Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Too Cool!!

It used to be tough to be cool. But not anymore...

For anyone who regularly experiences outdoor activities in high temperatures, they know first-hand that heat stress is the enemy. So with the summer heat beating down upon Texas, I began researching ways to temper the brutal sun.

When I embark on such a challenge, I don't limit my search to biker solutions. Although we are nine million strong, we are much too small a target market for significant research and development. No, I try to look at who - collectively - must deal with adverse heat conditions and buy in large quantities, as these demographics catch the clothing marketeers attention. For example, athletes, law enforcement, and the military. So this is where my journey began.

My first foray was to research and purchase micro-fiber garments often worn by athletes and law enforcement. The intention was to find both cooler clothing and sun protection. But being a Harley biker at heart, I also wanted color selection that was fitting of the brand. All-black or something darker is highly preferred.

The concept behind micro-fiber garments is the fabric wicks the moisture away from the body and uses it too cool as the breeze blows through the fabric - an evaporative effect, if you will. The pluses of micro-fiber shirts include a wide color selection and several reputable sports apparel manufacturers. The downsides are cost (they run $50+ and up) and the non-biker affiliated logos are prominently displayed. I found a version of the UnderArmor HeatShield shirt that caters to law enforcement which has the logo  blacked-out, and thought it to be a pretty good compromise. I also wear micro-fibre under-garments when riding and find the advantages to include a much cooler ride for "the boys" and the thinner seams created less pressure (pain) points where in contact with the seat.

While much more comfortable than a cotton t-shirt and underwear, the micro-fiber can't adequately battle the 95+ degree temperatures of the South and Southwest on its own. So I looked further...

It seems one of the unintended consequences of the wars in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq is the development of personal cooling technologies that help our brave soldiers work efficiently in the soaring heat. Clothing cooling technology ranges from evaporative cooling vests, which are worn over a lightweight t-shirt; to a hybrid approach consisting of evaporative cooling and ice packs which is also  worn over a t-shirt; to a self-contained cooling system which runs on a lightweight battery pack and can be worn under the protective field uniforms.

I discovered that one of the innovators in the field is TechNiche International and that they had a relatively broad product offering at all levels and price points. With product prices ranging from $79 to over $500 per unit, I opted to start with the entry-level HyperKewl cooling vest with the mandarin collar (for sun protection on the neck) and zip-off sleeve attachments.

The HyperKewl concept is relatively straight forward - simply soak the lightweight vest in water for 2-3 minutes to let the specially polymer-embedded fabric absorb water, then gently squeeze out the excess and wipe down. The vest gains some weight as it absorbs water, but once put on, you won't notice the added weight...only the instant coolness as it begins to produce a "wind-chill" effect of 10-15 degrees.

We used the vests extensively on a recent 860-mile, four day journey through Arkansas with mid-day temperatures ranging from 95-100 degrees. I'm fair skinned, so I wore a black micro-fiber shirt underneath, while my bride wore a traditional short-sleeve cotton t-shirt. The vest is designed to provide 5-10 hours of cooling comfort, but we found that the cooling effectiveness peaked at around 90 minutes when running down the highway at 70 mph. But not to worry, the vest can be re-soaked at any time and we found the timing was about right for a rest stop anyway! I used the vest with and without sleeves and found that once my core was cooled (using the vest only), the desired comfort level was achieved. So I don't recommend spending the extra $$ for the sleeve version unless you want the ability to use the vest w/arms as a lightweight jacket in the event the temps drop or you are in higher elevations.

A few caveats to share. First, the concept of evaporative cooling is based on the cooling effect the water adds to an otherwise dry(er) wind stream, so the effectiveness of the vests will decline in areas where high humidity is common. Second, this product is a choice of function over fashion. The color selections are limited and the quilted appearance of the fabric may not appeal to some. Third, the quality appears to be good, but I've not yet used the vest long enough to know what perils the repeated use and sweat effect will have on either the appearance or efficiency of the vest. And lastly, (and it is a nit), but the black vest has a bright blue inside liner and matching blue thread is used to sew the two together. The result is a black vest with hints of blue threading visible from the outside, a minor unintended consequence, I'm sure.

If function is what you value and you frequent high-heat rides, the HyperKewl vest is money well spent. It has definitely extended my riding season and opens up new options for where/when to ride!


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