How To Layer Like A Pro In Winter
High-intensity athletes are intense people. And particular. We need not just the right tools for the job, but we need them to be perfect. Are you a high-intensity winter athlete? Here’s a deeper look at the OR line and how they might work best for you, and why. I’ve also added the personal selections I’ve come to love as I’ve narrowed my focus to what simply works.
During exercise, the human body can produce enough energy to power the lights in your home. And we manage our heat gain and loss by a built-in processes called thermoregulation. Understanding a bit of the science behind how our bodies regulate temperature will help you pick the best system of clothing to work with it when you’re working hard in the outdoors.
How your body loses heat, in a nutshell
The body is mostly concerned with keeping the brain and internal organs cool to run smoothly. Inversely, those same parts need to be warm enough and maintain a core temperature of 98.6F. Blood acts as a coolant, exchanging heat—hot blood travels away from the core toward the extremities. The opposite occurs when warm blood is needed to flow from the limbs to heat the core. This is called shunting. As we are active, we begin to produce heat. The blood underneath the skin is cooled by means of a thermo-reaction and heat exchange—sweat evaporates, which cools your extremities, skin, and the blood under your skin. Alternatively, conduction is the process of losing heat through physical contact with another object, like heat traveling through a copper wire. In this case, your sweat-soaked base layers in contact with your skin or you bum on the rock will transfer heat—always in the direction from hot to cold. It’s Newton's 2nd law of thermodynamics.
But there’s also convective heat transfer. Convection is heat transfer between the surface and a fluid and, in our case, the air. The speed of this fluid with respect your body determines the rate the heat transfer known as wind chill.
While the body is at rest, the body’s primary method for discharging heat is radiation. Tossing on a puffy, we trap this radiation. If we’re wet from sweat and don’t harness this radiation leaving our body, our skin will also actively dump heat through conduction and convection. We can use these physical principles to stay cool—and control them to stay warm, if we use the right layering strategy.
Sensations of heat loss versus real heat loss
My face, head, arms and hands are more sensitive to changes in temperature than the rest of the body, which tells my brain that covering them up does more to prevent heat loss. Yet these areas actually lose less heat than we once thought. There’s a difference between losing heat and feeling like you’re losing heat. Recent experiments by Columbia and Indiana University in Indianapolis have concluded only 10 percent of body heat is lost through the head. That’s why OR’s athletes and design team use so much body mapping. Placing breathable fabrics where they can vent heat, while protecting high-contact areas with more robust textiles can deal with sensory discomfort and also address thermoregulation.
The following clothing selections are aimed at high-intensity alpine activity for long durations with short breaks—like ski touring. Clothing choices become paramount. The goal is to be less hindered—to have as few layers as possible, sweat as little as possible, have enough insulation to protect against hypothermia, as well as a variety of heat and waterproof spectrums. It's a tall order, and OR is dedicated to nailing it.
Start at the base
Let's start with everyone’s favorite place: the under carriage. Your private parts do indeed perspire with high activity. I use synthetic undies for high calorie-burning days. Wet cotton can become an issue if you’re going overnight, or as the day cools off. This is to avoid conductive heat loss when it’s not desired and when trying to keep as much radiation trapped in your dry sleeping bag. I recommend the Echo Boxer Briefs.
I use base layer tops made with DRIRELEASE® MERINO, so they dry four times faster than 100% merino. I dig the fit—snug but not too restrictive. They also don't hang on to odors like other fabrics and feel nice to the touch. These layers wick moisture away from your skin, not allowing sweat to pool in the fabric. This will contribute to evaporation when you need it and control the effects of conductive wet fabrics stealing your heat when you want it most. Plus, these dry crazy fast. A little breeze and the layer will be dry in no time. I recommend the Sequence Base Layers.
What about base layer bottoms? It all depends on the day and area you operate. I’ve become more and more selective with the deployment of base bottoms. These can often be overkill and then difficult to take off over ski boots. Sunny days? Heck no! Cooler, stormy days? Sure. The temps, projected activity and selected shell pants will determine if these pups make the team. For an overnight bivy, they’re in the pack for a dry layer that will trap my radiation.
Managing the feeling of cold
The head isn’t where we lose or gain as much heat as we once thought. But any wet portion of your body fully exposed to the cold elements will rapidly lose heat through convection and some evaporation. So here are my tools for dealing with our thermoregulation and elemental influences.
An expedition-weight pullover or long underwear layer with a hood is fast becoming a must-have everyday tool. The Deviator is the most impressive expedition-weight top on the market. It's the perfect weight for intense activity and body mapped for active users needing to dump heat but protect the skin from "feeling cold." The hood slips snugly over either your head or your helmet. You will see me in this every day, from a cold morning trail run in the desert to pushing a high-energy winter skin track. It has just enough elemental protection to keep the wind chill at bay—as well as the sensation of being cold.
A mid- to lightweight beanie can regulate sensation of comfort better than anything in your pack. Too heavy and you’re over gunned, overheating and slowing down. This one fits under ski helmets and can control your dirtbag mop on the ascent. It's either this or your sister's ear muffs, which I have used on occasion. Don't laugh. If we all lobby hard enough, OR might bring back the ear muff. They have far more function than fashion. However, fashion is the 2nd law of the backcountry—I don't care how relative Einstein thinks it is.
Having a very lightweight tube for your face, ears or head can be a game changer. You can make a cap resembling Tupac, ear protection like the Boss, or flat, broad sun protection on the forehead like Axel. A tube can keep the distracting cold prick off your ears and face when everything else is humming along perfectly. With a thin beanie and a light hood from your hooded pullover, it can be an effective full-conditions protective battle shell even though all are lightweight on their own. This can cut down on convective heat loss into the elements and trap your radiation when desired. More, these can be deployed individually to match the needs of each condition. The best part is these tools fit in the palm of your hand. Go for it. Get yourself a tube.
Pick an active shell
Softshells were designed to dump out heat and moisture more effectively than purely waterproof fabrics. Many companies have experimented with different weights and soft shell fabrics.
The Whirlwind pushes this concept—it’s a very light-duty soft shell "skin." Its purpose is to cut the edge of the elements and allow for maximum heat loss in extreme activity. Our athletes discovered this layer was also effective skin protection from the sun while it’s dumping your moisture from sweating, allowing evaporative cooling. The light weight of this layer is alarming at first. Yet I find I deploy this layer to protect me from the solar radiation crossing baking hot glaciers, alpine rock climbing, fall trail running and laying high-intensity skin tracks.
Men's Axiom Jacket (or, women's Clairvoyant Jacket)
This jacket is streamlined and made of the most breathable waterproof fabric to date. GORE-TEX® Active is pretty amazing stuff. It's not the OR Maximus Jacket made from GORE-PRO (22.9oz), a bomb-shelter layer you’ll need in the rains of Patagonia. No, the Axiom is absolutely perfect for ski touring and alpine ice climbing in frequent and intermittent contact with the wet surfaces and snow. In the right temps and heart rate spectrum, you can skin uphill then ski down without adding or subtracting layers at the transition. It's effective at allowing for evaporation to occur and the moisture to escape the shell while protecting you from the convective heat loss from wind chill. It fits well under a harness and with a helmet.
I've been really pleased with the performance of this ski-specific pant. Body mapped for maximum protection with waterproof panels in high-contact areas, they still allow for heat dumps. They’ve got side heat vents, a beacon packet, powder cuffs, and bibs if you want them. This is the bulkiest item on my list of tools, but we tend to change bottom layers the least. If I need extra warmth, I add base layer bottoms to contain my radiating heat when sweating is less of a factor.
Add an active puffy
Cathode Hooded Jacket
This is a calculated and ever-so-slight bump into my insulation artillery. A higher, cooler elevations, I'll start moving in a mid-weight puff that works at cooler, but not cold, temps. I can remain active and have Pertex® Quantum outer for subtle protection from the elements. Dumping heat and moisture is crucial during times of extreme aerobic activity. Being too warm will slow a skier way down, burning all sorts of good energy trying to cool your body. When the expedition-weight hooded layers are not doing the trick and the cold is affecting your performance, the next transition I'll make is to climb into a PrimaLoft layer. Synthetic puffy jackets are calculated insurance for keeping me warm despite wet conditions when down jackets are too wet and no longer can insulate and capture my heat radiation.
Uberlayer Hooded Jacket
The Uberlayer is a slightly warmer and more protective layer than the Cathode. This layer is intentionally chosen when the forecast is a little windier, wetter, and colder. It's a step up and would replace the Cathode in that situation. It’s a wonderful layer and is not only great technical wear but has the comfort of a sweatshirt at home and around town. Again, proving the 2nd law of the backcountry is fashion.
Don't forget to pack a stationary puffy
We sweat when we move. When we stop, our perspiration does its intended function and cools our external temp levels. If convective and evaporative heat loss are prolonged, this can reach unsustainable bone-chilling levels. We begin energy dumping, losing control. Putting on a puff when you’re stationary during cold transitions or during longer breaks like gear fixes or unforeseen emergencies, is the line between safe and problematic. This layer is as important as a headlamp or a pocket knife. Like a first aid kit, I like at least one layer that supersedes the temperature needs in the group. Think of it as group gear and insurance. If you need to be super light for your outing, think about at least a Mylar Emergency blanket that can trap your heat radiation and reduce your convective cooling if you were to be forced to sit for several hours or overnight.
The big gun down jacket comes out of my pack only a few times a day. So I’m careful about what is on the layer in my pack and whether there are sharp spiky things that could tear it upon deployment from the depths of my pack. Don't be careless. In order for these high-end tools to be lightweight and warm, the durability of the outer fabric is very, very light. If you can't handle the fragile nature of these tools try a jacket with a stronger external fabric like the Diode Jacket. Take care with packing and removing your puff layers. It will prolong the life of a good jacket. If it's going to be dry but cold, I will take the lightest, warmest down layer I have—it’s an important distinction to make.
Men's Incandescent Down Hoody
This jacket boasts OR's best warmth-to-weight ratio. Choosing light and less bulky clothing is crucial for moving quickly. Keeping your pack light and less bulky is the main way we achieve maximum mobility. This layer can be packed down to the size of a PBR tall boy and only weighs 17.9oz. These down big-gun jackets are pure feathers and zero water proofness. They’re a specialized tool, not designed to keep off rain or snow—that's the job of other tools. Get it wet and you have a useless jacket. Keep it dry and you have a power plant of heat.
Photos by Jacob Ager.