How to dress and pack for temperature change

When practicing outdoor sports, you need to protect yourself from the elements (rain, wind, snow, cold temperatures, etc.) by means of good perspiration management and an adequate freedom of movement. This system can be applied in a major part of the world; though the article below has been written with a mountaineering mindset, and practiced in the north part of the French Alps.

Words and images: Bastien Perez

First, let’s begin with few general rules:

  • Total weight:
    Although you want the best clothing system, you also want to have the total weight to be as low as possible. It is a compromise between the two: with all your clothing choices, always evaluate the warmth-to-weight ratio of each item. 

  • Total insulation (warmth):
    When you make your choices at any given moment in time during your activity, you must be able to wear every item of clothing.The total insulation value of all your layers worn at once must be great enough for the environment you are in. Also, make sure to not pack too light in terms of total insulation, taking the bare minimum you could get away with. You need to be safe enough in case of unplanned events (unplanned bivy overnight for example, or an accident).

  • Wind/Water Protection:
    For pretty much any truly alpine environment, having clothing that will completely block the wind is important. Not having an outer layer to block the wind drastically reduces the insulation value of the rest of your clothing. Whether or not you need a waterproof layer depends on the environment and circumstances in which you’re climbing. In a really cold environment, a waterproof layer is usually superfluous. In a place where the temperature often fluctuates right around freezing, a waterproof layer can be very important.

  • Freedom of Movement:
    The need for freedom of movement will not be the same from hiking to climbing, skiing or running. But let’s take the example of mountaineering, where you have the broadest scale of “freedom of movement”. It requires a very large range of motion, and the ideal clothing system is the one that hinders that movement the least. Your clothing system should not only allow you to have full range of motion, but it should do so without wasting energy.

  • Insulation When Wet and Drying Time:
    In many situations, it is not realistic to expect your clothing will always stay dry. For these reasons, it is important to have clothing that can keep you warm enough when it’s wet out, and clothing that can dry out quickly. Purely synthetic items of clothing tend to dry fastest, but there can still be a lot of variation between different types of synthetic fibers (polyamide fibers absorb much more water than polyester fibers, for instance), and different fabric constructions. Wool has the best warmth-to-weight ratio. The fiber will stay warm, even wet. But it will dry slower than synthetic ones. The ideal clothing system will be a combination of these.

Top layering

From personal experience, in alpine snowy conditions, I carry 7 layers. They don’t wear them all at the same time. I usually carry:

  • Synthetic base layer: Whether short or long sleeves, this is the layer I usually use for approach. I sweat a lot and I don’t want to climb with it. After the approach, I usually put it in my pack.
  • Wool baselayer: The layer I will switch to, after the approach. I like flat neck pieces, using 180gsm (ish) merino wool fabric. I use 100% wool as I am not subject to itching. I choose my piece carefully, notably where the seams are placed to avoid any pressure points.
  • Fleece vest: I find that a vest is often a great way to slightly boost the total insulation of a clothing system. Because a vest covers your torso it makes a significant difference to how warm you feel. Because a vest doesn’t cover your arms, it doesn’t affect freedom of movement much, and is thus well suited to technical climbing.
  • Windbreaker or waterproof jacket: I often take a full-on shell jacket (as in, a shell with a membrane, aka “waterproof + breathable”) that is as lightweight as possible. I prefer full-zip jackets to pullovers, but of course the half zipper saves weight, and makes the jacket more comfortable and supple under your harness.
    A windbreaker jacket is, in my opinion, the single most useful, important item of clothing that I own. It is very simple: just an incredibly lightweight piece. I use it for everything from trail running to climbing 4,000-meter peaks.
    Whether I bring waterproof or windproof depends on whether I think I need a waterproof layer, or merely something windproof. Your preference can depend on the sort of terrain you plan to cover (an ice gully, where spindrift pours down, or a rocky ridge?), the general climate of the place you are in (dry or wet conditions) and of course the weather forecast. 
  • (Two) Lightweight puffy jackets: The type of jackets made with very light fabric, and with fast-drying insulation. It has a warmth-to-weight ratio that seems as good as down, but with the benefits of synthetic.
    For most of the alpine climbing, there is not enough insulation. Rather than bringing a heavier, warmer puffy, my preferred system is usually to bring two jackets. When it’s warm, they’re both in my pack. When it’s chilly I wear one, and when it’s cold I wear both. I have one version with a hood and one without.

I like to have pockets around the chest instead of a classical handwarmer pocket. Because most of the layers will be tucked under the harness and thus side lower pockets are not reachable.

falketind
equaliser merino round Neck
wool/synthetic baselayer

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norrøna
pureUll Long sleeve
100% wool baselayer

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lyngen
alpha90 Vest
breathable vest

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trollveggen
superlight down850 Vest
insulation vest

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trollveggen
Gore-Tex Pro Light Jacket
light waterproof jacket

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falketind
aero60 Hood
windproof jacket

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trollveggen
Primaloft100 Zip Hood
synthetic with hood

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trollveggen
superlight down850 Jacket
down without hood

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Bottom layering

For the bottom system, I usually carry 4 pieces:

  • Merino wool underwear: Nothing super high tech here. In everyday life I almost always pull the waistband down when peeing, but when wearing a harness, I often appreciate a fly.

  • Wool or fleece base layer legging: I like this layer to be like high-tech sweatpants close to the body but with a baggy fit. I like a good ratio of freedom-of-movement and insulation. I like to wear the fleece legging because it is extremely breathable, and I use it for approach. For certain situations, I cut the lower leg on these pieces to have a ¾ option. It is lighter and as warm as a full legged version.
  • Down insulation short: in cold conditions, I like to add an extra layer on my quads. They are the biggest muscles (in terms of volume) of the body and use/lose a lot of energy. I like to have full zip length on the side so I can put on and off the shorts without having to remove my boots.
  • Windbreaker or shell pants: I was always taking one of two different pairs of shell pants. One pair, ultralightweight and windproof, but not waterproof. The other pair are still very lightweight thanks to their minimalist design but are waterproof. The decision to bring the windproof pants or the waterproof pants depends on the exact same factors as the decision of which shell jacket to bring, described above. I find most hard-shell pants disappointing since they are often much heavier than necessary, and usually do not have very good freedom of movement. This is usually partly because of unnecessary features and mostly because the cut of the pants is not optimized for range of motion.
    Same as the insulation short, I like to have a full-length zip. But I go back and forth with this feature. It adds a lot of weight and rigidity, killing the freedom of movement.

norrøna
pureUll Longs
100% wool baselayer

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trollveggen
warmwool2 stretch Tights
warm and durable tights

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falketind
thermo40 shorts
over-knee cut full zipper long shorts

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trollveggen
Gore-Tex Pro Light Pants
light and durable waterproof pants

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Accessories

3 key items here:

  • Wool socks: Better than synthetic fibers socks, they are warmer, thicker, rougher, and don’t stink. I like crew height.
  • Neckwear: a tubular fleece neckwear is my go-to piece, all year long. There are a multitude of ways to wear it, replacing a beanie or a hat/cap. I like the fleece because of its warmth/breathability ratio.
  • Gloves: this item varies a lot depending on the conditions. But let’s talk about the pairs I use the most.
    • Synthetic gloves: the pair I would use for mixed climbing. Very similar to leather clothes but made of synthetic fiber (warmer that leather). I like them thin, sticky, and dexterous. The only downside of synthetics versus leather is that synthetic is less durable.
    • Work gloves: I have a pair of Temres 282-02. Synthetic gloves, with a coating. Truly waterproof gloves, with one downside: breathability. Because they are coated (and not using a membrane), they are not breathable. It must be managed carefully. I like to slightly scrape the palm, to have a better friction using ice axes.

    • Insulated mittens: a pair I usually have in my pack “in case of”. In case you have to wait a long time not moving.

This is of course my personal system. The best I can recommend is to go out and try. To find out what the best system is for yourself, while staying careful.

falketind
mid weight Merino Socks

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norrøna
pureUll Neck

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trollveggen
Gore-Tex Gloves

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/29
corespunUll Liner Gloves

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About Bastien

Bastien spent his childhood wandering the mountains, skiing, climbing, biking and running. Not wanting to be confined by the rules of racing, he prefers meandering lesser-known routes and rowdy mountain human powered linkups as a way to stay connected to nature.

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