A tale of two windshirts (thoughts on winter clothes)

After a week of steady snow and temperatures in town flitting around the freezing mark, winter emphatically arrived last night.  Up in the foothills (West Glacier ) evening lows are forecasted solidly into the negative single digits.  Might it be time to go camping?

The skiing up on Big Mountain has been excellent this week, though the visibility has not.  Heading down the north side in flat light yesterday morning I stuff a tip into a ‘cat rut and yardsaled pretty hard.  Aside from a mildly rung bell I didn’t notice any ill effects until we were drinking Guinness in the Great Northern in Whitefish last night (before seeing Harry Potter).  My neck is fine so long as I don’t look down or sideways too fast.  My legs are also worked: getting into ski shape is always a process: there just isn’t anything else quite like it.  And that’s a good thing.

Clothing systems for backcountry skiing are among the hardest to figure out.  They must accommodate the extreme exertion and lack of air movement that characterize hiking hard uphill, as well as protect against forced air circulation at a level equal or greater to mountain biking downhill.  Doing all this in single digits temps, when you’ll be in and out of exposure to strong winds, and the stakes can go well beyond the merely uncomfortable.  Your clothing needs to wick, vent and dry quickly, and with minimal fuss also cinch down thoroughly and be quite to very windproof.

Yesterday morning was a good example.  It was pretty warm at the base, and moderately windy the first time I crested the summit.  The balance between being cool enough to not sweat too much (the only way to not sweat at all is to slow down, which I consider untenable) and not loosing more heat than can be regained through exertion and a belay coat was tenuous.  I wore a cap 2 shirt, Omni gloves, a very thin merino beanie, and my Patagonia Traverse pullover.  For the descent I zipped everything up, added a Houdini, and goggles.

For the second trip up, the wind had picked up quite a bit, and it was snowing.  I shed the goggles, but nothing else, and went back and forth between everything unzipped and the Houdini all cinched up.  Once I crested the summit ridge the wind was fierce, and I was only just warm huffing up a 20 degree slope with everything cinched.  At the summit I dumped my pack, pulled on my belay coat, shed skins, put on goggles, stuffed the coat in the pack, and headed down (enjoying stellar powder in the upper bowl).  Everything but my hat was dry when I got back to the truck, I had a good ice beard started, and the shoulders, hood and arms of the Houdini were crusty with frozen moisture.  80 percent from me, 20 percent from the ski, I’d reckon.

Aside from the merino hat, which just doesn’t wick and dry fast enough, this is a pretty good system.  It’s built around two pieces of gear, which seem to overlap significantly, are among my favorites, and neither of whom I can see easily doing without.

I’ve written about the wonders of the Houdini before.  It is simply one of the most useful pieces of outdoor clothing invented.  I’ve recently learned (through BPL, of course) that part of the Houdini’s magic (good wind resistance for such a light fabric, astoundingly fast dry time) exists on an almost molecular level.  The nylon ripstop is impregnated with the DWR, in the same process used on Epic fabrics.  The Houdini is structurally incapable of soaking up much water.  Though the thin fabric will wet through fairly easily, it doesn’t retain moisture.

The Traverse pullover is quite different.  4.7 oz/yard fabric, compared to the Houdini’s 1.1.  The Traverse is also polyester rather than nylon, significant because poly absorbs much less water than nylon.  Estimates vary, but most seem to put nylons at around 4x that of polyester.  Interestingly, the moisture retention of these two fabrics might be very close.  I may have to test this myself.  Because of the more open weave of the fabric, the Traverse has tested to be about twice as air permeable as the Houdini.  The Traverse also lacks a hood (and I removed the chest pocket).

All of this creates some interesting differences between the two; for instance, the Traverse is warmer, but the Houdini more wind and water-resistant.  The Houdini dries faster, bu the Traverse disperses perspiration faster.  The ultimate result is that over a broad range of conditions (anything between bright warm sun and full on rain) these two windshirts have an intricately overlapping range of situations in which one is more appropriate than the other.  They can also work well in tandem.  Given that windshirts are the most versatile of garments, having two isn’t a bad thing at all.

The problem is, I want a third windshirt.  The full rational and thought process is displayed in this BPL thread, but in summary I want a burlier, heavier windshirt with more wind and water resistance, as well as different feature set than either the Houdini or Traverse.  For winter, I actually see the new anorak complementing the very breathable Traverse well.  Case in point, the Traverse/Houdini combo was only just windproof enough skinning up the summit ridge yesterday.  And it’s going to be way colder than that on many ski days this winter.

Construction on the new windshirt should begin shortly after Thanksgiving.

PS: Watch the ski video linked to in my tweet from yesterday.  The bro-bra aesthetic is lamentable, but the skiing (and fishing!) are top notch.  The February B-day trip I want to do in SoUt is getting crowded.

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6 thoughts on “A tale of two windshirts (thoughts on winter clothes)

  1. Dave, I have to agree, clothing systems for skiing are very tricky to get right. I have been trying Paramo this winter with mixed results. I’ve also been using the new Rab Alpine Pull-on, a ‘winter’ windshirt made from Pertex Equilibrium that I can layer over my Rab Vapour-rise or layer over a PowerDry baselayer and under another Equilibrium ‘storm’ softshell. Take a look at my ‘First Look’ review here:

    http://thunderinthenight.blogspot.com/2010/11/first-look-rab-alpine-pull-on-ultra.html

    I think using two softshell/windshirts is a great way to thermoregulate during high aerobic winter sports.

  2. Cool to read and it does have some application to cold weather MTB: High exertion with minimal wind up with low exertion high winds down.

    I posed this question to you last year and you recommended the Traverse (which I bought). It has performed well in this role I would say. Less water resistant than advertised (hardly water resistant at all I would say), but man it lets the sweat vapor in a great way.

    I posed the same question to Mikesee ( something to block mainly the wind while riding in the 15-30 degree range that won’t make me sweat to death).

    I will quote him here since I can only add other folks’ knowledge:

    “They key to managing moisture while working hard *and* blocking wind is to have vents—usually pit zips. The wind is what would normally be evaporating the moisture, remove wind from the equation and that moisture builds up inside. Thus, you have to stay on top of venting the zips and front.

    Probably the most versatile, packable, and durable that I’ve used is the Marmot Precip.”

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