The Basics Of Layering For Backcountry Skiing


Correct Layering For Backcountry Skiing Is Essential For Proper Thermoregulation

You’ve got your beacon, shovel, probe, boots, skins, skis, poles, first aid kit, and everything else you might need to go backcountry skiing. Now you just have to figure out what to wear. It all comes down to layering and it can make or break your day.

Layering for Backcountry Skiing

Layering allows you to add and subtract clothing throughout the day. This allows your body to adapt to the conditions – maximizing your comfort levels. The goal of layering is develop a system of clothing that works together to regulate your temperature while reducing bulk and weight.

It’s basically a technical system that works on the rules of thermoregulation. As your body exerts itself, it sweats to regulate heat. As you adjust your layers, you can keep your body at a temperature that limits how much you sweat. With layering you can easily adjust how much you are wearing to match the activity, the environment, and the weather. It’s not as complicate as you might think.

Every person is different, so it takes a bit of trial and error to determine a layering combination that works for you. The basic formula is: Base Layer + Mid Layer + Outer Layer + Insulator + Hat + Sunglasses + Buff + Sun Hat

Let’s take a closer look at layering for backcountry skiing:

Layering for Backcountry Skiing
Skinning Light

Base Layers – Base layers are the first layer of protection. They lay directly against your skin and act as a sweat collector. Their main goal is to wick perspiration away from your body so it can evaporate and keep you warm. This layer should be breathable, lightweight, and snug. Most likely you will not take this layer off all day long.

There are both synthetic and natural fiber options. Whatever you do, avoid cotton layers. I prefer itch-free, stink-proof natural Merino wool. I choose a thicker or thinner base layer based on the temperature of the day and often skin in only this layer.

Mid Layers – Mid layers are designed to capture warmth. This insulating layer is an important layer in keeping you warm, but it also needs to be easy to shed when you warm up. Mid layer selection depends on the temperature.

My go-to mid layers are the Patagonia R1 1/2 zip and the Patagonia Simple Guide Hoody. The R1 fleece captures the air and warms my body, while the Simple Guide softshell provides less warmth, but is breathable, windproof, and water resistant. In the spring, when it’s warm, I’ll take the Simple Guide Hoody.

Insulating Layer – No matter what the temperature is outside, you should always have a warm jacket with you. An insulating layer is almost always a down or synthetic puffy jacket. I prefer down because it is lighter and more packable, but for spring missions or rainy climates I choose to go with a synthetic jacket because it is warm when wet. The puffy jacket should be near the top of your pack and go on regularly – any time you take a quick break your body will cool down surprisingly quickly.

Layering for Backcountry Skiing
Ready to shred

Outer Layer – An outer layer is a shell jacket that usually sports the most advanced fabrics on the planet. This weatherproof layer needs to be windproof, waterproof, and breathable. It needs to be big enough to fit over all of your other layers to protect them and you from the elements. Usually an outer layer is made of Gore-Tex or an equivalent fabric. It could be a hard shell or a soft shell jacket.

My top choice is the Patagonia Triolet Jacket – a technical hard shell that will withstand some of the world’s most brutal conditions. Plus, the hood fits over my helmet. I tend to ski in this layer too.

Lower Body – I utilize a base layer long underwear with a hard shell pant as an outer layer. These layers do not come off all day long. I prefer a hard shell, abrasion resistant, bib pant, like the Arcteryx Stinger Bib. It provides a bit of warmth, large pockets for shedding hats and gloves and space for carrying maps and snacks.

Layering for Backcountry Skiing
Lower Layers

Accessories – Add a few accessories to your backcountry wardrobe and you’ll be ready for anything.

  • Wool socks – Warm socks are a must in any ski boot. I use the Darn Tough OTC Ultralight socks and recommend them to everyone.
  • Buff – This lightweight synthetic or wool tube slips over your neck. When it’s on, you won’t even notice it. When the weather gets rough or the temps drop, pull it up over your head and face for added protection. I don’t leave home without it.
  • Sunhat – I opt for a brimmed cap, like a trucker cap, to keep the sun off of my face and the sweat out of my eyes.
  • Winter Hat – Aka the toque. I have a warm hat with me at all times. It fits under my helmet and is easy to hike in. It’s also easy to slip the winter hat over the sunhat to layer your head.
  • Sunglasses – You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to go snow-blind on a bluebird day. Wear your sunglasses at all times.
  • Gloves – I opt for three pairs of gloves. A thin liner to hike in. A thicker leather glove to ski and climb in. And a backup waterproof glove in case I get cold or wet. Take care of your hands.

Ultimately, your layering system needs to work for you. Tweak it depending on the season, the conditions, the goal, and the weather. Take advantage of the high tech fabrics available from name brand retailers like Patagonia, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Eider, FlyLow, and others. Fabric technology is pretty amazing stuff.

Here are a few additional tips for proper layering for backcountry skiing:

  • Check the weather and the temperatures before you go.
  • Pay attention to what worked and what didn’t work last time you went.
  • Start your day cold, you’ll warm up quickly when you start skinning.
  • Add and shed layers as needed throughout the day. If you’re cold put something on. If you’re warm, take something off.

Layering isn’t rocket science. It’s a technical system that has been proven to work. Stay comfortable in the backcountry by layering appropriately and using your layers efficiently. Good luck.