Wednesday 27 March 2013

Soapbox – Struggling To Find …..

Every year, manufacturers of outdoor gear spend a lot of time, energy and resources developing new lines and new technologies, creating lots of shiny new better-than-last-year models to tempt us to part with our hard-earned cash. Partly this is because they want to be seen as cutting edge (and the launch of a new batch of goodies each season helps reinforce this message) but mostly because without the life-blood of new sales, either through added desirability, increased functionality or improved performance, it is assumed that no business has a sustainable future (obviously this is a debatable point, but I’ll leave that for another day).

On the whole, this sort of progress normally brings benefits to the user: lighter materials, more technologically advanced fabrics, increased comfort, enhanced breathability, greater packability, and so forth. Perhaps not every change is always an improvement, and product reviews (whether favourable or unfavourable) can skew the rate at which change occurs, but over time sales and feedback will shape which developments work (and which don’t) and which are popular (and which aren’t) and gradually a range of benefits will accrue.

But sometimes, in the drive for “new improved”, good products can get lost along the way. Not necessarily anything fancy, you understand; nothing wacky or way out or unsustainably specialist. Just ordinary, solid, run-of-the-mill stuff – the type of thing you would never imagine being hard to buy but which turns out to be just that when the time comes to replace it.

Such has been the case lately with a couple of items that to me are pretty standard bits of kit: the wicking T-shirt and the Microgrid top.

The wicking T-shirt is a curious creature. Rather like the bass player in a band, it’s never the star attraction or the focus of attention, and only missed when it’s not there. Its advantages are numerous: you can wear it on it’s own in hot weather or under a fleece/softshell/waterproof if it gets cooler, and the cut means it can be suited a range of body shapes. With either a round neck or a low-profile ¼ zip it means there is no bunching of layers round the neck when worn under something else, and the (predominantly man-made) fibres help shift sweat away to keep you cool when working hard and prevent overcooling when you stop.

A simple ask to find one, then: or so you’d think. But trawl through the hundreds of options served up as contenders and you’ll see it’s anything but. First deduct the ones designed primarily as baselayers (too close fitting, not designed or styled as outerwear). Then anything made of wool (can be itchy, stays wet when sweaty, difficult to wash and dry overnight), anything with a collar or high neck (Polo top, baselayer), anything with long sleeves (too warm in summer) and anything with an “athletic” fit (definitely not a pretty sight!). Next omit those that are simply not robust enough or better suited to lighter use, eg: running. Finally, sift out the budget brands or the ones made of cheaper fabrics or mesh-like materials that will snag badly under your rucksack or on a passing thorn bush on your first outing.

You’ll be surprised at just how few there are left!

The case of the Microgrid top is slightly different: there just don’t seem to be any. I’m not talking about Microfleece here – there are plenty of those to choose from – but good, old-fashioned, genuine Microgrid. The advantages over fleece are simple: they wick sweat away and allow it to evaporate better thanks to the structure of the material, and for an equivalent amount of warmth they are thinner, less bulky, more robust, and far less prone to pilling. I have a couple from Mountain Hardwear that are fantastic – I’ve used them in all sorts of circumstances, often directly under a rucksack, with virtually no sign of pilling or wear at all. After all that they still look good enough for the pub in the evening, and I would happily choose the same or similar again if I could find one.

I am hoping, in both these cases, that the shortage is just a temporary blip: that it’s something of an oversight by manufacturers that will be rectified in future offerings. But I’ve been searching on and off for almost a year now, and my hopes are now fading fast as time passes. In the meantime, I’m coming to terms with the possibility of having to nurse my increasingly shabby collection of each through another spring, summer and autumn.

So, if you’re out on a hill somewhere and see a slightly dishevelled, late 40-ish bloke of a distinctly non-athletic build coercing his kit on to one final effort and cursing the short sightedness of outdoor manufacturers, it could well be me.


  1. Hi Jules,
    I stumbled upon your blog while researching a holiday to Albania - actually the same Walks Worldwide one that you took - so your account was very interesting, thank you.
    Regarding this 'soapbox' post, have you looked at the Rohan website? Several pieces of Microgrid and wicking T shirts in their range. I have always found Rohan fabrics to be excellent quality and the cut is usually very flattering.
    Thanks again for sharing your Albania experience.

  2. Hi ffrancesanna

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

    I must confess as to not having checked Rohan particularly well, so will do so on your recommendation.

    As for Albania - glad you found the account interesting and useful - I hope it doesn't put you off! It was a really good trip and I would say for anyone with an interest in exploring the area, Albania, or the Balkans in general, it's well worth doing.