Right now, the outdoor industry is probably as saturated as it’s ever been with ‘technical’ clothing and while some product claims can probably be dismissed simply as marketing, there are a bunch of core features you’ll want to keep an eye for. Light, protective and well thought out, a good expedition shirt is a core bit of trekking kit, designed to keep you comfortable in all sorts of range of extreme environments.
With the significance of each feature to be determined of course by your personal preference and the requirements of the adventure at hand, these are some of the key features which I always look for in expedition shirts.
On an expedition, the likelihood is you’re going to be pretty exposed to weather. If you’re in the desert that means sun so making sure your clothing provides a good level protection from UV radiation should be of upmost importance. In looking for a technical exped shirt, you’ll be hard pressed to find something which won’t offer a good level of defence in this department but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Simply opting for more coverage is a great place to start making long sleeves the preferred choice but exactly how effective the material’s protection is comes down to the actual construction of the fabric. Effective UV clothing protects in three ways, by absorbing, blocking or reflecting the sun’s radiation. All fabrics are made of tiny fibres woven together so while you’ll likely want something light and breathable, a tighter weave means less holes between the fibres and therefore less UV able to pass through making that natural protection far more effective.
Different collars will of course provide different levels of cover and while shorter collar designs have become more common place in casual shirts, these don’t offer the same protection as a traditional taller collar. My personal favourite is the aptly named sun collar – this looks like a normal shirt collar but has an additional section you can ‘pop’ out to increase the coverage at the back of your neck – prime sunburn territory. If you do go for a smaller collar, pair it up with a buff or sweat rag for sun protection and if it’s
particularly hot, you can soak them in water for extra cooling.
Perhaps not such a vital consideration in the desert, but in the jungle, you’ll want to be sure your shirt will do its bit in protecting you from insect bites. From 100 feet away, insects can detect lactic acid and carbon dioxide in our breath and from our skin. So physical exertion in the jungle makes you a prime target for bites.
While covering your arms with long sleeves and your neck with a tall collar will help, if tropical diseases are prevalent you’ll be glad for a fabric with repellent treatment. Many integrated insect repelling garments are treated with permethrin, a synthetic version of a natural chemical called pyrethrum, found in chrysanthemum flowers. Permethrin masks your natural scent, which blocks the stimulation of insect’s antennae. A repellent shirt will also reduce amount of sticky or oily spray repellent you’ll need to apply.
Cotton is not the best fabric for extreme environments. Even in soaring temperatures, sweaty, damp clothes can soon cause a chill if the breeze picks up or when darkness falls. The way they absorb and hold moisture makes them far less hygienic than many synthetic materials or say merino wool.
Synthetic materials like polyamide do wick well and dry very quickly as they are non-absorbent while being easily manipulated for contemporary designs so these are common place in the designs of expedition shirts.
I always aim for a combination of fabrics in my shirts – a lightweight, stretch synthetic for the main material, and a mesh or knit synthetic for areas which need more ventilation, under the arms or in the shoulder panels. What’s perceived as adequate ventilation though varies from brand to brand. While some go light on the mesh meaning they lack breathability some others will run mesh almost to the wrist making them not so hard wearing in the high abrasion areas.
Finding a happy medium is down to personal preference and the requirements of the adventure but it’s always worth checking in a mirror as some mesh sides can put more on show more than you’d bargained for.
All clothing choices should be made with maximum ease in mind and buttons remain the easiest to replace or mend whilst away. It’s also well worth testing your new expedition shirt with the rucksack you’ll be using on expedition to ensure the buttons don’t catch in an uncomfortable or just annoying way. It might be a minor irritation now but if your sternum strap is catching a button with every step, those daily miles will final few miles to camp will feel a lot longer.
Do you even need these on a shirt? Probably yes. Little bits like lip balm, anti-bacterial gel or tissues are great to keep handy and when energy reserves are low, you’ll be glad of having the essentials close to hand. Many women’s shirts in particular have hidden security pockets but be aware of these as they’re sometimes placed on the hip and can cause rubbing under your waist belt. I love mesh pockets. If their empty the pocket can be left open for additional cooling and the shirt will dry faster than with added layers of fabric.
While long arms for sun and insect protection are key, there may be times you need sleeves just out of the way (for example when making bread with your Bedouin hosts after a day or two in the desert). You can just roll sleeves up but this can be bulky and frustrating to keep adjusting. A simple loop and button secures sleeves out of the way so you don’t have to worry. These can also double up as extra attachment points when hanging a shirt up to dry. It’s these kinds of features which many people might overlook but make the difference between a good and a great, well thought out and functional expedition shirt.
Really, is this a key consideration? Of course it is. Cream or white shirts might look clean and smart but it’s more akin to safari than an expedition. Generally we’d look to avoid these as they’ll get dirty the second a camel as much as sets eyes on you. Whilst this may make dark colours more appealing, tsetse flies (found in much of tropical Africa) are known to favour dark blues.
Different dyes also absorb UV slightly differently. As a general rule, the more vivid the colour, the greater the protection; a bright yellow shirt for example is more protective than a pale one. Broadly speaking, this shouldn’t be a major concern – the quality and tightness of the weave will do most of the work – but you’ll know how you react to sunlight. If you’re particularly sensitive to the sun then keep it in mind. At Secret Compass, we opt for dark grey or tan.
As we’re commonly told looking for almost any new kit, good fit really is key. All the features in the world are only as good as the fit as that’s how they’ve been designed to work. Where you’ll probably notice a bad fit is in the shoulders or around the hips. Too tight and your muscles will be fighting the fabric and you’ll stiffen faster, too loose and it’ll increase the chance of creases under key pressure areas. It’s well worth trying your shirt under your rucksack and bear in mind that washing clothing with biodegradable soap in a river in the jungle may not result in the same softness and flexibility of a brand new or freshly home washed shirt.