From the Ernest Shackleton’s of yesteryear, to the Jimmy Chins of today, mountaineers and serious outdoor adventurers have been preaching the benefits of layering. For many it can be a matter of survival. For TREW, layering is the best way to stay comfortable while you have fun in the mountains. From day one, TREW has designed our ski and snowboard clothing around the concept of layering. The result? Well-functioning systems that, with the proper knowledge and understanding, have the ability to enable riders to enjoy making turns in any range of weather conditions. Here in the Northwest, the weather in the mountains is notorious for being temperamental, so you need some essential backcountry ski gear. In a single day on our home Mt. Hood, you’re bound to experience blizzard conditions in the parking lot in the morning, with your light and airy pow turns developing into Northwest concrete with some rain and sun by the afternoon. When faced with these types of ever-changing conditions, an effective winter layering system is critical to take advantage of a full day on the mountain. So if you need to learn how to layer for backcountry skiing, or any other crazy adventure in the elements, we’ve got you covered.
Cool, cool. But, what does layering really mean?
Layering for backcountry skiing is based on the concept that through smart clothing choices, you can maximize your body’s ability to maintain a comfortable and well-functioning temperature; keeping you toasty and dry, leaving you only to enjoy your day laying down turns in the fluffy stuff. In order to do so, you have to create a system that uses the best materials and constructions according to where they are in relation to your body, and your body’s self-regulating climate functions.
Why it Works
As a warm blooded being, your body naturally creates heat, to the tune of 98.6 degrees. This is warmer than the air we are surrounded by a majority of the time, and almost always when skiing. The colder it is, the more energy and heat your body will produce to stay warm. Breaking trail and working up a sweat on the skin track also creates moisture against your skin, which has its own list of downsides. Layering creates a climate barrier between your body and the elements; protecting you from the exterior environment as well as the next to skin micro-climate. An effective layering system protects your body from the four ways your body loses heat; radiation, conduction, convection and evaporation.
L7 Weenie: Down and dirty on the four losers
- Radiation: when your hot bod is trying to give off heat to the chillier air around you
- Conduction: touching cold surfaces, so don’t try to stick your tongue to that pole… or do, but let me get my phone out first
- Convection: the movement of wind moving across your skin takes heat with it, so when you’re getting ready to drop and the wind is whipping up on the top of that couloir, you’re also shedding mad heat
- Evaporation: process of losing heat by working up that sweat
- Any moisture on your body, whether it be sweat or water, cools the surface of your skin when it evaporates, removing needed heat
- Workin hard? 85% of your body heat is lost via sweat during intense exercise
Layering Jiu-Jitsu: Beat the Losers
A successful layering system combats these heat loss effects through the combination of your base layer, your mid layer and your outer layer. These three parts are derived from their functions of wicking, insulating and protecting. Together, you have a functioning system that can be adjusted to the current conditions, as well as your body’s variable heat production in the various stages of your backcountry ascent.
G’d Up From the Feet Up: Base layer, Function: Wicking and insulating
Your base layer forms the foundation of your layering system by regulating the microclimate near your skin. Working up that skin track feels good, until the sweat starts to build and create a humid climate. When you’re working really hard, your body can produce as much as a gallon of sweat per hour! This moisture accumulation is no bueno, because feeling wet is not only uncomfortable and causes friction as you move, its eventual evaporation also dramatically cools your body’s core temperature. This means the layer closest to your skin must keep you dry by moving that moisture away before it has the opportunity to evaporate and chill you out. Moisture-wicking base layer clothing is considered a necessity for comfort.
The best base layers are made from materials that pull moisture away from the body, making it easier to evaporate from the exterior of the fabric. When a material has the ability to facilitate this action, it is called the capillary effect, or the ability for liquid to flow through a narrow space without assistance. Materials that promote this action are typically hydrophilic, or water loving. The two best examples of this are polyester and merino wool. While polyester is cheaper than merino wool, it does not boast the same incredible breathable and anti-microbial properties that merino wool does. Additionally, merino wool stays soft and cool to the touch, even while you’re sweating. For an in depth look at the rad properties of merino wool, check out our previous write up, “What is Merino Wool?”.
Middle Earth, Function: Insulating
Trapped air is just about the best insulator out there. In order to insulate houses or buildings, the actual point of insulation is to trap still air inside tiny pockets. This is because air is essentially empty space, and does not allow for thermal energy to transfer very easily. Wearing multiple layers, and trapping multiple air pockets, allows for greater insulation than just one large jacket. Layering also allows you to drop layers as the sun warms up spring corn turns, or add back insulating layers if a sudden weather shift turns your day into some Type II fun.
For your mid layer, you want something that has the ability to create these air pockets, while maintaining a size and shape that is also extremely packable. For any layering system to work properly you should be able to make adjustments on the fly, and you don’t want to be stuck lugging heavy layers around with you all day. The three major players in the mid-layer game are goose down, synthetic insulation, and fleece.
Goose down smack down; that warmth to ratio good good.
The airy plumes of goose down trap an incredible amount of air, and therefore warmth, while being able to pack down to a fraction of its size. However, real goose down has a bad rap for losing its loft when it becomes saturated; once exposed to moisture, down clumps together (no more air pockets!!), rendering it useless. Aside from that singular downside, for warmth to weight ratio there is no comparison. Proper management of your down layer will ensure that you don’t let it get saturated. If you’re overheating, take off your down layer before you start to sweat.
Synthetic; no wimp for the wet.
Synthetic insulation is the title holder when it comes to breathability, as well as its ability to maintain its warmth when wet. Synthetic materials are able to repel moisture and maintain their shape and those oh so important air pockets. This gives synthetic base layers the edge when it comes to durability and versatility, especially in wet conditions, or if you’re prone to gettin’ hot and heavy. Downsides? Synthetic insulation is no match for Mother Nature’s warmth found in goose down.
Fleece; breathe easy, baby.
To round out our trio of most popular insulating fabrics, fleece maintains its seat on the throne as the most breathable of the three fabrics. While fleece derives its name from a sheep’s coat, fleece is typically made up of woven polyester fibers. This construction also allows fleece to not only breathe well, but also makes it incredibly quick drying. Fleece’s breathability benefit has a dark side, as it lacks any sort of wind resistance. Additionally, fleece’s major drawback in comparison with down or synthetic insulation is its bulk, it doesn’t compress or pack down significantly.
Your best option of the three? Pick what works best for you, your style, and the conditions you’re going to be immersed in. And hey, nobody said your jacket quiver had to be small…
Side Note: Momma Said Cotton is the Devil
When it comes to base layers, merino wool is the best insulation layer for skiing, and polyester is an adequate replacement. Mid layers, your trio of optimal choices are goose down, synthetic insulation and fleece. It is imperative to understand that when choosing your layers, cotton is equivalent to the bomb crater someone left in the landing zone; it is to be avoided at all costs. This is because cotton soaks up and holds onto water, filling up those precious insulating air pockets. Cotton also does not wick away moisture once it is wet, this leaves you sweaty, nasty, cold, angry, miserable, wet... You get the point, cotton is the devil when it comes to layering for backcountry skiing and your other outdoor pursuits. Leave the basic tees and college hoodies for your nightcap around the fireplace, and get yourself a merino wool layering system for your next trek.
Use Protection… For your outer layer, Function: Element Protection, duh
We’re still talking about skiing, right? Your outer layer provides your first line of defense against the weather conditions, and is also the last barrier that your body’s vapor needs to escape. Your outer layer is arguably the most important component of your ski layering system, and will have the biggest impact on how comfortable you’re going to be. If wind and water are able to penetrate your inner layers, you’ll never be able to withstand any sort of bout in inclement weather. An outer layer that turns into a sweaty garbage bag, trapping your body heat and moisture, is just as bad. That peak descent you wanted to tag this year? Forget about it, your teeth will be chattering before you’ve reached the second switchback.
Protective and waterproof from external weather, yet breathable internally, there are few materials out there that are able to combine this holy grail of your outwear needs. As these two needs intuitively conflict, keeping moisture out externally while allowing moisture to escape internally, there are only a few premiere choices when it comes to your protective outer layer.
For TREW, as riders ourselves, we place the highest importance on providing outer layers that are highly durable and provide an absolutely consistent barrier to outside moisture and wind. Our material choice, Dermizax, also provides that ever important component of breathability. Dermizax is a non-porous, or non-water permeable, polyurethane membrane that has a waterproof rating of at least 20,000mm.
Unlike microporous membranes such as Gore-Tex, it has no holes and thus cannot easily be clogged with dirt or oils. It also has the added benefit of being able to retain its waterproof properties while stretched and stressed, whereas microporous membranes do not. Non-porous membranes breathe by way of chemical diffusion. What this means is the hydrophilic, or water loving, polyurethane membrane sucks your body's sweat vapor and pushes it out, to the lower-pressure air outside of your layering micro-climate. In general, non-porous membranes are typically softer, stretchier, and easier to care for than their microporous cousins.
Inhabitants of the PNW, we inherently surf more wet pow than the average rider, but a solid waterproof barrier is going to set you up for success in any setting, no matter your home mountain.
As mentioned, current technologies have yet to achieve the outerwear holy grail of waterproofness and complete breathability, as these needs conflict. We utilize what we believe is the best material choice for this solution, but any good outer layer must also provide intelligent construction that assists with the issues these conflicting needs present. Okay, “keep it simple stupid” you say. Intelligent construction = thoughtfully placed zippered vents that can be opened in order to let heat and sweat vapor to escape, keeping you dry and on your way to that next hidden powder stash.
A well thought out layering system is crucial to your backcountry fun. A typical ski layering system is made up of three parts; base layer, mid layer, and outer layer. Their functions are to wick and expend moisture, insulate and regulate body heat, and to protect you from the elements. Putting this understanding to good use, you are guaranteed to be comfortable, enabling you to have the best of times… as long as you got the skills.
All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. Now that you’ve become a layering Jedi, grab your TREW performance layers and hit the skin track!! See you out there!