Time for base layers

Paul Smith
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It’s getting colder as each week passes. I’ve kept quite in tune with water temperatures this autumn.

Two-handed spey is a challenge that I’ve taken on, and its mastery demands plenty of drill and practice. No worthwhile achievement in life is ever easy; proficiency with a two-handed fly rod is definitely no exception.

I practise about four or five mornings a week, sessions lasting about 30-45 minutes. I like to train my cast as realistically as possible, which means I’m out in pond water at the break of day, up to my backside. Early morning, before work, is the only time I can fit casting practice into my daily routine.

These days the water is getting very cold. I’ve broken out the long johns.

My father believed in wearing thermal underwear each and every day all winter long. He was born in 1912, long before Patagonia started making Capilene base layers out of recycled plastic pop bottles. Actually, there weren’t even any plastic pop bottles.

Folks in those days depended on natural animal products to stay warm in winter, wool being the most common here in Newfoundland. About mid October, Dad donned his woollies and wore them till the spring sunshine convinced him summer was nigh.

Dad spent much of his life outdoors, commercial fishing, whaling, sailing and working in construction. His belief was that exposure to cold would bring about aches, pains and arthritis in later life. He could well have been right, especially if one spends a lot of time outdoors.

My legs got quite numb while slinging fly line one morning last week. I remembered my father’s words, and departed my warm house the next morning with the long woollies on. Incidentally, there are those who think I am crazy, with or without long johns. Around these parts, fly casting is not generally considered as something that requires practising at day break, especially in December.

Actually my base layer of choice these days isn’t actually wool. My pure wool stuff is retired to the back of my closet. I can’t toss those tattered thermals out with the trash — too many happy memories, tending trap lines, skiing, ice fishing, and winter camping. My mother bought me four full suits of long wool underwear when I journeyed up north in 1981; they served me well for decades. Nowadays, synthetics such as polypropylene are just as effective as wool for keeping you warm and cozy in winter. Polypropylene is a sort of thermoplastic polymer that’s used to make everything from car parts to diapers.

Garments woven from polypropylene yarns wick moisture away from your body and keep you warm just like wool. Actually poly pro base layers have better warmth-to-weight ratios than the very best wools. That means you can travel just a little bit lighter, which is quite important if you’re climbing Everest or skiing to the North Pole, although neither Hillary nor Peary wore synthetics.

These days, both trekkers and mountaineers have pretty much gone synthetic. Polypropylene johns and shirts are much cheaper than their woollen brethren, and can take a lot more punishment in the washing machine.

This is a serious consideration even for us weekend warriors who explore the woods through the cold and snowy months.

One flaw with synthetics is that they have no natural odour defence mechanism. Wool does, which is surprising, knowing sheep not to be the sweetest smelling creatures on Earth. Polypropylene can seriously stink after a day of exertion in the grand outdoors. It’s been nicknamed “stinkylene” by some. Nevertheless, they wear it.

Thankfully, the most recent generation of synthetic undergarments is performing orders of magnitude better in the whiffy department. Great products are available from Patagonia, Under Armor, Helly Hanson, Mountain Equipment Co-op and others.


Need to breathe

Dressing in layers is essential if you’re planning to exert yourself in cold winter weather. Your clothes need to both insulate and breathe. That means it must keep your body heat in while letting out moisture.

If you are just sitting on a park bench in the cold, the breathability aspect of the equation is unimportant. If you are walking a good pace on snowshoes, you will sweat even on the coldest of days. If your clothes don’t breathe and trap moisture, like cotton, you will quickly get soaking wet. When you stop you will get very cold in a very big hurry. If you are out in the wilderness on an extended excursion, death from hypothermia could ensue. Yes, it is that serious. Cotton can kill you.

Wool or polypropylene will wick moisture away from your body and allow you to stay both warm and dry even when exercising in the extreme cold. It’s fantastic stuff, and you shouldn’t leave the roadway in winter without one or the other next to your skin.

But wool or poly underwear is just the beginning of the winter dressing story. They are base layers that must be followed by an insulating layer and finally a protective shell or outer layer. Dressing in layers is the essentially rationale for winter survival, either walking the woods or summiting mountains.

The insulating layer is what keeps you comfortable by trapping air pockets in a porous medium of some sort, not unlike the Pink Fiberglas that keeps your house warm.

Duck or goose down is a traditional favourite for winter attire that’s still used quite extensively by amateur and professional alike. It’s held in high regard by many serious outdoorsy folk, from ice fishers to forest rangers. But in this arena also, synthetics are coming on strong.

Synthetic insulation performs when it’s wet. Bird feathers do not. A soaked down jacket is absolutely useless. On the other hand, down is lighter. Each camp has its advocates. I have one foot in each. I’ll chat more about this issue another day.

Outer layers have advanced light-years since I started tramping the backwoods in my teens. I can remember hiking the November hinterland all day in rubber fishing clothes, or oilskins as we called them. My God, what a torture that was; we must have wanted a few ducks or rabbits awfully bad to put up with the soaking and sweating one inevitably suffered in those air-tight duds.

They are super-efficient at keeping the rain out, but are every bit as good at trapping sweat in.

Many thanks to Robert Gore for inventing Gore-Tex in 1976. He made a fortune, I’m sure, but he deserves every penny of it. Gore-Tex and other similar materials keep the sleet, water and snow at bay, while allowing perspiration an escape route, and that’s exactly what you need to stay warm and dry when the going gets nasty. There will be more on this later as well.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted

at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Mountain Equipment Co-op

Geographic location: Newfoundland, December.Actually, North Pole

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