One of the most important aspects to having fun, warm and dry while backcountry skiing is wearing the proper clothing. Getting your layers and clothing systems nailed down is one of the most time consuming parts of preparing for a day in the backcountry, except for perhaps learning your downhill skiing skills, but even that’s debatable!
You will want to experiment with your layering system on day trips where you have the warmth and safety of the hut/hostel/hotel/home to fall back on.
The real key to drying your clothes out at camp each night in the backcountry is to not have wet clothes. That’s the ultimate objective of your clothing system. You want clothing that is able to accommodate the large swing in temperatures during a winter day, as well as your varying physical output levels. You also need to learn to moderate your pacing, etc, to keep your clothes from becoming soaked in sweat. If your pace is slow to the point that you can’t complete a trip without still ending up soaked, you may want to address potential problems, such as fitness level, heavy clothing, not flexible enough layers, route finding skills or even a combination. It’s important to reflect on these potential issues and solutions to ensure a safe backcountry experience.
Let’s address each of these. First, fitness. The healthier you are, generally speaking, the easier it is to move without becoming hot and sweaty. Keep in mind that all people are different, and even super lean, super fit individuals still can get their sweat on. If you’re one of those people, then you may have to work harder on your clothing systems.
Pacing is a huge problem for many backcountry novices. Follow the example of what’s known as the “guide’s pace,” which is the speed in which skiers should be able to keep moving, basically all day, without needing to stop and rest. It’s usually a good pace to follow to keep from getting wet. If you’re down to base layers and you’re still finding yourself sweaty, something’s wrong. Slow down. Learn the mountaineers rest-step and use it on uphill grinds.
Poor route finding skills can be a huge reason people end up soaked. Unlike summer trail hiking, in the winter, you’re often setting your own track. If your skin track is too steep and aggressive, you’ll get your team sweaty. If your group is making difficult kick turns and is on their heel risers on their bindings, you need to take a hard look at your route. It’s possible there might not be an alternative, but if there is, you should be using it.
Your layering system might not be flexible enough to deal with the movement of the day. Many people fear getting cold, not hot, and design their system to keep warm. Yes, you want to be warm when you’re stopped to camp for the night, but you need to keep from being hot during the day. The one huge common mistake is ski jackets and pants. Ski clothing is designed to be used at resorts where you’re riding lifts. They’re far too warm to be used in the backcountry.
With that said, let’s get into clothing specifics. On every trip, it’s a good rule of thumb to carry four or five tops. Often, one can “overlayer” their legs and not get hot, making bottom gear not as crucial, and the tops the most important.
Start with a base top layer, like a zip-t merino blend long sleeve shirt. Blends are often the “best of both worlds,” as they still insulate should you get damp, but dry more quickly than the merino garments. Your second layer should be a highly breathable fleece jacket, preferably with a hood and something super breathable. It’s also important to test that your hood is fitted enough to wear under your helmet.
A softshell jacket can also come in handy to protect you from wind or snow, but due to its relative weight, you might pass on this and just wear a fleece on its own.
Next up is a down jacket. This is essentially to keeping warm, especially at camp for the night. We suggest bringing a down vs synthetic, as it’s lighter and warmer—but you do have to keep it from getting wet. You want moisture to be able to move through the parka. This is THE most important point about a big jacket. Breathable material only.
Finally, your last layer should be a hardshell jacket. This is mostly to act as a wind breaker or to keep wet snow off you and your other clothes.
For bottoms, you’ll want to dial it in so you’re not changing any layers during the day. For winter trips, a base layer of a compression-style running or unpadded biking shorts are best. Next layer over with long-johns, just ensure they’re appropriate for the temperature range of the trip, and top it off with either Gore-Tex pants (Winter) or soft-shell pants (Spring). For cold temperatures pack fleece pants in your pack that you can pull on in the evening.
As for “spare” clothes, keep it light with a change of socks or two, plus an extra pair of mitts or gloves.
Every person has different thresholds for effort: sweat, and so on, so it’s important to put in the time and effort to dial in your layering system. Day trips are the safest way to do this. You can even experiment at home in the city if you’re not able to get to the mountains. We also recommend camping in your backyard in the winter to get prepared. Your main objective is to develop a system where you can complete your day without getting damp, and if you do, you are able to dry out easily using your warm, but breathable layers. This will make your overall backcountry experience tenfolds more enjoyable.