camper trailer tech tips

dressing for the outdoors




Dressing for the Outdoors

winter camping - techniques to keep warm

by Mark Eddey



Whilst there are many of us who have been camping in various climatic conditions over the years, there are those who are relatively new to this activity and it is for these that I write this article about the principles of choosing appropriate clothing for outdoor activities.  That being said, there has been much progress in clothing technology over the past few years and even seasoned campers may find some snippets of this article relevant.

It will be beyond the scope of this article to recommend any particular brand of clothing item as there are simply so many good ones out there and the final decision will be an individual one based on intended use, fit, comfort and cost issues.

The types of clothing taken on any camping expedition should be chosen with due consideration to the following:


Trip location and expected climatic conditions 

Travelling to northern Queensland will entail quite different clothing requirements than a ski trip to the Victorian High Country in winter.  Thoughtful packing of clothing, keeping in mind the potential for unexpected weather that may be encountered.  I have had to drive through 18 inches of snow in the Victorian High Country in December!  It can also be cold in north Queensland (though what you northerners call cold amuses me constantly!)  I always have at least one spare layer for those unexpected conditions.


Intended personal activity levels

Some of us enjoy high activity levels in the outdoors and spend a great deal of time walking, skiing, paddling, carrying packs, even running, whilst others tend to do things a little more sedately. You know who you are! Do you gently pull into camp, quietly set up the camper whilst nibbling on a pre-prepared cheese and biscuit, then sit down to a few quiet ales with the other campers? Or do you hurriedly set up the camper so that you can don your 15kg camera pack and scoot off to the top of the nearest mountain to photograph the sunset, then run back to the camp to placate the ‘other half’ and help out with the dinner and bathing the children? Clothing requirements for theses different approaches to camping will differ significantly. Standing around in cooler weather still requires some warm clothes, but there will be fewer requirements to adhere to the ‘layering’ principle, the discussion of which follows.


Shelter and heating availability   

In a similar way to the trip location and expected weather conditions, the availability of shelter (ie small nylon hiking tent, larger canvas tent, campertrailer, caravans and/or huts with or without fires, will also have a bearing on how ‘technical’ we need to be in the choice of clothing for our trip.  

I take very different clothing for a snow camp in my hiking tent on the Main Range, than I do for a basic weekend trip with the campertrailer down at Wilson’s Prom. in Vic.  In snow, I have very little shelter and would tend to spend a greater portion of my time ‘outside’ exposed to the elements whilst on this type of trip.  On the other hand, for me, the campertrailer offers a much greater level of comfort and shelter from the rain and wind, thus requiring less thought to what I’m wearing at the time.  It is somewhat difficult to tow the campertrailer into snow conditions….believe me I’ve tried it!


Level of responsibility for others 

You may ask what this has to do with clothing, but as a teacher or leader of others, you MUST be able to be sufficiently comfortable in all conditions, so that you can provide instruction and assistance to others in your care.  If you are struggling with the cold and desperately trying to stay warm yourself, how can you possibly provide support and assistance to others.  This also has much to do with familiarity with and experience in the intended environment.   I always like to have at least one layer ‘spare’ to offer to others who may be cold or simply for myself to be ‘extra’ warm so that I can concentrate on the task at hand, rather than shivering.


Personal reactions to climatic conditions

I’m sure we all have friends that ‘don’t feel the cold’ or are always rugged up, even when it’s warm?    I always have an extra layer on, compared to one of my friends who I regularly camp with.  I feel the cold more than he does.  This is a recognised factor in packing clothing for any trip.  Some simply need more than others.  I’m sure you already know which category you fall into.

Now that we have these basics under control, it’s time to fully explain the most commonly followed principle in choosing outdoor clothing, particularly for cold, wet and windy conditions:  layering.



The principle of layering is really quite simple, but there are some misconceptions about the why’s and how’s.   I like to think of layering in 3 basic layers; Base Layer, Insulation Layer and Shell Layer


Base Layer

This consists of a layer that sits next to the skin.  Its primary purpose is to keep you dry by a process called ‘wicking’.  Many synthetic materials will not absorb much water and therefore will ‘wick’ moisture away from the skin.  It is this process that helps keep us warm, particularly when active and sweating. 

If the layer next to the skin is made from cotton, the material will absorb a great deal of water and the result is a cold wet layer of clothing stuck to the skin which will draw body heat away and therefore give the feeling of being cold.  This also has the potential through conduction to speed up the process of hypothermia. 

Materials that should be considered for base layer clothing include polypropylene, superfine merino (wool) and very thin Polartek or fleece garments.  The most common of these is polypropylene (‘polypro’) and it works well in most situations. 

I personally find polypro garments a little too body hugging for me and prefer thermal underwear that sits just a little more casually.   There are many variations on thermal underwear for base layering and the best advice I can give is to visit a proper ‘outdoors’ shop like Paddy Pallin, Kathmandu, Bogong, Mountain Designs and such like as their staff are generally ‘outdoor’ type people who participate in a variety of outdoor activities and are well placed to give good advice, unlike many of those who work in ‘disposal’ stores.

Whilst talking about underwear, it should be mentioned that the above also exists for your normal ‘undies’ or ‘briefs’, which are mostly made from cotton or cotton synthetic mix.  Whilst we may take the advice of layering and be warm everywhere else, having a soggy wet crotch and bum is still unpleasant to say the least.  ‘Undies’ or ‘briefs’ as well as sports type bras for our fairer sex, can also be purchased in similar materials to that of synthetic thermal underwear, for the ultimate in comfort.


Insulation Layer

As the title suggests, the purpose of this layer is to provide insulation, to keep you warm.  Good insulation layers will trap copious amounts of air and it is this air that heats up and keeps you warm.  Examples include wool, fleece (in its various guises ie ‘Polartek’, ‘Polarfleece’, ‘Ecofleece’, ‘Windbloc’, ‘Windfleece’, ‘Windstopper’, ‘Softshell’,  and a myriad of other trade names) and ‘down’. 

When I first started bushwalking, woollen garments were the most common clothing item and variations included woollen trousers (ex-army of course), woollen sweaters (home knitted), woollen shirts of varying types, woollen socks, beanies gloves etc.  Wool is a good insulator and will retain some warmth even when damp, but it will absorb about 30% of it’s own weight in water and thus become quite heavy when wet. 

It is certainly a better proposition than cotton or the common ‘windcheater’ type material as cotton will absorb up to 80% of its own weight in water, hence why they feel so heavy when washed.  This needs to be avoided at all costs in cold environments, particularly when active and producing sweat.  Other downsides to woollen clothing items are that many people find them less ‘comfortable’ and ‘itchy’ when worn against the skin. 

These days, wool garments are being manufactured from ‘Superfine Merino’ and are reputed to be very warm, non-irritating and with many of the advantages of fleece without the disadvantages of wool.  The downside, from what I can see is the cost.  They may certainly be an option if you prefer natural fibres over synthetic and are prepared to spend the extra money.

For the vast majority of us who are looking to stay warm and dry in outdoor environments, the best choice for insulation layering is fleece.  A good quality fleece jacket is warm, will not absorb much water, will keep you warm even when damp, is easy to care for, dries quickly, is comfortable and now relatively inexpensive (keep an eye out for the summer sales at the outdoor shops!).  Fleece garments come in many forms, either with or without a windproof membrane and in a variety of ‘weights’ or thicknesses. 

My advice is to have several thinner layers of fleece, which allows greater adjustment of clothing to ensure comfort over a wider temperature range.  Usually two fleece layers are sufficient, one being a quite thin layer for when the conditions are cold, but the activity levels are producing just a little perspiration and a thicker layer (perhaps with windproof membrane) for when you’re just sitting around and not sweating.  

When it’s really cold, they can both be worn together to provide even more warmth.  Conversely, when very active, such as cross country skiing or bushwalking with a rucksack, I often just wear thermals and a shell layer for protection against the wind, rain and snow.

For the ultimate in warmth with the very minimum weight and bulk, one cannot go past ‘down’ or ‘Superdown’ garments.   Down garments are made in jackets, vests, full ‘alpine-style’ suits and down trousers.  Do not confuse this with the ‘ski-suits’ often seen at the snow resorts.  Mostly, these are simply cheap synthetic padded garments which will absorb water like a sponge and become quite cold when wet. 

Quality down items will cost many hundreds or even thousands of dollars and nowadays mostly come with a very light wind/waterproof outer layer (eg. Gore Dryloft), generally to keep the snow from soaking into the garment.  Though most of these suits are still not ‘seam-sealed’ and will still leak a little.  In damp conditions, a shell layer will still need to be worn to keep the jacket dry as down looses almost all of its insulating properties when wet.  In this situation, the down ‘clumps’ together, thus not allowing it to trap air and it becomes very heavy and cold.

Down is available in various ‘mixes’ of feather and down (ie 80/20 etc) and the highest quantity of ‘down’ is the best and warmest as it traps the most amount of air.  There are a number of down jackets available that would be suitable for replacement of fleece jackets, particularly the warmer jacket in a multi layered system as described above.  I often carry a thin fleece for mildly active wear and a down jacket/vest combination instead of a thicker fleece to save space and weight in my rucksack. 

For general camping with a camper trailer, I doubt the need exists for down clothing items and my advice would be to stick with quality fleece garments.


Shell Layer

 As the term implies, this layer is to provide protection from the elements: ie wind and rain.  To be really effective, the shell layer must, of course, be water and wind proof, but must allow moisture created from within the layering system (sweat) to escape.   This ability to ‘breathe’ is vital to the effectiveness of the shell layer as a garment that does not breathe well, will allow a build up of moisture inside the garment causing you to get very damp from the inside and dampness = cold.  If this feature were not so important, we would all be walking around in $5 plastic rain coats from Big W. 

As with fleece garments, there are many different brand names of materials use to make breathable shell garments, the best known of which is Gore-Tex.  Gore-Tex is simply a membrane that can be applied to many types of material to create garments, such as jackets, over-pants, beanies, gloves, socks and even walking boots.  

Shell layers made from Gore-Tex will be available in different ‘weights’ with varying ‘layers’ of base material, thus making selection fairly complicated.  Generally speaking, the thicker and heavier garments tend to be quite robust, abrasion resistant, tear proof, but a little less breathable, whilst the lighter Gore-Tex items tend to breathe better but may not last as long with heavy use.  Other materials to look out for include: ‘Hydronaut’ by Mont Equipment, ‘Reflex’ by Macpac, ‘Triplepoint’ by Lowe Alpine, ‘Aquafoil’ by Berghaus, plus many others.

My recommendation is to find a garment that tends toward being more robust for most of our campertrailer brethren, unless the purchaser is one of the more active members who does a significant amount of walking or other energetic pursuits.  Also, look for a jacket that you find comfortable and allows freedom of movement to do the tasks that need to be done in wet weather.  The length of jacket is personal preference. I prefer shorter jackets and to wear a light pair of Gore-Tex over-pants when required, rather than having a very long jacket and wet legs.  

Whilst on the topic of comfort, I tend to dislike the ‘cattleman’ style jackets such as the Drizabone and similar, due to the fact that they are very stiff, particularly when wet and are quite uncomfortable.   The lining material can get very damp, as it is made of cotton and thus does nothing to help keep us warm. 

The jacket can also be very difficult to don when damp and also difficult to get off when required.  They are heavy, particularly when wet and certainly don’t breathe as well as something like a Gore-Tex jacket.  They don’t come with a hood and will require the use of a hat to keep the rain from running down your collar.  They do, however, look the part if you want to be a pretend cattleman.  One may also assume that they would be a good option for horse riding due to the ‘split’ that goes up the back of the garment and presumably over the horse.  I guess that’s why the mountain cattlemen use them.


Other clothing items

Accessories such as hats, beanies, socks, gloves and such like are generally a personal choice, but keep in mind that a significant amount of body heat may be lost from an uncovered head.  Materials for headwear are the same as that for the above layering principle, though I rarely find the need for multiple headwear layers.  A fleece beanie is usually sufficient and when wet, the hood from a quality waterproof jacket over the top.

In terms of keeping the hands warm, mittens are warmer than gloves, but are less convenient when trying to do tasks around the camp.  A pair of polypro gloves with a pair of ‘working’ gloves will be all that is required for cold/wet conditions around the camp site.  More layers and waterproof shell layers will be required for snow conditions.

Good old ‘Explorer’ type socks are hard to beat, perhaps with a pair of polypro socks underneath for extremely cold conditions or when long walks are anticipated to reduce the likelihood of blisters.  As with other items of clothing, avoid cotton socks as they will get very wet and cold feet are often the hardest part of the body to re-warm.


Further purchasing recommendations

Trying to outfit oneself for the outdoors is an expensive challenge.  There are literally thousands of options of materials, styles, features etc and it can become quite confusing to say the least. 

I would recommend taking the above information and perhaps sitting down to list the features of the individual layers which you think most important to yourself, given your own interpretation of your capacity to manage cold conditions and your activity levels.. 

Then, when you have a spare day or two (because it will take that long!) go into the city or town nearest you where there are at least a couple of different ‘outdoors’ shops and have a good look around at what’s available.  Make notes about the features, materials, prices, comfort, fit, etc and you will finally come to what you think suitable for your needs.

It is not an inexpensive task to purchase this type of clothing all in one go, so by all means, buy the basics first as your outdoor ‘wardrobe’ can be added to when you find the end of season sales.  It is often better to buy fleeces, waterproof jackets etc at the end of winter when the shops are attempting to move old stock, ready for the summer lines. 

Also, I recommend not worrying too much about colours and fashion when purchasing as many great items of clothing do not sell well due to their perceived lack of fashion status, thus are often found on the discount rack.

Sales staff in the mainstream ‘outdoors’ shops are fountains of useful information.  I find they generally don’t ‘push’ one brand over another and will do their utmost to advise items that best fit the purpose to which they will be put.  Buy quality items in the first instance and you will receive many years of useful service from this type of technical clothing.

 Thanks to Mark Eddey for this great article



april 2008


Top and bottom ‘heavyweight thermals’ with fleece infill panels


Lightweight Polartek 100 fleece jacket. Suitable for layering and general wear.


Fleece beanie and ‘base layer’ gloves.


Gore-Tex Label


Mont 3 layer Gore-Tex jacket.  Long style.  Suitable for bushwalking, general camping.  Highly recommended for everyday use.


Mont ‘Hydronaut’ lightweight (single layer) waterproof jacket, short style. Used for cycling and very lightweight trips.  Less robust than 3 layer jackets.


Mont 3 layer ripstop ‘Hydronaut’ Waterproof jacket short style, suits ski touring and general bushwalking for those who prefer a shorter jacket.


  Pic of ‘Hydronaut’ label.


Mont ‘Soft Shell’ windproof vest. Great for that extra bit of warmth under other layers or an outer shell.  I use it for cycling.


 Close up showing the water resistant grid pattern from down jacket.


One Planet down jacket.  Extremely light weight but quite warm.  Compresses into a small stuff sack about the size of 1 ½ tennis balls.


Heavyweight windproof fleece jacket.  Very suitable for daily wear.  Comfortable, warm, just a little bulky.


Basic polypropylene top with zip up collar.


 Lightweight fleece pants.  Comfortable, not too bulky and warm.


Polypro briefs.  Great to prevent the wet soggy bum syndrome.  Try to find ones with very flat seams for greater comfort.


One Planet Gore-Tex overpants.  3 layer, robust with articulated knees, very heavy abrasion resistant pads and  braces.


Example of layering for hands.  Thin base layer glove, winproof fleece gloves, fleece mittens and Gor-Tex overmittens.