Layering For the mountain environment

Successful layering system for the mountain environment

 If you like being in the mountains you most likely have a closet full of technical outdoor clothing. Every time I plan a trip one of the first things I think about is what to wear? Lets face it, looking good is feeling good, and feeling good is climbing good! Depending on the conditions I think I might encounter will dictate what I bring. First I gather information such as the weather forecast, the activity I am doing, how high in elevation I will be, and how long I will be out for. No matter the combinations and variations of these factors my layering system is about the same. What it comes down to is your clothing system needs to be: Functional, Reliable, Versatile, Lightweight, and keep you warm enough when the weather gets bad.

The main idea is that this is a LAYERING system. Meaning you want to add and subtract layers as needed to stay comfortable while in the mountains. Each layer should easily be able to add to what you already have on to adjust to your level of activity and the changing weather conditions. For my outer most layers I like to buy them larger.  These layers go on last and for winter, my big puffy jacket goes on very last. Likewise if its wet (raining) and cold I need to be able to wear my insulating layer UNDER the shell layer to stay dry and warm.

Through years of trial and error, guiding, and many dollars spent I have refined a system that works for ME and might be a good suggestion for you. Keep in mind everyone is different and might run a little warmer or colder so adjust accordingly.

 Starting at our feet for a good foundation:

Socks: High quality wool blend socks. I will adjust the warmth depending on activity, lightweight for summer, warm and medium thick for winter etc. Even if I am out for multiple days I only bring two pair, and swap them out daily.

Footwear: High quality, functional, and well fitting footwear is a must. Its worth it, don’t skimp on this, happy feet equal a happy trip. Again adjusted accordingly, rock, ice, skiing etc. When possible keep to a minimum. If you are doing an “easy” rock route do you really need rock shoes in addition to the shoes you are hiking in? Bring one pair of approach shoes, hike and climb in those. Its a fun challenge and you will be surprised what you can climb in approach shoes.

Underwear: If you don’t go commando, one pair wicking wool or synthetic underwear boxers or briefs.

Long Johns: Nine times out of ten I wear one pair of medium to lightweight long johns. In mid summer start with just the softshell pants and the long johns can be added later. This layer might also be omitted depending on activity ( a one day climb in warm temps).

Pants: I am a fan of soft shell type pants. They must have pockets, Belt loops, and be fairly light. If I am on a multiday trip or anticipate precipitation I will add a very light waterproof layer. This layer must have at least ¾ length or even better full length zippers up both sides of the pants. These can be as simple as a rain layer or as burly as a gore-tex layer.

Shirt: Wicking, wool or synthetic shirt. At times I will wear a short sleeve and a long sleeve over that. Both of these layers are very light. To save weight go with one thin long sleeve shirt, you can roll up the sleeves if need be. I prefer this layer to be light in color and other than black if possible.

Fleece: This might be omitted depending on conditions or activity. My go to, is a mid weight fleece type layer that is breathable and has a hood.

Softshell jacket: A super light soft shell layer that has a hood, blocks the wind, and can shed snow is great piece to have. At times I might leave the fleece behind and only bring this layer to save weight.

Shell Layer: A waterproof, windblocking, simple, with a hood jacket is a must in the mountains. Weather can change drastically and quickly. Having the ability to stay dry and warm can turn a great day out into a full on epic with safety in jeopardy.

Insulation: This layer tends to fluctuate greatly depending on conditions, weather etc. I like to match how cold it is with a light, medium, or heavy Insulating layer. This layer can be synthetic or down but must have a hood.

Gloves: Again match the conditions to the gloves. In winter I always bring at least two pairs of gloves. I light pair for high output activity like hiking and skining, and a warm pair for when it gets cold or you’re just hanging out.

Hats: I always bring head wear. Sun protection, a ball cap or visor and a smooth looking wool or synthetic hat that covers the ears.

Now, lets look at two different types of climbs in different weather conditions and see how the same system can be applied, changed slightly and be a very efficient, light, and versatile way to stay happy in the mountains.

Mt. Whitney, Mountaineers Route in winter:

Socks: 2 Pair Darn Tough Boot Sock Full Cushion

Shoes: la Sportiva Batura Evo

Underwear: Icebreaker 200 weight boxers.

Long Johns: Icebreaker 260 weight.

Soft Shell Pants: Patagonia Alpine Guide Pant (with light webbing belt)

Shell Pants: Patagonia Torrentshell stretch pant (Might add: Patagonia Micro Puff Pants, if very cold)

Shirt: Icebreaker 150 weight long sleeve Tech T Lite

Fleece: Patagonia Piton Hybrid or Patagonia R1 hoody

Softshell: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody

Insulation: Rab Neutrino Endurance down jacket

Hard Shell: Outdoor Research Axiom

Gloves: Outdoor Research Stormtracker Glove and Black Diamond Guide Glove

Hat: Medium weight wool hat and ball cap or visor


Mt. Whitney East Buttress in mid summer:

Socks: 2 pair Darn Tough Light Hiker

Shoes: La Sportiva Ganda Guide

Underwear: Icebreaker 150 weight boxers

Long Johns: Icebreaker 200 weight

Soft Shell pants: Patagonia Alpine guide pant (with light webbing belt)

Shell Pants: Torrentshell Stretch pants or something even lighter

Shirt: Icebreaker 150 weight long sleeve Tech T Lite

Softshell: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody

Insulation: Patagonia Nano or Micro Puff hoody

Hardshell: Outdoor Research Axiom or Patagonia Alpine Houdini

Gloves: Outdoor Research extravert, possibly add Black Diamond Patrol Glove

Hat: Ball cap or Visor and wool cap

With these two examples its easy to see how the same system applies in either circumstance. All you need to do is adjust the amount and warmth factor of clothing to have a system that works all of the time no matter the conditions. Simply put, this system has a wicking layer, softshell layer, insulation, and a hardshell layer. With this system, you will have what you need in any conditions and can easily adjust your layers based on activity and weather conditions.

There are of course many other options, brands, weight savings etc. Play around with what you use or purchase and see what works for you. Personally, I try my best to keep everything as light as possible. At times I might sacrifice a bit of durability for weight savings, although I still keep weight in mind. The saying goes “watch the onces and the pounds take care of themselves”. Have fun with your technical wardrobe, look good,  and enjoy the mountains!

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