Outdoor Clothing for Scouts: Materials


A Message to Parents about Outdoor Clothing for Scouts

For the past 9 months, I have volunteered to mentor my old Boy Scout Troop.  I’ve attended several meetings to give lectures, lead a hike for some of the beginners, and gone on a winter camping trip with the boys and their leaders.  One of the lessons I’ve really been trying hard to teach is how to select safe and comfortable outdoor clothing for scouts.

One of the topics I have covered with the troop is gear selection, particularly clothing. I’ve brought equipment in for show and tell and explained the virtues of various materials.  While the troop provides most of the heavy equipment needed for camping, scouts must to buy their own clothing. Although scout leaders and handbooks explain to the kids what they need, I’m not sure if the message always gets home to the parents. This series of posts gives parents some guidance on what to look for when dressing their scouts.

This is a 5 Part Series

Because this is a complicated topic, I have broken it down into a 5 Part Series.  Each post in the series will contain helpful information about making gear choices for kids.  The topics will be as follows:

Materials: What clothing is made of matters!

Footwear: It starts with the feet!

Layering: What are these layers they speak of?

Accessories: Hats, and gloves and mittens, Oh My!

Shopping: Gear is expensive, shop smart!

Introduction to Materials

Cotton Kills

Cotton is a natural fiber made from plants.  It is often used for making clothing because it is inexpensive and soft.  When dry, it breaths and will keep you warm.  No matter what you do, your child will not stay dry while hiking or camping.  When cotton gets wet, it mats down and holds moisture against the skin. Water in contact with the skin will conduct heat away. It also makes the skin soft and prone to damage.

Wool is Worth It!

Wool is a material grown on animals that live in cold, damp climates.  Sheep, lamas, and alpaca all live at high elevations in regions that receive a lot of rain and snow, like Scotland, New Zealand, or the Andes.  Although wool may feel course, its fibers are extremely thin.  Wool will draw moisture away from the skin quickly but release it into the atmosphere slowly so as not to cool the body. A thin wool layer works great as a base layer, while a thicker layer is a great insulator. Merino wool has the thinnest fibers, and is therefore the most effective insulator and wicking agent.

Wool is expensive, but you don’t need a lot of it.  Wool garments are very tough and will last several years. Because wool is grown on an animal, it has properties that prevent the growth of bacteria. It can be worn for several days or weeks between washing.  Prolonging the time between washing will help wool clothing last longer.


Synthetic materials like fleece, polyester, or nylon have a lot of value.  Thin synthetic garments are great at drawing moisture away from the skin, and are usually fast-drying.  The down side to synthetic base layers is that they start to develope a funky smell after a few hours, especially on teenagers.

Fleece is a great replacement for wool as an insulator.  It is less expensive and more durable.  I prefer very thin fleece garments over thicker ones.

Get Down with Down

Goose or duck down are very popular choices for insulation.  They are lightweight and very compressible, meaning they don’t take up a lot of space in a backpack.  Down is traditionally expensive, but an explosion in popularity has made available many cost-effective options.  Down doesn’t work if it gets wet, so it isn’t a great choice for all applications.

Waterproof/Breathable vs. Ventilation

Many rain jackets, pants and boots claim they are both water-proof and breathable.  Such fabric has tiny pores that are large enough to allow vapor to travel away from the body but too small for water to travel towards the body.  There are limits to how well any of these materials work.  If the outside gets wet, vapor won’t be able to escape and will start to build up on the inside.  If temperatures are very cold, moisture will start to condense on the inside before it can escape.  Much of the time that you believe a material is no longer waterproof, the moisture you are feeling is actually sweat not being able to get out.

While Waterproof/Breathable technology is improving, nothing can replace ventilation.  Good rain/snow gear will have zippered openings or mesh sections to allow moisture to escape.

Durable Water Resistant Finish

Sometimes you’ll see clothing that advertises a Durable Water Resistant Finish (DWR.)  DWR is a coating applied to waterproof/breathable materials that repels water and causes it to bead off.  This is an important feature, because if water sits on top of the waterproof/breathable material, it can’t breath!  Unfortunately, DWR requires occasional maintenance. You’ll notice that after some time, a garment will seem to be leaking, but it is most likely just sweat condensing on the inside because water on the outside won’t let it out.  The good news is that it is a lot less expensive to reapply DWR than it is to buy a new jacket.

My Gear Lists

Summer Backpacking Gear List

Winter Backpacking Gear List

Look back soon for Summer and Winter Camping Gear Lists!


2 thoughts on “Outdoor Clothing for Scouts: Materials”

  1. Jason, the article is excellent, well written and fairly comprehensive. It might be good ro mention Gortex or any of its newer releases by or her manufacturers. The later are fairly inexpensive. Any of the local our door sippliers are very helpful with identifyig these products.
    Great job!

    1. That is an excellent point point, and I did consider mentioning Gore-Tex by name. Gore-Tex, created by William Gore in 1969, has been the gold standard of waterproof breathable materials for many years. Until recently, it was protected by a patent, making it very expensive. In the past few years, other manufacturers have produced similar materials that work just as well or better. The result is a myriad of cheaper products. Some of the newer products are lighter than Gore-Tex and excel in certain applications, but they aren’t as tough.

      All of these waterproof-breathable fabrics are constructed from multiple perforated layers. The pores are large enough to allow vapor to travel in one direction, but too small for water to travel in the other. They key to any of them working properly is to be kept clean and to maintain a good Durable Water Resistant (DWR) finish. If water coats the outside of the fabric, vapor will be trapped on the inside and eventually condense. DWR prevents this by causing the water to bead off.

      Any waterproof-breathable fabric will eventually “wet out.” Wetting-out is what we call it when enough vapor builds up on the inside that it must condense (thermodynamics.) When this happens, most people think their gear is leaking, but it really isn’t. This is why ventilation is so important!

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