Winter clothing systems

As a follow-up to this morning’s post: some thoughts on winter clothing systems.

Outdoor ought to always be a system, and that system should always be crafted to best cope with a specific set of conditions in the way in which you commonly encounter them.  As discussed this morning, the former requires an accurate assessment of the environment, while the later is dependent upon an at least reasonable knowledge of your preferences and foibles.  (Do you go hard uphill regardless?  Do you get cold easily?  Do you do another lap no matter the weather? Etc.)

Cold makes life outside less forgiving.  Details matter more.

For example, I bought the above Patagonia Essenshell used last winter.  It’s made of Epic fabric, and I found this particular iteration to have an ideal blend of wind/water resistance and breathability for winter use.  The disappointment was the massive mesh pockets, made of a nice absorbent nylon.  There’s no point in careful temperature management and a breathable shell anorak if the pocket fabric inside the shell (double layered, no less!) sucked up moisture, retains it, and eventually freezes and creates a heat sink.  I cut the mesh out, and left the pocket zips as vents.

When it is cold, and you won’t be going back inside tonight, these details matter.

For me in NW Montana, winter means cold, well below freezing (with a few horrid thaws thrown in).  The certitude of no liquid precip makes life infinitely easier.  Due to their poor breathability, I do not regard hard shells (fully waterproof fabrics) as appropriate for winter clothing, save in boots and vapor barrier socks.  Some trips, especially in locals like the mountains of the Pacific coast, will require a rain shell.  When we have those inevitable thaws around here, I don’t do overnight trips, or even long day trips.  It’s often worth it to skin up through the rain line to find snow, but it’s always a bit miserable, representing as it does the worst conditions available for staying warm.

The is then to construct a system which provides the greatest degree of versatility of the given range of activities, in the likely temperature range, and with the fewest items possible.  Weather protection and venting must be balanced.

For example, when backcountry skiing I have three separate states of motion to cover: skinning uphill, skiing downhill, and being at rest.  The first two are different degrees of exertion, with different requirements for protection from the elements.  For the trip up, assuming mild wind, overcast skis, and temps in the teens, I’d wear a baselayer shirt, light soft shell hooded top, buff head band, long johns, and midweight soft shell pants.  Legs don’t sweat much, and don’t get cold so easily, so I worry about them less.  For guys, more insulation around the crotch (powerstretch boxers or wind briefs) can allow a lighter leg system to work in more frigid temps (I forgot my wind briefs on one trip a few years ago, and had to improvise with a stuff sack down the front of my undies.  I don’t recommend this experience.)  When skinning I wear the lightest gloves I can get away with.  I love the OR Omni because they’ve got some decent wind resistance, but no membrane to slow drying.

For skiing down I need to keep the snow and wind out, but will still be generating heat and don’t want to sweat.  I think a lot of BC skiers mess this part up and over-layer.  For our example I’d add the aforementioned Essenshell, shell mittens, goggles, a warmer hat, and slide the buff down as a face mask.  Quick and simple transitions with dialed gear keep warmth up.

Insulation is a more complex topic.  For our hypothetical, I’d bring my DAS parka.  The Primaloft insulation and dense woven, calendered, 100% polyester shell (less water absorption than nylon) deal with external and internal moisture impressively well.  I try to stay dry, but that’s impossible to do perfectly BC skiing, and the DAS gives me room for error.

A very wet DAS after a day BC skiing in temps not far below freezing, with heavy continuous, wet snowfall all day.  This worked for a day trip.  Doing an overnight in these conditions would be pretty tough, especially without a drying fire at the end of the day.

The nice thing here is that colder temps which, especially on a multi-day trip, would require down insulation tend to be drier.  It’s much easier to keep yourself dry during the day, and thus keep your down coat nice and fluffy.  I use a MEC Reflex for serious cold, which is a very impressive garment.  It’s 2-3 times as warm as the DAS, and only a few ounces heavier.  Given the lack of weight penalty, if I think I’ll be able to stay fairly dry on a trip, I’m lightly to bring the Reflex rather than the DAS, my Micropuff pants, and a lighter sleeping bag.

A final note on fires: I highly recommend them for winter camping.  Good technique and site selection makes them possible more often than you’d think, and the ability to dry out and enjoy the night outside your sleeping bag (and without freezing) is invaluable.  A shovel to dig a fire pit and good synthetic tinder goes a long way.

As ever, please feel to ask questions and share feedback below.


  1. You’re lucky not having to worry about freezing rain and wet snow too often! It’s a fact of life here and it’s where Paramo shines, especially for multi-day trips. Day trips with a good forecast I can get away with a similar twin ‘soft’ shell set-up to yours.

    “Quick and simple transitions with dialed gear keep warmth up” – the difference in body temperature and in turn perspiration from carrying out a few tweaks to your zips, headwear and maybe your outer shell never cease to amaze me. The key is remembering to do it. There’s been a few times when I’ve had my head down in bad conditions or a bad mood and neglected to thermo-regulate resulting in sweat drenched layers.

  2. If you run out of projects, I’d like to hear about that fire “good technique”! Am I right to think that those nights enjoyed outside by the fire were not very windy? And you carry an actual shovel?

    1. I’ll add it to the list.

      One to bear in mind here is that tree line in Montana is high enough that you can almost always find some spruce groves to hide in the for night. Spruce isn’t the best fire wood, and in summer its the worst tree available for bear bagging, but spruce in the prime of life forms a very dense canopy that is extraordinarily weather resistant. You can hide from wind, snow, and rain to great effect under a spruce or two.

      Most of the nights out by the fire were pretty still, but not all.

      I usually carry a shovel ski touring to do snowpack tests to assess avalanche danger. If you don’t need this there are lighter alternatives (snowclaw), or a snowshoe works pretty well. You can build a platform (ideally of green, wet wood) to keep the fire from burning into the snow, but finding a shallow spot to dig down is better (if not always possible).

  3. Dave, this was a very helpful post which I read earlier, but revisited to ask a sizing question that would probably help others. My wife and I have also used the DAS Parka very comfortably on winter weekend trips and full day trips. Up to now we’ve worn it belay style – meaning, we’ve sized up a size so that at rest stops or in camp, we can throw the DAS Parka over our softshell or hardshell jacket and the mid and base layers underneath it. For example, typical active winter upper body layers for us would be merino base layer, Patagonia R1 Hoody or R1 Hoody + fleece vest, with a Patagonia Ready Mix softshell jacket over that (at 15 oz the Ready Mix is similar to but lighter than the current Patagonia Simple Guide Jacket). Those layers aren’t too bulky, but the size up on the DAS Parka helps the jacket fully loft over all layers underneath and leaves room to warm and dry items in the DAS’s inside pockets. I’m 6 ft tall 175 lbs with a 42 in. chest, and if I wore the DAS Parka alone over a midlayer around town, I’d be wearing a Large, so I’ve sized to an XL. In any case, there’s no room for the DAS Parka to fully loft UNDER our Ready Mix softshells. As I replace my older DAS, would you recommend sticking with the belay style sizing of one size up to XL? Or would you recommend going down to a Large for the weight savings? Only way to do the latter would be to invest in a larger (and heavier) shell, and it’s probably best to have the bit of extra weight in insulation (DAS) not shell.

    1. All depends on how you integrate the clothing into your system. Sounds like the DAS as a belay parka works fine for you, so why change it? A lighter synthetic puffy as an under-shell piece might compliment things nicely.

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