Denim is the worst fabric to hike in. Everyone who hikes or backpacks knows this. It’s in every how-to article and every book. Denim is a tough fabric, so it seems like a tempting choice to don when hiking through woods containing nettles and poison ivy and thorns.
But it’s not worth it. It’s not merely that denim does not wick moisture and is not breathable; it’s that when it gets wet, or even just damp with a bit of sweat, it encases your body like cement in whatever condition you need to avoid. If it’s warm out, your entire lower torso will feel like it’s trapped on the surface of Venus with no escape, and your core temperature will begin to tick up into the stratosphere. And if it’s cool, or heaven forbid, cold, the only thing damp denim will wick is the heat from your body – and very quickly. Cotton is the second worst choice for hiking. It may be somewhat breathable, but it doesn’t wick moisture, and can rapidly become a sodden mess. Synthetic fabrics, with their breathable, moisture-wicking properties, are the best choice for hiking apparel.
Did I know this when I embarked on a trail in the Smoky Mountains this week in my khaki denim cropped pants and cotton tie-dyed T-shirt? Yes, I did. But we were going only for a short walk – at least when we began. The first two miles of the trail were an easy meander along the kind of peaceful mountain streams found all over the Smokies. But then we came to a sign advising us that we could turn back now for a round trip of four miles, or continue for another four miles along a loop back to the trailhead. It was early in the day, so we opted for the six mile roundtrip. I hadn’t read much about the trail, only noting that it was rated moderate. We crossed a bridge over the river after the trail split, and immediately began climbing up and away from the water. And we kept climbing, at a surprisingly sharp angle. Then, despite a clear forecast (I’m persuaded that weather forecasting in the Smokies is a fool’s errand anyway), the sky opened up and poured down a light drizzle.
The chipper attitude I’d carried through the first two miles of the trail began to wobble. My khakis did exactly what denim always does when damp – the sweat and rain formed a kind of wet cement that stuck them fast to my skin, creating a sauna for my legs. Meanwhile, I’d become surprised at the moderate rating of the trail, because it kept going straight up. Around every corner there was more up. There was never any down and never any level. By the time I realized that the trails were probably rated only for altitude gain, without reference to the distance within which that altitude is gained, I’d wandered fully into grouch territory.
For all my love of trails and hiking and backpacking, straight up is my least favorite direction. Sometimes it’s easier than others, depending on the number on the scale, how active I’ve been in a given season and, I’m realizing, my age. It’s never a question of whether I can do it – I always can – just a question of how unhappy it will make me. I put my head down and began to slog. And slog I did, for the next mile and a half – straight up.
“Fuck this trail and everything it stands for,” I grouched as I reached the top of one switchback, only to find a view obscured by trees and more up around the corner. The rain had stopped, but the denim was wet and not drying anytime soon. My legs and waist were trapped in a steam bath. I started up the next switchback, but my legs rebelled. I couldn’t take it anymore. I ripped off my pants and slung them over my shoulder, nearly tripping as I struggled to get them over my hiking boots. Righting myself, I resumed my slog upward in my tie-dyed shirt, pink underwear and hiking boots.
Travis is almost never surprised by anything I do. All he did was raise his eyebrows a little and said, “I guess I’ll go first so I can let you know if someone’s coming,” turned smartly around and headed upward. We didn’t mention the possibility that someone could lap me from behind and see my pink-clad butt waddling upward like some outdoor version of Bridget Jones.
“Oh look!” Travis said from up ahead. “Fresh bear scat.”
I stopped for a moment to contemplate the enormous pile of berry-strewn poo in the middle of the trail. Great, I thought. When this bear kills and eats me they’ll find me out here in my underwear. I envisioned the confused ranger standing over my half-chewed body, wondering how the bear had gotten my pants off. I moved on from the scat, my energy level boosted by my interest in avoiding such a scenario.
Half an hour later, we stopped and ate the Honeycrisp apple I’d stashed in the day pack. There is something about fruit – the sugar, presumably – that lights up the tongue at the worst part of a trail. Thus fortified, I ambled up a few more switchbacks until, mercifully, Newton’s law kicked in, and what had once gone upward began to come down. I realized that the elevation profile of this trail resembled a teepee with a long, flat driveway. But there were no views at the top, no scenery to reward the hiker for completing the upward portion of the teepee.
Once we began hiking down, and I felt sure the trail wasn’t going to surprise us with another up, I put my pants back on. They were still uncomfortable, but less miserable on the downward slope, and we were getting close to the trailhead. I was reluctant to engage in a meet-and-greet with other hikers in my underwear.
When I talk about the outdoors as teacher, this is the sort of thing I mean. I used to be vigilant about my hiking clothes, but I’d gotten lazy. But here’s the thing: if you get complacent, Nature will make you hike in your knickers. Count on it.