When I started getting serious about hiking, more serious than taking the dog for a walk to the pub via the long route anyway, I equipped myself with all manner of hi-tech walking attire designed to fool the overweight desk jockey that I was into believing that I was God’s gift to mountaineering and that scaling any peak higher than a mole hill counted as serious climbing.
One of my purchases was a coat. It was bright red, had more pockets than I could possibly use and plenty of zips in unlikely places. The salesman promised that it would keep me snug in arctic temperatures and cool under tropical skies. Which it did, if you accept that the nearest it ever came to arctic conditions in suburban Essex was a cool breeze and if the weather was balmy, I didn’t wear it. But the most disturbing thing about it was that it came with an owner’s manual. I’ve purchased cars with less information than what was apparently required to master a nylon skin to cover the upper half of my pallid body.
One evening, bathed in the yellow glare of a hotel reading lamp, I prepared for its first adventure by digesting the manual. In the morning I was planning go boldly where only 3 million people every year fear to tread and climb (walk up the footpath) of Kinder Scout in the Peak District. Apparently, my new coat had a snug pocket for a homing beacon in case of avalanche - I put my chewing gum in it, a map pocket that was too small for my OS Routefinder, a hood with three different types of fastener and many other adornments that I seldom used and some I never found. The material was designed to survive all but the most extreme of temperatures, would wick away sweat and it even had little zip-up vents under each armpit to let the stink out, although I think the manual put it more delicately. One whole chapter was dedicated to laundry instructions, which I skipped over. After 30 minutes of struggling with all manner of jargon and erroneous nonsense I binned the manual.
It was a good coat, I felt rugged and vaguely like I knew what I was doing, although I was undoubtedly wrong on both counts. Nevertheless, it served me well and was eventually replaced by a succession of cheaper models after one too many laundry mishaps. Yes, I know I should have read that chapter.
Recently I tried the specialised expensive coat route again. This time, since my job entails much outdoor work in everything the west coast of Scotland can throw at me, almost all of it wet and cold, I went for a long wax jacket designed for cowboys and stockmen who spend their time herding cattle and corralling wild horses.
I should have known better.
For a start it reaches down to exactly 10” above my wellingtons, meaning I come in to the house dry as a bone except for a soggy band just below my knees. Secondly, it has a built-in cape that I assume is meant to keep water from cascading down my neck. This does seem to work, but at a price because it’s fastened by straps that reach under each arm. This makes putting it on an adventure that invariably ends up with me twirling around chasing a limp sleeve flapping about tantalisingly out of reach, or I’ll cut off all circulation to an arm because its wrapped around so tight. Fortunately, unlike cowboys on the prairie I have Alison who will hear the tell-tale crashes and swearing and come to my rescue, check that I have my mittens on, spit on her hanky and remove flecks of breakfast from my chin and warn me not to play with the rough boys from the estate.
But the biggest flaw in a product explicitly designed to deal with wet and windy conditions is the metal fasteners that hold the collar and hood in place. Left to their own devices they whip about in the slightest breeze and leave angry red welts down both of my cheeks. Doing the top one up prevents this from happening but has the unfortunate side effect of cutting off the blood supply to my head.
It does have the redeeming feature of leg straps that you can step into to stop the tail flying around, although when I tried them, they made me walk like a toddler who’d had an ‘accident’ in the underwear department. I’m told that these also mean that you can wear it while riding a horse, but that’s an extremely unlikely scenario. Still, it’s nice to know that I have something in my wardrobe that could pass muster as bona-fide outdoor wear from a shop that doesn’t have a permanent sale or too many letter X’s in its name.
Who knew that a simple item of outerwear could be the cause of so much strife? *
*Alison, thats who.