Posted on 21 November 2010, 14:30

Bird photography necessarily puts some specific (though not unique) demands on the clothing we wear when we’re out.

Personally I don’t consider waterproofness to be my highest priority – a lot of my photographic equipment isn’t waterproof, so I’m not likely to be out in heavy rain for any length of time, and it’s more important that I can keep the kit dry than that I’m dry.

But I typically go from being pretty active to still for long periods, and so – depending on the weather – there’s quite a balancing act involved in keeping comfortable: too much insulation and I’m boiled and sweaty (an attractive image, to be sure!) in no time; or comfortable while I’m on the move, but cold within a few minutes once I stop.

This isn’t a new problem, or one limited to photographers, and there are umpteen solutions, most of which involve the well-founded technique of layering along with smart choices of fabrics to ensure windproofing and breathability.

While layering is easy enough to understand, the choice of clothing is a nightmare to get right. Over the years I’ve used Gore-tex and smiliar membrane solutions – fine for keeping dry, but in my experience they’re not that comfortable (a bit like wearing a coat made of cardboard, to be honest) and not nearly as breathable as the manuacturers would like us to believe, and as I suggest above, waterproofness isn’t my main priority anyway; and Pertex items like my Buffalo Windshirt which has excellent venting options but doesn’t quite deliver as promised, especially when I’m weighed down with a rucksack.

One option I’ve never really entertained in the past was Páramo kit: too many mixed messages about the fit; the look/feel of the materials used; the idea that even their unlined shell jackets tended to keep the heat in too well…

But the Fuera Windproof Smock started to get my attention:

I like “smock” designs (although at least one female friend of mine thinks it’s a hoot that I wear a “smock”!) and as long as they’re breathable and have decent venting options, they’re a very practical solution.

Surely though, if the Buffalo Windshirt wasn’t quite up to the job, how would the Fuera be any better? After all, the Windshirt is of a supposedly class-leading breathable material and has very useful long “pit zips” with which the entire side of the garment can be opened up for temperature control, whereas the Fuera only has the long neck zip.

Páramo describe the material used in the Fuera as follows:

Páramo® Windproof garments are made from Nikwax® Windproof fabric – a closely woven microfibre fabric which cuts the wind whilst providing excellent moisture vapour transfer or ‘breathability’. This robust fabric can be treated with Nikwax® durable water-repellency to deflect the rain.

Although this could probably describe Pertex too, the simple fact is that the Fuera really lives up to its billing. It is, without doubt, the best all-round outdoor jacket I’ve ever owned.

The material feels nice, for a start – soft and almost silky, compared with the somewhat plasticky feel of Pertex. The looser cut of the Fuera allows better movement of air, but with the option to close off the smock with adjustable neck and hem cords and velcro wrist adjustment; it is extremely windproof – almost freakishly so, for such a seemingly light material – and very, very breathable. Good colour too – I’ve got “Cypress”, and it and “Moss” are ideal outdoorsy/nature-watching tones.

It’s functionally close to perfection as far as personal climate control is concerned – after five months of ownership, wearing it in Summer heat (often ragging around on my mountain bike, with my camera gear) and in some pretty unpleasant Autumnal conditions (air temps around zero and 30+ mph hour winds), the Fuera has simply delivered, whether I’ve been on the move or stationary.

I practically live in the bugger these days!

I almost always wear it straight over a Páramo Cambia long-sleeved base layer:

This is designed to work with the Fuera – same length neck zip – and is reversible, with one surface being a bit warmer than the other. It’s an excellent wicking base, and – again – feels really good. I’m wearing it now, as a matter of fact!

Come the properly cold weather though, I suspect I’ll need something warmer against the skin, so I’ll be buying I’ve just bought one of these – the Explorer Pull-on:

The Explorer rather than one of the other warm baselayer options, because it can be used as a mid layer or even as a top layer in its own right, maybe over the Cambia.

First impressions of the Explorer are that it’s warmer in “warm mode” than it has any right to be: the fleece side (as they call it) isn’t fleecy but velvety – and yet still lovely and warm. And (recurring theme!) it feels really, really nice against the skin.

Yep, I’m completely sold on the Páramo way of doing things – it really does seem to live up to the claims the manufacturer makes for it, and it’s also just really nice to wear, which matters a lot.

It’s not all roses in the garden, though…

Those of you who know about these things will have realised that an excellent addition to this layering approach would be the Torres Gilet but – disappointingly – I’ve bumped into Páramo’s sizing weirdness here.

My Fuera is a medium, and fits like it was tailor-made for me. Being as light and soft-drape as it is, I assumed that a medium Torres would be the ideal insulating overlayer. Well I’m glad I found one locally I could try before I bought (it’s not easy to track down Páramo kit up here) because the thing is much too short. I’m not a lanky sort either – 5’ 8” if I include my hair – and pretty well-proportioned (40” chest, 32” waist and without a long trunk), yet the medium Torres barely reached the top of my trousers.

That’s no good..!

I know they say “choose a larger size for overlayering”, but it’s only the length that’s the problem. I’ll have to see if I can find out how much longer the Torres Light is, I guess – or track down a large “ordinary” Torres to try…

It’s not the end of the world though. I came across the Regatta Osaka Gilet a couple of weeks back, and it’s really good. Warm enough (it’s not padded, but has a c. 100-weight fleece backing), showerproof, very windproof, light and comfortable – and only £20!

And – importantly in the context of this piece – it’s just the right length to go with the Fuera. Not being bulkily padded it works as a mid layer as well as an outer layer, too.

Briefly back to the Fuera, one thing I will say is that while the design of the hood is excellent when in use (very useful for hiding the face, too – I reckon that birds do “key onto” faces, and I’ve noticed that I can often get closer when I’ve got the hood up and the neck zip pulled right up so that only my eyes are showing, Ninja-style!), when it’s not in use, it is – to quote Jeremy Clarkson – like a tramp’s hat! It flops down in a most unstylish way, especially when the neck zip is down.

Hardly a problem in any functional sense, but a bit of a let-down given how good the Fuera looks in every other respect. It’s simply down to the fact that the Fuera doesn’t have a collar.

Now then, given that I’ve declared a relative lack of interest in the ability of Páramo to keep me dry, that’s not to say I like getting wet. So, although it’s expensive compared to the Fuera, I think I see a Velez Adventure Light Smock in my future:

The thing with Páramo is that their kit is very tough, and £200 over say, ten years looks like a positive bargain: and while I don’t generally spend much time in the rain photographing, I seem to spend a whole lot of time in the rain not photographing.

While I’ve got Gore-tex, I’ll reiterate what I say up the page – I’m really starting to appreciate the level of comfort provided by Páramo kit, and if I can get that and levels of waterproofing many reviews actually consider to be superior to Gore-tex, then it’d be daft not to, really.

And as I hinted at above, this stuff works well on a mountain bike too.

What do you think?

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