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How to Dress & Layer for Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding

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 is a little different. Your thick long underwear and heavy insulated jacket are great for chilly days at the resort, but they'll quickly turn into your own personal sauna once you start skinning uphill under your own power. Smart layering is the name of the game. In this guide we'll cover everything you need to know to stay comfortable, warm, and protected in the backcountry.

Why is Layering Important in the Backcountry?

The level of exertion required in alpine touring is quite high, especially in steep terrain. Within 10-15 minutes of skinning uphill your body will begin generating significant heat and perspiration, which can quickly cause you to become hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. When you stop moving, frosty air will rapidly cause damp clothing to become cold, swinging the pendulum back the other way. Regulating temperature is key to staying comfortable - you want to be cool and ventilated while skinning, but warm and dry during transition and descent. The best way to achieve this is by using several layers that you can quickly add or remove as the day progresses.

Base Layer

Start with a comfortable, breathable base layer capable of wicking moisture from your body as you warm up and perspire. You’ll 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 from technical synthetic fabrics or natural fibers like Merino wool.  It's best to avoid cotton fabrics, which tend to soak up moisture and hold it close to the skin. Base layers usually are offered in light, medium, and heavy weights, with the thicker or heavier options offering more warmth. For touring, the lightest option is usually enough unless it's extremely cold.

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Mid Layer

Your mid layer is the workhorse of your kit - generally the most versatile piece of clothing you bring along, and the one you'll take on or off most often. A good mid layer will keep you warm when you stop moving and score high marks for breathability, allowing perspiration to evaporate when you're working hard. Many companies have refined and optimized their technical fabrics for this, making mid layers that better than ever at regulating temperature without needing to be removed. Mid layers often incorporate a light DWR treatment on the exterior to protect from light precipitation and snow showers without resorting to a shell.

How to use your Insulating Layers

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.

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Shell Jacket

Your jacket is the first line of defence against inclement weather. Your layering system should preferably incorporate a shell style jacket, rather than one with a lot of insulation. That job is best left to your base and mid layer. 

Made from lightweight technical fabrics, the shell’s main task is protection from precipitation and wind. Hardshell jackets offer the best protection, but softshell jackets generally score better for breathability and temperature regulation. Regardless, 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. Highly 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.

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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 treatment. If you choose a hard shell pant, look for models that feature high breathability, a little stretch, and a good venting system with inner or outer leg zippers to regulate temperature.

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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.

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Gloves & Beanies

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.

Sunglasses & Goggles

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.

Other Backcountry Accessories

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
— Avalanche Canada

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.

This is evo. We are a ski, snowboard, wake, skate, bike, surf, camp, and clothing online retailer with physical stores in SeattlePortlandDenver, Salt Lake City, Whistler, Snoqualmie Pass, and Hood River. Our goal is to provide you with great information to make both your purchase and upkeep easy.

evo also likes to travel to remote places across the globe in search of world-class powder turns, epic waves, or legendary mountain biking locations through evoTrip Adventure Travel Trips. Or, if you prefer to travel on your own, check out our ski & snowboard resort travel guides and mountain bike trail guides.


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