Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Layering: Staying Comfortable in the Mountains

For any trip into the mountains I make decisions about what to wear. The precise combination of clothing can be critical to my success on any given objective. If I blow it I can end up overheating and sweating out or struggling to stay warm in minimal gear. So nailing just the right set up for any given day is something I spend a lot of time thinking about while packing.

I accomplish the perfect clothing system through layering. Layering describes a system of clothing that allows for thermo-regulation through the addition or subtraction of different pieces. It also aids in moisture transfer away from the body while exercising. The different types of layers fall into 4 key categories:

Baselayer: To be worn against the skin. Primary function to transport sweat away from the body for evaporation.

Midlayer: Worn over baselayer and underneath outerlayer. Primary function to trap warm air and provide insulation.

Outerlayer: Protection from weather. Everything from wind to precipitation. 

Belay Puffy: Optimum warmth to throw on over everything. For when you stop moving to belay, lounging around in camp, or when its just too cold!

Proper use of the Belay Parka on the summit of Mt. Hood. Cold! 
Now I'll outline a little bit about what goes into these layers, what options you have, and what each option does well. I'll also include a description of my typical clothing systems for my favorite climbing destinations.



Synthetic: Best wicking properties to transport sweat away quickly. High output activities like hiking with a load or simul-climbing.

Wool: Largest comfort range. Will keep you warmer when its cold, and cooler when its hot than a similar synthetic piece. Doesn't wick as well as synthetic.


Synthetic Fleece: Best breathability especially in the thinner weights. Fair warmth to weight ratio.

Synthetic Puffy: Great warmth to weight ratio. Lower breathability. Maintains loft and warmth when wet.

Down Puffy: Best warmth to weight ratio. More breathable than synthetic puffy, but less than fleece. Down will lose its loft and warmth if wet. New water-resistant down technologies may be changing that.

Wool: Great comfort range again. Okay warmth-to-weight ratio.


Softshell: A synthetic shell made to be water-resistant and wind-resistant. Great breathability for high output activities in cold weather where the only precipitation will be snow.

Hardshell: Synthetic shell made water-proof and wind-proof by incorporating a membrane within the fabric. The membrane is engineered in such a way that it has microscopic pours so small liquid water droplets can't pass through, but large enough for gaseous water vapor to pass freely. This creates a "water-proof breathable" material. Great storm protection.

Windshell: Paper-thin synthetic material for wind and water resistance. Ideal emergency shell for multi-pitch rock in fair weather as they can weigh as little as 4 ounces.

Belay Puffy

Synthetic: Maintains loft and warmth when wet. An indispensable factor in variable conditions in alpine terrain.

Down: Best warmth-to-weight ratio and best breathability. Only appropriate in fair weather climates like the desert southwest.

Wool: New technology has brought about belay style puffy coats insulated with wool. They don't loft as much as the synthetic or down, but they don't need to in order to achieve warmth. Not having tested this yet myself, the jury is out on its effectiveness.


Choosing which clothing to wear is influenced by weather conditions, exertion level, and personal physiology. I'm a very lean person and don't have a thick layer of lipids to keep me warm. I normally compensate by climbing faster to keep my metabolism cranking. But on more casual trips where I may be stopping to do a lot of instruction, my exertion level is lower and I'll layer up with thicker warmer options. Dialing in just what to wear for yourself can take some experience, so be prepared for trial and error.

Summer Alpine Climbing in the North Cascades
Trailhead can be 80°F and the summit engulfed in freezing fog.

Mt. Baker summit in May 2013.

Baselayer: Long-sleeve synthetic T-shirt.
Midlayer: Thin fleece.
Midlayer: Micro puff synthetic 1/2 zip pull over.
Shell: Ultralight hardshell hooded jacket.
Shell: Windshell.
Belay Puffy: Micro puff synthetic hooded jacket.

Baselayer: Synthetic boxers.
Baselayer: Micro weight wool tights.
Shell: Softshell pants.
Shell: Hardshell full-zip pants.

Fall Rock Climbing in the Desert Southwest
Generally warm and sunny, but a blustery wind and a cold snap can blow in unexpectedly.

Baselayer: Short-sleeve wool T-shirt.
Midlayer: Thin fleece.
Shell: Windshell
Belay Puffy: Micro puff synthetic 1/2 zip pull over.

Baselayer: Synthetic boxers.
Shell: Synthetic pants.

Winter Mountaineering in New Hampshire
Trailhead is 30°F and sunny, but you're traveling to -15°F with 70mph winds!

Baselayer: Short-sleeve wool T-shirt.
Midlayer: Long-sleeve wool 1/2 zip pull over.
Midlayer: Fleece vest.
Midlayer: Micro puff synthetic 1/2 zip pull over.
Shell: Softshell hooded jacket.
Belay Puffy: Micro puff synthetic hooded jacket.

Baselayer: Micro weight wool tights.
Shell: Softshell pants.
Shell: Hardshell full-zip pants.
Belay Puffy: Synthetic puff pants.

Patagonia Kit Builder

Check out this link to a new function Patagonia has implemented on their site. You can build your own layering system there, or browse those used by their most experienced ambassadors. I particularly like the ratings bars they have for Temperature, Conditions, and Exertion level. These shaded bars really help indicate how much these considerations are on a sliding scale.

Other Tips

Taking off a shirt or adding a jacket can be pretty easy, but switching out layers on your legs can be a real pain. I layer light on my legs for that reason and if I'm getting cold try to adjust my tops to compensate. Also remember that most of your exertion in the mountains is with your large leg muscles hiking and climbing, and their constant use will keep them warm.

Put your Belay Puffy on immediately when you stop. Don't wait 10 minutes while sipping water to get cold and want the extra warmth. Trap the heat you've earned while its still there.

For hiking into ice climbing day trips I often bring a spare baselayer. I'll sweat through the one I'm wearing hiking and strip it when I arrive at the base of the route. Nice dry layer to start the climbing instead of being a popsicle!

Thanks for reading and I hope all of this technical garble has been somewhat useful. Just don't do what I'm doing in the photo below!

My friend Conor and I demonstrate how NOT to layer while hunting for early season ice.
--Jeremy Devine, Instructor and Guide

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