Saturday, November 12, 2011

Backcountry Ski Clothing Systems -- What works, and what doesn't?

Me and the Dorais Bros after linking up lots of lines in Hogum -- the Hulk Hogum.  I'm wearing a Patagonia Traverse
 on top of a thin Smartwool top, Dynafit tights, and a harness.
From 2011-03-20
Over the years, I've put a fair amount of thought, effort, and $ into figuring out an optimal clothing system.  It's a work in progress, but here are some thoughts on what works and what doesn't work, along with my favorite "pieces."

I ski mostly in the Wasatch range, which is not known for particularly harsh weather.  We get a fair amount of snow, but we also have our fair share of nice clear days.  Mid-winter, when it snows, the snow is relatively dry although on both ends of the season, it can be a bit soggy.  Morning temperatures (when I do most of my stuff) range from 0 to 30 mid-winter, and in the transition season can range from 20 to 45.

What Works?

Since 90 percent of time spent in the backcountry is spent on the uptrack, it makes sense to dress for the uptrack -- to dress in a way that your body can breathe and not sweat too much.  My objective in dressing is to put barely enough clothes on so that I don't freeze, but never so much that I overheat and sweat.  I always layer, but the question is what should I use for each layer?

Baselayer:  Typically, I will wear a thin base layer on the top.  I want something skin tight, that will wick sweat away, and that will not bind on upper layers.  My favorite thin base layers are made by Patagonia (Capilene) and Smartwool (women's models that popped up on Steep and Cheap).  Depending on what I expect, I'll vary the piece.  If it's not going to be too cold or windy, sometimes I will go short sleeve.  But most of the time I'll go thin long sleeve.  Occasionally, I'll go short sleeve and long sleeve.  Sometimes, if I think I might have reason to take my mid layer off or if it's really cold, I will go heavier duty long sleeve (Capilene midweight zip top).  I prefer zip-tops because they give me an additional ventilation option.

I choose my baselayer, thinking that I don't want it so warm that I have to remove my mid-layer.  Occasionally, I'll remove my midlayer, but I prefer not to for a couple reasons: 1) it takes time, and 2) I don't like my avalanche beacon exposed.

On the bottom, my baselayer is always thin.  Sometimes short, sometimes long, depending on whether I expect cold and wind.

Wearing a Smartwool baselayer, forced to remove my mid-layer (Marmot Driclime) in the sun.
A few hours later, I was wearing the Driclime, a Thermawrap, and a Nano Puff

Top Mid-Layer:   I choose my mid-layer, thinking that this will often be my outer layer on the uptrack.  And, as I mentioned, I choose it, hoping that I won't have to take it off on the uptrack.  The most ideal characteristics for this layer are: (a) breathable, (b) light, (c) somewhat wind resistant.  This layer cannot be too insulating, otherwise, I will sweat too much on the uptrack.

I have two favorite "mid-layer" pieces.  The first is a Patagonia Traverse Pullover, made of a light stretch woven material.  It is light, breathable, and wind resistant.  It has a deep zipper that I can open for ventilation, if needed.  I recently misplaced it in Andy's Black Hole (his Subaru) and went OCD until he guaranteed me that he had it in his possession.  This piece keeps me relatively dry on top, but shuts out wind.  This is important because, in the mountains, it is rarely dead calm.  Any slight breeze has a tendency to chill your body if it is coated with a layer of perspiration.

My second favorite piece is a Marmot Driclime wind shirt.  This piece is nylon on the outside and has a Driclime liner underneath.  This liner provides some insulation and is a notch warmer than my Patagonia Traverse shirt.  Still, it breathes well, and shuts the breezes out.

In addition to these pieces, I might add a very very thin nylon shell.  My favorites are Patagonia's Houdini and Montbell's Tachyon jacket.

Montbell Tachyon and Dynafit Tights
From Uintas

If it's going to be cold, I'll take both layers because they are very light and hardly carry any sort of weight or space penalty.  On a particularly cold day on Roger's Pass, I skinned 10k wearing some combination of these shirts/jackets.

Pants:  Yes, here it comes . . . . I love to skin and ski in tights.  I was a closet tight-wearer prior to 2009.  But in 2009, I went to Europe and observed hundreds if not thousands of skiers rocking tights.  Fat skiers, skinny skiers, rando racers, and non-rando racers -- many wore tights.  These tights, weren't just any sort of tights, but they were tights designed specifically for skiing.  Dynafit, Montura, and Crazy Idea make ski tights. Unfortunately, it's tough to find their offerings in North America.  Tragedy.  Travesty.  Shame.  America, embrace the tights!

The ski tights that I like are generally made of a thin stretch woven or lycra, and have sturdy material built in to the cuffs to protect against ski edges, boots and the like.  A number of manufacturers make decent substitutes.  Although these do not rise to the level of the tights (in sheer coolness and functionality), they suffice, and I often wear them.  To name a few:  Patagonia Simple Guide or Alpine Guide Pants, Marmot Scree or Cortina Pants, Stoic ('s brand) Microlith Pant.  All of these are light stretch woven material, but aren't cut as tight as tights.

Outerlayers: Outerlayers come into play if the mid-layer isn't enough against the wind, cold, snow, ice, spit, whatever.  Mostly, they come into play when you top out, and ski down.  The first thing my partners and I do when we top out is drop our packs and pull out an outer layer.  For me, usually this is an insulating layer with a wind/water resistant shell.  My go-to outer piece is my Montbell Thermawrap jacket.  It packs small, is very light, and for it's weight, is very warm.  On top of that, because it is synthetic, it insulates even when wet.  My Thermawrap has a great hood.  Like my other layers, it fits trimly.  This piece is usually sufficient to protect me on the top, and on the ski down.  In nasty weather, it's wind/water resistant and breathable enough that I'll use it on the uptrack.  One of the best pieces out there in my opinion.

Climbing up in the Thermawrap on a blustery cold day.  Photo by Jason Dorais
Sometimes, a Thermawrap isn't enough.  If it's not enough because it is too cold, then I layer another Thermawarp or a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket over or under.  And if that's enough, I will put yet another of the same over that.

One of my favorite nuking-weather outerlayers for the uptrack is a Patagonia Essenshell.  The material is silicon impregnated nylon.  It is breathable and "hard" enough that it sheds precipitation.  It is probably 10 years old, but I still like it a lot.  My theory is that the more breathable my hardshell is, the more likely it will be that the heat from my body will dry my inner layers.  My theory also is: I don't like skinning in a sauna.

If the above is not enough because it's full-on nuking, then (and only then) will I consider a hard shell (Gore tex, etc), and probably only for the downhill.  Wearing a hard shell on the uptrack is like wearing a garbage bag.  Unfortunately, even the best materials (Goretex Pro Shell for example) cannot let enough perspiration and vapor out on the uptrack, unless, of course, you go slow.  If I'm forced to wear a hard shell, then I'm forced to go slow.

On the bottom, I have some cover pants that are a windproof softshell on the front (like Powershield), and a stretchy thicker lycra on the back.  These are full zip pants that allow me to put them over my tights without removing my boots.  I've found these to be quite useful, but unfortunately, I've not identified any company in the US that makes/distributes these.  When I know I might have to sit or stand around, or when I might be out for the night, I carry Montbell Thermawrap pants.  They pack small and are quite light.  Again, being able to layer even on the bottom is important to properly regulate clothing needs.

I rarely rarely will ever subject myself to skinning in hard shell pants.

What Doesn't Work.

Cotton baselayers, or anything cotton for that matter.  Cotton does not wick well.  It dries slowly, and it is heavy.

- Fleece baselayers or mid layers or outerlayers. For backcountry skiing, I don't like fleece because usually, it's either too warm or not windproof enough.  On top of that, it does not compact well and is relatively heavier, compared to a synthetic insulation or down.  The one exception might be a Patagonia R1, which is a very thin fleece, on a cold day or where I anticipate some slow going, e.g., ice or rock climbing.  I'd use this as a base or mid layer.

- Hard shells.  See above.  Sometimes they are necessary, but I see way too many people rocking the latest and greatest flashiest Goretex in the backcountry.  Not necessary.  Not desirable.

- Most conventional "Softshells."  I have had success with Schoeller and stretch woven materials, but I've found that these aren't as versatile.  I used the original Cloudveil Serendipity jacket for a few years, but ultimately concluded it was a bit too warm and too heavy.  I've never found a good use for Polartec Powershield because it doesn't breath as much as I need.  And it's bulky and heavy in comparison to a thin, tightly-woven, stretch woven or nylon.  I have two Powershield-type jackets that I've won in various races, but the only time I see myself using them is on a spring resort day or a cold climbing day (when breathability isn't as crucial).  My preference is a simple, non-insulated, stretch woven soft shells, like the Patagonia Traverse, but it seems that in order to marketable, softshells need more bells and whistles.  Simpler is better.

So, what works for you?  Any ideas?


Nate said...

I've been trying to update my clothing to the fast/light club, but one thing that bothers me is the lack of pockets in most of the gear you mentioned. I'm used to having a designated pocket for my beacon, one for hat/balaclava, one for gu, etc. I understand that pouches on the front of packs helps (I'm trying that out starting this season). Where do you put stuff you need but don't want to take the time to remove your pack? Also what's your preference for gloves and hats. I'm trying to work something glove wise that breaths enough skinning but isn't too cold for bootpacking when you hands are in the snow much more. Normally I'd keep a different set of gloves in an extra pocket but pocket space is a premium. Thanks for outlining your style, it really helps. Feel free to write about hydration too. I'd read that.

Jared said...

For food, I carry it all in my pack, but accessible without taking it off. On hats, I usually use a Buff or a lighter weight hat. Nice thing about a Buff is that it can be used in many different ways. When I don't want it, I can wear it around my wrist. On the down, i'll mostly rely on my Thermawrap hood On gloves, if I'm just taking one pair, my favorite are Black Diamond Punishers. But often, I will take two pair. For skinning my favorite (I've had 3 or 4 pair) I use REI One gloves. They have a stretch woven back and leather palm.

So, I guess I'm not really taking much on and off on the up track. I've never missed having more pockets.

I'll do a post on my pack system sometime. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Dane said...

Here is what I have been using. Paradox longs from Costco as my tights, A Patagucci sun hoody (good in the cold and in the sun) with a everlast lycra t shirt (or a dynafit lycra skimo shirt) under it and when required a old Patagucci wind shell over both. Atom Lt in the pack. Haven't used them skimo but a Nano Puff or the Atom SV layer over the Atom LT both work well climbing and could make the final layer on cold ridge days.

And a brightly colored 1oz euro trash Buff of course replacing the 7.5oz helmet head :).

Anonymous said...

Awesome article. Your dynafit tights look super sexy. Also can't wait for a pack article.

Some of my favorite clothing pieces are:
-Cortina pants (which feel like tights for sure)
-Driclime jacket (I have one with handwarmer pockets which is nice)
-New Balance Fugu puffy (one of the warmest for its weight jackets ever made - but sadly no longer made). Look it up on BPL.
-Cheap Manzella thin nylon windstopper gloves

Still need to work out my base layer system and find some pants that rock in windier/wetter conditions.

What do you do to keep snow out of your skiboot? Pull your tights over your boot? Nothing? I'm trying to find some way to make a stretch gaiter out of a Buff or cut up softshell pants or something, but still be somewhat durable. Anyone do anything like this?

Dane said...

Jared here is an important question? How did you guys size the Dynafit Movement pants? Can you give me some waist measurements the reflect a specific size in the Dynafits? Thanks!

The web lists them in small/med/lg and xl. I'd guess you guys are all smalls? Any clues for a guy in med bike shorts?

SLC sherpa said...

Hey Dane,
I'm 6'1 and 170-175 lbs. I wear the size 48 tights. I think they are marketing the size 50 as a medium in the US but a 48 is a medium in Europe from what I can tell. The pants (tights) are AWESOME! And, when combined with a tight overpant (see crazy idea products), I rarely need anything more.


SLC sherpa said...

-Andy, who can't spell his name right...

Anonymous said...

Where can these pants, especially Dynafits be found in the US or online? Been searching everywhere...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. In no small part because I use much of the same stuff.

The Rab Boreas pull-on might interest you. It's like the Traverse, but a hair lighter (more breathable, less wind resistant) but with a great hood that I've found very useful. And its available today.

Jared said...

Wyatt, Tough to find in NA. But try telemark-pyrenees or I'll warn you: they're a bit pricey.

Dane, I emailed you, but for the record, I'm 145, almost but barely not 5'8" and wear a Small, or size 46 euro.

I'm going to check out the Rab piece. Thanks for the suggestion.

Unknown said...

I read your post and can say that you have brilliantly explained about backcountry ski clothing system. I think everyone should have to know about this system because without knowing you cant help. Good Job!

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Unknown said...


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