In Patagonia, the wind can tear your arms off. It makes everything lean – the trees, the houses, even the people. It strafes the landscape, using rain, snow or hail as ammunition. So you need to be equipped for it. And, boy, are the tourists here equipped. They come armoured in layers of technical clothing, conspicuously branded with The North Face, Arc'teryx, Jack Wolfskin and, of course, Patagonia. Pick a sublime view, and the most prominent thing in it will be the red, yellow and blue Gore-Tex parkas scattered across the picture like Smarties.
In Punta Arenas I bought a woolly hat, and the first thing my host asked me when he saw it was whether it was "technical". It's made of wool, I said. But it wasn't until he saw the brand, Arc'teryx, that he felt reassured. I'm starting to suspect that our faith in "technical" adventure clothing is just another fetish, one that owes more to the logic of consumerism than our desire to be in the great outdoors.
Ernest Shackleton survived his so-called voyage of Endurance back from the South Pole in homemade clothing. Edmund Hillary climbed Everest wearing waterproofed cotton canvas. Today, even amateur outdoor enthusiasts are better equipped than these hardy pioneers. The advent of synthetic materials such as polyurethane and Gore-Tex, which are lighter and more effective, have democratised access to extreme climates. But why do these clothes have to look and feel so awful? I saw a gaucho ride past wearing nothing but leather and wool – he looked warm and, more to the point, dignified. By comparison, we tourists look like awkward escapees from a chemical plant.
Part of the problem is the heavy branding – we look owned. The adventure clothing industry is years behind the fashion world, which has long since recognised the seductive appeal of non-conspicuous branding, subtle details such as the four stitches that signify a Martin Margiela jumper. By contrast, adventure clothing brands have information that they are desperate to convey. A good deal of clever design has gone into these clothes. The evidence of it is daubed on sleeves, lapels, trouser legs and shoes: Polartec, Titanium, Paclite, Pro Shell, Soft Shell, Triclimate, Windwall, eVent, Power Stretch and – my favourite – HemLock. Each of these is a registered trademark, each one a patented material or system. Technical clothing comes with its own language, the language of performance. The marketing strategy revolves around presenting clothes as engineering. Sometimes, though, I suspect that we are being blinded with pseudo-science.
Looking for a simple waterproof, I found one by Vaude that looked dependable, only to discover that it cost £300. I asked the store assistant why it was so expensive and he said, "It's waterproof and, well, everything-proof, basically." For that price it should be bulletproof. Most of the rainwear I looked at turned out not to be technically waterproof. I was amazed to discover just how many degrees of non-waterproofness are represented in these adventure clothing shops. Once you've eliminated everything that looks waterproof but is in fact only windproof, you're left with two options: cheap, shapeless nylon cagoules or super-expensive, high-performance gear. The problem seems to be that synthetic materials solved the rain problem but created a breathability problem – and solving that will cost you.
Often, real innovation has gone into these products. Gore-Tex , for instance, invented by Robert Gore in 1978, is an ingenious material. Because its pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water drop, it keeps water out while allowing water vapour from an overheating body to escape. Like the smartphone of textiles, it might as well be magic. Similarly, the fleece, the mainstay of every outdoor enthusiast, is made of recycled plastic bottles – another stroke of genius. Patagonia – the brand, not the place – estimates that 25 bottles go into each garment. And instead of winding up in landfills themselves, fleeces can be recycled more or less infinitely. The only problem is that when you take off a fleece it crackles with static. Its artificiality is palpable. There is some irony in nature lovers braving the wilds wearing recycled rubbish.
However, nothing expresses the hi-tech aspirations of technical clothing like hiking shoes. I'm not talking about traditional leather hiking boots, which will last you a lifetime, but the newfangled hiking trainer. The visual language of hiking trainers is a lesson in communicating complexity. They are all ridges and ribs, meshes and membranes. They are designed to combine strength and shock absorbance with lightness, and that is a genuine achievement. It's interesting, though, how each element – every rib and membrane – has to be articulated in a different colour, to show off how many elements are involved. Like the hi-tech architecture of Rogers and Foster, these shoe designers want to express structure – engineering translates into performance. Unlike them, however, there is no restrained palette.
While some of these shoes are genuinely great products, others are simply ludicrous. American brand Merrell seems to excel in the latter. The Chameleon3 Axiom Sport (with Ortholite Anatomical Footbed) reaches new heights of ugliness and spurious technicality. If Robocop ate nothing but All-Bran and tyres, this is what his turds would look like. Merrell's marketing spiel describes it as "stripped right down to its bare essentials", but it's so burdened with superfluous nobbly bits that it's positively baroque. If this shoe was the only artefact to survive the nuclear apocalypse, what would future civilisations make of us? Possibly that we imbued walking with shamanistic significance, or that we used to plug ourselves into our mainframes by our feet.
Of course, the excessive detailing on that shoe, indeed on much adventure clothing, is a form of decoration. Those ribs, stripes and seams are meant to connote performance. They aim to awaken in the potential buyer a sense of his latent potential. And that psychological effect should not be underestimated. You want to buy something that makes you feel like you can take on the wilderness, that you are protected and empowered. On the other hand, you don't want to look like a berk. So much innovation goes into these items, but rarely can you call them good designs. Some of these brands would do well to consider Dieter Rams' dictum that good design is as little design as possible.
Adventure gear deploys the classic trick that marketing plays on the consumer, that sense that only certain equipment will do. We buy into it so readily that we convince ourselves we need things that we don't – especially men, who are natural gear queers. Is the equipment a substitute for our physical abilities? Here I am with a mountain to climb. I'm togged up in technical gear. I haven't done any exercise in two years but – technically – I'm ready.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010