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Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

By Tamia Nelson

January 22, 2013

Nothing lasts forever. And that includes winter. The hours of daylight are already increasing, and I'm starting to hear woodpeckers hammering out their territories in the nearby woods. I expect to find the first spring fishing catalogs in my mailbox by the end of the month. Most of these will eventually join the Christmas catalogs in the tottering pile headed for the recycling bin, of course. Like I said, nothing lasts forever. But there's one exception to this rule: winter bloat. You probably know the symptoms. Sometime in early January, you discover that every item of paddling clothing in your closet has mysteriously shrunk. You can still struggle into all of your things, but the fit is a lot more restrictive than it was when you last wore them back in October or November, and it doesn't improve as the days get longer.

You're not alone. This is a common predicament, and it's a symptom of a larger problem. We're getting better and better at engineering all need for physical activity out of our day‑to‑day lives. We do our work seated at a desk, rather than earning our bread by the sweat of our brows in fields and foundries. We also drive everywhere. I frequently see folks get in a car to travel 100 yards to pick up their mail, and any high school track star who had to walk more than a quarter of a mile to get to class would probably feel very hard done by, indeed. If you're eccentric enough to find this creeping automobility absurd, however, you'll know that the engineers and planners haven't had your interests at heart. Quite a few US communities don't even have sidewalks, while those that do can seldom be bothered to maintain them. And if you're one of the few hardy souls who are tempted to commute year‑round by bicycle in snow country, you'll soon end up feeling like you're playing Russian roulette with five loaded chambers. You may be able to stay upright and in control on just two wheels, but it's surprising how many motorists are happy to fishtail their way down icy highways at 60 mph, sweeping the road clear of all obstacles before them. Including you, if it turns out to be your unlucky day. Then there's the fun of waiting at a red light and wondering if the texting mom behind you will bother to bring her SUV to a stop before hitting you — or if she'll even be able to, should the impulse to spare your life unaccountably move her.

Do I exaggerate? A little. But not as much as all that. The upshot? For most of us, increasing our activity level during the workday is likely to be a nonstarter. That being the case, what can cubicle‑bound office‑workers condemned to fifty‑mile commutes do when they find that every scrap of paddling clothing they own has shrunk until it's just tight enough to be uncomfortable? Well, there's always the health club. Or the exercise bike in the garage. Or — for the fortunate few — daily ski or snowshoe jaunts on the back forty after work.

The rest of us have no choice but to make wardrobe adjustments, moving up a size (or sometimes two) until the paddling season has pared away all of winter's excess poundage. This can get costly, though once you have two sets of paddling togs — a generously proportioned outfit for the early season, and a leaner look for later in the year — you'll be set for life. One problem remains, however: finding what you need in a size that accommodates the larger pre‑season you.

As I've had occasion to observe before, the outdoor industry seems hellbent on ignoring the fact that not all canoeists, kayakers, cyclists, and climbers are fashionably thin. And if you're both short and fat — let's not mince words here — or at least fatter than you want to be, you're in for an even harder time. Women have the most cause for complaint, it seems. Even when we find something that fits, after a long and diligent search, we're likely to be offered color choices ranging from (you guessed it) pink to mauve. Or maybe baby blue.

No, thanks.

Am I the only woman to notice this? Apparently not. Back when I wrote "Straight Skinny," I didn't expect much in the way of reader response. For one thing, the article appeared right at the end of summer, and that's a busy time for a lot of folks. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in my virtual mailbag. And the letters were full of valuable suggestions. Readers of In the Same Boat are an ingenious and determined lot. I knew that already. But I didn't appreciate just how ingenious and determined they could be. Clearly, the spirit of Gunny Highway lives on in Same Boat's readers. In response to an (apparently) intractable problem they don't give up. Instead, they …

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome!

Hunting outfitters and surplus stores are two good sources for outdoor clothing in larger sizes, and many of their offerings will suit women who don't demand figure‑flattering cuts and head‑turning colors. (Like me, for instance!) But specialty items like wetsuits are harder to find. A male reader, James, had this to say on the subject:

Frankly, after searching pretty diligently a few years ago, my wife Susan and I just plain quit looking for a wetsuit — the clerks in at least one dedicated kayak store would not even talk to us! — or even stocking-foot waders that fit her short, filled-out size. We didn't want to commission a custom wetsuit for her kayaking. The largest waders might fit the big "average" person, but the manufacturers seem to assume big people would necessarily have long inseams.

Susan was diagnosed with diabetes, and she worked hard to lose weight, to the point where she went from men's 3X shirts and coats to men's 1X and sometimes a large, depending on fit. She continues to lose weight and is finally approaching women's larger sizes and can shop for women's clothing and gear. Even so, women's sporting goods suppliers assume there are no "sporters" or even "posers" who wear anything larger than a size 16.

This attitude is all too familiar. When I was a young ice climber, with what Farwell was pleased to call a girlish figure, I was once rebuffed by the proprietor of an Adirondack climbing shop — I was looking for ice screws, not clothing, but that didn't seem to matter — with the curt explanation that "short people shouldn't climb." Which would certainly have come as a big surprise to a number of the world's pioneering mountaineers, had they ever learned of it. I didn't argue the point, however. I just left the store. And I never returned.

Happily, some welcome winds of change now seem to be blowing through the industry. In a follow‑up to his earlier letter, James pointed me toward Caddis Systems in Oregon. Among other things, Caddis Systems makes neoprene stocking‑foot chest waders in a wide range of sizes, for both men and women. (Chest waders, while intended for anglers and waterfowl hunters, also make decent cold‑season canoeing and kayaking wear when paired with a fleece top, paddling jacket, and high‑buoyancy PFD. It's a good idea to try a test swim before depending on waders in a hard chance, though. Some swimmers end up in a stable head‑down position when afloat. Do I have to add that this is not a good thing?) While Caddis Systems' color offerings leave something to be desired — at least to my eye — and the inseam lengths are too long for many shorter women, they're clearly trying harder. That's encouraging. And my earlier article mentioned some other companies that are starting to acknowledge the existence of paddlers who are neither tall nor svelte. May their numbers continue to increase.

Still not satisfied with what you find offered for sale? OK. There's another approach:

Take a Good Thing and Make it Better

Time was when tailors and cobblers led the way in opening the backcountry to the common man (and uncommon woman) on both sides of the Pond. I'm thinking of Thomas Hiram Holding and Nessmuk here, though Gerald ("Gerry") Cunningham certainly warrants a mention, too. But the arts practiced by those pioneers have long since been outsourced to other lands. That doesn't mean you can't fill the gap yourself, though, does it? With just a sewing machine and a few hours' practice, you can alter almost any clothing to make it fit. Imagine having cuffs that don't drag in the mud of portage trails or trip you up when you're lining or wading. Better yet, do something about it. That's what Lynda does:

Good article on finding stuff that fits. I go to men's sizes when I can't find something that fits in the women's department. Or I modify by ripping and adding to what I have. A little extra material down the side on shirts and pants accommodates me as my skinny arms turn into wings and the iron in my blood turns into lead on my hips. Men's dress pants from the thrift store make good paddling pants. I have a friend who gets men's dress shirts for UV protection.

Now that's the can‑do spirit! In fact, thrift stores are well worth including on the list of resources for unfashionably configured paddlers, right up there with military surplus outlets and retailers that sell seconds or remaindered items at deep discounts. And like Lynda, I, too, have modified men's garments with additional material to alter the fit. Take, for instance, the men's wind jacket‑cum‑vest that I wear on amphibious treks. A quick stitch‑up added "hips" to the skinny jacket‑vest. The result? A near‑perfect custom fit.

Do you have to be a skilled seamstress to do this? No way! I'm handier with an electric drill than I am with a sewing machine, but I still manage. You can't possibly do worse.

A Stitch in Time

Of course, hemming pants legs and shirtsleeves is an even easier job, well within the reach of the most thumb‑fingered paddler. Like me, for instance. I've done it many times.

Then again, maybe you're both more skilled and more ambitious than I am. If so, there's no reason why you can't build your paddling wardrobe from the ground up, so to speak. With apologies to dystopian novelist and social critic Jim Kunstler, there's a lot to be said for …

A Paddling Wardrobe Made by Hand

Let In the Same Boat reader Becky show you the way:

Thank you, Tamia, for bringing up a topic that has been on my mind ever since my former involvement with the local search and rescue unit. One of the reasons I quit, besides landing a retail job, was that I was getting really depressed trying to find clothing with fabrics that met the criteria "parenthesized" with the phrase "cotton kills."

Of course, I could find pants, jackets, and shirts in men's sizes, but often ended up feeling like a monkey with long arms, or pants with a waist that fit like a hula-hoop. (Never mind the length that makes open-toed socks a fashion statement.) My latest attempt at purchasing a Marmot PreCip ended in disappointment as the cut was, well, let's just say that it wasn't "pear-shaped."

As I've sewn clothes since my youth, I ventured into sewing my own outdoor clothes, which requires time, knowledge of sewing technique, the proper fabric, a source for those fabrics, and PATTERNS (or the invention or adaptation thereof). Such has been my search for a drysuit that I know will fit my frame as it currently is and probably will be for some time.

I've been debating about the best outdoor fabrics for those clothes. Polypropylene, Gore-Tex, and other high-tech materials versus what the mountain man survived in — animal skins over (maybe) cotton? What IS cotton good for? Wool is another thought, as are other things that clothing is made out of like bamboo! I'm into comfort clothes, too, and many of these synthetics feel like a plastic grocery bag.

So, my search goes on for something that (1) fits, (2) feels good, and (3) serves the purpose for which it is needed — outdoor survival. With work, research, and a little effort, I could make these things, but it would sure be nice to find a business that helped me get the job done.

I appreciate your story about being rescued by the man who had to make his own stuff. I can relate. I also appreciate the implied perseverance it took to get done what needed to be done, and I can take encouragement from that example.

As Becky's letter suggests, opting for the do‑it‑yourself approach requires determination as well as skill. Patterns aren't easy to come by, though if you can get your hands on a copy of Gerry Cunningham's Lightweight Camping Equipment and How to Make It, you'll have a head start. I own the 1976 fifth edition, and it has patterns for a parka and an insulated jacket, along with a rain cape, poncho, and overboots. It's not a complete guide to DIY outdoor outfitting, by any means, but at least it's a beginning. Going further back in time, Thomas Hiram Holding's 1908 Camper's Handbook has patterns for a bewildering variety of tents, as well as a number of interesting carryalls for both cyclists and paddlers, but it offers very little in the clothing line — somewhat surprising given that Holding was a tailor by trade. (Or maybe not. Holding got his living with his needle, after all. Why would he want to undercut his own business?)

What about you? Does the idea of making outdoor clothing and gear from scratch appeal to you, and have you found a good source for patterns? If so, how about dropping me a line so that I can spread the word.

That's enough about the plight of the short or plump — or short and plump — woman, I think. But what if you're a man who has a hard time getting clothes that fit? Well, as I explained in my earlier article, I owe my life to a paddler whose outsized girth and considerable heft forced him to make all his own gear, and I climbed with a guy who made his own packs, slings, and tents. Neither man let limitations of physique or purse stand in his way. My conclusion? Skill with a needle is not a sex‑linked trait. If it were, I doubt that Nessmuk or Holding would have ventured farther afield than the local tavern. And the world would be a much poorer place as a result.

Bibendum Shows the Way


Does all the outdoor clothing on display in the glossy catalogs seem to be sized for folks who are taller or thinner than you are? If so, you're on your own. But you're not alone. That was the theme of my first article on the subject. As a number of readers were quick to point out, however, this wasn't the last word. And now that you've had a chance to read what they had to say, you, too, can benefit from their experience. The takeaway message? Improvise, adapt, and overcome. It's a time‑tested formula for dealing with difficulties — and best of all, it works.


Related Columns From In the Same Boat

Plus a topical collection of articles that address a number of problems confronting new (or returning) paddlers,

And a column with a similar theme,

Along with an article from my own website:


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