Clothing and Layering Systems for Ski Touring
On a typical ski tour 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 early season backcountry skiing/touring and hut to hut ski touring in the typical weather conditions and temperature ranges that you find in Europe. If you live or ski somewhere else in the world with different weather and conditions, then you will need to adapt your clothing to local temperatures. Wherever possible, we suggest versatile items of clothing that are a good choice for keen holiday skiers, who may also be using the same kit for other activities at different times of year – ie sometimes it’s worth getting very ‘ski specific’ items (especially if you are a local, or a guide who skis all winter 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 are coming from resort skiing and have insulated ski jackets and trousers already, then for off piste skiing you will be fine with your existing kit and for occasional mid winter day tours you can probably get away with your existing kit too, especially if trousers have thigh vents etc. However, for full touring weeks and multiday ski tours, you will definitely need to invest in a new layered clothing system. For mountaineers coming into ski touring, most of your existing kit will be fine – you may just need to get some ski touring specific softshell trousers for multiday tours, or replace older garments with lighter weight ones as you wear them out.
Newcomers to ski touring frequently base their clothing decisions on the amount of warm clothing they need for resort skiing – and radically underestimate how much heat is generated whilst skinning and how hot it gets on a spring afternoon on the bernese oberland ski tour for instance. Therefore, the biggest challenge is usually avoiding buying items that are too warm, rather than not warm enough! This is especially true for items of clothing that you wear all day (trousers, thermal leggings, softshell jacket) as if these prove to be too warm, then you’ll quickly have to replace them – whereas if a layer isn’t quite warm enough in colder weather, you can easily just add another layer. Finally, the weight of clothing (and all other equipment!) is also a big consideration when ski touring, as everything has to be carried with you and skiing with a lighter pack on makes a huge difference to how much you enjoy each day. The saying goes that ‘every extra kilo in your pack, takes 10% off your enjoyment of each descent’ – so try and avoid heavyweight fabrics and garments with lots of extra bells and whistles (such as powder skirts etc) that may look tempting, but aren’t essential for European touring conditions.
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. Personally, the first filter I’d suggest using is the weight: if the garment you are considering is above our suggested weight range, then it might be made of too heavy a fabric (for typical European conditions), a lower quality fabric, or have lots of unnecessary extra features – ie something that you don’t need is making it heavier! In terms of insulation, these weights also give a good indication of how ‘warm’ a garment is within a range of similar products. Finally, we only have enough space below to show one example of each garment and we’ve shown the men’s versions – please accept our grovelling apologies for such egregious gender bias! Women’s specific versions are also available for all of the Arc’teryx products that we’ve suggested – full details on their website – and it’s the same for all the other major manufacturers.
Starting from the ground up, these two items will get your legs comfortably through most of the ski season:
1. Longjohns – a pair of lightweight thermal leggings.
Features: 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 skinning in (120-180g is a good weight). Heavier weight ones are great on cold days skiing off the lifts, but they quickly become far too hot whilst skinning on all but the coldest days in Europe.
Personally, I always have a pair of lightweight longjohns with me – and if it’s cold, I either use a warmer pair instead, or I put on an extra pair of sports leggings over the top to add a bit more warmth. This is a better system than constantly overheating… Other good things to look for are anti microbial properties for multiday use – Merino wool is great for this, but it’s generally harder to find lighter weight Merino.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Phase SL bottoms, Rho LT bottoms, Satoro AR bottoms (lightweight Merino!), Rab Merino+ 120 pants.
2. Waterproof Overtrousers – typically made of Goretex, or a similar material.
Features: Overtrousers for ski touring need to have long side zips for ventilation and to get them on over your ski boots and they also need to have sufficient ankle width to go over your ski boots when the side zips are closed down. Instep patches to protect against sharp ski edges are important and finally, they shouldn’t be too heavy (400-600g is a good weight).
Suggestions: Arcteryx Beta AR Pant and Stinger Pant. Norrona Lyngen and Lofoten Lite pants are also popular.
However, on mild and sunny day tours and especially when spring hut to hut touring (the haute route ski tour is the classic place that people discover this), you will quickly realise that the above combination of legwear becomes too warm and is no longer sufficiently breathable (ie your legs boil in the bag!) – so for these conditions you also need a pair of:
3. Softshell Ski Touring Trousers – a pair of stretchy, hardwearing mountain trousers, designed for ski touring.
Features: With softshell trousers it’s best to go for a ski touring specific model, as the lower leg of the garment needs to have enough width to still go down over your ski boots when the buckles are slackened off for skinning (mountaineering softshell trousers have a much narrower leg to avoid snagging on crampons, so they usually don’t fit over ski boots whilst skinning – ie 90% of the time..). As with overtrousers above, instep patches, venting zips and good pockets are all features to look for. If you can find a pair in a light colour to fend off the sun, then that’s also good (though almost impossible in ‘any colour so long as it’s black’ Uk outdoor shops) – 500-700g is a typical weight.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Rush FL Pant, Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pant, Dynafit, Mammut, Norrona and Haglofs all make good ski touring pants too. This is one item you really want to try on before buying, in order to check the leg length and see how they fit over your boots.
Weight Saving Tip: In good weather on a multiday tour, you may choose to carry a very lightweight pair of overtousers to provide protection in an emergency, but save weight in your pack. The Arcteryx Alpha SL Pant or Mountain Hardwear Strech Ozonic Pant would both be a good choice, as they are lightweight and have full length side zips.
The following upper body clothing will get you through a backcountry ski season in Europe, 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 – loads of manufacturers make them for every conceivable sport, so you probably already own one.
On valley based weeks, 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) and for warm spring touring conditions (ie drinking beer outside the hut in the afternoon!), a short sleeved t shirt with a front zip is perfect.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Velox Zip Neck SS, Rab Merino+ 120 Short Sleeve Tee
2. Long Sleeved Base Layer Top – the classic ‘baselayer’.
Features: As per the longjohns above, light or mid weight baselayer tops are definitely best for ski touring – 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.
Again, Merino is a popular choice for multiday use, but finding lighter weight Merino garments can be difficult.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Phase SL Zip Neck Long Sleeve, Rho LT or AR Zip Neck Long Sleeve, Satoro AR Zip Neck Long Sleeve, Rab Interval Long Sleeve Tee.
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 whilst skiing down and in breezy conditions), be made of a breathable material and be ‘a bit insulated, but not too insulated(!)’ – so hopefully you can wear it all day in a broad range of conditions and remain comfortable, without having to change layers too often (if its too warm, you’ll have to take the jacket off on every climb and if it’s not windproof, you’ll have to add extra layers as soon as the wind picks up or it’s time to ski down).
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 both some volume adjustment at the back and an adjustable cord system around the face (rather than simple lycra edging) – 350-550g is a good weight for this type of jacket.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Gamma MX Jacket, Atom AR Jacket, Gamma LT Hoody (our Guides’ work jacket!), Rab Vapour Rise Alpine 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 buy a massive 6-700g+ down jacket). Basically you’ve got 2 options here: synthetic insulation or down insulation – both do the job well, but have different characteristics:
Synthetic insulation is cheaper and more resistant to damp conditions (80-100gsm insulation is about right for this type of jacket), but it doesn’t last as long as Down. Good quality Down is warmer weight for weight than synthetic insulation, but loses it’s insulating power completely when it gets wet and is also difficult to dry (without a tumble drier to hand!) – however, Down has a far longer lifespan than synthetic insulation (typically, after 3 years regular guiding use, my synthetic insulated jackets start losing their warmth and I have to replace them, whereas I have Down jackets that are 20 years old and still going strong. You are unlikely to be using your own jacket as much as a guide though, so it should last quite a bit longer). ~100-140g of good quality (750 fill power or higher) down is appropriate for this type of jacket.
Personally, I carry a synthetic jacket for daily use, but swap to a Down one when it’s a particularly cold week – take your pick!
Suggestions: Synthetic – Arcteryx Proton AR and LT Jackets, Atom AR Jacket. Down – Arcteryx Cerium LT Jacket, Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket.
5. Waterproof Shell Jacket – a good quality, lightweight Goretex jacket.
Features: This layer is often carried as much as worn on a typical ski touring holiday, so it shouldn’t be too heavy, but it still needs to be a properly featured mountain jacket with a good storm hood etc. in order to provide high levels of protection when the weather closes in. 300-450g is a good weight.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Alpha FL and SL Jackets, Beta LT Jacket, Rab Spark Jacket.
For very cold conditions (which can occur at any time of year, but most likely early season when skiing off lifts at higher altitude eg La Grave off piste skiing, Chamonix etc.) you may need to add an extra warm layer on your top half (cheaper option), or swap out to a bigger, warmer insulated jacket (more expensive – but nice if you have it!)
Having warm hands and feet makes a huge difference to how much you enjoy each day, so make sure you buy decent socks and gloves!
1. Socks – look for good quality ski socks with a high wool content. They don’t need to be too thick (in a touring boot, the thermofit boot liner provides most of the insulation) – your socks just need to fit well and take up any spare room in the boot, without being constricting. Silver content, or other anti microbial properties are a bonus for multiday use.
Suggestions: Falke Ski Socks are our personal favourite – they’re warm, come in Left-Right pairs, are comfortable to skin in, last well and they’re available in different thicknesses – ie they cover all bases well.
2. Hats – nothing complicated here: just make sure you bring a hat! Something like the Arcteryx Toque hat is perfect – I sometimes wear a lightweight ‘under helmet’ style hat, or a headband whilst skinning to avoid overheating, but anything sensible will do. Windproof, lightly insulated hats are great as well, but not many people seem to make them.
As a final thought on the hat front, quite a few people choose to bring a sun hat on spring tours, as the sun gets pretty fierce on a hot afternoon. For example, on the header image photo on this page, Simon models a ‘Full Rommel’ in May, in Greenland…
3. Gloves – having good quality, warm gloves is absolutely essential: so make sure you get this choice right. First off, you are going to need 2 pairs – a thin pair for skinning in and milder conditions and a good quality warm pair for skiing in.
Thin Pair – for the thinner gloves, a lightweight fleece liner glove made of powerstretch or similar is a popular choice, or you can go for something more technical made of a windproof softshell material etc. 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 doing jobs, taking skins on and off etc.
Suggestions: Arcteryx make numerous suitable lightweight gloves – check out their website.
Warm Pair – for your main skiing gloves, warmth is the priority, 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 long gauntlet with a cinch down closure at the cuff.
Suggestions: Arcteryx Fission Glove, Black Diamond Patrol Glove, Rab Guide Glove Long, Montane Alpine Stretch Glove.
Mittens – If you suffer from cold hands (or just can’t be bothered with having ‘slightly cold’ fingers all day!) – then get a pair of mittens and have warm hands instead… I’ve got pretty poor circulation and used to wear gloves all the time, because ‘I’m a Guide’ – reluctantly swapping to a pair of Down mittens about 6 times a year on the very coldest days. However, I also spent a considerable amount of time each day rewarming fingers etc. After 25 years of this (I’m stubborn – and a slow learner…) I eventually thought ‘sod it’ and bought a good pair of synthetic mittens to try out for daily use – and they’ve been brilliant. Nowadays, I ski in them a lot of the time and find I can do most jobs just as well – and as a result, colder days have become a whole lot more enjoyable 😉
Suggestions: Arcteryx Fission Mitten, Rab Blizzard Mitt.