CLOTHING FOR BACKCOUNTRY SKIING

OVERVIEW

I find the dressing for backcountry skiing is different than both lift served skiing and winter hiking. This page contains some of the clothing options that I've found work well for me.

I've come to believe that clothing choices are closely tied to both location and personal preference. These are my preferences and they might not be yours. And they've been formed by my skiing in New England, so if you live in a part of the world where winter weather is different than it is here, then there's a good chance that works for me here won't work well for you over there.

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MY LAYERING APPROACH FOR MY TORSO

My approach to dressing for backcountry skiing is based on the classic 3 layer system (base layer, insulation, shell) and modified a bit based on ideas stolen from the English Pertex and Pile clothing system made by Buffalo Systems. The approach of the Pertex and Pile system is built upon the observation that if you work hard in wet weather, your clothing ends up being wet, either from sweat or from water coming in through the cuffs and collars. So, their focus is on being able to regulate heat, not staying dry. Pertex is a tight polyester windbreaker fabric and pile is like fleece, only it's thicker and has a much looser weave. Pertex and pile clothing combines the two in a single garment which is worn next to skin. The more open weave of the pile means that the pit zips allow the wearer to dump heat quickly. The famous Marmot Dri-Clime Windshirt works on the same principle, only it's thinner (and lacks pit-zips).

I can't go the full way to Buffalo clothing for 2 reasons; I like having a base layer on next to my skin and I prefer more adjustability in the insulation layers. So, I essentially use a classic layering system but use it in a way that is similar to the Pertex and Pile idea. Another way of saying this is that by keeping my shell and insulation layers separate, I can create all sort of combinations that can work like a Pertex and Pile jacket.

My layering system ends up being made up from 4 or 5 layers:

I'll discuss these in more detail in what follows.

Base Layer - I almost always use a treated polyester shirts such as Patagonia Capilene. I prefer what is commonly referred to as "medium weight" shirts and prefer long sleeve zip turtle necks for their versatility and venting. In spring temps, I'll often use a polyester t-shirt. Some folks swear by wool and I have no opinion on their virtue as good quality wool is generally out of my price range. Regarding cost, I've owned both expensive Patagonia Capilene, mid priced garments from large retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) and low cost polyester shirts such as Wickers. I honestly can't tell a difference in the performance of the fabrics. There is often a difference in the cut and quality of seams and cuffs, but it's hard to know year from year what is best. At this point, I buy based on price so long as the fit is workable.

Primary Insulation - I choose my primary insulation based on expected temperature. In most conditions I use a pile cardigan sweater (not fleece, but pile). Pile and fleece are often heralded as being warm when wet and that's certainly true. But the primary thing I want in my insulating layer is the ability to let ventilating wind through, so I can blow off steam quickly and stay reasonably dry. The more wind the insulating layer lets through, the better. The best insulating layer I've found is the Rock Pile cardigan made by Ragged Mountain, in Intervale, NH. It's something of a through back jacket made from unlined pile. The jacket is warm light and it compresses surprisingly well. I prefer it to any fleece I've ever worn. In warmer temperatures, I use an Expedition Weight Capilene zip turtle neck shirt, although I would prefer a cardigan at this point for improved venting in the front. In super cold conditions, I'll wear this beneath my pile jacket, effectively creating a single thick insulating layer. But it needs to be really cold for that.

Adjusting Insulation - When I go on camping trips on day trips on which I anticipate a wide swing in temperature, I'll choose my insulating layer based on the anticipated warm temps of the day and then I'll augment it with a light insulating layer. I used to use a fleece vest for this and that works well, but for the past few years I've been using a synthetic Patagonia Puffball vest.

Outer Shell - In nearly all skiing conditions, I use a simple nylon or Pertex shell. I have a couple that I choose from based on how thick of an insulating layer I'm going to use. The big features that I look for are: a) no waterproof/breathable protection, b) pitzips and c) no built-in liner. I find jackets of this sort breath better than alternatives and dry quickly. If the trip is forecast to have wet snow or rain, I will also pack a waterproof/breathable jacket, but that will spend most of its time in the pack. I really prefer non-waterproof jackets if I can get away with it.

Insulating Parka - Finally, I carry an insulating parka that can over all of my other clothing. I keep it in the top of my pack and it comes out whenever we stop. I currently own 2 jackets insulated with Primaloft. One is a heavy parka and the other is more of a sweater weight. I go back and forth on whether I would prefer down for this layer. The Primaloft jackets have been incredibly durable. And, I use them with impunity. I put them on over my sweaty or wet skiing clothes at rest areas with no worries. The same is true if it is snowing or drizzling. But, they are not as light as comparably warm down jackets, nor do they compress as well. I think this is very location dependent.

Some other comments... I don't care for wool for skiing. It picks up too much snow and moisture and is very, very heavy. Wool has it's advantages. I still hunt in a wool jacket and the smell of wet wool is a comforting smell. But I don't take it in my pack.

I don't care for "softshells" on my top. I find them stiff and difficult to put on. The ones I've owned don't have pit-zips and that is frustrating to me. The bottom line is that I find a simple nylon shell over pile or fleece to be more comfortable and more versatile.

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MY LAYERING APPROACH FOR MY LEGS

I find layering for my legs to be much easier than layering for my torso. For backcountry skiing in the woods of New England, I generally don't need to adjust layers through-out the day, so I can get away wearing a basic pair of shell pants over fleece-type tights of some sort. My most frequently used pair of tights are a pair of Patagonia Activist Tights which have a smooth outer face which dramatically reduces the amount of friction between the tights and my shell pants. On warm days, I'll just wear a pair of medium weight long johns.

For pants, I prefer cargo pants with pockets on the side for quick access to map and compass. For many years, I've been using a pair of Patagonia Guide Pants, which are made of a stretchy "soft shell" type of material. But lately, I've been using a pair of polyester twill "security uniform" type pants. They're marketed to police and security guards and I got mine on clearance for under $10. They're wind-resistant, shed snow, dry very fast and have a gusseted crotch for ease of movement. I always wear tall gaiters when backcountry skiing and the top cinch strap of the gaiters comes to just below the knees. If you pull the pant legs up just a bit, this makes the shell pants behave like knickers giving great freedom of movement even if the shell pants aren't stretchable.

I've found that pack waist belts and active skiing combine to cause my pants to drop down in the back no matter how tight I have my belt. The solution I've found is to use a pair of suspenders. I use the elastic clip on kind sold as accessories for dress pants. I've used bigger, heavier ones in the past and find them to be uncomfortable and really, not needed. The lighter ones do the job. If you're a cyclist, they can do double duty holding up cycling shorts. Same issue and same solution.

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GLOVES AND MITTENS

My approach for dealing with my hands has stayed pretty constant for several years. I use leather gloves and mittens over wool liners. I'll discuss both the shells and liners in more detail.

Leather Gloves and Mitts - I find that backcountry skiing is pretty hard on handwear. I've trashed any glove or mitt made from fabric pretty quickly. Even when using leather, clearing pin holes and handling skis with sharp edges is hard on gloves, so I'm not going to spend a whole lot on gloves that are going to get wrecked in a matter of time. So,I get my gloves and mitts from local hardware stores. I buy insulated smooth grain work gloves and I use them as is around the house for a year or so. After a bit, I cut out the liner and use the outer as my new skiing shell glove. Mitts are harder to find. In the north country, you sometimes find insulated wood chopper mitts like those from Kinkos. Or you can buy uninsulated wood chopper mitts from some logging or hunting supply companies like Labonville or Cabelas.

There's a trade-off with shell gloves and mitts between durability and the ability of the shell to dry out once it becomes wet. I've given up on keeping gloves perfectly dry when dealing with sweat and wet snow. The huge benefit of nylon gloves is that they out quickly, which is a good thing on overnight trips. But, I'm sticking with leather shell mitts and gloves for the time being, so that brings us ot the topic of waterproofing the leather.

For waterproofing gloves and mittens, I use AquaSeal, which is a leather treatment with a lot of silicone in it. I've tried a lot of different leather treatments on my hiking and ski boots and gloves and mittens over the years. I've concluded that what works well on boots (I prefer Limmer Boot Grease) doesn't work as well on gloves and mittens. Grease type treatments like Limmer Boot Grease gives good dexterity with the gloves and mittens, but it's not particularly waterproof. It's more of a moisturizer. Wax based treatments like SnowSeal and Nikwax make my gloves too stiff feeling. And, I'm not entirely sold on the waterproofness. AquaSeal seems to provide the best combination. It seems to give the best waterproofness and leave the gloves and mitts fairly dexterous. NOTE: I can't recommend AquaSeal on good boots. I did a test on 2 pairs of boots for several years putting AquaSeal on the left boot and SnowSeal on the right. The leather on the AquaSeal boots got pretty beat up really fast. Maybe it was just the leather. But I've switched to Limmer Boot Grease for the boots I love. I don't love my gloves though. I just want them to be waterproof so I use AquaSeal.

Wool Gloves and Mitts - For many years I used fleece liners but have been using wool for the past few years. This is one place that I like wool better. I can't say why, really. I just like the feel of it better.

For gloves, I like the the wool gloves by Fox River that come with rubber "grip dots" on the palms and fingers. In warmer weather, I can use them without the shell.

For mitts, I like boiled wool mittens. My daughter got me into knitting several years ago and I've worked out a pattern for mitts that approximates the old classic Dachstien mitts. If you knit, you can download my pattern for boiled wool mittens and try making them yourself. Otherwise, I think that Orthovox is now importing the Dachstien mitt to the US again.

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Dave's Backcountry Skiing Page

Copyright 2011 by David Mann