarily just a single layer. In fact, wearing multiple layers of lighter insulating garments is actually the better way to go. Making use of several layers, you may start off in the cold of the morning with a down jacket over a medium fleece pullover, which is over a merino wool long-sleeved T-shirt. As the day progresses and warms up, you can shed the down jacket and keep the chill off with the fleece pullover. Often, especially if you are more active during the day, you may end up warm enough in just the base layer. When the sun starts to go low in the sky and takes the temperature down with it, you can put each layer back on as needed to maintain comfort.

Insulating layers such as fleece or wool sweaters do not do a very good job retaining warmth if there is much of a breeze. Likewise, if rain moves in, the wet middle layers will be unable to provide insulation. This is when the outer layer, or shell, comes into play.

The outer shell layer can be as simple as a coated nylon rain jacket and rain pants, though this type of material is just as good at keeping perspiration in as it is the rain out. Still, if you are not having to exert yourself, it will do a good job of keeping the insulating layers dry and blocking the wind.

For most boaters, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canadian waters, the material of choice for the outer layer will be some sort of breathable waterproof shell lined with Gore-Tex or one of the competing brands of breathable waterproof membranes. These fabrics keep liquid water out while allowing water vapor from perspiration to permeate the barrier and exit the insulating layers, dramatically reducing the damp, clammy feeling of non-breathable rainwear. Most do a good job of blocking the wind too, preventing the rapid loss of body heat. As with many things in a boater’s life, the higher the price tag, the better the function when it comes to this kind of rain gear, generally speaking.

Good head gear is worth mentioning here. An acrylic or wool knit watch cap under the hood of the shell layer will prevent a good deal of body heat loss through the top of your head and go a long way toward keeping you comfortable on a damp, chilly day. Cold ears are no fun, so make sure the cap can cover your ears too.