Clothing and Layering Systems for Alpine Climbing.
On a typical alpine climb the temperatures can vary hugely, from sub-zero early mornings to hot and sunny afternoons on open glaciers – with the occasional chance of heavy snow, strong winds, or even rain(!) Therefore, a good clothing system needs to be versatile and adaptable – whilst also being lightweight and durable – in order to provide comfort and protection from the elements, whilst not burdening you with unnecessary weight.
A system of layers is usually the best way to achieve this, ideally with each clothing layer serving multiple uses for maximum versatility and efficiency (to find out more about layering, read the in-depth article from Myopencountry, explaining how to layer clothes for cold weather). As British Mountain Guides, our national association the BMG is supported by Arc’teryx, so we are lucky to have access to some of the best technical clothing on the market: Arcteryx kit costs more than many, but it also lasts a lot longer than most and it just works great and looks good too (yes, all guides are posers!)
So here is our take on a good ‘do it all’ layering system for our alpine mountaineering holidays in the typical weather conditions and temperature ranges that you find in the European Alps. The aim is to have the right clothing you need to deal with the expected conditions, plus a few key extra items to cope with the unexpected – ie keep it light, but have some resilience built in. Wherever possible, we suggest versatile items of clothing that are a good choice for keen holiday climbers, who will undoubtedly be using the same kit for other activities at different times of year – ie sometimes it’s worth getting very ‘alpine specific’ items (especially if you are a local, or a guide who climbs all summer long) – but often, more versatile choices are better for year round use. We have used examples from the Arcteryx clothing range, with some alternative brands to suit different budgets.
If you come from a Scottish winter climbing or winter walking background, then most of your existing kit will be fine (although it might be a bit on the heavy side!) You may just need to get some alpine specific softshell trousers, or replace older garments with lighter weight ones as you wear them out. If you come from a Uk summer hillwalking or rock climbing background, then you might need to be creative with some of your existing clothing and/or purchase a few extra items.
The first time Brits visit the Alps to climb, most underestimate quite how hot it gets (even at relatively high altitudes), during the day time. Therefore, the biggest challenge is usually avoiding being too warm in the afternoons, rather than being too cold in the mornings (Mont Blanc excepted…). In particular, the items of clothing that you wear all day (trousers, baselayer, jacket) need to be chosen carefully, as if these prove to be too warm, then you can’t do a lot about it. Whereas, if you are not quite warm enough in colder weather, you can easily just add another layer. Finally, the weight of clothing (especially waterproofs, but the same applies to all of your equipment) is also a big consideration in the Alps, as you need to move quickly and efficiently during the day and any extra weight will slow you down.
If you are looking for similar garments to the ones we’ve suggested, but made by other manufacturers – then pay particular attention to the features of the garment, the properties it requires (eg fabric type, wind resistance, cut etc) and the ‘suggested weights’ indicated in the descriptions. These weights give a good indication of how ‘warm’ a garment is likely to be, within a range of similar products. Finally, we only have enough space below to show one example of each item and we’ve shown the men’s versions – please accept our apologies for this! Arc’teryx make women’s specific versions of all of the suggested products, which you can see on their website, as do all the other major manufacturers.
Starting from the ground up; whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of wearing standard Scottish winter style legwear: if you try wearing a pair of thermal longjohns and waterproof overtrousers (or anything else warm enough for Scotland!) all day long in typical summer alpine conditions, you will sweat litres of fluids into your boots as the day progresses… (this combo is only a good idea in especially cold conditions, or on Mont Blanc in September etc.) What you really need, is a good pair of softshell mountain trousers:
1. Softshell Alpine Climbing Trousers – a pair of hardwearing, ideally strechy mountain trousers, designed for alpinism.
Features: With softshell trousers it’s best to go for a mountaineering specific model, as the lower leg will fit more closely around your calf and boot to avoid snagging on crampons and the garment will often have a reinforced instep to give further protection against crampons – you don’t want to be tripping over on a narrow alpine ridge…
Some decent pockets are important and features like thigh venting zips are nice, but not strictly required (non of my own alpine climbing trousers currently have these). If you can buy a pair in a lighter colour, this is also a very good idea (though somewhat difficult in ‘any colour so long as it’s black’ Uk outdoor shops) – 400-600g is a good weight. (If you see fabric weights quoted, 150 – 275g/m2 is a typical range – fabrics around 200g/m2 have been ideal for me).
Suggestions: Arcteryx Gamma MX and AR Pants, Sigma AR and FL Pants, Rab Spire Pant, Rab Sawtooth Pant, Marmot Scree Pant, Montane Terra range.
2. Lightweight Waterproof Overtrousers – typically made of Goretex, or a similar material.
Features: Hopefully, these are going to be carried most of the time and only occasionally worn, so go for a lightweight pair. The main thing you need to be absolutely sure of (ie put your boots on and check!), is that you can easily get them on over your boots (ideally even with crampons on).
Therefore, lightweight hillwalking or mountaineering overtrousers with half, but ideally with three quarter, or full length side zips are likely to be fine – however fell running overtrousers don’t really cut it (we know what you fell runners are like!) Weight wise, get as close to 300g as you can find – or bring whatever you currently own.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Beta SL and Zeta SL Pants, Rab Zenith and Firewall Pants.
NB North Faces, Ice Climbing etc – if you are climbing Alpine North Faces or doing some alpine ice and mixed climbing, particularly in September, then you may end up wearing overtrousers for several hours, in which case a more substantial and harder wearing pair could be a good idea – ie if you are a keen ice climber or regular Scottish winter climber, then pack your regular climbing overtrousers for these trips.
The following upper body clothing will get you through a summer trip to the Alps in most weather conditions you are likely to encounter:
1. Short Sleeved T Shirt – made from a technical wicking material.
Features: Any quick drying synthetic (ie non cotton) T shirt will be fine. There’s not a lot more to say here – loads of manufacturers make them for every conceivable sport, so you probably own something suitable already. For multiday use, Merino wool is a popular choice – but if you do go down that route, try and find a lighter weight version, as Merino tends to be rather warm.
I’ll always have a few of these T shirts to work my way through during the week (many are freebies from various running and ski races). A lightweight short sleeved T shirt with a front zip is perfect.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Velox, Remige or Motus SS, Rab Sonic SS Zip.
2. Long Sleeved Base Layer Top – the classic ‘baselayer’.
Features: Light weight and light coloured baselayer tops are definitely best for summer alpinism – so you should be looking in the 120-200g weight range, preferably at the lower end (ie avoid ‘expedition weight’ models, which are too warm most of the time).
Features to look out for are a front zip for extra ventilation and a light colour for hot afternoons.
Merino is a popular choice for multiday use, but finding lighter weight Merino garments can be difficult. Plenty of manufacturers are making other fabrics with antibicrobial properties nowadays, so there are other options out there for keeping garments a bit fresher on overnight hut trips.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Cormac Zip Neck Long Sleeve, Rho LT Zip Neck Long Sleeve, Remige Shirt Long Sleeve, Rab Pulse LS Zip.
3. Wind Resistant Softshell Jacket – used as an outer layer or mid layer depending on conditions.
Features: the key features of this jacket are that it needs to be wind resistant (to keep you warm in breezy conditions), be made of a breathable material and be ‘a bit insulated, but not too insulated(!)’ – so hopefully you can wear it in a broad range of conditions and remain comfortable, without having to change layers too often.
Some folk like a hood on this garment, others specifically don’t want one – but if you do want a hood, make sure that it’s an effective one, with decent volume adjustment and the ability to close snugly around your face.
350-550g is a good weight for this type of jacket.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Gamma LT Hoody (our guides’ work jacket!), Arcteryx Gamma MX Jacket, Rab Vapour Rise Alpine Jacket, Montane Alpine Edge Jacket.
4. Warmer Insulated Jacket with Hood – a lightweight insulated jacket with a hood, to provide extra warmth when needed.
Features: This jacket needs to be warm (that’s why the hood is important), but not ‘expedition down jacket’ type warm – 300-450g is a good weight (ie don’t take a massive 6-700g+ down jacket, unless you are climbing Mont Blanc when it’s really cold).
For summer alpinism, synthetic insulation is preferable for this type of garment, as it’s more resistant to damp conditions (60-100gsm insulation is about right for this type of jacket).
Personally, I carry a synthetic insulated jacket every day in my rucksac, but swap to a Down one only when it’s a particularly cold week and I’m going somewhere at higher altitude.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Nuclei FL Jacket, Proton LT and FL Jackets, Atom LT and AR Jackets, Rab Xenon Jacket, Montane Icarus Lite Jacket.
5. Waterproof Shell Jacket – a good quality, lightweight Goretex jacket.
Features: Hopefully this layer will be carried more often than worn, so it shouldn’t be too heavy, but it still needs to be a properly featured, fully waterproof and breathable mountain jacket with a good storm hood (ideally this should also be helmet compatible), in order to provide high levels of protection when the weather closes in.
Mountaineering waterproofs are ideal, good quality mountain walking jackets are generally suitable too, but most lightweight adventure racing / fell running waterproofs aren’t up to it! 300-450g is a good weight.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Alpha FL and AR Jackets, Beta LT Jacket, Rab Zenith, Meridian and Spark Jackets.
EXTRAS FOR MONT BLANC AND COLDER WEATHER
Very cold conditions can occur at any time during the summer climbing season, but are most likely late season, when ice and mixed climbing, or when climbing at higher altitudes eg on Mont Blanc or bigger 4000ers.
For climbing Mont Blanc at any time of year and during unseasonably cold weather spells on other trips, you will need to add an extra warm layer on your top half (eg a powerstretch midlayer, or spare fleece is the cheaper option), or swap out to a bigger, warmer insulated jacket (eg a mid weight Down jacket – more expensive, but nice if you have it!). To keep your legs warm on Mont Blanc summit days or during cold snaps, you will also need a pair of thermal baselayer leggings (‘longjohns’).
Longjohns – there’s not a whole lot you can say about longjohns – except that the lighter weight versions made of thinner fabric are definitely preferable for summer alpinism (120-180g is a good weight).
Heavier weight ones are great in winter, but they are usually too hot for use in the Alps in summer. However, given that you are only likely to use them between zero and one time during your trip, then bring whatever you’ve already got – a pair of sports leggings or running tights will be fine!
Suggestions: Arcteryx Phase SL bottoms, Rho LT bottoms, Satoro AR bottoms (lightweight Merino!), Rab Merino+ 120 pants.
WARM WEATHER ALTERNATIVES
It’s not uncommon during an alpine trip to spend some time climbing at mid altitudes (eg alpine rock climbing, or skills training in the valley), where temperatures are a lot warmer. Likewise, if it’s a very hot week, temperatures even in the high mountains can get uncomfortably warm.
In these situations, it’s good to have a lightweight pair of trousers and a lightweight jacket to wear as alternatives to your regular alpine climbing gear.
For trousers, any pair of lightweight trekking pants or summer rock climbing pants will be good and for the top half, a very light weight softshell jacket or wind shirt is ideal. These are extra items, so they’re not 100% essential, but most folk have a couple of similar garments already – so if you do, then bring them along and you’ll have all bases covered.
Having warm hands and feet can make or break a climb, so make sure you buy decent socks and gloves!
1. Socks – you’ll need a couple of pairs: a thinner pair and a thicker, ‘Smartwool’ type pair – look for good quality mountain socks with a high wool content. They need to be warm and fit well inside your boots, without any rub points – ie try them out on a few walks at home before you head to the Alps (eg lower cut walking socks with ribbing on the top can sometimes rub your shins in higher cut mountaineering boots). Depending on conditions and the volume of your boot, you may wear both the thinner and thicker pair together, or just the thicker pair.
Suggestions: Smartwool – Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Socks, Thorlo – Thick Cushion Mountaineering Socks. These models are both very thick and warm, so ideal for colder conditions, but you may find them bit over the top for warmer conditions – in which case, both manufacturers make a broad range of lighter weight alternatives.
2. Hats – nothing too complicated here: just make sure you bring a hat! The only caveat is that it must be able to be worn underneath a climbing helmet – so nothing too bulky and no bobble hats!
3. Gloves – having good quality gloves is very important – ie do not assume that old pair of ski gloves/cheap pair of gloves in the sale etc. will be fine for alpine climbing! Good dexterity is critical in mountaineering gloves, so that you can tie knots and do fiddly jobs quickly without having to constantly take them off – this aspect is frequently overlooked when choosing gloves, but dexterous gloves will save you huge amounts of frustration and time each day. Therefore, you absolutely must try gloves on in order to check the fit before you buy them – put the gloves on and flex your fingers a few times, then tap each fingertip in turn with your thumb to feel the finger lengths and see how dexterous they feel – even better, have a play with a carabiner or two and try tying your laces whilst wearing them!
Ok, so you are going to need 2 pairs – a thin pair for milder conditions and a good quality warm pair for when it’s colder.
Thin Pair – for the thinner gloves, a lightweight pair made of wind/water resistant ‘hardfleece’ is a popular choice – guides will typically wear leather palmed gloves as they are constantly handling the rope. Either way, the priorities are: a bit of insulation, with as much dexterity as possible – as these are the gloves you are often going to be wearing whilst climbing during the day and doing jobs etc.
Suggestions: Arcteryx make numerous suitable lightweight gloves – check out their website.
Warm Pair – for these gloves, warmth is important, but you also still need reasonable dexterity. The only way to find out how warm and dexterous a glove is likely to be on your own hands, in any given size, is to try them on – so I’d strongly advise buying from a shop rather than online. Features to look for are: plenty of insulation, a durable leather palm and for maximum protection, a gauntlet with a cinch down closure at the cuff.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Fission SV Glove, Rab Guide 2 GTX Glove, Rab Pivot GTX Glove. Montane, Mountain Equipment and Black Diamond also make a good range of climbing gloves – try a few on.
Mittens – if you suffer from cold hands, then for Mont Blanc it may be a good idea to consider mittens, which are a lot warmer. Either go for a stand alone well insulated pair, or buy a pair of overmittens that you can put on over the top of your gloves if it gets really cold.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Fission SV Mitten, Rab Astral Mitt.
4. Gaiters – these are probably the least critical item on the list, so don’t spend too much money on them. You’ll need a pair of gaiters to keep snow out of your boots on hot afternoons coming back across the glaciers – a lot of people wear ‘mini gaiters’ in the Alps (these just go over the top of your boots and not right up your calf as well) – and quite a few higher spec modern boots have gaiters built in to them, in which case you won’t need a pair. If you are a beginner, then gaiters also protect your expensive new trousers from getting shredded by crampons whilst you learn how to use them 😉
Suggestions: Rab and numerous other outdoor brands make a good range of gaiters.
A FINAL WORD
The clothing system above will get you comfortably up and down the vast majority of alpine routes during summer time. If you plan to do longer climbs or major north faces that may involve bivouacs etc, or you plan to climb outside the main summer season, then you will need some extra items of warm clothing, plus specialist bivouac kit etc (there are plenty of advice articles about bivi systems etc online – or if you are climbing with one of our guides, then drop us a line).
For the vast majority of alpinists however, carrying full bivi kit, a stove and lots of extra survival equipment will only slow you down and increase your chances of having an epic and using it.. The aim is to go ‘fast and light and fancy free’, whilst having just enough kit to avoid finding yourself: ‘f***d it and freezing and nowhere to hide’! – eg if the weather turns, or something unexpected happens. Therefore, it’s important not to cut too many corners (eg using cheap, unsuitable clothing, or taking fell running waterproofs on Mont Blanc/on a big North Face etc) and you also need to carry a few items of lightweight emergency kit, so that you can get yourself out of trouble and survive in an emergency. Therefore, I always carry the following extra safety kit in the bottom of my rucsac:
- Mobile phone – with rescue numbers programmed in and/or Echo 112 Rescue App installed
- Survival shelter – Rab Superlite shelter 2 (240g) or 4 (320g)
- Small first aid kit
- Abseil escape kit – this is a small bag containing: 5-10 metres of abb tat, a knife, an abolakov threader, a maillon or old carabiner
This kit, along with your waterproofs and extra warm layer(s), allows you to deal with difficult conditions and the unexpected. If you are climbing with a guide then they will be carrying this emergency kit, so you don’t have to – but if you are climbing with friends, then you need to make sure you have the above items with you in the team. So there you have it – you are now properly clothed and ready to hit the Alps!