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.
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 made of GORE-TEX® Pro, 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.
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.
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.
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 and/or stretch (GORE-TEX® Active, GORE-TEX® Pro, eVent™ and Polartec® Neoshell fabrics are the industry leaders) and a good venting system with inner or outer leg zippers to regulate temperature.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, a reliable altimeter watch (remember to set the altitude at the trailhead) and your beacon, shovel and probe should be considered part of your standard attire for alpine touring - get in the habit of putting your beacon on before you leave the car or hut. Snow study tools and a first aid kit are also important to include.
We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:
— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.
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