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OUTDOORS INSTITUTE

Weather stompers

Waterproofing can make all the difference in clothing and shoes, but the treatment doesn't last forever without some TLC.

November 18, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

In the battle against the elements, the hiker with wet, frozen feet, shivering in a soggy jacket, is surely the loser. Weatherproof gear can better the odds of winning the skirmish -- and if properly maintained can almost be worthy of the "weatherproof" designation.

Much of today's outerwear and hiking footwear is treated at the factory to make it waterproof or water-repellent. Once that $400 Gore-Tex jacket or those $150 leather hiking boots come home from the store, they still need regular TLC and to be re-weatherproofed at some point. This is simple to do yourself, if you're armed with the right products.When it comes to keeping gear dry, labels rarely tell the whole story. Something that's called "water-repellent" has been treated with a polymer that helps the outer shell shed water. But it doesn't mean waterproof.

And if something is called "waterproof," that's no guarantee it'll always keep you dry. Even a so-called wonder material such as Gore-Tex -- a waterproof membrane bonded to fabric -- needs occasional sprucing up. "No waterproofing lasts forever," says Lisa McCollum of Everett, Wash.-based Nikwax, which makes waterproofing and cleaning products for outdoor gear.

Eventually any waterproof item that is breathable -- as opposed to one made of rubbery polyurethane, which will keep you dry while making you sweat like a pig -- will need to be retreated to restore waterproof properties. A jacket made of Gore-Tex won't soak all the way through, but once its water-repellent outer finish is worn off, you may end up feeling damp and clammy.

As additional protection for breathable waterproof products, a durable water-repellent finish is applied during manufacture to the garment's outer surface. Sounds great, but there's a catch: Even a so-called durable finish wears off.

One simple way to make a durable finish last longer is to keep gear free of dirt, which inhibits waterproofing. Don't be afraid to throw a Gore-Tex jacket in the washer, and be sure to clean caked-on dirt from boots after a muddy hike. Letting them sit may lead to what experts call "wet-out" -- when water soaks through rather than beading up on the surface

Regular use and multiple washings over time will also cause a durable finish to wear off. The finish can be brought back to life by using one of several products that cost from $4 to $14. Some, such as Nikwax, are water-based; others, such as Sno-Seal, are silicone- or oil-based.

What's the difference? "Water-based is better," says Kevin Kelly, senior assistant manager at the Adventure 16 store in West Los Angeles. Oil-based products shield the surface but don't let leather breathe. They're more appropriate for quiet pursuits in heavy-duty cold, wet climates -- think ice fishing in Minnesota.

When treating a jacket, put a broom handle through the sleeves to straighten out the creases, then spray. In addition to Nikwax, Kelly recommends water-based Tectron and Revivex for do-it-yourself retreatment.

Sometimes a durable water-repellent finish can be revived with heat. Ironing isn't recommended, but an item can be put in the dryer on low heat. Be sure to check the care label first.

When it comes to preserving leather boots, no one should mistake them for sponges. Leather is not an absorbent material that can be squeezed dry. It's a skin, only without the natural lubricants to protect it. When leather gets wet, it stretches, then weakens and becomes brittle as it dries.

One of the most reliable methods for drying out boots caught in a deluge is to stuff them with newspaper to draw moisture from the inside of the boot, repeatedly replacing the paper until the boots are dry. Never dry boots or other gear directly in front of a heat source, such as a fireplace or next to a heater. The intense heat could cause damage.

One environmentally friendly tip to speed the process: Place footwear atop a dryer on laundry day. Voila -- wet-out transformed to warm and dry.

To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to www.latimes.com/juliesheer.

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