Whether you're making, buying, or scrounging gear, it helps to know what you're dealing with.
Nomex clothing at work.
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Neoprene is a special closed-cell foam. Full of tiny air bubbles, it is used for the construction of wetsuit-type apparel. It is designed for use in a variety of wet environments, ranging from the merely amphibious (as in some kayak and fishing equipment) to the outright submarine (SCUBA wetsuits). Neoprene is meant to trap a layer of water against the skin. By preventing circulation of the water, it allows the body to warm that thin water layer. The suit itself then insulates the person and the water layer, thus creating a warm micro-environment without the trouble of full waterproofing. Due to the air bubbles trapped in it, neoprene also floats.
Strengths: When you're facing a lot of water, neoprene can be king. It's fairly durable, its warm, and it deals extremely well with water. If you drop it in the drink, it won't sink.
Weaknesses: Compared to materials like fleece and wool, neoprene is heavy for the insulation it provides. It is completely impermeable, meaning that - on dry land - sweat is trapped inside of it, which can make it clammy. It can also give you a nasty rash if you wear it for too long. If you and your neoprene are not frequently aired out, it will eventually provide the sort of warm, dark, wet place that bacteria and fungus love.
Neoprene is vulnerable to long-term compression, which drives the air out of it, permanently reducing its loft. In storage, this happens when you leave neoprene folded or distressed. In use, this happens when Neoprene is kinked on your body or compressed under your weight. Neoprene sox, for instance, will unavoidably lose compress beneath your feet, losing much of their insulating power there.
Tears and holes in neoprene can compromise its insulating power by allowing water to circulate through it. We use toluene products like SeamGrip and Shoo Goo to patch holes, sometimes adding tape (duct tape, for instanc) as well.
Working with Neoprene. Thus far, none of us have fabricated neoprene items, and we have no advice at this time.
See the Poor Man's Drysuit for a neoprene-using river runner's ensemble in Kits & Ensembles.
See Gloves and Socks in the Gear Reviewssection for specific neoprene clothing reviews.
A Conflict of Mission: Neoprene is generally intended for underwater use. In these applications, a snug fit to the skin is desirable, since it prevents excessive water circulation across the skin. A loose wetsuit is a cold wetsuit. For land missions, on the other hand, there is seldom a constant flow of water through the suit, unless you’re standing under a waterfall. Having snug can constrict the capilaries in your skin, inhibiting blood circulation and making you colder. This is particularly vexing in sub-freezing situations, where snug neoprene will put you in a higher danger of frostbite. We worry that prolonged wearing of snug neoprene footwear would drastically increase the chances of developing trench foot.
Polar fleece is a petroleum-based synthetic fabric, much like capilene. Polar fleece relies on its thick loft for insulation, and comes in a variety of weights.
Strengths. Polar fleece is stretchy and very warm. Due to its vertical loft, it can wick water away from the skin, instead of just spreading water laterally, as capilene-like fabrics do. Polar fleece is also lightweight. In our experience, it endures the rigors of bush travel very well. For those of naturalist leanings, polar fleece is a very quiet fabric.
Weaknesses. Unless it is special windstopper fleece, polar fleece is definitely not windproof. A good wind can take away most of its insulating power, necessitating an windbreaking shell. Windstopper fleece is heavier and louder than normal fleece. ALL fleece is flammable. Embers can melt holes quickly through it, and - if subjected to sufficient heat - it will hold flame. Furthermore, it will melt to the skin.
Waterproof Breathable Fabric
Gore-Tex and its kindred W-B fabrics stir up emotional debate in some outdoor circles. W-B fabrics are waterproof, breathable to variable degree, and vulnerable to abrasion. They are useful for garments that you expect to sweat a lot in, like coats and pants. W-B fabrics also have a limited effective lifespan. In our experience they succumb to abrasion, UV exposure, and the wrong washing regimen. The more of these an item is exposed to, the sooner it will lose its waterproofing.
Working with Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex is the only W-B fabric we've worked with. It can be cut and sewn just like any other fabric. TBe aware that the highest quality gore-tex is available only to a select group of sanctioned manufacturers. We also recommend using rip-stop gore-tex for added lifespan.
Cardboard is stiff, durable, and impact-resistant thanks to its accordian-fold of inner paper material which holds its two sides a fraction of an inch apart. There's a reason homeless people make shelters out of it: this structure also makes cardboard a good insulator. Cardboard is good for making protective cases for electronics, cameras, and other fragile items, especially in combination with an interior padding layer (such as foam) and a surface covering of Duct Tape.
Strengths: Cardboard is easy to work with, readily available, and usually free. It dissipates impact force and insulates well. Furthermore, it's paper surface is easily glued, and tape readily adheres to it.
Weaknesses: Most cardboard is very vulnerable to water. Only waxed cardboard endures water without quickly losing its structure and strength. Furthermore, if cardboard is required to flex, it rapidly breaks down.
The old hiking adage goes "cotton kills." We don't 100% buy that. When it's wet, cotton is colder than being naked, but when it's dry it is some the most comfortable and warmest-per-weight fabric out there. In the form of denim and canvas, cotton is durable. In hot or very arid climates, there's nothing wrong with cotton. While working in Antarctica, Beyond Spec's Heinousness Expert, Ben Hunt, wore his cotton hoodie almost every day, as his primary form of insulation. It was dry and very, very cold, so moisture wasn't a problem. As Ben says, "Cotton's killer." Lightweight cotton clothes - particularly a loose, button-down shirt - can be great for daytime gallivanting in the desert or summer forest. Consider the consequences of being out past nightfall.
Canvas is actually just a heavy weave of cotton, also known as "duck." Carhart work pants are made of canvas, as are many old-style duffels and military surplus bags and pouches. Before the advent of materials like Dacron, sails were made of canvas.
Canvas is tough and, when worn in a bit, is very comfortable, but it is cotton, and all the same environmental rules apply. Some "teflon treated" canvas pants are on the market, and they're supposed to be water resistent, but we haven't been impressed so far.
Closed Cell Foam
Closed cell foam is foam with complete bubbles trapped in its waterproof matrix. In this sense, neoprene is a closed cell foam as well, but we're specifically talking about the sort of foam often used for sleeping pads and the cushioning on backpack straps.
Closed cell foam is an excellant insulator under pressure. It "packs out" very slowly, making it superb for sleeping pads, and its cushioning effect makes it good for pack-backing and strap padding. A folded piece of closed cell foam makes a great back-pad for a pack that, when pulled out of its sleeve, transforms into a sitting pad. This is especially nice on snow. Closed cell foam's cushioning properties make it good for lining cases. When rolled up, it supports itself in a rigid fashion. A foam pad can thus be rolled around a broken limb to make an excellent splint.
Closed cell foam is also bulky. When crushed into a certain shape repeatedly, it may retain those creases and folding tendencies, as folding and crushing can force the air out of it. Although easily worked, it is also relatively fragile, abraiding and ripping easily. Tape and glue are good ways to secure it, but stitches are not.
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