Skiers need not spend a fortune to get outfitted, since with ski touring, less is often more.
Often times, when we are guiding in the backcountry, a client will show up wearing a big puffy ski jacket. They are reasonably rationalizing that since we are going on an expedition in the snowy woods during winter, we will need a big jacket, right? Then, just a few minutes after setting off down the trail, we begin to sweat. The overprepared guest then goes to strip off that impossibly heavy coat for the task, but now they are down to just their short sleeves. This becomes a great opportunity to teach about layering.
Much of the backcountry experience is a high activity, high cardio endeavor. You spend 75% of the time going up, and during that time, you’re sweating! Waterproof gear is important for keeping us warm and comfortable in inclement conditions, but that Gore-Tex jacket won’t do any good if it gets wet from the inside.
The solution of course is to dress in a variety of layers, which the wearer can then adjust to the current conditions and cardio output to find that happy balance. Of course, we make sure to choose synthetic or wool fabrics. Cotton has no insulating ability once it gets wet. However, you don’t need fancy name brand underwear. Generic stretchy tights work great as a base layer. Your local thrift shop will likely be able to fill your needs for fleece or synthetic puffys for mid-layers and a light windbreaker jacket.
For the outer layer, a single-layer rain jacket or even a windbreaker should suffice. Look for fabrics that are thin and packable. Again, you don’t need to spend big bucks on Gore Tex parka. Wash-in waterproofing products, like Nikwax often prove more effective if used regularly. Remember, that snow is not liquid. Subsequently, most skiwear is not designed to be waterproof, since the snow just slides off it. Breathability often proves to be a more important asset of outerwear than water repellency. For that, a basic windbreaker is often the best choice for winter pursuits. For cold conditions, consider a softshell jacket, as they have better breathability than a traditional hard shell jacket.
Traditional ski pants are great for keeping skiers warm on a chairlift and on the downhill in cold and windy conditions. However in backcountry sessions where a significant portion of the day involves high cardio, the heavy fabric that keeps us warm can turn into a sauna, even with the pit zips wide open. Instead a lighter, layered approach often works better. With synthetic tights or long johns underneath, rain pants or even waterproofed windbreaker pants will accommodate a much wider range of temperatures and conditions than traditional ski pants. Likewise, soft-shelled pants are much more breathable than hardshell pants. Just be sure that your pants have some measure of waterproofing, since water resilience is more important on the bottoms than on the uppers if you ever want to sit down in the snow.
Another critical piece of gear to consider are your gloves. The gloves that you use on the uphill, are likely to become soaked with perspiration, especially if they are full winter ski gloves. We have found that the best solution to this is to take multiple pairs of gloves for the trip – light gloves for the uphill, ski gloves for the downhill, and maybe a spare for the in-between. Again, one not need to spend a fortune on fancy ski gloves. Gloves purchased from the hardware store for less than $20 seem to do the trick on all but the coldest ski days.
Many people like to wear fancy goggles for ski touring, until they find their expensive goggles fogging up from sweat within minutes on the uphill skintrack. Sunglasses will do fine for most days. It is still crucial to pack goggles for the downhill when there is a chance of snow that day. But for the uphill on snow days, a pair of wrap around shades, like the type that nordic skiers use, is useful for comfort without fogging up.
A common question is whether to bring a helmet while ski touring. For those that use the backcountry as a venue for extreme cliffs and couloirs, and for true mountaineering, helmets are likely an essential piece of safety equipment. For the rest of us, who just want to enjoy a nice skin and some soft turns, a helmet can be a liability. Remember that up to 90% of your time ski touring is going uphill, when we are more than likely not to be wearing our helmets. A helmet is going to be the largest thing in our pack, by volume. If that means we are leaving behind a spare layer or that extra water bottle, we could be sacrificing something that should be a greater priority.
Due to the remote access and lack of ski patrol support, I am usually dialing back my ski intensity in the backcountry anyway. I will likely avoid hucking that cliff, or shredding at the speeds that I do at a ski resort, thus reducing the need that a helmet provides. Instead, consider bringing a ball cap or sun hat for the uphill, and your favorite beanie for the down.
The final piece of guidance for dressing for the backcountry involves knowing how, and when to adjust your layering. The old adage goes: Don’t dress for how you are feeling at the moment temperature-wise. Instead be proactive, and dress for how you cold or warm you will be feeling in 10 minutes.
That means that we nearly always start out our session cold. Because after a few minutes of vigorous uphill skinning, we will likely be sweating profusely, regardless of the air temperature. If we don’t take care to disrobe in advance, we could become drenched in sweat, which can be a setup for becoming chilled, and even hypothermic. Conversely, I often make a point to stop just a few minutes short of the top of a hike and proactively add a layer or two. Otherwise it is easy to become chilled in a hurry while taking in the views on a breezy summit.
Sometimes would-be adventurers feel that they can buy their way to success, with all the newest and priciest clothing and gear. Then, since they are now so invested in a particular item, they cling to always carrying it, even if that piece of gear no longer suits their needs. Instead a simpler approach is often lighter, more efficient and better suited to our backcountry needs.