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Analysis of Boonie Hat for Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping

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Posted by on July 9, 2015
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Bob Ward

Fiction author with a zest for adventure travel. Blogs, tweets, videos, and pins for research and fun. He also hosts Ward's Adventure Travel Research & Trip Journal, a weekly podcast available on EFN, iTunes, Stitcher Radio, and more.

I purchased two of these–one navy, one khaki–in order to test the theory that a lighter colored hat is cooler under the blazing sun. I definitely prefer the color navy, but I’ll wear the khaki if it keeps me cooler.

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Tru-Spec Gen 2 Adjustable Boonie 65/35 Poly/Cotton Rip-Stop (worn by adventure hiker and fashion model Bob Ward)

 

Basic problems to be solved…

  • Avoid dying of heat stroke while hiking, backpacking, or camping during the hot months.
  • Avoid needing to apply sunscreen all over my face, neck, and ears.
  • Avoid having sunlight directly blasting my eyes.
  • Avoid fashionable people wanting to converse with me on the trail.

Here are the basic hat specs that matter, and why…

  1. It must be practical, meaning it must solve my problems.
  2. It must be well-built but not over-built.
  3. It must be lightweight and pack-able.
  4. It must not overheat my head.
  5. It must have a chin strap.

I looked at most of the brand name hats available, narrowing my choices down the boonie style. I found the Tru-spec boonie at a local military surplus store, liked all the basic features (which haven’t changed much since the 1960’s), and I bought the only one they had left in this model, which happened to be a navy color. Then I came home and ordered a khaki version from Amazon. (note the product description reads brown for the khaki-colored hat).

My analysis:

First of all, I needed a new hat because the current boonie I had was 100% cotton and dark brown in color. I found my head sweating and overheating, and I nearly tossed the old hat in the stream. So the most basic requirement for my new hat was that it not be made of cotton. With the brand name hats, nylon or polyester blends seemed common, as goes to practicality with what is marketed as a sun hat. Of these commercial brands, I found the Outdoor Research hats to be the most durably constructed. The prices are reasonable, too. However, I found all the hats had extra features that I couldn’t see myself using. For example, snaps to hold up either side of the brim when desired, or brims made of foam so your hat floats when dropped in the river, or fancy mesh linings and space-aged headbands for added air-flow and sweat absorption. I’ve always found that extra features are rarely used, and I prefer to own a simpler product that is less likely to break when constructed of higher-quality materials.

And then I recalled the boonie hat I’d worn to the Boundary Waters as a Boy Scout back in 1986. I’d purchased a green one at the local military surplus store. It could not be destroyed. A few years back, I gave it to my son. As of this writing, he still has it, buried in the bottom of his toy chest. So I got it the other day, tried it on, and it was too tight. The tag reads 7-1/4. My head has grown over the years, or the hat has shrunk. Could be either or both, I suppose.

Adjustable hat size:

When I discovered the Tru-spec boonie, the adjustable hat size feature was an accidental surprise, but one I found practical. Given my head may grow or shrink over the years, why lock myself into a 7-3/4 hat? And what if it shrinks over the years? But the most likely scenario is that my hair will grow, get cut, grow, get cut, and on and on. Each time, the adjustable hat size will be handy. On this particular hat, the system is very simple and reliable–a ribbon drawstring sewn into a channel around the hatband. It is cinched or loosened easily via a spring-loaded clip. Such clips are proven, and virtually indestructible.

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Quality and simplicity get the job done. Nothing more, nothing less. Not over-designed. Inexpensive. This hat will probably outlive me.

 

Well-constructed:

These hats are built to military specs. I believe the specs haven’t changed since the mid-1960’s, which is actually reassuring. To me, that means the original version had adequately solved the basic problems, and there was no further need for tinkering. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Aside from improvements in fabric materials, what could possibly be added to a hat to make it better? Fashion matters little to me. I want durable and functional. Once I find something that works, I don’t often change. What I find even more appealing, if by chance I lose the hat, I can easily pick up (or order) another one. The military boonie doesn’t change.

Inexpensive:

I paid $14.95 at the military store for the navy version, and $15.95 via Amazon for the khaki. In contrast, the least expensive brand name hat I found in sporting good stores was $30. By sticking with the tried and true, I was able to get two hats for the price of one, which I found joyful. Yes, joyful. I was thrilled to get two different colors.

Now as to Style:

My wife thinks they look dorky. But that’s all I have to say about style. I simply do not care how I look. As a practical matter, the boonie style is the best for hiking, backpack, and camping. That is the relevant point. The boonie is crush-able. The boonie’s brim will not fight against the top of your pack when bumping backward (such as the Aussie does). Your hiking partner (if only your dog) can step or sit on the boonie and it will not permanently affect it’s shape–since it’s mildly floppy anyway. Compared to the baseball cap with a cotton rag draped down over your ears and neck for sun protection, the boonie allows more airflow and is easier to take on and off. Sure, if I’m horseback riding, I prefer a much stiffer brim than the boonie, such as the cowboy hat. But for travel on foot, the boonie offers plenty of protection from branches and twigs and other vegetation that try to snag your face and eyes.

About chin straps:

Everyone knows the obvious benefit of wearing a chin strip, right? To keep the hat from blowing off your head and over the cliff. Lose one hat to the wind and you’ll become a believer in chin straps. I never bother to use the chin strap for tying up the brim into a more fancy shaped hat on calm days. I suppose it might be worthwhile trying around camp, but only for increased peripheral visibility when lighting fires, setting up tent and sleeping gear, cooking, and so on. At camp, though, I tend to remove my hat while doing such chores, because I’m usually never camping directly under the sun.

But here’s the second benefit of a chin strap, which many haven’t realized…

When hiking or standing temporarily under a shaded canopy of trees–or at other times when the hat isn’t necessary–you can let it dangle backwards and rest between your shoulder blades. Why carry it? The hat weighs only a couple ounces, so it’s hanging there won’t choke you out–at least until your partner tugs on it or tries to fill it with acorns one at a time from a distance of maybe ten feet behind you. Let it hang. Free your hands. Then, when you move back out into the sunshine, simply reach over your shoulder and pull it onto your head again. (If you’re backpacking, you’ll need to find other creative ways of dangling the hat from the chin strap.)

Don’t worry about the leather cinch failing. My old boonie from 1986, has the exact same leather cinch, and the leather is tough and thick and it ain’t going anywhere. The spring-loaded clip version would be no more functional, in my analysis, and might break sooner.

Fabric:

I’m happy with the 65% Poly / 35% Cotton. With some cotton, I worry less about the hat melting onto my face when accidentally dipping my head too close to the fire. Polyester is cooler and dries faster than cotton, so being mostly but not all polyester makes a lot of sense to me. In theory, having some cotton should make the hat comfortable. New, the Tru-spec is fairly stiff for a boonie, but I believe it will gradually soften up and become more comfortably floppy given the cotton content. Those who argue that an all cotton hat is better for dipping in the river and then dowsing your head with a wet rag, I would counter that it’s not often done in the real world except when trying to prove that it can be done. A more likely ancillary use of your hat would be to fill it with drinking water and let your dog lap it up. I’ve done that with both my 100% cotton hat, and my new 65/35 blend Tru-spec, and the blended hat holds water better, but in all fairness your dog has to lap fast in either case.

Map sleeve:

This is a neat feature in the Tru-spec boonie. A hidden pocket. So far I haven’t found any maps worth sticking in there, but it’s useful for holding a folded piece of paper.

No foliage loops around the hat:

Why would a hiker ever need these anyway? It’s not like we’re planning to stick twigs and branches into our hat for better camouflage. I was glad Tru-spec has a version without the loops. For a backpacker, the weight savings is appreciated.

Vented top ports:

I was really tempted to buy a hat with mesh venting around the top, but in the end, I decided the traditional vent ports would be adequate. I had heard some reports of people getting sun-burned through the mesh on name brand hats, so that wasn’t ideal. I still have plenty of hair, though, luckily, so more important to me was the extra sewing required for the mesh panels, which I feared could fail over time, and I opted for the tried and true design of the military spec hat.

One last comment:

Many of the new name brand hats brag about dark colored under-brims, claiming the benefits of reduced glare. It is true, as the navy hat proves over the khaki. However, since I’m always wearing sunglasses anyway–like most everyone else–I find there is no practical need for a dark-colored under-brim. I consider such features to be mostly for marketing, like companies trying to build a better mousetrap. Okay, so is it easier on the eyes? Maybe. But it is necessary? No. I don’t imagine I’ll be squinting from the harsh glare of the sun reflecting off the rocky trail under the brim of my khaki hat. In the end, the khaki hat may be cooler atop my head, as it reflects more sunlight. I’ll test that theory out over the coming hot months. I’m sure I’ll gravitate toward one or the other. I’m glad I could get two–one navy, one khaki–since the price was so good.

Here is one more picture (the best) of the navy boonie hat by Tru-spec…

Fonzie

Fonzie

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