With all the emphasis on rescue gear, terrain and snowpack knowledge, and avalanche training, it’s easy to forget about something as simple as what to wear while touring in the backcountry. Proper apparel selection can make the difference between a great day in the outdoors and a private suffer-fest of your own making, not to mention the possibility of real danger from hypothermia in cold conditions.
THE KIT SYSTEM
The easiest way to prepare for a backcountry trip, or any winter outdoor activity, is to have ready in your mind a few “kits,” or sets of clothing that can handle a range of temperatures and conditions you might encounter. That way, when you check the forecast, all you have to do is grab the right kit and you’ll be ready to go. We like to call our kits Warm, Cold, and Variable. Warm is for warm weather, Cold is for cold or stormy weather, and Variable is for rapidly changing weather when you want to be prepared for anything.
A spring backcountry tour with a sunny forecast would call for your Warm kit. Starting with baselayer, you’ll want a highly wicking lightweight layer against your skin, to keep you dry and comfortable as you skin up. Silkweight polyester or superfine Merino wool will be the best choices, as both offer great temperature regulation without overheating. On the bottom, a 3/4 pant like the Icebreaker Legless 200 pant reduces the amount of material under your outerwear and keeps you running cooler. On top, a zip-neck design like the Arc’teryx Phase AR Zip Neck Top will allow you to open up and dump excess heat as you climb. In really warm weather, you might even consider a short-sleeve top like the Icebreaker Quest Crew. Rather than offering heavy storm protection, your outer layer’s primary functions are to protect you from wind and give you unrestricted mobility. A stretch softshell like the Marmot Tempo Hoody provides highly breathable wind resistance and a water-repellent finish that will keep you dry in anything but a full-on storm. The Marmot Scree Pants use a similar softshell material, and feature a trim, articulated cut that makes kick-turning easier on the uphill.
Let’s say you’re backcountry touring in January, and the forecast is calling for snow. Your Cold kit needs to keep you dry and protected from the weather, while keeping you warm so you don’t freeze when you stop to de-skin or wait for your partners. Starting with baselayer, the ideal choice is mid- or heavyweight Merino wool, which remains warm even when soaked with sweat or melting snow. The Arc’teryx Phase SV top and bottom offer great insulation and stretch mobility to keep you moving uphill and down. Alternately, you could layer with a heavier polyester base, or a combination of lightweight baselayer and a heavier layer on top. On the outside, you’ll need a highly breathable, waterproof technical shell that will block wind and snow without causing you to overheat. The Outdoor Research Furio Jacket is a great choice, with a trim cut, massive vents and GORE-TEX 3-layer fabric. On the bottom, the Arc’teryx Alpha SV Bib offers extended protection from intruding snow and wind, in an athletic cut that won’t restrict movement or weigh you down. For really cold weather or early-morning starts, consider adding a packable down or synthetic insulated layer that can be worn over, under, or in place of your shell. The Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket is a staff favorite thanks to its low profile and super-efficient synthetic insulation.
Lastly, how about a tour in early March or after one of those freak November storms, when the forecast is 50/50, the mornings and nights are cold, and the daytime temperature is hovering around or above freezing? Your Variable kit should offer a blend of warm-weather performance and cold-weather protection, without making you carry a ton of extra gear in your pack. Start with a midweight baselayer, one that won’t burn you up if it’s your only layer on the skin track, but that offers some loft to insulate you when the clouds roll in. The Arc’teryx Phase AR Zip Neck gives you a wide temperature range to operate in by offering zoned construction: heavier fabric in low-circulation areas, with lighter stretch fabric in the areas that sweat the most. For your Variable outerwear, you have two options: a heavier mid-layer with a packable waterproof shell in reserve, or a highly water-resistant, insulated softshell that you can wear going uphill and down. The Marmot Variant Hoody and Minimalist Jacket would make a great combination, or you could take the heavy-duty, fleece-backed Marmot Zion Jacket as a single-layer solution.
These are just suggestions, but they should give you a good idea about how to prepare for a backcountry tour. Don’t forget to think outside the weather, either. Are you a warm person or a cold person? Do you warm up quickly and stay warm, or do you tend to cool down just as fast as you heat up? Having solid knowledge of your own body makes choosing what to wear much easier the night before your outing. Also, think about the kind of touring you’ll be doing. Are you starting pre-dawn and staying out all day, or will you just be out for a couple of hours? Is the tour strenuous or mellow? Will you be in a large group that will require frequent stops, or some real go-getters who rarely pause to rest? These scenarios might lead you to pack in an extra layer, add an extra pair of gloves, or even pack a ball cap for standing around in the blazing sun.Remember, just like in the Boy Scouts, it’s better to be prepared. It makes everything easier, from packing the night before to the actual tour. And if you should have any questions, give us a call and one of Jan’s Mountain Experts will be happy to help you with your preparation.