Natural Fiber Clothing / Ultralight Hiking

  • My main reason for switching to natural fiber clothing was weight savings for ultralight hiking, but I have since come to appreciate it for other things as well. Natural fibers (silk, wool, fur, down) are all beyond the realm of technology right now for natural fibers. Man cannot replicate these to any degree of comparison without sacrifice somewhere....and usually in the weight department. My sleeping bag is just over 2lb and is comfortable down to about 25 deg (rated at 20...but gets a little cold at 20). A comparable man-made fiber bag will run in the 3.5 lb range for a nice one or close to 5 lb for a walmart 20 deg bag.

    Now...don't let me fool you. There are down sides to natural fibers. They are usually more fragile than man made fibers and therefore require more care. Washing can usually be done...but usually they have to be hand washed and air dried. Also...when down gets wet it loses almost all of its insulation...therefore you must keep it dry. Last year a on our Mt. Whitney hike one of the guys in our group took his Mont-Bell jacket (just like mine) and decided that he didn't think it would rain so he left his rain coat at the car. Well...It did rain...and sleet...and snow...a lot. He was soaked for the last 8 or so hours of the hike (about 17 hour hike) and he about froze.

    I don't have an expanded knowledge about these clothes...these are just the ones that I bought after doing some research.

    I went with an Icebreaker Merino wool T-Shirt. That sounds hot...but it is not unless it is layered. I wear it in 100 deg weather as well as 20 deg and it is no hotter than a standard t-shirt. It weighs 5 oz which is about 2.25 oz less than a cotton t-shirt. This is actually one of my favorite hiking pieces now because it is so versatile. Our hikes are usually about 3-5 days and we are without a shower for those days. The car ride back to the motel is usually done with the windows down...and we draw straws to see who gets first shower :) . The Merino wool does not keep you from stinking...but it is much better than cotton (or man-made fibers).

    I also have a Mont-Bell down jacket that I really like. Down is absolutely amazing. The jacket is 800 loft down (higher the better) and weighs 7.4 oz. In comparison...a t-shirt weighs about 6.8-7.2 oz depending on the cotton and a fleece pull over weighs almost 17 oz! It will compress down to the size of a coke can...and is comfortable in the mid 20's with only the merino wool t-shirt under it. Mont-Bell also makes one that is 1000 loft down and weighs something like 4 oz, but it was 3x's the price and reviews stated that it was not durable at all. This down jacket is a little pricey and fragile for every day wear...but is perfect for ultralight hiking. I liked the down so much that I bought a carhartt down jacket (550 fill) which is substantially heavier, but is extremely warm and will hold up to every day wear. You may think your coats are warm now...but you don't understand warm until you feel down warm.

    As I said earlier...the down is useless if it is a rain jacket is also necessary. I opted for the Mont-Bell on this as well. The jacket is 5.6 oz and worked well throughout the torrential downpour, sleet, and snow on Whitney. In comparison...a frog togg rain jacket is just over 10 oz. The only thing on my upper body that got wet was my arm up to my elbow because I was using a hiking stick. rain runs down your arm (note to self for future...put the hiking stick up when it starts to rain).

    For "long johns" I bought Terramar Thermasilk pants (merino will t-shirt was plenty for the top). They weigh in at 3oz and are every bit as warm as the underarmor 2.0 that I have. They are similar to underarmour in that they are snug seems a lot like panty hose...but works well. I don't imagine that they are nearly as durable as UA, but haven't worn them enough to wear them out yet.

    I wear patagonia pants when hiking. These are not natural fibers (Nylon) and do nothing for insulation without something else under them...but my legs are usually fine if I keep my upper body and feet warm. These are not durable either, but are good for ultralight if you are careful with them. They weigh 3.2 oz. These also say that they are water resistant, but they will do absolutely nothing to keep the water out.

    I also use possum fur hat and gloves. Possum fur is one of the warmest natural fibers for the weight....and it still works when wet (first hand experience). A "sock top" hat that covers my ears and gloves together are 3.2 oz!!! This stuff again is not cheap...but worth the money if you are trying to keep your pack light or stay warm without adding a lot of weight. Possum fur is only found in Australia, so you will need to find and order it well in advance of when you need it.

    This might all seem like overkill, but my full pack (sleeping bag, tent, food for 4 days, and clothes) for down to 25 deg weighs in at well under 20lb (less water). Comparable packs filled with man made equipment will be roughly 10 lb heavier if you are careful.

    I think it was rhyno that mentioned wool socks. I have a love hate relationship with wool socks. I have tried two different brands of very nice wool hiking socks and just don't like them. I have stuck with standard cotton socks and have fewer feet issues. Last year's Whitney hike was 22 miles (about 9.5 of that with wet feet) and I didn't have blisters on my feet with cotton socks.

    Now...on the other hand...if I run more than 3 miles in cotton socks I will blister. I wear wool Thorlo socks for running and have almost eliminated blisters. I get hot spots at about 12 miles, but that is understandable with any socks. I did try hiking in these socks but they were starting to blister at about 3 miles...and I can't explain why. I wear different shoes for hiking than running so maybe that is the difference...I don't know.

  • Wow, didn't realize how much weight savings there was.

    Image all those people who are decked out in UA or similar stuff who complain about the weight of a rifle or scope or whatever.

    But back to topic, my running socks are all woll, just seems better then any cotton I've found.

    And my favorite work socks are actually some wool Snap On socks I got for buying a toolbox.

    That's where my experience ends, I've had down pillows and they are miles better then anything Walmart sells.

    There might be some sticker shock, but when compared to UA stuff, or Sitka, it's comparable.

  • Most new hikers don't consider weight to be a big issue. They laugh at me for cutting the handle off my toothbrush and cutting extra straps off of my pack and stuff like that...but it literally shaves pounds off of the pack in the long run. I figure the less I carry the more I will enjoy the hike. Can I carry a 50lb + pack...yes...but a 20lb or less pack makes for a much more enjoyable hike.

    I don't use down pillows. I like my pillow to have some rigidity to it and down compresses too easily. I got an inflatable pillow last year and really like it. In previous years I just put my jacket over my shoes and used that for a pillow. It is not comfortable, but it means you don't have to carry anything extra. I since have decided that the few oz are worth having a decent pillow.

    Titanium is also an amazing weight saver....which comes at a price as well.