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Dressing for Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Clothing & Layers Guide

 
 
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A lot of people embark on their first ski tour dressed as they would for a day of alpine skiing. Hey, you’ve got perfectly good ski clothes, right? 
 
Touring’s a little different. Long underwear, a first layer, mid layer with insulation, and a hard shell jacket and pants are great for downhill skiing, but they'll turn into your own personal sauna pretty quickly once you start skinning to the top under your own power.
 
Keep in mind that the level of exertion required in alpine touring is quite high, especially in steep terrain, and that you can often skin comfortably in very little clothing, even in colder temperatures. Since you aren't sitting on a lift, with wet snow in contact with your knees and butt, you can normally get by with a water-resistant softshell pant for touring, even on snowy or wet days. If the weather isn’t too cold, it's often possible to skip the long underwear as well.
 
Hardshell Jackets

We recommend bringing along a hardshell jacket just in case, even when the forecast looks good for the day. Mountain weather changes in a hurry, and you're better off to pack it and never use it than the reverse. Bomber but super packable coats of GORE-TEX® Active, eVent™ or GORE-TEX®
Paclite take up almost no space in your pack but provide reliable weather protection in a storm. Breathability in a hardshell layer is a big plus for touring - in warm stormy conditions you'll stay a lot dryer if you wear your shell over your base layer, providing it breathes well.
 
Arc'teryx Alpha LT JacketPatagonia Super Cell JacketOakley Unifcation Pro Jacket
Layering

Start with a base layer that will wick perspiration from your body as you warm up (avoid cotton fabrics). You’ll normally wear this layer all day long, but it’s important to pull the moisture away from your body so it can evaporate. The best options are normally made of synthetics like Polypropylene or natural fibers like Merino wool. Base layers usually are offered in light, medium and expedition (heavy) weights, with the thicker or heavier options offering more warmth. For touring, the lightest option is usually enough unless it's extremely cold.

Base and Mid Layers
 
Mammut Snow Longsleeve ShirtPatagonia Capilene 2 Lightweight PantsThe North Face TKA 100 Trinity Alps Top

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Shop Mid Layers
Learn more about layering

Softshell pants are often the best choice for touring, even in damp climates, since you’re not sitting on a chairlift with your knees and butt in regular contact with snow and water. Pick a fabric that offers good abrasion resistance and has been treated with a DWR (durable water repellent). If you choose a hard shell pant, look for models that feature high fabric breathability (GORE-TEX® Active, GORE-TEX® Pro, and eVent™ fabrics are the industry leaders) and a good venting system with inner or outer leg zippers to regulate temperature.

Softshell Pants


                    Arc'teryx Gamma MX Pants
 
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Layering is important, but timing is equally so. Bringing along a puffy insulating layer and a waterproof/breathable hard shell jacket is imperative, but knowing when to leave them off and when to put them on is the key. Experienced ski tourists often start out a little "cold" (or stop after just a few minutes of skinning to shed a layer). The idea is to find a combination of clothing that will let you feel comfortable without sweating too much. As soon as you stop for a rest, reach in your pack for a puffy coat to maintain body temperature, then shed it when you start to move again. If it's snowing, use your hard shell jacket as needed to keep your under layers as dry as possible. 

Puffy Insulating Layers
 
Patagonia Nano Puff JacketThe North Face Down Under JacketOakley Unifcation Down Jacket

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Socks
 
Socks are a critical item. It's important to choose a sock made of wicking material like Polypropylene or Merino wool for moisture control, usually in a relatively thin knit. While some padding is nice for touring, smoothness of the knit is often just as important for blister prevention. Stop as soon as you begin to feel a blister forming, let your feet dry, and apply tape, moleskin, or Compeed over the affected area. A fully-formed blister that's not taken care of can make your tour miserable.
 


Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Socks

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Accessories
 
Most gloves suitable for alpine skiing are too warm for skinning unless it's very cold. Bring them along for backup, but a thinner softshell glove is normally a better choice for going uphill. The same applies to hats. If you choose to wear one for ascending, it should be something machine-washable and wicking. Keep a dry wool one in your pack for the trip down.


The North Face Powerstretch Gloves

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Oakley Polartech Powerstrecth Beanie

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Don't forget sunglasses (an extra pair isn't a bad idea) and goggles (wrap them in a cloth or your spare hat). They can make the difference between a safe descent and trouble. A sunny day on snow is extremely bright, so dark tints and polarized lenses normally work best. Wraparound frame designs or true glacier glasses with side protection are also a good idea. For sunny spring and summer touring, a brimmed hat with a shade that covers your neck helps a lot. Don't forget sunscreen - a full day of sunny touring is brutal on any exposed skin. Use a high SPF factor product (30 or more) and pay special attention to your nose, neck, ears and temples, and remember to apply sunscreen under your chin and on your upper chest if you unzip your shirt.. Reapply sunscreen during the day, especially if you sweat a lot.
 
Oakley Five Squared Polarized SunglassesSmith I/O Goggles
 
Finally, a reliable altimeter watch (remember to set the altitude at the trailhead) and your avalanche beacon should be considered part of your standard attire for alpine touring - get in the habit of putting them on before you leave the car or hut.
 
Suunto Core WatchBCA Tracker2 Beacon


Learn more with our other Backountry Guides:
Backcountry Basics – How to Get Started
Backcountry Gear – Checklist
Backcountry Backpacks – How to Choose
Avalanche Beacons / Transceivers – How to Choose
Avalanche Shovels – How to Choose
Avalanche Probes – How to Choose
Avalanche Airbags – How to Choose
Alpine Touring Skis – How to Choose
Alpine Touring Ski Boots – How to Choose
Alpine Touring Ski Bindings – How to Choose
Dynafit (Tech) Bindings – Getting Started
Backcountry Basics - How to Skin
Climbing Skins – How to Choose
Climbing Skins – Size Guide
Climbing Skins – Weight Chart
Climbing Skins – How to Cut/Trim
Outerwear & Layers – How to Dress for the Backcountry


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Still have questions? Please give our customer care team a call at 866-386-1590, Customer Care Hours. They can help you find the right outerwear and layers to fit your needs.