Saturday, October 04, 2014

A beginner guide to clothing systems for the British Winter Mountains

This is an article I wrote a few winter ago for UKclimbing but it was never used for some reason. Anyway, it might be of use to someone (and I may even add photos at some point!) so here it is.

Buying clothes to wear for the winter mountains is an investment, winter climbing is not a cheap sport. So let’s start with the good news: modern outdoor clothing is, relatively speaking, cheap. Compared to any normal clothes you buy, the mark-up in the outdoor trade is rather small, and if you find something on a clearance rack at half price, the shop is almost certainly making next to no money on that sale. I bought my first Goretex jacket nearly 20 years ago with my savings from working the school holiday picking fruit on farms. It was about £130 and despite 19 years of inflation you can still buy a Goretex jacket for the same amount and it will work better than my 1990-vintage Phoenix Topaz. Secondly, modern outdoor clothing is really good. If you have the money to buy top of the range from any of the famous brands it is really, really, really good. But a sensibly-designed, own-brand fleece from Millets or Decathlon is going to be as good as the top of the range Berghaus or North Face fleece of twenty years ago whilst being a third of the price not even taking into account inflation. I might not go as far as to say you can’t go wrong, but like having SatNav – it’s getting ever harder to go really wrong.

Sometimes the British winter can get pretty wild - and this is just Wales! Scotland gets more knarly!

But good value is the result of competition and this comes from a huge choice. You can hardly moan about this, but of course this does making choosing exactly what you want difficult. This article aims to give some basic information for those who are new to the game, and perhaps a few alternatives thoughts to those who aren’t.

This article, being UK Climbing, is aimed primarily at winter climbers going to Scotland, Snowdonia or the Lakes. Climbers often need a little extra warmth than winter hill walkers due to pitched climbing necessitating standing still and belaying in foul weather, although otherwise the basic philosophy is the same.

Dry and still

Winter clothing keeps you warm by keeping you dry and from stopping the wind. You lose heat in two major ways – conduction and convection (forget radiation – there ain’t much that can be done about that). Conduction is heat energy moving (in this case away from your body) through solids and liquids. Convection is the same but through gas – the air, moving in the form of wind. Keeping dry is about reducing conductive heat loss. You can stand around naked in still air at -10 and if you are dry it is fine for a few minutes, but try getting into a lake where the water is 5 degrees and you’ll know all about it. We do both of these regularly in Finland, often together, so I say this from personal, and normally quite embarrassing, experience. Just to complicate matters, you can get wet in two ways – from the outside (snow, sleet, rain) or from the inside (sweat); your clothes have to stop moisture from either being near your skin. Keeping out the wind is about avoiding heat loss through convection. Anybody who has stood around belaying on a windy day without a windproof jacket will understand exactly how this works.

Dry and still conditions Nordic ice climbing, a micro fleece and vest was fine even if it was -10.
 Inside out

The layering principle is the standard way to dress for the winter mountains. There are clothing systems that claim they aren’t based on the layering principle, but due to basic physics they are really – it’s just a different take on it: normally combining two layers into one. It is best to think of the layering principle from the inside out starting with the clothes against your skin. This is the base layer – although often referred to by your granny as thermal undies. Base layers suck the sweat away from your skin as quickly as possible transporting it outwards to the next layer. This is called “wicking” - probably because “sucking up sweat” is such a horrible image. The quicker your base layer wicks, the dryer you stay – and as we discussed above, the warmer you will be. Next comes the mid layer – normally this means fleece these days. The mid layer is insulation that traps air which insulates you from the colder air outside your clothes. Your insulation mid layer also needs to be able to transport sweat outwards without holding the moisture. This is why it is rare to use a down jacket as a mid-layer, feathers hold moisture so it would get clammy from sweat and stop working well. Finally there is the shell layer. When I started climbing everybody just called these “waterproofs” and were done with it, but this is where things get a bit complicated because you have in effect two types of shell – those designed just to keep the wind out – windproofs – and those that keep both the wind and rain out – waterproofs. If you want to be down with the kids you can call the former softshells and the latter hardshells, but for the moment this unnecessarily complicates matters – so I won’t. Next we will go on to discuss the basic options available for these layers, before heading out to the extremities – hands, feet and head.

Base layers

Until some New Zealand sheep farmers hit on a really great business idea a few years back, base layers meant synthetics – mainly different types of polypro. I have synthetic base layers made by Helly Hansen, Karrimor, Jack Wolfskin, Berghaus, Lowe Alpine and others that I don’t recall. All work – even my 18 year old smelly Helly that I still regularly wear whilst cycle commuting in winter. There is not so much to distinguish them in terms of wicking – get any polypro base layer from a decent manufacturer and you won’t go wrong. Making sure they don’t have seams that rub or labels that itch is probably the most important consideration. One feature they do all share in common though is that if I wear them for more than ten minutes, they stink under the arms (and round your nether regions with the long johns). Different firms have claimed to have solved this issue over the years but none I have tried have succeeded. It seems that most blokes at least will make synthetic base layers stink. This is where we get back to those enterprising antipodeans. I reckon Merino wool is a real revolution in thermal undies. It still wicks to my mind as well as synthetics (others disagree on this but they seem to be a minority) but it is really quite spookily smell resistant. I can wear a cotton t-shirt for a day without it getting whiffy, but after two days it's not so great. I wore my favourite merino baselayer for four days ice climbing last Easter in Norway – and no hint of smell. To me this is amazing and in my experience the only downside to merino is that it tends to cost more and the material is a bit delicate in comparison to synthetics.

Mid Layers

Fleeces are pretty simple things – fluffy polyester knits that trap warm air and thus insulates you – but they come in bewildering range of styles and types. The fluffier or thicker it is, the more insulation that garment will offer. For climbing, simple and fitted is best. As increasingly with modern clothing systems we add insulation to the outer layer – the belay jacket idea (see below) - micro fleeces are amongst the best mid layer garments. They offer a fair amount of warmth but aren’t bulky and as shell layers become ever better cut and fitted, this is important. Hi-loft fleece is the fluffy type that makes you look like a brightly coloured sheep but is superb in cold conditions. They are far, far lighter than old heavy weight fleeces and compress well. They also make ace pillows once you are in the tent at the end of day – but many might find them too warm under a shell if climbing hard or moving fast. If you are sure you are going to be wearing your mid-layer all day, as most people will for winter climbing, consider a pullover rather than a jacket version: lighter, no annoying zip lower down near your harness and, best of all, normally cheaper.

Mid-layer for your legs is more complex because legs generally need less insulation so many find that if their leg wear has some wind resistance to it, it will actually be their outer layer for much of the time. Softshell trousers made out of a stretchy, breathable and wind-resistant material have become the legwear of choice for many winter climbers in recent years, but summer trekking trousers over long johns can also work well. But even the expensive Schoeller materials are not completely windproof (unless they are the expensive and less breathable membrane type) and in cold temps or when static for long periods I’ve found them to be not warm enough. This when you might have add some sort of shell over them, or pick a more specialist pair of trousers that are insulated in some way.


My great Marmot windproof on the top of a cold but (for once!) dry Scottish mountain.
A Rab windproof - super breathable for big ice pitch I'm about to try, Norway.
Shell layers are designed to mainly to make your insulation layers below work, not to offer insulation themselves. This is why many windproof smocks now weigh next to nothing. Nevertheless the various windproofs I have are amongst my favourite bits of outdoor gear; used all year round for climbing, ski mountaineering, cross country skiing, cycling and orienteering. By keeping the wind out they make your insulation underneath work, but unlike waterproofs they are (or at least should be) ultra-breathable and hence sweat produced from activity can escape easily. Pertex is the classic material for windproofs and perfect for the job, but any close woven and unproofed nylon will work.


Making a waterproof jacket is easy – the trick is to make it waterproof in only one direction. As you do any exercise you sweat. If this sweat can’t escape through your waterproof layer, it will wet your mid and base layers just like rain or melted snow from outside would do. Conducted heat loss then begins and you get cold. This is why your waterproof jacket also need to be breathable. Breathable simply means that the jacket material in some way to do with it physical structure or chemical make-up allows moisture vapour (sweat) through from the inside to the outside, but does not let liquid water (rain) in from the outside to inside.
Proper old school, get your Goretex on weather. Senja, Norway.

Materials are getting better – the Goretex of today breathes more readily than the Goretex of the jacket I bought in 1990 and there are now many competitor fabrics that seem to work adequately and particularly with eVent there is now a fabric that many believe is better than Goretex. But just as importantly is that designs have improved massively in the last decade. Designers are making jackets that are slimmer fitting, tailored to the needs of climbers or hikers, and use cleverer technologies like thin seam tape or bonding technologies that allow the material to breath better all over. In the early 90s I became a huge fan of Buffalo clothing because it meant I didn’t need my Goretex jacket for winter climbing and that meant getting less clammy and cold from sweat despite not being waterproof. I still won’t wear a Goretex for, say, skinning uphill whilst ski mountaineering, but my Arctryx paclite Goretex I can wear happily when ice climbing on drippy days, or hiking in sleety weather, without getting sweaty inside. It’s just a better designed coat made out of better material than the early 90s shells – and the fabrics of today are further improved than the six year old goretex of my Arctryx.

For the British mountains in winter, what you will want though is a shell jacket with a good hood - the best tend to have a wire in them to create a peak, and the hood needs to be big enough to go over a climbing helmet. Unsurprisingly, British companies (Berghaus, Mountain Equipment, Montane etc.) often have the best hoods for full on conditions – putting more emphasis on protection than peripheral vision. Some US firms have even made jackets designed specifically for the British market including bigger than normal hoods – showing the difference in design philosophy. More and more shells now use waterproof (water resistant some say) zips. These save weight, but some still prefer their winter jacket to have a storm flap that covers the zip for maximum protection.

Booster Layers

Booster layers – often called belay jackets – are insulated coats that you stick on over your shell (windproof or waterproof) when static or just really cold. Traditionally these were down filled, although down doesn’t mix with rain or wet snow well, so increasingly many climbers are going for modern synthetic fills such as primaloft. These keep their insulation value better if getting damp, but down is lighter, packs down smaller and last much longer if well looked after. See my earlier article on belay jackets for much more on this.

Alternative systems

For a long time the most famous ‘alternative systems’ in the UK to the layering principles outlined above were Buffalo and Paramo. You can read much more about both on their websites, but both avoided membrane waterproof fabrics like Goretex. What they lose in waterproofing they gain in breathability. The fans of both systems often have a slightly zealous air to them that come with having ‘seen the light’. I should know: in the mid-90s I was a hardcore Buffalo boy. I was living in Scotland and working in shop that stocked the system felt the urge to try and convert the Goretex clad infidels to the true and righteous (and slightly odd looking) path. I’ve never used Paramo, so their crusaders will have to speak up in its favour but back then Buffalo was without any doubt the best value for money mountain clothing system you could buy. Montane also make pertex and fibre pile products very similar to Buffalo. Pertex and fibre pile is not always perfect, but for serious winter climbing when on a budget it is still well worth looking at. Stephen Reed, owner of Needlesports has an excellent manifesto for the Buffalo system.

Feet, hands and heads

Keeping your extremities warm is one of the hardest parts of choosing your clothing system and my experience is that in particular finding the right glove system is an annoyingly expensive experience of trial and error. Hopefully some of


What boots you wear is dependent on what you are doing - winter hill walking, mountaineering and easy climbs, mid grade pitched climbing, or hard climbing. For hill walking and easier routes many will wear a B2 (link) rated boot - with a bit of flex to them and not too heavy. These can be super traditional leather walking boots, or more modern styles made with various synthetic materials. Boots for climbing in tend to be rigid - B3 rated for prolonged crampon use and built with warmth in mind. Boots for the hardest climbs are rigid but lighter, possibly sacrificing some warmth and support but anyone interested in those type of boots won't need this article. Opinions vary on what to wear inside. When I started climbing in Scotland in the early 1990s everyone wore plastic boots, and most people seemed to use inside a liner sock under a woolly sock. You didn't need to worry much about cold feet with that combo but it compromised climbing (and walking) performance. With better fitting leather boots wearing one pair of medium to thick socks inside seems to make more sense to make the most of the fit and climbing performance of your boots. Good mountain socks from manufacturers like Extremities, Thorlo, Smartwool, Bridgedale and the like are very nice but do seem horribly expensive for a pair of socks. I found that high wool content socks - normally sold as hiking socks - from even Tesco can do the job fine. My two pairs of Tesco hiking socks cost about seven quid but have kept my feet nice and warm inside my Nepal Extremes even when ice climbing in the bitter cold of the Norwegian arctic. The old Extremities mountain socks I have are a little warmer, but at something like eight times the price!

For UK mountains, I still think that gaiters are pretty vital. If you get water or mud over the top of your boots, you will get cold feet once above the snowline. The gaiters that come attached to many shell trousers might do a good job at keeping snow out of your boots, but not the boot sucking mud of many a British walk-in. Good gaiters are nice, but cheaper ones do the job well enough. Look for a pair with a front zip, these are much less hassle if you need to tighten your laces than the back zip models. Places like Decathlon do some very good value pairs with decent technical designs. Full foot gaiters like Yetis are great for keeping snow out of your boots on prolonged trips where you are camping in deep snow, but in my experience are a bit over-kill for day climbs. They do make boots slightly warmer by keeping snow off your boots and laces - but the majority of heat-loss from the feet is through the soles of your boots, so Yetis aren't the magic bullet to warmer feet that some people expect.


Glove and mitts are notoriously difficult to get right and, due to the complexity of the stitching and taping, expensive as well. Most winter climbers find a system that works for them after years of trial and error. Mitts are warm and often waterproof but most find them hard to do anything technical in. Softshell gloves are light and dexterous - picking the no. 3 wire of your racking krab is easy enough - but you quickly get cold fingers when belaying and water goes straight through them. Goretex or eVent mountain gloves are somewhere in between - a bit warmer and you can use your belay plate, but you might drop that wire. In my experience you need more dexterous gloves for Scottish climbing, particularly mixed routes where the majority of pro is rock gear. Softshell, or some other thinner types of gloves work well, with mitts for belays and the walk down. For pure icefalls, goretex (or similar) gloves work well - ice screws aren't too fiddly to use with them and they are warmer. Ice climbing in Scandinavia I have often just used my mountain gloves all day, for climbing, belaying and the descent, but for hiking up to Scottish climbs, takes something thin and stretchy for the approach; any old gloves will work fine including woolly ones, keep your main gloves dry and ready for the actual climbing. Finally, take some light, insulated mitts for belays, descents in horrible weather and for simply when your hands get really cold. Buffalo mitts remain a favourite, very light and pretty cheap, but if you think you might be wearing them to belay much get something with reinforcement on the palms. Dachstein mitts deserve a special mention as many and will go on at great (boring?) length about how they are the be all and end all of Scottish winter handwear. I'm unconvinced myself, finding them heavy, stiff and neither particularly grippy or warm - but a thousand happy punters can't be completely wrong so it may be worth trying them out.

Some specific recommendations: my current softshell gloves are by Ortovox - I got them mainly because I couldn't afford the Black Diamond Dry Tool gloves and they were the only other ones my local shop had, but they have turned out to be hard wearing, being three seasons old and surprisingly warm. If the price of softshell gloves puts you off, try Extremities Sticky Thickies over a pair of thinnies (or even cheaper no-brand 'magic' gloves) as a cheaper and surprisingly warm alternative. I used this system for a few seasons of regular Scottish routes and it worked great for me for more technical mixed routes where you are mainly placing nuts and cams. When it comes to a more general, waterproof, mountain glove; for about six years I used a pair of Goretex gauntlet gloves made by Mountain Hardware. These were absolutely superb: the palms and fingers were made with sticky and absolutely bomb-proof rubbery material that no number of abseils could wear out. They had minimal insulation, just a light brushed lining to protect the Goretex, but this meant they were very dextrerous and, for all but the most technical of routes, you could put them on and just keep them on all day. Of course they seem to have stopped making that model now, which all too often happens with a brilliant product! I replaced them last year with Rab Makalus - decent gloves but with some insulation making them less dexterous than the Mountain Hardware ones, and with a less good cuff arrangement. The eVent does seem very good though. If buying waterproof climbing gloves one really important thing is get them to fit your finger length; any floppy bits at the ends of the fingers seems to be magically attractive to the gates of any karabiner you are trying to handle - not what you want whilst desperately trying to get a quickdraw onto your ice screw. For mitts, bargain bins in climbing shops in the summer or somewhere like Decathlon have proven good bets for me in the past - any loose fitting nylon-covered and pile-lined mitts should be pretty warm. My current favourite belay mitts are Extremities and were bought in TKMaxx for about a tenner.


For ultimate warmth and protection you want a balaclava - I like light and stretchy ones because I tend to carry it much more than I wear it, plus with a black powerstretch balaclava you are also always ready to attend fancy dress parties as a ninja. Back out on the hill, wearing a hat and some sort of fleecy neck tube is far less likely to get you arrested as a bank robber and is more flexible an arrangement. And remember: bobble hats both look ridiculous and don't fit well under climbing helmets, so buy a good looking beanie and you can also use it for bouldering, as long as you remember to take your top of first.