What clothing to wear mountain climbing in Southeast Asia

Making the right clothing choices for sun, heat, insects, rain and taboos up Southeast Asia's mountains

What Clothing To Wear: Quick Answer

  • Pack S.H.I.R.T.: Sun, Heat, Insects, Rain, and Taboos.
  • It won’t be that cold: Unless you’re climbing above 3,000m, you probably don’t need more than a backup pair of long woolen underwear, especially at night, otherwise you’re more likely to be dressing for the heat.
  • Not Cotton: Its the wrong material for the conditions.

 

Suggested packing list

Basics:

  • Long-sleeve shirt(s) and trousers. Preferably a light, synthetic material that draws out sweat and dries quickly. Nothing with an offensive print, or that is black.
  • A hat. Preferably wide-brimmed and light.
  • A good hooded rain jacket. Consider waterproof pants for longer treks.
  • Light, polyester underwear
  • Footwear. Shoes/boots, socks, and maybe gaiters (not covered here)
  • Culturally appropriate swimwear, if swimming is on the itinerary

For higher altitudes and/or camping out overnight:

  • Long woolen underwear, preferably with a dorky prints and grotesque colours
  • A beanie
  • A fleece jacket
  • A wind-breaker

Other items mentioned in this article:

  • SPF30+ sunscreen
  • Insect repellant. DEET-based for the skin, and Picaridin-based for clothing/netting.

Sun

Do we really need to remind you that exposing your skin to the sun’s rays for prolonged periods of time can hurt you? As an Australian, the government, my teachers, my parents, and even my peers would say “slip, slop, slap”, meaning:

  • Slip on a shirt – preferably one with long sleeves, and a collar to protect your neck
  • Slop on some sunscreen – on any skin that will be exposed to the sun, and preferably one that is SPF30 or more.
  • Slap on a hat – preferably one which is wide-brimmed, or has a back flap, or otherwise makes you look like a total dork

Heat

Although the higher reaches of mountains will be cool, especially mountains that push above 1,000m or so, you will be battling the heat more than you will be the cold.

Wear clothing that doesn’t keep in the heat, and stink, of your sweaty skin. Lets be honest about cotton – it just doesn’t cut it. There’s plenty of affordable clothing choices made of synthetic materials that wick moisture away from your skin and which dry quickly, and this process tends to be cooling too. I’d go with Nylon, Lycra, Spandex, or Tactel. Uniqlo has some decent and affordable choices here.

If and when you do get higher up into the chillier reaches, pack a thin layer of wool to sit next to the skin – such as long johns or thermals. Only if the situation really calls for it should you consider a bulky outer layer, such as a woollen sweater, a fleece, or even an attachable fleece liner to a more serious mountaineering jacket.

Insects

Mosquitoes are the usual threat in the jungle, but leeches and other midges can be a pain too. Generally, the aim is just to leave as little skin exposed as possible, and to put insect repellent on what is left. Or if you’re hoping to keep cool, you could lean more on insect repellant and keep more skin showing, but don’t forget the slip-slop-slap (above).

When considering which chemicals to be using, and how much, the USA’s Centre for Disease Control has a pretty nifty fact-sheet. They have no problem with DEET on your skin, but there are plenty of people on the Internet that say that DEET will demage your clothing.

Yet, applying mosquito repellant to your clothing might be a good idea if you’re facing particularly aggressive mosquitos that will be able to get through thin materials, such as the synthetic and breathable materials mentioned above. Picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the US) would be better to apply to such clothing or mosquito netting. I’ve personally only encountered such mosquitoes in South America, but I haven’t been everywhere in Southeast Asia yet either.

Also, is it just me, or do mosquitoes really like black clothing?

Rain

Even if you’re hiking in the dry season, there are few places and times in Southeast Asia where you can confidently say “No, it absolutely will not rain today”. The exceptions to this tend to be further away from the equator, and have a more pronounced dry season. For example, you’ll be begging for rain in Myanmar during the hot season, but after spending 5 hot seasons there myself, I can say no, it absolutely will not rain. In Singapore, on the other hand, even if the skies are blue and it hasn’t rained all week, it just might rain quite a lot.

For hiking, we usually talk about rain jackets. Ideally, you want one that has a higher waterproof rating (usually mentioned on the tag before you buy it), a good sized hood with a cuff or lip that helps keep the rain from dripping on your face, waterproof zippers, and one which is lightweight (preferably that can be rolled or scrunched up into a tight little pouch).

Waterproof pants are a good idea for longer hikes. Nothing fancy is needed here – just something waterproof and which can roll up nice and tight, so as not to take up too much space.

The most waterproof of rain gear tends to be also impervious to air, and therefore stifling if worn for longer periods in hot and humid conditions. Such rain gear will leave you wet anyways from your own sweat. Rubber raincoats are particularly awful to move in. So there is a balance to be had here. The best balance choice is a breathable laminated membrane, usually made of nylon that repels water (but might not be 100% waterproof).

Taboos

I’ve chosen the word “taboo” here because I wanted to make a clever acronym. But I’m basically talking about not wearing something that will offend someone else. Southeast Asia is a politically and religiously rich region. Many of its cultures are conservative. Some of its people are sensitive.

If you’re a local, you already know this, and you needn’t take advice from me.

If you’re a visitor, I’m assuming you want to do your best to be a respectful guest. In which case, avoid wearing political or religious statements, or anything that is explicit or otherwise seeks to shock or provoke. That t-shirt with the dirty joke that you bought from Kuta or Khaosan Road isn’t really good hiking wear anyways.

Unfortunately, conservative cultures in Southeast Asia sometimes place additional expectations on women. Consider taking your dress cues from the locals, who might dress modestly even when swimming and bathing, and particularly at religious sites. This usually means covering your body at least to your knees, neck, and forearms. Covering up further may be required at religious sites, such as those up mountains in Buddhist countries (Myanmar, Thailand, etc).

For seriously (and unlikely) cold weather

Again, it’s not likely to ever get so cold that you need more than thermals, a beanie, and a decent fleece or wind breaker if summiting a mountain during the day in Southeast Asia.

To give you a rough idea, let’s assume that its 30 degrees celsius during the day at sea level. If so, it would likely be around…

Of course, it would get colder overnight if you are camping out or making a super-early summit, and there are other variables that could push these numbers up or down, such as wind, rain, air pressure, etc. But overall, you’re not likely to face “extreme weather conditions” – the sort that most expert alpine mountaineering equipment is designed to combat – unless you are climbing Puncak Jaya on a bad day.

Putting a light wool layer next to the skin is the best first step when you’re getting into the colder upper reaches of Mountains in Southeast Asia. From there, you can consider a woolen sweater, a fleece jacket, and/or a wind breaker.

If you’re still really convinced you’re going to be facing severe weather where you’re climbing, or if you really are going to be climbing Puncak Jaya during a blizzard, I’ll leave you with advice from the US Army who recommend thinking about 3 layers:

“Underwear should also be made of materials that move moisture from the body. Many civilian companies manufacture this type of underwear. The primary material in this product is polyester, which moves moisture from the body to the outer layers keeping the user drier and more comfortable in all climatic conditions. In colder environments, several pairs of long underwear of different thickness should be made available. A lightweight set coupled with a heavyweight set will provide a multitude of layering combinations.

Insulating layers are those layers that are worn over the underwear and under the outer layers of clothing. Insulating layers provide additional warmth when the weather turns bad. For the most part, today’s insulating layers will provide for easy moisture movement as well as trap air to increase the insulating factor. The insulating layers that are presently available are referred to as pile or fleece. The Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) also incorporates the field jacket and field pants liner as additional insulating layers. However, these two components do not move moisture as effectively as the pile or fleece.

Outer Layers: The ECWCS provides a jacket and pants made of a durable waterproof fabric. Both are constructed with a nylon shell with a laminated breathable membrane attached. This membrane allows the garment to release moisture to the environment while the nylon shell provides a degree of water resistance during rain and snow. The nylon also acts as a barrier to wind, which helps the garment retain the warm air trapped by the insulating layers.”

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clothing cold gear