Good clothing is just as important as good equipment and good food, the other two members of the vol bivouac trinity. Good in the sense of keeping you comfortable enough, without being or becoming a burden to carry around. Most outdoor clothing fulfils the first requirement, but only a fraction has a weight that limits the load on your back to an acceptable value when hiking. Your equipment and food already claim a considerable volume and weight that are hard to reduce. So, every gram you can shave off your clothing outfit, helps to keep the overall weight down. And contrary to your glider, harness or other flight equipment, going lightweight on clothing generally does not mean compromises on performance. It just means a lot more investment compared to the heavier clothing that would do the same job.
I have limited my load by taking along as few items as possible and by using some of them for multiple purposes. My rain poncho for example, doubles as an emergency shelter and blanket. Another trick is to work in (thin) layers, rather than trying to get it right in one shot. Layers allow me to easily adjust to all kinds of conditions. A combination of multiple thin layers is often more effective in keeping me warm or dry than a thick single layer. This layer approach also allows me to quickly wash and dry items, since these dry faster than a single thick one. Minimalising even further, you could for example do without a spare shirt. After washing your shirt, you could dry it while hiking or flying, without putting on another shirt. You probably won't miss it that much, since it is just a minor piece in the whole setup.
Even though nearly all are lightweight items, their total weight adds up to nearly 4,5 kg. I have listed all clothing items and their respective weight in gram below. The list might help you in fine-tuning your own setup. Hopefully your items weigh less than mine. If you have better ideas on the clothing, or any other part of the kit for that matter, I would be happy to hear them.
The brands mentioned on this page are meant to give you an idea of what I am using, not as a purchase endorsement. I have no affiliation with any of these brands, their manufactures, distributors, resellers, or anyone else involved in the chain. There are a lot more brands out there than the few mentioned on this page. Do your own research and make your own decisions about what is best for you.
Helmet - 380
Sensitivity and safety are my main reasons for using an open face helmet rather than a full face one, closely followed by volume and weight. By having my face exposed to the elements, I have a much better feeling of what is going on around me. This allow me to react more adequately to changes, i.e. it helps me to fly better and safer. And should I need assistance in case of an accident, there is less reason to remove my helmet (rescue breathing, mouth check), which is always a bit of a tricky affair. A full face helmet has the advantage of being a lot warmer when flying in cold conditions, especially during long flights. However, this comes at the price of turning into an oven when you are waiting in full battle dress for your turn on take-off. Overall, a full face helmet gives more passive protection, while an open face helmet allows more active protection. Choose the one which fits you best. If you can not decide between the two, than remember that a full face helmet is larger and heavier than an open face one. In vol bivouac, space and weight are valuable assets that should not be squandered.
The preferred choice probably has to do with the pilot's cultural background as well. I have not seen that many French pilots with a full face helmet, while this seems to be the standard for German pilots. No matter their nationality, pilots wearing a full face helmet will often tell you that these helmets are superior in safety. They accidentally might even provide you the necessary evidence, without being asked for it. There are a lot of foreign pilots in France, especially during summer holidays. Witnessing their take-off efforts on various sites throughout the French Alps over the years, has shown me that quite a few of these foreign pilots, nearly all with a full face helmet, often have trouble starting properly, i.e. in a controlled manner. And they certainly have less control in comparison with most of the (local) French pilots, which are nearly all flying with an open face helmet. Which proves them right that the full face helmet is indeed a safer choice. For them, that is. Make up your own mind as to what is right for you. Remember that if your brain is not working, then it is a delusion to think that a helmet will save it. As far as I know, paragliding accident statistics do not confirm that one kind is safer than the other.
Flight suit, hook knife, whistle - 1255
The Sup'air flight suit is always in the kit when going for a flight, no matter whether this is a gentle evening flight on a warm summer's day or a two week bivouac trip. Although the suit is a bit on the heavy and voluminous side, it is just too efficient and handy to be left behind. Keeping that cooling wind outside, is the most effective approach in order to keep warm. Especially for paragliding pilots, which are confronted with a constant wind speed of about 40 km/h during their flight. I have flown with ordinary (outdoor)jackets and trousers in the first weeks, but these do not keep the wind out as good as my one-piece flight suit. A jacket also tends to complicate buckling up, since the bottom part usually hides the straps and buckles from view.
Since the flight suit is a one-piece suit, there is no body warmth leaking halfway. This means that at night the suit keeps me warmer than an ordinary jacket would, even the ones that allow you to tighten or close them at the waist. In addition to this, I like to have my whistle and hook knife around all the time. I do not want to discover that I have a need for them, only to find out that I have left them behind. That is why they are sewn onto the flight suit, within easy grasp. It adds a little weight, but this is largely compensated by the comfortable feeling of being able to do at least something in a disastrous situation. When I pack my flight suit, I know that I have my whistle and hook knife with me. For a similar reason, I have always preferred brightly coloured flight suits. The resulting contrast with the environment I am usually flying in, improves my chances of being found in case of a search and rescue.
Hiking socks - 95
Your feet are the working class heroes of your vol bivouac trips. In the end, it is them that carry the burden of both your backpack, clothing, and body. Do not oppress or maltreat these valuable, hard working fellows. Even though they stink most of the time during their hard work, I have always been thankful to my feet for getting me out of trouble that management (located higher up in the body) had gotten me into. Management is renowned for making mistakes. Often the feet are the ones that get the company moving again, while management is still discussing who is to blame for the mistake and its consequences. I have always taken good care of my feet and they have rewarded me by loyalty above and beyond the call of duty. Occasionally faltering under far too heavy pressure, but never striking, pulling my leg, or blistering. Therefore, do not economise on socks! Always remember that as soon as your feet stop working, your vol bivouac stops as well.
I have spent what seemed like a fortune on two pair of smart socks. I do not know whether they are really smart (I have not heard them discussing Plato or Einstein yet, or Marx for heavens sake!), but the label said so. Up till now, I never regretted their purchase. These Smartwool Heavy Trekking socks have seen over 500 hours of hiking with the full kit and a bit less during 'regular' walking. Of course the socks are a bit worn now, but still comfortable and robust. Their quality allows me to have only two pair of socks on a long vol bivouac, while in my earlier days a pair of socks would disintegrate after a day or two.
I have also bought a pair of Falke socks at the same time, that was almost as expensive. They are less smart and even have a big 'L' and 'R' woven in, in order to remember which sock goes on which foot. In theory this seems a good idea, since the feet have a left and a right fraction. In practice however, this raises problems when putting the socks on their appropriate feet in the dark. This has led to confusing animosity between the feet and socks at daybreak, but no strikes have occurred so far. Although these socks are not bad at all (and still almost new), I prefer my trusty smart socks. Even though they have become a bit worn by now.
I feel silly discussing my underwear in public, but it has to be done because of its fundamental importance. Improper underwear undermines all your other (more expensive) clothing, by creating a weak foundation. During my initial flying years, I used ordinary cotton underwear. Cotton is a fine fabric and there is nothing wrong with it in ordinary life. However, in vol bivouac your underwear is likely to get drenched in sweat when hiking. If you like a bit of hygiene during your trip, it will also get wet from frequently washing out those nasty smells. Cotton does not dry as easily as high tech fabric. By using cotton, you will end up with wet and smelly underwear after a day or two. No matter whether you wash it or not. The technical clothing is thinner than cotton, which means sweat is almost directly transferred to the outer layers, instead of being collected in a (thick) cotton fabric. Because there is less sweat in the fabric, the high tech items dry a lot quicker than the cotton ones. Most items even dry adequately without taking them off. This means you are likely to feel less cold when your physical effort relaxes after a strenuous and sweaty effort. In addition, some have been given a special treatment that limits the sweaty smell that surrounds hiking.
Overall, technical underwear is a lot more expensive than the average type, but much better at regulating your body's comfort. I am not affiliated with any manufacturer or reseller, but I think that the price of thermal underwear made out of high tech fabric is worth it price. Even if that is three to five times more expensive in comparison with your regular knickers.
Thermal underwear - long johns - 120
My North Face long johns serve as a kind of protection reserve, i.e. for the really cold conditions. These usually occur when sleeping or resting during the night, flying at altitude for extended times, or when flying in spring and autumn. I vaguely remember spending a fortune on them several years ago, but they have been worth the investment. This thin, lightweight item has kept me comfortable on occasions that previously had (sometimes) been (very) uncomfortable.
Thermal underwear - slip - 40
Black Bear is my preferred supplier here, although I occasionally use Odlo underwear as well. The former keep their shape better than the latter, especially the shirts. That is why Odlo is slowly phased out (no new purchases), or rather worn out. I take along two slips. This allows me to wear one of them, while the other is drying (either from sweat or from the washing).
Thermal underwear - shirt - 110
I have nothing to add to what has already been said above, except for a minor inconvenience. Some time ago, Black Bear changed the shirts from round necked to V-shaped. The shirt looks more stylish this way, but it is less warm. I do not like that, nor that the packaging still says it contains the round necked version when it does not. Boooooooohhhh Black Bear!!! You can do better than that!
Long sleeved shirt - 250
Since the long sleeved shirt is not used when hiking (i.e. not harvesting sweat), I still use an ordinary cotton one. The shirt is mainly used for keeping me warm when flying or sheltering, i.e. when not really physically involved with something. It also protects my arms from getting sunburnt when resting or waiting, especially when there is no shade to be found. Saving a little weight could be a reason to replace the cotton one with a high tech fabric shirt in the future.
Stretch sweater thick - 330
A few years ago, I purchased a Mallory and Irvine stretch sweater and always regretted not having bought a few more. I have seen them in the shop for one season only and never got a chance to purchase this excellent value for money item again. The sweater is thick and has a narrow fit, and therefore a good insulation. It is comfortable to wear and handles sweat excellently, should the need arise. If I put it on without taking of my sweat soaked shirt (for example when going to sleep at night or taking off, directly after a sweaty hike), my body does not experience the usual cold from sleeping or flying with wet clothing. Far less at least than with cotton underwear.
Wind blocking fleece jacket - 700
In the early days, I used a raincoat to keep out the wind and a sweater to keep me warm. After switching to the rain poncho, I added a soft shell to keep out the wind. The soft shell was an improvement in comfort in comparison with the raincoat, but added more weight and volume. After falling in love with an outrageously expensive Patagonia fleece jacket that was hanging in the clearance sale department for several months, I finally ended up adopting it. This wind blocking fleece jacket allows me to leave a sweater and the soft shell at home. It is as warm as those two combined and blocks almost as much wind as the soft shell (which blocks 100%), and in practice I do not notice a difference. In hindsight, I have to admit that the price was not cheap, but fair nonetheless.
Wind blocking gloves - 105
The main reason for getting cold hands, even when the weather is not really that cold, is that these are at the extremities of your body, as well as in an upright position when flying. They are the first to suffer when your blood supply stagnates, for example when your body gets cold and rations the supply. Blocking the wind is a great help in keeping your hands warm, just as for the other parts of your body. I use a pair of lightweight Kompakt Gloves from Mammut, with reinforced palms. The reinforcements allow me to comfortably pull (big) ears or kite the wing by grabbing the risers. All this without shredding the gloves after a few weeks, which has happened with similarly priced 'dedicated' paragliding gloves from Owens Valley a long time ago. My gloves usually last no more than a season or two, mostly because of the wear and tear caused by ground handling. The current gloves seem to hold out rather well, especially considering the fact that the designer probably did not have paragliding in mind when creating them. They are slightly less robust than the snowboarding gloves that I used before, but weigh a lot less and are just as warm.
Remember that gloves are not only there to protect your hands from the cold, but also from physical attacks by the environment or your glider. I can show you the scars on my gloves, if you like. Some of the more impressive ones have been caused by lines that caught my hands during ground handling or a collapse. Trust me on this, but you do not want your hands to look like this.
Liner gloves - 45
A pair of Mallory and Irvine liner gloves are taken along in case of (possible) cold conditions. In combination with the wind blocking gloves, this keeps my hands reasonably warm down to (sub)zero temperatures for a few hours. However, when temperatures get near or below zero, I have to lower my hands once in a while and force the blood down my arms by swinging them. Sitting on my hands warms them up as well. Mittens with fold-back finger tips could be a better idea here. Not flying in cold conditions (usually during vol bivouac in spring and autumn), is not an option of course.
Rain trousers - 220
No vol bivouac is complete without at least a little bit of rain. In combination with the rain poncho mentioned below, my Berghaus Paclite rain trousers will keep me dry during these testing times. They also come in handy when walking trough lush vegetation that is covered with morning dew. For the same reason, I keep wearing them for a while after the rain has gone. I take off my poncho as soon as the air has dried (in order to have more ventilation), while the trousers will follow when the environment has dried as well. The trousers have side zippers that allow me to put them on or take them off, without having to remove my big hiking shoes. These zippers open from the feet up, as well as from the waist down. The latter allows me to ventilate the inside of the trousers when walking in the rain, without getting wet, since the open zippers are covered by the rain poncho. In all, a simple piece of clothing, but a very practical one.
The weight and volume of my rain trousers is small, much smaller than ordinary ones. The price you pay for this Paclite convenience is that they are a little less robust to physical wear and tear, but proper care should be able to compensate for that. So far, I have not experienced problems with it. I am on my second set now, since the first set of trousers and jacket were not waterproof because of a coating problem. However, this gave me the opportunity to experience an excellent service from Berghaus.
Rain poncho - 500
My ordinary hiking backpack always managed to keep its contents dry. Assuming that the backpack which came with my paraglider would do the same, I did not take anything along to protect it from the rain when I started my first vol bivouac trips. After having experienced some serious rain now and then, I was fed up by getting wet, having my raincoat covering the backpack instead of me and still having partially wet equipment. So, I switched to using a large rain poncho that covered me, as well as my backpack. It is a simple nylon one with an inner coating. No high tech here. I could have taken a separate protection for the backpack of course, but that meant carrying two items instead of one, and more weight as well. In addition, the poncho ventilates better than a raincoat (especially on the back), which comes in very handy when hiking in the rain. Not my preferred occasion, but sometimes there is no other choice.
The poncho acts as rain poncho when walking in the rain of course, but also as a mini-tent when sheltering from the rain for a while. It also comes in handy as windscreen and sheet. It is amazing how a thin nylon sheet can make such a difference when it is too cold for sleeping without a cover, but not really cold enough in order to motivate me to unpack my wing. When using the wing during the night, the poncho (partly) covers it, so that the dew mostly settles on the poncho rather than the wing. The poncho dries a lot quicker than the wing , and it can dry while I am walking. The latter is impossible or at least very impractical to achieve with the wing. The only drawback so far, is that the poncho is a bit on the heavy side. A lighter and more compact version would be welcome.
Bob - 70
No, this is not the famous handyman. It is my most trusted companion to shield me from the sun. It is that silly hat that glider pilots wear under their canopy. If you see a glider pilot wearing a casquette instead of a bob, then he or she is probably a baptême passenger, not the pilot. My helmet (and wing) will shield my head from the sun when flying. When hiking however, my dear Bob is indispensable in order to prevent sunstrokes. It shields my head, neck, and nose.
Balaclava - 45
Having my face exposed to the elements, gives me lots of feedback during flight. In cold weather this exposure tends to get uncomfortable. Putting on a balaclava helps me in keeping my face (and thus my body) warm in these conditions. I prefer to fly without a balaclava, since it dampens some of the natural feedback, but often the air in spring and autumn is just too cold to be comfortable without it. This discomfort is likely to distract me from good piloting and enjoying the flight. It certainly distracts a lot more than the slightly dampened feel it gives me. When the balaclava becomes too warm or too claustrophobic, I can always pull it aside in order to have my face exposed. And put it back again when it gets too cold. Regulating the temperature this ways is easier than by fumbling with the zippers of my clothing. As a bonus, the balaclava can also shield my nose from the sun. This is especially useful when Bob has neglected his duty or when I have forgotten to demand his assistance.
Sunglasses, case - 120
Sunglasses are indispensable attributes. Never go without them. Do not be tempted in leaving them at home when the day looks cloudy or rainy when starting out. You might need them later on. Weather in the Alps can change rapidly and differ from valley to valley. And if you ever tried to hike across a patch of snow on a trail, without wearing sunglasses, you have probably never forgotten to take them along after this experience. And bring a case to protect them as well. Having broken sunglasses that you can not use anymore, is even more frustrating than having no sunglasses at all with you.
In the mountains you will be higher up in the atmosphere. Consequently, there will be less atmospheric filtering of the UV radiation. As far as I remember, there is an estimated four percent increase in UV radiation with each 1000 feet of elevation. Maybe more if the hole in the ozone layer has moved or grown since then. The increase of UV radiation with altitude affects your skin, as well as your eyes. Even if your body seems to be able to handle the bright sun that day, you still risk serious eye damage in the long run if you do not protect your eyes.
At altitude, having your sunglasses on should be a habit rather than an exception. Clouds do not block UV radiation, your sunglasses do. In case they do not, they enlarge the risk of eye damage rather than mitigating it. Because the sunglasses lessen the available light for your eyes, your pupils will get bigger. If the glasses do not block UV radiation, your retina is exposed to a lot more UV radiation than when not using sunglasses at all.
<<< Added on 2011-05-27 >>>
After a few years of dedicated service, Bob had shrunken to an uncomfortable size due to repeated washing (not washing is not an option here). It got replaced by a hat with a larger brim, resulting in more effective shielding from the sun and rain. It is slightly heavier and more bulky, which also makes it less effective is swatting stingy or otherwise nasty insects, but its cooling advantage is such that I didn't even bother to weigh it.