Layering for Mountain Travel

Much has been said and written about the importance of clothing in outdoor pursuits.  There is an old Scandinavian saying that goes, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”  And while I have been in some truly shit weather and don't quite agree with the statement, I believe the sentiment rings true.  Traveling the world extensively over the years, both as a climber and a mountain guide, I have seen how clothing selection can make or break a trip in remote, inhospitable environs.

Action Suit, Hard Shell, and Puffy Layers
Over the past six years, while having the opportunity to work as a Helly Hansen ambassador, I have gotten to see what kind of weather modern fabrics can endure and how they work together to keep us protected and comfortable outdoors.   I put my gear through the paces and I am happy with where HH has taken their products.  I am proud to be able to say that I have been involved with the evolution of their product line.  Just in the past year, I have been from 7000m, to alpine climbing in the Cascades, to heli-ski guiding in Alaska.  With only slight variations, I have found that there is a clothing system that works to provide comfort and warmth anywhere in the world from the highest mountains to your local peaks.

In choosing a clothing system, each layer should have a specific purpose.  Choosing to pile layer upon layer of base layers will add minimal warmth while making you feel like you are wrapped in elastic (because, essentially, you are) and cannot move.   Instead think about how each layer will fit with the others to achieve a feeling of mobility while still providing moisture transport, warmth and weather protection. 


Base Layer
The first layer in the system should be a long-sleeved base layer.  This piece should be long sleeved and synthetic.  This layer is not sexy or flashy but it is an essential piece to move moisture and sweat away from your skin to the outside.  Cotton will soak out, if not from weather than from sweat, never dry, and make you cold.  Wool is great if you can handle it next to skin, it holds off the stink longer than synthetic, but is not as efficient at moving moisture and does not dry as quickly.  There are infinite possibilities and weights and numbers and designations surrounding base layers that marketing departments use to make them sound sexy.  Don't get caught up in the hype.  You can make decisions for this layer based on two factors: 1. How cold is it going to be? and 2. Will this layer be used alone in warm and/sunny environs?  If it is going to be hot while traveling on lower mountain glaciers in the sun choose a light fabric, light colored base layer.  If it is strictly going to be worn under other layers because of cold temps it may be better to choose a slightly heavier fabric and a darker color will be fine.  On some trips it makes sense to bring one light and one heavy.  But leave it at that and move up to the next layer.
Example: Lifa and Active Flow (pictured below)

Trekking above Namche Bazaar in route to the Rolwaling Valley, Nepali Himalaya.

Second Layer
On colder trips and on higher peaks you will want a warm layer to go over your base layer.  Again, you can choose heavier or lighter depending on predicted temperatures, but this next layer should be distinctly different from you base layer.  This one provides warmth.  Choose something fleecy or hooded, something not meant to be worn next to skin.  Depending on the destination, this piece can sometimes be left behind.
Example: Warm Flow Full Zip (pictured below), Vertex Stretch Midlayer

Setting up camp on the Trakarding Glacier, Nepal.

Soft Shell “action suit”
Much confusion still seems to surround this layer.  This is not helped by many company’s advent of the “soft hard-shell.”  A soft shell is a piece that is meant to provide some level of weather protection but still be breathable.  Therefore, you can exercise hard in for example, a light snow storm or windy conditions, but the snow sloughs off the fabric and the wind is mostly blocked.  This layer has the added benefit of often being stretchy and more comfortable to move in due to the “soft” nature of the fabric (not crinkly and rigid like hard shell) – great for athletic pursuits.  The key here is light protection – if the soft shell is touted as waterproof (the so-called “soft hard-shell” or “waterproof soft-shell”) be leery, remember the point is to have a breathable layer so you don't get wet from sweat but also are afforded protection from the elements.  This layer works best in colder conditions when precipitation is in the form of snow.  Sometimes, in cold weather and with a good forecast, this layer may take the place of a hard shell.  On the other hand, in warmer weather, a soft shell may be a heavy layer that does not provide rain protection or as much warmth for weight as a fleece and can be left behind.
Example: Paramount series (pictured below)

Climbing to Camp 2 on 7134 meter Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan. Mountain Madness Expedition 2014.

Wind Shell
A wind shell is basically a light piece of nylon stitched into a jacket.  It should be something that can be squeezed into a ball the size of a fist.  It provides the basic function of a soft shell in a very lightweight package.  It is a great summer piece, to keep of a little mountain breeze during those early summit mornings, or block a light drizzle, where wind would blow through or rain soak a fleece or donning a hard shell would make you sweaty and wet from the inside. 
Example: Odin Minimalist (pictured below), VTR Helium Jacket

On the First Ascent of the West Face of Pachermo (6275m), Nepal.

Hard Shell
This is the definitive weather protection piece.  So-called hard shell because it is traditionally made of a “hard,” crinkly sounding material. This is a water impermeable jacket with a membrane.  Though it looks like a single piece of material a hardshell is usually 3 layers: a nylon outer shell, a waterproof membrane, and a wicking liner all glued together..  Typically, the heavier a jacket fabric is usually equals better protection, with heavier, thicker weave nylon and better wicking lining (3 layer tricot vs 2.5 layer) to provide better weather protection and better moisture transport.  But always opt for something that looks like one piece of fabric instead of with a hanging liner inside.  The hard shell layer is one of those pieces that you really don't want to have to use, but carry it along if the weather gets nasty.  This is a good reason to opt for a lighter jacket if it is simply going to live in the bottom of the backpack.   You will get sweaty (no matter how breathable the claims of the fabric may be) if you are putting out a high level of exertion while wearing a hard shell.  This is why the soft shell was invented!
Example: Odin Mountain Jacket (pictured below), Odin light, Odin Minimalist

Loading the helicopter in AK. Flying into the mountains to ski at Points North.    

A puffy jacket adds a lot of warmth in a light, compressible package.  It will add more warmth for its weight than any other layer.  I usually like to have a puffy jacket fit over all the other layers in the system so that I can quickly pull it on or off (especially at breaks) to stay warm.  If it is a warmer environment where rain is likely, it can make sense to fit it under a hard shell. I almost always prefer to have a hood on my puffy layer because it makes a huge difference for sealing in your body heat.  A hood-less jacket should be reserved to warmer weather and lower elevations.  Choose the puffiness (or “loft” and therefore warmth and weight) by how cold an environment you are traveling to and what the predicted temperatures are.  In very cold environments I will take 2 puffies: one I can climb in and one for when it gets really cold (summit days and nighttime).  Down parkas will be warmer for the weight but have the possibility of getting wet (down does not insulate when wet and is not easy dried), while synthetic jackets are not as warm for the weight or as compressible but are easy dried and still provide warmth when wet.  A good strategy is to not put all your eggs in one basket e.g if your sleeping bag is down bring a synthetic jacket or if you have a big down parka bring a lighter synthetic to layer under.  But it really depends on the weather and temps expected.
Example: Icefall (pictured below), Odin Insulator, Verglas Expedition

Near 20,000 ft on Pik Lenin.


The same principles hold true for layering on the legs with only minor differences noted below:

Base Layer
A light long underwear can be added underneath soft shell pants to add some warmth.
Example: Lifa (pictured below)

Interacting with the wildlife in the Rolwaling Valley.

Second Layer
A heavier long underwear, or preferably something with a fleece or waffle weave will be warmer for the weight. Again, layering too many tight layers will inhibit movement.  Often, unless it is very cold, I will choose one or the other long underwear layer to wear under soft shell pants.
Example: Daybreaker fleece pants

Soft Shell “action suit”
Stretchy, mobile, look for something with an internal gaiter or a cuff that seals out snow so, typically, separate gaiters will not be needed.
Example: Odin Guide pants (pictured below)

On the West Face of Tengi Ragi Tau (6943m), Nepal.

Hard Shell
Wearing hard shells is not desirable unless the weather is foul.  However, hard shells do provide insulation in the form of a vapor barrier and can even help keep your toes warmer.  Over-layering the legs will not make or break the sweat machine in your core, but it can be uncomfortable when it gets steamy... down there.  Having pants with full side zips will allow you to take off or put on the hard shell pants over boots and crampons.  If your pants have full side zips you will not be stuck with the decision of wearing them all day or having to take boots off to get them on when the weather gets bad.
Example: Odin Mountain Pants (pictured below)

Waiting for the helicopter to pick us up for the next run in the Chugach Mountains.

Puffy Pants
Full side zips for the reasons discussed above.  Synthetic is best for puffy pants so that when you slice them with your crampons the synthetic insulation stays in place as it is a long continuous filament.  When down pants get sliced open the down spills out and continues to spill out until the leak is patched. 


Warm Weather
Summertime Alpine
Cold Weather

Upper Body  
Short sleeve base layer
Wind shirt

Base layer
(second layer dependent temps)
Soft shell
Hard shell

Long sleeve base layer
Soft shell
Hard shell
Light puffy
Parka puffy

Lower Body  
Light soft shell pants
Soft shell pants
Hard shell pants
Long underwear
Soft shell pants
Long underwear
Fleece long underwear
Soft shell pants
Hard shell pants
Puffy pants