The mountains are calling – hiking with the right equipment


Mountains have magnetic appeal – and not just to people who aim high in the other areas of their lives too. In their enthusiasm about reaching new heights, however, some mountain hikers overlook the fact that hiking in the mountains is much more demanding than merely going for a walk. One single mistake can have disastrous consequences. At least 20 different people suffered fatal accidents in August 2014 in the Alps alone. In most cases, it is not possible to explain exactly why; too many factors could be the reason. It is certainly the case that a lack of caution and experience play a role that should not be underestimated. Things become dramatic when carelessness is involved. Not just when actually hiking in the mountains but also where preparations are concerned. Anyone who is negligent in preparing the equipment taken is risking his or her life. And, as we will see, polymers are essential in mountain hiking and climbing.


Attention snowline! Who walks in the mountain, should always be well informed ...

The report sounds incredible: a young Austrian tried to get down from 3,500 metres up a mountain in the Alps wearing only shorts and training shoes – and died of hypothermia [1]. The man could probably still be alive if he had informed himself in advance about the height at which precipitation takes the form of sleet and snow and at which snow no longer melts but stays on the ground.

Where the snow line is depends on the climate and the geographical location. In tropical zones, such as the Andes in South America or Kilimanjaro in Africa, it is between 5,500 and 6,500 metres. While it is at 700 to 1,100 metres in Iceland, it is at about 400 metres in Spitsbergen (Svalbard). In the Arctic and Antarctic, the snow line and sea level can be identical.

The snow line in the Alps – to return to our initial example – is at a height of 3,000 metres. Anyone who tries to go there dressed in shorts and wearing only training shoes is asking for trouble; the chances of dying in the ice and snow are quite high, as the news report confirms.


There is no bad weather, just the wrong clothes ...

People who hike in places like Germany nowadays do not in general face the uncertainties and dangers of bygone days. They do not need any weapons to kill animals or fend off enemies. Food is easy to buy and overnight accommodation can be found everywhere. Provided one stays where there is an intact infrastructure.

However, anyone who wants to trek through deserts or climb high mountains successfully needs quite a lot more experience as well as particular skills, while it is – not least of all – vital to make preparations for the trip. It is, after all, rare for such fundamental human needs as eating, drinking and sleeping to be satisfied by others when out and about up the highest mountains. Food, clothing and equipment for overnight accommodation have to be taken along. Tour Natur, the leading trade fair for hiking and trekking, which is being held on the Messe Düsseldorf site from 5. to 7. September 2014, shows what the market has to offer lovers of excursions into nature.

Any attempt to focus on all the details of relevance to hiking is doomed to failure right from the start, because the equipment that is needed for hiking, climbing or trekking is too diverse and varied. One thing is definite, however: it is not possible to hike properly without polymer materials. Although they are no substitute for thorough preparation of a trip, excursions into nature would be like travelling back in time without them.

Correct clothing is vital in the great outdoors

Anyone who wants to stand up to the trials of nature needs to have the right attitude to outdoor life and also needs clothing that is hard-wearing and responds flexibly to the effects of sun, rain, storms, snow and ice; this means it should be able to cope equally effectively with heat, cold and moisture.


The outdoor activity defines which mountain or hiking shoe is needed. (Quelle: TourNatur)

Shoes. Hiking can be downright torture when our feet hurt and are cold and wet – no matter where we wear them. The rule is therefore: take time buying shoes. And: training shoes may well be effective and look good in flat terrain. However, as our example demonstrates, they do not fit the bill when we need to be able to move around safely in the mountains or during other outdoor activities.

Let us start with the question of what you are thinking of doing. Planning is the be-all and end-all when travelling, as has already been emphasised. Whereas multifunctional boots may be good enough for general use, anyone who intends to tackle via ferratas or trek in high mountains will be making tougher demands on his or her footwear. It should, for example, be possible to attach crampons, in order to cross glaciers and snow fields safely. Modern hiking boots have one outstanding feature above all others: they are high-tech products made from different materials and can be bought for a few or many hundred euros. Hiking boots should be as light as possible and be very comfortable to wear; they should support the feet well and provide sure footing. This combination of different features cannot be guaranteed with leather materials alone any more. Use is made in the meantime of high-performance synthetic materials that have been developed in laboratories.

Which shoe is exactly the right one for you can be determined in discussion with the specialists at outdoor equipment and/or shoe stores. Our tip: it is best to try hiking boots on during the afternoon – when your feet have increased somewhat in size due to the exertions of the day. The rule here is: put them on, tie them up and try them out – ideally walking up and down a slope, something that should be possible at any store which sells mountain boots. Check how well the shoes fit and push off under simulated conditions. You have one fewer thing to worry about if and when everything is just right. How you can tell when you have the perfect shoe? It “encloses the foot like a second skin and does not pinch. The heel is held absolutely firmly, the middle of the foot is supported and the toes have so much space in front of and above them so that they do not touch the shoe when walking downhill. The sole pushes off smoothly too.” [2, 3, 4]


Always well dressed and appropriate also on the mountain: clothing and equipment must withstand wind and weather.

The onion skin principle

Anyone who spends time outdoors needs to be equipped to face anything and wear appropriate clothing. Although shoes are one of the most important factors, they are not the only thing that has to be considered thoroughly. After all, who would like to be naked outside when it is raining?! Ideal hiking clothes have several layers and have a structure that resembles an onion. Each layer of clothing carries out one or more functions in the overall scheme of things: the innermost layer keeps the hiker dry, while the middle one insulates and the outer layer provides protection.

Underwear. It should be skin-tight and permeable to sweat and odour. Underwear forms the basis for outdoor clothing. Although cotton may well feel pleasant to the skin, this natural material is less suitable for hiking and mountain climbing. It absorbs moisture and does not wick it away. It feels wet and uncomfortable to the skin. What is more suitable is underwear containing a large proportion of polyester (PE) or polypropylene (PP) that have the necessary properties.


Trousers. “Clothes make the man” in the mountains too. Anyone who goes mountain hiking in jeans or cord trousers demonstrates that he or she is an amateur and will receive disdainful, amused looks from professionally equipped hikers. If you are keen not just to belong but also to meet (high) Alpine requirements, you need to wear functional trousers made from synthetic fibres like polyester or soft shell materials, which frequently consist of two or three laminated polymer membrane layers. The outer layer generally consists of a mechanically resistant and hard-wearing material, which insulates the inner lining and wicks moisture away. This material can be fabric woven from synthetic fibres or laminate, i.e. fibres that are highly permeable to moisture but absorb very little moisture themselves. Examples of synthetic fibres are: polyester (PES), polyamide (PA) or polypropylene (PP). Most of the woven or knitted fabrics are designed to be particularly hard-wearing at places that are subject to higher stress, e.g. in the area where the backpack belt rubs. The material is, on the other hand, especially soft and supple where freedom of movement is important and is permeable to water vapour at places where we sweat most.

Jackets. Soft shell jackets are light and highly efficient, combining the functions of an outer and middle layer of clothing. Jackets made from this material can also be considered a compromise between fleece jackets and rain jackets. Weight can be saved as a result – something that everyone appreciates who goes hiking with a backpack. Depending on the material and finishing process, soft shell jackets can be similarly permeable to air and warm as fleece jackets, while being windproof and resistant as well. As a rule, soft shell jackets repel water in light snowfall or rain, but they are not absolutely waterproof (depending on the water gauge), i.e. it is less advisable to wear them in continuous rainfall. Soft shell jackets are an ideal choice at moderate temperatures without heavy precipitation. [5]

Functional jackets. Hikers and mountain climbers need to prepare and protect themselves in order to cope successfully with extreme and unfavourable weather conditions too. Functional jackets made from a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – better known as Teflon or Gore-Tex – have the ability to allow water vapour (sweat) through, while repelling drops of water like rain at the same time. The membrane function is extremely important, since it helps to keep body temperature at a good level, which in turn influences well-being and performance. Functional jackets need in addition to be hard-wearing while having a lower weight at the same time – polymers meet this requirement like no other material.


Incorrect or missing equipment can affect a mountain hike. Ropes can save lives.

But that is not all ...

Polymers are not just important materials in the production of hiking clothes. They play a prominent role in the other major equipment that is needed too. They are incorporated in sunglasses and glacier glasses; it is advisable to obtain good advice before buying these [6]. Mountain sport or climbing helmets provide protection against falling rocks (very important on via ferratas); they consist of an impact- and otherwise resistant hard polymer or polymer combination for the outer layer, for example polycarbonates or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene copolymer (ABS), reinforced by glass, aramid or carbon fibres. To maximise comfort, all of the contact surfaces on the inside of the helmet have soft cushioning – made, for example, of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) – and also have special additional cushioning involving foamed polymer (expanded polystyrene, EPS). And in this context: depending on where you will be going and what you plan to do, e.g. sport climbing, Alpine climbing, ice climbing or glacier touring, you will be relying on the ropes you use. Different types of rope are available for mountain sport applications (single ropes, double ropes, twin ropes), which have varying properties. Since the primary purpose of ropes used for mountain climbing as well as for mountain rescue operations is to provide protection against falls, they are distinguished mainly by the way they stretch in use. You should definitely discuss which rope is best for your particular plans with an expert – at Tour Natur in Düsseldorf, for instance. You can find helpful initial information in the Internet too [7]. Incidentally: modern climbing ropes are made from the plastic polyamide and generally have a “kernmantle” structure consisting of braided fibres.


Backpack, tent, sleeping bag, rope ... Polymers fulfill an important function in mountaineering and other outdoor activities.

If you plan to be away for a somewhat longer period of time on occasions, you will need not just a primarily water-repellent backpack made of nylon or polyvinylchloride (PVC) that has enough space to hold what you will require but also perhaps a tent and a sleeping bag. In his book “A Survival Guide for Life” [8], the British outdoor specialist Bear Grylls, who made a name for himself with the television series “Man vs. Wild”, swears by a geodesic tent that provided him with good service when he climbed Mount Everest too. Ultralight, extremely resistant polymer materials like Kerlon and Nylon are used to produce such tents. It is, however, not least of all your sleeping bag that makes sure you enjoy a restful night. As you would probably expect by now, plastics like nylon in the external material and polyester as the filler material dominate here too. If you are looking for an outdoor sleeping bag for your tour, you should be clear about your destination, the purpose you want to use the sleeping bag for and the temperatures at the location where you will be sleeping. This is the only way for you to choose the appropriate model for your project. The best solution here is to consult an expert – at a specialised store in your neighbourhood or at Tour Natur, the leading trade fair for hiking and trekking, that is being held on the Messe Düsseldorf site from 5. to 7. September 2014. You can rest assured that you will always receive the best possible advice there ...

Guido Deußing
Editor office / Redaktionsbüro GDeußing
Uhlandstraße 16
41464 Neuss

Pictures: istockphoto



[1] Rheinische Post, 27.08.2014, D10
[8] Bear Grylls. A Survival Guide for Life.