Everytime we go into the mountains, the same question crops up - What should I wear? The manufacturers choice is bewildering, and most of us choose to use layers to provide warmth, protection and comfort - but what features should you look out for?
Layering is not a new idea, intrepid early mountaineers would don layers of wool, starting with an itchy vest, followed by woolly jumpers, rounded off with tweed breeches and jacket. Stylish? and warm perhaps but no good once wet. Thankfully modern layering is more sophisticated; a light wicking layer next to the skin, covered by insulative layers, topped off by a protective shell. You just vary the layers as the weather and activities demand - easy!
“Base layer” is a posh word for undies. Most are made from synthetic fibres, wicking away moisture from the skin. They don’t absorb much water and dry very quickly. So if your system fails and you get sweaty, your skin will still remain warm and dry. And even if the shell leaks, effective wicking should keep you cosy.
Make sure this layer is a close fit to be effective and comfortable under everything else. Most people just use a “thermal” top, but give it a little more thought: Do you need longjohns too? Wet undies are bad news - want some wicking briefs?. Check out the back length of tops - will they tuck in? Will you want long sleeves to keep the sun off? Would a light colour reflect the heat on glaciers? Do you need a ventilation zip, if so will it rub? Do you wear a bra on the hill? and does that wick. Then choose.
Twenty years ago, woolly jumpers did the job and if you were a Himalayan hero you probably had a huge duvet – perfect for the Clachaig! Then Helly Hansen invented fibre-pile and all mountaineers became identical, little bits of blue fluff could be found all over the crags. Finally fleece arrived and the world changed! At first the preserve of those in the know now its overunning the High Street.
Fleece comes in different weights, so bear this in mind for maximum versatility. Windproof fleeces which have a breathable membrane sandwiched between two layers of fleece, are popular and warmer. You’d probably want a ventilation zip, pit-zips in the armpits are also worth considering. Try on the layers of fleece to check that you can move without difficulty. Nylon shells on fleece tops are windproof and also help layers slide over each other. A stretch fleece is equally non-restricitve, and will also wick more effectively when worn next to the skin.
Stretch fleece is particularly good for legs when it’s a little colder or if you’re stationary. Otherwise choose a light polycotton trouser which dries quickly. If it’s very hot wear thin running shorts, then put trousers on top when it gets chillier – great for Alpine hut approaches! Fleece waistcoats are popular for saving weight and gaining torso insulation whilst maintaining arm mobility. The next step up is ‘padded’ insulation like down – again a vest is a popular compromise. Down has remarkable insulative properties and packs very small, but is ineffective when wet. The latest microfibres (e.g. Primaloft) solve this problem. These items are expensive but make an ideal ‘spare’ layer for emergencies.
Again consider comfort and function. Can you use the pockets with your harness or rucksack hip belt on? Do pack straps rub on a seam? Can you operate the zips with gloves on? Your clothing should make things easier for you, not more frustrating.
Shell gear will probably be your most expensive item of clothing. A full outfit could over £500. After paying so much expectations are high but always bear the limitations in mind. Neoprene coated nylon with sealed seams is waterproof but not breatheable, giving in a hot and sweaty climber. A ‘breathable’ fabric is the answer, but, which one?
Gore-Tex - a breathable membrane sandwiched between protective layers is the market leader, coming in many forms. Three layer ply is best for mountaineering; two ply is not hardwearing enough, weight is also a consideration, lighter fabrics wear quicker and lose performance. Other breathable waterproofs rely upon coatings and are now reaching equal performance standards, with The Patagonia H2NO system and Lowe Alpine Triplepoint Ceramic systems especially popular.
In all cases there is a choice, go for maximum weatherproofing with minimum vapour transport or maximum vapour transport with only shower or snowproofing, or maybe just a windproofing. Just choose the right material for the job.
With such similarity design features become increasingly important. If you want a climbing jacket, make sure that the arms give freedom of movement. Check that the hood will fits over your helmet, and that volume adjusters shrink it back again. Are the pockets accessible and in the right place? Can you fit a map in the pocket? Are the closures easily operated? Overtrousers and salopettes are even more difficult to design well.
Easy access probably means full length zips – greater expense and an increasing risk of leakage. Are the knees articulated? If they’re not it’ll be harder to walk and climb, and pressure points will lead to early wear and leakage. Too baggy and you’ll trip over your own feet. Let’s face it, unless you wear a diver’s drysuit you are going to get wet eventually, no matter how expensive the shell gear. This is why a layered, quick drying system is important so that you stay comfy and warm.
Single Layer Systems
The other choice is to avoid layering systems and go for a single layer approach. Essentially you forget the barrier, forget expensive sealed seams and emphasise breathability and wicking – get moisture away from the skin as fast as possible, and create a warm, dry microclimate next to the skin. This is generally done by using a windproof, water – resistant nylon shell with a fast wicking pile. Ideally it is worn next to the skin but can be layered with wicking underwear but more you wear under it the less efficient it is. The system works well in cold and wet conditions but it is easy to overheat and so a good design will have extra ventilation zips. You might have to resort to a shell garment if it really rains hard, but the whole system can work out a lot cheaper.
None of these garments work well when they’re grubby. Fleece is much more comfortable and wicks better when clean. Wicking underwear can get horribly smelly if not washed regularly, despite manufacturers claims. Most shell garments work better when cleaned and the outer proofing is in good condition. Wash your shell gear regularly and re-proof as recommended by the manufacturer – the material won’t “wet out” and it’ll breathe more easily!
Clothing is a very personal thing – what works for one person is useless for another. Make your choice with care and enjoy the mountains – warm and dry…..ish!