Like a lot of guys, and maybe women too, I spent a long time searching for the perfect hat before concluding there’s no such thing.
Wait, I can hear the protests already: Tilley! Stetson! Panama!
I’m not saying there aren’t hats that are perfect for certain conditions — just not all conditions.
The hat I wear in the garden in July is not the one I want on a winter’s day in the mountains, and vice versa.
I’m not really a hat guy anyway. I generally prefer caps. And caps have come a long way over the years. Remember when they used to be made of that weird foam material? Now they’re mostly cotton or canvas, which is a good thing.
But there are times when a cap won’t suffice, this year being a good example — starting with the gnats.
One morning walking in the woods this spring I started noticing gnats swarming around my face. It took several such walks before I gathered my wits and started wearing a hat. Gnats don’t like flying under hat brims.
Then came the scorching sun. A wide-brimmed hat is a good insurance against skin cancer, not to mention sunburn.
Next came the deer flies. They’re like gnats in that they don’t like hat brims.
So from now till late summer, when I spend a lot of time outdoors, I’ll be wearing a hat.
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But what kind of hat?
I won’t say I’ve tried them all, but I have tried plenty.
First off, I prefer a hat that’s lightweight, not so tight it gives me a headache, not so loose it sits on top of my head. Preferably it has a band that won’t increase my sweating.
Since most rain gear has a hood nowadays, I tend not to wear a hat in the rain since it can just get in the way.
Some of the more memorable hats I’ve owned:
• Filson: I was at a gigantic hardware store in upstate New York 30 years ago when I saw a Filson “tin cloth packer hat” for $36. That seemed like a lot of money at the time (they now go for $75), but it was rugged-looking so I bought it. It turned out to be too hot for my Deep South canoe trips, but I finally took it down the Buffalo River, Ark., in September. It was still a tad warm but worked well when the weather turned chilly and damp.
• Safari: At the other extreme was the straw safari helmet my brother Robert bought me back in the 1980s to take on a jungle trek in Papua New Guinea. It was cool and comfortable but had two problems: The straw mesh would be worthless in rain, which is inevitable in the jungle, and the brim was too stiff to take on an airplane without risk of crumpling it. Should make a fine gardening hat, however.
• Straw: One good standby is the generic straw hat such as you find in co-ops and hardware stores — like the one with the green visor in front. I never quite figured that out, but it has a nice retro look, and the hat is generally comfortable.
• Bush: I decided to try an Australian bush hat one time, figuring if it’s good enough in the outback, it ought to satisfy me. But I found it to be too hot, heavy and bulky for my tastes.
• Felt: I’m focusing on hats for outdoor activities here, but I should include a dress felt hat I bought for a funeral in north Mississippi one winter. The weather was bitterly cold and I was a pallbearer, so I bought one of those short-brimmed dress hats, which saved my head from freezing. Turned out to be a good winter hat.
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On one of my trips to Papua New Guinea, my missionary buddy wanted me to bring him a leather Indiana Jones hat. I searched far and wide to find one (that was pre-internet) and he wore it with zest, though it seemed impractically hot for the tropics to me.
My friend Scott B. Williams, a sailor and kayaker, used to swear by military boonie hats (on the rare occasion he wore any headgear). But his girlfriend gave him a Tilley hat, so now he professes loyalty to it.
Tilley is considered to be the gold standard of hats. It costs more but is high quality, and Tilley owners, like Dr. Spunk Brock, tend to swear by them.
But Dr. Brock isn’t thinking only of looks. As a McComb dermatologist he zeroes in on what is probably the most important feature of hats in our Southern climate — protection from the sun.
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There’s not necessarily a correlation between cost and quality of hat anyway. Some of my favorites were cheap.
I got my current preference, a mesh camouflaged model, at McComb Tackle Box for $6. It’s made of paper so it’s light and airy, but I hope I don’t get caught in a rainstorm in it.
The thing about hats, though, is they don’t last. They get lost, they shrink, wear out or just disappear.
That’s OK, though, because there are a million more out there just waiting to be tried.