There is nothing better than getting out and enjoying the world around you, but it is an inescapable truth that for most of the year in the United Kingdom the conditions will be less than perfect. We run the gambit from freezing conditions, through the rainy months of spring and autumn all the way into sweltering heatwaves in the summer. In my early years for the cold conditions, I would have thrown on a big insulated parka, a thick pair of denim jeans and simply gritted my teeth through the winds, rains and frosts. For the summer I would hike in light trousers or shorts depending on what the forecast suggested would be best and hope that the conditions didn't change. But the longer I adventured the more I realised how easily my time in the great outdoors could be improved with a few simple bits of kit, and now I would love to share some of the favourite bits with you. I could break down all of the essentials but not only have I done that before here, but for the purposes of this I will assume for this you know the essentials - you've traded your denim in for something that performs better in the cold and wet, you've filled your wardrobe with many layers for better insulation and have acquired some form of good footwear appropriate for the conditions. These 6 items are things I often see all but the best kitted out walkers overlooking, plus some of these are things I've come to love with my journey back into cycling. So without further adieu, here are 6 pieces of gear that I would simply not be without anymore...
1. Thermal Baselayers
To begin with, thermal baselayers are one that I assume most people are aware of but so many choose to ignore or think they are redundant with a thick enough coat. In the depths of winter, a good coat with some layers underneath may well suffice but it can be done so much more efficiently. When I compare my days of layering up with conventional clothes to now, where a good base layer, followed by a shirt and then a light to moderate coat (depending on conditions), it is honestly remarkable in terms of the difference felt - with the base layer I often get comfortably toasty even when the thermometer is sub-zero. Furthermore, the "long johns" that will protect your legs can make a massive difference in terms of wind chill - previously, I had used a combination of good hiking trousers and waterproof overtrousers just to keep my legs warm from an icy breeze, but the base layer is so much more effective and I don't have to listen to that annoying swishing sound that waterproof clothing always makes. I find myself comfortably ditching my coat on winter walks as I'm already such a nice temperature! Base layers are great not only for their effective insulation properties, but they are cheap all things considered - you can often get a full set of solid base layers for the price of a single t-shirt and the quality will be remarkable. I have everything from light sets to super heavy winter sets, and you can guarantee in all weather that dips below 5 degrees, I will have some kind of base layer on...
2. Neck Gaiter
The neck gaiter is a real game-changer for cold conditions, it can be the difference between "I'm a little cold today" and "I'm seriously toasty today". The neck gaiter offers two main perks as far as I see it, the first is simple - it keeps your neck warm like a scarf but is easier to keep up over your face where it can cut the wind chill by a considerable amount. Once up and over your face, your own breath will keep your entire face so warm I find myself needing to periodically remove it to cool down, even on the coldest of days! The second is it helps to stop the warmth escaping that your base layer is trying to keep against your torso. Such a simple piece of light fabric makes a huge difference in my experience, and when cycling I will often want to ditch my coat when wearing one because I'm such a comfortable temperature. At this point, I will always have one on me for a winters walk, either on my face, in a pocket or wrapped around my wrist waiting for me to get cold. If you can, I would recommend trying to find a gaiter like my favourite one: It combines a light traditional face covering, like the one pictured above, with a thicker neck protector and a full hood, it is the best of all worlds and I will continue to sew it back together and maintain it until it completely disintegrates.
3. Zip-off trousers
At the opposite end of the weather spectrum now, these are an essential item for me from mid-spring throughout the warmest days of summer and into mid-autumn before the chilly weather returns. It may seem like a little bit of a novelty but I swear I would never buy another set of hiking trousers that lacked those little zips! So many walks have started with a drab sky only to be replaced by the blazing sun and I had lamented my decision to wear trousers as I sweltered through the walk - likewise, the inverse has happened just as often, with a sunny morning being replaced by a cold afternoon and while I could power through to keep my legs from getting chilly it was silly not to take advantage of such a simple solution. There are some minor compromises, such as pocket space may be a little limited compared to your normal multi-pocketed cargo style trousers, but it is only a slight loss of storage space, in my experience, and has never been a deal-breaker as most of my gear goes in my backpack anyway. You may expect the zip to impact the insulative quality of the trousers, but as long you get a set with appropriate covers on the outer and inner of the zip then there really won't be an issue. The protection on the inside of the zip is especially important, otherwise, you'll have an ice-cold metal zip scratching at your legs on long walks. Anyone who has spent time walking in the United Kingdom will know just how fickle the weather can be, so with something like this you can really have a bit of kit for all eventualities.
4. Waterproof socks
Next, on to what may seem like a bit of an odd one, but one I've grown to love as I've cycled through the winter. Waterproof socks certainly feel strange, they almost feel like the halfway point between a normal pair of thermal socks and a plastic bag, but my god do they work well. I mainly picked them up so I could cycle in comfortable shoes, regardless of their waterproofing, but these socks have made their way into my walking inventory too as they are simply too good to pass up. Even when in my tall boots there is still a chance of sticking my foot into an especially deep puddle, misstepping as I ford a stream or my boot's waterproof layer simply failing to protect my feet as it ages and deteriorates, so having an extra layer of waterproofing can prevent your day from getting ruined by a spot of trench-foot. They do have drawbacks, mainly that they are bloody warm on intensive walks and not particularly breathable, plus the ones I have tried haven't been particularly comfortable on their own, but I mainly use them in the colder months when wet feet are the most likely and wear a normal pair of socks inside them to fix the comfort problem. If you are going somewhere especially wet soon I wholeheartedly recommend you grab a pair of these, and would pretty much always select these paired with comfortable hiking boots over things like Wellies, unless I intend to be ankle-deep in muck and water for extended periods.
5. Capacitive gloves
In the modern age in which we live, being able to use touch screens is an essential part of life. Whether they are wonderful pieces of technology that make our lives easier, such as smartphones, or other devices that, in all honesty, probably didn't need it but have moved with the times, touch screens are the modern standard. For better or for worse, unless you seek out specific non-touch devices then, for the most part, your next tech purchase will probably get a touch-screen, things such as GPS devices will often require you to ditch your gloves to have any hope of poking at their screen, which can be a serious annoyance on cold days and downright painful on sub-zero days. Getting a set of gloves that allow for capacitive touch can make this a lot less frustrating, and since I tried my first pair several years ago they have always been a staple of my cold-weather outfit. They may not be perfect for seriously freezing weather, as they are typically lighter and made up of different material at the fingertips which can be a point of failure as they age, but there are workarounds for this. You could shop around for a thicker pair, but my preference is to have a fairly light pair of capacitive gloves with a thick pair of winter gloves/mittens over the top - all of the winter protection plus your hands are still protected when you do need to take the outer layer off, and as an added bonus the gloves will last longer without wearing out! You can once and for all eliminate the frustrated fumbling at your maps app trying to get it to respond to your frostbitten fingers with such a simple solution.
6. Packet Jackets and Packet Trousers
One of the first discoveries I made when trying to improve my hiking ensemble were the packet jacket (or bag-a-cag) and its trouser counterpart, and I will forever be singing their praises. These were immediately added to my backpack so I will never be without them - I've already worn my way through one pair of trousers as I use them so often but it cannot be understated how useful they are and how many times they have saved me from a soaking! There is a great selection of wonderful waterproofs that fold away into a neat little form-factor that should suit all backpack sizes - I used to keep mine strapped to the outside for quick access. They aren't without minor drawbacks, most packet style jackets are waterproof but only to a certain level as they are designed to be light rather than for maximum water deflection, but if they are the difference between a small wet patch on your chest versus being fully soaked from head to toe, then I know which I would prefer. I have jackets of all sizes, from windbreakers to full artic explorer type jackets and everything in between, but nothing gets used quite as often as my packet-it jacket.
I hope this little list has helped you in terms of extending your hiking gear, there are plenty of little nick-nacks and accessories out there that can make your life both easier and more comfortable and I'm sure there are plenty more I too will discover over the coming years. These items here are ones I have come to love but don't often see people taking advantage of; I'm a firm believer that with the right gear any journey can be a comfortable one, so rather than struggle along with inadequate protection from the elements, treat yourself to a few bits and pieces to make your next adventure an easy one! They need not be the most expensive things either, most of the examples I use are quite literally the cheapest I could find - I only replace them with expensive if I feel the need to, or if I am using things so often they are deteriorating too fast. So with that, don't be afraid to go out and grab a budget-friendly example of something on this list that intrigued you and test to see if it too can improve your adventuring.