What to wear in the Backcountry
Getting dressed in the morning is usually second nature, with not much thought going into it. If you're doing sports however, it can get more complicated especially when you're heading out riding in the backcountry. Thats when your clothing choice can make or break the day ahead.
Nowadays we talk about 'Layering', 'Shell', 'Synthetic Fibres vs Merino Wool', etc. When I started touring with my Granddad, he was wearing a wool sweater an old jacked and the only thing I can remember about his trousers... The funky colour.
So the question is.. Do we need all this modern clothing technology? is it just marketing and money? could the old and simple way work just as well?
For me, the answer is somewhere in the middle. In the old days people where more patient, they would only go ski touring when the snow and weather conditions where good. Nowadays we want to be able to go in any kind of weather, a real now or never attitude. So maybe the demands on the materials have changed a lot.
Why would a farmer use an old horse plow to get their fields ready, when they could have a big green tractor doing it keeping them warmer and in every way, much more practical? What I mean is that the clothing has become so good and practical these days, that it would be stupid not to use it.
Dressing in a layer principle simply means.. Wearing different layers, each layer has a different purpose. Mainly you divide into three different layers; base layer, mid layer and the shell. This doesn't mean that you only wear three things. One layer can contain more than one piece of clothing.
The base layers task is to transport the moisture away from your skin and is the first layer of insulation. This is the layer you will feel on your skin, and there are two main fabrics used for this layer.
Cotton - Pretty much everything is against cotton for this task, its heavy, absorbs moisture, starts stinking & is not breathable. Don't worry there are solutions so keep with me..
Synthetic Fibres - These fibres made out of plastic (polyester, polyamide, ect. ) are fast drying and are super light weight.
they're also easy to wash, crease free and have good stretch. But do tend to get stinky after multiple use without washing.
Merino Wool - Comes from a Spanish sheep and is known for its wool. The use of this wool dates back into the 18th century where merino wool was one of the biggest motors for Spanish economy. Nowadays most merino wool comes from South America and all over the world. It has a very nice feel against your skin, unlike the wool in your old knitted Christmas jumper. This wool is itch-free, and odour free (doesn't get smelly that quick), this is because of the fibres texture and natural antibacterial effect. It also offers natural climate control, and can keep you warm in cold conditions but can also cool your body when you over heat.
We use merino wool long johns for the bottom part, our favourites being from Pally'Hi. The 3/4 length Long Johns are perfect they don't get all bunched between your socks and boots. On freezing days (below -10C) we tend to wear two sets of long johns or we add the boiler suit from Pally'Hi below -20C (Since touring outer clothing is lightweight and thin).
For our upper part, we like to wear a long sleeve even on warm days as it keeps the sweat away from your mid layer and prevents the mid layer sticking to your skin. On colder days we like to add another merino short sleeve.
For your feet there are socks made out of a merino,acryle,nylon blend. If you tend to have cold feet wear thiner merino socks underneath, but make sure your foot still has enough room in your boot. If you tighten your boot too much, the blood can't circulate properly in your feet making them colder. A good way of keeping your hands/feet warm is to make sure the rest of your body is warm, an extra layer could help.
The purpose of the mid layer is to trap air and insulate you. Keeping your body the right temperature, but this also means you need to adapt in certain situations. Whilst hiking up you need less insulation then you would on the peak or while riding down. I like to use a prima loft jacked to hike up, and as soon as I get to the top i'll add another jacket over the top (if the primaloft is not too sweaty). In general if you're cold then add an extra layer, this will make you feel warmer then if you are wearing only one thick layer. Remove all wet/sweaty clothes when making stops, leaving the wet clothes on your body will use up more energy/warmth.
Is an insulation made out of polyester, sometimes mixed with merino wool. It has excellent insulation quality an withstands moisture better then 'down'. it's a modern, and great substitute for 'down'.
Down has been used for centuries, but has a big downside. Animals come to suffer when collecting the feathers which keep us warm. Nowadays there are substitutes which are even better than down, as soon as a down jacket gets wet it will lose its insulating function completely. All other advantages can be achieved with Primaloft.
The Shell is the outside layer, protecting you from the elements. Its main tasks are to protect us from wind, wet conditions and is breathable, light and easy to pack.
What to wear?
You for sure have those friends who always like to talk a little bit longer than everyone else. Not that we are in a rush but wintertime on the mountain... Its' cold. So what we like to do is wear a lot of layers that can easily be taken off for the start. Always start with a shell on, when ever the body temperature is high enough, stop for 2 seconds and take the shell off. We find it's way more comfortable than starting off cold, and having to hike fast all in order to get warm again.
So what we would wear (sounding like a teenager on Friday night) is a merino long sleeve, an insulator jacked & shell jacked. On really cold days we would add a thin jacked over the long sleeve. And for the bottom part, merino long johns & merino socks. If its freezing add an other long john over the top.
Make sure you NEVER wear your goggles on top of your hat, as they fog up when you need them. Wear a hat or a bandana as a high percentage of body heat is lost through the head. Wear normal sunglasses, even when sun is not out, they provide protection against UV light and Wind.
Wearing your normal gloves would be too warm for the hike and would become wet at the top. Wear cheap thin gloves from the DIY-Store, they are perfect for the job and cost less than a fiver. Look for the standard mechanic gloves, in the winter they'll have the same but insulated, they are perfect; with rubber for the fingers and a stretch material on the top. You can also find cheap leather gloves, they are a bit cooler but last longer. love 'em!
During the hike you need to adjust to the weather conditions, e.g. If it gets windy you might need your shell again, if its sunny and warm you will want to take of your insulator jacked.
Some people pack a spare shirt for the top, we like to keep our clothes on ;-). What we do is slow down just before reaching the top so not to sweat too much. First thing to do at the top is add an additional Insulator Jacket. Clothes dry quickest against your skin. But if you tend to sweat a lot, pack another shirt. We like to start with a warm tea drink, then quickly prepare your board ready for the decent. After that you can take out your thicker gloves and warm your hands up. Make sure the gloves are warm, Keeping them in the chest pocket whilst mounting the splitboard so they get nice and toasty.
Depending how long you spent on the peak and how long the decent is.. For a shorter decent; keep everything on that you were dressed in at the top. However if it's a physically demanding decent, then strip off a layer.. Similar to when you were hiking up. Make sure your body is not too cold, and as soon as you start sweating you strip off a layer. If you know you have to skin/hike up again, make sure you dress accordingly. Always wear a shell when going down. Moisture is one of you're biggest enemies, if you're wet you lose a lot of your body temperature (thats why we are sweating in the first place), but imagine you get in a situation where you have to save energy and cant afford to lose that body warmth. Wearing dry clothes is key in such a scenario.
We have all experienced windchill. On a windy day -3 C can fell like a good -10 C, on the other hand a sunny day with -15C.. Sitting with a sweater on at the peak seems almost impossible, but it isn't. This has to do with the windchill. Our body produces heat, and we are trying to trap that heat in our layers in order to stay warm. The best layer for keeping warm will be the insulation layer, but if the wind blows the warm air out of the insulation layer, you'll become cold again. Thats where the windproof shell becomes handy. If you can feel on your face that there is no wind, a layer of warm air surrounds our body/face. If the wind is constantly blowing this warm layer away, you'll become cold again. This means that on windy days you might want to add another layer, close all the ventilation zippers and wear a shell, you may also want to wear a balaclava for your face to protect it from frostbite.
On the other hand if the suns out you can feel how you warm up. This is because the dark surfaces take in the radiation of the sun and warm up pretty fast.
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I can't imagine hiking and riding in the clothes our pioneers had. With the new equipment it makes it possible to go out and ride even if the weather is not perfect. Back in the day's if you would have picked the wrong day to hike up a mountain you would have gotten into serious trouble. With all the modern technology we are lucky to have today it allows us to do everything with comfort and practicality. Sure it is all possible with the the clothes from the past, but there is no easier way than with the shell technology. It's so versatile and easily adapts in any situation.
So don't be tight with your cash when it comes to buying winter clothes, invest in something proper, it will last longer, perform exactly as it's supposed to and your focus being purely about the hike and ride, not about how cold/hot or wet you are!
stay warm! Gerwin