The equation is pretty simple… WET + COLD = BAD.
During the warmer months being wet… aka sweaty… helps you stay cool and at times might be uncomfortable and unfortunate but it’s not unsafe. If you’re out hiking or trail running when it’s warm you get wet, then you dry out, and at no time do you ever have to worry about survival.
When it’s cold out this changes. Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air. If you’re trying to retain heat being sweaty works against you and can quickly create a situation where survival is not guaranteed.
Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, everyone knows that you’re supposed to layer when heading outside to play. The reason for this is so that you can easily add or remove pieces to adjust the system relative to your activity level/heat output. Also, everyone knows that you should use a three layers… Right?
Three layers… Base, Middle, Outer… this is what every book and every blog post and every magazine article on layering will tell you. However, I think that this model is an over simplification of a what is actually a really good idea.
In my mind three layers does not necessarily mean three pieces of clothing. There’s your action suit, which is minimum combination of clothing you’d wear during any activity you might possibly do. Then you have your insulating and protective layers. These layers can be made up of multiple items, though I will admit that the protective layer is usually made up of just a single piece.
Over time I’ve experimented with a lot of different clothing combinations in many different situations, and lately I’ve settled on a 4-piece and sometimes even a 5-piece system. Below I will run through my current setup for backcountry skiing and winter hiking in hopes that it will help you figure out your own system. Please keep in mind that this is what works for me and may or may not be right for you.
My Action Suit
Again, your action suit is made up of the minimum combination of clothing you might wear at any given time. Over my legs I typically wear a pair of Smartwool 150 weight bottoms under Arc’teryx Stingray Pants. This has worked very well for me, offering plenty of weather and wind protection, and the vents on the pants allow me to dump heat when necessary. My legs typically never feel overly hot, but I am toying with the idea of getting a pair of softshell pants. If I do I will let everyone know how it goes.
On top, as much as I like wool, I start with the lightest synthetic t-shirt that I own. The reason I don’t use wool is because–as awesome as it is–it just holds more water and dries slower than a synthetic, and in the winter, water and wetness are your enemy. Over the top of my synthetic shirt I then layer Outdoor Research’s Ferrosi Hoody. This piece is a super lightweight softshell. It offers some protection from the wind and weather, and it doesn’t hold in too much heat. It also doesn’t hold much water and dries very quickly. In the past I’ve used light fleece layers like Patagonia’s R1 Pullover, but while very breathable and comfortable when moving, they retain too much water and this leads to excessive chilling when your activity level drops.
Now, I can’t say that I never overheat in this outfit. However, when that happens you can easily push up the sleeves and unzip the front to help dump the excess heat. The goal of the action suit is be cool enough that you don’t overheat when working hard, yet offer enough protection to keep you from getting overly chilled if the wind picks up, or you slow down a little. And, if I do find myself too warm I can always strip down to my t-shirt.
In addition to my action suit I always carry with me an insulating piece or two. For this job you can use fleece, but fleece is heavy and not as compact as other options. Instead I use Mountain Hardwear’s Thermostatic Jacket. It provides a significant amount of insulating value for its weight and is very compact so as not to take up too much room in your pack. A lightweight down jacket is also a good choice in this situation… and if you want to know why I chose a synthetic puffy you might want to read a previous post on choosing a puffy jacket.
Sometimes, in very cold situations, I will also carry another hooded puffy jacket… a 5th piece if you will. This jacket is sized to fit over the top of everything else and only comes out when I plan to be inactive for longer periods of time. This year I will be using Mountain Hardwear’s Super Compressor Hoody.
The last layer you should always have with you is something that offers maximal protection from the world around you. This is what you break out when it’s time to ski down, or the weather makes a turn for the worse. For a long time I wore the original Patagonia Dimension Jacket. Technically this was a softshell jacket that offered pretty decent weather protection. However, there were often times when it wasn’t quite enough. Currently I am using the Arc’teryx Rush Jacket. This is a gore-tex piece designed for skiing. When $h!t hits the fan it will keep you warm and dry no matter what the world throws at you. Your protective layer is your insurance policy, and when choosing your own you should consider the worse types of weather you might encounter when outside playing.
The 5-Piece System
I mentioned that sometimes I use a 5-piece system. This extra piece is an insulating piece for those days that really freaking cold. I used to have a really heavy and bulky down belay jacket, but I found that I never wanted to bring it with because it was so big. More recently I’ve switched to a system that utilizes two lightweight synthetic puffies. The first is something like the Thermostatic Jacket from Mountain Hardwear. It’s lightweight, offers a lot of warmth for its weight and doesn’t have a hood so it fit well under other layers. This piece comes along on every winter outing.
The second is another lightweight puffy, this time with a hood. This piece is sized to fit over everything and comes along on outings that are very cold, or on trips where I expect there to be significant amounts of inactivity. Currently, Mountain Hardwear’s Super Compressor Jacket fills this spot in my system.
I find this two-jacket system to be very versatile. It’s not any heavier or bulkier than your typical belay jacket, but it provides a similar amount of warmth and it’s two jackets! This gives you additional options and even allows you to give one to someone else should the need arise.
Play Hard and Be Safe!
This article was originally published over at The Juskuz Experience, and has been republished here with permission from the author. If you are a writer and would like to have your work shared with the New England backcountry ski community please get in touch. We are always looking for additional content and would be happy to help you share your work.