Monday, March 28, 2016

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.

Materials

Baselayer

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.

Midlayer

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.

Outerlayer

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.


Systems

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.

Tops
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.

Bottoms
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.

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

Bottoms
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!

Tops
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.

Bottoms:
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

3 comments:

Dylan Bistany said...

First off, great piece, came away with some new knowledge. That being said I had a couple question that I would appreciate if you could answer.

How Important is a Synthetic parka for Winter Mountaineering in New Hampshire versus a Down Parka?

I was looking at The Mtn. Hardwear Glacier Guide Down Parka for Winter Mountaineering in New Hampshire. My thought was a DWR and the thick nylon fabric coupled hydrophobic down would be enough for what would be fine in an environment where you are expecting zero rain, exclusively snow.

Not attacking your decision or judgement. I was curious to know what unique experiences lead to prefer synthetic insulation in NH. I would also be curious to hear what you thought as it applies to my specific product in the environment I planned on using it in

Link to jacket:
http://www.mountainhardwear.com/mens-glacier-guide-down-parka-1616581.html?cgid=mens-jackets-insulated&dwvar_1616581_variationColor=403#start=22

Dylan Bistany said...

First off, great piece, came away with some new knowledge. That being said I had a couple question that I would appreciate if you could answer.

How Important is a Synthetic parka for Winter Mountaineering in New Hampshire versus a Down Parka?

I was looking at The Mtn. Hardwear Glacier Guide Down Parka for Winter Mountaineering in New Hampshire. My thought was a DWR and the thick nylon fabric coupled hydrophobic down would be enough for what would be fine in an environment where you are expecting zero rain, exclusively snow.

Not attacking your decision or judgement. I was curious to know what unique experiences lead to prefer synthetic insulation in NH. I would also be curious to hear what you thought as it applies to my specific product in the environment I planned on using it in

Link to jacket:
http://www.mountainhardwear.com/mens-glacier-guide-down-parka-1616581.html?cgid=mens-jackets-insulated&dwvar_1616581_variationColor=403#start=22

Jeremy Devine said...

Hi Dylan, Thanks for your question. This is definitely an age-old debate you bring up. When does down make the most sense, and when does synthetic? I'll try to answer your question quickly at first, then provide a bit more explanation.

I prefer synthetic insulation in New Hampshire because of the Arctic/Maritime climate and the rapid weather changes the region is known for. When it snows in New England it is normally wet, either from the storm building over the Atlantic Ocean or Great Lakes. This is why four inches of snow feels like a beast to shovel. But four inches of snow in Colorado can be blown away with a leaf-blower. The snow in Colorado has low moisture content due to its Continental climate. By the time storms reach Colorado they have become much less moisture laden than when they came off the Pacific Ocean. This is all irrespective of temperature.

So what that means for the precip is that its rarely dry snow in New England. And if you're making heat through activity and frozen snow falls on you, its going to melt quickly, leaving you wet. Additionally, many storms have a temperature that hovers around freezing, resulting in mixed sleet or rain even in the mountains. Classic example of conditions you'd want a synthetic.

I also like synthetics for overnights, because they dry much faster even once they become wet. So the layer may get wet on the first day, but maintain its loft to keep you warm. Then I can set up camp, bring that layer inside, and dry it out (with boiling hot water in a nalgene!).

I would only use down these days in Colorado, the Sierra, and maybe Denali. But even there I prefer the synthetic puffy. Its a much more durable material and my puffy sees a lot of abuse guiding the West Buttress. And personal climbing in Alaska I'm likely to get wet from climbing through storms taking advantage of short breaks in the weather.

As far as the so-called "dry-downs" they definitely fall into the water-resistant category, not water-proof. Think the difference between a fleece and a soft-shell. Traditional down won't hold up against any water, but a soft-shell will stay dry for a bit. It makes it better, but isn't not a solution.

The MH jacket you're looking at is certainly a good piece, and you'd likely get a lot of good use out of it in NH. But in my opinion its way overbuilt with many small features that add up to equal a heavy jacket. It weighs 1120 grams and will probably take up half your backpack in space. Compare that to my go-to synthetic puffy, Patagonia's DAS Parka, which weighs in at a svelte 669 grams and costs $100 less. Maybe a bit less warm, but plenty for the job. http://www.patagonia.com/product/mens-das-parka/84102.html

Just some thoughts, but I hope it helps fill in the gaps in my thought process. And I definitely have a preference for synthetic, and I know others who swear by down more, but to me the primary benefit of down is weight savings. But synthetics have gotten so good they're almost as efficient and light as down. The extra ounces shouldn't be an excuse. Cut off the handle of your toothbrush, use a 3/4 length pad, or just work out more. If you don't succeed at your chosen objective, don't go blaming the synthetic puffy.

-Jeremy