The Guide’s Guide To Layering For Ski Touring, Part 3 of 3: Putting It All Together

A pack stuffed with high-tech fabrics and a thorough review of the weather is a solid start, but pros knows exactly what combinations of gear make for maximum comfort in the backcountry. In this final class of my course on layering for ski touring, we’ll go through all the rules you need to know.

If you’re a “10 Essentials” believer, my approach will be sacrilege. I attempt to bring the perfect set of tools, with very little else in the “just in case” category. This will not account for individual issues with circulation (see Keep Your Cool in the Cold by Sheldon Kerr) or folks prone to excessive sweating. Below are combinations of fabrics I’ve learned over time through thousands of days in a variety of geographic alpine zones and seasons. There are hundreds successful combinations, so experiment with what you have. But here are my basic rules.

First Law of Thermoregulation

Your body sweats to regulate heat. You do not want to sweat. Not at all, if possible. Strive for absolute control of your body’s micro environment. Start with some type of long underwear base layer. The colder the temperature, the thicker the layers. When it’s very cold, try doubles. The torso layers are a tiered system of synthetic T-shirt to long sleeves. To regulate my body temperature on nearly every winter tour, I use use four main tools:

1. Warm hat-to-sun hat 

2. Face-layer 

3. Expedition-weight base layer 

4. Light soft shell layer 

Three-glove Theorem

Use three different pairs of gloves to target specific functions and temperatures. Cycle the gloves to suit conditions. Wet gloves can ride against your base layers and dry during activity if  possible. Think of a sliding scale to match expected temperature regimes and length of tour. Short tours might reduce the glove stash to two pairs. Think of the modular glove as the big gun, for example the puff glove. The puff glove is the warmest in the system and is used less, but you will be happy to have it. Also pack a mid-weight glove that is the leather workhorse, worn most of the time you’re active. The light glove is either a thin liner or a light, synthetic-leather palm hybrid that can be worn in warmer temps, lower elevations or if you get unexpectedly hot. In avalanche or alpine terrain, I consciously wear gloves. You never know when you’re suddenly going to be digging for a partner, buried yourself, or needing to arrest a fall.

First Law of Shell Dynamics

The better the wetness protection, the less impermeable and breathable the fabric. (Read further about this law.) This is the key to choosing when to wear a hard shell versus a soft shell, and depends on which regional geo-climate and season you’ll be in.

Maritime: When gearing up for tours in this climate, check the temperature and forecasted precipitation. If it’s going to dump wet snow/sleet during the tour, roll with a GORE-TEX® pant and jacket for maximum moisture protection. But since this will not allow for efficient heat loss, pare down base layers during travel until the team slows down or temperature downtrends with elevation gain and exposure to wind. Because this is a wetter environment, I will bring a Primaloft synthetic mid-puff or heavy-puff rather than down feathers. This is especially the case on overnights.

Intermountain/Transitional: GORE-TEX® active is a more honed system of heat regulation made for this dryer, colder climate. Skiers can tour in fabric that is less like a shell and more like our skin. Traveling with a Ventia™ pant might be the norm for days until a wet/warm storm is forecasted, then upgrade to a GORE-TEX® pant. On drier, cool days a thicker Polartec® Power Shield® Pro jacket is a good a choice, coupled with a light down-feather puff to boost the warmth during transitions. For water and wind protection, roll with a lighter weight Pertex® Shield option to dump weight. 

Continental: In five years of touring in Colorado’s San Juans, I have worn GORE-TEX® waterproof layers less than 10 percent of the time. In this zone, the soft shell is king (or queen, ladies). Unless I am planning to dig forecasting snow pits all day or am planning for warm southwest flow, the waterproof fabrics stay holstered in the closet. If it does come out, GORE-TEX® active shell is the ticket. However, the newer Pertex® Shield jackets are too light not be put in the pack. Even a simple lightweight fabric can be integral against wind and light moisture. Unless I’m spending the night, I won’t typically bring waterproof pants, and rarely a hard-shell jacket. In this region, it’s usually either cold and sunny or super cold and windy. The forecasted temperatures will determine whether I pack light-mid-or heavy soft shell jacket and pants. 

Extra Credit: Spring

Spring conditions are similar in most low altitude (<3500m/ 11,500 ft) ranges proximal to the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn latitudes. It’s warmer and the snow pack is changing. In terms of clothing, everything goes down a notch in insulation, as does the need for waterproof battle armor. Puff jackets are reduced to mid-weight, light gloves become liners, and GORE-TEX® becomes Pertex® Shield. If the zone is not experiencing heavy spring snow showers (North Cascades received +20ft of snow in March 2008), reduce the heavy-duty GORE-TEX® more for a lighter fare that stays in the pack most of the time. Soft shells are necessary because of their benefits in heat regulation. Practice this and your pack should be lighter and your objectives easier to obtain.

Outdoor Research Brand Ambassador Mark Allen is a Washington native and a certified IFMGA Guide working as a ski guide in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Norway, and Western Europe. Mark’s personal interests are alpinism and ski mountaineering descents in areas that still need exploring. His academic background is BS in geology with an emphasis on the mountain building processes. A former ski patroller now a Level I&II AIARE avalanche instructor. On his days off he explores the undiscovered corners of his back yards— the North Cascades and San Juan Mountains. You can find out more at www.markallenalpine.com.