How To: Layer in the Backcountry

Learn how to layer in the backcountry from one of our staff who has more than 100 days (and a handful of nights) skiing in the backcountry.
Kristina Ciari Kristina Ciari
Director of Membership, Backcountry Ski Enthusiast
December 17, 2016

Mastering your personal layering comfort is one of the most difficult aspects of backcountry travel. Too many clothes and you're soaking yourself from the inside out. Too few and you're freezing your little tootsie off. No bueno either way.

My first day backcountry skiing was at the edge of a ski resort. We climbed for 500ft (maybe) before I was completely wiped and soaked from sweat. We stopped and I immediately stripped layers. Then we sat while my heart recovered. Three minutes later I was a popsicle, frozen enough to require assistance zipping my coat. We started moving, and in short order I was overheating. Again.

I regret to admit I continued this cycle on more than a few trips. Eventually I got the hang of it, learned a few tricks, and figured out my darn layering program. Here's what I know:

For backcountry travel, consider three categories of layers:

Base Layers

Base layers are just what they sound like: layers at the bottom of your layering pyramid. These are generally undies, socks, and long johns. Personally I don't like keeping track of multiple pieces, so I wear a built-in fitness top and yoga shorts on the bottom. On a very warm day (think: summer volcano skiing), this will be about all I wear - in tandem with a ton of sun screen.

On cooler days, I add a secondary base layer. I love a half-zip top with thumb holes, and instead of your traditional (and expensive) long johns, I like to buy ridiculous leggings. They're 25% the price, insulate almost as well, and make it impossible to have a bad time. I've also found the tight weave makes them perform particularly well in windy conditions.

Important things to note:

Cotton is your worst enemy in the outdoors. It doesn't breathe and will trap moisture close to your body. Cotton = bad. For the best warmth, go with a wool base layer. Smartwool, Ibex, and Icebreaker are all wool-specific brands. Wool - even the really expensive good stuff - makes me itchy, so almost all of my things are polypropeline (and more realistically, spandex).

Other than material, you also want to consider clasps/hooks/join seams. Pants and sports bras can be especially troublesome. Just remember: many more layers go on top of your base layers, and you'll be carrying a pack which cinches around the waist and puts weight on your shoulders. Avoid wearing clothing with extra frills in these areas.

You'll also want to consider fit. Avoid loose fitting items as they create air pockets (which can hold in cold air. But don't go too tight - you want to be able to move.

Kristina's favorites:

LEGGINGS! My new Black Diamond Equinox Shorts. REI quarter zip top.

Insulation

Insulating layers are also exactly what they sound like - layers to keep you insulated and warm. I love insulation, because your options are endless: fleece, down, wool, synthetic fill, the retro sweater your grandmother knitted, a tutu. If it keeps you warm it counts as insulation.

I always ski with a backpack, and part of the reason is because different conditions call for different layers. If I'm working a lot (aka hiking) I want a fleece layer, because it wicks moisture while keeping me warm. If it's cold, I want my synthetic or down jacket. If I want to look cool, obviously I'm wearing grandmother's knit sweater. So what do you do when the day calls for various conditions? Backpack = ability to carry all of the layers. And generally my pack will have my fleece and a down/primaloft layer so I can swap out what's needed.

Important things to note: 

Down - traditional goose down - is completely worthless when it gets wet. If you travel in damp climates, you're better off to buy synthetic fiber. That said, if you can pack a down layer in a waterproof pouch for when you really need it. It can be a life saver. Note: my favorite piece of gear is the down skirt. I break this out in the evening generally, after a day in the backcountry, to warm my bum and provide that extra layer where women need it most. The down skirt has changed my camping life.

Also, things don't need to be expensive. Just like my "backcountry leggings", I occasionally will use a pair of (yes, cotton) leg warmers from Goodwill to keep the snow out of my boots. Find things that work for you

Kristina's Favorites:

TUTUS (for safety)! Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down. This rad fleece I bought from MacPac in New Zealand. 

Shells

Shells are the outer layer of your "backcountry costume" and are really supposed to keep the insulation in and the wet, damp, coldness out. When it's snowy or rainy or windy, shells make you feel like you're living in your own personal tent.

Shells come in all prices and features, and personally I prefer full zip pants (so you can remove them without taking off footwear) and jackets with ample-but-not-excessive pockets and pit zips (zippers to air out your armpits).

Important things to note:

Shells come in two different types: hard shells and soft shells. The descriptions are exactly what you think - hard-shells serve as stronger barriers to the elements, whereas soft-shells are good if you are in less extreme conditions. For my purposes, I use hard shells, which are designed to keep moisture out, but they'll keep moisture in too. Carefully evaluate both your activity and the conditions before choosing to wear a shell. Sometimes it's better to be wet from the outside-in than the inside-out.

Kristina's favorites:

I'm just a really big fan of Mountain Hardwear and Arc'teryx gear. Find a fit, style, and color that work for you. 

Bonus

I like to wear a lot of layers, AND I like to talk about them. So here are a couple of bonus pieces of "advice":

  • Safety equipment should be close to your body. I like to wear my beacon right on top of the layer I am least likely to remove. If it's a hot day, put it right on your super-base layer. If it's a medium day, put it on your mid-base layer. You never want to have to take off your beacon, so do what you can to secure it in advance.
  • Yes, a tutu counts as safety equipment + more. When you're wearing a tutu, your friends ALWAYS know where you are. And to me that is important.  Plus, the tutu works as a bum warmer, a chair, emergency gauze in the case of first aid need, a pillow, and an instant icebreaker. Really, you should try one.
  • You'll need a backpack, so make it a good one. Before I was an adventurer, I dated someone who was an adventurer and scoffed when he said he owned seven backpacks. "What do you need SEVEN backpacks for?" I asked in confusion. Well, now I own eight, and I really do need them all. For a regular backcountry day nothing is better than a 30L pack, and I have to say I  love my Mountain Hardwear Scrambler 30. Figure out what size (in terms of volume) you need, go to a store to try them on, then buy the one that fits the best. 
  • Don't forget your head: You can lose a lot of heat through your head - which is a good thing and a bad thing. My ears get cold so  I normally opt for a headband + sunnies to protect my eyes. Other folks like to wear ballcaps. I also bring a (small) hat, and my climbing helmet (for the way down). If it gets really cold, my jackets have an abundance of hoods. Never tour in goggles unless you like them foggy.
  • Weight matters, but safety matters more. I count ounces, but when your headlamp dies, you will wish you had brought extra batteries. Be strategic with your luxury items, but bring a few. I've never regretted bringing extra sunglasses, gloves, batteries, or food.
  • If your "program" works for you, stick with it. I continue to wear my blue REI baselayer top even though it's super old and semi-falling apart. But, I like it and I don't want to mess with what works. It has good vibes. I'm keeping it. 

It'll take time to get your backcountry setup dialed. It took me a while too. Rest assured everyone has suffered in this endeavor, and the journey will be well worth the effort.


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Todd Mitchell
Todd Mitchell says:
Sat, Dec 24, 2016 6:19 PM

This is a great article! Can you make some suggestions for low cost or items from Goodwill or similar retailers that would also work. Thanks!

Kristina Ciari
Kristina Ciari says:
Wed, Dec 28, 2016 5:33 PM

You make a great point Todd. Many of the items I've listed can be found at Goodwill, TJMaxx, ROSS, or the like. Especially things like base and midlayers can be found there!